Friday, February 17, 2017

Earth, wind, and fire. (And water. So much water.)

It’s been over three months now since I ran the New York City Marathon, and it’s strange to still not have anything else on my calendar. I usually take a month “off” after every full marathon – still running, but just at whatever distances and paces feel good, and without letting myself think about what's next. A forced physical and mental break, during which time I tell myself that “I’m going to use this ‘down time’ to get back to yoga again,” and instead just read a lot of books.

This time around has been a little different, because even before I ran NYC I was signed up to do a Spartan Race at the end of January. So when my month-long break was over, the timing wasn’t quite right to sign up for another marathon, not being totally certain I’d still have full use of all of my limbs come February.

For those who aren’t familiar, Spartan is a brand of obstacle course racing (OCR) that bills itself as “The World’s Best Obstacle Race.” I have no frame of reference by which to judge this assertion, but let’s go with it. Spartan Race is much more than the race itself for most participants, who call themselves Spartans. It’s a community, a philosophy, and for many, a way of life. “You’ll know at the finish line” they say. I know it sounds cult-y and weird – and in some ways it totally is. (The CrossFit strength and conditioning program has essentially evolved as a means to train for Spartan races and other OCR activities. And we all know about CrossFit, amiright? I KID I KID. PLEASE CROSSFITTERS DO NOT TRACK ME DOWN AND KICK MY WEAK ASS.) When it comes to healthy living, far be it from me to criticize anyone’s methods. If you’re going out into the world on a regular basis doing something – anything – that makes you a stronger, healthier, happier person, then I am behind you 100%. Even if it’s a little cult-y and weird.

If nothing else, the Spartan experience
got me back together with this girl. Tracy
and I lived together in college, but
she's lived in Montana for the last 16 years.
My former college roommate, who now lives in Montana, reached out to me over the summer and told me she was coming to California for the SoCal Spartan (the "Super" distance), and suggested that I join their team. I had heard of Spartan Race, and assumed that if real people that I actually know have survived such a thing, then surely I could too. I’m a marathoner, for crying out loud! I did a triathlon once. I've even raced up and down a mountain while tethered to a donkey. Surely I can handle whatever this is that Tracy has signed herself up for. She’s also a lifelong runner. And a generally reasonable person. So sure. Count me in. 

Training for a Spartan Race certainly
changed my perspective on my
familiar running routes.
I joined the team and paid my not-insignificant registration fee, careful not to read the website or its indemnity clauses too carefully. I didn’t allow myself to watch any of the 7.5 zillion YouTube videos out there describing in living color exactly what Spartan is all about, knowing full well that if I did I would turn tail and back out of it. I trained for and then ran the New York City Marathon in a blissful state of denial about the upcoming Spartan Race, asking as few questions as possible. But by mid-November, it was time to face the music. I bought myself some training supplies (a bucket, some sacks of concrete, and a rope), signed up for a few group workouts, and started integrating weird new elements into my morning runs, to try to get a little stronger. Every mile or so, dropping and doing a dozen burpees. Swinging and hanging on the park jungle gym. Finding logs and rocks and carrying them up random hills, and doing jumps and lunges on the park benches. After a few weeks, I'd gotten a bit stronger, and had some nice calluses forming on my hands. I was in no condition to do something like a Spartan Race, but was reassured by my teammates' promises to help me over, under, and through anything I couldn’t do on my own. (Which would be everything.) So, I didn’t drop out.

Right on cue, flu season arrived, and with three weeks to go, I got knocked out. I was totally incapacitated for a week, and then slowly came back to life just in time to roll up on race morning in about the shape I was in before I started any training at all: able to run ten miles slowly but comfortably, and basically unable to do anything else. Spartan is all about being strong, agile, flexible, balanced, gritty, and resilient. I’ve got endurance and a demonstrably high threshold for pain, but not a lot else in the Spartan department. I can barely touch my toes, and couldn’t do a pull-up if my life depended upon it. But lucky for me, I had one heck of a team, made up of some of the strongest women I've ever actually known in real life.

Lots and lots of this. (And no, that's not the lake.)
If my Spartan Race experience were a movie, I would call it equal parts comedy, horror, and mud. SoCal Spartan weekend took place January 28th and 29th, which turned out to be a notable week in Southern Californian history, because it was the week – the very week – that our local six-year long drought was officially declared over, after weeks of torrential rainfall. The race was set in Lake Elsinore, a flat and usually-arid city in Riverside County (about an hour north-east of where I live in San Diego). It does, in fact, have a 3,000 acre natural freshwater lake, but as it turned out, the race organizers had plenty of other water to work with. Come Saturday morning, we had beautiful clear blue skies overhead, and knee-to-waist-high water pretty much everywhere else.

One of the unique challenges of Spartan racing is that you do not get information about the course in advance. I knew that the Super course would be 8-10 miles long, with 25-30 obstacles. There are a few obstacles that appear in nearly every race: wall climbing, spear throwing, rope climbing, barbed wire crawling, tire flipping, and fire jumping, to name a few. But otherwise, it’s anyone’s guess, and the organizers take full advantage of the natural terrain, building every unique course from scratch. I can only imagine their delight to find half of the land that the city of Lake Elsinore had set aside for our race underwater when they arrived.

The Spartan story is probably best told through photos, but of course I didn’t have a camera or phone with me out there (which turned out to be a good thing, since I wound up underwater twice). So my tale here is told mostly through official race images of people that are mostly not me.

First of all: would you look at this day? 

Mid-60s, blue sky, some dry Santa Ana winds, and a beautiful view of the snow-covered mountains. I had zero athletic deliverables for my team of visiting Montanans, but at least Southern California came through on the weather. 

Before the race even begins, the athletes jump a 4' wall just to get into the starting corral. My teammate Shauna was true to her word, and helped me with every bit of this race, starting with that very first hurdle. But when she tried to help me over it, my brain misfired. I jumped at the wrong time, and got nowhere. Off to a good start. I can only imagine what Shauna was thinking ... but she is the very definition of a good sport, and after a minute of laughing at me, we tried again, and things went a little more smoothly from there. Lesson #1: learning how to accept help. 

The early obstacles were mostly a series of walls of varying heights, with a few hurdles thrown in. Here's not-me scaling one of these walls the way one would if one were strong and awesome:

Me getting over these walls, however, looked more like this:

After the walls there were a few obstacles I was actually able to do on my own. (There were a few.)

The Atlas Carry, which involves picking up huge, smooth, round rock, carrying it a short distance, dropping and doing five burpees, picking it back up, and walking it back.

The Plate Drag, which involved pulling and then dragging a metal plate full of rocks through a trough of mud.

The Z-Walls. Kind of like sideways rock-climbing, but on walls that turn corners.

The Barbed Wire Crawl. Here's not-me demonstrating how that's done:

This is called the Stairway to Sparta, and was the first obstacle that I had to just scrap altogether:

Physically, I know I'm capable of that climb, but I am terrified of heights, and it was too much. I just walked up and touched it (which counts as an "attempt"), and then walked over to the "burpee zone" to start my 30-burpee penalty. Many have asked how many burpees I did during the course of this race, and I honestly can't even fathom a guess. The number was big. Huge.

A few more crazy obstacles that I could barely even look at would follow, including this ridiculous inverted set of bars that you were supposed to jump onto, scale up, and then climb over:

Here's not-me on "The Twister," which was like a sideways set of monkey bars with handles, that swiveled when you grabbed them:

Because monkey bars aren't hard enough? I MEAN COME ON. Just point me toward Burpee Town.

A sandbag carry:

This was a few miles - and a lot of burpees - into the race, and I was feeling it. Somewhere around here we encountered a big wall with a printed list of words and numbers. A memory test. The task was to look up your assigned word-number combination (based on your race #), and to memorize it. It wasn't clear when or where we'd be tested on that, but of course we dutifully ran on, each silently reciting our own code until it was committed to memory.

Oh, and on the subject of running: there's plenty of that taking place between the obstacles, too. Here's not-me doing some of that:

Our course was about 9 miles long in all, with lots of dirt and rocks, and a few mid-race miles that were nearly entirely underwater. Here's not-me in one of many very cold water crossings:

It was cold, slow, and really uncomfortable. But at least I couldn't feel my aching legs anymore. During one of the water crossings I got my foot caught in a root and fell up to my neck in that water. And so hey - for a while there I couldn't feel my aching arms, either! Thanks to a lot of help from my amazing teammates, it wasn't until about mile 5 (20 or so obstacles in) that I really started breaking down. Things got ugly in those final few miles, though, which included:

The Tyrolean Traverse: making your way along a taut horizontal rope, hanging upside down and using your hands and ankles. (The resulting leg bruises from this one were a thing of beauty!)

A set of inclining/declining monkey bars. Because, again, monkey bars are apparently just not hard enough? By this point in the race, Tracy and I had just gone ahead and named ourselves the honorary mayors of Burpee Town.

The "multi rig," which was like yet another set of monkey bars that are traversed via a set of hanging rings. Sure. Yes, let's do that.

The Bucket Brigade, in which you fill a construction bucket full of rocks, carry it for an ungodly distance, and then empty it back out. If you're cool, you dump your rocks into the empty bucket of a Spartan who's just approaching the obstacle, and save them a little work.

A SECOND AND MUCH LONGER BARBED WIRE CRAWL. This pissed me off more than anything else about the Spartan Race. And a lot of things about the Spartan Race pissed me off.

A crawl up and down a super-high cargo net. I gave it a try, but got too wigged out from the height and had to back myself down, leaving poor Tracy up there on her own. But she did it!

A tire flip. Which is harder than it looks.

The Olympus, an inverted wall to be scaled sideways, using holds, holes, and chains to grab onto, but nothing for your feet. Here's not-me demonstrating how one might do that:

A spear throw - hurling a metal-tipped piece of wood into a bale of hay. My spear didn't even make contact. <sad trombone>

A rope climb. This was the biggest bummer of the race to me, because I had actually learned how to climb a rope and I know I'm strong enough to at least have gotten most of the way up. (Unlike most of this other BS, rope climbing is done mostly with your legs, so it's one of the few things I can theoretically sort of do.) But it came late in the race, and by the time I got to it I was too tired and weak to hoist myself even into a starting position.

The Herculean Hoist, where you're lifting and then lowering a ridiculously heavy sandbag using a rope and pulley system. I was completely cooked by this point, so Shauna basically just stood over me and did it (after already having done it on her own, by the way) while I laid on the ground making vague pulling motions.

Somewhere in there, we got stopped and asked by volunteers with clipboards who made us tell them the codes that we'd been asked to memorize a few miles earlier. "JULIET 319-5877." It had been a while since I'd gotten through an obstacle without either help or penalty burpees, and in addition to being weak and inflexible, I also have a pretty poor memory (I AM SPARTAN!), so this little victory was sweet.

And a few other things I can no longer remember. We looked at the map afterward, and counted up 31 obstacles. So I know I'm missing a few things here. But you get it. 

The finale was a rolling set of three mud walls that we climbed up and over, into a waist-high slop of muddy water.  Wallowing around in mud is something I'm totally and completely capable of, and although it was disgusting, this part was actually really fun. Here's not-me doing some of that:

Unfortunately, when we slid down into the third of these mud slops, we found ourselves facing a big wooden wall. And the only way over it was ... under it.

(Also not me.)

After a final climb up and over the Slip Wall (so named because you're soaking wet and trying to scale a wall covered in mud), we found ourselves front of the famous final obstacle: the Fire Jump. Here's actual-me and my team, clearing the logs before making our way to the finish line:

Annie, me, Laine, Shauna, and Tracy. Note that I am the only one wearing a hydration pack. I was deeply concerned about being out there for several hours without access to adequate snacks. So, in the absence of any strength, skill, or ability to complete most of the obstacles, I instead contributed food, extra sips of water, and comic relief. 

“So, Amy, would you do it again?”

No. Absolutely not. Nope. I am not a convert. I really do understand the appeal of the Spartan Race and the lifestyle, and I wish I could say that “I knew at the finish line.” But this is not my sport. I had a great time out there with my friends, and am still laughing at some of the ridiculous antics that got us through it. The memories made with my old friend Tracy (even if they were made while crawling under barbed wire and doing burpees in rocky dirt) are gifts for which I'll be forever grateful. I loved watching the amazing things that strong human bodies can do. And in an era of so much unrest, strife, and struggle, it was awesome to see teams and even groups of total strangers coming together to solve problems and conquer obstacles. I get what people love about this stuff. But it’s not for me. I gratefully “unfollowed” the Spartan Race Facebook page last weekend, and have settled happily back into my life of long and leisurely runs, and occasional trips to the gym. I come away from the experience determined to improve my strength and flexibility, but with a goal of being a healthier lifelong runner, and not because I need to carry a damn bucket full of rocks. I learned a lot about myself out there, and am grateful that my brain, my heart, my body, and that superbad pack of ladies got me through the challenge intact. But I know where my happy place is. And it isn’t at the bottom of a mud pit.


Team Health Habits dropping the mic. 

Not dead. Not injured. And also not ever doing this again.

The finisher's medal comes with one-third of a "trifecta" medal attached. When you complete one of each of the three Spartan Race distances within a year (the Sprint, the Super, and the Beast), you are said to have completed the trifecta. I kept my finisher's medal, but that little extra piece? RIGHT IN THE TRASH.

Dry clothes. Beer. All is forgiven.


  1. WOW! Forget running and become a famous writer. You are the BIGGEST Stud I know! Absolutely no words to explain how in awe I am. My favorite part was the Mayor of Burpee Village or whatever you called it!!!! At least it's nice to know that someone reads all the way through. Does that qualify me for anything?