There are maybe a handful of hobbies more physical than obstacle races and the Spartan Race is the most popular. I underestimate the race, confirm what I know about myself, and learn about heat stroke the hard way.
What is the Spartan race?
Spartan Race is a series of obstacle races of varying distance and difficulty ranging from 3 miles to marathon distances.
They are held in US and have been franchised to 30 countries including Canada, South Korea, Australia and several European countries.
The series include the Spartan Sprint, the Spartan Super, the Spartan Beast, and the Spartan Ultra. Spartan Race also has a military series, hosted on military bases. There are also winter and team events.
Spartan Race began as a spin-off of the “Death Race”, a 48-hour endurance event founded in 2007.
Spartan was founded by De Sena, intended for it to be a more manageable endurance race for a wider audience.
Joe de Sena
His mother was a Yoga instructor and his father was a business owner.
He is a combination of entrepreneur and elite athlete: he started his own pool cleaning company, sold T-shirts, and worked on Wall Street.
Meanwhile he competed in Ironman competitions.
He became an ultramarathoner competing in hundreds of events.
In 2000, De Sena’s team became stranded in the Quebec wilderness during a 350-mile winter adventure race, when he had to dig himself beneath the snow to survive. It was here that he claims he made a distinction between “difficult” situations and “desperate” experience, and inspired him to create his own endurance races.
De Sena decided to develop a new series of obstacle course races and cofounded the Death Race. The first edition in 2007 saw only eight competitors, with three completing the race.
De Sena founded the Spartan in 2009 as a less strenuous obstacle course test.
The first Spartan Race event was held in 2010 at the Catamount Outdoor Center in Williston, Vermont and represented the city of Burlington, Vermont. Roughly 500 competitors had to “run, crawl, jump and swim” and overcome a variety of obstacles.
Obstacle Course and Competition
There are 4 flavours of the Spartan Race
- Spartan Sprint (3+ miles of obstacle racing, 20+ obstacles),
- the Spartan Super (8+ miles, 25+ obstacles),
- the Spartan Beast (13+ miles, 30+ obstacles),
- and the Spartan Ultra (30+ miles, 60+ obstacles).
The obstacles themselves also vary from race to race. Frequently presented obstacles can include
- a fire jump,
- climbing under barbed wire,
- wall climbing,
- mud crawling,
- the “over-under-through” (a series of obstacles in which runners must first climb over a wall, then under a wall, then through a square hole placed in a wall),
- spear throw,
- rope climb,
- heavy object carries,
- “Herculean Hoist”,
- “Tyrolean Traverse”,
- monkey bars,
- Traversal Wall (similar to a bouldering wall),
- Hobie Hop (a thick rubber band is placed around the ankles and participants hop through consecutive tires),
- Slippery Wall (a wall built at an incline, roughly covered in grease),
- a zig-zag log jump, steep mud climbs (rolling mud),
- tractor pulls,
- underwater submerging below walls (dunk walls),
- Atlas carries,
- tire flips,
- stump balances (skipping on stumps across a pond),
- rope swing,
- and the now discontinued Gladiator Arena.
Failure to fully complete any obstacles results in a 30 Burpee penalty in which runners complete before continuing their race.
If you’re not familiar with the burpee, it’s a body-weight exercise first popularized as a military fitness and agility test. It repackages squats, push-ups, and jumping jacks into one little horror show. And for every obstacle you fail or skip, Spartan famously dishes out 30 more.
A participant can obtain a Trifecta medal after completing a Spartan Sprint, Spartan Super and a Spartan Beast in one calendar year.
As of the 2016 season, the finisher medal includes both the traditional circular medal and a “pie piece” – one third of a larger Trifecta medal.
Each Spartan event also provides races for children ages 4 to 13: half-mile races for ages 4–8, and one mile races for those older than 8.
The Spartan World Championships are held yearly, and to qualify for the event, men and women must finish top 5 in a U.S. Championship Series event or a Regional Championship in their respective category.
Why do people subject themselves to this much discomfort? Why do people pay to subject themselves to this much discomfort?
I remember asking myself that question 10 minutes into my Spartan Race but I’ll get there.
According to University of Chicago psychology professor Sian Beilock, it’s about succeeding in high-pressure situations.
“There’s lots of research showing that people who have multiple self concepts—you’re not just someone at work or just a mother or a father, you’re also an extreme-sport participator—you will be happier psychologically. Even if you fail in one arena you have different ways to prove yourself.… If you walk into a job interview and think about what you succeeded at doing over the weekend, it could give you the confidence you need.”
Like some other hobbies, the allure of this hobby is the community.
You can run the race as a team, there are training camps, and there is even a sense of community during the race:
“Let’s say it’s a wall or a net that’s difficult to get over, other teams will stay and help. Just a lot of camaraderie, helping each other out, encouraging people. It was inspiring,”
This is not true of other races, which are primarily solo activities with headphones on focusing on your time.
Spartan Race and other endurance races aren’t really “races”, they’re challenges.
It’s not a race
That’s the main criticism: it’s not a race and the culprit is the burpees.
There are a lot of strong feelings about the use of burpees in a race:
EVERY time I have completed a burpee forfeit at a Spartan Race (which is a lot of times), I have been overtaken by people who have not completed all of their reps (in a lot of cases not even close to the right number, and many times they have been skipped all together).
It’s a systematic problem in that it relies on the honour system of people who are competitive, exhausted, and sometimes delirious.
There aren’t enough Marshalls to keep track of everyone doing burpees.
Time to race
I actually ran my first and only Spartan Race 4 years ago.
When I was asked if I wanted to sign up with a group at work, I thought it sounded like fun, like Survivor. I have been running regularly for years so I didn’t think it would be that much harder than a typical 5 or 10k race.
Eight of us formed a team and each paid our $100, which to me seemed excessive compared to the $40 or so for typical races.
As we got closer to the August date, team mates remembered weddings and other family “obligations” that conflicted with the race. By race day, we were down to three.
I wasn’t going to strap my phone to my arm to track the race because of the mud, so I told my wife the race would probably take an hour. Given that my typical 5k runs were less than half that, I figured doubling the time was realistic.
We drove an hour outside the city in the middle of a hot, sunny day to what turned out to be a ski summit, not the rolling hills I imagined. My team mate commented that scaling it three times would be difficult. Maybe it would take more than hour.
The temperature hit 40 degrees Celsius by our 1pm start time. I was traveling light with no water. As we passed a muddy horde who had just completed the race, I noticed they weren’t smiling like in the photos on the Spartan Race site. My confidence was melting away. It nearly evaporated when I noticed the long lines at the porta potties with nervous racers.
We were corralled to the starting line, which was not a ribbon but six foot tall, wooden gates. I surveyed my fellow racers. They were much more excited than I was. They could not stand still. There were battle cries. There were people who like looked like extras from the movie 300.
The race started but the gates didn’t open. Instead everyone started running and climbing the gates. The first obstacle and I was already contemplating quitting. At this point, my goal shifted from impressing my colleagues and strangers around me to finishing the race. I couldn’t remember the last time I had climbed anything, so I used the planks added to the gates to assist people like me. I seemed to be the only person using them.
Once I got over the gates, I took off to keep up with the group. It felt as if we were being chased. We turned a corner and ran into the summit. I started to climb it at a walking pace being passed by the group as they kept running. I warned them in my head that they should save their energy.
I was feeling good about half way up. I trained on hills and was ready for this. The runners had slowed down. Some were taking breaks. My confidence grew.
I approached the next obstacle: the famous mud pit with barbed wire overhead. This would make for a great photo I thought as I eagerly dove in. The mud was not as muddy as it looked, it merely hid the sharp rocks. Instead of Army crawling, I thought I’d bear crawl to save my knees. The barbed wire turned out to be barbed wire. Now the cuts on my back were competing for attention with my throbbing knees. Luckily, I brought old workout gloves so my hands were saved .The pit became more of a soccer pitch in length. My confidence sunk.
I cleared the obstacle and now had the pleasure of continuing the race with the weight of mud on my clothes and in my shoes. At least it was back to the hill climb. I noticed the group had thinned.
First wall climb
I reached the next obstacle close to the top of the summit. It was a two-storey wall made of a few metal pipes. As I waited in line, I looked for something I could use as a boost. “Oh, that’s good” I thought when I saw bundles of hay at the bottom of the wall to cushion any falls. When it was my turn, I looked down and saw something strange that took me a few seconds to register: an index finger sized turd. I assumed it was human since I was sure there was a no pets policy.
I managed to climb the wall fairly easily but did not celebrate because I was preoccupied by the turd and circumstances that could have led to it. Why were people shitting themselves? How did they do it discretely? Why did no one else seem to care? If I fall, can I avoid it?
I snapped to when I realized I had made it to the top of the summit. I passed a big group gulping water at the water station. I had trained in the summer heat and was in the zone.
Running down hill was a relief. I noticed I was descending quickly and wondered how I’d pay for it the next day.
Lifting heavy things
The obstacles at the bottom involved lifting heavy things and balancing across wooden beams. These were more like what imagined and I didn’t see any more poop. I thought that I may end up actually enjoying this.
Beyond those obstacles was the second summit climb. I left my colleagues behind as I picked up momentum. I passed a few people vomiting. I assumed they drank too much water. I also passed one of the extras from 300 who was being attended to by what looked like medics. They were covering him with blankets because he was cold. I didn’t stop to make sense of it.
The obstacles on the way up were a mix of climbing and crawling, but luckily no poop.
I was starting to slow down but I reached the top, and again I skipped the water station. The parallel bar obstacle seemed to be causing a lot of shoulder injuries so I made sure to keep good form as I crossed them. The racer behind me fell grabbing her shoulder. The obstacle official approached her and told her she had to do the twenty burpee penalty to continue. The was with her bad shoulder. I wondered if she realized she was paying him.
I ran down again with ease leading me to worry more about the consequences to my legs. I also wondered what my time was.
The obstacles here involved a lot of rope climbing. I had only seen this in movies about gym classes from the 70s and 80s. I did the burpees. I noticed the burpees took more effort than climbing the summit both times.
I climbed the summit the last time. I started to hit a wall and my pace slowed. I looked around at one point and could not see anyone ahead or behind me. What if I faint, I thought. I started to get thirsty.
Heat store or dehydration?
As the sun baked the mud on me, I felt goosebumps and a wave of cold wash over me. I knew this wasn’t a good thing. I took breaks and counted my steps in between. When I reached the top, I added tunnel vision and nausea added to the list of signs I was not in good shape.
I saw the water station ahead. I would be ok. I could hear some sort of announcement but couldn’t make out the words. When I approached, I learned that they were running out of water and were rationing the remaining supply. I drank my shot glass serving. I savoured it.
I was on autopilot going downhill one last time alternating between running and walking. I no longer felt cold or nausea but remained concerned.
At the midway point obstacles, I failed the balance and climbing portions. I did as many burpees as I could and walked passed the staff. They did not stop any of us.
I continued the final descent and saw the last obstacle in the distance: a 25 foot wall with a rope. Waiting in line, I contemplated walking around it, but I dismissed the thought because of the spectators cheering and watching.
Surprisingly, this was the easiest obstacle due to the wall’s rubber coating. I climbed down the rope net on the other side. I was greeted with burning logs blocking the finish line. I walked around these and crossed the line.
My colleagues were nowhere to be found. I couldn’t decide if they had finished or were fighting for water at the last station. I drank a pitcher of water. Cleaning up involved a rubber hose and a pile of discarded clothes.
The race had taken me over three hours. By the time I got my phone, I had dozens of missed calls and text messages from my wife. She was worried I was covered under a blanket and had messaged my colleagues on Slack. I let my wife know I was OK and I would explain.
- Set aside a full day
- Wear clothes and shoes you can throw out after
- Wear gloves
- Try not to run downhill, you may not be able to walk for a week after
- If you feel cold and it’s 40 degrees Celsius, take a break
I don’t think you can find a more physical hobby than obstacle racing. It’s one part completion, one part a playground for adults, and one part bragging rights, usually internally for when you’re faced with a challenge.
Recounting my experience I both want to run it again but feel anxious about running it again. Maybe I’ll try to create a team at work.