The last two weekends have been extraordinary for me. For both Saturdays, I worked with Special Compass to help differently-abled athletes cross the finish line. I can’t say enough about the people involved in this organization. They truly are some of the most caring, genuine people I have ever met. It’s funny, because people say things like “oh it’s so great that you do that for people who cannot” and I wish I could say that was all true. Yes, I do it for them, but I think I get way more out of it than they do! I cannot describe in words what it feels like to act as someone’s body, but I will do my best to recap these two amazing events.
First, there was the Optime 5k on 10/7. I was honored when I found out I would be one of the people pushing Michael Sayih. Michael is one of the reasons this organization exists. He and his dad, Jim, have done everything from 5ks, to full Ironman events. Michael’s usually pushed by a gentleman that is way beyond faster than I am. He’s usually done in about 25 minutes and almost always gets an award for his speed. When I found out I was pushing him, I went over to Michael and said “I’ll channel Guy’s legs as best I can, but you are not winning today, Buddy!” He cracked up so hard! He has a laugh that fills the room with joy. I was super excited to act as his engine, though I knew I was more like a sedan when he’s use to a sports care engine.
When we arrived at the park, we began getting what we call the “chariots” ready for the riders. They require a little bit of set up and ensuring the tire pressure is correct, etc. Once the riders arrived, we began to help transfer them from their wheelchairs to the chariots. I have to say that the parents and caretakers of these individuals are some of the most loving and strong individuals on the planet. They truly do not get enough credit for what they do each and every moment of each and every day. I cannot imagine the strength it takes to care for someone with a special need, and yet there they were up early in the morning bringing them to this race. Some might question why, I did at first, but once you see the way their faces light up when they cross that finish line and get their medal, you don’t ask that question any longer. It’s not easy, I am sure, but then again life is not easy for these folks and they do it anyway, and always with smiles on their faces.
My partner Nicole and I pushed Michael with as much as we could muster and were super pleased when we crossed the finish line at exactly 30 minutes. I thought back to the last time I ran the Optime race, last year. I wasn’t with Special Compass yet and I was hoping to break 30 minutes for the first time. I had just missed the mark that year and here I was reaching that goal while pushing a chariot. I was humbled, proud and elated.
This past Saturday was the Goliath Gauntlet, an obstacle race a little over 5k in distance with 20 obstacles. Jim had convinced me to sign up back at a Special Compass meeting. I signed up immediately, but found myself wondering what I had gotten into a couple of days before the race. I am always full of self-doubt, that is something I am working to stop, but this was even worse. I wasn’t sure I could get myself through some of these obstacles, let alone try to help someone else through them! When I got the course and said hi to Michael, he asked if I was ready. I said no, not really I am really nervous about this. I will never forget his response. He said “don’t worry, if I can do it, you can do it!” and that’s all I needed.
Before the start, Jim gathered the team (we were about 25 people I think) and asked us to think about a few things. He said this was not just an event, but we would need to think of this as if we were soldiers in a war. Michael was a wounded soldier, we were in a foreign land and we would be facing obstacles to get him home. There was no option of not doing an obstacle, there was no option of quitting. We could not, and would not leave him behind. He also asked that if we were struggling or feeling bad to not voice those things because it would spread like a disease. We were to only say positive things. Of course we could all asked each other for help too. We were a team. So, we gathered all the tools we would need to get the job done, rope, a harness for Michael, and an inflatable raft for any water areas, and headed to the start.
One of the first and worst obstacles was a giant tub, filled waist deep with ice and water. It had a blocker in the middle that you had to go under, so you had to fully submerge yourself to get to the other side. Man, that was cold! Poor Michael got dunked under by Jim and pulled out on the other side by some team members. We moved quickly to the next obstacle trying to warm up as we went. We trudged through knee-deep mud, many of the guys carrying Michael in the chariot over the muck as a team. When we got to what I would call a vertical obstacle, most of which were ten feet or more in the air, Michael would be placed in the harness and carried over. Safety was always the utmost concern, so a rope would be attached to the harness and secured by members of the team. Not much needed to be said after the first one. It was like a dance, different people would jump in and take a duty to assist in not only getting Michael through, but helping others too. We were quite the well oiled machine a few obstacles in.
One of the most challenging obstacles for me was a swim. I did not expect a swim, in a lake. Why was my arch nemesis here? How did the triathlon based lake swim find me at an obstacle race?! We had to climb a cargo net up to a platform that I would like to say was a hundred feet in the air, at least it felt like it, but was more like 10-15 I am sure. I got to the top without much thought and then looked down into the lake below. Not only would I have to swim, but I have to jump into it from this high up? Um, no thanks. I asked how I could get down and the lady told me to just climb back down the cargo net. Just then, I saw Jim with Michael in his arms jump off with others close by. Wow, they are amazing, I thought. I started towards the cargo net when another Special Compass team member asked where I was going. “I’m climbing down,” I said. He asked me my name, which I gave him and then said “I’m scared too, let’s go together.” Before I knew it, he had my hand, we were at the edge of the platform, he said on three, counted and we were off. I plugged my nose and felt my heart hit the roof of my mouth as we plummeted all 100 (ha ha) feet to the lake below. It felt like slow motion and fast motion all at once. I could feel him reach for my arm to make sure I got back up to the surface. As we swam to shore, I thanked him and asked him his name, which was Noah. Throughout the course he was making people laugh, singing songs and saying encouraging words. He helped me conquer an obstacle that I know I would not have otherwise and for that, I thank him.
There were so many amazing moments that day. From helping organize a human chain that could be scaled up a warped wall, to pushing Michael in his chariot through the muck, helping carry him across a swampy pit, to singing “oh, we’re half way there…oh oh, living on a prayer!” with a group of people who came together to celebrate that we were half way done. By far, one of the most memorable moments was the look on Darin’s face when Michael asked him to carry him over one of the obstacles. I could see that Darin was beyond honored. He had worked really hard all through the course helping in any way he could, and Michael knew that he would and could do even more. He asked Michael if he thought that he could do it, and he said “yeah, I think you can do it.” That was all Darin needed to hear. The dance was once again in motion, and soon Darin was ascending the rope wall with Michael on his back. He took great care of course and brought him to the other side safely. Once we were situated, we ran to the next obstacle and closer to the finish. I could see that Darin had that same look I had on my face the first time I acted as someone’s engine. I knew he understood exactly what I could never put into words.
There I was, two days later sore as can be and scheduled for a swim. I got in the pool and dragged my stiff body up and down the lane. It was raining, and part of me just wanted the lightning alarm to sound. If it did, I could stop and it wouldn’t be my fault. I looked at my watch to see how many yards I was into my scheduled 2,000 yard swim only to realize I was only 300 yards in. I wanted to have a pity pool party and almost just called it a night, but something changed. I was thinking about how sore I was and then kind of laughed to myself. I thought about how I got so sore. I thought about the obstacles that I would never have done had it not been for the team there with me. I thought about how Michael laughed even after he went through all these uncomfortable situations. I thought about how grateful I am. I made a point to begin listing in my head all the things that I am grateful for, starting with the fact that I was physically able to be in that pool swimming on my own. I thought about how grateful I was to be involved in this amazing organization which has opened my eyes to the lives of special needs individuals, and more importantly has let me be a part of those lives. The next thing I knew I was done with my swim, before I could even complete my list. I have decided that while my technique of just choosing one small step to move forward when I am struggling, is great, being grateful is so much more effective and rewarding.