Overcoming Obstacles: Building a Better You
In 2013, ENP Brian MacMurdo was tipping the scales at 430 pounds. Early in his career he was guzzling tankards of sugary, caffeinated beverages during his night shifts at the Hamilton County Communications Center in Cincinnati. His work schedule caused him to have trouble sleeping. While Brian found his profession to be incredibly rewarding, he could not deny the physical and emotional impacts that he was forced to carry day in and day out.
For those who have no experience of what working at a Public Safety Answering Point (PSAP) is like, the job can be brutal, traumatizing, and incredibly fulfilling. The people on the answering end of a 9-1-1 call hear the first cries for help and are forced to take action – no matter how difficult a situation can be. For this reason, it is common for dispatchers to deal with mental health issues like depression, anxiety, and even PTSD. As one can imagine, the turnover for public safety dispatch positions is high, however, Brian MacMurdo rose through the ranks at the Hamilton County Communications Center.
As a supervisor, MacMurdo experienced an excess of anguish and grief. In one instance, he was overseeing a shift where two firefighters were killed in a structure fire. In another, he reviewed a call in which a child playing hide-and-seek chose a spot beneath his father’s car. Moments later, the father walked out of the house late for work, turned on the car, and backed up killing his child instantly. Twenty-one years in emergency dispatch exposed MacMurdo to everything from heart-wrenching child deaths, the suicide of his former high school peer, and the passing of his own colleagues. “These are the calls that never leave you”, MacMurdo said. “These are the types of calls emergency dispatchers compartmentalize, never letting them go and pretending they can take it.”
While Brian’s career accelerated, his family life suffered due to his mental and physical health. He had to be honest with himself: the profession he loved and found extremely rewarding was killing him. MacMurdos’ frustration culminated on a muggy Cincinnati summer night. Making sure his family and children were asleep, he went to his truck parked in the driveway and put the tailgate down and sat there until morning. Continuing his path was not an option. He had serious work ahead.
He turned to the employee assistance program provided by the county and did some mental and emotional unloading. He decided to go ahead with elective surgery to reduce and control his weight while becoming more active. During one of his daily walks he crossed paths with a man wearing a shirt that said “I’m training for a Spartan” on the back. Brian joked as he walked past and said, “I’m training for a Spartan”. “It’s amazing how the people you cross paths with can have a serious impact on your life,” MacMurdo later said. The man invited him to join a group of people who were preparing for the race. Brian didn’t think he had the “right stuff” to become a Spartan and, resisted a suggestion to shift his comfort zone and train like a Spartan. When he finally relented, his perspective changed.
“I realized I had more potential than I thought I had,” he said.
Over the next 8 months, Brian dedicated himself to the sport. While he challenged his physical capacity to train, he noticed that many of the struggles he encountered day-to-day were more manageable. His mental health improved, and he finally felt like he was making his wife and children proud. All the while, Brian physically grew stronger. Soon he stopped being someone who was “Training for a Spartan” and became someone who had completed multiple Spartan Races!
A Spartan Race is an obstacle course on a global scale offered in three core categories escalating in distance, obstacle count, and challenge level. These races vary in distance and obstacle quantity from five miles with 20 obstacles to a half marathon with 30 obstacles. Spartan is a sport and community borne out of the philosophy of world-class adventure racer, Joe DeSena. These races are known to push one’s physical limitations and, as the saying goes, pushes from the couch to the course.1 A Spartan doesn’t follow someone else’s objective, but enters the sport for personal reasons, such as “I’m doing this in honor of my best friend who died while serving her country,” or “I’m doing this because I want to prove to myself that I can.”
MacMurdo covered the five miles through concrete and natural obstacles like mud, barbed wire, and walls during his Spartan Sprint. The Spartan Super doubled the distance and added spear throwing and other ancient Spartan challenges to the obstacle course. The Spartan Beast throws in steep climbs, fast descents, and heavy carries. MacMurdo completed all three races. He took a further step out of his comfort zone and challenged himself in the mountains of West Virginia for the TRIFECTA weekend. There he would attempt to complete the Beast on Saturday and the Super and Sprint on Sunday.
He conquered and is now among the TRIFECTA tribe.
What did he learn from the experience (that eventually drew his family into the Spartan Sprints)? He could break through his comfort zone and accomplish things he never thought he could do. He could push beyond the fear and into the exhilaration of reaching the finish line mud-splattered, scratched, bruised, and holding up his arms in triumph as part of the Spartan community.
“This is a lesson important to all of us,” he said. “Taking good care of yourself and going beyond your comfort zone will revive the best of you, rather than take what is left of you.”
Brian MacMurdo is a Public Safety Subject Matter Expert at DATAMARK, Michael Baker International. He presented and shared his story “Overcoming Obstacles – Building a Better You” at the DATAMARK Virtual Public Safety Conference in March of 2020.