It took months for Jane Coffey to begin to recover. She slowly picked up the pieces. And finally, after a lifetime of athleticism, she returned to her body, which had so cruelly betrayed her.
"I think I'll go for a run in the woods," Jane Coffey said one fateful autumn evening in 2010. I happened to be there, her neighbor at the time. Our two dogs were romping around, and Coffey's husband, Seth, and her three-year-old daughter, Aida, were playing in the grass.
Jane had never been a runner; she was just throwing it out there, almost to the wind, as an idea. Jane had been sorely tested in her life, and she was still searching, on some level, for a way to understand and heal from grief. Maybe a good run in the woods?
And so she went.
Jane has always been an athlete. An elite field hockey player in high school, she decided against playing collegiate sports so she could actually have a college experience and not be mired in constant workouts. It's something she laughs at today, as she typically trains every day, sometimes climbing two mountains at a go.
After college she fell in with a group of hikers, and fell in love with mountain climbing. She has slowly been picking off the 4,000 foot peaks in New England (there are 67) and she has only 15 left to do. This is where she met her husband, and together they explored the hills.
She might have stayed at this level of fitness, throwing in the occasional trip out west to climb even higher peaks. She loved the outdoors, loved nature, loved her life. And then, as so often happens in life, everything changed.
Jane, a healthy, fit, 35-year-old woman was in the ninth month of her first pregnancy. She and Seth were excited to start building their family, and maybe add a little hiker to the mix. But complications arose, and quickly. Jane's water broke in the middle of the night and that water was full of meconium, which can be lethal to a fetus.
After rushing to the hospital, her baby's condition went from bad to worse. She listened to the heartbeat of her child slowly diminishing. She was rushed into the ER, put under anesthesia to undergo an emergency Caesarean. But her child had the umbilical cord wrapped around her neck and died.
When Jane woke up, her physician was standing over her, sobbing, telling Jane the horrific news. She would not leave the hospital with her bundle of joy. She would leave traumatized, literally gutted, empty handed, and in a state of the kind of primordial shock that anyone who has lost a child will instantly recognize.
It took months for her to begin to recover. She suffered 'phantom limb' pain in her hands, which were hormonally charged to be holding a newborn. She suffered depression, and most likely, undiagnosed PTSD.
But Jane is a problem solver, and she knew she could not stay in this headspace for long, or she would destroy herself. She slowly picked up the pieces. Found solace and gratitude in the blessings she did have in her life. And finally, after a lifetime of athleticism, she returned to her body, which had so cruelly betrayed her.
She went back to the woods.
After the healthy birth of Aida, her second daughter, and the long sleepless nights that come with being a new mother, Jane never complained. She knew she was blessed. A little sleep deprivation was nothing.
I would often bump into Jane in the woods after 2010. She'd be out there at dusk, with a headlamp on, breezing by me as I slowly labored up the hills. She didn't have the leisure anymore for long hikes, with her 3-year-old, so to get in shape she'd taken up running. That first run in the fall turned into a full blown obsession, and to a healing path that she'd never imagined.
She loved the outdoors, loved nature, loved her life.
And then, as so often happens in life, everything changed.
Soon, she signed up for a 10-mile race. Just to give herself a goal. But Jane is a consummate overachiever. No one takes on the challenge of hiking all 4000 foot peaks in New England without a healthy desire for achievement. The 10-mile race let to her first ultra marathon, clocking in at 32. 5 miles.Andy Weinberg, who is the director of Peak Races (peakraces. com) which sponsored those first two races, got her to try the obstacle course next—the Spartan Beast Race. That was the event that propelled her to the Spartan Death Race.
She had been through the worst.She hadn't quit. Now she wanted to see what it would be like to do a race that was so hard, it was nearly impossible—a race that only 10 percent of the incredibly trained people even finish.She would have the option to quit, and she wanted to see if she would.
Many people come to the Spartan Death Race from a similar place of overcoming obstacles. Veterans of war, veterans of catastrophe. Veterans of Life. The race creators Andy Weinberg and Joe Desena see it as just that. A metaphor for life. And true to life, the racers don't even know when the race will begin or end. They've got to be ready for anything.
Carrying a kayak through the woods all night. Humping bags of concrete up and down mountains. Chopping endless amounts of wood. Weinberg says that all the work done during the race—including the chopped wood—is for the Pittsfield community where it is located.This aspect of being part of and giving back to the community is an important component of these races, indeed an important component of Vermont.
What is a Spartan Race?
A registered trademark of the global organizer of something called Obstacle Racing, the Spartan races were begun in 2005 by seven "ultra athletes." Spartan obstacle races are now run in seven nations and include scores of events in the U.S. In addition to June's Death Race, two team gatherings occur each fall in Vermont, at The Killington Resort and in Pittsfield. Levels of Spartan races range from a Spartan Sprint, a Super Spartan, a "brutal" Spartan Beast, and the final test, the Death Race.
Why name these extreme races for Sparta? Their website answers, "Because Spartans were tough as nails." Not as well known is that Spartans included girls in their "gymnasium" schools and, rare among the Greeks, had laws that recognized women's right to own property.
To learn more, check out www.spartanraces.com or http://www.spartanrace.com/vermont-obstacle-racing-the-beast-2013.html
Each challenge that she successfully completed made her want to do more. Made her want to test herself—not only physically, but mentally. What was she capable of?
The race attendees are happy to become—and not just for this weekend—part of this larger, generous community. The race goes all day and all night, up to 60 hours.
Last year, before she'd thought to do the race herself, Jane volunteered to help. She moved gear around, she checked swimmers in the lake to make sure they completed their task. I asked her if there were a moment when she thought, if she were doing the race, this is when she'd quit.
"They had to roll in a field for 3/4 of a mile, and part of it was under a black tarp in the sun," she told me."Part of it was stirring a bucket of intestines from a cow that had been sitting in a bucket for a month, and this is almost toward the end of the race, and these people are fatigued, depleted." It was this moment, she confessed, that would have broken her.
After the race, she sat in her car and cried. There had been so much suffering, so much camaraderie, so much intensity and community. She'd watched men and women (women make up about 10 percent of the racers), who had prepared all year, drop like flies.She saw people pushed to their absolute limit, and then digging deep and going for more.
Immediately after the race she wanted to sign up to volunteer again. Then she learned about the obstacle course at Killington. She'd never done anything like that before, but true to form, she rose to the challenge. Finally, after that race, she knew she'd have to do the Death Race. And now, she says, she's obsessed with it. She's all in, prepping for her longest day, which, not coincidentally, falls on June 21, the longest day of the year.
The reaction among people she tells is mixed. People call the race crazy or stupid. One woman actually said, "Do women do that? They aren't that strong."
Jane is out to prove them wrong, and to prove her own strength. It isn't just physical strength, but mental fortitude. And she wishes more women would do it.It's such a great example, a great role model for what women can accomplish, she said.
Many of us hike or jog, take a yoga class or lift weights at the gym. How about turning a tire tractor over and over and over? Running for miles through the woods? At night. With a headlamp. Push-ups in the snow? Climbing up and down and up and down a mountain carrying a huge rock on your shoulder?
This is how Jane is preparing for the Spartan Death Race in June. She is pushing her body and mind to the absolute limit, to see, if there really is a limit at all. Maybe her capacity is boundless. Maybe she will get to the edge of the abyss, and realize, as soon as she takes her next step, there is ground there.
By her own admission, coming back to 'life' after the death of her child was excruciating. I have known women who've lost a child who have become a shell of their former selves, unable to understand and overcome such a devastating loss. I've also known women to suffer that deepest loss and then find or create some previously unknown resiliency to thrive in their lives. Jane looked at her life squarely, and unflinching. She made a choice. She would mourn, release and move forward. Never forgetting her daughter, Faye, but using the loss as a motivation to live a bigger life.
At 41 now, she takes risks and pushes herself further than she ever has. She wants to know what stuff she's made of. In the Spartan Death Race, Jane can quit if the going gets too tough. This is her ultimate test. This is the question she wants to answer.
What will she do, when given that choice?She's training hard to make the answer inevitable, but as anyone who's ever suffered knows, when the ultimate challenging moment arrives, we're never prepared enough.
And then, what you go on, is grace.
*This article was originally published by Lauren Walker on vermontwoman.com.*