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I Survived Hell on the Hill…. Barely

By Taylor Lee, DPT

Last year, August 6th, I “ran” a race called Hell on the Hill - an event where the hosts not only spoil each participant/family for the entire weekend, but they donate thousands to the respective charity of each participant.  You guessed it, Zimele USA was my charity.  It’s an amazing organization which is transforming communities in South Africa by empowering women to ignite their entrepreneurial spirit.  

The race tests your will and pushes your physical and mental state to the limit. 100 times up and down a grassy slope for a total of 8.5 miles on a 35° incline.  That beast was steep!  I ran alongside Ultramarathoners, UFC fighters, fitness rock stars and some of the most physically and mentally tough humans.  Now, before I tell you about my brutal and humbling experience, let me first give you some background on how I ended up on The Hill.

A close friend insisted that I read a book she had just finished, titled Living with a Seal:  31 Days Training with the Toughest man on the Planet written by Jesse Itzler.  She said I reminded her of the Navy SEAL in the book and that I would thoroughly enjoy it.  To her frustration, I said I don’t know when I would be able to read for enjoyment.  But one day, she brought over her copy and gave it to me.  As I sat in my  kitchen and began to flip through the pages, I caught myself laughing out loud and definitely related to the SEAL (at least from the fitness philosophy perspective).  My friend was right and it is now on top of the list as one of my favorite books to read and recommend.  

In summary, Jesse invited an accomplished Navy SEAL to live with him for 31 consecutive days with only one condition - do whatever the SEAL says -- whenever and however. That SEAL was David Goggins who many regard as the baddest, toughest man alive.  

Although the story of the SEAL is astounding, what really inspired me was Jesse’s story. He had accomplished so much in his life from co-founding Marquis Jets, to investing in Zico Coconut Water, marrying his dream girl - the founder of SPANX Sara Blakely, and starting a big happy family.  He accomplished his business and personal goals with a passion-driven persistence and risk wrapped in grit, discipline, and consistency.

Now here’s the thing.  I personally know a handful of extremely successful and wealthy people.  However, there was something so compelling about Jesse and his life story.  To be frank, it made me want to be his friend.  Awwww.  No matter how cheesy that sounds, it’s the truth.  So my pursuit began -- to make a new friend and perhaps learn some life lessons in the process.  I made it my goal to meet Jesse. I applied the same principles I learned from his life story to make it happen - create opportunity and persist!  What better way than to use the world of social media. 

That’s how I found out about Hell on the Hill.  But it was SOLD OUT and invite-only!  So I went with my gut and simply asked Jesse if he would let one more person into the race.  To my surprise, he said yes.  I was elated and blown away.  Now, I won’t go into the details of this period of my life, but let’s just say I was going through some crazy changes with Maven and family (all good and necessary but stress-filled and challenging to say the least).

Let me preface this by saying when I reached out to Jesse, it was 10 days before race day.  Did I tell you I hadn’t run a single full mile for years!  I’m a burpees, pushups, pull-ups, and squats guy who typically trains intensely under an hour.  Running, and certainly, extreme hill running wasn’t part of my tricks and definitely didn’t match with what we fitness people like to call my specificity of training.  I didn’t care.  I had to do what I had to do.  On top of my lack of training, I had a really rough week leading up to the race, not sleeping much, engrossed in unavoidable stress with business and life . . . blah blah blah.  Bottom line -- I was not ready or prepared for such a hellish race.  But, at that point, I saw this as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity which I had to complete even if it meant I had to crawl up or roll down the hill.

I ran the first 70 laps fairly well probably on pace to finish the race within just over 2 hours. The 71st round at the bottom of that hill was when the mismatch in the event with the specificity of training principle worked against me. I hit a “brick wall”.  

I look up from the bottom of the hill.  All of a sudden what was just a slippery slope really did look like hell -  a war zone.

Have you ever had one of those charlie horses/cramps in of all places,  your toe? Imagine seemingly every single muscle below your waist fully cramping out on you. After each lap at the top, I had to spend at least 5-6 minutes recovering to get the cramps to calm down, just enough for me to walk down the hill and cramp up again when I began the ascent. I was desperately struggling.  It became so apparent that I was in pain that even my daughter, who has never in her 11 years of life seen me physically struggling like this came to me and said, “Daddy.. Crawl.”

I thought about how aggressively Jesse and the Seal had tackled challenges in their lives. This hill was representative of that. He offered a challenge, and the only way to finish it was aggressively.

I looked at her and said, “Bella, daddy can’t do that”. I kept on chipping away... without crawling.

At lap 25, my knees had already begun to hurt from ITB syndrome which I was not able to self-treat leading up to the race due to crazy work days.  Frankly, self-care wasn’t something I prioritized to any extent.  Besides the paralyzing cramps throughout the legs, each step down-hill was excruciating.  

90th lap, I’m drenched in sweat and desperate for some relief from cramping and knee pain.  I had dropped off significantly, barely on pace to finish under 4 hours.  Many athletes had finished, some were laughing and looked pretty refreshed. My daughter came up to me again and this time with real concern, “Dad.. Quit”.   

I thought back to the book where Jesse wrote, “when you think you are done, you are into 40% of what your body is capable of doing”. I looked at her and said, “Bells, I’m not going to do that”.

I finished the race . . . barely. When I reached the top on my last lap, I had concluded this was physically the most humbling experience of my life.  It was necessary and very appreciated and I can say Jesse is a friend and I have already learned so much from him.  

Life is about facing challenges, giving it all we’ve got, learning from them regardless of the outcome, and thus deepening our understanding of ourselves.  

I can’t explain why things work out the way they do and why we are confronted with the challenges we face.  However, I do know one thing is for sure - all of these types of challenges are needed for us to be humble, hungry, and driven.

Taylor Lee1 Comment