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The Obstacle is the Way, Pt. 1

We fell in love with packs on our backs and boots on our feet. Kenya, Moldova, Slovakia, and the unrecognized breakaway republic of Transnistria are just a few of the countries which molded our relationship from day one. As our travels continued into our marriage, we began to recognize something; the way we spoke about a vacation had a correlation to the level of adversity experienced while on the trip. Evenings in Rome eating pizza and drinking wine ranked lower than the one day blitz to hit all five cities of Cinque Terre on the Sentiero del Crinale, or high path, which covers twenty-five miles of mountainous terrain. We have few memories of touring the religious heritage sites throughout Istanbul, but frequently recall with fondness the moment I developed altitude sickness at the summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro, leaving my breakfast at various places on the mountain as I stumbled and fell during an arduous descent from the top. Even the psychological challenge of overcoming my fear of water to earn a scuba certification in St. Thomas a few summers ago stands above the evenings relaxing on the island’s pristine beaches watching the sunset. For some reason, these moments of challenge always seem to bring us closer together. These moments have also drawn me closer to God. But why?

Cecily and I at the summit of Kilimanjaro in 2016, shortly before I vomited all over the mountain.

This question sparked a fire that would burn until the completion of my master’s thesis just one month ago.

The concept of embracing difficulties is alive and well in the fitness industry. Since 2010, two million people have crawled through mud, under barbed wire fences, and run through electric shock wires; not in a torture camp but as part of a business called the Tough Mudder.[1] Averaging between ten thousand and fifteen thousand participants per event, this military-style obstacle course pushes runners to their physical and mental limits. Tough Mudder is not alone. Obstacle-course racing is the “fastest growing sport in history” with millions of competitors taking on races like the Tough Mudder, Spartan Beast, or Spartan Death Race.[2] In addition to these races, other companies have sprung up offering physical and mental challenges. SEALFIT and GoRuck (read about my GoRuck experience here) are two organizations that offer military-inspired events catered to average civilians. On any given weekend in the United States groups of fifteen to thirty men and women can be found carrying eighty-pound sandbags, ropes, stretchers, stones, and a US flag through major cities as they complete a GoRuck challenge. This challenge begins at 9:00 p.m. and ends the following day around 9:00 a.m., with participants enduring sleep deprivation, hydro burpees in the ocean, and a fifteen- to eighteen-mile march carrying a backpack filled with four bricks, all in the name of fulfilling the company’s mission of “building better Americans.”[3] Additionally, tens of thousands of people around the world participate in marathons, half marathons, and boot camp fitness programs. Some even attempt more extreme feats of physical stress and endurance, such as climbing Mt. Everest.

So is this just insanity? Is there something wrong with Cecily and myself because we love the feeling of ending up in a puddle of sweat and gasping for breath at the end of a CrossFit workout? Or is there something more going on here? On the deepest level, is it possible that pushing our bodies and minds may lead to a new format for connecting with the Divine? Over my next few posts, I’ll be exploring these questions and more, looking at posttraumatic growth, spiritual disciplines, and the practice of elective stress.

[1] “Tough Mudder,” accessed September 18, 2016,

[2] Rachel Bachman, “Obstacle Racing Finds Itself Stuck in the Mud,” Wall Street Journal, last modified May 11, 2016, 1463007512.

[3] “GoRuck,” last modified September 18, 2016,

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