Well, We Didn't Die
"The Spartan Race is a dangerous and demanding extreme sporting/racing event. THERE IS A REAL POSSIBILITY THAT YOU MAY DIE OR BE CATASTROPHICALLY INJURED."
Those words were written on the outside of the packet each of our six team members were handed as we checked into the Spartan Super race in Fayetville, NC, on June 1. A few nervous chuckles escaped clenched jaws as we stood in a circle in a patch of shade, putting on our timing chips and trying to prepare ourselves for what lay ahead. The race advertised 8+ miles of trail with 29 obstacles that would need to be overcome before we could jump the Fire Pit and cross the finish line. We were a motley crew of athletes. Together we had a full body of injuries and aches, but we also had the will and good humor to give it a go.
Once we were coated in sunblock, our water vests were stocked up with hydration and fuel, and our Spartan headbands were in place, it was time to line up at the starting gate. But to get there we first had to get over a 4 foot wall. With very little grace and a lot of grunting, I managed to throw myself over and join my teammates. The announcer started the rallying cries of "AROO!" and "We are Spartans!" as I rolled my eyes and nervously stamped my feet like an anxious horse in the starting gates. The gun went off, and a herd of bodies moved forward.
After a short run we came to the first obstacle - a 5 foot wall of hay. I watched as racers hurdled, leaped, and bounded over it. My turn came and I ran at it with determination - only to be laughably defeated and knocked back. I stood in front of the hay bail, wondering "if this first obstacle is so tricky, how the heck am I going to complete the next 28?!". Daniel extended a hand from the other side of the hay and finally I made it over. The six of us continued on our jog, laughing and wondering what was next.
MUD. MUD came next. Lots of it.
The next mile would turn out to be varying widths and depths of mud on the trail. The line of racers bottle necked where the mud ran deep, trying to tiptoe a path of least resistance. Being impatient to keep moving, I decided to charge forward, only to end up in mud to my knees. We heard stories later of racers losing their shoes entirely in the mud and continuing the race barefoot.
Soon came the Rolling Mud obstacle. This may be my least favorite obstacle for the sheer annoyance of it. You clamber up one side of a muddy hill, then slide down the other side into waist deep water/mud. Then up you go on the other side, down into another pool, and continue. At the end of this obstacle you face the Dunk Wall, a solid wall that meets the surface of the water that you have to go under. No big deal, right? Except the water is a sickly brown color and you can't see anything on the other side of the wall. With one hand creeping under the wall to feel for the other side you just hold your breath and hope to emerge on the other side. Check out the single hand creeping up in this photo of Daniel and you'll see what I mean.
One thing I've noticed about Spartan races is that they have a habit of putting obstacles that require grip and good footing right after mud obstacles. Ha ha, Spartan, you're hilarious. This time it was the Slip Wall. Grab the rope and pull yourself up, over, and down the other side. Let's take a moment to admire how strong and amazing Beth is in this photo, please.
After the Slip Wall we went up and over the Inverted Wall - which was just what it sounds like. It's a wooden wall that leans towards you and looms at least 30 feet overhead. Ok, so it was maybe 7 feet. But still, it was hard. Up and over we went and onward to the Hercules Hoist. Here you must pull a 70lb bag (90lbs for men) up to the top of the rigging, then slowly lower it back down. The best strategy to do this is to grab the rope up high, pull with all your might while you lean back until eventually you're laying on the ground with your feet planted against the railing for support. Then you pull, pull, pull until your bag hits the top. I confess, I strutted a little bit when the volunteers remarked that I "made it look easy".
A little more jogging and soon we came to the Bucket Carry. This was one obstacle I was worried about. I'd done a shorter Spartan race the year before and found the my arms tired quickly carrying the 60 lb bucket full of rocks around the course. I dashed ahead of the team, worried that I'd be slow to complete this challenge, but was delighted to discover the bucket felt relatively light this time and I could easily get around the designated loop, passing other racers that had to pause to put their buckets down to rest. Hooray for weeks of upper body training!
With the Bucket Carry behind us we jogged on toward our next obstacle. Ahead lay the Vertical Cargo. This one was new to all of us. "Men to the left, women to the right" the volunteers directed. Upon closer inspection we could see that the men's side had a platform slightly higher than the women's side. The trick was to somehow get up onto the platform and then go over the cargo wall. There's a reason the sign warns of "Falling Spartans"....
Up and over we went (well, most of us). Then it was on to Bender. I had read about this obstacle online and read that it was one that really frightened people. It's a series of metal bars that curve over your head like a wave. This obstacle was no joke. Even if you managed to get yourself up onto the first bar, you were challenged to then climb the overhang and get yourself over to the other side. Here team Captain Claire demonstrates how to gracefully conquer Bender. This was after waiting a solid 10 minutes for the racer before her to figure out how to get over that top bar. I told you, it's no joke.
A little more jogging, a few more obstacles. Twister stumped most of the team, but thankfully the 30 burpees penalty for missing an obstacle wasn't applied to this one and we only had to do a short extra lap around some trees. (If you don't know what a burpee is, consider yourself lucky.) Twister is hard to explain. It's essence is a challenging overhead grip obstacle that spins.
Once we finished our penalty laps and cheered for the few that completed Twister it was on to the Plate Drag, over Stairway to Sparta (see photo above for a little perspective), and then the Barbed Wire Crawl. Normally not a big deal, the Crawl is just that - crawling several yards under low wire. But just for extra fun the course designers decided to put this crawl over a giant pool of stinky farm mud. Blech. The crawling wasn't the obstacle, getting through the deep, stinky mud fast was. We'd wear that stinky mud for miles after.
From the crawl we went to the Sandbag Carry, then on to the Multi Rig (dun dun dun). I made it to the 3rd ring on this one, which isn't very far at all. Daniel, on the other hand, successfully rang the bell that hangs at the end of the obstacles and signals success - and no burpees. Off I went with several others to suffer through my 30 penalty burpees while those that managed to complete the obstacle patiently waited.
After dusting more dirt, mud, and straw off myself, we soldiered onward. Next up, Atlas Carry. The object is to pick up a 50-100 lb cement ball from the ground, walk it several paces to the marked flag, do 5 burpees, pick it up again and walk it back. The object is NOT to then drop it and have it roll down the hill so you then have to retrieve it, as teammate Lance discovered.
Once Lance was ready we were off again, jogging to the next obstacle. To our surprise, it was a second Barbed Wire Crawl. Only this time, instead of mud, there were bits of hay and sharp grass that cut your knees as you crawled your way through. I'm still sporting the signs of that crawl 5 days later.
After the crawl came the High Hurdles. Standing about 5 feet off the ground, they are just tall enough to be tricky for someone 5'6" to get over. Daniel put out his hands to give me a boost up, I put one foot in, and started to swing the other foot over the hurdle. Suddenly I felt like I was flying OVER the hurdle and had to caution Daniel, "Don't THROW me over it!". He's stronger than he realizes.
Up next, Beater. This is another difficult to describe monkey bar type obstacle. Picture classic monkey bars, but the bars are spaced pretty far apart, some are set higher or lower than the preceding one, and in between there are ones that spin. Doesn't that sound fun? What the heck, I thought, I should at least give it a try. I grabbed the first bar, got some momentum, and swung to the next, held on, swung some more, grabbed the next bar, hung on... and with this swing, grip, grunt, swing strategy I actually bested the Beater and rang the bell at the end with complete joy and satisfaction. I'm pretty sure I shocked my teammates as they stood around asking "Did you just do that?!". Yes, yes I did.
With my chest puffed a little we trooped on to the Olympus. This is a wall with different types of hand holds about 8 feet off the ground, and nothing else. The object is to traverse it without your feet touching the ground. Nick, Captain Claire's husband, showed some excellent technique while Claire waited to grab his butt... er, spot him in case he slipped.
We were in the final stretch now with just a little over a mile to go, but we knew we still had several obstacles standing between us and the finish line. Our accomplishments on the Olympus were short lived as faced the Spear Throw. Despite what is obviously perfect technique (see photo below), I did not land my spear in the target. 30 Burpees you say? I think I'll pass. Earlier in the race, while happily jogging down single track trail with the team, I had tripped on a root and sailed chest first into a tree. With pain deep in my chest, I wasn't quite up for doing the push-ups involved in Burpees, so I gave myself a pass. Sorry, Spartan organizers.
While those of us who had done Spartan races before missed the Spear Throw and the others subjected themselves to the burpee punishment, Daniel and Nick, both first time Spartans, nailed it. In fact, Daniel sunk his spear so deep Claire had trouble pulling it back out for her go at it. I think I mentioned he's pretty strong?
With the burpees and the spears behind us, we made our way to the Rope Climb. Daniel casually climbed right up to the top and back down before anyone else even got their hands on a rope. Claire thoughtfully gripped the rope, and employing the J Hook, worked her way to the very top and smacked that bell with pride. Go, Claire!
From the Rope Climb we could see the finish line and hear the party at the festival tents. All that stood between us and a cold beer now was the Z Wall, A Frame Cargo, Monkey Bars, and the Fire Jump
The Z Wall is tricky and takes a little finesse. You've only got little blocks of wood for your fingertips to grip while you try to put your feet on awkwardly angled blocks of wood and traverse through the Z. Throw in a couple of right angle turns and at the end hold on tight with one hand so you can reach out and ring that bell.
Then it's off to the A Frame Cargo, one of my favorite obstacles. That thing is tall. I hesitated a moment, letting my teammates get ahead so I could get a photo of them approaching the A Frame and soak it all in.
After we all safely made our way down the other side it was time for the monkey bars. Once again, they don't just put some simple playground monkey bars out for you to jaunt across. These are fat bars, unevenly spaced, and, as I discovered, if you linger a little too long hanging on them, they bounce as the much more fit athlete swings past next to you. I swung and gripped my way all the way to the last bar....where I slipped off, bell in sight. Lucky for me the race photographer was there to capture the look of sheer determination on my face (or is that anxiety?). Compare that to the photo of Daniel below, who actually made it to the bell. Mental note, next time less grimace and more gusto.
From there all we had was the Fire Jump and then the finish line. It's clear from this photo that no one has ever had more fun jumping that fire than Daniel and I did.
And with that, we crossed the finish line and ended our Spartan Super race.
We weren't the fastest team, we weren't the strongest team, but we worked together, supported and cheered each other on, and shared an experience that will give us stories to share for a long time.
Now, excuse me, I've got to go dig some more mud out from under my nails.