Recall the characteristics that defined the Spartans: equality, fitness, duty, discipline and courage.
Many Latter-day Saint youth will find characteristic kinships with that ancient warrior society. The Church’s Children and Youth program challenges young people to adopt gospel principles and noble characteristics, while setting goals to achieve spiritual, social, intellectual and physical growth.
So perhaps it’s fitting that a group of young men — and a very fit young woman — from the Hamilton Pool Ward, Austin Texas West Stake, recently worked together to compete in a local Spartan race — a popular endurance competition that includes trail distance running and several daunting physical obstacles such as rope climbs, sandbag lifts, barbed wire crawls and spear throws.
“We wanted our youth to focus on something that is joyful,” said Bishop Jeff Harbach about the decision to train for and compete in the race.
At first glance, a grueling Spartan race in the humid Texas heat might not appear “joyful.” But the bishop and several of his would-be “Spartan” youth agree that joy — however sweaty and exhausting — was found in preparing and competing together.
Last year, the Hamilton Pool Ward priests and teachers quorums, perhaps weary from the ongoing pandemic, decided to do something physically demanding together as part of their Children and Youth experience.
Bishop Harbach suggested training together for a Spartan race that would include a 6.7-mile trail run and 30 different fitness obstacles.
The young men’s response?
“Sounds great, Bishop.”
By fitness standards, the Hamilton Pool Ward’s Aaronic Priesthood quorums are pretty typical of most quorums in the Church. Some members are more physically active than others.
“So for many of our young men, a Spartan race would not normally be something high on their list,” said Bishop Harbach, “but they set a goal, and then we set up a daily exercise and a weekly check-in program that they had to stick with.”
Over the course of several months, through the winter and spring, the young men and their leaders performed thousands of pushups and situps — and mile after mile after mile of jogging and walking. The deacons were too young to participate in the Spartan race, but they joined the older boys in the training program.
“Many of our youth nights were spent working out together, which was super fun because we bonded,” said Bishop Harbach. “There were so many lessons that we learned. Most importantly, we learned that we could do hard things.”
The 2021 youth theme, “A Great Work”, is inspired by Doctrine and Covenants 64:33-34: “Wherefore, be not weary in well-doing, for ye are laying the foundation of a great work. And out of small things proceedeth that which is great. Behold, the Lord requireth the heart and a willing mind.”
Training together for the Spartan race marked a physical application of that theme for the Hamilton Pool Ward teachers and priests. Each participant grew — and the quorums grew together.
“Our young men were learning that great things come from small and simple things. Those small and simple things were their daily exercises,” Bishop Harbach said. “And when they would check in each month to mark their progress, they would see they were doing more and more pushups or situps.
“They were learning both spiritual and temporal lessons.”
They were also experiencing the joy of working toward a goal together as quorums.
“This was always a team event; the boys were not competing against each other,” said Bishop Harbach. “From the beginning, we said we would do the Spartan race as quorums and as a brotherhood, and we were going to get each other through it.”
Individual performances on the late spring race day varied. Some of the seven boys attacked the course. Others were a bit more conservative. But throughout the race, they cheered each other on, especially when things got daunting toward the end of the race.
One priest, Mikhael Ford, started to cramp up near the end of the course and fell a bit behind. The bishop dropped back and “buddied up” with his young friend, walking and jogging at his side.
“I remember Mikhael telling me, ’Wow, Bishop, this is really hard — but it’s also really fun’.”
They soon discovered the other quorum members waiting for their “teammates” to catch-up.
Mikhael told the Church News he was fortified by the brotherhood of his priesthood leader and his fellow quorum members.
When the bishop dropped back to assist him, said Mikhael, “I could just feel the strength of the priesthood and pure love radiating off of him. … It has made me want to be an amazing leader like the bishop. That way, I can bring joy and happiness to not only others in my quorum or ward, but everyone in my life — family, friends, co-workers and teachers.”
In the end, not everyone from the quorum crossed the finish line. But the reward, the Hamilton Pool bunch found, was not realized in medals or race standings.
The reward was in their shared journey.
“In life, there’s not always a start line and a clear finish line,” said the bishop. “Sometimes life is a winding road that you just figure your way through. … Yet all that work is important to learn that we can do hard things.”
Even while physically spent, each young man — and their adult leaders — walked a bit taller after the recent Spartan race.
“They learned that preparation really matters,” said Bishop Harbach. “When the young men are setting their next spiritual goal — maybe to read the Book of Mormon before serving a mission — they will know that they can do it.”
Since the Spartan race, the youth leaders have seen “a huge difference” in quorum unity after sharing a difficult experience together.
The young men were not the only “Spartans” to represent the Hamilton Pool Ward in the race.
Seventeen-year-old Ashton Ballou also competed. “And we are equally proud of her,” said Bishop Harbach.
Ashton trained and raced with her father, Ben Ballou. During their frequent father-daughter training sessions, the Ballous would discuss gospel principles Ashton learned in youth activities, and about also achieving goals and drawing closer to Christ.
“I didn’t train with the young men, but knowing they were doing the [race] pushed me to work harder,” said Ashton.
Not every priesthood quorum in the Church will have access to a challenging, obstacle-laden race. But many of the lessons the Hamiliton Pool Ward youth and leaders learned are applicable to Latter-day Saints anywhere in the world.
“I would just challenge all [of my fellow youth leaders] to bring your very best self when interacting with the youth,” said Bishop Harbach. “Listen to your youth. Love your youth. Talk to them about what they like to do and then push the bounds of whatever seems possible.
“They will rise to that challenge.”