This year I took part in three events to raise money for the Cerebral Palsy charity Bobath Scotland. The events were:
The River Rat Race, an obstacle course (blog post here)
The Spartan Sprint, also an obstacle course
The Great Scottish Run, a half-marathon
(photo by The National Guard)
“A nice Chianti”.
Clarice arriving at Buffalo Bill’s house.
Miggs throwing spunk.
These are probably some of the most memorable moments from the film Silence of the Lambs. But when I think of the film, what comes to mind is a cargo net.
I always loved the film’s opening scene. FBI trainee Clarice Starling works her way through an assault course: running in the woods, scaling a hill, and climbing a net. It reminded me of the playgrounds I conquered when I was younger–swinging from monkey bars and jumping from platforms.
It was that urge that lead to me standing in a muddy field near Edinburgh on a cold Sunday afternoon. On top of a van stands a man dressed as the ancient Greek king Leonidas. Once he gives the call of “Aroo!”, I’ll be one of a few hundred people who’ll run off into the woods to climb walls, carry heavy objects, and perhaps scale a cargo net. I’m one of 1,600 people here on the grounds of Winton House, East Lothian, to attempt the Spartan Sprint, an obstacle course of something over three miles in distance.
Most participants are dressed as I am: in lightweight shorts, t-shirt and trainers. Some of us wear gloves. Two men in their mid-20s have opted for the Ultimate Warrior look: shirtless, the brightly-coloured tassles around their upper arms blowing in the breeze. Another man wears a Hawaiian shirt, Bermuda shorts, sunglasses and a bandana. He’s racing alone.
“Aroo!”. We’re off. We race across a field. Spectators’ cheers quickly fade away, replaced by our huffing. We quickly reach the first muddy patch.
There’s an easy way to sum up 80% of a Spartan race (though that won’t keep my word count down): you slide in mud and then you carry things. Repeat.
Spartan Races don’t import mud like other obstacle course races do. So there are usually none of the deep, man-made mudholes that result in great photos (like this). Given my disinterest in a mouthful of the brown stuff, this fact pleases me greatly. But the course has more than enough natural mud. It’s an omnipresent slickness, a constant difficulty-multiplier which makes even slow moves potentially treacherous.
The Ultimate Warriors reach the mud. Warrior #1 jumps and stamps hard into the mud, deliberately splashing his friend. #2 runs off the course looking for a puddle to respond with. The rest of us give them all the space they need.
(photo by Richard Burley)
Despite loving that scene from Silence of the Lambs, I accepted—without doing any research—that obstacle courses were only for those in military training. Lack of interest, health and safety legislation, whatever the reasons, there just wasn’t a market for such things in everyday civilian life. I became essentially a frustrated obstacle course racer.
My interest in movement manifested itself in other ways: an urge to walk on a low wall or to balance on the edge of the pavement. My offers to take any of the family kids to the playground were never as selfless as I made them appear. But I don’t want to climb this rope ladder. Oh, okay, if I have to. I exercised by playing basketball and running, but neither satisfied that primal need I felt to run and climb and move. I tried Parkour, but was too self-conscious to do it it in public. I used to drink in a pub called Buddha, which was decorated with thin wooden frames. I’d be wary of getting too drunk in there in case I was overwhelmed by the urge to climb those frames. Maybe this was all Jackie Chan’s fault. I watched a lot of his films while growing up. As much as I enjoyed watching him fight, it was his stunts that I loved.
I reach the first of the ‘carry a heavy thing’ obstacles. I’ve to haul an ammo can around a circle of the course. What the can is filled with, I don’t know, but the weight is significant enough than running with it throws my balance and invites the mud to topple me. I copy my fellow racers and speed-walk instead.
In a clearing, four hay bales await, on stands behind a roped-off line. I’ve reached the Spear Throw. Last year I watched about 50 people attempt this obstacle, trying to hit a hay bale from distance of around 20 feet with a plastic spear. A grand total of one racer achieved it. Another two covered the distance but their aim was off. Everyone else fell short. The punishment for failure was 20 pushups.
The race organisers seem to have learned a lesson from last year. The target is now half that distance away. Accordingly, the punishment for failure is now higher, being the default Spartan exercise: 30 burpees.
In Spring 2012 I was browsing articles on outsideonline.com. A skeletal face stared back at me: Hobie Call, the Michael Jordan of Spartan Races. This guy is an athlete? And what’s a Spartan Race?
I’d found them, obstacle courses for normal adults did exist. And, judging by their popularity, I was the last person to find this out (Spartan Races alone drew 100,000 entrants in 2011).
I dived deep into the subject and found a range of obstacle course races. They were so popular they even had their own initialism (OCR). I researched Tough Mudder, Warrior Dash and independent races, but I kept coming back to the Spartan.
And then the downside dawned on me. These races were plentiful, yes, but they were in the US. I was not. As a Scot who grew up interested in hip-hop and basketball, I’d been regularly disappointed by how rarely my country’s amenities aligned with my interests. There was no chance that an event like this would be occurring anywhere near me, I may as well just give u—
—there was one near Edinburgh, only 50 miles away. And it was taking place in just a few weeks. I looked at my beer belly. I’d given up basketball, my exercise schedule consisted of two or three runs a week, and few of them broke the three-mile mark. But I still had a few weeks. I checked the rules to see how one would fail a Spartan race. You’re either timed-out, or you quit. If I entered an early heat I’d have hours to complete a course that wouldn’t be much over three miles long. And failing an obstacle just meant I’d have to do 30 burpees before continuing. I didn’t know what they were, but they couldn’t be that hard. Not with a lighthearted name like ‘burpee’.
I tried 30 burpees. I got to 10 and would’ve quite liked to die. I collapsed, wheezing, onto the carpet.
Written down, the Spartan version of the burpee doesn’t sound like much:
squat down, kicking your feet back, onto all fours
do a pushup
jump, clapping your hands above your head
Sounds easy, doesn’t it? Try doing a bunch of them. I figured I’d get used to them. As the race neared I still couldn’t manage to do 15 consecutively. On blogs I read horror stories: people failing five consecutive obstacles. 150 burpees. Even reading the number made me nauseous. And there was the rub—every failed obstacle meant more burpees, which resulted in more tiredness, which raised your chance of failing the subsequent obstacle. Which meant…you can see where I’m going with this. I couldn’t shake a vision of me failing a few early obstacles, getting hammered with burpee sets early, and my arms seizing up. I have to quit, taking a slow walk to the finish point, being embarrassed and making a fool of myself.
When I arrived at the race’s start line that year, I was carrying a burger and a can of Irn Bru. I’d bitched out. I never registered to race, and I stood there watching as proper Spartans raced off into the woods. At the event’s merchandise stall I couldn’t bring myself to buy anything more than a pen. It would be fraudulent to wear a Spartan t-shirt, implying I’d participated in the race. Next year, I said to myself. But even I rolled my eyes at that possibility.
I threw my spear. It hit the target. Hooray? No. The spear had turned sideways as soon as I let it go. It hit the hay bale with its (snigger) shaft. The marshal shook his head. No good. Burpees for me.
Now, of course, with a year to prepare, I’d been working intensely on my burpee skills. Right?
Somehow burpees had fallen out of the workout routine. They were part of my weights training, then I omitted them as they were affecting the other exercises. They just didn’t fit in well anywhere else. I forgot about them. In building a general level of fitness for three events in three months, I’d lost focus on specifics.
The first ten burpees were easier than I expected. Perhaps the adrenaline of competition had unearthed a hidden strength. Then I realised I was cheating. I was missing out the pushup part—doing a burpee, but not a regulation one. I realised the marshal’s were occupied by the spear-throwing, so no one was monitoring me. I thought about cheating some more. No one would know. But I would. Then I noticed I wasn’t the only one who was fraudulent. Before I’d reached 20 burpees, those who’d started their punishment after I did had already finished and were racing off through the woods. I’m slow, but not that slow. With no one counting, they’d clearly given up early and taken off. My stupid ethics kicked in; like a fool I did every rep of my punishment.
In training, what I’d neglected to consider about burpees was pace. When I did them at home I completed them as quick as possible. Then, they were a cardio exercise, and it was good to get the heart pumping. Here, they were a punishment with no time limit. I mentally broke them down into three sets of 10, and just focused on each set. Sure, this was a race, but the energy I saved here could be put towards catching these mofos up. 30 was tough, but not the agony I expected. I wished I’d known that last year.
I reach a set of three wooden walls, an obstacle known as ‘Over, Under, Through’. All three are about eight-feet high. I scale the first (and feel like I’m cheating by standing on the wall’s support to get extra momentum for going over the top). I crawl underneath the second. The last has a rectangular section cut out of it, about five feet off the ground. Unsure of how to tackle it, I grab the top of the wall, swing my feet up to the bottom of the ‘window’, then tentatively slide them through before my upper body followed. And all without smashing my face in.
The Spartan was my second experience with obstacle courses. A month earlier I’d completed the River Rat Race (which you can read about here, if you really want to). After that race I realised that OCR is a weird, amorphous, mostly unquantifiable thing. I could measure strength improvement in my deadlift or my mile time, but how did I know if either of them was helping me complete an obstacle course? Was I quick to run off after obstacles because of all the hill sprints I’d run, or despite them? Despite that, as I hung from this wall, I was confident that the Raymond of a few months ago, a stone-and-a-half heavier, with his weak little arms and overflowing beer belly, wouldn’t have been capable of holding this position.
I’d experimented with weight training in the way that most do—inconsistently—for years. But to get into ‘Spartan shape’ I’d downloaded Hobie Call’s very own workout. I took to it for, oh, about two months. The best exercise routine is the one you can stick to, to paraphrase Tim Ferriss. I couldn’t stick to Hobie’s. I lacked the discipline, wanting a shorter workout and to lift heavier weights. Back to Tim Ferriss: I adapted his embarrassingly-named Geek to Freak workout, trying to make it more practical for OCR by emphasising shoulders and forearms for all that climbing and grabbing. I’ll openly admit I didn’t really know what I was doing, but that was part of the fun. I probably could’ve gotten better results by sticking to someone else’s routine, but I enjoy (certain kinds of) experimentation. I was more likely to stick to a weights routine if it felt at least partly like my creation.
I also designed my own, mini, rubbish obstacle course. Every weekend I’d get up early and drive to a nearby park. There, I had set out obstacles I hoped would simulate the demands of a Spartan Race. I’d arrive at the park and try to determine if anyone else was there. Hoping there wasn’t, I’d take off running. I’d carry and throw logs, do chin-ups and pullups on tree branches, try (and mostly fail) to climb a wall, jump onto rocks and sprint up muddy hills. Thankfully, this park is quiet and secluded, particularly at 7am on a Saturday. When I did spot people there I’d run away, then come back once they were gone to complete my circuit.
The self-consciousness I felt in that park doesn’t seem to be much of a problem for many obstacle course racers. In investigating all things Spartan I signed up for their WOD (Workout of the Day). Most are variations on ‘run, then do pushups, burpees, etc. Repeat’. Not everyone who does these workouts can be in a secluded park somewhere. Maybe there are tourists in Central Park right now laughing as some jogger has stopped running and started doing jumping jacks. I’d be a better person if I was bold enough to do stuff like that in public. And maybe I’d be fitter as well.
Now more mud and more sliding. I reach a downhill. The man and woman ahead opt to slide down it on their bums. I stay on my feet right behind them. I imagine slipping and landing on them both.
Now I’ve to carry a log. The Spartan macho mindset is ‘carry the heaviest weight possible’. I choose a fairly light log—take that, convention. I carry it over some much bigger logs. Obstacle complete, I drop into a stream. Wading time.
I’m not a professional wader but, as I evaluate those ahead of me, I see two different approaches:
1) Lifting your knees high, a slow but balanced way to manoeuvre
2) Kicking through the water, a quicker, but more tiring and unstable way to proceed.
Impatience gets the better of me. I choose #2 and pass a few racers, but stumble a dozen times, hearing snickering behind me. I almost fall-face first into the stream, an idea I don’t relish in the wake of contracting gastroenteritis from swallowing river water at the Rat Race.
I have a pancake. A Spartan Pancake that is—a frisbee-shaped bag loosely filled with pellets. The emptiness of the bag is a deliberate design, so you can’t find any comfortable way to carry it. I fumble with like someone trying to quickly discover how to hold a surprisingly heavy baby.
I catch up with a crowd as we reach a clearing. A marshal informs us that there’s water ahead and we all find a new level of energy. So far I’ve ran after each obstacle while many chose to walk but, with the wonderful water station coming into view, I decide that here I’ll take a well-deserved break.
At a small wooden table a woman pours delicious water into small plastic cups. A second collects discarded cups on the ground into a black bag. As runners drink and leave, the second woman offers the open neck of the bag, hoping they’ll place their cups in. Perhaps conditioned by races, they instead throw the cups onto the ground in front of her. Maybe they’re all just shits.
The first woman tells us we’ve ‘passed the halfway point’. I let out a silent cheer. The other woman looks up from her cup collection and laughs. “She’s just making it up, we’ve got no idea what the course is like”. I deflate.
I collect a brick and have to crawl under barbed wire without putting it down. I think about those I’ve seen in Spartan race photos with cuts on their heads and backs from getting caught by the wire. I stay low. At one point the wire grazes my t-shirt, but I escape without a cut or a tear. I think we Scots are getting off lightly, the wire seems higher here than it does in Spartan media.
Wading time again. The sky greys and a sad drizzle starts to fall. Maybe it’s fatigue, but this wade seems much longer than the last. The rain is pleasant at first, cooling my chest while the water does the same to my legs, but I quickly get too cold, and I’m bored with wading. With the exception of burpees, everything else in a Spartan race goes by quickly—throw that spear, jump over that wall. The wading takes less than ten minutes, but feels a lifetime.
As soon as I’m out the water I run again, if only to heat myself up. I reach another wall, climb over, and am surprised there are no more. I look around as if missing something and, as I turn back to run, I fall over. After all the hills, the wading, the quick-walking while lugging heavy objects, I fall on a perfectly flat, only slightly muddy, piece of ground.
Ropes await. I’ve to climb one, about 12-feet high, and ring a bell at the top. While training for the race I’d given serious thought to buying rope from B&Q and tying it around a branch in the park I run in on weekends. I only hadn’t because park officials might spot it and take it down. So I’d done no rope climbing in preparation. But I had a trick up my…shorts: the Spanish Wrap. This involves wrapping one leg around the rope, and jamming it against that leg with your other foot. Then you can use your legs to climb, saving your upper body strength. I’d hadn’t tried it, but it looked easy. I step forward and try to wrap my leg. The rope is too short. I jump and grab the rope, then try again. I fall off. I try climbing conventionally, and again slip back to earth. The marshal eyes me suspiciously as four other racers quickly scale their respective ropes. I’m embarrassed. The marshal gives me an out, ‘Or you can do burpees’. I drop down and start my punishment, while seemingly all around me people climb the ropes with ease.
Halfway through the burpees I realise where I’d went wrong: for some reason I was trying to grip the rope between my thighs, not my feet. I’m not Xenia, that Bond character whose name I just used Google to find so I could have a pop-culture reference here, who crushes her enemies with thighs of steel. Why did I think that would work?
As I battle through the remaining burpees I notice how quiet it’s become. Racers have come and gone; it’s just me and the marshal. Then I make out a faint sound: cheering. I must be near the finish line. Instead of relief I feel irritation. I think of how many racers have passed me on this obstacle—I’ve dropped at least a few minutes and maybe a dozen places, all within a few hundred feet of the finish. I only I hadn’t tried to climb the rope like a fool, if I’d practiced or had some common sense.
My arms and shoulders ache from the burpees. I shake my arms out as I run, but they feel like dead weights. A successful rope climb wouldn’t have fatigued me this much. That failure had compounded my problems, making the next obstacles more difficult, maybe impossible. And failure on them would mean another 30. And so on.
I run alone in the drizzle. I pass one man, which makes me feel better. And that’s when I notice the quiet again. No more cheering. I might have been near the finish line earlier, but I’m not now. I still have time to catch more people and to get the blood flowing in my arms again.
I pass a few more people and reach a muddy gorge. After nearly falling in it I climb out and try to make my way along the side. I slip and instinctively reach for the fence, narrowly missing impaling my hand on barbed wire. I have a vision of my auntie standing at the finish line, wondering who was doing all the screaming, then seeing me rushing out, blood geysering up from my hand, my thumb left atop a fence post.
I clamber through the mud and hear cheers again. I’d been so busy concentrating on falling over I hadn’t noticed the finish line creeping up. A field with four obstacles are all that stand between me and the finish line. And a Red Bull and some chocolate.
There’s a racer at the monkey bars ahead of me. He moves to the side for 30 of those bad things. The thought of having to do 30 more while within sight of the finish was harsh. No way I was failing this. Was I?
I step beneath the bars and thank the gods for my gloves. The OCR community is divided on this subject—some see them as a significant aid and would never do a Spartan race without them. Others found them pointless and chucked them shortly into the race. I’m very much of the first group—the Gripz gloves I’ve been given helped me get a solid grip on all those previous heavy obstacles. I dry them off on my shorts and leap for the bars.
And slip off the first one and land back on the ground. Shit.
I look nervously at the marshal supervising my attempt, as I realise I don’t know if I can keep trying, or if this was a one-and-done thing. Was I to be sentenced to burpeedom?
“Can I try again?”, I ask.
He looks at another marshal on the obstacle’s opposite side. She’s not paying us any attention. “Go ahead”, he whispers in response and walks off. I’m not sure if he’s given me a break or if he was looking for clarification. I don’t care, all I know is I better make like a monkey.
My technique for the bars had been to get as much contact with them as possible, putting my whole palm over the top. This time I decide on the opposite approach, making only minor middle-knuckle contact with the bars. I hook the first two and let myself swing, almost closing my eyes, hoping I can hold on. I stay aloft. I monkey along fairly easily.
I reach the fire jump. I’d seen this last year and considered it a good photo opportunity, little else. It burned so low to the ground that the only way you’d even feel the flames was if you fell on top of it (which was admittedly a possibility). As I watched from the side before my wave started, the flames seemed to burn higher than last year. Now, as I faced the prospect of leaping over it myself, the fire seemed to be doing some leaping of its own. I sprinted and jumped, lifting my knees to what felt like my chin. I wish I could’ve jumped that high back in my basketball days.
Next up,the goddam slip ramp. This was the one thing, besides burpees, that had psyched me out about this race. A slip ramp is an angled piece of wood with a platform at the top, from which a rope hangs. The racer has to get to that platform, generally by pulling themselves up with the rope. Complicating matters is the ramp’s tarpaulin cover, which has become slippy from thousands of muddy feet. Last year I watched as hundreds of racers failed this obstacle. Some hung from the top before their fingers gave way, others simply lost grip on the ramp or the rope and bowling-balled back down, crashing into those behind them. One woman tried again and again, being exhorted by a military man at the top. I left for five minutes. When I came back she was being loaded into an ambulance. To the spectators that year (me included), this was mostly amusing. But as I’d watched this time around I felt only sympathy. The ramp was even higher this year. Those who failed repeatedly felt the pressure of those waiting behind them, and were soundtracked by laughter from the audience. What fun.
I try to think tactically as I approach. I never understood why people walked up to the ramp if they didn’t have to. Surely using my running momentum would carry me at least part of the way up? Or did it make me more likely to lose traction and Scooby-Doo run on the ramp before collapsing? As I close to within feet of the obstacle, I sprint and launch myself up. As my momentum stops I grab the rope and pull. By the time I feel strain in my arms, I’m at the top. I grab the platform and drag myself up. That was easier than expected. Sorry to disappoint you, lousy spectators.
The final obstacle is a human one. Two burly men in kilts await, wielding foam jousts. As I jog towards them I try to think of a cunning plan to elude them. Nothing comes to mind.
A younger fellow is somehow in front of me. No one passed me at the fire or slip ramp; he’s not the same person who was doing burpees at the monkey bars. He has just appeared. And I will use him.
He approaches the jousters. They eye him up, another meal to feast on. I see an opportunity and draft on his heels. He goes sharp left and they attack. I go hard right. The first gladiator doesn’t even get a sniff of me, the second takes a desperate lunge at my calves. The joust catches me just below the knee but barely slows me down. While the other guy is torn limb from limb, I reach the finish line. Some might be ashamed of that tactic. I call it survival instinct.
Done! I cross the finish line and collect my race t-shirt. My supporters tentatively hug me as they try to avoid the still-fresh mud and sweat of my t-shirt. There are hoses off to the side of the course; I rinse off as best I can. Then I realise there’s not much left to do here. As I experienced with the Rat Race, once you finish, you don’t find many reasons to hang about. The adrenaline recedes, you start to get cold, your muscles stiffen up. Best to just head home. The food and merchandise stalls already seem to be closing up, although there are a few waves and hundreds more racers still to finish. I forget all about the t-shirts and jumpers and things I can justify buying, now that I am a true Spartan. Aroo, etc. I head back to the car, try to change clothes without exposing myself, and stretch out in passenger seat. I alternate long drinks of water and Red Bull as my wife drives us back to Glasgow.
The Spartan race was great fun. While the Rat Race was mostly enjoyable, its obstacles felt like they were there just to break up the running, whereas the Spartan’s felt more like individual challenges. My discomfort with deep water clearly makes me biased, but the Rat Race’s water and concrete playground was less enjoyable than the Spartan’s mud and wood. These obstacles, quite simply, were more like those from Silence of the Lambs.
Tips? Can I justify offering tips? 384 people finished quicker than I did. But it’s my blog. So there.
I can only recommend the Gripz that I wore, but I’m convinced they helped a lot. They’re cheap, buy some and try them out first. And if, during the race, you find you don’t like them, then throw them away or stuff them into your waistband. Better to have them and not need them than vice versa.
As with the Rat Race, I was able to run off after most obstacles while many walked. I’m far from a fitness expert, but I’m convinced that running sprints gave me the legs and lungs to do this.
Simulate race demands.
Just do what you can. Pro: I was lucky to have access at weekends to a quiet park to act out what I imagined the Spartan would be like. Con: I was too self-conscious to do this kind of thing any other time during the week, in case people saw me. I knew it wasn’t an accurate facsimile of a Spartan race, but I think I somewhat acclimatised my body to the changing upper and lower body demands of OCR.
Run up the goddam slip ramp.