I’m going to the Agoge in China. If you’ve never heard of the Spartan Agoge, you are not alone. The Agoge is a new 60-hour long endurance event put on by Spartan (they also put on lots of Spartan Races, Spartan TV shows, and used to put on the “Death Race.”). In October, 2016, Agoge 003 is being held in China, right on the Great Wall. It is the hardest event that Spartan offers, and is specifically designed so that no one can finish it alone. It’s referred to as an endurance, survival and educational event, as opposed to a traditional race, although there will be “time hacks” where if certain activities are not completed within a time limit, participants get eliminated. There will be very hands on survival, teamwork and leadership training. None of the participants know what we will be asked to do (other than generally running/hiking miles upon miles; rappelling down massive cliffs; carrying heavy stuff, war games, etc.) until we get there. It’s essentially a 60 hour long in-your face, puke-your-guts out, personal development seminar, where participants get a taste of what it was like to train to be a Spartan warrior. There is only one thing guaranteed about the Agoge. Every participant will come out changed. Physical strength and stamina alone will not be enough to finish. I need to tap into my inner “farm-boy” to get it done.
I’m absolutely blessed to be a part of the Warrior State of Mind team, because without their support, I never would have signed up for something like this. There are lots of heroic and impressive team members that will be going with me and providing me with motivation to keep going and finish. But I’m going to have to find some motivation, resilience and grit deep down inside to finish, there’s only so much someone outside can do for me.
I know from looking at my family tree that the genetic code I was given is filled with resilience and grit. Looking at my family tree, my ancestors include warriors, kings, war heroes, pioneers, and farmers…lots and lots of farmers. My dad and his dad are both farmers. When my dad came to watch me do the Salt Lake Spartan in 2015, his comment was, “Why would you pay to do this? You basically do what I do every day-lift heavy stuff, wade through mud and crawl under barbed wire, etc.”
It’s not a coincidence that a few months after my family did the Trek, I signed up for my first Spartan Race. Essentially a Spartan Race is much like a day on the farm, compressed into 1-2 hours. When I’m on the course, or even training for one, it feels natural, like something I was born to do. For a few short hours, it’s uncomfortable, it hurts, I get scrapes and bruises, but when I’m done, I feel like a warrior, a pioneer, and yes, a farmer. One of my friends once made the comment to me: “You’re crazy to get up at 4:00 am to train.” I responded, “What does that say about you? You get up at 4:00
am to go move sprinkler pipes.” His response, “Yeah, but I’m a farmer.” That’s the point. I don’t get to be a farmer, a warrior, a king, or a pioneer anymore, but training for and going through these “events,” gives me a taste of what it was like and it feels like “coming home” after a long time away. It helps me relate to those that came before me. It gives me a deeper understanding of what they went through. It lets me see what I’m capable of going through and above all, it makes me happy.
In 2013, the New York Times published an article titled “The Stories That Bind Us.” In his research the author found that people “who knew more about their families proved to be more resilient, meaning they could moderate the effects of stress.” I found the same thing to be true in my life.
Back in 2014, I was called to be the Family History Coordinator for the ward I attend in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (aka the “Mormons”). Shortly after I was called, our ward announced that we could participate in what is referred to as a “Trek” with our families. Essentially, those volunteering to participate would join with families from other wards and go to rural Wyoming to retrace about 30 miles of the trail used by Mormon Pioneer handcart companies on their way to settle in Utah. I was pretty hesitant. I had just begun to get back in shape after suffering a ruptured disc in my back and I wasn’t sure I could physically do it. My wife had been diagnosed with fibro myalgia, and I wasn’t sure she could physically do it either. My kids would likely revolt (among other things we were required to wear “pioneer clothes” such as full length old-fashioned dresses for the women and girls, and slacks, suspenders, and long sleeved shirts for the men). But my wife insisted that we needed to do this as a family, and when she gets that look in her eye…
One of the first things the organizers asked us to do was either find one of our own pioneer ancestors or locate a pioneer that inspired us and then learn about that individual and their story. We were asked to carry their name with us on the Trek. We were told that this would help us gain a greater understanding of their trials, faith, and determination, and also help us by giving us support and context. After a bit of research, I found that one of my ancestors was a member of the Willie Handcart Company that crossed the plains in the fall of 1856. Her name was Sophie Klauen Pederson. As a family, we started learning about her and her family, why she joined the Mormon church and what she went through crossing the plains of North America to get to Utah.
Here are some highlights from Sophie’s story. Sophie’s husband died in 1853. Shortly thereafter, she had a dream about two men in suits. She felt like the two men had something important to tell her, but she woke up before they gave her the message. Later she was out by her well and saw two men approaching. She recognized them immediately as the men from her dream. She invited them in to her house. They told her they were Mormon missionaries with a special message for her about the restoration of the gospel. Apparently, the message resonated with her (including that families can be together forever and that she would see her husband again after death) and she was baptized into the Mormon church on December 27, 1855.
Sophie was a 31-year-old single mother with 5 children: Peter (10); Thomas (7); Emma (5); Anna (3); and Otto (1). She decided to travel from her home in Denmark to join the church members, who were settling in the Utah territory. She sold her house and with her five children boarded a ship heading for America on May 4, 1856. During the voyage, her son Thomas died in an accident on the ship, and was buried at sea. To further add to the family’s misery, when the family arrived in America, Sophie learned that the men she had trusted almost all of her money with during the voyage had robbed her and left the family with very little money to complete the journey. Still she continued on.
They made their way from New York to Iowa, using what little they had left. In August, 1856, Sophie and her four remaining children left Iowa pulling everything they owned in a handcart. Her plan, pull all of her belongings and her 4 kids on a 1,300-mile adventure hike to the Salt Lake valley. (My planned 60-hour endurance event in China, while carrying a 30-pound pack, doesn’t seem all that ambitious in comparison). Along the way, she traded her wedding bands with Native Americans to obtain food for her kids. In Nebraska, a herd of bison caused the Company’s cattle to stampede, and nearly 30 of the company’s cattle were lost, resulting in each handcart taking on an additional 100 pounds of flour. By mid-October, the Company’s flour was nearly gone, and each member of the Company was rationed to one ounce of flour per day. On October 19, in what is now Eastern Wyoming, and just as the company had run out of flour, a blizzard struck, halting the party. They slaughtered what remained of their cattle for food just to survive a few more days.
On October 21, a small rescue party from Salt Lake arrived and provided a small bit of food, other supplies and the encouragement that a larger rescue party was just a few days away. On October 23, the Company left their campsite on their way to Rock Creek about 14 miles away, hoping to reach the limited shelter and water source at Rock Creek before nightfall. However, shortly after they left, and before crossing one of the most difficult sections of the trail, an ascent up Rocky Ridge, a howling blizzard arrived, that would continue for the rest of the day and throughout the night as the pioneers struggled to reach their camp. Reports were given of up to 16” of snow falling during that blizzard. Those that were stronger pulled their own carts to the camp, and then returned to help others, often going back multiple times to ensure as many as possible made it. The last members of the group didn’t arrive in camp until 9:00 am the next day, having pulled their carts for over 24 hours straight through the blizzard, without adequate food and clothing. That night 13 members of the company died. It took until mid-November, 1856, before the Company finally reached Salt Lake City. Somehow, Sophie and all four of her remaining children survived their journey.
You can imagine what an experience my wife and I had as we pulled our “belongings” and our little family across Rocky Ridge in a handcart, retracing Sophie’s footsteps, while carrying Sophie’s name with us. Along the way, many pioneer stories were shared, memories created, understanding increased, and bonds were strengthened. It was no easy task, especially the final day when we covered around 14 miles, including crossing Rocky Ridge, in the heat of July. Not only did I gain a greater understanding of my own history, but I also began to appreciate how resilient, brave, determined, gritty and amazing my ancestors were.
Our little “Trek” certainly wasn’t comfortable. We were dirty, tired, hot, blistered, sunburnt, my back ached, and my legs felt like rocks. But I think I smiled more during those few days than I had in years. It felt natural and good to be tired, dirty and hot, after so many years sitting at a desk in a climate controlled office. It was the same feeling I get when I return home after a long trip away.
I spent almost two decades suppressing and suffocating the farm boy in me before I realized that it’s who I am. Some people go through the Agoge to get rid of their old self. I’m going to the Agoge to see if I’ve got enough farm-boy grit left to get it done.