OBSTAHOLICS

Obstacle Racing Addiction

OBSTAHOLICS - Obstacle Racing Addiction

WOW.

Spartan Beast race finisher medal

Bam! 13.28 miles, 3:32, placed 257 out of 2,133 athletes, and had a blast!

When my friend, and race director extraordinaire, Josue Stephens started talking on Facebook about training for the Spartan race, I thought to myself, “what??? this dude is a gnarly ultrarunner who either races hard, or doesn’t race.”

It’s not a machismo thing for him, but simply how he’s built. Go big or go home. You know what I mean…

So when he started talking about it, I was picturing the Warrior Dash / Muddy Buddy kind of races, and while those are cool in their intent, they just aren’t the kind of races I expect Josue to focus on, and certainly not “train-for”.

But, as usual, I was just being too quick to judge and completely uneducated.

Eyes Wide Open

Then, I Google’d and read:

SPARTAN BEAST: The ultimate Spartan’s Race Distance

12+ MILES / 25+ OBSTACLES – An obstacle Race from Hell. If you have done any race anywhere in the world: whether a mud run, fun run, olympic run, bike race, death march or any kind of event claiming to be the “toughest race on the planet” you will be happy to know that this is where it ends..THIS IS THE SPARTAN BEAST… Step up and get out of your comfort zone on our +16k beast of an obstacle course race; many will arrive, but few will leave!

– Spartan Beast, Spartan Race website

“Well, now… hmmmm…”

That got my attention.

Then, so did this video, {below}.

httpv://youtu.be/mdlLowc6HTk

The narrated words, the power, the intensity, the cinematography, the total insanity, the amputees, the teamwork, the challenges, it all looked so cool and right up my alley.

I’m a dude of action when I’m moved. I don’t apologize for it. That’s how I’m built.

I registered right then and there.

A Thorough Experience. Total Body Challenge. Total Body Annihilation.

Race reports are getting harder and harder for me to write unless I head off to some exotic, interesting place that provides exposure to new experiences, new cultures, new people and new “stuff”. I can only say so much about a 50-mile trail race when it happens to be my 76th ultramarathon and can almost always be summed up by:

I ran too much, too early.

Walked a lot, later.

Rode highs.

Dipped to deep lows.

Suffered tremendously, sometimes kinda for nothing.

Met new friends, or more likely, “companions in suffering”.

For many people, the challenge of the run alone is enough. I’m still proudly one of those people – but – this obstacle racing stuff can be another level and I’ve been 100% addicted since I leaped that first moat.

Challenging obstacle racing is where trail-running becomes schizophrenic.

It’s where gymnastics gets dirty, and parkour visits the forest.

It’s where Crossfit, and other functional training methodologies, leave off and an incredible sport develops.

The Race

The course took place in the middle of nowhere, South Carolina, at an ATV and motocross facility called Carolina Adventure World.

Lots of short, steep hills, rocky single-track trail, and muddy lakes and river streams.

Along the course would be ~25 obstacles designed to test your functional fitness and “ingenuity under pressure”.

Spartan dudes

Standing in the starting chute, I don’t mind admitting I was more-than-intimidated.

Growling, snorting military dudes, CrossFit junkies, and a variety of younger athletes from other sports, all looking like Calvin Klein underwear models and all puffed-up, pumped-up, jacked-up and ready to hit the course like wolverines.

They marked our left calf with our age, and it didn’t take me long to realize that while I skew towards the average age of ultrarunners, in obstacle racing, I’m an old man.

The Start

An elite wave took off at 8:00 a.m., with open divisions taking off in 30-minute increments thereafter, ’til 1:30 p.m.

It’s the only way to handle 2,311 obstacle trail runners at once.

I was in the 8:30 wave, the group just behind the elites, so I was nervous and hoping I wasn’t going to get completely trampled in this corral of kicking bulls.

The first obstacle came within 1/10 of a mile in our trip down the trail. About five moats, five-foot deep, and 5-6 feet wide, full of deep muddy water. As we approached them, I saw people jumping over them, never losing stride, but I also watched a lot of less fortunate jumpers missing and falling into the water, completely submerged. We came up on the moats so fast, and with so many people bunched up, it was hard to see and process how wide they were, so I just leaped with every bit of power I had, and hoped for the best.

I made all 5 of them, but the explosive movement, coupled with how quickly they just appeared, and watching people get worked-over who missed, gassed me right from the start.

That’s what people don’t realize – sometimes its not so much the obstacle itself, but sometimes its simply the chaos it creates, along with the mental and emotional fatigue afterwards, that leaves your mind saying, “what in the Hell was all that!”

Next, without much time to mull over the moat experience, we hit with some walls to jump, along with some other various over-and-under obstacles. I remember at that point thinking, “ok, if this is the kind of stuff I’m gonna see, periodically down the trail, this is no big deal. I panicked for nothing.”

Let’s be honest, has thinking like that ever worked out for me?

The First Few Miles

After the two early obstacles, we hit rocky single-track trail that just constantly went up-n-down, over and over, short-n-steep, before arriving at a series of walls to ascend and jump over, crawl under, and various sized holes to jump through. These early walls were short, like 5 foot tall, so it didn’t take a lot of dip strength to get over ‘em, and I ripped through this one feeling more and more confident.

More gnarly single-track ensued and the pace picked up, but as an experienced trail runner, but newbie to obstacle racing, I paced very slowly, letting the fire-breathers take off, passing on my left. A lot of them saw my age on my leg and would say, “keep it up, sir” making me feel old and out of my league. In retrospect, much of my heat was military and 18-25 year old athletes, and I believe this is simply how they have been trained and were showing respect.

At 1.5 miles we hit the horizontal bars.

Think monkey bars, but with the bars thicker and spaced apart unevenly – nothing standard coming from these race designers.

Spartan race monkey bars

Coming into the event, there are a few obstacles I feared due to my nerve damage and “winged scapula”. Anything that requires me to hang, hold, or lift my body weight, for an extended period of time, is a real challenge for me. I practiced a lot on an obstacle course near my house because of this, and although I had some fear once we approached the bars, I managed to smoothly cross the bars, running past the dudes who failed the obstacle and were now involved in 30 burpees.

By the way, yup, fail an obstacle, and you must perform 30 burpees to continue on with the race.

I hate burpees, so I tried extra hard to avoid them.

When we came to the log-crossings and stump-hopping, I remember thinking how easy this would be if one was fresh, but how much more difficult it was after running a just few miles, and having to get across quickly ‘cuz other runners are breathing down your neck.

Spartan race tree balancing

I get a little fuzzy when trying to pin down all these obstacles perfectly, one by one, during this stretch, but after a quick little water stop, we came up on some blocks of concrete.

The males had to carry a block of concrete that felt about 70 lbs, across this short field, set it down, and carry another back. We also had an obstacle that required us to hoist a block of concrete with a pully. Honestly, this stuff was made for me. I may not be super fast, but I can lift stuff all day – like a farm boy.

Here Comes the Evil

Things started getting really interesting after mile five (5), and the obstacles began to gradually get more and more difficult.

After running down a shallow, loose-sand riverbed, we hit some vertical rope nets, which are deceptively difficult, especially when crawling over the top to start descending the other side.

Next came some challenging, 4-6 foot high, pine tree “hurdles” that are harder than walls because there is no mass below them to use to kick-off.

In between the obstacles, the rocky, short, steep hills just kept a’comin. I’d catch, and pass, lots of people on the climbs, but they’d scream past me on the downs.

I didn’t bite, though – I knew they’d pay later.

Mile six (6) was probably one of the most exciting sections of the race. This checkpoint brought us back to the Spartan Festival area where all the spectators were watching. I couldn’t believe how many people were there. Photographers, runner’s friends and families, and lots of locals. People were screaming and yelling, and before I could soak it all in, I saw why – the ropes.

Spartan Rope Climb obstacle

Not only was this one of the obstacles that I feared, but I never expected the ropes to be sitting in a waist-deep muddy hole.

We had to crawl into the muddy water, grab the rope (wet, of course), and begin climbing as we dragged ourselves out of the water, headed up the rope. At the top, we had to ring a bell, and then descend back into the water, all while hundreds of people are watching and shooting photos.

I still don’t know how I did this. Fear of the camera, I think, but I also want to thank martial arts training for this as my fear gave me no choice but to pause, relax, and then set my sights on the task at hand.

But, before I could get too excited about this completion, I had to conquer the traverse wall – a vertical wall, with 6-inch pieces of 2x4s nailed to it – which runners had to horizontally traverse.

I was so wet and muddy, I couldn’t grip the wood at all and fell instantly.

Spartan wall traverse

30 burpees …along with a whole lot of other people, and failure on an obstacle I NEVER expected to fail.

Once again, count on nothing. Expect the unexpected.

Carnage, Cramps, and Crushed Confidence

After mile six (6) is where I really began to notice the carnage beginning to develop. People laying alongside of the trail shot-out or cramping due to lack of fluids, electrolytes, training – or a nasty combination of all three.

Spartan race will wreck some fools.

But, the line of the day for me was running behind these two dudes, one looking super-rough with his head hanging low, and as I passed, I heard the stronger one yell out to his buddy, “Maaaaan, that 42 year old dude just passed you like you were a stump.” – I couldn’t help but smile a little and soak in some old-man-pride.

Having years of trail running experience really helps. A lot.

That #$%^! Barbed Wire

Dude.

Really?

The barbed wire fields, to me, were absolutely the most challenging and brutal obstacles of the day – and lucky us – we got it twice at the Carolina Beast. Once at mile seven (7) and once at mile twelve (12).

Imagine this – you are crawling under criss-crossed, knee-high barbed wire, on top of crumbling mud, chunky rocks, and all the while, some dude is hammering you with a fire hose from the sidelines. Oh, and you are crawling, on your stomach, slow as Hell and uphill, for more than 50 yards.

That was just the first one.

The second one at mile 12 was waaaay gnarlier, much longer, hella steeper, and the barbed wire hung lower in various sections along the way. Just horribly nasty, but mighty satisfying at completion.

Spartan race barbed wire field

Some dudes were bleeding like stuck pigs. Not me. I took it sloooow.

Looking for that Finish Line

After the second field of barbed wire, I was completely shot.

Cramped-up and staggering up the final rocky climb, that led to the final five obstacles, all back-to-back, and all in front of the huge crowd of screaming spectators.

The first was a series of 8-foot walls. This is where teamwork really mattered, and I was running alone. I thought I was doomed until some super cool military competitor rolls up behind me and offers to assist in catapulting me in the air so that I could grab the top and muscle over the wall.

We repeated this over each of the 8-foot walls and that dude saved me from 60 burpees.

Next, the slippery, slanted walls with ropes. I saw people bust-ass here pretty good, so I figured I’d keep myself erect, wrap the rope around my arm, and just muscle up it. It worked, but descending the staggered 2x4s on the other side caused me to cramp and I just about fell off of the obstacle in shear panic.

I was now starting to get mentally frustrated, too. Starting to “crack” a little.

Spartan slick wall

The spear throw followed. You get one chance to throw this make-shift spear about 20 yards and make it stick in a bale of hay. Harder than it sounds, and if you miss, or it doesn’t stick, 30 burpees await you – and all while so very close to the finish line.

Luckily, and just barely, mine stuck.

Spartan race spear throw

Last, the fire jump. I think jumping knee-high fire is corny, and while it might make for some cool photo ops, its not challenging and feels really gimmicky; but whatever, I was almost done.

Spartan race fire jump

All I had to do was get passed the dudes with the gladiator paddles, and cross the finish line.

Spartan Race finish

I charged those dudes like a crazed bull. I didn’t care how hard they hit me, I was going straight at ‘em.

Because I didn’t try to run around them, they get couldn’t get the paddles on me, and I pretty much skated across the finish line – staggering, bobbing and weaving from total physical annihilation.

My Thoughts on Obstacle Racing

Plain and simple – I’m totally hooked. I left out a lot of obstacles such as:

  • 50 lb sand bag carry up and down a steep hill
  • Another rope climb in the middle of the woods
  • A deeper water river run
  • Tire-flipping
  • Staggered stumps traverse
  • and more, and more, and more. Too many to mention in one report.

But, I feel like I was made for this sport.

Where I lack in small stature for running really fast at distance, I make up for in strength and experience. I now know what I need to train to attack my weak points, and where I can optimize to be faster and perform better.

But aside from the the competitive side of things, I really liked this genre of athlete. People who are physically strong, mentally tough, but surprisingly humble and helpful. The whole teamwork thing is huge here, and I can’t help but believe that comes from the strong military-esque vibe that permeates the scene. It’s much like ultrarunning in that way, and I think ultrarunners looking for a different kind of challenge will feel at home in obstacle racing.

Amazing teamwork at Spartan Race

Spartan Race Quick-Hits

The Good

  • Great organization and communication, pre-race and race day
  • Exciting on-location event
  • Ridiculously challenging course (Beast race, at least)
  • Tremendous camaraderie
  • Loads of encouragement at obstacles. Funny smack-talkers, too
  • A great venue for testing your functional fitness

The Bad

  • Jumping fire is lame. It just is.
  • Some people cheated their burpees. You’re only cheating yourself.
  • Paying to park
  • Paying for post-race food
  • Paying for bag check

While this sport is taking off like crazy, I expect it to continue to grow like wildfire. It’s a natural thing for functional training athletes whether it’s Crossfit, p90X, Insanity, TRX, or whatever you subscribe to as a fitness methodology. The more varied of an athlete you are, the better you will do, but training is absolutely key.

Couch-to-obstacle-racer? No way. At least not the Beast.

I can’t wait to do it again, and will do so at the Rogue Runner Race in Georgia, November 3rd.

Wanna play?