Kyle Dake: 3 Insights About Pain That Wrestlers Bring to a Spartan Race
By David DeLuca, Spartan Editor
Earlier this month, the Spartan World Championship transformed Squaw Valley into a nexus of competition. Competition, however, was not the only draw. Thousands came to this iconic event simply to test their limits, to forge bonds with a unique community, and to gain an unforgettable experience that would change their lives. One such man was 4X NCAA Wrestling Champion Kyle Dake.
It might seem strange at first that a wrestler would attempt an event so long (15+ miles) and so far from the rigors of the mat. After all, wrestling is anything but a distance sport; Kyle states point blank, “Wrestlers are not runners.”
Sure, wrestlers bring excellent upper-body strength, grip strength and muscular endurance to an obstacle course, but the physical vocabularies of the two sports are vastly different. Wrestlers are, in Kyle’s words, “contact, short-sprint, anaerobic-type athletes” whose primary obstacle is the skill and physical resistance of another individual—essentially, beating the other guy. Finishers of a Spartan Beast—or any Spartan event for that matter—will almost unanimously agree that in Spartan events, your biggest obstacle is you.
Despite what might seem like a rift between the physical demands of the two sports, nothing could have prepared Kyle’s mind better for a Spartan Race than his successful wrestling career. No, it doesn’t have anything to do with “Ancient Sparta.” Actually, it’s much deeper and more universal than that. Kyle says that wrestling and Spartan Race share a special bond because both wrestlers and Spartan racers understand the value of pain.
Value #1. Going through a new kind of pain allows us to grow.
Like Spartan racers, wrestlers understand that pain comes in many forms. Dake defines pain broadly as a “warning that your body is experiencing trauma,” but he emphasizes that pain is not just physical; “in general, it happens in the brain,” he says. In fact, pain becomes most powerful and most limiting when it takes an emotional form. Dake explains:
“When your body starts to experience trauma, panic starts to set in—especially when you’re not complete with the task. When you set a goal, and you’re only halfway there…you don’t necessarily want to [finish] because it’s so uncomfortable.”
What starts simply as a long stretch of physical discomfort, he says, can become a full-blown emotional breakdown.
“You start getting stressed out,” explains Kyle. “You can’t breathe well. It might sound funny, but sometimes you’re working out so hard you think you’re gonna die.”
The shared value of Spartan Race and wrestling, though, is that the pain teaches a powerful lesson to whoever chooses to push through it: no, you’re not actually going to die. And when people actually finish a difficult event and learn this, their worlds expand.
“Just by completing [the task] and going home and having dinner and sleeping and waking up the next day, you realize, ‘OK, well, that’s what the pain felt like. Now I’m familiar with it—the emotional, mental pain. I’m familiar with the doubt, [the thought that] I wasn’t going to get through it.”
That familiarity with suffering, for wrestlers and Spartans alike, is the key to changing how they see their own abilities. Enduring an unfamiliar level of pain teaches a person that whatever they perceived as their real limit was in fact a delusion.
Value #2. Enduring pain provides an emotional release, helps us to find peace.
Kyle isn’t just a wrestler; he’s a social critic with some poignant insights on human psychology. One of his biggest beefs with modern American culture—to which he believes pain is the key—is our failure to process our emotions.
Kyle says it all starts with “poor communication.”
“We don’t talk,” he says, referring to people in general. “We get stuck inside our heads. Things just keep building and building and building—whether it be thinking about work, school, relationships, money, where I’m going to live, what I’m going to eat, my body—we don’t have anyone to talk to.”
As a result, our emotions get bottled up inside. As the pressure builds, a person becomes a ticking time bomb—or, as Kyle puts it, a “pressure cooker”—liable to explode at any moment.
This is where pain and discomfort come in to save the day. In Kyle’s view, wrestlers and Spartans are both privy to an invaluable secret: pain is like a trigger; it can release bottled-up emotion. Because the body, mind and spirit are connected, Kyle says, people whose “pressure cooker” is reaching dangerous levels can use physical pain to relieve emotional and even spiritual pressure. Every obstacle—psssss! Every 30 burpees—psssss! Every mile—psssss! Until finally, at the finish line, there’s nothing left but accomplishment, bliss, peace.
Just you and that banana.
Value #3. Sharing pain with others creates a real, instantly relatable experience.
One thing wrestling and Spartan Race have in common is their strong communities. One might argue that this is because each sport simply attracts a specific type of person—masochists, ultra-competitors, what have you—but the reality is that the respective fields of novice wrestlers and first-time Spartans each represent a diverse crowd. The force that binds each community together doesn’t draw its strength from shared aspirations; rather, the tight bonds come from a shared experience of pain.
Kyle claims to have seen it himself at the Spartan Beast. “You have all these groups of friends who do [Spartan Races] together,” he explains. “At first, they’re having a good time, chatting…but on the way back, they’re exhausted.”
That much is to be expected, but here’s the interesting part.
“[After the race], they start communicating on a different level because all of them went through the same level of pain. You can see the emotion in their faces. It’s not a forced emotion. It’s not a mask that they’re wearing. It’s true emotion beaming from their eyes. You can see into who they truly are.”
From Dake’s perspective, pain doesn’t just allow a person to excavate deeply buried emotions; it unlocks the most genuine kind of human expression—and with that, an equally genuine rapport. Two Spartans who have earned their Trifectas, for instance, share a profound and unique experience. The result, in Dake’s words, is “a different level of communication. You’re more connected because everyone who has gone through it knows what it feels like.”
Kyle Dake Post-Beast: “Destroyed,” but in a good way.
At the Spartan Beast, Dake found no shortage of pain. At times, the inclines were so steep that Kyle felt he was “climbing a rock wall” to get up. One obstacle in particular, the notorious bucket carry, left his back “destroyed” and gave him a profound respect for all pregnant women everywhere. But it should be no surprise that Dake saw this pain in a positive light.
The pain of a Spartan Race, Dake says, isn’t barbaric torture; it’s “a kind of controllable pain.” He explains:
“You know that you’re going to be safe in a few hours. You know you’re going to be able to sleep in your bed, get something to eat. Knowing that, it shifts the pain from being fearful for your life to something where it’s enjoyable. And you know the person right next to you is feeling exactly the same thing.”
If Dake is right, and pain teaches such valuable lessons, then it seems Spartan Races represent an important bridge between several different worlds. By virtue of being the most difficult of modern obstacle races, they represent a bridge between the world of wrestling and the world of obstacle racing. Dake for instance has seen countless ex-college wrestlers find themselves anew in Spartan racing. But on another, more universal level, Spartan Races represent a bridge for any individual—a bridge leading beyond one’s current limits, a bridge over troubled emotional waters, and, most importantly, a bridge between the self and others.
Dake has simple advice for other wrestlers who want to take on a Spartan Race: “Know that you’re in for a grueling couple of hours. Don’t take it too lightly. You’re in for a big challenge.”
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