I thought there’d be time to warm up. I didn’t think my first attempt on the Monkey Pegs or the Rotating Log or the Double Salmon Ladder would be during the competition. So here I am, about ten feet back, staring at the Warped Wall with no idea what to do.
I’m sick, snot is dribbling down my face and I’ve already fallen on the Balance Tank, my feet flailing out from underneath me as I tried to roll the tape-covered keg across the floor. I completed the Half-Pipe Attack but accidentally swung too far on the rope and landed outside the taped area, so I failed that obstacle, too. I traversed across the Globe Grasp successfully, but I may have grabbed the rope instead of grasping one of the globes. I don’t know if Nate saw that and took pity on me or even if that maneuver is grounds for failure. Either way, I’m still staring at the Warped Wall, a 14-foot asphalt quarter-pipe I’m supposed to climb and hang from. I start sprinting.
If this were the real American Ninja Warrior, I would’ve been knocked out after my careless Balance Tank performance. But it’s not. It’s a practice competition at Chicago Ninja Academy, a gym run by Nate Aye. About 5-foot-8, 190 pounds, Nate has the concisely compact body you’d expect from a wrestler-turned-soldier-turned-powerlifter-turned-ninja. He’s organized this event for his usual clientele of “ninja nerds,” but also for six men and one woman who’ve been selected to compete in Kansas City for the seventh season of NBC’s hit show, which regularly attracts 5 million viewers a week. After getting the call two weekends earlier from an unknown Los Angeles number – an incoherent conversation in which I repeated, “Is this a joke?” and “Am I really competing?” – I’m one of those chosen to run the course on TV, and I’ve come to Chicago to train.
Racing full-speed up the Warped Wall, I top out around ten feet up, turn around and try to control my momentum as I barrel back toward the ground. I stumble, regain my composure and hunch over to breathe. Unlike the other obstacles, which I’ll get only one shot at, I’ll have three attempts at the Warped Wall in Kansas City.
Physically, I know I can do it. I dove in college and did parkour after I graduated but stopped when I broke my neck over-rotating a flip. I’m a grad student and can spend an unconscionable amount of time at the gym, so now I lift, rock climb, slackline and practice yoga. A couple days before coming to Chicago, I maxed out my pull-ups at 21 – though I’m ready to tell any of the other ninjas that it was 27 if they ask. No one does. Since most of the obstacles require hanging and gripping and pulling, and not brute strength, I’ve stopped squatting, deadlifting and working out my chest altogether. I’ve given up creatine and almost all processed food. I’ve stopped drinking. In two weeks I dropped from 180 to 175 pounds.
I may as well weigh 500 pounds as I sprint toward the asphalt wall again. In a flurry of steps, I get about an inch higher, turn to run back down, trip and roll onto the ground. The small crowd of spectators groans as I crawl from my stomach onto my hands and knees. If I want any hope of moving past the Kansas City qualifier to the finals the following night, I’ll have to get up the wall, which has been the final obstacle in every qualifying round since the show first aired in 2009.
My last attempt at the Warped Wall goes exactly like my first two. I sprint maniacally toward the wall, slip about two-thirds up and tumble down. I walk back toward the other competitors, who nod gravely, and sit off in a corner.
When the training ends, I go back to the wall. “No,” Nate says, putting his arm around my shoulder as I’m about to take off sprinting. “You can’t just run at the thing as fast as you can. What foot do you jump off of?”
“OK, so put your left foot here, where it starts to slope,” he says, pointing to a spot on the obstacle. “Then your right foot up there, then your left, look up and jump. It’s gonna surprise you every time.”
I start closer to the wall this time, jog, stutter step and plant my left foot where Nate pointed. Right foot, left foot, I raise my chest and lift my arms. My heart explodes in my chest as I fly back from the wall. I expect to fall the ten feet and land directly on my back when – just like Nate predicted – I’m hanging. I drop from the top and slide down. Nate’s smiling, and we high-five.
Later that day, Nate gathers the Kansas City crew around a whiteboard to sketch out the structure of the course. He writes the numbers 1 through 6 at the top. “You know it’s gonna be the Quintuple Steps at the beginning and the Warped Wall at the end. That’s easy.” I nod enthusiastically while he writes Q STEPS under the 1 and WARPED WALL under the 6. “We can guess that the second obstacle will be a jolt, and the third will be balance of some kind.” He writes down JOLT and BALANCE. “Looking at last season, we know that the fourth and fifth will probably be upper body, but that’s all we know.” He scribbles lines under the 4 and 5. “It could be the Peg Board. It could be a giant swinging propeller. You gotta be prepared for anything.”
In an effort to do just that, we train for another hour before saying goodbye.
While I drive the three hours back home to Iowa City, I think about what Nate said and wonder how I can best prepare for unknown obstacles. The following day, I consider the jolt as I dead-hang on a bar in the gym. I visualize every conceivable balance obstacle as I fall off the handle of a kettlebell trying to do pistol squats. I imagine hanging from pegs and rings and bars and ropes while I sit in class. I turn these mysterious obstacles over in my mind every time I fall asleep, and two weeks later, when I check into my hotel in Kansas City, I’m still turning them over.
I’ve lost another four pounds – nine total – and raised my max pull-ups to 22. I haven’t had a slice of pizza or a beer in four weeks. Yet, I still have a recurring dream of myself in front of the Q Steps: The starting timer buzzes, and I don’t even jump. I just crumble and collapse into the water – a scene that my friends will make into a never-ending GIF. I lie in bed and speculate: If one of the obstacles turns out to be the Globe Grasp, should I hold on with my ring and pointer finger, or should I use a “Spock” grip?