You can’t judge a book by its cover. That’s true about pretty much everything in life, but it’s especially true about the Spartan Agoge. Think you know what the ultimate Agoge competitor looks like? Think again. After all, this isn’t just a contest about physical prowess and mental agility. It’s about the human spirit.
Meet two men who defy convention, Bryce Cobb, 24, from Booneville, Arkansas, and Andrew Einstein, 29, from Riverton, New Jersey.
They’re members of Operation Enduring Warrior, an organization dedicated to honoring, empowering, and motivating wounded veterans. This Friday, they’ll be on the field at Riverside Farm in Vermont, battling it out with everybody else at the 2017 summer Agoge. No quarter asked, none given.
We sat down with these remarkable men to find out what makes them tick, and what we could all learn from their unflappable grit.
SPARTAN: Bryce, let’s start with you. You joined military school when you were 16?
BRYCE COBB: Yeah. I didn’t really like high school, and my cousin went to military school and really enjoyed it. So I was like, “Well why can’t I go?” And my parents were like, “If that’s what you want.”
That’s not the version of kids getting shipped off to military school that we usually hear.
COBB: What’s the other version?
The one where a dad starts screaming, “That’s it! We’ve given you enough chances! Driving our car into a swamp was the last straw! We’re sending you to military school!”
COBB: Well, I did drive a car into a tree.
COBB: [Laughs] Yeah, that’s another story. So anyway, my school was sponsored by the National Guard, and I didn’t really know much about branches and all that stuff. So when I got out, I immediately joined the National Guard.
Was it a good fit?
COBB: A great fit. About a month after basic training, there was a PT [physical training] test for my unit and the top two scores got to go to Air Assault School. I got one of the best scores and went right back to Fort Benning for Air Assault School. I was there with some of the same drill sergeants I’d had at basic.
Were they surprised?
COBB: They said there was no way I’d make it cause I just got out of basic. But I ended up passing it. Then I came back home, and our battalion has a reconnaissance platoon, and they have tryouts once every year or two. So I tried out, and out of about 80 or so people who tried out, they picked four of us. I made that too. It was great.
You love the challenge?
COBB: The harder the better. It was nothing but balls-to-the-wall, smoke-in-the-hole time. Just the way I like it.
Did you lose your leg during a recon mission?
COBB: No, nothing like that. I was doing military funerals, and I was hit by someone driving under the influence after completing a funeral detail. I had finished a service, and I was on my way home. I was going down a two-lane road, and there was a car in the other lane trying to pass the other cars. He comes into my lane, I go off into the ditch trying to avoid him, and he does the same thing. He hit me dead on.
Did you realize right away what had happened to you?
COBB: Yeah. I got out, and it was dark, and I couldn’t see much of anything. I tried to take a step, and I was like, “Oh crap, that doesn’t feel good.” I hopped up to the ground where a bunch of cars had pulled over and there were lights and stuff. I looked down, and it was like my foot had been degloved. Somebody tossed me his shirt, and I used it to tie a tourniquet around my thigh. I called 911, and then my program director, because I had a service the next morning. I told him, “Hey man, you’ve got to find somebody else to do this.”
You did all this while waiting for an ambulance?
COBB: Yeah. I was on the side of the road.
That’s amazing. Anybody else in that situation, they’d be in shock. They definitely wouldn’t be calling their employers to request a sick day. You weren’t in pain?
COBB: It really didn’t hurt. All I remember thinking was, “This guy just ruined my career.”
Andrew, how about you? What’s your story?
ANDREW EINSTEIN: I was deployed to Afghanistan in the summer of 2011. I’m a civil affairs marine, but I was assigned to a reconnaissance battalion. My job was to go in with them and essentially be the liaison between the civilian populace and the military. We were doing operations in Sagan, Afghanistan, and the fighting was pretty bad. It was a rude awakening from my time in Iraq. On August 5, we were in a compound, and a grenade was tossed over the wall and landed in front of me. I didn’t get far enough away from it, it went off, and I received a head injury from it. A traumatic brain injury.
Were you sent home?
EINSTEIN: I didn’t realize I was hurt for a couple days. I was throwing up and I had terrible headaches, but we had ran out of water and were drinking water from a bad well, so I thought I was just sick. When I got medevaced back to our bigger base, the doctor there determined that I had sustained a brain injury. I was there for about two weeks at the concussion clinic, and then I was released, cleared from full duty. So I finished up my tour.
Was it a difficult adjustment back to civilian life?
EINSTEIN: It felt drastically different. I was dealing with the effects of the brain injury, and trying to hold onto my job as a part time police officer. I was afraid to get help because I didn’t want to lose my job. It came to the point where suicide felt like a viable solution.
How close did you come?
EINSTEIN: I never put a day on it. I never said, “Today I’m going to kill myself.” I just drank a lot and started taking pills. I was miserable, and life was shit. I stopped caring. But then I got my dog.
EINSTEIN: Yeah, Gunner. The day I brought him home, my life changed. He gave me purpose again. If I died, who would take care of him? I was responsible for something again. Then he and I went into training together, and he became my service dog. He allowed me to do things that I didn’t feel comfortable doing without him.
EINSTEIN: Going shopping. Going to crowded areas and restaurants. One of the greatest things he does for me, when we go to a Philadelphia Flyers game, and the pregame laser show gets a little intense, he’ll jump on my lap and be like, “Hey, pay attention to me. Calm yourself down. You’re fine.”
Bryce, what turned it around for you? What made you decide that there was still hope?
COBB: It didn’t take long. The accident happened on Friday, and by the next Monday I was back in the gym. I didn’t have a leg, so I was on crutches. I did things where I could be seated, or stand up on one leg and do it. I was just trying to stay in shape because I didn’t want to lose anything.
When did you finally get a prosthetic?
COBB: I was in a hurry to get it. What they do is, they cast your leg and then they make a check socket out of plastic to make sure it fits right. I didn’t have time because I had annual training starting in June and I wasn’t about to miss it. The doctor got the plastic molding and it fit right, so he wrapped it in fiberglass tape and I went through three weeks of training with a plastic leg and a donated foot.
A donated foot?
COBB: It was like an old model foot. It wasn’t modeled after my foot. It’s just whatever they had in storage.
Did wearing the leg take some getting used to?
COBB: The walking never felt weird. I could immediately walk with it. What took getting used to was the liner that attaches the leg to the socket. It’s a weird-feeling material and it’s constantly on your leg, so it’s really annoying to deal with.
How did you guys go from “I’m going to keep working out and staying in shape despite my injury” to “I’m signing up for the Spartan Agoge?”
COBB: Within a year of losing my leg, my lieutenant colonel came to me and asked if I wanted to do the Bataan Death March. He was talking about me just walking alongside him, but I didn’t know it. So when everybody went to register, I registered for military heavy, which is what all of my guys were doing. I showed up with my ruck and my lieutenant colonel was like, “What are you doing?”
It never occurred to you to be on the sidelines?
COBB: Never crossed my mind. I did the entire thing with my ruck, which had weighed in at 53 pounds. Along the way, I met up with Operation Enduring Warrior, and there was another dude without a leg. I hadn’t seen anyone without a leg since I lost mine, so we got to talking and they gave me a card and I’ve been hooked up with them ever since. I’ve done like four races with the OEW.
EINSTEIN: I got involved with OEW about a year ago. We ran our first mud race together, and it was really cool. It’s especially challenging with Gunner, because I have to figure out how to get him over these obstacles. We did a Spartan Sprint, and I was like, “What’s next?” I’ve always tried to do things that I don’t think I can accomplish. A friend of mine, Jonathan Lopez, he’s got just one arm. Lopez and I ran our first race together. When I saw him do the winter Agoge, I told him, “You’re crazy.” But it made me want to do it.
If he can do it, why not you?
EINSTEIN: I don’t think it’s something I can accomplish, so I absolutely want to do it. It’s the way I think.
Are both of you doing 24, 48, or the full 60 hours of Agoge?
EINSTEIN: Full 60.
COBB: I didn’t know there was any other option but the 60.
You can opt out early if you want to.
COBB: I don’t see any reason not to do the whole thing.
EINSTEIN: If it’s worth doing, it’s worth overdoing. Maybe we’ll do 61. [Laughs.]
How do you keep going when everything in your brain is screaming “No, just no, stop it now, lie down in the mud and take a nap?”
EINSTEIN: That happens. That thought does cross your mind. I would call myself an adrenaline junkie, but not every obstacle in the Agoge is driven by adrenaline. For a lot of it, you’re thinking, “Man, this really sucks.”
So why not quit?
EINSTEIN: I saw this YouTube video of a college football coach, and he was giving a motivational speech. One of the things he said, which really stood out for me, is “Pain is temporary. It may last a minute, an hour, a day. It may last a year but eventually it’ll stop. But if you quit, that never goes away.” I love that. That makes sense to me. I won’t quit.
EINSTEIN: Unstoppable. I will go until I can’t go any further, and then I’ll go further. Lopez has the best quote. He says, “Die first, then quit.” [Laughs.]
COBB: I got a tattoo when I got out of basic that reads “Embrace the Suck” across my chest. Once I got that, I can’t quit anything for the rest of my life.
That’s true. If you quit, your tattoo is mocking you.
COBB: It becomes pretty much pointless.
Every morning when you’re shaving, you’d look in the mirror and go, “Oh yeah, I forgot to embrace the suck.”
COBB: I can’t do that to myself.
Is there any part of the Agoge that scares you? What makes you think, “Is this some sort of sick joke? They’re not serious with that, are they?”
COBB: Nothing really scares me. The water may be an issue with my leg. Once I have a wet leg, I’ll definitely be out of my comfort zone. Most of the time I skip the water obstacles on races, just because it’s a pain in the butt. But I’m going to adapt. For the Agoge, I’m not letting anything get in my way.
EINSTEIN: I’m kind of hoping there’s coffee on the course.
EINSTEIN: I work shift work, so I drink more coffee every morning than four people do in a lifetime. That’s been the hardest part of training for me, weaning myself off the caffeine. But everything else, I’m ready for it. I’m really looking forward to the rappelling. That looks fun. There’s nothing they can throw at us that I won’t be like, “Whatever, we’ll get through it.”
Preparing yourself physically for the Agoge is one thing. What about mentally? This race is designed to test your emotional limits. Do you feel ready?
COBB: I feel like positive attitude can get you through a lot. Just like my selection for reconnaissance platoon, they said the reason they picked me is because I had a smile on my face the whole time. No matter how bad it got, I was always joking and laughing the whole time. That’s how I deal with the stress. I try to laugh it off and have a good time, even if it’s getting bad.
EINSTEIN: It can definitely get emotional. I’ll probably cry at the end. I’m not even kidding.
There’s no shame in that.
EINSTEIN: Just being able to get both me and Gunner safely through to the end, it can be overwhelming.
Is it emotional for Gunner as well?
EINSTEIN: He just wants his medal. [Laughs.] That’s not a joke. He hates Tough Mudder because at the end you don’t get a medal.
That pissed him off?
EINSTEIN: Yes! The first time we did it, he just looked at me like, “What is with this headband? I want a medal!”
What about you, Bryce? What gets you through the suck? Besides the tattoo?
COBB: In the bad situations, in the really awful times, that’s when you make your best friends. The people that you know the best.
EINSTEIN: That’s so true.
COBB: You come out of these events with insane bonds with the people you go through it with. Now that I’m on my way out of the military, I don’t get to experience that as much anymore. But with a Spartan race, especially the Agoge, it’s an opportunity to go through the suck again, and prove to myself, and these guys I’m doing it with, that we can all get through this. It’s really like the military in that way. Nobody really understands what you’ve survived quite like the people who were right next to you in the trenches.