Nova Sparta

By Andrew Vonehrenkr
March/April 2015

Ethan’s arms hurt. Every time the hammer came down, his hands trembled and ached. But he couldn’t stop. His dad was counting on him. He’d never done anything like this before. The soot. The heat. The unforgiving metal, which did exactly what you told it to do, whether you meant it to or not. He couldn’t let go. He couldn’t let up. If he moved, his father’s hammer would miss its mark and the huge hinge would have to go back into the fire once again. Granted, his father’s hammer missed the mark a good many times anyway, but he couldn’t fault him. The couple of swings Ethan had taken hadn’t even moved the red iron, let alone in the right spot. So they labored together, learning, persevering. Ethan’s eyes wandered past his father to the field beyond where Chad and his mentor were shooting the bow and arrow.  He had only met Chad the night before yet felt a strong brotherly affection for him. Guess that happens when he saves your life… Ethan’s thoughts and eyes were brought back to the task at hand by his father’s grunt. “Go ahead and put it back in the fire, son.” Ethan complied with a smile, he liked this part. Making the coals glow. He hoped Jeremy, his best friend from home, was having as much fun. Jeremy had said that he was going to go… What was that?  No!  Not now! ”Call to arms, son! Let’s go!” Ethan dropped the tongs, picked up his bow and ran to catch up with his father as they converged to meet the onrushing enemy…

Everywhere you turn nowadays it seems like there is a new adventure race or experience. Tough Mudder, Spartan Races, Survival Trials, the list goes on.  The number of events is a testament to their popularity. Fundamentally, people like doing hard things. Maybe not all the time, but modern life holds few challenges which require a set of gritted teeth. Add to that an unquenchable thirst for novelty and a profound spite for being told you can’t or won’t and it’s easy to see why such experiences are popping up like weeds all over the country.

Similarly, I have also seen the advent of many events designed to encourage men to be men. On first glance, it would appear that such an undertaking would either be easy or unnecessary - what else would men be? Unfortunately, the opposite is true - it is hard and very, very necessary. Iron Sharpens Iron is doing this hard work nationally, and a local example can be found at, but  there are countless more. However, many of these initiatives suffer from a fatal flaw: they are short-term events. It’s not their fault; it’s simply a function of social construct. The event itself is outstanding in fit, form and finish. But when it is over, the men return to the same lives they left to attend the event.  You can’t go to a day-long event and expect it to change you.

I have been to both types of events, and they serve very different demographics. What the first event fails to understand is that without a virtuous ideological foundation, all the skills and practice and physical prowess in the world is meaningless.  What the second event fails to understand is that men need to be challenged, not verbally, but physically. As I surveyed the landscape I didn’t see any event which combined the best of both experiences into one - so I made one.

NOVA SPARTA is an experience unlike any other. It is a 36 hour immersion field problem for boys, dads and bachelors. It takes place outdoors to get the participants out of their comfort zone, but this isn’t a glorified camping trip. Upon arrival participants are given an introduction to the scenario and taken to their base of operation. Then they are given an item of extreme importance and told that an adversary will attempt to take the item from them at unannounced times during their stay. It is this constant threat of invasion which sets NOVA SPARTA apart from other events. But that’s not all.

During the weekend, participants have the opportunity to engage in skill development. First aid, rudimentary weapons, animal husbandry…the list is slightly different for every location depending on the infrastructure available, but there is a master list which participants get to choose from and periods of instruction for each class to maintain standardization across the various NOVA SPARTA event sites. Despite offering a wide range of hands-on training, the true focus is on interpersonal communication and stress management. If someone trips you during an adventure race, you can ignore it and you’ll likely never see them again. If you’ve got a beef with someone at NOVA SPARTA you’d better resolve it quickly. They may be the one cooking dinner or they might be the person in a position to save your life when the adversary attacks next. A Cadre of staff observe participant interactions and deliver those observations to the participants as a group shortly before they depart the event site.

We work hard to make the event fun and challenging but more than anything else we want to craft an environment where men can demonstrate virtue.  This is true for all ages, but most especially for dads. The influence a dad has on his son cannot be overstated. Many events which attempt to strengthen that relationship focus on the boy, doing things he will think is fun, while the dad is just along for the ride.  NOVA SPARTA turns that paradigm around. The dad is the hero. The dad is the knight. The boy is there to observe the knight, not be catered to. We make it easier for him to pay attention to his dad by taking away all electronic devices during in-processing.

There are three age groups: PAGE, for boys 7-13 and their dads, male guardian or role model; SQUIRE, for boys 14-19 and their dads, male guardian or role model; and KNIGHT for men over 20. Each group increases in degree of complexity, austerity and violence. The events are held for 36 hours over a weekend. You show up to a designated spot, hop on a bus and get taken to the event site. There you receive an in-brief regarding rules and site specific considerations and an introduction to your cadre. Then it’s off to your bivouac area and the fun begins.

The NOVA SPARTA website contains much more specific information and delves in to the ethos of the program in greater detail. Events are scheduled once a month. The easiest way to view the schedule is to visit the registration page and expand the DATE drop down menu. Above the DATE menu you will see a list of locations. Currently, only one site has been authorized to host NOVA SPARTA events, but we are always looking for new venues. If you would like to become a host entity or site venue please drop us a note at [email protected]

Ethan shot again and missed. Chad stepped up to his right and let another arrow fly. Unlike Chad, Ethan hadn’t hit his intended target since he’d arrived. Ethan shot again.  Another miss.  A boy on his left threw his bow on the ground in frustration and stalked off. Another shot. Another miss. Ethan noticed a knight breaking from the line to hurry after the retreating page, leaving an opening which exposed Ethan’s dad’s back. Ethan was out of arrows. Chad was out of arrows. (Since Ethan was 13, he was a Page and not allowed to enter melee combat. He was using his bow with specially designed arrows to cover his father and the other knights as they attempted to keep the adversary at bay.) There! The boy on the left had thrown an arrow down with his bow. Ethan reached for it reflexively. “Maybe I should…” Chad started to say but Ethan didn’t let him finish. There wasn’t time. The adversary lept for his father. In a heartbeat the arrow was nocked and loosed. Ethan was scanning the ground for more ammunition as his blunted arrow impacted the adversary’s helmet with a satisfying thud. And just as quickly as it began the battle was over. Ethan’s dad turned and saluted with his sword. Ethan returned it with a smile. “Race you back to the forge!”

About the Author

  • Andrew_Vonehrenkrook's picture

    Previously a Green Beret and national intelligence officer, Andrew now fulfills his passions of farming and discipling men. Between wrangling pigs, cow and sheep, Andrew and his wife are raising four young children from seven years to six months. Although he grew up in various suburbs of the west coast, Andrew now makes his home at the base of the Blue Ridge Mountains. See more of what Andrew is doing at and

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