“It’s all about the journey”
is a catchphrase often used by big, difficult events where the outcome of success or failure takes a backseat to personal growth, the process and lessons learned. The SISU Iron, a 30+ hour event in the hills of Monrovia, California is one such event. Born of the Death Race but given a unique flavor and experience thanks to founders Daren de Heras and Matt Trinca and the rest of the SISU staff, the SISU Iron is an event that only participants can truly understand. A guest race director at this year’s event was the irascible Don Devaney, whom many will know, love, and hate from his years as a director of the Death Race. To say he has a big, sometimes overwhelming personality is an understatement.
Starting at 7pm Friday evening (Thursday really if you went to the “optional” pre-registration which provided attendees a couple of distinct advantages over those who didn’t make it), and continuing non-stop until sometime Sunday, the SISU Iron would test every aspect of athletes’ physical and mental toughness through a wide variety of challenges ranging from team-building exercises to individual time hacks.
Commitment and Burden
This year’s theme was “Commitment and Burden” and all participants needed to write the name of someone to whom they were committed or whose burden they carried on a laminated card. This would come into play formally late in the event, but was also used throughout to help keep athletes focused and in the game when they started to unravel.
Everyone’s Iron is different. It depends on what they bring in with them (physically, mentally, and emotionally), who they are teamed up with at different points, how and when they screw up, and a host of other factors. What follows is, by necessity, a recap of my SISU Iron experience – I know there were many great moments and stories that I simply wasn’t part of, and will let others recount them if they want to share.
Anne and I went up Thursday for the pre-registration at Dave & Busters in Arcadia and were able to grab a quick bite before the shenanigans started. Some burpees, an elephant rope race (it pays to be a winner!), planks, tunnel of love, and jumping rope with a full pack ready to race were a few of the festivities. We then loaded our packs into a van that would take them directly to the fort and went to a nearby hotel for the night.
After sleeping in as long as physically possible on Friday and taking full advantage of the breakfast buffet, we began scouting from the handouts given for “Victoria’s Scavenger Hunt”, making sure we were familiar with the locations we’d have to visit sometime during the race. A late lunch/early dinner topped up the fuel tanks for the long haul ahead, then we headed up to Camp Trask to get our tent set up before the start.
We started off in the fort with some group exercises, while finding out that those who hadn’t done the pre-registration had to first get their gear in the fort (by passing it up over the walls), and then had a more roundabout entry that included a traverse wall and crawling through a drainage pipe into Frog Lake before they could join us. Yay for pre-reg! Shortly afterward, we were divided into groups of 5 and zip-tied to a rope, then had to race downtown to an ongoing street fair, where we were to provide some of the entertainment with more group PT. Back up to the camp (as individuals), and then we were formally welcomed to the SISU Iron by the staff, and the clock was started.
The evening continued with all of us face down in the pond breathing through snorkels for 15 minutes, during which some broke out into muffled versions of the Star Spangled Banner to pass the time. If your face left the water, you were pulled out and had more PT to do instead, which was likely a better idea for those particularly susceptible to the cold water anyway. After being warmed up with another PT session called “Meet the Staff”, we took off on our first individual challenge; the waterfall hike.
Here, those who did particularly well in the media challenge and were graded with either an A or B got a head-start on the hike, while those with a C grade (or an F for not submitting anything) were held back probably 10 min. I’ve described this hike before; it was the capping element of last year’s SISU Iron, and is an absolutely miserable slog through a rocky, weed-choked creek, up and over dams to a waterfall, made worse this year by a steady drizzle that wasn’t on any forecast. Once there, we had to fill our buckets with water and hike with them back up the hill to the camp – about 2.5 to 3 miles. Last year, this nearly killed us; Anne’s back was giving out badly, and we were dead last to arrive. This year, a little forethought and ingenuity (no, I’m not going to tell you how) let us breeze through the challenge, and we were the 7th & 8th people to return to the fort, well within the time hack.
Many others were not so fortunate, and their Iron would end here, before dawn on Saturday morning.
The long day on Saturday would begin with guest staff Patrick Mies II and Ella Kociuba and the most curious item on our gear list – a baby doll. This doll would have to be kept from touching the ground while we did bear crawls, crab walks, low military crawls, and rolling. After this, we went on to one of my favorite activities – the part where I get to hit things with an axe. The wood chopping competition, where teams compete to build a 6’ high tower out of kindling chopped below a certain dimension, and which coincidentally provides a whole lot of beautifully chopped firewood for the boy scouts camp. A few hours providing community service to the camp (pulling weeds, chopping down deadwood, and cleaning the bottom of Frog Pond) brought us to the next time hack; Victoria’s Challenge.
This year, Victoria’s Challenge was a scavenger hunt in and around Old Town Monrovia; there were a number of stops, with specific tasks that needed to be done, you had to collect beads along the way. It wasn’t necessary to collect them all, but there was a drop-dead time hack of 4h when we had to be back at the fort. Some people had brought scooters or skateboards along, and the race directors allowed this but cut 1/2h off the time hack for them. Expect this to be the last year with that allowance, as a somewhat nasty skateboard accident on the way down the steep hill ended one person’s Iron with a trip to the hospital and multiple staples in his head.
I made a strategic decision here to use the scooter I’d brought and accept the half-hour penalty… and this absolutely did NOT work in my favor as the wheel of my brand new scooter self-destructed 20 min into my ride (they really don’t make them like they used to). After that, I was on foot. Nonetheless, I managed to hit most of the locations and got back to the camp with time to spare. I strongly suspect that they overestimated how long the scavenger hunt would take; this time, hack didn’t appear to be a problem at all for most.
While others moved on to the skills portion of the weekend, which included archery with homemade PVC bows, shooting at targets with BB guns, deciphering Morse code (played over and over and over again), and answering a question about US presidents that required memorization and running, 10 of us were singled out by Don. Nine had scored poorly on the test following Victoria’s Challenge while I had made a strategic mistake that garnered me special attention. Before we could continue, we had to do 15 burpees, then race each other up the side of a steep hill with no real path to a flag, where he had placed 8 bands. The two who didn’t get a band could be out of the event. Then race back down, 15 more burpees, and hold plank until everyone was back. When we had done so, the two without bands were given them; no one was out this time. Here’s to moving with purpose; I’m certain that if anyone hadn’t, they’d have been DNF’d on the spot. Then we had to catch up and complete the skills segments as well.
Back into the pond… for the third or fourth or fifth time depending on how “lucky” you were… this time a straight swim across and recite a nursery rhyme as a team together to get a lesser punishment. Warm back up again with jumping jacks, squats, and picnic table presses. This was followed by a relatively peaceful interlude of yoga with Ashley Seeger; the calm amidst the chaos and a welcome break for stressed muscles.
Down to 40
The 40 athletes who remained at this point were split into two teams, each grabbing a telephone pole that we then carried down the hill to the Nature Center, brought out our saws and cut it into sections which were then carried back up individually. Back at the fort, we had to write our first name on the wood block, using 50 screws – 45 if you could make Don Devaney laugh. Those who finished this task quickly got a head start on the next time hack; those of us who struggled or over-thought it were put solidly behind the 8-ball, and lost valuable time in the process.
Our next task was to hike 7+ miles up the mountain (with 3000’ of gain) with our commitment and burden card and our wood. At the top, we talked about who was on the card and why, and were given the lesson of releasing our burden and moving on with joy. Then we had to hotfoot it back down the hill to make the time cutoff. The hike up was a monotonous, never-ending slog, and sleep and calorie deprivation caused vivid hallucinations for many along the way. There was a hard time-hack of 4:30 AM at the top of the mountain, and another at the bottom of 5:30 AM.
Most of those who did the math quickly realized that they had almost no chance of making the hack back down. But how do you react to that knowledge? Do you accept your fate and slow down, giving your broken body the rest it deserves? Or do you push harder, hoping for a time extension or other miracle along the way? We chose the latter, and bombed down the hill as fast as we were able. And were met at the gates of the fort by Matt Trinca and Dave Huckle, who informed us that we’d missed the time hack and had DNF’d.
The Final 15
In the end, only 15 made it to the final stage, and their reward for this phenomenal feat was 3 more hours of funishment and beatdowns (backwards and forwards rolls, canoe jousting in the pond, and a tire hike) before they were declared official finishers of the 2016 SISU Iron. Every single one of them gave it their all and was completely deserving of the award.
The SISU Iron is a very special event. It will demand everything you have, and that still might not be enough. Although we didn’t get our spike this year, it was never about that. As mentioned at the beginning, it’s all about the journey. It’s the personal stories, the jokes, and follies along the way. It’s about the bonds formed through shared suffering with amazing people. It’s about wanting to quit again and again but pushing through. It’s about finding your breaking points and then not breaking. It’s about discovering how strong and resilient you really are. And it’s one hell of an adventure. If there’s a better event on the planet, I haven’t found it yet (but I’m still looking). See you in 2017.