The Spartan Race is hands down, the hardest race I’ve ever participated in. This includes all the marathons I’ve ran (even the thunderstorm at the LA Marathon), trail race with the ‘widow maker’ hill. This race combined all of the worst possible scenarios you could ask for in a race: extreme temperatures (100+ degrees), long distances (12+ miles), multiple difficult obstacles (28) and a lingering cough to top things off. The mere fact that I completed the race was an achievement in itself, let alone being able to successfully succeed in all but one obstacle (darn you spear throw!) This worked out since I had not practiced doing burpees at all.. My training program leading up to this event was pretty basic compared to others I know who have completed this race before. Here are the official results: 3:27:05, age group place: 31, gender place: 151, overall place: 170. The two things I said when I posted my results on Facebook: it was a respectable time (which I agree) and that I’ll never do this race again (maybe)!
Why Spartan Race?
I wish I had a better reason other than my friend wanted to do it. He had watched and cheered on his brother complete the same race in Monterey and was inspired to do the same. So we both registered for the Spartan Race in Temecula with about 3 months to train. And because his brother did the Beast option (12+ miles), my friend wanted to do the same (vs the shorter 9 mile Super and 5K Sprint options). As first time Spartan Race participants, we probably should have attempted the shorter distances first.
I don’t even know if I could call this training, it definitely wasn’t as intense as it should have been. I went to the gym about 3-4 times a week while doing long runs on the weekend to ensure that I would be able to run the 12+ mile distance (I’ve raced longer, but just needed to prepare my body for it). The workouts at the gym consisted of: 1 mile warmup on the treadmill, a very short circuit workout called the 7 minute workout and multiple reps of dumbbell chest presses and dumbbell curls followed by one max set of pull-ups (started at 10, worked my way up to 25). The last few weeks before the race, I started doing some grip exercises (holding bench plates with my fingers, walking with heavy dumbbells, etc). Other than that, I didn’t change up my workout routine much, it was more about consistency for me, and making sure I went to the gym as often as possible. I heard that the race wasn’t really about raw strength, but more about endurance and agility. It would have been nice to be able to practice some of the obstacles that we’d be doing on race day, but who really has extra sandbags hanging around the house?
Leading up to Race Day
Two things that really made the race more difficult than it had to be: the weather and my cough. I have no idea where I got the cough from, possibly a co-worker. This was the worst cough I’d had in years! I don’t think I was really coughing up phlegm, but just had an irritated throat and would need to cough every couple of minutes. Nights were the worst, for some reason I would cough a lot more at home than at work. This lead me to believe that there may have been mold in my room, but I think it was just that it was much more stuffy there than at work. Sleeping was nearly impossible! I was hoping the cough would go away within the first week, but when it didn’t, I finally decided to buy some cough medicine. I would have cough fits throughout the night and wake myself up with cough attacks. I tried playing soccer the Monday before the race and was coughing so much, I had to sub myself out much earlier than I usually did and was coughing to the point where I was dry heaving and wanted to puke! I made the decision to rest the week of the race and hope that the cough would go away before the day of the actual race. That didn’t happen as the night before the race, I was still coughing while trying to sleep. Fortunately, I wasn’t coughing much during the race and was able to complete it (although probably with less energy than I would have wanted).
Temecula is very inland, but I guess most Spartan Races take place in areas like this. They need as much empty space to set up all of the obstacles. Unfortunately, it happened at one of the worst times of the year. Southern California didn’t really have much of a summer before, so I guess Mother Nature was making up for the lack of sun by beaming 100+ degree temperatures the week or so before the race. Thank goodness for AC at work, I made sure to bring my own lunch and not have to leave the office during the day. Nights were just as bad though with 80+ degree temperatures with humidity even with the sun down. The race organizers actually sent an email to all participants warning about the heat and highly recommended every runner bring their own hydration (water bottle, hydration pack) as well as nutrition, wear a hat and avoid racing shirtless. According to the website, they were only going to have 4 water stations throughout the course, but because of the heat, they ended up having at least double that (and they were all welcome!)
I got to stay at a hotel the night before the race, so I didn’t have to drive an hour to the race from my house. That definitely made things easier. Too bad all the coughing prevented me from getting a good night’s rest!
But even having a shorter drive, I was still late for my actual start time. I was fortunate to be able to register for the 7:30am start time, but because we arrived late had to start with the 7:45am wave, which proved to be a big difference (temperature-wise). I had just enough time to park, walk to the race location and use the restroom before hopping over the pre-race wall to the starting chute. There was one more warning for people to be wary of the heat (some people were still shirtless, without hats or hydration.)
Course & Obstacles
So there are two parts to the race: the running and the obstacles. I’ve been a runner for most of my life, so I thought I would have been able to handle that part. But because I was sick and had to complete various obstacles throughout the race, I wasn’t really sure how I should pace myself. But in the end, it didn’t even matter. Most of the running involved very steep up and down hills, neither of which I was able to run very fast on. I ended up hiking most of the hills, while being very careful on the down hills as to not slip and fall flat on my face. There was about a mile stretch that was completely flat (and shaded) that I loved! I definitely ran my fastest during that time.
If I were to complete all the obstacles at once, I could probably finish them in about ~45 minutes (hour max). But since they were scattered throughout the race and separated by miles of hill running, it just made this race that much harder. I had made a list of all that courses I participated in, but I think I’ll just mention some of the harder/notable ones.
- Atlas Carry – Prior to the race, we were trying out some of the ‘test’ obstacles and the boulder we supposedly had to carry was way too heavy to carry, let alone lift. Fortunately, it was just to throw us off because the boulder we actually had to carry wasn’t as heavy.
- Wall Climbs – Heights ranged from 6-8 feet, inverted and traverse. I guess I was just used to climbing walls/fences as a kid because the regular wall climbs were a cinch. Only problem I had was at the 8 foot climb, the moment my right foot touched the wall, my calf began to cramp! I basically stopped and grabbed my calf, waiting for the pain to go away. The volunteer kept yelling at me to stretch it, but I never could when it happens (not right away at least).The inverted wall was actually kind of fun, mostly because I was able to do it. It reminded me of the inverted walls when you go rock climbing, it’s all upper body strength. I was able to get over that wall with not as much effort as others.The traverse was probably the hardest wall obstacle for a couple of reasons. I was wearing my GoPro with a chest mount, so that kind of got in the way as I was climbing. The grips itself were very hot too, so you couldn’t take your time on it. I had hurt my foot playing soccer months ago, but it hasn’t really healed completely. So turning my right foot in the direction that was needed was painful. I’m glad I made the decision to lead with my right side instead of my left, I felt like that allowed me to use my (dominant) right arm much more.
- Tire Flip / Drag – The tire flip was more intimidating than difficult. All you had to do was flip it twice out and twice back and it wasn’t has heavy as I thought it’d be, no complaints there.The tire drag also looked harder than it was. Similar to the flip, I was able to drag it out with not much effort. I thought pulling it back would be difficult (especially without any gloves or knots in the rope). But I was able to push my foot back against a medal rod in the ground and that made a big difference.
- Log Jump/Hop – This one was interesting. There was one log about 4 feet horizontal in the air and another about 6 feet, both about 2 feet apart from each other. So you had to jump onto the first log and then to the higher one and jump over. Some people were jumping onto the first log, waiting there and trying to jump to the 2nd I just used a running start to get onto the first one and using my momentum, leap onto the higher one. I was very proud at myself for completing that one early on in the race.
- Barbed Wire Crawls – None of these were very difficult, it did hurt my knees and hands to have to crawl on hard mud and rocks. The barbed wire was high enough that you weren’t really at risk of scratching yourself. You either had to army crawl or barrel roll (which I did a few times).
- Monkey Bars – I was afraid of failing this obstacle. I knew I had trained enough with my pull-up workouts, but had never ‘practiced’ using monkey bars. And even if I did, this obstacle was different in that the heights alternated, regular and higher. I was watching others attempt and fail and was trying to figure out the best strategy. First was to grab some nearby dirt so I’d have some grip on the bars (we had just gone through a water obstacle, how conveniently timed..) It would have been hard to pull my body up to the higher bar, so what I ended up doing was going sideways. It’s kind of hard to describe, but instead of facing forward while doing the obstacle, I was facing toward the side. I don’t know how, but it seemed to work and I was able to get through that was rather quickly. The moment I landed, I was expecting some cheers from the crowd/volunteers but realized everyone was worried about finishing the obstacle themselves. Oh well, self-pat on the back!
- Gravel Bucket / Sandbag Carry – The gravel bucket was definitely the most physically demanding obstacle that I did (even worse was it was the only obstacle where you couldn’t do burpees instead). The concept is simple: get a bucket and fill it with the provided gravel, nearly filled to a certain line (supposedly if they see any space underneath the line, you have to go back and add more…even if you already completed the obstacle!) and walk the route while carrying the bucket. Filling the bucket hurt, but wasn’t too bad. The walk on the other had was terrible! I don’t even know, the bucket must have weight 100-150 pounds? And there really wasn’t a good way to carry it, I was definitely afraid I would cut myself. I ended up taking at least 3-4 rest breaks, as did everyone else. That obstacle itself (with breaks) probably took at least 30 minutes. To make matters worse, there was a hornet nest directly in the path that we had to walk, so we had to walk around it.The sandbag carry was toward the end of the race, but it wasn’t really too difficult. I would think the bad weighed around 50 pounds or so and the walk was maybe at least 400 meters or so. But there were multiple ways you could have held the bag. I held it on either shoulder for most of the time and then in front of me for a little bit. I know some people were carrying it on the back of their neck, it just didn’t look comfortable, and so I didn’t bother trying it that way.
- Herc Hoist – Another physically demanding obstacle. You basically have to pull a giant sandbag in the air (probably 100-150 pounds again) through this rope/pulley system. Again, I was afraid that I would not be able to do this, not because of the weight, but because I didn’t think I would be able to grip the rope. And you had to pull the bag in the air and slowly lower it back to the ground. I thought that I was going to lose my grip and have it drop on me. It actually was pretty heavy because I wasn’t able to pull it with my arms. I had to lean forward, grip the rope and then use the weight of my body to pull the sandbag up a little while I grabbed the slack of the rope. This was probably tied for the 2nd hardest obstacle.
- Spear Throw – Of all the obstacles I could have failed at, this was definitely not one I thought it would be. It was a pretty simple task, you have a broomstick with a point at the end and you have to launch it at a haystack and make sure it stays in there. I got some tips from the volunteer to hold the spear near the middle, which I did. Unfortunately, the haystack I threw mine in had other spears in it already and mine bounced off theirs. This was the only obstacle I had to do burpees for.
- River Crawl – This is definitely the most disgusting obstacle of them all. We had to crawl over what I’m positive was manure or fertilizer!! It smelled horrible and there were flies everywhere. To make matters worse, whatever it was, it was super moist and had a quicksand feel to it. So if you tried to walk normally across, your feet (or shoe) would get stuck! So you had no choice but to crawl, my face was inches from this stuff.. The next part of the obstacle was some muddy water which was refreshing and allowed me to wash off whatever I had just crawled through before. I think I tried walking first and one of my shoes got stuck in the mud. I had to pull it out and hold it in my hand the rest of the way. There was a guy that was able to walk it, he must have been barefoot or something because everyone else had to crawl. And because of the way I was crawling, my calves were cramping up again. This was up there was one of the harder obstacles.
- Rope Climb – We never had the rope climb in high school, I’ve never climbed a rope prior to this obstacle. I’m actually afraid of heights and we had to climb up this rope about 15 feet in the air or so and ring a bell. But I had other things to worry about than the height. The base of the rope is in a water/mud pit, so I guess if you fall it won’t hurt as much? But even before I could start the rope climb, my calves kept cramping up. This was the 2nd to last obstacle and I was dehydrated from the heat. My friend (the one who suggested we do this race, actually got hurt and was spectating again!) was on the sidelines telling me which rope to climb. I finally started climbing up, I was so glad there were knots along the rope or else I don’t think I would have been able to get up. I wasn’t tall enough to reach the bell from the last knot, so I kind of had to pull myself up to ring it, but I did it. As I started to climb down the rope, my calves started cramping again! It got to the point where I couldn’t step on the knots and was literally sliding down the rope with my hands! I’m so lucky I didn’t end up with rope burn or any other serious injury.
- Fire Jump – Probably the easiest of all the obstacles and was the final one before the finish. It was more for photographers to get a good shot of runners before they completed the race. I have to admit, they were good shots, and I’m currently using one as my profile photo.
I remember finishing the race and asking a volunteer to open the bottle of protein shake that they were giving away. Ironic that I couldn’t just do it myself, but I was exhausted! We were able to wash off most of the mud in the shower area. But as I finished washing off, I saw others we were just starting their own race! It must have been so hot at that point, I kind of felt bad for all of the participants. It wasn’t until after I got home that I found out that they shortened the course because too many people were getting hurt, either from dehydration, heat strokes or from the course itself. There wasn’t enough course support or medics to take care of everyone. I knew things were serious when they officially announced the cancellation of all races the following day. Temperatures were going to be the same and they didn’t want more people to be at risk. Again, the worst of my injuries were a couple of bruised toenails (they’ll eventually grow back) and some scratches on my hands. I was a little sore, but I usually am after long/difficult runs. I have never been so grateful for completing a race with very little issues.
The Spartan Race’s slogan is “You’ll know at the finish line.” I suppose the question is probably, “how hard is the Spartan Race?” or “what does it feel like to compete in the Spartan Race?” I always tell people that completing a marathon gives you this unique feeling of accomplishment, and makes you think you can do anything you set your mind to. The same goes for completing the Spartan Race. It is a test of endurance (both physically and mentally). Sure, you can train and prepare for the obstacles and the run, but you will get to a point where you just don’t care anymore and may even want to quit.
I still wish I had done the Sprint or Super distances first before taking on the Beast distance. There is a trifecta medal that you get when you finish all 3 (assuming within a year). I suppose if I can do the Beast distance, the rest should be a piece of cake (but that’s like saying running a 5K is easy…not at the pace I run them at!) I don’t know if I will ever attempt a Spartan Race again, but you should never say never! I definitely would recommend this race to any athletes that are looking for a challenge that a road or trail race will not give them.