Michael Anders had spent more than three hours wading through trenches full of water, scaling walls twice his height, and dragging himself through mud pits with barbed wire inches above his head.
Michael Angel, meanwhile, had spent the better part of those three-plus hours on Anders’s back – crammed into a military pack that had been modified so that he could sit in it facing to the rear, with holes for his arms and legs.
They crossed the finish line of the grueling Carolinas Spartan Sprint obstacle-course race feeling tired, scratched, bruised, sweaty, dirty, hungry, thirsty and, perhaps most of all, exceptionally thankful.
Thankful for the support of the large crowd of spectators, who whooped thunderously as the two crossed the finish line. Thankful for other athletes, some of whom had given Angel and Anders a boost quite literally along the way.
And thankful to each other – for providing inspiration, for sharing an epic experience and, of course, for the good-natured ribbing.
Anders: “Before the race, we agreed the goal was to get out of it healthy. If we finished, great. If we didn’t, it’d be OK, too. ... I was thinking about dumping you somewhere on the way, but it didn’t work out.”
Angel: “You had the opportunity...”
Anders: “I had the opportunity, yeah, and I didn’t take it. Darn.”
Angel: “You could have loosened the straps. Nobody would have noticed.”
Both men double over, cackling. It’s five days after the Nov. 15 event, and they’re sitting on the floor of Anders’s Park Road studio, Shape Up Fitness & Wellness Consulting.
This is where the two Charlotte men who share the same name and the same sarcastic wit were introduced, three Augusts ago, at a time when Angel’s body was getting weaker and weaker as a result of his severe cerebral palsy.
I don’t consider myself disabled. I have two degrees, I have children, I’ve been married. I’ve done everything that you would do almost. At what point do you say you no longer consider it a handicap?
Though he’s never walked and needs an attendant to drive him around town, Angel is hardly an invalid. He gets out of bed himself, he dresses himself, he bathes himself, he feeds himself, he goes to parks and museums with his 11-year-old son Zachary.
And though his speech is very difficult to understand – his attendant, Rebecca Baer, interprets for him – Angel’s clarity of thought and sharpness of intellect is refined, as evidenced by his English degree from the University of Maryland and his accounting degree from UNC Charlotte.
“I don’t consider myself disabled,” Angel says. “I have two degrees, I have children, I’ve been married. I’ve done everything that you would do almost. At what point do you say you no longer consider it a handicap? Yeah, I can’t walk. But with a good wheelchair, I can go anywhere almost you can.”
But as he reached the middle of his 50s, Angel was finding it increasingly difficult to move his body around. He knew he had to do something. So he started searching the Internet, and eventually came across Anders’s studio.
At first, Anders – who didn’t have experience with an athlete with cerebral palsy – handled Angel with kid gloves.
Anders: “I was not varying the program very much. So Michael said, ‘Yeah, I’m getting kind of bored.’ I think he has eaten those words many, many times since then.”
Angel: “Every day!”
In addition to a shared love of morbid humor, they quickly developed a mutual and deep respect for one another. Anders admired Angel’s perseverance and positive outlook, Angel appreciated Anders’s patience but also the fact that he treated him as an equal.
Today, they’re at a point where Anders, now 38, is training Angel, now 57, for half an hour three times a week – Angel sticks around to work out on his own for 2 1/2 more hours on each of those days, following a regimen Anders prescribes.
And earlier this year, one of those friends (Anders) showed the other (Angel) a video of amputee veterans participating in a Spartan Race.
Anders, who’d done Spartan Races before, asked: What do you think? Angel, without hesitating, said: Let’s do this.
These people were driving by and ... were just really kind, like, ‘Hey, do you need to go anywhere? Do we need to go get a wheelchair for you?’ We were like, ‘No, we’re actually doing this intentionally!’
Long story short, they bought a heavy-duty combat pack called a MOLLE (on the advice of a local Marines recruiting office); they had it modified to fit Angel’s 95-pound body at an alterations shop next door to Anders’ studio; and they did trial runs up and down the sidewalk on Park Road that prompted mass rubbernecking and a fair amount of concern.
Angel: “I’ve never gotten so many offers for wheelchairs in my life.”
Anders: “Yeah, these people were driving by and ... were just really kind, like, ‘Hey, do you need to go anywhere? Do we need to go get a wheelchair for you?’ We were like, ‘No, we’re actually doing this intentionally!’ ”
How the race was run
Probably the best way to describe any event on the popular nationwide Spartan Race circuit is to call it a military obstacle course on steroids.
Races that fall into the Spartan “Beast” category are 12-plus miles long with dozens of obstacles. A “Super” Spartan is eight-plus miles with more than 20 obstacles. And a Spartan “Sprint” – which is what the two Michaels did – includes more than 15 obstacles over what’s advertised as “three-plus miles.”
Anders isn’t sure of the exact length of the course at Carolina Adventure World in Winnsboro, S.C., but he says they passed a sign at one point that read “2.7 miles,” and that it was at least another hour before they saw the finish line.
So, imagine carrying around 115 pounds (that’s Angel, plus Angel’s tactical gear, plus the pack itself, plus the water that eventually soaks lots of that clothing and gear) for, let’s say four miles. Then, on top of that, imagine having to stop every 10 minutes or so to complete some sort of additional physical challenge.
Anders was able to traverse many of the obstacles with Angel on his back. In one – which was captured in a video that went viral, with nearly half a million views – Anders used a rope to pull himself and Angel up a 15-foot wall angled at about 50 degrees.
Anders: “They also, at some point, had a sandbag drag. So as if Michael wasn’t enough, they had to add a sandbag to Michael.”
Angel, sarcastically: “You’re welcome.”
Anders, equally sarcastic: “Yeah, thank you. Uh, remember, we’re training tomorrow!”
Meanwhile, it was no picnic for Angel, either. He was constantly being jostled around, there was discomfort because of the pressure on his groin, and he had to hold his legs out to keep his heavy combat boots from banging into Anders’s calves.
There were also several challenges that Anders was not able to do with Angel on his back, either because the extra weight was simply too much to bear or due to safety issues. For instance, the Spear Throw – one of the signature Spartan Race obstacles – would have been dangerous to negotiate with Angel strapped on, Anders says.
But Angel was able to actively participate in a couple of obstacles, including the barbed wire crawl: With Angel on his back and Anders on his stomach, Anders gripped the pack and pulled Angel toward him with his arms as Angel pushed with his legs.
In my eyes, Michael has a Spartan Race every day. Nothing is easy. ... I might have done this race for three hours, but he’s doing it every day.
And both men also got a lift from total strangers during the race.
When they reached the Wall Jump, which requires racers to scale a 10-foot wooden wall without a rope, other participants volunteered to help hoist Angel up, maneuver him over and lower him down.
And then there was the final obstacle: the “Multi-Rig” (consisting of handles, ropes and bars that athletes traverse using upper-body strength), which proved to be too much for an exhausted Anders.
“I tried it by myself twice,” Anders says. “But my grip was too weak to hold anymore at the time. After falling down the second time, I was moving back to do burpees (30 of the full-body exercises is the penalty for athletes who can’t complete an obstacle) when this guy approaches me.
“He said: ‘Jump up, you can do this.’ I tried again. He grabbed me at the waist and held me up, so that I was able to go from grip to grip. He was walking on the ground as he carried me. He told me: ‘You carried him through the whole race, I can carry you through this obstacle.’ ”
‘We just did it to do it’
The Michaels crossed the finish line in 3 hours, 9 minutes, 14 seconds, putting them in a tie as the 2,205th overall finisher. Fifty-six other athletes were still out on the course.
The pair was showered with cheers and applause, and pats on their aching backs, and requests for photographs, and many, many kudos along the lines of “Thank you for being out here and thank you for inspiring us.”
Anders, for his part, thinks all praise is due Angel.
“In my eyes, Michael has a Spartan Race every day. Nothing is easy. Getting in and out of bed, going to the bathroom, brushing his teeth, getting into his wheelchair, walking his dog, or even interacting with people who think he’s not all there. ...
“I think Michael, in some ways, is the strongest person that I know,” says Anders, a husband and father of two young children. “He might not have the physical ability in every regard, but mentally he outshines most of us – certainly he outshines me. I might have done this race for three hours, but he’s doing it every day.”
The remarkable thing about all of this is that they weren’t out to raise money for charity, and not once did either man say anything about trying to increase awareness for cerebral palsy.
They didn’t alert the media suggesting someone write a story about their feat; this wasn’t a “Look at me! Look at me!” situation. In fact, a couple of days after our interview, Angel was having second thoughts and asked if it was possible to cancel the story. “I didn’t do this for fame,” he wrote. (His attendant, Rebecca Baer, eventually convinced him everything would be OK.)
No, these were simply two guys – two friends – who ... well, let’s allow them to put it in their own words.
Angel: “We did it just to do it.”
Anders: “It was to give him an experience. And also, it was an experience for me. Like, can I do this? Can I haul his butt through this race, and not break down halfway through? So it was, for both of us, really more about just doing something together and having a good time doing –”
Angel, interrupting, feigns disbelief: “A good time??”
Anders: “Yeah, it was good. So that’s why we’ll do another one, right?”
Angel: “I think I’m gonna be sick that day...”
As usual, he’s just joking: Angel is tentatively planning to hitch a ride with Anders again at a Spartan Race in Concord next April.