By Claire Walla
While most Sag Harborites were in the middle of Mass, or Easter brunch or perhaps lethargically biding their time on that warm spring morning waiting for the promise of sunshine, I was lumbering through a pit of sand in the middle of the woods with a 44-pound Firestone P275/55R20 Destination LE tire on a thick yellow leash strapped to my waist while a former member of the United States military stood just inches away telling me to Dig! Dig! Dig! as if I could possibly move any faster.
It was atypical for a Sunday, to say the least.
Nestled in the peaceful foliage just off the Bridgehampton/Sag Harbor Turnpike, the Studio 89 obstacle course is a sandy pit surrounded by a curvy one-eighth-mile running path, peppered with geometric shapes that speak not of art and design, but of the potential for pain. In addition to a cache of seriously burly tires, all of which dwarfed the deadweight to which I was so intimately bonded, there was a rectangular rope wall, a long stretch of monkey bars, a low-lying cargo net, and various patterns of colored markers and mini-hurdles all meant to disrupt the basic movement we call walking.
Completed in October, the course was conceived by Rich Decker, owner of Studio 89 Fitness, who built the obstacles with input from his trainers, including former Air Force Combat Controller Mike Roesch, who was my fear-inspiring leader for the day.
I happened to be here reporting on this course for The Express, having eagerly volunteered to write about it as a preview for this Saturday’s Toughest Warrior Challenge, an event during which a number of people will voluntarily pay $30 to subject themselves to what amounts to a nearly two-mile foot race interspersed with various physical obstacles. (All money raised will go to The Retreat.)
As of Monday, Saturday’s bag of tricks was yet to be determined. As for my routine, I asked Roesch what it entailed as soon as I arrived. He seemed unconcerned.
“Whatever I feel like,” he said without looking up.
I’ve learned over the years that the best way to prepare for a race of any kind is to have knowledge of what you’re doing before you do it: know the route, run the distance beforehand, etc. Suddenly staring at the obstacle-laden sand pit with an inverted case of vertigo, feeling smaller and smaller beneath the imposing structures that stretched up before me, I realized I had absolutely no idea what I was in for.
Tires? Rope walls? Climbing rope? Sledgehammers? (Yes, they were there, too.) It was all on the table.
I had some assurance, being a reporter and all, that this guy couldn’t get away with running me ragged and leaving me outstretched in the sand, limp and aching beneath the cargo net, gasping desperately for air. This was the benefit of having a photographer on hand. But I was certain I wouldn’t make it out unscathed.
Oddly enough, I had volunteered for this assignment because running is my forte. I log at least 25 miles in a given week, I reasoned, how hard could it be to skip through a nearly two-mile course sprinkled with a few obstcales? The thought was now painfully naive. I tried to gauge my fitness: I couldn’t even remember the last time I even attempted to do a push-up.
And thus the game began.
“Go,” Roesch commanded.
It seemed so sudden.
“Oh… you mean now?”
“What, do you want me to blow a whistle, or something?”
And off I went. Five laps, interspersed with a straightaway that alternated an all-out sprint, high knees, side-steps (two rounds, one facing right, the other to the left) and finally a back peddle.
Then I hit the gauntlet.
Two-footed hops over a series of shin-high hurdles transitioned into good old-fashioned monkey bars—You think this is easy? Picture doing this with 28 pounds of gear on your back!—which led to the cargo net, where I used the most muscle just trying to keep my face out of the sand. Then there was the rope wall, an obstacle I was fortunately able to scale with relative ease because I’ve been genetically predisposed to abnormally long limbs; then a debilitating bear crawl, which is exactly how you picture it, and just as clumsy; and then of course there was that nonsensical tire pull.
All of that I could do. Or at least get through.
The toughest part of the Toughest Warrior Challenge came when the obstacle I was up against had nothing to do with walls, crawls, or rope tied to cumbersome inanimate objects.
Leaning against a giant tire, I was now asked to engage muscles I probably hadn’t used this directly since my drill-sergeant-of-a-high-school-basketball-coach ran us ragged through conditioning drills. Not only was I told to do push-ups, but at the end of each press I had to push myself high into the air before coming down into position again. My arms felt entirely void of muscle mass. And for all the power I lacked in those upper appendages, my abdominal muscles were even more lackluster. Sitting on the edge of said tire I brought my feet out straight before me and was told to kick my legs up and down. I might as well have been sitting in a rocking chair. No matter how adamant I was that my legs remain in mid-air, the darn things never ceased to drift back down to the ground.
After a frustrating round of unintentionally unstable leg lifts, I now had to do it all over again.
While running up the short flight of stairs that were part of that one-eighth-mile loop, I heard Roesch bellow from across the sand.
“Come on! Pick up your feet!”
I responded silently in my own head.
After lap 10, I hobbled my way through the obstacles, sorely dreading the presence of that gigantic tire.
“How do your arms feel?”
Roesch was quite snarky as I struggled to push myself off the bulky black rubber.
“I bet those legs are tired,” he mocked as I sprang up from a squat to land on the rim of the wheel.
I stumbled through another bear crawl and made it to the last leg of my circuit.
“Come on, you’re getting lazy! Pick up your feet!” Silently refuting Roesch’s claims, I kept going. Now at lap 14, lunging begrudgingly down the track with my new drill sergeant conveniently positioned no more than 15 feet in front of me, critiquing me dead-on, I tried to find the motivation to keep going.
“You can always quit,” he blurted out with a smile. “Quitting is always an option.”
That did it. He had seriously hit a nerve.
“Yeah…” I managed to mutter between deep gulps of oxygen, heels pounding against the ground, each step sending shock waves throughout my body, as if to remind my brain exactly what it was doing to the rest of me. “… but so is finishing.”
I admit, it felt like a quote from a Disney sports film as soon as I said it. But, much to my surprise, I really meant it.
That last lap was hardly triumphant, and the round of sit-ups and crunches I was subjected to at the end of it all was nothing to brag about, but when Roesch told me I was done, I was genuinely pleased.
With blood on my knee and fresh bruises budding up in more places than I’ve probably discovered even now, Roesch had me kneel on one knee and bring my arm up above my head to cap off my routine with a stretch. And I swear, as soon as I did, for the first time that day, the sun came out.