Why I Race: Facing the Ft. Bragg Spartan Sprint for my Dad

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Facing the Ft. Bragg Sprint

When I was a kid I only wanted to be one thing: an Army Ranger, just like my dad.

SSGT Bowen

My father was a badass”All American” in every way. The son of a U.S. Airforce mechanic and a fiery lasse from Sussex, England, he was a veritable polymath: a high school star football, math whiz, and the only guy in town with enough testicular fortitude to ask out a Lumbee girl during a time when races did not mix. He could have been anything, done anything, so he joined the U.S. Army and became a Ranger stationed at Ft. Bragg, NC with the 82nd Airborne.

SSGT. Bowen was by all accounts fierce in combat, loyal to a fault, a perfect gentleman and family man, and my hero.

But even our greatest heroes sometimes fall.

Dad was part of many conflicts and missions. We often never knew when or if we’d see him again, but my family always believed, because SSGT. Bowen was a force of nature, a cosmic constant, and nothing bared him from country or family. We were proud, and though times were often hard, we were “Army strong” and wouldn’t trade our life for the world. And yet my father saw a future with regret where he spent more time in some distant field than our own backyard, and so he came home for good.

With This Shield or Upon It

Like a dormant virus, the ghosts of a veteran’s past often take years to surface, or slowly poison their lives until the damage is virtually irreparable. My father witnessed and was part of many things–the stuff of nightmares. Funny, veterans’ nightmares are worth billions when reenacted by Hollywood, but veterans themselves become beggars and “strains” on the system just to find some relief. It’s no wonder so many turn to drugs, become homeless, and commit suicide.

My dad is still with us, but his body is tattered and he walks in a cloud of ghosts that few understand. He’s never sought help until now, and it’s just another nightmare in the horror reel as the process drags on. He came home from war with his shield, but his body is broken and spirit weary, and it wrenches my soul that he can barely grasp his shield.

Leave No One Behind

I am not a soldier like my father or the other men of my heritage, but as I grow older I feel the weight of their legacy upon my shoulders. Ft. Bragg was our home and the source of pride and honor for my father and his warrior brethren, so when I discovered that Spartan Race had an event on the property, I signed up without hesitation. No, I have not fought in combat, but I am an athlete–a warrior of the field, and I may not be able to understand his nightmares or speak the language of his ghosts, but I can help him carry his shield. Spartan asks #whyirace? This is it.

Spartan Race Ft. Bragg with dog tags

Carrying my father’s dog tag into the Ft. Bragg Sprint

The Battle of Ft. Bragg

Thousands descended upon Smith Lake for the Ft. Bragg Spartan Sprint the morning of September 19th, 2015, but in the commotion and the revelry, amidst the motivational speeches and the club music I was aware of only three things: my heartbeat, the course in front, and my father’s dog tag in my pocket.

Everything slowed as I grabbed a handful of dust and rolled it through my hands. My muscles twitched, nostrils flared, and a fire ignited within. I closed my eyes and  quietly asked for every pain and struggle, all the hurt, the weeping lacerations of my father’s wounded soul, to hold it for him–just for a moment, the briefest respite.

I did not seek a personal best or the podium, I ran the Ft. Bragg Spartan Sprint for my dad because it was the perfect storm, a convergence of his glorious past and my future as an OCR athlete, and if I could fight this battle carrying him with me, as he carried photos and mementos of his family in foreign lands, if I could give every ounce on this course: my strength, sweat, blood, fury and resolve, if I could give my very best this day then perhaps the fog would lift just enough for a moment of peace.

Andrew Bowen Ft. Bragg Spartan Sprint Wall

I’ve been waiting to unleash this since Asheville. Thunder Cats Hoooooo!

The roughly 5.5 mile course was a fierce adversary. Thin footpaths armed with root snares and pine cones winded through the pine woods around Smith Lake. Loose gravel promised rough landings from wall jumps while water pits and legacy tests of strength like the Herculian Hoist, Multi-Rig, and three carries (sandbag, ammo cans, and Bucket Brigade) taxed every ounce of will power. Volunteers and Army personnel cheered us all with gusto and pushed us beyond our limits even when the fog of combat and the dust of the course seemed to all but choke our resolve. Perhaps the most vivid sign of our struggle came when one came upon the masked volunteers of Operation Enduring Warrior, who assisted wounded veterans through each obstacle on the course.

Coming Home

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I crossed the finish line spent. The memory of my father’s struggles pulled me through and I reached the end having gave everything I promised. Filthy, exhausted, disoriented (as is my custom) I received my medal and found my wife, who had cheered me on from the rope climb. I later ran with her in a separate heat, only to discover I had injured my toe and so limped through the entire course.

The irony.

In Asheville I felt restricted by her presence, and now I held her back. I demanded she continue without me, that she must push herself. I would not become her excuse, and so she left and performed with great courage. All the while I limped through the dust and sludge as dozens passed me on the trail. So many asked if they could help, offering everything from mustard packs and Ibuprofen. Some volunteers asked if I needed a medical pickup off the course.

“Hell no, thanks.”

Then, I understood. All these years my father has refused the help he and so many veterans deserve. Was it pride? Was he just being tough? Our nation asks so much of our military and they so readily oblige that for them to ask for help in return may seem weak or dishonorable. Suffering is just part of the job.

This could not be further from the truth.

What Can We Do?

Veterans in need are often the warriors left behind. But we can change that. We don’t have to pretend to understand their plight, only support and encourage them, reach out and help with our time, treasure, and compassion. If you work with Veteran’s Affairs and similar programs, smile and be kind; you may be the only solace that veteran ever sees. There are many volunteer and charity support organizations as well, including the Wounded Warrior Project, Operation Enduring Warrior, and so much more. If you personally know a veteran take time to thank them and help, if needed.

Operation Enduring Warrior Ft. Bragg Spartan Sprint

I earned two finishers medals at the Ft. Bragg Sprint: one for my victory and one for my dad, because he helped me through by reminding me of who I am and where I come from. The pride in his eyes as I offered him his medal and dog tag confirmed our victory at Smith Lake.

 

Spartan Ft. Bragg finisher medals

 

When I was a kid I wanted to be an Army Ranger like my dad, but dreams have a way of making surprising turns. I never became a Ranger, but I and my fellow OCR combatants are in a war of our own against complacency, the mundane, and poor health patterns wrecking our nation. Every race is a refusal to accept anything less than an epic life, lived to the full, a right our military has fought and died to protect.

Turned out, when I checked my race time results I had finished 1st overall for the Ft. Bragg Spartan Sprint open heat. Funny, I suppose I’m more like my father than I thought, because Rangers lead the way.

Aroo! Aroo! Aroo! Hoo Ahh!

Comments

  1. Fort Bragg was my first Spartan. It’s also the first racing event I went into thinking I wouldn’t make it to the end, but I did. A team adopted me half-way and now I understand the appeal of this particular OCR brand. It was humbling to see so many veterans out there that day and it was an honor to share the course with them.
    Thank you for this article.

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  1. […] 2015 Ft. Bragg Spartan Sprint was an experience which yielded fantastic results. I took 1st overall in the open heat, my wife […]

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