On the 24th obstacle of Erika Bogan’s first Spartan Race, a Super in Charlotte, North Carolina, her body began to shake and tears streamed down her face. Using the power of her sculpted upper body and will of iron, this adaptive athlete hoisted herself up the Stairway to Sparta. “I was terrified and exhausted, but my team member Zach Paben (Co-founder of More Heart Than Scars) and the announcer, Rob Lyday, kept talking to me,” Bogan remembers. “They said, ‘You can do this. We got you.’ I looked them in the eyes and I knew if I got to the top they would carry me down. I trusted them entirely, and I knew I would finish. When I made it, Zach took me in his arms, we jumped the fire jump, and crossed the finish line. There was not a dry eye on my team.” Bogan has crushed nine Spartan Races since, completing her first Trifecta with the Central Florida Beast. She races because it’s become her mission to show people that there is life and achievement beyond traumatic injury. It’s an honor to award this week’s Spirit Award to Erika Bogan and More Heart Than Scars.
SPARTAN RACE: What is More Heart Than Scars?
ERIKA BOGAN: More Heart Than Scars is a team and also a non-profit organization that was formed by Zach and Wendy Paben in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombings. I am an athlete on that team and a member of the organization. The point is to encourage people with visible and invisible scars from trauma to live boldly to embrace their trauma and difference. There are people on the team who have visual impairment, amputation, PTSD, and/or pervasive mental health issues, as well as a number of able-bodied young athletes who have autism from the Black Mountain Academy where Zach teaches. I have Complex PTSD, and my participation helps people understand that people with spinal cord injuries also have invisible scars from trauma. I want to stress that it’s a very mutual support system on our team. While one of the boys with autism might be carrying me for part of the race, when we get to the mud—something that often causes sensory overload for people who are not neurotypical—I’m helping my teammates to get through what challenges them. I have never experienced anything like the level of trust we have between us on this team. The funds raised for More Heart Than Scars provide opportunities for athletes with visible and invisible scars to get out into nature, which is very healing, and to challenge themselves beyond their perceived limitations.
SR: How did you find your way to Spartan?
EB: Another Spartan Para-athlete, Shannon Chisolm, former Ms. Wheelchair North Carolina and my friend, had been involved with More Heart Than Scars and said, “Hey, would you be interested in doing a Spartan Race?” I didn’t know what Spartan was, but I like to do anything that is outside-the-box in terms of extreme sports, so I said, “Why not?” I drove up to Zach’s house. We did some off-roading using my off-road wheelchair in a park that has a river and woods, and then I did my first Spartan Race ONE WEEK LATER. I was so unprepared that I didn’t realize that people usually start with a Sprint rather than a Super! Sometimes ignorance is bliss, because Spartan and More Heart Than Scars have changed my life and saved my life in so many ways. Spartan took me to a whole other level of pushing past my invisible scars and empowering other people, able-bodied and disabled, to step outside their boxes.
____SR: How were you injured and how did you overcome such a devastating loss?
EB: I got injured on Jan 20, 2002, when I was 21. I was a passenger in a car driven by anger. My partner at the time was driving in an outraged state, and that caused the accident. I was in a coma for 2.5 months. I had a traumatic brain injury on top of the spinal cord injury, and the diagnosis for my cognitive abilities was grim. But I defied doctors’ expectations. When I woke from the coma, I was angry and grieving for the loss of my able-bodied self. It was not until five years later, when I was well out of that bad relationship, that I looked at my daughters and realized I had to get my head out of my butt. I had to show my girls how to overcome and to make lemonade out of lemons. I was terrified of driving and could not afford a wheelchair-accessible car, so my first outlet became the internet. I made a MySpace page to tell my story. I thought if I could save one person from going through what I went through, it would all be worth it.
SR: How did you become an athlete?
EB: I saw a video of another paraplegic doing CrossFit and I wanted to do it too. I needed an outlet for my anger and depression. At first I was intimidated by the big CrossFit gym near Charlotte, North Carolina, where I live. I went to another gym and was asked to fill out a bunch of paperwork. I went back to the original CrossFit gym and happened to meet the woman who is now my coach, Amy Holland, who specializes in working with people with different abilities. Working out became my outlet for the mental health part of what I live with and helped me get over the most debilitating aspect of my PTSD, night terrors. Working out still makes me feel on top of the world.
SR: What is your favorite Spartan obstacle?
EB: The obstacles I love most are the ones I can do completely independently. My teammate Joey McGlamory throws me on his back for the obstacles I need assistance with. But the Barbed Wire Crawl got me out of my chair, onto my hands and knees, and I did it myself. I get to the top of the Climbing Ropes and the Stairway to Sparta by myself. It would be easy to be pulled through the course, but that is not why I do these races.
SR: What is your best advice for someone who has lived through traumatic loss?
EB: Learn how to change your response to what is happening in life. Everything that happens to us can be a lesson. To elevate ourselves and find our purposes here on earth, we need to go through suffering. Altering your response to pain is the real game changer. I was able to turn my suffering into something that has brought beauty to myself and others. Tragedy has empowered me. Life is a challenge. Take it head on. Think of yourself as able.
To learn more about Spartan’s opportunities for para-athletes, see HERE.