Sunday 26th August, 2012
A forest in Scotland. Tree branches intertwine, casting a shadow over the muddy ground below. A man rushes into this darkness. He’s shirtless, his chest caked in mud, arms crossed with scratches. He breathes heavily, bending to lean his hands on his knees. His eyes adjust to the darkness and he spots a figure ahead, fleeing through the forest. He gives chase. He closes the gap on his prey, metres becoming feet becoming inches. He leaps forward…
…and grabs on to the top of a wall, then climbs over, throws a plastic spear at a hay bale, then drops to do 20 pushups.
The man is a contestant in the Spartan Sprint, an obstacle course race taking place in the grounds of Dalmeny House, Edinburgh. The event is vaguely described as “3+ miles, 15+ obstacles”. As well as the climbing wall and spear throw, participants (aka Spartans) have to run through fields, wade through water, carry sandbags, and jump over fire. And pay for the privilege.
Obstacle course racing (OCR) is an increasingly-popular sport in the US and that enthusiasm seems to have carried to this side of the Atlantic. Another obstacle course event—Tough Mudder—took place weeks earlier and was reportedly attended by 6000 people. But the park was quiet as I walked to the race. However, atop a hill sat Spartan central—the start and end-point of the race—and around there wandered hundreds of people.
I arrived shortly before heat five (of seven) started, and the racers from the previous heats were mostly easy to spot. Mud coated many of them as they walked tenderly and pulled long swallows from bottles of Gatorade. Even those brave enough to clean off in the chilly waters of the Firth of Forth were noticeable, their numbers stubbornly refusing to wash from their foreheads (bibs aren’t used in these races, presumably because they’ll tear off).
There was also a surprising number of families at the event. Kids could join their own mini-Spartan race, or simply watch family members try to complete the course (“There’s Daddy jumping over the fire” being a phrase I don’t expect to hear again).
Spartan merchandise (pens, pencils, dog tags, jumpers, t-shirts) could be bought inside an inflatable tent. I opted for a pen, feeling that jumpers should only be owned by participants. A Spartan bus and Humvee greeted everyone who arrived. Another tent sold burgers, chips, and carvings from an on-site roasted hog (good for traumatising the children). Massage tables were available, and an ambulance sat near the finish line, a reminder of the physicality of the event.
Hearing a roar that suggested the next heat was about to begin, I bought a burger and an Irn Bru (a clear hint that I was only fit for spectating) and moved to the starting line.
A man in full gladiatorial dress demanded warm-ups from those Spartans next to race—squats, jumps, some strange thing where they held each other’s hands. And with a shout, they were off, across a field and…out of sight.
All sporting activities draw a line of varying thickness between participant and spectator. Get yourself a good ticket for a basketball game and that line is thin. You might not hear what’s said on the bench, but you can get close enough to see sweat bead on player’s heads, hear one player curse another . With distance running and cycling that line of separation is thicker. In person at least, you can only catch a few seconds of one athlete’s event before they’re gone again, around the next bend. But at least you know what they’re doing when they’re out of sight (the clue is in the names ‘running’ and ‘cycling’). But, at this event we spectators watched the Spartans disappear out of sight, the cheers quickly died, and we realised we didn’t know what they were facing until they circled back around half an hour later.
Here’s what I did see. Eventually, a Spartan will arrive at a tunnel made of hay bales and hardwood. After crawling through it he’ll be told to grab a sandbag and carry it up a hill, then back down again. Then he’ll try to scale an 8-foot wall.
The wall is where the problem with mud becomes most apparent. Here, the wall is slippy, from mud deliberately thrown over it before the race, or from hundreds of shoes rubbing against it in previous heats. The competitors also can’t get a solid run towards the wall because of the uneven muddy puddles that lead to it.
The spear throw is next, a distance of about 30 feet to a target maybe 6-feet square. With a shoddy-looking plastic spear. I watched about 50 people try. One succeeded, two others covered the distance, the rest were nowhere near. The price of failure? 20 pushups.
20 pushups is a relative breeze, however, compared to the normal Spartan punishment of 30 burpees. I discovered OCR some months before, and realised that a Spartan Race would be taking place near where I live. In a state of childlike enthusiasm I considered participating.
Then I found out what a burpee was.
You stand, then kick your legs back and drop to a pushup position (some burpee variations include a pushup here, some don’t). Then you kick your legs forward again under your body, stand, and jump. Then repeat. In this case, 29 more times.
The burpee I first read about was the pushup kind. I tried to do 30. I managed 10 before collapsing. I realised that, even if I only failed 5 obstacles (I’m not a positive person), I’d have to do 150 burpees. Even typing that made me feel sick. I decided I wasn’t fit enough. Maybe next year.
There’s no time limit to these races. I could perform 30 burpees eventually, but I didn’t want to be reaching the finish line 60 hours after I started. If I do participate, I want at least a semblance of momentum to it, not “Is that 30 yet?”. “No, that’s 6”.
After the spear throw, Spartans run (well, many walked) up a hill before starting their final descent. The fire jump awaits. The fire rarely burned more a foot or two off the ground; if the wood wasn’t on fire no one would see it as much of a challenge. But it wasn’t, so racers were wary when approaching. I think that the race organisers love the fire jump because it comes out so well in photos.
Once that was cleared it was onto a tub filled with red ice. Spartans had to wade through, with a plank above ensuring they kept low. They’d climb out at the other end covered in streaks of red (leaving a few spectators convinced that everyone was bleeding) to arrive at another wall. This one was angled, with a rope to help everyone climb easily to the top. Expect for that pesky mud again. Mud-smeared polythene coated the wall. Spartan’s tumbled down again and again, making this seemingly tame obstacle the most dangerous I saw. Some slid down headfirst, some nearly went over the side. One woman, mid-40s, failed repeatedly, while an hard-nosed former-military type sat at the top and demanded she try again. I left for 10 minutes; when I came back she was being loaded into an ambulance.
After the wall waited the final obstacle, one tame in comparison: two muscly dudes with foam jousts. While this looked a bit pokey and like Gladiators, these guys gave good joust, sweeping the legs from some poor tired saps whose aggression was sapped soon as they spotted the finish line.
Past them, glory waited. Or a girl in gladiator gear with a medal. She was nearly run down many times by those who powered past the jousters and struggled to stop their momentum. All done. Medals were placed around neck, t-shirts were handed out, times were recorded. Some retired for a massage, others grabbed a beer. I left, my race for the day consisting of a rushed walk to catch the next train. Maybe next year.