It is 480 BCE and the “Great King” Xerxes of Persia has assembled a vast army at a narrow mountain pass in Thermopylae, Greece. This is a mission bent on conquest. King Xerxes wants to bring all of the Greek poleis, or city-states, to their knees, and absorb them into his expanding Persian Empire. Standing in his way, however, are 300 Spartan warriors led by the most famous Spartan king in history—Leonidas. The Spartans are outnumbered at least 50 to 1, although some historians put the estimate as high as 100 to 1 or even 1,000 to 1. No matter. The Spartans are ready for a good fight and plan on giving the Persians a run for their money. A Spartan soldier comments on how many Persians there are, and that their arrows will block out the sun. “Very good,” replies Leonidas. “We shall fight in the shade.” Before the first wave of Persian warriors, armed with their sharpened scimitars, is ordered forward, a Persian herald attempts to negotiate and calls out, “Give us your weapons,” to which a Spartan warrior replies in typical laconic fashion, “molon labe!”—“come and take them!”
As I train for my next Spartan Race, which will be held on Sunday, July 17, in Palmerton, Pennsylvania, I think about what motivated the CEO of the Spartan Race, Joe De Sena, to call his race the Spartan Race. Indeed, as the plethora of books, comic books and movies currently available on the market attests, there is a western obsession with the Spartans. Why? Surely the Spartan culture had a multitude of flaws. After all, no serious historian today would deny the Spartans’ oppressive stance towards their neighboring Messenian population. Nor would they deny the Spartans’ brutal treatment of their own male children, who, from the age of 7, were taken from their parents and forced to take part in the agoge—a state-sponsored full-time military training camp. Unlike their Athenian neighbors located 150 miles away, the Spartans did not celebrate democracy, personal expression or the arts, which all continue to be celebrated in western culture.
What then is the appeal of the Spartans in the west today? Professor Timothy Shutt of Kenyon College in his History of Ancient Sparta offers an answer: “The Spartans form one of the enduring coordinates of western culture—an enduring and inspiring ‘farthest north.’ No one was more devoted to courage and to duty, and no one trained with greater commitment and enthusiasm to achieve his ends…” The Spartans were completely single-minded in their pursuit of what the Greeks called arete—excellence. Are we following the US Army’s “Be All You Can Be” standard, or have we resolved to just get by and settle for mediocrity? “Fidelity unto death” was the Spartan mindset. This almost superhuman dedication to achieving excellence is the long-term appeal of the Spartans in the west, and this, I think, is the appeal of calling the toughest obstacle course race in the world, the Spartan Race.
On July 17, hundreds of people from all walks of life are going to gather on the hills of Pennsylvania to seek excellence, but not just as athletes. The lessons they will learn from taking part in what is going to be the most grueling race they have every run will be taken back with them to their personal lives—their homes, offices, classrooms, hospitals, courtrooms and cubicles. Instead of facing an invading army, they will face their own fears and doubts. As the people around them start to drop out of the race, as undoubtedly a number of them will, what will they do? How will they react? Will they press on in pursuit of their personal arete? I hope so, because the greatest lesson to be learned from the Spartan Race is that life sometimes gets hard—very hard—but we have to press on. We cannot quit. We have to grit our teeth and stand our ground, no matter what the obstacle and no matter what the odds. We have to continue to push through and challenge ourselves. As the great Renaissance artist Michelangelo wisely stated: “The real danger for most of us lies in not setting the bar too high and failing to reach it, but in setting the bar too low and being able to reach it.”
Indeed, this is a race the 300 Spartans, who all stood their ground and fought to the last man at Thermopylae, would be proud of.
By Yaakov Samuels