Since first hearing about the original Spartan Sprint, and subsequently watching the popularity of obstacle races as a whole sprout up like wildfires in a SoCal drought season, I had formed this rock-solid, unmovable opinion that there are two kinds of racers: ones who run regular, running-only, trail or road footraces and….well, douchebags. Because I, for one, am a runner, and obstacle races were not going to take that away from me, dammit! Unlike most obstacle race enthusiasts, I have earned finishers medals in multiple distances between 5K and 50K (actually nevermind, there are no finishers medals for 5k’s…or at least there weren’t the last time I ran one. But I digress.). What are all these Crossfitter-types doing, throwing themselves into the racing world? Wouldn’t they rather hone their craft inside their cozy little indoor boxes of pain? Why are they taking a perfectly good footrace and turning it into some contaminated strongman-competition-slash-half-marathon? Is it because they want to run distance but can’t hack the difficulty of doing it without stopping multiple times? Or is it because they think they’re better than runners, and seek to provide proof of it by creating a race that runners can’t do as well as them? Not to mention, who did they think they were anyway, naming their competitions after historical warriors who earned their honor by bravely facing whole armies with nothing more than swords, shields and barely enough men to form a football team? The more I thought about the whole Spartan race enigma, the more it felt like listening to a really bad R&B song. One of those monstrosities where all of the good parts are just samples from old hit songs and nothing original about them has any character or soul. You know….like a Kanye song.
Oh yeah, you could say I had an opinion or two about obstacle races.
Then I got an email from this nice, unassuming Spartan Race promoter. He offered me a free entry to the local Spartan race of my choice, in exchange for my race report. I doubt the promoter dude read enough of my blog to understand how honest judgmental I am about obstacle races, which, now that I think about it, probably worked in my favor. I mean, what I really wanted to do was respectfully decline. But I didn’t, because after all the years of joke-making and doubtful eye-rolling, I suppose the least I owed to the Spartan race series was to…you know, actually try one.
Mr. Nice Spartan Promoter allowed me to select any one of the races they were offering in SoCal: the Sprint, the Super or the Beast. After some thought I decided on the Super, because the 3-mile Sprint felt like a waste of my time, and the Beast sounded stupid difficult, according to friends of mine, who collectively called the Beast “the hardest thing I have ever done.” I suspected they only found it so hard because they got really tired: the Beast is half marathon distance and most of those guys had never run or walked a step over 6 miles in their entire lives. But I also knew that I had literally no idea what obstacles were going to be on the course. So the Super, at 9 miles and 20 obstacles, seemed like a happy and warm middle-ground porridge. So I signed up for it.
After doing so, I immediately panicked and crowd-sourced my running friends for advice. Most of them are hashers like me. Hashers are a special type of runner, because running a hash involves plenty of mixed and technical terrain, along with a ton of nasty hill climbing, scrambling over rocks, sliding down cliffs, spelunking, mud-dipping, fence-scaling, tunnel trudging and canyon-jumping. My hashing friends assured me that obstacle races are merely a more safely-constructed form of hash trails, and that I would excel with my hashing experience alone. They may have been more or less right. But because I’m not an idiot, I still decided to not underestimate the obstacle portion of this race series. Two months before the race I signed up for an outdoors bootcamp-style class, rife with heavy iron weights, kettle bells, pull-up rings, medicine balls, squats, sprints and a shit-ton of burpees. I got used to feeling sore every day. I started feeling stronger. I got good at burpees.
As if it’s at all possible to be “good” at burpees.
But that all wasn’t enough. I needed another form of protecting preparing myself: two weeks before race day I decided to sign my boyfriend Joseph up for the race as well, and I’m so glad I did. It turned out that I would need him throughout, mentally as well as physically. Man, was he a lifesaver.
On race day I showed up at Vail Lake in Temecula, about an hour’s ride north of San Diego, and was immediately psyched by the view alone. The lake looked gorgeous and the mountainous rocky hills all around were just begging to be climbed. But aside from the water-filled hole in the ground, the terrain of this place is dry as a bone. As if to further illustrate the desert-like properties of the area, the wind was gusting hard that day, churning up dozens of mini sandstorms all around us and tossing tumbleweeds up onto fences, moving cars and against pedestrians. The sandstorms in the parking lot were just foreshadowing for later, because on course they acted like an additional obstacle. The winds constantly blew dirt into our eyes while we were trying to navigate down the steep, rocky hills, and rumbled the tops of the highest obstacles while we attempted to safely mount them without plummeting to our deaths.
We walked roughly a mile from the car lot (where it cost $10 to park) to the race start and went about situating ourselves. Waiver signing, bib number, wristlet timer, $5 bag check (ouch!) and oh look a cool headband with my bib number on it! Joseph and I stood by the start waiting for our wave to be called, and watched the racers below us attempt the obstacles, fail, and settle in for their rounds of 30 burpees each. There were horizontal wall climbs, rope climbs, javelin throwing. It looked legit and moderately intimidating. It was there that I started to psych myself out.
“Are you ready?” Joseph asked me, with a giant grin on his face. He was way into it. I’m not even sure I answered him.
I turned to my left and saw the very first obstacle: a 4-foot wall that you must jump over in order to even enter the racers’ corral. I watched several of the men before me pick themselves up with their arms and swing over it without breaking a sweat. I remembered a hash run from several months back where I had to hoist myself up over four walls in a row of the same height, in order to exit a huge drainage pipe that had been buried in the ground. I did fine then, I would do fine now, I figured.
Except I didn’t. I got to the wall and I absolutely failed. FAILED. The wall was higher than I thought, and I had no bodyweight leverage to work with. I grabbed the wall and jumped, fell back down onto my feet, and instantly panicked. The woman to my left barely got over by yanking a leg sideways, slightly clipping me in the head, and falling bum-first onto the other side. It didn’t look fun. Then there was a sudden blur of shirtless bodies, rushing across the wall like it was nothing, and like there was nobody else there to avoid slamming into on the way over. I got smacked again, this time by a flying elbow that was attached to a wildly hollering, shirtless dude with war paint all over his chest. Joseph was already too far ahead in the crowd, having wrongly assumed that I’d get over the wall just as easily as I had a hundred times at the hash. I couldn’t see him. Then I looked to my right and there was a handsome Asian dude with a Ninja Turtle-style headband tied to his head, and his hands were weaved together basket-style at my knees. He looked at me hopefully. “Let me help,” he said. I let him hoist me over the wall, thanked him, and tried not to let this early-on failure set the tone for the rest of the course. I didn’t know it yet, but accepting the help of strangers like that ninja-turtle dude was about to become the biggest lesson of the race.
Once the race announcer was done reciting Bill Pulman’s speech from the movie Independence Day (which I thought was weird, but whatever), followed by the requisite crowd shouting: “Arooooo, Arooooo!” the 12:30 wave was released like a pack of hungry hounds. We ran a few hundred feet, and then were swiftly plunged into three foot deep troughs filled with impressively frigid brown water. My lungs instinctively sucked in air and I ran out of there as fast as my mud-slick trail shoes would take me. Immediately after that we began a half-mile climb up the steep hills ahead. I’m glad we started with the hills, because I needed the chance to redeem myself after the embarrassment I suffered at the first wall.
Joseph and I ran upward with gusto, passing dozens of transparent LuluLemon leggings and Crossfit tee shirts along the way. Near the top, the hill got steep enough that we had to use our hands to grab the rocks and keep from sliding back down the hill. There were lots of loose rocks and sand, and lots of people yelling for help. Having traversed this kind of terrain hundreds of times before, I picked up the pace of my feet and flew up the hill, passing by Joseph and no less than thirty other racers who were struggling, sliding backward and panicking. I honestly couldn’t believe how much easier it was for me than everyone else. I advised a couple of gals ahead to pick up their feet faster so they would have less time to slide back down, even offered one of them a push, but they all ignored me so I weaved on by. I got to the top and waited for Joe to come up through the crowd. We continued on running the rocky trail up some more, and then flew back down a really fun hill (that everyone else was sheepishly side-stepping), toward the next set of obstacles.
It was here that everything started to become a blur, and where our 3 minute lead closed up for good. All I can remember is walls. Wall after wall after wall. As we came down that first hill we saw a 15-foot wall that looked to have some beams affixed to it, perfect for hoisting yourself up and over. When we got closer we saw that the wall was not at all what it seemed: it was slanted toward us, so that the crossbeams were completely useless as mechanisms for climbing. I don’t even know how Joseph got up and over. All I know is that two men caught up while I was floundering, and immediately offered their hands to hoist me the extra few feet I needed to get over it. I was grateful for their help because I never would have gotten over that thing on my own. And being the independent woman runner asshole that I am, I was not expecting to face obstacles at which I would fail without the assistance of another person. I came away from that wall feeling flustered and frustrated.
A good chunk of the race followed suit. In all there were no less than twelve walls, some which had to be scaled, some which could be climbed with horizontal slats. I needed help getting over every scaling wall. Every one foiled me. Each time I got to the top of a hill and saw one, my thought was “Jesus…another fucking wall.” I hated the walls. They were a symbol of all my past and present failings as an athlete. They were like a series of 10-foot tall Crossfit junkies towering over me, laughing heartily at my alarming lack of upper-body strength. “Foolish ultra-runner,” the walls judged, as they sat there stoic and merciless, “you skipped too many arm days. Now you’ll pay.”
The walls sucked, but it was okay, because I also had enough triumphs to keep me going throughout the race. Because I have a lot of trail running experience, I can climb a hill quickly and without going into an asthmatic shock, which is a skill that cannot be underestimated at this race. On two occasions we had to lift and carry very heavy things about a quarter mile over steep hills, around a corner and back again, the infamous bucket of rocks being the first. Yeah the rocks were heavy, and the buckets had no handles so you had to carry them in front of you like an obese toddler. But Joseph and I just…did it. At the top of the hill, a dozen of the guys who had just flown over the high walls like they were speed bumps were now sat atop their buckets, panting like dogs in heat, but we just kept on going with nary a rest. That felt nice.
The more I think on it, there were a number of obstacles that highlighted our strengths and empowered Joseph and I throughout the race. Joe banged out the uneven monkey bars like a seasoned pro and I crawled speedily under the barbed wire like it was my job. We both spent very little effort pulling the heavy sandbags across the dirt, we enjoyed the javelin throw, and we did fine on all of the 20-foot wooden slat walls and anything else that required core and leg strength, of which we both possess plenty. Not to mention the 9-mile run, hills and all, was pretty much a piece of cake. But I should not underestimate the fact that during an obstacle race, one at which you have been faced with a dozen or more physical challenges you were not expecting, there will inevitably come a time when your mental endurance capacity is tested. Joseph and I faced our emotional wall at the same time. And rather fittingly, it occurred at a wall, roughly five miles into the race.
It was a wall slanted away from us, like a ramp. It was equipped with ropes for pulling yourself up and over to the other side, which is a vertical wall with slats for you to climb back down. The kicker is that this wall was placed five feet away from an obstacle in which you needed to completely submerge yourself in frigid muddy water to swim under a wall that met the water’s surface. Now you were cold, soaked head to toe in mud, and slippery…and so was the wall.
I watched Joseph’s first try up this wall. He grabbed the rope and walked up easily enough, leaning back against the rope in the appropriate manner, as we have learned to do on dozens of hash runs. But the rope was attached to the top of the wall so the higher you got the closer your hands got to the wall and the more you had to lean forward. Eventually your feet would slip in the mud and wetness and fly out from under you, leaving you lying helplessly attached by your hands to the top of the wall. I watched Joe go through this ordeal on his first try, let go of the rope and slide back down the wall. Then I watched two women do the same thing. It looked painful and discouraging. I stood there for almost ten minutes, watching people hang there at the top of the wall. One of the ropes had knots in it and I planned to use it once the lady currently using it either figured it out or gave up. People yelled to her to “throw a leg over” but she just lay there, holding on. She stayed there for another five minutes.
I didn’t want to do this obstacle. I was freezing, tired, wet and now completely unmotivated. I wanted to walk right off the course and go home. I wasn’t far from the starting line, I could have just left without protest and without a medal.
Then…well, I just decided to do it. I am not sure what motivated me, but I guess I just got tired of standing there and decided to just fucking go for it. Fearing that lady was never going to let go of the easy knotted rope, I grabbed the same un-knotted rope that Joseph used and started climbing. When I got to the top I allowed all of my body except my left leg to slide down the wall. My leg smacked the top corner of the ramp hard, and I felt the skin of my right tricep scrape against the splintery wood. I regrouped, grabbed the knot at the very top of the rope and yanked myself higher. Then I looked up and saw Ninja Turtle man again – he was on the other side of the wall, standing on a slat, and he had grabbed hold of my arm. “Pull this hand over!” he said as he helped me grip the wooden edge on the other side. “Come on, muscle up! You can do it!” I could hear Joseph yelling at me from below. So I muscled up, as commanded. I had no choice, really. Literally every muscle I had sprung into action. I could hear myself grunting “harrumph!!!” as I quite literally dragged my body over to the flat side of the wall. I guess I am stronger than I give myself credit for, I thought, with more than a little shame.
I felt different about some things after that obstacle. Like, I now understand why so many people love obstacle races. Which leads me to the moral of this whole story: you must have humility and allow others to help you.
It never occurred to me before I entered the starting line of the race that the whole thing is about teamwork. Much unlike a running race, which is all about challenging one’s self, the obstacle race is about utilizing the different strengths of each individual in order to go forward as a team. It’s about the moment when a 40-something woman I’d never met tapped me on the shoulder and said “come on, let’s get this one together” as we approached the bucket pulleys. It’s about the two really fit dudes who lifted their overweight buddy on their shoulders so he could complete the monkey bars.
I mean, I really get it now. The Spartan race is about a bunch of individual Spartans who come together to face the army of exceptionally tough obstacles, and get through it together.
Despite this really huge positive, I still found this race outweighed by its cons, but I realize that may just be because it’s not the way I personally like spending a Saturday afternoon. I did like that many of the obstacles were fun, that they were all challenging and that I was able to master many of them due to my trail running and hashing experience alone. However, I was surprised by the fact that most of the obstacles were geared toward upper body strength only, something that I have very little of because I’m a runner…..but also a little bit because I’m a woman.
I mean, an 8-foot high, sheer wooden wall? You really expect my 5’4” frame to be able to jump up over that thing by myself? I would need to either be much taller, be a man with natural upper body strength, or be a chick who does Crossfit like, every day for years (and kudos to those ladies because they looked pretty badass hauling over those things…what few of them succeeded). Case in point: Joseph got over most of the walls with no help, and with absolutely no training, but I lifted for two months straight and I had no chance at all without help. Add to that the rope climbs and the wall traverse, and it just looked like a men’s-only club out there. I didn’t like that because, despite the benefits of teamwork, I physically wasn’t able to complete some of the obstacles without help from others. At the end of the day, I did finish and I did receive a medal, but inside I felt less than accomplished because I didn’t do it all on my own.
And this, my friends, is what I’m going to call runner’s block: a runner’s complete inability to translate her own stubborn pride and incessant need to accomplish goals in solitude, to a race at which accepting help from others is practically a necessity.
Bottom line is that while the obstacle race isn’t exactly my cup o’ tea, I do understand why so many people are attracted to and fall in love with the sport. And for those of you brave enough to try your first Spartan race after reading this report, here are a few bits of advice from me to you:
- Especially if you’re a woman and a runner, train your upper body as much as you can, and expect to have to lift your bodyweight up and over things several times during the race.
- Bring some weightlifting gloves. My hands were a mess after the race. Gloves don’t work for all the obstacles, but for things like rope climbing and monkey bars, it really sucked to have to use my bare hands.
- Bring food. Especially if you’re doing the Super or Beast – the race is long, you’re going to need to refuel midway through, and the aid stations do not provide. That’s right – these are no ultra-race aid stations, folks…they have jugs of water only, no electrolytes either. Prepare thyself. I wore my hydration vest, brought salt pills and granola bars, and was glad I did.
- Be prepared to not be able to complete every obstacle by yourself. Know that you may need to accept help, and become at peace with it.
- Also be prepared to do burpees. You’re just going to do some, I don’t care how much you train. For example, you only get one chance to throw the javelin at the hay bale, and almost nobody can get themselves completely over that yellow line at the rope swing. And it’s drop and do 30 for each obstacle you fail. Do yourself a favor and practice burpees ahead of time, because those things really are a bitch. In fact, just start doing a few of those a day anyway…because they’re a bitch. They’re insanely good exercise.
- Bring a friend. At least one. And make sure they’re strong enough to help lift you over things.
- Bring baby wipes with you, for after the race. They have “showers” there, but really it’s just foam and freezing cold water (at least at Vail lake – they used lake water for the “showers”…I didn’t go near them).
And most importantly, have fun! Bring your most upbeat and positive attitude. Because if you get at all down on yourself during the race, it will be exponentially harder to complete.
Have you done a Spartan Race and loved it? Hated it? Think I’m totally full of it? Leave me some feedback below, I’d love to hear.