So my first obstacle race is in the books. I am now allowed to officially use terms like “OCR,” “AROO,” “fellow Spartans” and a few other phrases I probably shouldn’t say online for fear of the Spartan Mafia will come after you and I with their shields and spears and we’ll end up in some never-ending pit (or whatever it is they would do with bodies). Point is, I accomplished my fitness goal for this year and it feels great!
I always get really nervous before any event (5K, 1/2 marathon, and now, Spartan Race). I think all of the excitement of the day just makes my stomach uneasy. We left our house around 6:00 a.m. and headed out to the Wilds where the event was taking place. For those who aren’t familiar, the Wilds is (general terms) a private zoo that has African animals people can come out to see. While the race was held in a different area, I’ve committed to the story that I saw three lions, two giraffes, a few volunteers battling a giant gorilla, and I was chased by a rhino for most of the middle of the race.
Check out this hard-to-stomach shot of that scene.
It’s a good thing I’m so fast.
When Kelly and I got there, we parked and had to walk up a hill to get to the main entrance area. From our car, we could see the tops of some of the obstacles, but nothing was very clear. Once we got through registration, we walked over to what appeared to be a spectator-friendly area that let you watch one of the obstacles up close. Just about as soon as we get up to it (kind of a monkey-bars on steroids obstacle), a dude who looked like his chest and biceps weighed about 90 pounds alone was holding his arm and talking to someone in the crowd. While we couldn’t hear everything, the long and short of it was that his arm bone was basically broken and poking into his bicep…this guy who was probably 6’2, 375 threw in the towel because this race made his arm bone break and puncture his bicep…
“OK, babe! Let’s do this! Nothing to worry about with me!”
She handled that whole thing better than I thought she would have. Anyway, we wandered around a bit until is was about my time to start. The racers go off in waves of about 100 people every 15 minutes to prevent too much build up at any one obstacle. There was about a five-foot wall you had to scale in order to get into the starting corral. I was surprised to see a few people struggle (I mean, if you are going to struggle getting over this, good luck with the real obstacles, right?). But I guess the spirit of the Spartan Race is to help everyone and to this point, I haven’t heard of anyone lost on the course. And if they are, well hopefully they find their way back before they let the lions back out.
The race began and I worked my way up toward the front of my heat. We hit a few obstacles (high wood posts we had to get over, a series of three over-under-through walls, etc.). There was more running at the beginning, which is my strength, so I was leading my heat going into the first of three obstacles I would fail at and have to do burpees (you have to do 30 burpees for every obstacle you can’t complete and generally lose a lot of ground to other racers while you’re cursing under your breath… #buckfurpees). The obstacle was another monkey bar obstacle and I recognize that my weakness in this type of race is grip strength… I probably need to join a crossfit gym if I want to improve, but save that for another day.
The weather was perfect for the race, but it had rained a bit the day before and so the ground was muddier than I would have preferred. I know on some obstacles they water to force you to get muddy and lose traction and grip, but it was wet and muddy for most of the course in a lot of the straightaway portions between obstacles. I’m not complaining. I ran a trail race in January during a soggy snowstorm, and yesterday was 1000x better than that was. At least it was warm and I was in a t-shirt!
So anyway, do my burpees, and I am starting to make up ground on some people when we get to one of the obstacles right in front of where all the spectators stand and where I knew I’d see Kelly. This one was an angled wall with little 2×4 blocks you had to traverse. Basically, they wanted you to pancake against this wall and make your way to the end and ring a bell. I made it about two blocks, but the 2×4’s were so muddy I slipped and fell. See yourself to the burpee area. After that, you are immediately at the next obstacle which is where we saw homeboy with the muscle-bone situation going on. Despite my burpees, I was faring better than he was to this point in the race. But still, got up to the monkey bars on steroids obstacle (MBOS obstacle), got about 1/4 the way through, and fell.
As you can imagine, the thought of more burpees wasn’t exactly super high on my to-do list, so I thought, “screw this, I am going back and doing this obstacle again!” Well, I fell sooner than I had the first time and hid my face and ran over to the next burpee station. Glad Kelly got to see me at my best, right?
Luckily for me, that was the end of what I’d consider the “grip strength” portion of the race. Unluckily for me, the next obstacle totally submerged the racers in muddy malaria water and then had us go through two 50-yard barbed wire crawls. So before my feet and hands were a little muddy, and now I looked like I just lost a fight with a porta-potty.
Got through that, did a little more running (and to this point, I was pretty thankful that my legs were still feeling good as the burpees have a way of knocking you down a few pegs in terms of muscle fatigue), and came up on one of the two obstacles I really wanted to get right…the spear throw.
So there were about eight targets and maybe five of them were empty. I took a minute to drop my heart rate so I’d give myself the best chance to hit it (and the best chance not to do any more burpees in the immediate future). As I was walking up, a guy to my left was making his attempt. He threw the spear and it kind of brushed off the side of the hay bale. The idea is, the spear has to stick in or else you didn’t “complete” the obstacle. So I hear this guy kind of debating with his buddy whether or not it counted with his buddy.
“Does that count?”
“I don’t know. You’re not in the competitive division, right?”
“F*ck it. I’d say you’re good!”
The guy who threw it apparently felt that was sound enough logic and took off. Whatever, It’s my first Spartan Race and I’m not going to play playground tattle tail, not did I really even care. I was focused on sticking the spear.
It was so perfect. If it were darts, it may have well been a bullseye. I threw that thing cleanly, had a perfect pace and little arc, and it stuck straight in the center. I can’t even explain to you how perfect it was. The spear was pointing right back at me from it’s perch in the hay, as if it were giving me the “you da man” point. As I was rounding the corner, half-glancing at the poor souls doing burpees, the volunteer gave me a “nice throw man,” and said that I was in the ten percent of people who actually got the spear to stick. It definitely felt good and gave me a little extra confidence and energy as I made my way to one of the most challenging parts of the course.
That being….the hills portion.
I understand that this is a long winded recap of a Spartan Race. If you’ve made it this far, hopefully you enjoy my writing and getting an inside look at how my mind was working during the race. I completely understand if you’re getting bored, are worried your boss might be wandering why you’re doing more scrolling than typing, and just want to wrap things up. If so, scroll to the bottom and see my conclusion for any meaningful dialog.
Otherwise, enjoy Act 2…
So the hills portion. I told it it had rained the day before, so these hills were already pretty wet. But you pretty much climbed up the side of a hill that was at least, google-searching a protractor to get a good angle estimate, 60-70 degrees of incline. You’re basically on your hands and knees and trying to find some tree limbs, roots, basically whatever you can grab on to to pull yourself up. Some areas weren’t as steep as others, but it was equally difficult going up the hills as it was going down. We did this for a good mile or so. Basically every time you thought it might be the last one, you’d see another incline. And at the bottom, you usually had to wade through waist-deep water so your traction was always bad.
While the hills were pretty difficult, the obstacles (mostly high wood walls [9′ high] and net walls) were pretty spaced out and this leg was all about endurance and not upper body strength. This played to my strengths as a racer and I was able to make up a lot of time and pass a lot of people. I was surprised at how well I was able to get over the high walls. There was one in particular that was at the top of a long, more gradual than the norm by this point, hill. As I was getting to the top, this older guy was running up to the wall and jumping into it, trying to get some footing that would allow him to reach the top of the wall with some momentum. Another guy (who will come back into the story later) asked the volunteer if he could use a couple of wood steps on the left side of the wall since he was “in the open heat and not the elite heat (Elite Heat also the name of my Latin pop band).”
Volunteer shrugged; guy took that as “yea no problem.”
I wanted to do it right, so I asked the guy what the best strategy was to get over the wall. He said, “the best way I’ve seen is to just get up close, jump up and grab the top, and chicken-wing your way over.” I loved this explanation and it’s exactly what I did. At this point, I was tired, but my arms and strength was still there since we hadn’t used much upper body since those damn MBOS’. Anyway, first try, chicken-winged over, and I’m off again.
There were a few more hills, trudges through water, a net wall with a hard metal wire strung at the top that almost castrated me when the guy behind me jumped on the wall and I scissor-teetered up there for a second. Wasn’t happy about that one, but pain is part of the game I guess. Few more runs through mud and high water mud pools. I passed a lot of people during this stretch of mostly flat, mostly open runs. The two obstacles that broke up these long runs were the bucket carry and the sandbag carry (I don’t remember which one came first, but they were pretty similar). The bucket carry was on a flatter, BMX dirt track series of up-and-downs. In total, it was only about 50 yards of carry, so no big deal (I actually jogged a lot of it, which I never saw anyone do on the Spartan Race programs on NBC Sports). The sandbag was more down-a-hill, up-a-hill. On the way up, I caught up to someone who had the sandbag resting on top of his head like an Indian woman getting water from the stream. As I was catching up to him, a course photographer said he looked like he was wearing a sombrero, which made me laugh and I’m hoping to get a good candid shot of me laughing as I’m hoisting 40 pounds of sand up a hill.
Another wall or two, and a few more long straight aways later, I’m coming up on what I am hoping is the end of the race.
–SIDE NOTE– I was led to believe this was going to be a 3-ish mile race. I think mentally, I was looking for the finish line from about mile three until mile five. Luckily, I race well at the end of races so I never lost any steam, even if I was a little miffed that there was still a lot of race left.
On one of the last straightaways, I see a guy ahead of me I recognized from my starting heat. I’m the competitive type where I immediately put a target on his back and made sure I was going to beat him no matter what. As I was passing him (he was a bigger guy, had me on strength but wouldn’t be able to keep up with me on running and speed obstacles), he said to me, “hey when did you start?”
“8:30,” I said as I passed him without giving the answer much thought. A few seconds pass, and I am making some distance between us, and I hear “me too. How old are you?”
Come on, man. I don’t know if this is some mind game or what, but I’m having a good time… I mean, I nailed that spear throw so the rest was gravy, right?
“Thirty,” I yelled back.
“Good job, man!”
Fine. I mean, it made me feel good. I remember hearing him say at the beginning of the race that he had done the longer race the day before, so I can only assume he did this sort of thing a lot and, even if he was tired from that day before, it felt good to pass someone I already decided was a vet Spartan Racer.
I didn’t think about him again. I broke out of the woods and looked up the hill that had a few more obstacles, but the finish line in the deep background. I was almost done.
The first obstacle was like a giant triangle. You had to jump into muddy water (again) to get your grip and traction slick, then pull yourself up a rope to the top. A lot of people were having trouble with this, but I went slow and kept my balance. Once I got to the apex of the structure, I slipped a little, but managed to grab the top of the pyramid and pull myself over. Down the other side and I was off to the next one.
“The next one” was the second obstacle I really wanted to do right… the rope climb. It’s basically what the cool kids got to do in gym class when they were young, but I never got to try. Kelly and I took a crossfit class one time that had a rope in the gym, and I didn’t have the courage to ask if I could just give it a run once class had ended. Before the Spartan Race, I watched some Youtube videos on rope climbing strategy. I saw the Marine style and the J-Hook strategy. I felt like, although I never tried to do any of these climbs, I was ready to do so.
I should also mention that this was the point where Kelly found me. I saw her before I went to the rope climb, and she got some good snaps of the whole thing. I jump up, grab on, and start to juggle the rope in between my feet.
Looking back, it shouldn’t surprise me that everything I watched online didn’t work in the slightest bit. I hung there for a few seconds trying to get it, but it just wasn’t happening. “OK,” I thought, “just get up there and ring that bell.”
I started pulling myself up, and to my surprise (especially given my failures on the strength and grip obstacles earlier in the race), I was actually moving up the rope. It was as hard as anything else I’d done that day, but I managed my way near the top of the rope. The problem was, I needed both hands to hold on to the rope, and to take a hand off and reach up to the bell might be an issue. I made an attempt at it, and in the same vein as a batter getting hit in the jersey by a pitch, I brushed the bell with my finger tip. I looked down at the volunteers.
“Did you see it? I hit the bell!”
Nothing…just blank stares.
“He hit it,” I heard Kelly yelling.
Still, nothing from the volunteers. Not even a “nope.” At least give me a “nope.”
I look back up, and pull myself a half pull up again toward the bell. By this point, my hands are hurting and I am low on gas. For the first time this whole race, I heard more people than just my wife rooting for me to do it. I was hanging there trying to figure out when the right moment was to make my last attempt at ringing the bell.
I pulled myself up hard and reached for the bell. Keep in mind, I was probably 20 feet off the ground. Still, I hit the bell just hard enough to have it make a faint ring and I slid-fell down the rope and landed in the hay. Luckily, no injuries (my biggest fear was a sprained ankle during this race). Two more obstacles and we’re home.
There was another big triangle obstacle that was a shorter wall I had to chicken-wing onto, then make my way over what was essentially a wood plank ladder. Once I got up on the wall, it was more about not slipping and it was pretty easy to get past. The last obstacle (before the trademark fire jump) was a sand bag hoist (basically, a rope and pully system with a sand bag tied to the long end of a rope). I had about 20 feet of hoist and I was home free. I locked my feet into the gate and gave it everything I had. The bag moved about three feet off the ground and I was stuck.
“I’ll help you, you help me?” I heard from over my shoulder. My first thought was this was some volunteer who was taking pity on me this close to the end. In reality, it was that guy who I passed that wanted to know my starting time and age. Despite the fact that he was my target earlier in the race, not an ounce of me had any doubt that I needed the help and I gladly accepted. We both pulled on the rope (him 90%, me 10%) until it got to the top.
“You’ll help me?” he confirmed. “Absolutely,” I said. He stayed on the ground and I grabbed the rope above him. We (again, 90/10) pulled the bag up until it reached the top and we both made our way toward the fire. He ran ahead of me, and I wasn’t even chasing him at this point. I saw the end goal and I was looking around for Kelly (who told me she was Spartan’ing her way through the crowd to try to get to the finish line for a photo-op) but couldn’t see her. I jumped the fire and probably made some stupid “hey guy” wink-snap-point thing everybody does when they don’t know what to do, and made it across the finish line.
I had done it. I finished my first Spartan Race.
A few volunteers handed me some bananas, protein bars, a medal (that is really cool), and maybe a water. I found Kelly and had just about enough energy to talk about the #BuckFurpees she saw me do and maybe my spear throw (it was epic, I’m telling you).
Now that I’ve had two days to digest everything (and recover from just general #bodysore), I can reflect on the things I did well, the things I didn’t, and how I feel about my future as a Spartan Racer. In terms of the race itself, I absolutely loved it. I got dirty, got to play on giant jungle gyms, and got to act like a kid again for an hour an a half. I would say it was the most fun I have ever had in any race. I do think the feeling I had after completing a marathon was more fulfilling since it had been a bucket list thing for me, but I would do 1000 Spartan Races before I ever do another marathon.
I also know what I need to work on before next Spartan Race. While my endurance was fine and my leg strength was great, my upper body strength needs some work, and my grip strength is completely lacking. The three obstacles I failed on were two MBOS’ and one slippery agility wall that most people were failing at so NBD. I also probably would have failed on the sand bag hoist if not for my Spartan foe-turned-teammate at the end.
The Spartan Race was every bit as fulfilling and exciting as I’d hoped it would be. I love that I can compete at a sport like this and compare myself to other athletes. I love that I got to do something I’d never done before and I love that I was pretty good at it. I will be back next year and I will complete the two longer “Super” and “Beast” distances to complete the trifecta.
If there is anyone who is thinking about training and competing in a Spartan Race, I say do it. Make sure you sign up well ahead of time to get the earliest possible starting time so you aren’t log-jammed at obstacles, and make sure your strength and endurance are up to par. Or, make sure you get really comfortable doing burpees.
Next year, I plan on not having to do any burpees and improve on my finish!