Sisu is a Finnish word that generally means displays of determination, bravery and resilience. Sisu is about overcoming adversity and displaying courage in the face of a challenge.
I signed up to the SISU Iron in 2015 after seeing a friend post about it on the Weeple Army page. I figured that a 30+ hour endurance challenge would be something cool to try. As the event drew closer I didn’t give it too much thought as I was so focussed on getting through the other events I had before it. When I arrived in LA on the Monday before the event I started to get a bit worried about what I’d gotten myself into. I’d not done any specific training and I was really worried about how I would stay awake for the whole time.
On the Tuesday before the event I put the word out to other participants asking if they could help me with lending me items on the required gear list. I was inundated with responses and the only thing I had to buy was a sewing kit and a baby doll. It just goes to show how awesome the other participants were that they all offered to help.
One of the items on the gear list was a safety vest with your race number and last name sewn on it. You wear the vest at all times during the event and it’s only removed when you get a DNF and turn it in, or when you complete the Iron.
The theme of the Iron was ‘commitment and burden’. We were asked to crate a card with a ‘commitment and burden’ name written on it. I thought about someone in my life who I would do anything for; someone whose burden I wish I could help carry; and someone who I am committed to. My person was my Mum.
Kevin and Joe’s house was inundated with visitors on the Wednesday before the SISU. Andé and Rick arrived to work the event, Andi Hardy and Matt Waller arrived to participate, and Don Devaney arrived to be Don. They were talking about events such as the Death Race and I had a moment of panic where I thought I was way out of my depth. What was I thinking going into an event like this with zero training? I listened to them talking and just sat quietly in my self-doubt and was feeling very worried.
Later that afternoon Dave Huckle came by to say a quick hello at the same time that I was sewing my name onto my vest. Dave joked about taking my vest from me then and there. I said that there was no way he was taking my vest, then or at the event. Kevin had been saying that there were some people that he just couldn’t take vests from, and that’s when I decided that I didn’t want him to have to make the decision as to whether or not he could take my vest from me.
Thursday night was the pre-registration dinner at Dave & Buster’s. When I arrived, my heart was pounding and my hands were shaking as I was so nervous. People were telling me that there was nothing to worry about, but it didn’t subdue my nervousness. Those who attended the pre-race dinner had to take all the mandatory gear for a gear check after signing in, and stay around for some pre-event fun. It was a great night as I got to see some familiar faces, and it gave me a chance to meet some of my fellow participants.
The night involved some elephant races, med ball thrusters done ‘pass the parcel’ style, lots of planking and the tunnel of love. At one point during a plank hold, the staff decided to test us out by getting one of the kids to walk on our backs. We also had to do burpee penalties for those people who turned up late, and the last task of the night was to do 20 skips with all our gear. At one stage during the night Don handed us all a chip and a cherry tomato and told us to hang onto them as they may come in handy during the weekend.
During the staff speeches on Thursday night Kevin said two things that I made sure to keep in mind:
- Always move with purpose.
- Run your own race.
Dave’s piece of advice was to focus on one task at a time. It’s those three things that really helped me during the event.
Soon enough it was Friday, which meant SISU Iron starting day. The morning was spent getting my food and gear organised, before getting changed and heading out to the venue. Kevin and his mum Linda took the motorhome, so I took advantage of that and had a nap on the way down to Camp Trask in Monrovia. Camp Trask is a Boy Scout Camp situated at the top of some pretty epic hills, but is right near the old town of Monrovia. When I arrived I unloaded all my stuff, put it in Mayra’s car, and got myself ready for the tasks that lay ahead.
7pm Friday was kick-off time. I gathered with the others who attended pre-registration in the fort, whilst those who didn’t attend were left to be punished. We gathered our packs and got ready for the funishment. The first hour involved burpees, plank, superman holds and a mad scramble to get food and water in our packs. After the mad rush it was time for the real fun to begin.
I quickly realised how hard it is for people to get into a line after Don asked us to create five even lines. People were all over the place so I said to the people next to me to place our right hand on the shoulder of the person next to us so we could ensure we had even numbers. 15 seconds later we were almost in perfect formation when Don asked who managed to get us all organised and I told him that it was me. Genius idea on my part. We were put into six groups and tethered together with a rope. Each group had about seven people in it, and the task was to run into town as fast as possible and meet Ella in town.
Our group headed out and started running our way down the hills to town. I had to slow down at times because I was getting a stitch, but we made it before the final team. When we all arrived the ropes were removed and we lined up in a single line and proceeded to do a PT session in front of spectators at the night fair. We did things like squat holds, plank, and even some squatting Mexican waves.
After the fun we had to get back to Camp Trask so most of us power walked back up the hill and wondered how many times we would have to do the trek.
At around 10:30pm it was time for speeches at the camp fire to meet the staff. Some of the amazing staff included: Matt Trinca, Daren De Heras, Kevin Kierce, Don Devaney, Stephen ‘Cookie’ Cook, Dave Huckle, Patrick Mies, Ella Anne Kociuba, Dave Lokey, Louis Lopez (Lolo), Andé Wagner and Rick Legacy. We sat quietly and listened to their advice for the event, before being told by Daren that despite being 3.5 hours in, the event hadn’t officially started. At that stage I had a mild moment of panic where I realised that this event would be going for a lot longer than I expected. It’s officially a 30+ hour event, and so I was scared at how many hours the + would involve!
After the introductions we were told to grab our snorkels and head to the frog pond. I had brought a mask with me as well as I didn’t really want frog pond water in my eyes. We were first told to get in the water to about waist deep height, and await further instructions. The Iron clock was started and we were given our first task: put your face in the water for 15 minutes. I was so glad I had a mask and not just a snorkel.
The water was really cold and as soon as my face touched the water I started to control my breathing and focussed on the task. I had my arms behind my back to keep them warm, but after a few minutes my back was hurting so they went in the water to help hold me up. At one stage the person next to me started panicking and grabbed my shoulder for support. One person started singing the Star Spangled Banner so when they finished I started singing. First it was Advanced Australia Fair, then Waltzing Matilda, Hakuna Matata, and even Don’t Stop Believing. Anything to keep my mind off the cold water. Before I knew it the 15 minutes was up and we were back near the fire to dry off before the next task.
Just before midnight on Friday night we were put into groups and were ready for the ‘smoke sessions’ which involved rotating through five different stations. My group’s first task was to head up the hill past the camping area and grab some very heavy logs to take back down to camp. The log that me and two others had selected was too short to have four people carry, but too heavy for just three. We ended up rolling it back down to camp as we were running out of time and needed to get to the next station. The other stations included partner squats, partner GHD situps (where one person sits on the other’s back), canoe presses and carries, and more log work. The final station for my group was with Kevin and Ella and one huge log. We had to do log squats as a group, and log presses whilst calling out ‘commitment’ when pressing up, and ‘burden’ when bringing the log back down. My arms were shaking and my triceps were on fire but I just did what I was told.
Two hours later it was time for the first time hack task – the waterfall hike. Normally this hike has been placed at the end of the Iron, but this year they decided to mix things up a bit. We started just before 1am and the time cut off was 4am. The task was to collect a bucket of water from the Monrovia Waterfall and return to the Fort by 4am. I was in the last group to head off as I’d failed the media challenge so I knew I’d have to make up time on the way down the hill. I grabbed my pack with all my gear and jogged the 1.1 miles down the road to the camp entrance, and then headed North to the path to the waterfall. Instead of walking up the path, we had to access the waterfall via the creek, which involved climbing up about 10 small dam walls along the way. Every time I saw a wall it would remind me of Jurassic Park. I kept up a decent pace through the creek and only smashed my shins a few times on log hanging branches.
I was lucky enough only to see one salamander, whilst others were seeing spiders and other creepy crawlies. I kept trudging along and eventually I got to the waterfall and met up with about 20 other people. I filled my bucket halfway and by the time I was ready to head back almost every single person had left. I didn’t want to waste time trying to tie my bucket to my ruck, and holding it in my arms caused too much sloshing, so I settled for alternating farmer’s carry. I headed back towards the road, down the path this time, and passed Susi Morales on the way. I was making sure to move with purpose downhill as the uphill would be a battle. I was feeling very energetic and the tiredness hadn’t yet set in, so I hustled along and eventually got back to the road.
The trip back up was tough and my fingers and forearms hurt, but I alternated hands every 30 seconds and would only take 7 seconds rest every few minutes. I was singing ‘Don’t Stop Moving’ by S Club 7 to get me through the trek back up the hill. I kept pushing myself but didn’t check my watch to see how long I had. I just kept walking and with every corner I hoped that I would see the Camp Trask sign. When I finally saw it I picked up the pace and shuffled the downhill section to the Fort. I managed to cross the line with 6 minutes to spare. Dave handed me my first patch and I was so happy that I’d made it.
We had a brief chance to rest and get some food so I had some of my smoothie that I’d made on Friday, along with some water that had caffeine, electrolytes and protein mixed into it. It was then time for PT Session 1, led by Ella. Out came our babies and we were told to put them in our mouths and bear crawl around the fort. My right hip flexor was starting to hurt from climbing the hill twice and so the bear crawl wasn’t my favourite thing to do at that time. After the bear crawls came crab walks with the babies in our crotch, and then army crawl with the babies in our hands. As we crawled out of the fort on our bellies I started getting emotional as I was tired and hurting. When we started doing log rolls I started bawling my eyes out due to the dizziness. That was the first moment when I wanted to no longer be there, but I wasn’t going to quit.
After the PT session I went with a few others to get the last few logs that were left up the hill the previous night. On the way up a car stopped and a guy leaned out the window with doughnuts for us. I grabbed one and started eating, and I can honestly say it was the best tasting doughnut ever! For about five minutes all I could talk or think about was that doughnut. We got the logs, rolled them down the hill, and then returned to the camp fire to start chopping the wood and stacking it in piles.
Don then gave me and a few others the task of stacking firewood in a neat pile. As I turned with a pile of wood I heard Kevin yell out “Miss Vanessa Letts! Where are you going with that wood?” I just turned around and half-cried “I don’t know!” Kevin looked at me before I managed to stammer that Don had given us instructions to stack the wood so I was left to my own devices. I pulled it together and got the wood stacked before we started our community service.
It was time to get back into the frog pond so I helped a few others to get big branches out of the water, before being told to do weeding instead. It was probably around 11am and the sky was overcast but the weather was warm enough to help me dry quickly.
I was starting to get a bit hungry and was glad when they said we had half an hour to stop an eat before the scavenger hunt. I scoffed down some pancakes with honey and some Pringles for some salt, grabbed my scavenger hunt information and was ready for the second time hack challenge.
Because I’d attended the pre-registration dinner I’d had time to draw a map with the locations I needed to get to for the scavenger hunt in town. I wanted to leave town by 3pm at the latest so I had 2.5 hours to get down and complete all the challenges. I slowly jogged down the hill and hit the town with plenty of time on the clock. I stopped at each checkpoint, did the challenge, and then at 3pm I headed back to the Fort up that darn road again. It was great to see the guys from Honey Badger in town and on the road on our way up as they were handing out electrolyte drinks.
The sun wasn’t out but the air was quite warm so it was nice to stay rehydrated during the challenge. Sometime during the early hours of Saturday morning I started getting chaffing due to the sand from the frog pond rubbing against my skin. The run back up the hill after the scavenger hunt certainly hurt. During my trek back up I saw Ashley Seeger and she asked how I was doing. In my tired state all I could say was “I have the worst chaffing ever!”. She looked at me strangely before laughing and driving up the hill.
Thankfully I had Vaseline with me, but it didn’t do much after a while because there was so much pond dirt under my compression tights. After arriving back at Camp I had another caffeine/protein drink and was amazed at the fact that I was still awake. The adrenaline was still pumping and I was always ready for the next task.
At 5pm we all took on various tasks including archery, shooting and Morse Code decryption before starting the President’s Test (another time hack). We had to run up to the camp entrance with the snorkel in our mouth, answer a question, and then run back. The question was “Name all the US Presidents with a single syllable last name.” I joked that it was unfair as I’m Australian and know nothing about US presidents.
We could go back as many times as we needed to answer the question and were allowed to study the list of US Presidents when we went back down. The first time I went up I answered with “Bush. *pause* Bush. Shit”. I ran back down and made a song in my head so the second time I ran up the hill I answered correctly. After running back to camp I had a chance to rest and enjoy some pasta before the next boot camp. I had just over an hour to rest so I took the time to reorganise my pack, eat a decent amount of food, rehydrate, and use the toilet. I couldn’t believe how pumped I was feeling.
At 8:30pm on Saturday we started the second PT session, which involved swimming across the frog pond and having to recite a line from a book. My team failed so it was bear crawls around a tree for us, before joining everyone else for picnic table presses.
We were then given a choice – do more picnic table exercises, of do 20 minutes of yoga with Ashley Seeger. Thankfully everyone yelled out yoga! It felt so good to stretch my hips out, and just take a moment to centre myself and remind myself why I was there.
The next task started at around 10pm where we were told to get out hydration pack and saw. The task was to carry two large telephone poles down the hill to the entrance to Camp Trask. We all took turns carrying the log and hauled ass down the hill. At the bottom we got out our saws and started chopping up the logs so we each had a piece of the wood. I was using a saw that Joe lent me and it was great at first, but I couldn’t get to the middle of the log. We helped each other and swapped saws a few times and before long we each had our own piece of the telephone pole.
As we headed back up the hill with our individual pieces we called out who our ‘commitment and burden’ person was and why we chose them. Kevin asked me to share mine and I started getting very emotional talking about my Mum. We got back to the Fort at around 11:30pm and informed of our next task – screw your name. We had to retrieve exactly 50 screws from the bottom of a bin filled with freezing water, and then use our screwdriver to screw our name into our block of wood. One lady named Leah was next to me and she’d only got 4 screws in when she burst into tears and said she wanted to quit. I told her not to give them the satisfaction of giving up her vest, and to just put the screws in and let them take the vest only if she truly failed.
Before we started screw your name, Matt Trinca explained the next time hack. After screwing our name, we had to take our log on a 14 mile hike up Monrovia Peak to meet Patrick and Ella, before heading back down and reentering the fort by 5:30am.
At 12:55am on Sunday Matt said that if we had 50 screws in the log to pick it up, grab hydration and go. I raced down to the campfire, emptied my ruck, shoved the log inside, put my water bladder in the bag and ran. I stopped at the toilet for a minute and then started shuffling up the hill to the track. The first few kilometres were walked with purpose. I was power walking at a good pace and overtaking a few people as I headed up. I controlled my breathing and powered on. I didn’t know how long it would take me to get up the mountain, but I knew it would hurt.
As I trudged along I started walking with a fellow Ironer named Ryan and we walked together. At around the 4 mile mark up the mountain things started to get a bit ugly for me. I felt like I was about to fall asleep whilst walking, so Ryan gave me a gel, peanut butter, and a caffeine tablet to help me stay awake. I was so hungry and my legs were on fire but the salty peanut butter helped keep cramps away. At this stage I was so tired that I started hallucinating and I saw levitating rocks along the path in front of me. Any time I needed to stop it was only for about 10-15 seconds as I knew I had no time to rest.
We kept heading up and eventually got to Patrick and Ella. It was 3:45am when I explained to Ella my commitment and burden, and started crying again. I explained how my Mum has done so much for me and my brother and how she’s sacrificed so much to give us the best experiences she could. I was mentally, physically and emotionally drained but I knew I needed to complete this task. I left my card at the top of the mountain and started running downhill as fast as my exhausted legs could take me. The log was smacking into my lower back so I shoved my gloves down my pants to provide some padding and then kept running. Any time I felt like stopping I would slow and walk for 10 seconds before running again. I started singing S Club 7 to myself again and I knew I had to keep running to make the time hack. My calves were on the verge of cramping and my chaffing was causing me so much pain, but I just had to put that all out of my head and focus on just running.
The whole time I was running down the hill I kept reciting Kevin and Dave’s words in my head: move with purpose, run your own race, focus on one task at a time. I didn’t want to fail and I wanted to prove myself wrong, so I hauled ass down that bloody mountain! At one point I saw Laura Messner so I had a super quick hug and kept running. I knew I was the second female and I used that knowledge to push myself further. I wanted to be the second female to get back to the Fort so I dug deep and kept running. As I got closer to the camp I checked my watch and realised I was running out of time. I kept swerving over the path and was getting freaked out by the illuminating bushes along the path. My log kept smacking into my back but I harnessed the pain and channelled my anger towards the log into running. At no point did I stop (other than to put my gloves down my pants), and I never thought about shin splints or sore muscles at any point.
The last 1 mile of the path was the worst. With every corner I thought I was almost at the end, only to find I had keep running. I was beyond exhausted and I heard others coming up behind me and overtaking me. I needed to finish so I picked up the pace and I soon saw the camp in the distance. As I turned the corner onto the home stretch I heard Don yelling that we had 4 minutes to go. That’s when I started sprinting! I sprinted down through the car park and to the Fort, crossing the line at 5:29am. Dave was there and he gave me a huge hug and my patch, and then I burst into tears. I collapsed on the ground and bawled my eyes out for 15 minutes. Someone gave me Gatorade and water and I drank them whilst still sobbing and shaking uncontrollably. Apparently 9 of the 15 finishers crossed that line in the last 5 minutes! I was calling out that I needed my sewing kit to sew on my patch and was told just to eat some sugar and calm down first.
I pulled myself together and sewed my patch on and fixed the screws in my wood. I quickly ate something before we all headed to the fire pits for an hour of what felt like torture. We were in three groups and started our exercise session with some backwards somersaults. After about three I thought I was going to be sick!
After that was log rolls (hello nausea), and at one point one of my teammates was told to roll on top of me as I was moving too slowly. After that was leap frog, although I was moving at a glacial pace so I wad told that I was playing ‘leap sloth’. We had time for more log rolls and chariot races before it was time to get back in the darn frog lake.
It was around 7:30am when we grabbed a few canoes, got into the water, paddled around for a bit and capsized several times. I was so exhausted that I didn’t remember the instructions, so we went around in circles and capsized about three times before heading back. I had a splitting headache and I was having trouble keeping my eyes open. The clock was flashing 30:00:00 which meant we had gone well past the 30 hour mark, and I was just wondering what more they had in store for us.
We had a chance to warm up by the fire after being in the pond but the trade-off was that we had to take a test. The test only involved writing our name on the paper, but most of us failed it as we didn’t bother reading the instructions properly. That’s what happens when you’re severely sleep deprived.
At around 9am we gathered in the Fort and were given our instructions for the next task. In teams of 5, we each had to take a tyre on a 10 mile hike to Deer Creek Cabin, and return by 12:30pm. In my head I was thinking ‘what the actual f***?!’ but I wanted to finish so badly that I didn’t care what they threw at us. I just wanted to get it done. Don did a gear check and when I stood in front of him I was eating a bunch of trail mix that Kevin had given me. Don goes to me “Are you eating Kevin’s salty nuts?” to which I replied “Yes”. Don smiled and nodded that I could go. I had a few minutes to change my shirt and grab my jumper and a space blanket before we headed off in our teams.
Lolo was leading us all and after we’d left camp he asked if we wanted to take a shortcut, but we would have to stay together as 1 team. We all agreed and so we trudged along, rolling the tyres up more hills. We got out onto the main road that we’d run down that morning on the Night Hike when we stopped for fuel. I had another gel, some others had caffeine tablets, and others had handfuls of nuts. We were all practically sleep walking and some were still hallucinating. My legs were shaking uncontrollably and despite wanting it to be over, I wanted to finish strong. We were led back down the road and all of us were speculating as to what was happening. Was this another mind trick? Were we being punished for taking a short cut? What was going on?! Lolo stopped us at the main entrance to the camp and asked us to get one one knee.
We all got down, shaking of course, and he said that we’d done it. We had officially finished the Iron. I burst into tears again and we all breathed a huge sigh of relief. We were told that to finish strong we’d roll our tyres in our teams down to the Fort and smile for the cameras. As I jogged tat last bit with my team I was beyond happy. I HAD FINISHED!
Our very last task was to push Don in the lake, which was easy enough, and then I started crying again as I said a huge thanks to Dave for helping me get through.
The last thing we had to do was grab our log and head up to the church for the presentation and the speeches. Whilst sitting down my legs would start shaking like crazy and there was nothing I could do to stop them. As all the staff said a few words I shed a few tears as I was so happy to have been pushed by such a great group of people, and I was so happy to be done. When it was turn for my spike to be presented, Dave said some great words and I headed up to say thanks to everyone.
I had such little self-belief going into this event that I had organised to catch up with friends on the Sunday as I didn’t think that I’d get through the Iron. After hearing people talking about previous year’s events I was worried as I didn’t know how I would do. It came down to reciting three things over and over in my head that got me through: run my own race; move with purpose; and focus on one task at a time. I don’t think anybody was as surprised as I was that I finished. When talking to people after the Iron I had many say to me that they knew I wasn’t going to quit, but they didn’t think I would have finished. I have never been more proud of myself than at the moment when I finished.
There’s one quote from Harry Potter that spoke truth during this event: ‘It is our choices who show us who we truly are, far more than our abilities’. It was my choice to keep pushing and to make smart choices during the event that got me through. There were people who are faster and stronger runners than I am, yet I managed to finish a task that they couldn’t because I made decisions that would make me succeed.
Over the course of 39 hours I completed 21 challenges, walked 125,000 steps, and moved for 115km. I went over 48 hours without sleep yet still managed to keep my focus and complete the tasks put in front of me. There were tears and hallucinations, but they only serve to make me stronger. The rung of the ladder I am on has now been removed and I have no choice but to go up.
I have so many amazing people to thank for helping me get through this epic event, but the biggest thank you has to go to myself, for never giving up.
Event: SISU Iron
Type: Endurance event
Distance: N/A. The event lasted for 39 hours.
Location: Monrovia, California (USA)
Date: 29 April – 1 May 2016