I was fortunate enough to participate in my first Spartan race this past weekend. It just turned out to be the World Championships in Lake Tahoe and yes, I chose the Beast distance. Looking back on it, I am actually very glad I chose this distance as it was an epic experience. Read on for a short description of my weekend.
I knew about 8 weeks before the race that I was going to do it. This was also about the time that my triathlon season was just starting (due to a broken foot earlier in the year). Not only was I training for short course triathlon but I was also trying to get in Spartan shape. Oh, and add the fact that cyclocross season started right in the middle of this and you have a recipe. A recipe for disaster as it may appear but as I quickly learned through the training, which was validated after the Beast, this was the best thing that could have happened to me. Not many people agree that training for three different events is ideal. But for Spartan racing, it actually is. Confused? Yeah, I expect you to be a little unless you have walked down the path I took. I will keep you intrigued until later in this blog.
So, my training was a bit of swimming, biking, running, cyclocross specific technical skills and sprints along with getting my burpee groove on. As the owner of eNRG performance, I am pretty lucky because I have access to a lot of training modalities and “toys”. In between appointments, I would hop on the GHD to work my gluts, hamstrings and lower back, bang out sets of pull-ups, flip tires or do some power cleans and deadlifts. Let’s not forget my bucket carries (filled with rocks) around the building or bear crawls in the grass around trees! There was not much structure to my training to be honest. I did what I wanted to do, when I wanted to do it. Of course, functional movement training was the foundation of my training. I trained about 5-6 days per week but not for Spartan, for health and fitness. I wanted to experience Spartan, not race it. I am sure those of you who know me just had a great laugh as I do confess, I may be a little competitive in nature. However, I toned it down a bit. I just wanted to go out there and see what Spartan racing was all about. Until I toed the line that is. Yeah, competitive Bob took over…I confess.
This was my first time in Tahoe (actually the race was at Squaw Valley). It was raining two days before and sunshine filled the skies the day before the race. It’s a mountain town. I grew up in the mountains. I live in the foothills of Colorado. I know the mountains and what was confirmed upon arrival is that it was cold in the morning with intense sun in the afternoon. Race morning saw temps around 32 degrees. My biggest obstacle was deciding what to wear. Yeah, yeah, I know. But I was told that it could take me 6-8 hours to finish this race and you have to be self-supported so I chose the conservative (read: warm) route. I wore compression tights, a tech short sleeve shirt, gloves and a hat. I had my trusty Nathan hydration pack on my back. This thing has been through a few Leadville races and then some so I trusted it. What I didn’t know is how it would do in water and rolling in mud.
Fast forward to the start. We started 30 minutes late. To get to the start line, you had to hop a wall (I think it was 6 feet high). Cool way to start. The announcer started with a Spartan speech, there was a whole lot of Spartan grunting taking place and off we went. Now, here’s the thing…the course was running up and down a ski mountain at Squaw Valley. How cool is that? Very cool. Especially for this past ultra-runner. I felt at home. Once I got into my stride, BAM, the first obstacle presented itself. Hop over a wall, wade down into waist deep (FREEZING) water twice and continue on the single track. This single track is the same as where the Western States 100 mile endurance run starts…cool!
I felt at home with the trail running. Then the obstacles came with no rhyme or reason…walls, sandbag/log/bucket carries and lifts, a traverse wall, a rig, climbing multiple cargo nets and wooden ladder devices (these were high!), crawling under barbed wire, submerging under a wall in a pit of freezing cold water, a rope climb, atlas stone carry, Tyrolean traverse rope and a spear throw. Now, here’s the thing. I was killing the run and the climbing…really, just killing it. But I didn’t know how hard to push some sections since the obstacles (mostly anaerobic in nature) would pop up every so often. It kept me guessing and holding back a bit on the run. Of course, I did push the pace running as the true competitor came out. As I approached the obstacles, not having done any of them in training really, I would stop for a bit, study it, watch others and attempt it. I was successful at some and not so much at others. Interestingly, the obstacles I did not complete (yes, I tried every single one as I refused to burpee out of them voluntarily without at least trying), were ones that I had never practiced. Lesson learned for next time.
The one obstacle that was getting in my head was the swim. I had gotten word of this the day before and while the triathlete in me celebrated, I was very concerned with what it would do to my core temperature. I get cold very easily and have had that happen before at the Leadville 50 mile run years back. As I approached the swim (in a lake at around 8500 feet), I changed my mental state and started rolling off the positive affirmations. “Warm water” mostly was what I was saying over and over to myself. I could have done 60 burpees to forego the swim but why? This was a Spartan race. Try every obstacle no matter what! So, I got to the lake, heard a ton of screaming going on, grabbed my life jacket and jumped in the water. My breath was instantly taken away. I have had that feeling before but never like this. I remember one year I did the Evergreen Half Ironman in Evergreen, Colorado and the water was 57 degrees. I came out shivering like crazy! This water was purported to be around 50 degrees. Yikes! Regardless, I told myself to get in and out as fast as possible. I noticed many athletes on their backs trying to swim and thought that may be nice but it would take much longer to get to the end. Freestyle baby. Let the triathlete take over and take over I did! I was passing people right and left and while it was freezing, I just focused on my stroke, my kick and getting into a breathing rhythm. Before I knew it, I was out. I’m guessing the swim was about 100 yards. Not a lot but fully clothed with a life jacket that was choking me was quite a challenge!
I climbed out (yes, we had to climb out on a wooden ladder device) and saw quite a few people drop to the ground due to muscle cramping. For some reason, my body responded well. No cramping and in fact, as I started running to the next obstacle, my legs felt great. I was a bit cold but nothing major. Just like the old days where I would hop in the river in the middle of a long run to cool off my body during Leadville training! It wasn’t 10 minutes later when the uncontrollable total body shivering started. Of course, this was after they made us plunge into freezing cold water again after some barbed wire crawls and wall jumps. This set my core temp out of control. For the next 3 miles or so, as I was descending the mountain, I was trying to regain some body heat but the intense, cold wind had other ideas. It wasn’t until one of the last obstacles, the bucket brigade, that my core temperature finally started to stabilize. Ah, the bucket brigade. That was sadistic! We had to fill a 5-gallon bucket (weighing around 80 pounds for males from what I heard) with dirt and rocks and carry it up and down about 100 yards each way, up the mountain. The interesting thing was that if your dirt got too low in the bucket (referenced by holes drilled in the top), then you had to repeat the obstacle. Each time I stopped, I would have to add more dirt to my bucket since it was settling more and more with each step. That was by far the most challenging obstacle because it was about 1.5 miles from the finish and the body was just tired. This took some time. Grab the bucket, take 10-20 steps, put it down, rest for a few seconds and repeat. More challenging than it sounds!
After the bucket brigade it was another fast decent down the mountain toward the finish. But wait, let’s jump over a couple of 8 foot walls first. Actually, jumping the walls are quite easy for me so I wasn’t complaining. Back to the trail and barreling down as fast as my legs would take me. Now, here’s the thing about Spartan races, nothing is known in advance and there are always surprises. As I approached the finish line arch, there were two last obstacles: the traverse wall and the rig. I studied the traverse wall and hopped on. This was a plywood wall with 2x4 blocks drilled into it for hand and foot holds. Really not that hard. I got about 3/4 through this obstacle, methodically planning my feet and hand placements when all of a sudden my grip in both hands completely failed! No warning, my hands just popped off the wall. Report to the burpee zone for 30 burpees. Of course, this was in front of all of the spectators! Oh, but the fun didn’t end there. The last obstacle was the rig: a jungle gym of sorts that started with a thick cylindrical pipe that you had to navigate through hand by hand, followed by rings followed by rope tarzan swings…twice! I made the pipe and put my left hand on the ring. I felt great, strong and ready to swing from ring to ring. As I let my right hand off of the pipe, reaching for the other ring, my grip failed again. Burpee zone. I finished the race (as did many) by doing 60 burpees.
I am used to sprinting across the finish line in races but that just wasn’t going to happen in this race. I jogged across with a huge sense of accomplishment. But as I did 22 years ago after I finished my first triathlon, I felt something. Something to the tune of wanting to do better and be able to make all of the obstacles. I wasn’t able to complete 6 of the 37 obstacles which left me doing 180 burpees along the course. Not next time. Yes, there will be a next time for now I have a different type of challenge.
Remember what I said earlier about training for three different events at once? I am now convinced that Spartan racing, while it resembles much of what I did when I was a kid through play, is really an excellent test of overall fitness. In fact, I can argue that being a one sport athlete and specializing in certain movement patterns (in my case, swimming/biking/running), may not be the true epitome of fitness. For some, it will take something like a Spartan race to realize this. This was certainly validation for me that overall fitness comes from doing a variety of exercises: aerobic and anaerobic but having a huge emphasis on fun along the way.
Interestingly, I ended up placing 20th in my age group (out of 390) and 123rd overall (out of 3016) for a 4% and 5% finish, respectively. Hmm...I have always known I have some anaerobic "juice" in my body but perhaps this aerobic and anaerobic combination favors my DNA...
As for the future of Spartan racing for me…yes, there is a future. I’m intrigued and challenged and will be upping my game a bit to conquer the obstacles that conquered me!
Thanks for reading!