It's good to be alive.
Recently, as I boarded a bus in Malibu to compete in one of those Spartan Races, memories of arriving at Parris Island to join the Marine Corps popped into my head. The Spartan Race is as challenging as any USMC event.
When I joined the Marines with my best friend Dale, he was fit but concerned that I'd never run a mile. Sort of like I hadn't exercised before entering boot camp, I didn't train for this Spartan. I prayed that muscles had a fantastic memory, that the mind fuck provided by my drill instructors was still easy to recall and would drive my legs forward.
I was 18 then, I'm 53 now.
I wasn't drafted into the military; I enlisted with a 6-year commitment. I couldn't quit. In boot camp when the shit got crazy, all I had to do was look over at Dale who tossed me his dimpled smile. I pushed on. As individual as accomplishments are in life, the buoyant attitude provided by my fellow Marines still carries me through challenging times.
If the going got tough during Spartan, I was free to stop. But I felt a Marine-familiar surge of success from the pack of Santa Monica yoga cuties and Manhattan Beach investment bankers. I hollered encouragement at some guy struggling to heave a cement bucket 50 feet in the air. After he succeeded, he tossed me an eyes-only high-five as he hobbled off to the next obstacle. Camaraderie is a fantastic motivator.
At mile three, my breath seared into my lungs like raw meat hitting a hot grill. I thought about death. My footing remained secure, but panic wedged it's way into my delirious mind. If I survived this, I hoped my heart wouldn't ironically walk off the job as I slept that night. Fuck you, I quit.
The most intense pain for me on USMC runs was shin splints. But I experienced a horror on the Spartan course that was so harsh that I'd give my left nut to avoid.
As soon as I hit the water, my only reaction was to emit a scream that resembled a mechanical bird being shot over the skies of Tokyo in a horror film. The freezing water stabbed at my chest over and over and over with each stroke. I was Janet Leigh in Psycho but with better hair. Clawing my way out of the water, I wanted to resemble James Bond chicly emerging to kill -- but in reality I was Jerry Lewis buttering wiggly toast with his entire body.
Just like in the Marines, Spartans belly-crawl up a muddy, rocky, path crowned with barbed wire. In boot camp I had a steel helmet to protect my head from the vicious spikes. For the Spartan, had I not donned gloves along with knee and elbow pads, I would've limped off the course right then, but I pressed on. I passed plenty of great-looking, buffed-out, chiseled young men whose impressive eight-pack abs probably got them laid the night before, but were ineffective on this hill. The cries caused by their naked, bloody knees still haunt me.
As I scaled a long incline wall with a rope, I was glad to have watched all that Batman. At first I thought he had it easy -- Gotham City skyscrapers weren't slippery from mud. But then I wasn't burdened with a cape. I turned back and saw two guys stop to help a stranger over the slick slope -- sacrificing their own finish time.
We're born alone and die alone, but while alive we're in this world together.
I hopped over the last obstacle, the burning log, not caring if I fell and toasted my frozen body like a weenie on a stick at a campfire. As I crossed the finish line, guys hit me with giant cotton swabs known in the Marines as pugil sticks. A pretty girl slung a medal around my neck. I felt invigorated and thankful to have finished the race. As my breathing resumed closer to my normal pant, I fingered my prize thinking, like the Marine Corps, the Spartan event gives you both a medal and a chest to pin it on.
If I can do these things, civilian or military, anyone can.
The next morning, I lay in bed appreciating the miraculously simple flutter of my eyelashes. I gently wiggled my body as if checking a box to see if the contents were shattered; I needed to assess the severity of the damage. My lower back was a bit sore, but I sprang up from bed and hit the ground running. Pain slapped me in the abs and whispered, Whoa, tiger, you tried to kill us yesterday and we're pissed.
As I sipped my coffee I remembered what Dale's mother said to me after I graduated boot camp, I didn't think we'd see you alive again.
Of the 5000+ competitors, I finished 30th. In my age group.
It's good to be alive.
This article is inspired by my just-finished memoir about my time in Marine Corps boot camp, pre-DADT.