First Spartan Race Complete! And…wow.

That’s right, I feel like I’ve claimed more legitimacy in the Obstacle Course Racing world after taking on one of the granddaddies of the sport:  The Spartan Race.  As I mentioned last week, yesterday I took part my first Spartan Sprint at The Wilds outside of Zanesville, Ohio, and holy hippo spit, I am beat up.

Spartan Race

A quick selfie before I turned in my bag at the bag check at my first Spartan Race!

I didn’t have any support crew with me for the race as my wife wasn’t feeling well and wouldn’t have been able to monitor the kids while I raced, so I was out there alone, hence the relative lack of pictures for this one. Oh well, no big deal. I will share some pictures once they start to roll in from the pro photographers at the race.

So… impressions?  This review will be of the race in general and also my own performance in it.

First of all… Spartan Race rocks.

This is an outfit that understands what a race is supposed to be, how to get people jacked up for it, how to celebrate fitness and challenges, and to try to lift people up while beating them down and bring a bunch of strangers together.

A lot of time you see organizations that claim to trumpet stuff and create some sort of culture, but when you get right down to it, they’re just marketing. Spartan, on the other hand, really seems to believe in what they’re doing out there. They want to break you, but they want to do it in a way that makes you hungry to improve for the next time. That’s exactly what happened to me. I went into this race with medium expectations, more as an exploratory “what’s Spartan all about?” venture, and came out as a fan.  A big fan.

Spartan Race is tough. Way tough.

Ohio is not flat, let me tell you. That’s the impression, but when you get east and south of Columbus where I live there is plenty of great terrain for a race.  I’ve done some races with tough terrain, to be sure. The Mud Ninja comes to mind, with the festival area and some of the featured obstacles up on a plateau and then with two drops on either side – you go down, then come up, do some of the obstacles, go down the other side, then come back up again and finish the race.  It’s a tough climb.

Spartan Race, on the other hand, was up-down-up-down-up-down-up-down for miles. I think the most heard comment during some of these stretches was “really?” as races encountered yet another climb or descent – frequently with a pond at the bottom to wade through. Combine that with the mud that had been created by the rain the night before and the entire thing was really a heck of a slog. There was one maybe half-mile jaunt that was along a flat trail, and that was it, most of it was a crazy quagmire of hills, ponds, trees, and a whole lot of crawling and hand-over-hand climbing.

Spartan Race’s obstacles are awesome. And diabolical at times. 

The race was made up of a lot of the typical obstacles – wall and rope ladder climbs, barbed wire crawls, mud climbs and pits, some grip strength stuff, and of course some heavy stuff carries. But Spartan Race was extra clever in how it did a lot of this stuff.

The first obstacle in a Spartan Race, of course, comes before the start – a four-foot wall that you have to climb to get to the starting line. I thought that was clever.

The first few in-race obstacles were pretty easy – good warmups for what was to come. We started off with the Over-Under-Through which was fairly easy – go over a wall, under a wall, then through a hole in a third wall.  And then the first rig, which led into Spartan’s diabolical nature.

Case in point number 1: the Traverse Wall and second rig. The first rig was a hand-over-hand/monkey bars, with the bars at various heights. I was actually pretty pleased with how well I handled that one. Obviously, these were metal bars, round variety. Definitely something I’d worked on.  And while they were pretty far apart at times, just taking the time to build up the momentum and then use that momentum worked pretty darned well.  I crossed that one with little problem.

The Traverse Wall was much more challenging than I was prepared for.  This is a zig-zag wall with small sections of two-by-four nailed into it at the hand and foot levels, and the goal is to traverse the entire length – going around corners and all. And while my grip strength was darned good on the first rig, holding those two-by-four pieces with0ut the benefit of my thumb was tough. And frankly, this was an obstacle where my Vibram Fivefingers didn’t help – not having that slightly more solid sole mean that all the weight was on my toes. Definitely a give and take situation as they were great for other stuff, but I’ll have to practice this one somehow. I made it to the first turn and fell off trying to get around the corner.

Elapsed burpees: 30

The very next obstacle was another rig, this time with alternating ropes and rings for five hand holds, then a long pole that you had to shimmy across, and then more alternating rings and ropes. I tried using my arm-span to my advantage and just use the rings, and that got me to the pole. But… it was a little slippery, my grip strength was still a little off after the Traverse wall, and frankly I was winded a bit after the burpees at the Traverse.  Down I went as I tried to grab the pole and slipped off.

Elapsed burpees: 60

Soon, we got the barbed wire crawl, and I used the rolling technique. The majority of folks were just crawling through, and I saved a lot of energy by doing rolling through it.  The speed at which we were moving also meant I didn’t have to roll to fast and get myself dizzy, thank goodness, though I did switch sides at one point and roll the other way.  I finished the obstacle and then ran forward to… another barbed wire crawl.  This one had the wire strung much lower, and basically you had to crawl that one.

Like I said, diabolical.

A little later on, I encountered the spear throw, one of the trademark obstacles at Spartan.  That was something that I’d prepared for. I had borrowed a friend’s spear (yeah, I have those kinds of friends), and developed a routine that I’d worked on, sort of like a golfer does the same thing at every drive or whatever. Hold the spear, lift it back over my head, point to the target with the opposite hand, take a step and throw. And man, my spear flew straight, it flew up and down to make sure that I got the point in and it didn’t hit and fall out… and about six inches higher than the target. Well… crap. The Spartan spear was slightly lighter than the one I’d trained with, and I don’t know if that was the issue but it threw me off a tad.

Elapsed burpees:  90.  Got a little dejected at this point.

After some up and down in the third mile (okay, a lot of up and down), we had a ten-foot wall, which I covered with the help of a competitor I’d been talking to. Then a couple more obstacles, like a cargo net and some similar stuff, and then one of the obstacles that I was sort of dreading just because I’d never tried it: the Bucket Brigade. Pretty simple in concept: fill a large bucket with gravel, and then carry it down a hill and back up. I actually did pretty darned well at this one… my technique was to wrap both hands around the bucket, grab my right wrist with my left hand, and use the fingers of my right hand to stabilize the bucket. It worked well for me.

The sandbag carry came soon after, with a similar situation. The sandbag was to be carried down the hill and up. I started with the bag on one shoulder, then switched to the other after a while.  But then I realized that the easiest thing to do for me would be to carry it on the back of my neck/upper back and just hold it in place with my hands.  This was a significantly longer carry, for sure, but the sandbag wasn’t nearly as heavy so this wasn’t quite as much a challenge other than the longer hill.  Again, pleased with how well I did with this one.

Soon after we came to a second ten foot wall.  My partner had been left behind a while back as he was waiting for some friends so I was alone at the second one. I figured… why not?  So, I took my run up, grasped the top of the wall as I jumped up onto it with one foot, and what do you know! I got over it all by myself! Very pleased with that one, I was pretty surprised! I think part of the key was to keep driving with the feet as I went over it. I’m definitely a “get high enough that you can throw a leg over” climber, and that worked well once I got one elbow over the wall.

Still feeling pretty good… tired but good.

Then… we got near the end.  And the last three obstacles were in sight of the finish line. But… two of them were: the rope climb and the Hercules Hoist. Our rope climb was not in a water pit, but rather on a pile of hay.  Didn’t matter, I still didn’t have the grip strength left to do it.

Elapsed burpees: 120

Same with the Hercules Hoist.  I had the technique down for the latter:  let your body weight pull the weight down and lay on the ground, then walk up the rope with your hands to keep the weight in place and repeat the process. But… my hands were shot at this point. Again, diabolical putting these two right next to each other.

Elapsed burpees: 150

And that was it. I jumped the fire and crossed the finish line. I was spent from top to bottom, and happy as hell to have completed my first Spartan Race.

Lessons for next time:

Grip training, grip training, and grip training.  And did I mention grip training? This is going to have to consist of lots of different holds, too. I’ve got monkey bars down, apparently, but I need more up-and-down grip work for the rope climb and Herc Hoist, for sure.  And I think some solid rock climbing training for the Traverse Wall will be of benefit. Luckily I know a gym.. as well as the public rock climbing wall here in Columbus. That will just be fun to work on!

Also, work some more up and down hills running into the mix. While I did pretty well with those, and I just seem to have a knack for doing steep uphill climbs pretty well, I was getting pretty winded, especially with all the burpees I ended up doing.

And keep practicing the spear throw a couple times a week. That needs to be pretty much instinct. I was close, but I was throwing neither horseshoes nor hand grenades in this case.

Anything else?

Like I said, everything about Spartan was about physical health and fitness and overcoming challenges.  The booths they had at Spartan went right along with that:  there was a crossfit gym who had a “hold up Thor’s hammer” challenge that they were promoting; one of their affiliates  FitAid had a booth (and were handing out free samples after the race was over), the Marines were there, doing a pull-up challenge, and of course there were healthy food trucks and such (as well as beer).  I was impressed – there weren’t a ton of vendors/booths, but they were all appropriate for the venue.

Registration was super-easy. Things moved quickly, booths to find your bib number if you didn’t know it or to fill out a waiver were staffed well and volunteers were forthcoming with info to keep things moving.

The Wilds was a great place to do this, though I did frequently wonder if I was rolling in the mud through rhino dung at times (I kid – those animals were nowhere to be seen on our course, they’re at a different part of the Wilds).  They were a great host.  And parking was good – there wasn’t anywhere that wasn’t pretty close to the entrance to the race.  Very nicely done. Parking was $10/car (though I think vans and buses were more) and bag check was $5, but those were the only fees you had to pay once you got there.

The volunteers were excellent.  All of them were obviously fans, if not participants themselves, and chatted with you at water stops or as they instructed you on obstacles about the sport and where you were from, etc. They were professional, encouraging, and definitely happy to be there.

Spartan Race medal

My first Spartan Race medal and finisher t-shirt!

The giveaways were few but memorable. I love that I finally have that Spartan Race headband to hang with my medal.  The t-shirt looks great, and the medal itself is awesome – we got the Sprint medal as well as part one of the trifecta medal, which my family thought was awesome.

All in all, Spartan Race gets ten out of ten for everything. Great organization, great race design and execution, fantastic festival area, and an attitude that pushes everyone to get through it and get the most out of it that you can. I am a big fan now, and will be back – hopefully before next year’s Spartan Race Ohio!

Have you run Spartan Race?  What are you impressions? Share at our message board