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The first time Wanda Kriebel’s son, Harley, told her he was going to compete in a Spartan race, she had no idea what he was talking about. He suggested that she go along and volunteer. She helped out with registration and then watched the racers navigating the obstacles—she especially liked the part where they crawled under barbed wire through the mud. She saw her son receive a medal when he finished.
Kriebel didn’t realize that she would get a free race code for volunteering. She had never entered any kind of race before, but something tugged at her, and she wanted to try it herself. She stepped outside her comfort zone and signed up for the New Jersey Spartan Super, a 10K, in 2013. “I had no idea what I was doing,” she says. She didn’t even know what clothes to wear.
But Harley and his friend raced alongside Kriebel, helping her get through the course. During the race, people she didn’t know kept asking how she was, asked whether she needed help, offered words of encouragement, and congratulated her when she got close to the finish line. “It didn’t matter that I was slower than them or that I wasn’t as fit as them,” she says. “They treat you like an equal.”
“Before I started racing, I weighed 300 pounds. I lost 30 pounds before my first race, and I was still overweight, but not one person judged me,” she says. Her first race was a challenge, but when she finished, she was hooked.
In the next few years, Kriebel finished 16 Spartan races, one Terrain Race, and two Warrior Dash races. She was always a back-of-the-pack racer, but she didn’t care about that. She liked the challenge of racing and the camaraderie and community she found among the competitors. Also, she says, “I liked the atmosphere, being out in the country. . . taking in the fresh air, the woods, the mountains, everything.”
Now 62, Kriebel finished her 17th Spartan race on April 30, her first since she was severely injured in 2019.
A Long Road to Recovery
At work at a machine shop, she tripped over a rod and shattered both of her elbows, a devastating injury which ultimately required six surgeries. She couldn’t move much at all for a year or so. Now she has plates, screws, and new radial heads in her elbows. She can’t straighten her arms all the way. The ulnar nerve in her left arm was also compressed, so she has numbness in the left hand, leaving it not as functional as the right. She went through nearly two years of physical therapy. She has also been navigating depression, anxiety, and PTSD.
Kriebel has dealt with other injuries. In 2014, she found out she had compression fractures in her spine from jump roping as part of her training. But her surgeon told her she didn’t have to stop doing anything. She took a break and then got back to racing. “I just walked the course, and I ended up making more friends and meeting more people,” she says.
Now, for most of her daily activities, Kriebel can use her hands and arms the way she used to, but she had to relearn how to do certain things, especially because she’s left-handed. Several months ago, she started brushing her teeth with her left hand again. “I just kept pushing myself, that I’m going to do this the best I can,” she says.
She wasn’t sure how much she would recover. “My surgeons told me, ‘You can never work again. You’ll never race again.’ So that was kind of off the table. But I kept a positive attitude,” Kriebel says.
Eventually she got back in the gym and built up her strength as much as she could do safely. She also started participating in virtual races on a stationary bike and a treadmill. “I thought, if I can’t do a Spartan Race, I can do a virtual race and earn a medal just as good, without having to use my arms,” she says.
Kriebel’s injury also interrupted her career. “I was going to become a machinist,” she says, but she can’t lift anything over about 25 pounds, and warehousing and machining jobs that don’t require that kind of lifting are hard to find. She recently went to work at a new job: a cashier at Goodwill, where she doesn’t have to do any heavy lifting, and where she appreciates that her employer supports people with disabilities.
Although she liked that she could do virtual races, Kriebel missed the Spartan community, and she knew from experience that they welcomed people of various speeds and abilities. So she decided to volunteer at a Spartan race in 2021. When she showed up, she was overwhelmed with the warm welcome back she received. People told her they were glad she was there, it was good to see her again, and they hoped she would race again. “It’s almost like you’re going home again,” she says.
Kriebel ran into people she knew from the Oscar Mike Foundation, a nonprofit for disabled veterans that often helps racers navigate Spartan courses. One of them told her: “’Wanda, whenever you want to race, you let us know. We’re going to help you through the course,’” she recalls. She gave it some thought and then decided: “I’m going to get out on that course. I’m going to prove the surgeons wrong. I’m going to prove everybody wrong—that this can be done,” she says.
And she did. With the Oscar Mike team with her every step of the way, Kriebel finished the New Jersey Beast, a 21K. She had completed the race before and was familiar with the course. “I know it’s hard, but I thought, go big or go home,” she says. She chose it “to see what I have to work on, on myself, whether it’s mentally or physically.”
It took around eight hours, but she finished. “Being out of racing for a good three and a half years, it was tough. I stopped so many times,” she says. “Without that team helping me getting over walls and doing other obstacles, and just watching for my safety, I don’t think I would have been able to do that race.”
It was challenging mentally, too. She got to a point where she didn’t want to see another hill, rock, or any more mud, but she reminded herself that she was doing this for herself. She never wanted to give up, and Team Oscar Mike kept motivating her and pushing her. They kept telling her to put one foot in front of the other, she recalls. “I said, ‘You know what? Every foot is one foot closer to that finish line.’”
Kriebel and the Oscar Mike team jumped over the fire at the finish line together. “It’s such an overwhelming feeling of accomplishment,” she says. “It felt good to be back in the Spartan community and have people congratulate me, and even talk to people that I’ve never met, and just having them even listening to my story and how amazed they are that I’ve actually been able to come back.”
Now Kriebel has earned five Spartan Trifectas—completing three races of certain distances within a single season—and her goal is to earn two more trifectas this year. She has already signed up for her next race, another Spartan Beast, in North Carolina on May 14. It’s a flatter course than the New Jersey one, she says.
With all her races, “I just do my best through the whole course,” Kriebel says. “I don’t have a timeline, but I’m going to finish the race. And I’m going to enjoy every minute of it.”