Imagine you’re a middle school student in Lincoln, Arkansas—a town with a population of about 2,400 people—and one day your principal calls an assembly and announces, “Good news, everybody. I made a deal with Spartan. If we do enough grueling workouts every week, they’ll invite us to Dallas this summer, to AT&T Stadium where the Dallas Cowboys play, and let us do an official Spartan race for free. You’ll get to take part in the most harrowing obstacles you’ve ever experienced in your life, including crawling through mud. Every muscle in your body is going to be on fire.”
What would’ve been your first reaction? “Oh, that sounds cool. I never thought I’d ever leave this small town. Wait, what did he say about ‘grueling workouts’? He isn’t serious, is he? I’m just 11 years old! And an obstacle course where we crawl through mud? Is this guy crazy?”
Yes, that principal might be crazy, or he might be the one these kids remember as the educator who changed everything for them. We called Stan Karber, a principal at Lincoln Elementary in Arkansas, to ask what inspired him to contact Spartan and lead more than 100 kids into the most rewarding challenge of their young lives.
Why a Spartan race? Nobody would’ve faulted you for just taking these kids on a field trip. Put ’em on a bus and take them to Washington, D.C. But you decided they deserved more.
My sons and I went to the AT&T Stadium a few years ago and ran the Spartan race. During it, I remember thinking, “This is awesome. It would be great for our kids back in Lincoln.” We’re always trying to see how much we can push them. We take them to the lake down the road from the school, where we’ve got rock climbing and canoeing and all this stuff. But I wanted something more. So one day, I’m talking about Spartan with the other administrators at the school, and I said, “Why don’t we just email them? Tell them about these kids and see what happens.”
Were you expecting an answer?
I was expecting nothing. I didn’t even think we’d get a no. I shot that email out, and about a month later, I got a reply from a lady at Spartan saying, “We’ve passed this email around the office, and we decided to forward it to Joe. “
You knew about Joe De Sena?
I absolutely know about Joe. When I ran my first Spartan race years ago, I read Joe’s book Spartan Up in my hotel room before the race. I got so much motivation from Joe. I took a lot of his lessons and tried to translate them to my middle school kids.
In Lincoln, we’re in a high poverty level. So I try to talk to these kids about the power of the mind and the body, how you can’t always control what your life looks like but you can work out and keep yourself healthy. That at least is within your control.
So Joe read your email and he was intrigued?
That’s right. Spartan hit us back and said, “Hey, this is something we could do. We want to bring your kids out to Dallas.”
__How did you sell this idea to middle school kids and make it sound fun? __
We just told them everything. We said, “You’re going to work out harder than you’ve ever worked out, and as a payoff, you’re going to get on a bus on June 9, and we’re going to drive down to the Dallas Cowboys stadium, and you’re going to run a race until you drop.”
And none of them were like, “Are you out of your freaking mind?”?
Not really. This was a huge deal for them. A lot of our kids have never even left the state. Their favorite restaurant is McDonald’s. That’s a true story. This is a rural chicken farm area. This is where these kids stay, it’s what they know. So to put them on a bus, and take them on a freeway. That alone was amazing to them. Then you pull into a stadium, where a football team like the Dallas Cowboys play, which most of these kids only see on TV. It was pretty magical.
But first you have to convince them to do the work to earn that magical moment.
Here at our school, we’re the Lincoln Wolves, and we have this slogan: “Feed the Wolf.” Feed the wolf is a story that we tell them, and we’ve told it for years. Everybody’s got a little dog in their head that’s yapping. That dog is hungry, but it’s also a little afraid.
How does that dog become a wolf?
By getting fed. And it only does that by getting outside of its comfort zone. So that’s what we tell these kids. Don’t make it too easy on your yapping dog. Don’t let him be afraid. Get him outside. I tell them all the time, “I’m not okay with you being scared. I’m going to take you rock climbing, because I want to take you out there to experience fear. I want you to understand that you can get through this. We’re going to make you mentally tougher, and you’re going to get so much self-confidence from that.”
How do you keep them motivated? It’s one thing to sign up for a Spartan race, but it’s quite another to show up every day and train.
Especially for a kid used to burying his or her face in a screen all day.
The Spartan Edge curriculum was really helpful and awesome, not just for the physical curriculum but for the day-to-day mental battles. What we told the kids and tried to instill in them was, the physical part is easy. When you’re out there with 40 or 50 people, and you’re running and doing lunges and burpees, that’s easy.
It’s the fun part.
That’s right. The biggest obstacle sometimes is the mental part, when you make the decision to come out and do the work. That’s where you’re going to earn your bus ticket. We got these Spartan bracelets that they sent to us, and we passed them out to all the kids, and I said, “This is going to be a token of your responsibility, and a testament to do what we’re asking you to do.” I made sure they knew that we were taking them seriously, that we wouldn’t be cynical and say things like “Oh, kids today don’t have that kind of motivation. They won’t show up.”
They took that to heart?
Very much so. A lot of them took their bracelets home and hid them in their houses so they wouldn’t lose them. And then they did just about everything we asked them to do. They really took it upon themselves.
Besides the thrill of conquering a huge challenge, are there any lasting life lessons you hope your kids are getting from doing a Spartan race?
Oh yeah. I don’t want to be corny about it, but I actually believe that obstacle course racing is probably as close a metaphor as you can get to life. There’s going to be different things thrown at you, you’re going to crawl through the mud, and it can be intimidating. But if you can continue to push through and move forward, obstacle after obstacle, it’s going to be so rewarding. I hope that’s what they remember.
Not just the “Holy crap, I competed on the same field as the Dallas Cowboys.”
Which is great. But it’s more than that. It’s what life’s about. Life is going to keep throwing stuff at you, and you just have to keep getting through it, one obstacle after another.
At Spartan, we talk about resilience and grit. What do those words mean to you and the kids at your school?
We have a group of kids who are the epitome of resilience because … [long pause] kids don’t get to pick their parents. I’m not saying it’s that way with all the parents here, but we have plenty of kids who don’t have a parent in the true sense of the word. They’re basically raising themselves.
That’s hard to fathom for kids that young.
But that’s their lives. The words grit and resilience get thrown around, especially in an obstacle course racing world, where you’re talking about working hard and being gritty and being resilient when you get tired and going ahead and running up the stairs. But it’s a different grit and resilience when you’re talking about a sixth grade girl who’s got to get herself up and get her brother dressed and cook breakfast before they come to school. That’s different. That’s not an obstacle course.
__That’s real life. __
Exactly, that’s real life. That kind of grit and resilience is something that we see walking the halls of this school every day. So, it was pretty easy to talk to them about how the Spartan race was going to be tough, because they know what tough means. They deal with tough realities every day. Tough to them is making sure they’ve got clean clothes, and that they show up in the middle of December with a jacket. That’s tough. That’s grit. The obstacle course race, that was just kind of a basic interpretation of their life.
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