Mike Mills has already had a life-changing moment. Now he’s seeking another.
The first was 20 years ago, on May 2, as he was coming home from work in his hometown of Tupelo, Miss. It was around 12:15 a.m. when a drunk driver crashed into him.
His car looked like a crushed tin can. Every bone on the left side of Mills’ body was broken. He suffered a brain injury and severe damage to his spinal cord. After hours of operations, including open-heart surgery, he was left paralyzed from the waist down.
Prior to the accident, Mills was a shy 16-year-old teenager just going through the motions of school and hanging out with friends.
"Two weeks before I got paralyzed, I told my father, ‘I want to be different from everybody else,’" Mills said. "My dad told me to be careful what I wished for, because I might get it. Two weeks later, I was laying in the hospital bed on life support, and the doctor told my dad I had a 1 percent chance to come through surgery."
Miraculously, Mills did survived the surgery. But he had a huge climb back to health ahead of him, requiring the teenager not only to defy the odds, but also to come out of his shell. He learned to be more outgoing, he said, as he answered the questions of doctors and nurses throughout each day. But he found that the best way to recover was to set goals and achieve them, sparking his competitive side.
"When I got paralyzed, I had to grow up real fast," Mills said. "It was all about, ‘How are you going to make it? How are you going to get better? How fast can you do these things?’ Everything I did was a competition."
That competitiveness remained with Mills as he moved to Covington and began participating in road races, 5Ks, 10Ks and marathons around the country, and even in Japan and Brazil. That fire is what is now taking him to what he expects to be another life-changing moment in the biggest competitive challenge he ever set in front of himself — the Spartan Death Race.
More accurately described, it seems, by its URL — youmaydie.com — the Spartan Death Race is much more than a race. Without a defined finish line, the ordeal is over when a certain percentage of participants are still competing.
It is an obstacle course stretching 50 miles and requiring certain tasks such as chopping wood, crawling through barbed wire, carrying heavy objects up hills, and other physical and mentally exerting challenges — all given out by the race’s staff not a minute before it begins at 5 a.m., June 21, in Pittsfield, Vt.
Mills has been racing, more traditionally, in his wheelchair since 1996. One day, via Facebook, he saw a former soldier with just one arm and leg, Todd Love, participating in Operation Enduring Warrior, taking on such challenges as the Spartan obstacle race, alligator wrestling, skydiving and other extreme activities.
"It got me thinking, ‘What have I done outside of racing with my life that’s kind of cool?’" Mills said. "I saw him covered in mud and said, ‘He is doing this; this is awesome.’"
Mills then set about doing things he never thought would be possible, timing the effort with the 20th anniversary of his accident.
"Twenty-year anniversaries are always an important part in someone’s life," Mills said. "I need to do something this whole year to make 20 years being paralyzed pretty amazing."
He started doing Spartan Races, obstacle courses consisting of climbing walls, crawling under barbed wire and through mud and creeks, without functioning legs. He would crawl through the woods, drag himself through the obstacles and depend entirely on his upper body.
However, the Spartan Race is done in teams, and Mills started to hear people say how much his team helped get him through the daunting challenges. His answer was to stick with his motto of not giving in to the word "can’t," and instead proving that he was capable of doing whatever he put his mind to.
That line of thinking led him to the Spartan Death Race, an event that no other paralyzed person has ever done.
"I thought why not, let’s try it," Mills said. "The Spartan Death Race would be the hardest thing I do in my life — it’s the hardest for an able-bodied person as well. To even attempt this feat is amazing in itself; I’m excited to even try it.
"I said, ‘You know what? Let’s try something different and see how far I can push my body and how far my mind can take the body."
Mills started preparing his body, not only training every day, but also climbing, or rather crawling Stone Mountain in the cold of a blustery Feb. 9 morning and day. It took him more than four hours to make it up the granite face, resting about 35 minutes, before climbing three hours back down.
The training ground got flatter, but the routines didn’t get any easier.
Mills’ typical training regimen consists of crawling out to the woods near his house, chopping down a tree, stacking the wood in a rucksack to add extra weight to him and his wheel chair for more than three miles.
Here’s how he describes last Friday’s training session:
"Friday afternoon, I went out in the woods, got out of the chair and crawled 100 yards into the woods on my hands and knees. I had a 50-pound bag with a 5-gallon bucket from Home Depot, crawling around carrying an ax. Once I got out to the woods, I got on my hands and knees, and there was a tree I chopped down with an ax.
"I took the tree and chopped a section off it and chopped it into six pieces. I timed myself to gut the log into six pieces in 30 minutes. Once I did that, I loaded those six pieces into the bucket and carried it to my chair. Once I did that, I got back in the chair and rolled around the neighborhood with 50 pounds of bricks on my back ¾ of a mile six times with an 80-pound log. I had about 150 pounds on my body, carrying it around my neighborhood for about 3.5 miles."
Mills performs these tasks along with typical gym sessions, lifting weights, tossing medicine balls and doing sit-ups and push-ups, preparing for the Spartan Death Race. But all of this comes after taking care of his children Brandon, 12, Catriana, 5 and Elijiah, 6 months, and his wife Tiffany.
"My duty is home and being a dad and husband comes first," Mills said.
His training sometimes starts at 11 a.m. and doesn’t end until midnight. He "sleeps’’ until his alarm sounds at 6 a.m., but often gets up several times to tend to baby Elijah.
This regimen, he said, will get him in shape for the race both physically and mentally. The small challenges will prepare him for the massive one he has set before himself.
Mills’ first life-changing experience was not what he wanted when he told his dad he desired to be different, but the Spartan Death Race will be a life-changing event, not only reminding him what he has overcome, but that changes can define who you are, not what you used to be.
"Once you experience it, it will change your life completely," he said.