So, when I was standing in line at registration with a huge backpack full of gear I had hardly used before and didn’t understand, and the air was just under negative four degrees Fahrenheit, and my toes were nearly numb, the loudest voice in my head was telling me to turn around and go home.
You don’t belong here, it said.
You’re making a huge mistake.
You’re going to be the next tragic story.
Your parents are going to cry when they hear about how you died.
You should have trained more.
You’re not prepared.
And on and on.
I can’t explain why I signed up or how I shook those thoughts out of my mind. But I walked into registration, got my number, and finished the event 48 hours later. It was probably the hardest 48 hours of my life, but I learned more in those 48 hours than I learned in four years of college. I’m going to lay out just a few of the many things I learned during this intense weekend.
1. You really do need absolutely everything on the gear list.
In the first hour of the event, all of the candidates came to a flat space on the farm, laid out their tarps and unloaded their packs to display all their gear to the Krypteia—the leaders of the event. As I unloaded my pack, others did the same, and I could hear the Krypteia shouting at the candidates that their gear was abysmal. I thought to myself, that’s harsh. The gear list wasn’t that specific…how can they yell at us for not bringing the best gear?
It wasn’t until the sixth hour of the event, when the record-breaking temperatures started to break people down, that I understood why the gear list was so important.
In harsh wilderness—let alone in the record low temperatures—your gear is the only thing separating you from injury or death. If your gear list says to bring cold-weather boots, bring cold-weather boots. Altimeter? Bring an altimeter? One hundred feet of parachute cord? Why the heck do I need para—bring one hundred feet of parachute cord. No, bring two hundred. You will be thankful you brought it.
Another note: in terms of gear, you get what you pay for; and the more extreme the conditions, the greater the risk associated with anything cheap. Don’t skimp on safety.
2. When you’re fighting for survival in a group, practical skills are worth far more than your “education.”
I always thought of myself as a smart person. I never struggled to get good grades in challenging schools, and I always had creative ideas for presentations, class projects, and writing assignments. To think that any of that would mean sh** at the Agoge-001 was ridiculous.
One of the first things I realized was that I didn’t know how to tie any knot besides a square knot. (My entire team relied on Spartan World Champion Robert Killian for useful knots. Yes, he was on our team.) Then I realized I didn’t know how to line up branches over a fire to support a pot of water. Then I realized I didn’t know how to use a map with a compass, how to divvy up campsite tasks to a group, how to identify different kinds of trees as sources of fuel, how to organize a backpack, how to create a sleep system, how to use an altimeter, or even how to build a fire. As 12 hours turned into 24, and then 36, I learned just how un-useful my skills were in a basic survival setting.
For this and other reasons, I was extremely humbled at the Spartan Agoge. I would advise anyone planning to attend the next Agoge to consider taking some wilderness survival workshops beforehand. Although the Spartan Agoge teaches countless important skills, it helps to come prepared.
3. Pockets are extremely underrated.
In an emergency situation, wasted time becomes a huge liability. Every minute you spend fumbling around with your pack looking for stuff is one minute not spent addressing the situation, and in extreme conditions, that wasted time immediately translates to increased risk.
That said, if you’re going into the winter Agoge, have a ton of pockets on your outermost layer, and fill them with your most important tools: your compass and your firestarters, some ready-to-eat solid snacks (nuts are great), your knife, some Paracord, and anything else you might need to whip out at a moment’s notice.
The easier it is for you to access important items, the less likely it is that you are going to be unprepared in a moment of crisis.
4. A positive attitude goes a long way, especially in teams.
Throughout a long series of teambuilding and endurance challenges, there were a lot of opportunities to chew out my teammates. There were also a lot of opportunities for them to chew me out. Packs were incomplete or badly organized (mine), people were slow and lacked basic skills (me), some plans failed to achieve goals (also mine), coordination was lacking…but my group managed to stay friendly from the very beginning of the event all the way to hour 48. Why? Because we never took those opportunities to chew each other out. We paid zero attention to our mistakes (besides learning from them) and zero attention to the blame—we focused only on the goal and what we did well, and this kept us together.
Here’s Team Ferrari just after hour 48. (Note the conspicuous team spirit.)
I’m going to carry this lesson with me for the rest of my life: when you have a job to do, there’s no point wasting time thinking about who screwed up. The only thing that matters is getting the job done, and placing blame on anyone is more likely to disrupt group coordination than solve the problem.
5. One word can change your mind.
At hour 36 of the Agoge-001, I was mildly hypothermic, sitting on my sleeping pad next to my gear in the big brown barn. The medics had told me to stay inside while the rest of the group went out for the next challenge. My boots were unsuited for the weather—they were steel-toed—and it was odd that I had lasted this long wearing them.
So, I did what they told me, took my boots off, and covered my feet with my jacket. The medics took my boots to a heater to dry them, and a few of them brought me some warm chicken broth to drink while I waited. Some of the leaders reminded me that, in weather like this, it’s OK to take a moment to rest and let someone take care of you. I sat for about 30 minutes, and as I sat there, alone, my mind started to turn against me.
I started to tell myself that it would be OK if I didn’t finish. My health is more important, I thought. What if I couldn’t do the rest of the event because of my boots? I suppose it’s OK. I’ve done a lot already, and that’s something to be proud of. Time went by, and I started to believe that I just wasn’t ready for the Agoge, and I had learned that the hard way, and that, even though I wouldn’t finish, I had learned a lot and gained a lot from the experience.
While I was thinking all these things, CSM ( R ) Frank Grippe was talking with some of the other Krypteia by the entrance of the barn. He saw me at the other end of the barn, and he called out to me.
“Hey wild man, how you doing over there?”
I told him I wasn’t sure, and that I was still waiting for the word on my boots. I told him I wasn’t sure whether I was going to finish. Then, Frank asked me one question that decided the rest of the event for me.
“You’re not going to quit on me, are you, stud?”
I was taken aback, and I didn’t know what to say. My pride stepped in and tried to defend me. I wasn’t quitting, I thought. I was just—and then I couldn’t think of another word to make it sound better. I realized that I was in fact about to quit, and if Frank hadn’t used that word, I would have been able to justify it to myself. Immediately, I was desperate for a solution to my boot problem. I asked Frank what I should do.
“Just ask someone if they have a spare pair. There’s bound to be someone here.” And there was a spare pair of cold-weather boots, in exactly my size, warm and drying by the heater. I put them on. They were so warm that I nearly cried. My confidence came back. I stopped thinking about how it would be OK not to finish, and I started thinking about how incredible it would be to finish the event with my team, and how I couldn’t let myself quit. And that’s the way I thought for the next 12 hours.
It was all thanks to that one word and an extra pair of boots.
You should always do the thing that scares you the most.
Like I said at the beginning, I was not “ready” for the Spartan Agoge-001. But because of the support of my teammates, the sound advice and careful attention of the medical staff on-site, a miraculous spare pair of cold-weather boots in exactly my size, and my decision to do something insane—I had an amazing experience.
These six points are just scratching the surface.
I want to go on and on about everything I learned at this incredible event, but I also want to keep this post short. That, and I believe you would gain a lot more from actually completing the event than from reading this little blog post.
If you’re ready for the Agoge—or even if you’re not—just go for it. It’s not a race, it’s an event, and the staff will remind you of that every few hours. It’s an event designed to equip you with practical skills, build your endurance, toughen your mind, and strengthen your body. Just be ready for an extreme amount of exercise, and bring absolutely everything on the gear list.