My friends somehow convinced me to do a Spartan Race. For those of you who don’t know, this means a race with running, but also with obstacles that could have a place on TV shows like American Ninja Warrior, or in CrossFit gyms. These obstacles are a test of agility and strength—two things I lack, as was made apparent during last week’s race. Still, I survived my first Spartan Race and lived to tell about it.
Here’s all the dirt on my first ever Spartan weekend, including:
-What is a Spartan Race
-Why the heck I signed up for this
-How the race went
-& Some surprising lessons from the course (of course)
Hope you enjoy, and if you’re thinking about signing up for your first Spartan Race, definitely don’t ask me for tips. I’m just a baby.
Why did I do it?
People who know me will think that because I’ve run lots of races, because I love hiking and outdoorsy things, that I will have jumped at the opportunity to run this Spartan Race with my friends. And those people would be dead wrong. I reluctantly agreed to sign up and dragged my feet like a sloth in the days and hours, leading up to the race.
So, why did I do it?
Guilt, I guess. And maybe some FOMO. My friend Dasha’s birthday is in mid-September and for her birthday she wanted her friends to run a Spartan Race. We would rent a house in Middle of Nowhere, Maryland, get up early on a Saturday, and perform strength and endurance tests for hours. I wanted to decline the offer. The friend time sounded great, but the Spartan part? Not so much. Ultimately, I felt bad skipping out when I didn’t have a good reason, so I said yes. I reasoned that having a “fitness activity” on the calendar would be good for my body, like a weekend with friends would be good for my mind. It was everyone else’s second Spartan Race, and if they all thought it was fun enough to sign up for a second year in a row, maybe I wouldn’t hate it.
Things were… interesting.
A weekend with this crew is worth the pain of a Spartan Race.
The weekend went like this:
Friday morning—Fly to DC, get picked up in a car by your friends, and start driving towards Mechanicsville, where the race would be held. Stop for lunch at a Dominican spot, feast on plantains, rice and vegetables, then take a group trip to Costco to purchase way too much food and booze for two days in the house. Finish the drive and commence celebrations.
One of the nice things about the Spartan Race was that there were different “heat” or start times. We had an afternoon start of 1pm on Saturday, which left Friday fair game to party late into the night. The Airbnb we rented was the perfect place for that, with a giant social room complete with pool table, a built-in karaoke system, and enough space at the giant bar for several bartenders and a dozen guests seated on the other side. There was an oversized Jenga set that kept some of us occupied, while others took hold of the mic and sang our hearts out. There was drinking, there was eating, and there was lore being built up about last year’s Spartan race. This was the second inaugural Spartan Race for most of the group, so they had lots to say about how it went last year and lots of speculation for how the following day would be. They gave tips and reassurance and also scared the shit out of me when they mentioned FIRE being involved. (More on this later.)
Saturday—Get up, drink your coffee, and eat your breakfast. Herd a dozen people in 3 different cars to the race venue. Try to ignore the butterflies in your stomach, get out your pre-race nervous pees, and line up for your start.
Run, in the heat, for 6.2 miles and do 25 obstacles, including climbing over walls, rock-climbing activities, rope-climbing activities, monkey bar activities, carrying very heavy things activities, activities involving barbed wire and swimming in mud activities. Jump over a line of fire to finish successfully, more than two hours later.
Wash off, with hoses, outside, and change into dry clothes. Eat your face off at local restaurant with your team of 15, sore, tired, and feeling the camaraderie of a job well done.
Back to the party house for Round II.
Sunday—Wake up. Get dressed and clean up said party house. Hug all your old friends and new friends, bid them adieu and drive to the airport. Catch a flight, and if you’re as crazy as me, work overnight on the airplane after arriving in Boston.
Our Spartan Team, race ready
About the Race
The Spartan race we did, in Mechanicsville, Maryland was a Spartan “Super”. The Super is a 10k with about 25 obstacles. (This is in contrast to a Spartan 5k, called a “Sprint”.) Spartan obstacles included monkey bars, rope climbs, picking up heavy things and carrying them around through the woods, pulling, climbing, and lots of walls to jump over. Many of the obstacles were outside the realm of my upper body strength, but I got through a lot of them.
What sets Spartan races apart from other competitive sporting activities is that you don’t have to complete every obstacle to complete the race. If there is an obstacle you physically can’t finish, you just run a penalty lap or do some specified number of burpees. (I don’t know the number, you all know I wasn’t signing up for burpees.) Not only that, but you’re allowed help! During a particularly hard wall obstacle, a man offered me his shoulder to STAND ON (with my muddy shoe) so that I could make it over. People you don’t know will cheer you on while you scale a wall or attempt to cross the monkey bars. They’ll offer tips on the best form to carry a certain heavy item or which hand-hold you should grab on a climbing wall.
There are some people who run these things competitively. I’m sure these very fit select few don’t stop to help one another out. They’re trying to win! They go first and are out of the way before the regular people come and start the course. For the rest of us, we’re all trying our best to get through the obstacles and to have fun while doing it. If that means adding a few minutes to your time to help out a friend, then so be it. This community feel was one of the things I really liked about the Spartan Race.
If you run a Spartan Race, you will get dirty. It was not a “Tough Mudder”, but there was, indeed, plenty of mud. You will work every muscle in your body and you will expend more energy in cardio than you expect (even if you are a runner).
On Saturday, September 16, our group of 15 runners lined up for our 1pm start time. A Spartan rep gave us instructions and important information about the course we were about to take on. And then we were off.
Crawling through the mud, wondering why I'm here.
But you’re, like, a runner
Those of you who know me or read regularly will know that I’m a runner. My running buddy Meagaan and I have run a marathon together, and last April we completed our first ever Ultra-marathon—a wild experience. But being a runner and running a Spartan Race are not the same thing. I like running because of its simplicity. My feet on the road, headphones in my ears, one foot in front of the other. That’s it. It doesn’t require much, just taking a series of steps. A Spartan Race, on the other hand, requires calculations in your head of the best way to get across an obstacle, where to put your foot on this high rock-climbing wall you somehow have to get over. How to leverage your own body weight to lift a heavy bag sixty feet off the ground and then lower it slowly. If running is simple, Spartan courses are decidedly not.
Then there is the inertia. When running a race—when running in general, I try not to stop until I’m finished. The ultramarathon was the exception, when we were taking on 50 consecutive miles, we made a lot of stops to fuel. But every other race I’ve completed has been run all the way through from start to finish. Even when I’m tired, even if I slow down, I just keep running. This allows me to stay in a rhythm, to keep the automation in my motions and not have to think too hard about what I’m doing next. It saves me the more strenuous effort of starting to run, and instead I get to stick with the easier maintenance phase of continuing to run. With a Spartan Race, stops and starts are built in. You stop running to complete an obstacle. If it’s a crowded day on the field, you may have to wait in line to complete it—about the worst thing I can think of to stand and wait in line for. (As someone who hates waiting in line, this is really insult to injury. Waiting in line for hard physical activity, yuck.)
If you think runners have the advantage out here on the Spartan course, you are dead wrong. It did help with endurance, but there are lots of other skills that come in handy. Looking at my Crossfitters out there!
Two running buddies firmly outside their wheelhouse
Lessons from Sparta
One of the things I struggled with at the Spartan Race, besides the monkey bars for fuck’s sake, was the feeling that I hadn’t really finished. How could I take this medal, feel proud of my accomplishment, when some obstacles were left on the table, un-done?
The attitude of trying your best, doing what you can do, and giving and receiving help where it’s needed, are integral parts of the Spartan ethos. As much as winning is cool, a Spartan race is really a matter of competition with oneself. It’s about challenging yourself to try something difficult, even if you don’t succeed. To push yourself to be a little faster, a little stronger than last time.
It’s a mind shift for sure, feeling proud for the things you’ve accomplished, even if they don’t amount to 100%. But this acceptance of limitations, the drive to keep pushing despite them, and the pride in what has been done is something I could maybe get used to, learn from.
Some is more than none. Failing is better than not trying. Halfway there is much closer to the end than the beginning– just because you’ve started. Asking for help is not failure. And giving it doesn’t set you back too far. These are all lessons I can take from the Spartan Race, from the people who go back time and time again to compete in them.
Running through thorn bushes was my least favorite obstacle.
On Peer Pressure
One of the big lessons that I didn’t expect to learn at my first Spartan Race was just how susceptible I am to peer pressure.
Two hours and 31 minutes after beginning the race, my running buddy Meagaan, Jen, a girl we met on the course, and I leapt over a line of literal fire to complete the Spartan Race. It was a satisfying finish, made better by the company, despite not completing every obstacle. We were exhausted by this time, having used every bit of upper body strength on the monkey bars, rope climbs, and bag pulls. I left my last burst of energy on the field in the final uphill section of the course.
We crossed the finish line, panting, and as I reached for my medal, the man handing it over said “Do you want to run a Victory lap?”
I thought he was joking.
“It’s one more mile, and if you finish it, you get one of these pins,” the man said, pointing to a small black pin on his shirt with the Spartan logo.
I don’t know about y’all, but it is going to take more than a stupid piece of plastic with a needle on the back to motivate me. I hate junk, and pins, in my book, are junk, right along with snow globes and keychains, and shot glasses in the shape of sombreros.
“No,” I said flatly. “I’m good.”
But five minutes later, where did I find myself? Taking an extra lap up and down hills, through the mud and thorns and steep drop offs and slippery slopes in the stupid woods!
This same pin and lap exchange was offered to my two friends who completed the race when I did. And while I refused, they asked questions. “How long is it?” “Can we walk it?” And before you know it, we’ve convinced ourselves that this would be a good cool down activity.
Incredible; moments before, I wanted to cool down by laying my body in the grass, motionless and happy. And now here I was, grabbing a bottle of water, and setting off to trudge through another mile. We didn’t run the additional mile. We walked it, begrudgingly, as if we’d been forced, water bottles in hand. We wondered, while we skittered down steep grades on our butts, while we felt our muscles clenching, fighting to carry us up yet another steep incline, Why are we doing this?
And the answer was simple and weird and a bit hard to swallow.
They had convinced us. So easily. Held up a tiny plastic object, the chance to be a cut above the rest, and we had said “Okay, sign us up.”
The need for external validation is an ailment that plagues me day in and day out, one I actively put up my swords and defenses against. I’ve come a long way—Since I stopped drinking, I’ve all but slayed the dragon of FOMO, opting to go my own way rather than worry what everyone else is doing. But this race, and this “Victory lap” showed me how susceptible I still am to those forces. Tell me it’s hard and watch me try to do it.
I guess I shouldn’t be so surprised. I watched one ultramarathon and decided I should run it. I finished a 500-mile walk across Spain, and then felt guilty for not walking the additional 50 miles to Finisterre—not even technically part of the Camino de Santiago. I quit drinking for a month, and here I am, three years later. There is something comforting in the ease of deciding and committing. Amidst life’s uncertainties, doesn’t it feel good to work toward something—to do just a little bit more, and then a little more after that?
It’s interesting because I never put pressure on myself to be the fastest, strongest, smartest, or best. I never plan to win a race. But once I know that others can do—are doing—something, it alerts me to the possibility, makes me think I should try, that I’d be selling myself short not to.
When we finished our “Victory lap,” we met up with the rest of our group of 15 and found that not a single one of them had been compelled to do the extra work, as we had been. Even Antonio, the one person in our group to complete every obstacle (and make them look freakishly easy), had declined the offer of a victory lap and cheap plastic pin. This, maybe more than the trudging through the woods with our bottles, made me think about the influence of peer pressure.
It wasn’t the biggest deal. A post-race mile, walked with friends. Probably not something significant enough to write about. But I’m me, and here we are. Unfurling all my winding thoughts for you. Pushing yourself is great, it’s healthy. But maybe listening to your own desires, instead of being lured by cheap plastic things and the promise of glory, is good too.
The only three in our group to fall for the 'Victory Lap' trick.
The two key takeaways from this Spartan Race were that I am so out of shape and susceptible to peer pressure. But what about the race itself? The weekend? Will I be back?
I can’t say I loved doing this race. I can’t even say, like I do for road races, that I loved it once it was over. It just might not be my thing. It was good in that it was something new that I tried, an experience to add to the ever-growing collection. But I probably won’t be signing up again soon.
My friends keep talking about “Next year’s race” and I keep insisting I’ll be there to watch from the sidelines, or that I won’t be there at all. But you’ve read about my FOMO and vulnerability to peer pressure, so who really knows.
In the meantime, the race has given me some direction of where to put my attention in strength training. A goal of being able to do one single pull-up emerged out of the Spartan Race, and I’m sure that once I find a pull-up bar, I’ll begin diligently working towards this. Then there are the friends gained over the weekend, along with the medal and plastic pin. People I never would have met without the invite to come and run this stupid obstacle course, crawl through the mud, jump over a fire. People who I bonded with quickly, due to the shared experience of physical strain and bruises and tales from the course and the high of finishing something hard.
I guess I have to admit, despite my distaste for the Spartan Race itself, that the weekend was fun.
Do I recommend running a Spartan Race specifically? No. But I will always and forever suggest stepping out of your comfort zone and trying something new. If your friends are like mine and want you to struggle through two hours on a Spartan course, just say yes. Try your best, do what you can do, and look forward to the post-race bonding. The chatter about obstacles, the showing of battle scars, the eating your face off after a calorie deficit of great proportion. Just do it. But maybe skip the “Victory lap”—if you want to.
Sitting in the grass post-race felt like a WIN
A week after the Spartan Race, my friends and I packed our bags and flew to Calgary, AB to run yet another race—but this time without obstacles and in the company of 600 other airline professionals. This trip, unlike the last, is firmly within my wheelhouse, a comfort. I’m finishing this post from Banff National Park in Canada, which I will surely be writing about soon.
I hope this post gave some insight into Spartan Races for beginners, and a fun trip down memory lane for all my friends who survived this Spartan Super with me. The bruises are still healing, but the pain of the monkey bars is firmly in the rearview. If you want to know more about running a Spartan Race (for some reason) check out Spartan.com. But don’t say I didn’t warn you.