If you’ve not heard of the Spartan Race before, then I’ll give you a brief introduction. Spartan Races are obstacle races, generally ran on hilly, muddy terrain. It’s part of a growing trend of ‘Mud Runs’ that are cropping up everywhere. There are three main types of Spartan Race: The Spartan Sprint (5K), the Super Spartan (15K), and the Spartan Beast (20K). The Calgary Sprint takes place on off-road dirt-biking terrain at the Wild Rose MotoX circuit. The 2013 Calgary Spartan Sprint was held on the 17th and 18th of August 2013, and was attended by over 5,000 people over the two day event.
If you’ve read my earlier blog posts, you’ll see that I ran the same race last year. This year I was back with more friends to join me and a previous personal best to beat.
On arrival at the venue you have to drive carefully, as there are many exhausted, muddied staggering towards their cars. Every one of them looks exhausted – and maybe a little disoriented, but they also look generally very happy with themselves especially once they had found their vehicle. Some of them are still chugging down bottles of Gatorade, and sitting down on the floor. Some are putting sheets of newspaper onto the seats of their cars to drive home and take a shower.
I asked the couple getting into the car next to mine what they thought of the race, and what to expect. The woman told that there was a ‘gross’ dead deer carcass on the trail, while her boyfriend said that that the running was way harder than last year. They also tell me there is an impossibly difficult rope climb right at the end.
After collecting my number and getting my number written on my arms so I could be identified in the photographs later, I entered the main arena.
In the festival area, things are different from the previous year; there are plenty of freebies on offer, like a phone charging station, somewhere to get a picture together, etc. Big sponsors like Weetabix (?) and sports nutrition companies have moved in, but I found it disappointing that the event had also been infiltrated by pseudo-sports science quackery, selling things like Kinesio taping for sports injuries, goji berry supplements, and other useless crap.
At the start line, a race official started bellowing out some motivational blurb to the group who were about to start. I thought the speech was a bit cringe-worthy and overly long. Some people at the starting line weren’t impressed either, and one of them shouted, “Get on with it!” which raised a few cheers from the spectators – who clearly agreed.
Soon I was joined by my team members and other friends who wisely chose to spectate. Only four of us were able to make it to run in the race; two of our original team ran in the heat before mine, albeit accidentally, while another had badly hurt her foot and was unable to race that day. I wasn’t feeling my best either.
Despite my best efforts, I was still recovering from a cold that had developed in the first half of the week and had threatened to keep me from racing altogether. By Friday night it seemed like the worst was over. I still wasn’t feeling 100%, but I had to make the most of it. By Saturday morning I was on the road up to Calgary anyway.
Once the starting gun had fired, I held back a little; nerves, uncertainty about my fitness and the excess adrenaline in my system made for a cautious start. I evaluated the pace, and slowly began passing people, wondering if they would be bearing down on me later in the race. Also getting passed by me in a race is much like a Ford Focus passing a Mercedes: people get annoyed and don’t understand the physics of it. I don’t understand it either to be honest. Still, getting the correct starting pace is probably the most difficult thing to judge.
With a few obstacles already out of the way, I found myself ahead of the pack, apart from one guy who seemed pretty determined to stay in first position. I soon caught up with him and he and I exchanged first place a number of times. I wasn’t trying to necessarily beat him, but I just wanted to get the best time possible. Ok, I was trying to beat him.
I started thinking about last years personal best time, but the course was very different this year, so there was no way to really compare the timing. It didn’t matter too much, and I enjoyed it more and more as the event progressed. A long set of monkey bars, mud pits (lots of mud pits), a bigger cargo net and the hanging tires were all new additions.
The running sections of the course took us through a winding set of switchbacks, ducking down below the view of the spectators into rutted, forested paths (complete with the deer carcass), and back up pebbly scrambles so steep, even my legendary gecko-like New Balance Minimus Trail running shoes had problems keeping traction. Other parts of the race were run on the actual motocross circuit jumps themselves. I found that the running was generally less savage than last year, with fewer uphill sections during the first kilometer than I remembered. Either that or my training was paying off. My shoes on the other hand, were letting me down badly.
A tip for anyone racing this year: Mud gets into your shoes, and makes things difficult. Mud is extremely abrasive to shoe materials and feet. It’s also very heavy; so much of the race feels like one is running with ankle weights. After the first mud pit, it was very hard to find traction within the shoe itself. I was running without socks (which may have been part of the problem) and my foot slid around on the insole like I was running on banana peels, distorting and stretching the thin upper materials to breaking point. The toes of the shoes tore on each foot. This is mainly because I bought a size too large, because they weren’t long enough for my hobbit feet. They aren’t ruined, but I’m not going to use them again for racing; I hate those shoes anyway, but that’s another story about barefoot style running shoes. Don’t wear them, get something that is cushioned.
TLDR: Wear shoes that fit properly because: mud. Barefoot/minimalist training shoes suck.
I caught up with the competitors running in the previous heat near the sandbag hill climb along the north edge of the arena. I wasn’t completely drained of energy when I reached at this obstacle like I was last year (when I thought I was literally going to die from dehydration). The sandbag hill climb is definitely a killer though. You must take a 40lb bag of sand over one shoulder, which must be carried down and back up the steepest slope on the trail. It killed me. This time I had made sure I was ready (osmotically speaking), so I still had plenty of energy. A good thing really, since the water station was positioned right at the end of the course, 200m from the finish line near one of the climbing walls.
The terrain of the second half of the race turned more flat, but the obstacles became either taller, or more water-based. I had to duck and crawl through a trough full of mud, passing underneath the barbed wire overhead. The trough then opened out into a flooded trail, which I had to wade through fast to keep ahead of the faster members of my heat who were a few obstacles behind me.
People are getting clearly exhausted and struggling to keep going. I was starting to slow, and my legs were burning from wading through the water at speed, but my shoes were getting the mud cleaned off by the action. Once I was into the shallows my feet felt a couple of pounds lighter and I sprinted out of the water and to the final three obstacles.
The last three obstacles are the trickiest. The first was the apex wall climb; a scramble up a slanted, muddy board holding onto a knotted rope and a descent down a slippery ladder. It’s all about balance, and whatever remaining arm and quadriceps strength you have left.
The second was the previously rumored rope climb.
Positioned over a pit of muddy water, the rope is 15-20 feet long and covered in slippery mud. The rope has three knots, placed just far enough apart to make them difficult to reach. These knots are the only hope you have to ring the bell at the top of the rope and complete the obstacle without a 30 burpee penalty. I stood below the rope, and jumped out of the mud, and wrapped my leg around the rope, pinching the rope between the shin of one leg and the calf of the other, ratcheting myself up to the top. The rope was incredibly slippery, and it took more effort to maintain grip on the rope than it took strength to pull myself up. Each knot offered just enough support to keep going. Once I had rung the bell, I let go of the rope and dropped quickly into the water below, underestimating the height of the drop. Luckily I landed uninjured on my feet, and ran to the final stage, the spear throw.
At the spear throw, I knew it was critical that I hit the target first time, as there was a line of people waiting to throw the spear, after having failed on their first attempt. I took aim, and threw the javelin, which buried itself into the shoulder of the straw dummy. Surprising really, javelin was probably my worst event in P.E. at Gowerton Comprehensive. I jumped the small fire obstacle, and got knocked about a little by the gladiators before I crossed the line.
I couldn’t see any sign of the other guy who had been out front with me, or anyone else from my heat for that matter. I realized I had probably taken first place. I couldn’t believe it.
While that sunk in, it was great seeing my colleagues and friends making their way through the mud and the obstacles. They made a big collective effort to make it through the race. It was clear they had enjoyed themselves, and they were proudly getting photos taken with their medals.
I had finished first place in my heat of 250, finishing 49th place overall for the entire two day event with a respectable time of 32:09, an improvement over my first year time of 34:17 from the 2012 race. I feel like I ran to the best of my ability on the day, even if I didn’t get the sub 30:00 time I was hoping for, even coming first in my heat didn’t matter; I had beaten my own time. I didn’t have any injuries to complain to Deanna about, apart from some sunburn
that wasn’t even that bad. That meant I would be getting a burger.
After getting cleaned up, and changed into our Spartan T-Shirts we went as a team – wearing our medals, to the South Street Burger Co. to get the filthiest burger money could buy. No regrets. Then I had the two hour long drive home to Lethbridge.
Sunburn won’t be happening again this year. It was really, really bad. And I did complain to my long-suffering wife Deanna. A lot. So make sure you cover up, or use some heavy sun-block.
So, please join me for this year’s sprint. It’s a great opportunity to get in shape with a goal. You have 8 months to prepare. Let’s do this!
I’m going to update the blog with my training plan and tips for training this year, based on what I experienced.