April 25, 2014 by Helen Nowotnik
There has been a lot of talk in the media about the strength of the human spirit surrounding the anniversary of the Boston Marathon bombing. “Boston celebrates the human spirit,” an ESPN article headline read, and “Human spirit’s still alive in Boston,” read another from CNN. Until this weekend, I’m not sure if I even knew what the human spirit is. It wasn’t until I started running my first Tough Mudder April 19 and ended the day in the hospital that I learned exactly what the human spirit is.
For months, I planned on running and finishing the Tough Mudder in the Poconos with fellow Triangle staff members Ajon Brodie and Sandra Petri. We recruited a team and collectively waited in nervous anticipation for the event. When the day came to run, we showed up to the Poconos Raceway clad in mesh and Under Armour of varying colors, equipped with confidence and determination.
As soon as we parked and I opened the car door, I felt the wind. Nothing could prepare any of the Mudders competing that weekend for the wind. We walked through registration with the rest of the Tough Mudders and waited at the starting line for our wave time to be called. Before heading to the official start, a Tough Mudder volunteer ran through some important information. “If you see someone face down in the mud, do not touch them,” he said. “Hold your arms over your head crossed like an X,” he demonstrated, and the crowd followed his example. At the time, I was thinking, “Does that actually happen to people? Do people actually get that hurt?”
Yes, yes they do.
After so much anticipation, the race began. Somehow, we made it to the mile 10 marker of the 11.6-mile course with little incident. My team basically carried me the entire time. Up until that point, the race went a lot like this: Oh look, it’s a wall. Someone needs to push me over that wall. Oh look, it’s a quarter pipe. Someone needs to pull me up that quarter pipe. The obstacles that involved jumping into freezing cold water were pretty easy for me, except the fact that it was windy as all hell when we got out.
By this point, people had actually started lying on the asphalt of the Raceway to get some warmth from the sun. For miles, we had been in and out of water obstacles, and with the wind refusing to let up, it was hard to get warm. Mudders were jokingly diagnosing themselves with hypothermia, and the warmth provided by the surface of the racetrack was enticing.
After a short break to try to warm up, the next obstacle was a ditch that we had to jump over. Sounds simple: it was probably one of the lowest-budget obstacles in the course. It was just a five-foot-wide hole in the ground with the dirt from the hole forming a mound that you had to climb over once you had completed the leap. I took one look at that obstacle and resolved to skip it. I knew I couldn’t make it across and would have to rely on my team to lift me up by my dead arms out of the pit of cold mud.
Two of our teammates, both over six feet tall, had just barely made it over the ditch. “I don’t think Sandra should try this,” one of them said. We looked back at her and saw a look of determination cross her face as she started running toward the obstacle. “I can’t watch,” another teammate said.
Sandra ended up making it across, but not without hitting the ground and making one of the sickest sounds of the day. I had only heard that sound once before — when my little sister fell to the ground from the top of our childhood tree house. I didn’t know what, but I knew Sandra had broken something.
Like a stone in a pond, Sandra had set off a rippled reaction of human compassion. A registered nurse competing in the race sprinted toward her to help, while about 50 people around us threw up X’s over their heads to get medical attention. I didn’t even know my body was capable of any more movement, but I found myself sprinting toward the nearest red truck I could see. When I came back to the obstacle, Sandra was shivering face down in the mud swaddled in blankets and waiting for her leg to be splinted. Holding back vomit and tears, I sat next to her while we waited. “How am I going to get to work on Monday?” she asked Ajon and me weakly.
As she got lifted onto the stretcher our team decided that the race was over for us and we would accompany Sandra to the medical tent. “You guys have to finish. You’re so close,” she said. So I thanked the nurse that had stayed with her the whole time and the man who had loaned us towels to keep warm, and we finished the Tough Mudder for Sandra.
At the finish line, I picked up my cup of Dos Equis and chugged it on the way to the medical tent. I hadn’t eaten since 7:30 a.m., plus we ran the 11.6-mile course, and by this point it was roughly 5 p.m., so I instantly became drunk. We found Sandra lying in the tent with several emergency professionals around her prepping her to be put in the ambulance. All of these people were focused on getting her comfortable and on to better help. I focused on making dumb drunk jokes to get Sandra to stop thinking about the pain.
Eventually she was lifted into the ambulance, and we rode to the hospital. After X-rays, she finally got the confirmation of bad news we had been waiting for. One leg was fractured in two places and she broke the ankle on her other. She wouldn’t be able to walk for some time, and for a person as active as Sandra, this news was debilitating.
Her parents, brother, sister and boyfriend drove up from southern New Jersey to the Poconos and arrived just as they were prepping Sandra for surgery. “Thank you for taking care of my baby girl,” Sandra’s mom said. “I got your back, girl,” I replied, still slightly inebriated. Her brother handed me the keys to their house so I could sleep there that night.
Finally at 9:30 p.m., Sandra was ready to get wheeled out to surgery. Completely drugged up, still muddy and wearing her Tough Mudder finisher headband she said, “Look how many people are here! I’m so famous!”
In that moment I learned what the human spirit is. The human spirit is the people who pushed me over all those damn walls on the course. The human spirit is the nurse on the course who stopped running a race — which cost her at least $100 — to comfort a complete stranger. The human spirit is the team of medical professionals focused on getting Sandra to the hospital quickly and efficiently. The human spirit is Sandra’s whole family driving two hours to be with her. The human spirit is Sandra maintaining a positive attitude during a very painful, hard time.
What happened in Boston last year was terrifying, but what happened after those bombs went off and what happened the same day one year later is what we should take from the Boston Marathon bombing. What we should remember — and what we should celebrate — is that for every person with evil intentions in the world, there are hundreds of good people willing to make sacrifices to help others.
At the starting line of every Tough Mudder around the country, a man named Sean Corvelle gives a pep talk to the racers. On April 19, he called everyone at the starting line heroes. Tough Mudder showed me the human spirit and that everyone is capable of being a hero. I am writing because I don’t think we need a tragedy to become heroes. The announcer said that a hero is someone who puts their shopping carts back in the designated shopping cart areas so other people don’t hit them with their cars. Someone who gets up every day and gets it done. On April 19, I saw that a hero is someone who goes out of their way to help someone else, despite who they are or what they stand for, and that is the best representation of the human spirit.
Helen Nowotnik is editor emeritus at the Triangle, She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.