Thursday, April 28, 2011

Facing the Waves

One of the things that is most rewarding about my life as a traveling athlete is the opportunities I get to meet new, cool people and hear their stories.  I volunteered at a Peak Races Snowshoe event last March and met med student Nate Brown.  He was doing the Winter Death Race which was being held at the same time.  We reconnected so I could write a post on him and his upcoming Summer Death race set for June and so he could tell me more about his story and what makes the Death Race an opportunity he couldn’t pass up.   
“Just as the wave cannot exist for itself, but is ever a part of the heaving surface of the ocean, so must I never live my life for itself, but always in the experience which is going on around me.” - Albert Schweitzer

I met Nate Brown, 31, at the Winter Spartan Death Race this past March. He was holding a rope over his head and I was holding the stop watch that would tick off the brutal 60 minutes he and the other racers would have to keep the rope suspended in the air as part of their first task. Brown and his Albert Einstein School of Medicine classmate Daniel were up from the Bronx for the weekend race. Over the next 28 hours and 5 minutes, Nate’s finishing time, I would see him several times, his demeanor consistently relaxed, unflustered, and calm seemingly unfazed by the physical tasks, sleep deprivation, and mental stress the race is designed to evoke.
Growing up a surfer in Southern California he, “Surfed all day, every day. I started when I was eight years old. You never have the same wave twice. After surfing for 20+ years, it’s still a challenge every single time. It’s unexpected – that’s why it’s so fun.”

clip_image004Though he ran track in high school, he was most at home in the water. He stuck mostly to surfing but also participated in paddleboard events spanning 15 – 20 miles distances out in the open ocean. “You’re on your own,” he says, “You have 1000 feet below you, 10 miles off-shore, you just have to keep going.” After graduating from high school he joined the military spending 5 ½ years in the Navy Special Boat Teams – a group of highly trained teams equipped with small, high speed, boats designed for special operations. The Navy was physically demanding. “I loved it. I loved the tough aspect of it. You’re always physically pushing yourself.” In 2003, Nate found himself in Iraq at the onset of the invasion and recalls, “The first two weeks while we were there it was non-stop hard work. I didn’t sleep for the first 72 hours. ”

That experience in Iraq would have a profound effect on Brown. When he returned home he was sure of two things – he’d get his degree in Religious Studies focusing on Middle Eastern religions and he would become a doctor. “Being in the Middle East, it’s a completely different culture based on religion and to be in a war with such religious undertones, I was fascinated by the power religion can have over people.” The decision to become a doctor was partly influenced by his father, also a doctor, but Brown says, “When I left Iraq I knew I wanted to do something with my life that had a direct effect on people and had some contribution to a greater good.” His plans are to go into Emergency Medicine once he’s done.
While getting his degree at Berkeley, he stayed fit as an ocean lifeguard in San Diego. His naturally active lifestyle and training kept him going until a serious ankle injury last November playing basketball kept him from running for months. The Death Race marathon on snow shoes was admittedly tough for Brown who said, “My fitness level was not as good or as high as it normally is, but having those moments where you can push yourself despite your shortcomings are important. It may be tough for you, but you can get down and get past it, and complete it.”

These days, his time is consumed by studying, spending endless hours at the library preparing for his boards. A task comparable to Death Race training for the guy, “Not built for a classroom.” He runs, climbs the 28 floors of stairs in his building, and swims in New York but is heading home to San Diego this week until early June where he can run the canyon that stretches behind his house, swim in the ocean, and of course, surf.

The June Death Race will be especially meaningful for Brown who is doing the event with his younger brother, 10 years his junior. “I want to finish but more than that, I see it as a good time for us to have an experience together. That’s the most important thing that we’ll be able to do it together. Push each other.”
We wrap up the conversation and he’s off to the library again to study his mind seems far from the June event quickly approaching. His Death Race training has actually been building for years. In becoming conditioned to expect the unexpected, in having to take challenges in stride, push beyond physical limitations, and ultimately finding meaning in the struggle and experience. So, he’ll seek to finish the daunting tests that will face him in the mountains of Vermont and the Death Race. And when it’s over, he’ll head back to the Bronx, back to the studying, and back to the hospital… that Monday morning at 6AM is the first day of his Pediatrics rotation. He’ll make it back just in time.

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