Yesterday was the big day —
the day this 40-year-old Spartan Virgin was initiated into the world of Spartan racers. I knew that the race was going to be intense, but I had no idea just how intense, or just how woefully under-prepared I was as I stood at that starting line. This was just a Spartan Sprint, mind you, the shortest distance offered (4+ miles and 21 obstacles), and still it has left an indelible impression on me. Thus I feel it is my civic duty to help prepare any potential future Spartans for the realities of this race, as well as offer my kudos to the event’s organizers for finding such a creative outlet for their sadism.
As I’ve mentioned in earlier posts, I’ve always been an athlete, and I usually find athletic challenges to be fun (and frankly, not all that challenging). For example, I’ve biked 105 miles through the desert in Death Valley, with diarrhea (entirely TMI, I realize, but I need to give you the full picture here). It was very tough, but I handled it. I’ve also given birth to four children vaginally, three of them without drugs. So maybe you’re beginning to get an understanding of why I thought this #SpartanRace might be just another over-hyped, remedial “challenge” like those we encounter in so many other areas of life these days.
Not so, folks.
Not surprisingly, my body decided to give me a few extra difficulties on this of all days. I was menstruating. I had a cold/cough/scratchy throat. And on top of that, my husband really ticked me off on the car ride there. So granted, I wasn’t starting off on the happiest of notes when the race began. I had trained diligently for 5 months (not more than that because I was nursing my new baby for the whole previous year). But then I stupidly scheduled a vacation right before a 3-day conference I had to attend, all right before the race. So I had nearly 2 full weeks of exercise challenges (rushed, abbreviated workouts and long days of sitting still) immediately before the event. I was pretty exhausted. I now realize I should have been training hard core every day and going to bed early every night right up until race day.
All excuses aside, here’s how it went down. I arrived at the venue, a ski resort, and stared up at the steep, smoking hills before me. A little shiver crept up my spine. Young, muscular bodies flowed gracefully around me in a constant stream. A few of the elite class men were already weaving their way down the rocky mountainside, pecs slick and glistening in the sun. I turned to my left and headed toward a set of obstacles at the foot of the mountain. College kids were hoisting heavy sandbags into the air, grimacing only slightly, as if stuck on a tricky question during a Bio final. They then scampered toward an inverted wall and activated their spider powers as they climbed over the top in a matter of seconds. I moved on, scribbling copious mental notes and taking a few deep breaths.
I then arrived at the starting area to warm up. The wave before mine was about to take off. The emcee was psyching them up, having them shout “I am Spartan!” in response to his rousing declarations. I didn’t think much about his obvious mirth at the time, but in retrospect, I now see why he found the whole scene so bleeping hilarious.
We had to climb a wall just to get to the starting line, by the way. That was my first clue that this could be a bit more than I bargained for. After our own Spartan pep rally, we were off, zig-zagging up the mountain strewn with rocks of all sizes and little smoking things stuck into the ground for extra effect. The first third of the race actually went pretty well. It was mostly strenuous hiking through the woods, climbing walls and nets, and monkey bars over muddy water. I started to enjoy myself.
Then came several upper-body challenges, like lifting and carrying a 65-pound boulder, dragging cinder blocks through the woods with a chain, carrying logs through the woods, etc. I have never had much upper body strength even in my best shape, and here is where I realized that arms/shoulders should have been my primary area of focus in training. I was in for a rough 2+ hours (2:11:20, to be exact). The other thing I didn’t realize is that you only get one chance to complete most of the obstacles, and if you fall or miss, you can’t go back and start again. Nope, you immediately get sent to the burpee zone, where you have to do 30 burpees (chest hitting the ground) for every obstacle you miss. In my training, I could never really do more than 30 burpees in a day without great difficulty. On my race day, I did at least 150-180 (I lost count after awhile). This was both exhausting and demoralizing.
I whimpered a few times. I wasn’t used to feeling so defeated. But I soldiered on. ‘Soldier’ is truly an appropriate verb here, as I eventually had to crawl what seemed like 1/4 mile under barbed wire, scraping my knees and shins on the hard rocks underneath me as I inched and rolled along to the sound of the drill sergeant’s taunts and jeers. I also had to carry a sandbag up and down yet another steep hill, and the only way I could do it was to pretend it was a baby, whom I had to carry safely through a war zone. Everyone else had the bag on their head or shoulders, but I cradled it right against my belly, picturing my baby every step of the way. It was the only way I could keep myself going.
There were some other bright spots along the way. I loved the steep downhills where I just let my feet fly and somehow managed not to fall and break my face. I loved the camaraderie of the teams I saw along the way, waiting for each other when someone fell behind and encouraging one another to keep moving. I even managed not to be bitter about my own team bailing on me at the last minute. (Oops, did I forget to mention that in my caveats section earlier? Yeah.) But honestly, even if you do participate as an individual, you soon realize that you are all one big team during this event. One woman offered me her shoulder to stand on, as we both stood waist deep in muddy, manure-scented water staring up at the first step of the wall we were about to climb. And then there was the sweet volunteer who now knows my crotch about as well as my midwife does, after shoving my rear up over that inverted wall I mentioned earlier (guess my spider powers failed to activate). So you see, it wasn’t all bad, really.
Some of the later obstacles are barely worth mentioning, as I was so exhausted by the time I got to them I could scarcely attempt them before sulking my way over to the burpee zone, again. Eventually, I got to the last few obstacles where my husband and kids were watching. Seeing their proud faces and hearing my kids cheer me on really gave me the strength to continue and even start to feel a little proud of myself at last. After a couple more manure baths and twisting my ankle just as I was about to leap over the final obstacle — logs on fire! — which almost caused me to land in the fire, I limped across the finish line with a huge wave of relief. A protein bar and a banana were shoved into my hands, my finisher medal hung around my neck, and I was released back into civilization once again.
It was over.
I didn’t feel the same euphoria I had felt after my first mud race, which was more of a glorified 5K with mud puddles in comparison, and even now I am not sure how soon I will be signing up for my next punishment, I mean event. (But I’m sure I will be signing up — only for the Sprint!) It wasn’t until my daughter got ready to do her Spartan Kids race the same day that I really felt excited about the whole experience. Seeing her beaming face as she approached each obstacle, and watching her proudly display her finisher medal (which I’m pretty sure she slept in) has truly made this a rewarding experience. It’s really not about looking good for the cameras, or finishing in the top 10, it’s about developing physical, mental, and emotional toughness, and learning to persevere even under the worst of circumstances.
In short, when I signed up for Spartan, I thought I was signing up for a fun obstacle race. What I got instead was another rough life lesson, but in all honesty, I’m still very grateful. Once my soreness subsides and my scrapes heal, I’m sure I’ll be more enthusiastic, but I wanted to document the brutal realities of this race while they’re fresh in my mind. If you are planning to run a Spartan Race and are not already a world class athlete, you now have a pretty accurate idea of what to expect. I wish I had read something like this early in my training, so I thought the least I could do is give someone else the heads up I didn’t get. Let me be clear: I absolutely recommend this race…for those who will prepare for it. It’s awesome. There’s nothing like it. But when they say it’s no joke, they mean it.
Go Spartans! Aroo!