“Human Beings are the only species on the planet who can choose to evolve”
– Krypteia Eryk Roman
These haunting words linger in my mind in the aftermath of one of the toughest and most interesting events I've participated in; the 60h Spartan Agoge Class 002 which took place this weekend in Pittsfield, Vermont.
The Agoge is a unique event – Class 002 took the team building aspects of the Spartan Hurricane Heats to new levels, while adding in wilderness survival skill training, a distinct military flavor, and a few aspects of the Death Race. This was not a competition; neither individuals nor teams were pitted against each other. Rather, the battle was internal, against all the voices in your head that whisper that you're not good enough, that you can't fight your way through, or that you are somehow inadequate to the task at hand.
Immediately after check-in and gear check at Joe De Sena's Riverside Farm, participants were divided into teams and started their first task; carrying cement bags and buckets of water up the infamous Stairway to Heaven to make some improvements. Joe's extreme gardening, part two. Uh-oh, what had we gotten ourselves into?
After a couple hours of labor, we were brought back down, and the tone and flavor changed dramatically. We were divided into four teams, and introduced to the Krypteia who would be running the event and the Spartan Bell. If at any time we recognized that we weren't up to the tasks or were holding back our teams and wanted out, all it would take was a ring of the bell, and our adventure would be over. This should be familiar to military personnel as it's a very deliberate nod to the Navy Seal tradition during their Hell Week training.
Teams were transferred by bus to nearby Amie Farm, and were assigned some team weights – each team had a huge slosh pipe (or two) and a kayak filled with 25 gallons of water to bring with them, in addition to their full packs (which averaged ~40 lbs with required gear), the Spartan Bell, a wooden post to hang it on, and a post-hole digger. After a mile or so, we reached a clearing, and were told to leave the slosh pipes there as we continued. Next up was a long uphill hike with the kayaks, eventually reaching a mountaintop where we filtered the water in the kayaks to refill our drinking water.
Thus lightened, the next portion was a time hack; each team had an unspecified distance to travel and had to reach it within 30 minutes of the lead Krypteia; if anyone was late, the entire team would be eliminated. The fire lit, we picked up the pace significantly, running down the fire roads with our kayaks and packs. Everyone made it. Here we had a break, dropped the kayaks, had dinner, and were told about the next portion of the event – a steep and treacherous climb up and over Bloodroot. For the next six miles or so, there would be no turning back, and no easy transportation out. It was here that we heard the bell rung for the first time, as several participants decided they'd had enough and dropped from the race. Several more would do so over the next few hours as we trudged through deep mud and up never-ending climbs.
Around 1 AM, it started to rain in a forecast that had called for clear skies, further affecting morale. In total, we covered at least 28 miles up and over Bloodroot to Area 51 (another Death Race landmark and a beautiful farm owned by one of Joe's friends), all while carrying our gear and the Bell setup, refilling our water from streams along the way. There were several medical drops along the way for issues from rolled ankles to dehydration.
On arriving at Area 51 around 6 AM on Saturday, we were given an unexpected and welcome surprise, and told to catch a couple hours of sleep in our sleeping bags. On awakening, we had a visit from Joe, who for reasons I'm not aware of, had us up and doing burpees within a minute of his arrival. 100 burpees, in sync, which were re-started a couple of times until he had Amy Winters step into the middle and run the count. Ding. Ding. Ding, as more of our team-mates had enough, threw in the towel and self-selected. Another person threw up and was one of the most serious medical drops of the weekend; he was suffering from severe dehydration and his body had begun to eat itself with the dreaded Rhabdomyolysis. He received immediate medical care from the amazing medics on hand for the event who likely saved his life; he would still spend the next two days in the ICU. This event should not be taken lightly.
Then something unexpected happened. As one man tried to ring out (who is unimportant, but he and Joe definitely knew each other), Joe stopped him, and forced him back into the circle, with the group holding plank until he got there. We were told that we had to commit. We had to commit that we were ALL in it now, until the end (another 36h in the future), and that if anyone else quit, the entire class would fail. While many of us clearly had doubts, we made the promise; we were Spartans, and we would not quit.
This marked a clear turning point in the event. We gathered our gear and were divided into new teams of nine people who would become our family over the remainder of the event. Krypteia Neely Fortune then introduced us to some local plants which could be foraged and eaten and how best to prepare them, along with a little protein in the form of live mealworms and earthworms that were passed out and consumed.
Each team then had to check in with Base Camp to receive their next assignment; the order of tasks would vary by team, but in the end, everyone would get to experience all of them.
Our first evolution was down at the pond, and involved drown-proofing for 30 minutes. Oh, and did we mention that there were a whole bunch of leeches in the water? Oh well. Suck it up, buttercup. Into the pond we went, encouraging those with fear of water (or leeches) to get through it and overcome. Immediately after this, we made a poncho raft out of our tarp, storing our gear in it and testing it by floating it across the pond while we swam and pushed it across. Consequences for not performing well or not being able to follow the directions was getting your gear soaked.
My team's next task, taught by Krypteia Eryk and Neely, was a quick class on wilderness first aid, building splints and a litter to carry someone out of the wilderness if they were injured.
Then we got on a bus, and went to one of the absolute highlights of the weekend; after a quick hike up a mile long trail, we reached the top of a big rock and got to rappel down. Two by ~100 foot sheer rock faces, including an overhang for a free rappel. As a bonus, two (or sometimes more) people from each team got to rappel into an ice cave and scramble their way back out.
Back at base camp, our next task was the litter carry; one of our team-mates – the biggest guy, naturally, had just been injured, breaking both legs. We had to splint them, and carry him on the litter we'd fashioned from tree branches and paracord around a marked course. By now, the sun was setting on another day, and we'd finish this challenging path up a huge hill which eventually turned and cut through the brush up a ridiculously steep, slippery slope in complete and utter darkness. At the top, we made a group decision and ditched our litters, making new and improved ones out of longer poles and our tarps. We were the first couple of teams through this evolution, and on completing it were told that yeah, that was way more difficult and potentially dangerous than they'd imagined, and that they would be altering the course significantly for the remaining teams. After a much needed break for nutrition, we headed back down the hill and the two teams on this task brought our wounded in together.
As our final evolution for the night, we were tasked with the dreaded Hay Stack. Each team had to get a round hay bale which were placed at various locations, secure it to maintain the integrity of the haystack (most teams used a combination of tarps, duct tape, paracord, and their mil-spec webbing to do so), roll it up to base camp, then back down and around a course through the swamp, with their packs on. This swamp was a ~ 2-mile loop that included the Pit of Sorrows that stopped so many at the last Death Race when they had to carry a rock through multiple laps. Depending on the team, this took somewhere between 2-4+ hours. Earlier in the day, we'd seen many who'd accomplished this task with mud to their chests.
As we were prepping to start our lap, Krypteia came by and told us to hold tight. After a quick consultation, they decided it was too dangerous to send us in (it was now past 1:30AM and the night was at it's coldest). We had fully expected to see the sunrise as we continued to roll our misshapen hay bale through the swamp, and were grateful for the change; instead, we just had to do a quick lap of the field following the tree line and we were done for the night.
We gathered around the fire, were taught a quick lesson on how to properly lay out a bedroll, and were told to catch a few hours of sleep.
The Last Day
After dawn and a quick breakfast, we were treated to another nice surprise; a morning yoga class by Krypteia Andi Hardy and a couple of yoga instructors who were participating.
We dropped our packs, bringing only our water bottles, meds if needed, and a quick snack if we had something portable, and were ferried to a new location where we began another hike, unencumbered this time, back to Riverside Farm. Along the way, we had to ration our water, and also had to build a litter to carry one of our members for some distance. Eventually, we came to a clearing and found the slosh pipes we'd left behind so long ago, and brought them back down quickly, working now like a well-oiled machine.
A quick break in the river to cool off our tired feet and sunburned bodies (many had sacrificed their shirts to make the very comfy-looking litter), and we did the final 10-minute March back to our starting point.
One Last Twist
On arrival, we were told that we had six more people drop since making our commitment. Most of them were medical, but a couple weren't. So at this point, the class had failed. There was a way to redeem ourselves however. We'd slept for ~4h, so we could add this time to the event (taking us to midnight), and do 10 laps up and down the steep two-mile loop that is Stairway to Heaven to make it right. Even better, a few of the dropouts had come back earlier and had started doing laps for us, knocking off “three or four” from our total.
By this point, we were unstoppable, and as one, shook off our weariness, our blisters and sore feet, and headed up the mountain. At the top, we were held until everyone had made it and done the official count, then we headed back down. Along the way, many of my fellow participants were doing the math and discussing how long it would take. A little more familiar with how these things often work, I advised them to get out of their heads, stop worrying about it, and focus on the task at hand. Up, and down, and see what happens.
This time, I was right, and when we arrived at the bottom, we gathered once more around the Bell. Along our journey, each team had been given two Spartan Coins; the tokens required to enter the World Championship race that are normally given out to the top 5 finishers at a Spartan Race. We were given 2 minutes to vote on which two teammates exemplified everything that Spartan stands for and that the event was trying to teach, and award them the coin. These two would then ring the Spartan Bell, which had transformed from a symbol of defeat to one of triumph, and in doing so, would graduate their team from Agoge 002. I am proud as hell and honored that my team chose me for one of these tokens.
Agoge 002 was a one-of-a-kind adventure; over the 60h we covered 75 miles on foot with >15k of elevation gain. 136 stepped up to toe the line on Friday morning, and 99 stuck it out to graduate. Every single one of those people were inspiring, from the 19-year-old who traveled from Canada, the duo from Australia, the Spanish team, to the single moms to the gym owners to the two teams of amazing adaptive athletes from More Heart Than Scars and Operation Enduring Warrior who came to do battle at our sides.
Class 003 will be completely different as the event is clearly evolving and learning along the way. There is huge potential here to change people's lives; to allow them to choose to evolve in new and positive directions, while imparting real-life skills that they can take with them.
My descriptions of this event and the tasks falls short of the reality, and it is nearly impossible to put into words the impact of the Agoge. I think it's safe to say that all of those who finished came out of the event changed, and this change may take awhile to process and grasp. The Krypteia were incredible, each with their unique skill set and perspective, from the sometimes harsh but deeply genuine and caring Eryk to the bubbly Sefra to Frank explaining how it all gets easier as the event goes on (in many ways it did as we adapted, learned to work together, and grew stronger). But what made the event transcendent were the people at my side. I joked before the race that I was going hiking in the woods with a hundred or so of my best friends, many of whom I hadn't met yet, and this was in many ways prophetic. I can honestly say that I have never met a more impressive, badass, and inspiring group of people in my life, and we now share a bond that can never be broken.