All I could really think about as I trudged uphill for the seventh mile, skidded down a dusty slope for the eighth, slipped into a muddy ditch for the dozenth time, was, “Just don’t stop moving. One step at a time.”
Of course, I had been told earlier by my friends and fitness instructor that for my first obstacle course race ever, especially one as infamously difficult as the Spartan Race, I should not be worrying about my speed, time, or rank. “Take it easy and focus on finishing,” Shola said. I was ready to take the advice to heart, especially since I was about to take on approximately nine miles and twenty-six obstacles in ninety-degree weather with zero training. (By this I mean that I didn’t add anything to my regular gym routine to specially prepare myself for the race, which in retrospect was unwise.)
But as soon as I hopped the first of many walls, at 10:15 on a beautiful, blazing hot morning in Diablo Grande, I couldn’t resist my competitive spirit. I finished the first two obstacles with everyone else on my team and rounded out the first mile with my team buddy. But afterward, with my buddy’s permission, I took off and tackled the rest of the course on my own. By mile three, most of the people I passed were simply walking from obstacle station to station; I kept jogging along and thinking, “Isn’t this a Spartan Run, not a Spartan Walk?” (Of course, I was wrong, because the event is called a Spartan Race, with no reference to any particular mode of movement.)
The following is a recap of my thought catalog over the course of the next three hours:
Mile 1. Obstacles: hurdles, walls, big A-frame net thing. “This is pretty fun. Doesn’t seem very dangerous, though. Just hot. I’m glad there are water stations.”
Mile 2. Obstacles: monkey bars, walls, moat. “What was the point of that moat? Now I get to run in wet shoes for seven miles. Great.”
Mile 3. Obstacles: 6′ wall, mud crawl, 7′ wall. “Oh god, this mud is probably 50% cow manure. It’s good to be small; I can actually squat-trudge through this maze instead of military crawling, which means that I’ll only be covered in mud from neck to toe instead of head to toe. This is like the worst kind of slip ‘n slide. [Later…] Damn, these walls just keep getting higher and higher. If they go past 8’ I won’t be able to clear them by myself…”
Mile 4. Obstacles: code memorization, giant hill, Z-wall. “Holy crap this is a huge hill. Wonder what’s at the top? Oh, nothing? We just turn left and go straight back down another side? Okay then.”
Mile 5. Obstacles: 8′ wall, Tyrolean (inverted rope climb), Herculean hoist (115 lbs), rope climb, spear throwing, plate drag. All in that order. My thoughts: “Holy crap what is this madness?!” (Answer: here.) I can’t believe they put pretty much all of the upper body strength obstacles in one place, and one right after the other, to boot. The first rope climb was easy, but I had never even seen anything like the Herc Hoist before, and it killed me. I raised that stupid sandbag halfway and then stepped on my rope to keep it there while I tried to regain the feeling in my arms. I swear, if the rope slipped and the bag fell to the ground, I probably would have cried while doing the thirty burpee punishment. But with a lot of grunting, I got it to the top, at which point my arms and grip gave way and the thing came crashing down thirty feet to the ground. Then I trotted over to discover that the next obstacle was a freaking rope climb. My hands were already forming blisters. This is where I began to think, “Okay, so this race is Serious Business. I can understand why everybody else is walking, but it’s not my legs that are in pain right now.” I missed the spear throw by a long shot (thirty burpees!), and the next obstacle was a real drag (pun intended) since my plate kept getting stuck in the dirt, to say nothing of my own depleted lats and traps.
Mile 6. Obstacles: inverted wall, stairway, small mountain. The inverted wall had been painted black and placed in direct sunlight; gripping it felt like putting my hands on a cast-iron pan. There was a nutrition station here where I ate more energy gummies than I probably should have. I finally acquiesced to walking uphill, but kept jogging whenever it was level. The next mile was uphill.
Mile 7. Obstacle: sandbag carry. “Well, this feels kind of like backpacking. Ooh, a photographer! Hi! Ooh, what a view! What a nice breeze! Am I starting to enjoy this, or am I going nuts? Hm, what was my code again?”
Mile 8. Obstacle: bucket brigade. It was so nice to jog downhill for a mile, excepting the storm of dust I kept kicking up because the descents were so steep. But at the bottom of the hill, we were greeted with the task of filling a bucket with at least eighty pounds of gravel and carrying it around a tree for no reason; I was so annoyed that I kicked the gravel into my bucket rather than scoop it as everyone else as doing.
Mile 9. Obstacles: underwater wall, more mud, Atlas Carry, multi-rig, slip wall. Last stretch! The mud felt amazing, and I scrambled through it like an excited dog, even as I saw a guy cramp up beside me and get stuck. I smiled at the photographer as I emerged from the filthiest water I’ve ever been in. The Multi-Rig was awful, though, like monkey bars but from hell’s jungle gym. Some of the grips were baseballs. I had no grip strength to support my body weight from a freaking baseball, so on my first try, I grabbed the straps they were attached to. Suddenly, my entire side cramped up and I had to let go. “Okay, Andrew, you’re not going to do thirty more burpees right here, and look, there’s all these people watching because you’re so close to the finish line. You can do this.” I tried the Multi-Rig again, slower this time, and using my momentum to swing me from one grip to the other. The last few grips were ropes (let it be known that I hate ropes), and I screamed as I swung the last few distances to hit the bell. When I landed, I saw that my blisters had ripped open.
Still grunting in pain, I flew through the last obstacle and practically glared at the guy who gave me my medal at the finish line, glared at the nice folks who offered me drinks, food, and swag, glared at everyone I saw before I reached the medic tent and had my hands treated.
But after getting water, electrolytes, and calories back in me, I felt a lot better, then went back out to look for my teammates and cheer them on as they crossed. It was so hot, and the temperature just kept rising as the afternoon wore on. Hours later, we all finally reunited, took photos, rinsed off the worst of the mud and cow shit, and got dinner together. I didn’t actually expect the race to be an entire day’s ordeal, but I had left home at 6:30am and got back at 9:30pm.
Two hours, forty-three minutes, and forty-five seconds was my time. Since I raced in the Open category, this put me in 151st place (I’m Mew!) for males, and 32nd in my age group. Over 4,700 people ran this race last week, and I feel proud simply to be among them. We humans do some crazy shit sometimes.
There are three lengths of Spartan Races: I did a Super (8-10 miles), but there’s also the Sprint, which is shorter, and the Beast, which is half-marathon length. At the moment, I’m down to try this again; I want my second and third Trifecta medals for a sense of completion (also, that’s good marketing). But I should remember a few things for next time: arm and leg sleeves to prevent random scratches, gloves to protect my palms from evil ropes, and weeks of upper body strength training prior to the race, because I am a weak little hand puppet when it comes to lifting sandbags into the air.
Have I caught the racing bug? First the Hot Chocolate Run in January, now this obstacle race and another on the radar? I don’t know. But I take a certain amount of pleasure in coaxing my body to accomplish things I didn’t think it could do. I’m thankful for the privilege of able-bodiedness and for having good health. It offers me lots of memorable experiences I wouldn’t have otherwise, and it also allows me to encourage others in my community who may doubt themselves and their abilities. It’s like, “Look, you do have to be able-bodied to run a race like this, but you can start off as a short and scrawny dude and work at it for a few years; before you know it, you’ll be doing your first Spartan Sprint / 5k / Ultimate Frisbee tournament / muscle-up and you’ll realize you had it in you all along!”
Word of the Day: bonk, as in “to hit the bonk” or “to bonk after a few miles”, is a slang term used in endurance sports such as long-distance running or cycling. The phenomenon occurs when your body, in particular the liver, runs out of its stores of glycogen, which is converted into energy by your muscles during physical activity. No glycogen means no energy, which means near-instant fatigue. Sometimes the onset is so sudden it’s like running into a wall, hence its other common moniker: “to hit the wall”. Today, I went for an afternoon jog and only came back after I’d hit eleven miles, a personal record. My friend Josh asked me, “Why do you live like this?!” and I just shrugged. When I ran a 15k (9.3 miles) a few months ago, I almost bonked toward the end of the race. I think I’m sort of in personal competition with myself to see how far I can go before I physically can’t anymore.