I have a love/hate relationship with Spartan races, I love the quality of their obstacle, the weight of their carries and their liking for hills, what I don’t like is the fact that they are a franchise and as such are a fast food style race, you know what you’re getting the moment you sign up, but hey sometimes all you really want are some salty fries and a nondescript burger (for the record I’m a vegetarian food snob, so feel free to throw onions rings at me)
Despite my foodyisms I’ve ended up doing four Spartan races this year, the Perth Ultra, the Windsor Sprint and Super and the Sparta Trifecta World Championships, here is a little on each.
I’m not the fastest of runners, so longer distances appeal to me, as a friend says I’m like an old Land Rover, once the engine is warmed up I just keep going, well until I run out of cake. Perth was advertised as 30+ miles with enough hills to keep the Von Trapps happy, so I signed up to my first burger of the year.
The course was good, plenty of hills and with the exception of a kilometre or so of pointless scrub made good use of natural terrain. What I did like was the special treatment the Ultra runners received; we got a purple vest to show how precious we were and our lanes at certain obstacles, all nice and ego boosting until you realise that the dedicated lanes were not to allow us to pass unimpeded, the Ultras got longer and tougher obstacles, bugger. The key differences were Olympus, double the normal length; the sandbag carries where we were given two 60lb bags rather than the regular number of one and the block drag where like the sandbags carries we got two blocks to drag through the mud.
To make up the distance the Ultra was, in fact, two laps of the beast course and with two sandbag carries and two spear throws per lap I don’t mind admitting by the end of lap two I was feeling a tad tired.
Would I do it again, yes, but I do have a few gripes:
- The course was short, just over 13 miles per lap so not the 30+ as advertised
- The last obstacles were mud pits and a dunk wall, but the organisers had not provided a wash down area, so you finished the race filthy with no way of getting cleaned up
- While there were plenty of water stations the only food on offer were sweets, fruit would have been better received.
Some bright spark with whom I share a surname suggested I go to Greece and do the Spartan Trifecta World Championships, but to do that I needed a trifecta. I had the first part after Perth so just needed the Super and Sprint races to complete the Trinity, time for a road trip to Windsor (well, Bagshot to be accurate) and more burgers.
I’d been advised that the course at “Windsor” is for the most part woodland, with narrow trails and while this makes for nice technical running, overtaking was very difficult, so best to be out of the gate fast. With a send-off from Spartan Phil, more of him later it was flat out until we hit the trees, I was somewhere around 10th which gave me clear trails and time to settle into a rhythm and enjoy the race, after all, I just needed to finish.
The course was indeed flat, with only one or two inclines to tax the legs, it was, however, muddy. Despite the dry weather in the week’s previous pockets of water and mud remained, so climbing ropes and carrying atlas stones took on new challenges. After 12 km or so the race ended with zero burpees and no injuries, I was ready for the Sprint.
As I said above, I’m not the fastest runner, so the idea of doing a Sprint was not that appealing, but I needed the last part of the trifecta, so back into the start pen, I climbed. Phil did his thing, and we were on our way, this was going to be a Sprint. As a cut down version of the Super course, there is little to report, same obstacles, same mud, but this time with the added challenge of queues and bottlenecks as the slower runners from previous waves began to congeal. Long story short this race finished like that last, no burpees and no injuries, which in my book is a good day at the office.
Would I do it again, not if I can help it:
- The course is too flat
- Registration was a mess; you had to queue up after the Super to get your Sprint race number.
- It a long drive for a set of average races.
This event was not on my radar for 2018, but as this would be the inaugural Trifecta Championships Mrs W said I should be there, so flights were booked and accommodation found. The event would take place in Sparta, the home of the Spartans and the inspiration for the Spartan Race series, there was a trifecta weekend in the town the previous year but this was a whole different level, Spartan USA rolled into town with all the razzamatazz you’d expect, supersize burgers ahead.
Like a normal Trifecta weekend there would be three races over two days, but unlike most weekend events the Super and Sprint would take place on day one, while the Beast would be day two. The logic here was to allow the elites to have a staggered start on the Sunday based on their combined times for Saturday, an interesting tactic that played well to the overall winner, Jon Albon from the UK.
I arrived late afternoon on Friday and after quick wander around headed to the main square where registration was situated. Once registered, which was painless as I received all my race details in the same pack I headed over to merchandising tent to watch the Spartan obsessives buying every branded article in sight. After that, it was off to the hotel, by way of a convenience store to get some water and supplies for Saturday.
Saturday came and race day was upon me. I have to praise Spartan over the organisation of the event; racers were given access to the local sports stadium to get ready, warm up and post-race, clean down and chill out. With a well manned and free bag drop, pre-race stresses were reduced to a minimum, just the usual portaloo gauntlet to face before the start line.
Now a word on Phil, or Spartan Phil to give him his full title. In the UK, a nice young man dressed as a Spartan acts as an MC for Spartan Race. He sends each wave on its wave with a rousing speech and a smattering of merry banter, for the Trifecta Championships Spartan Race had flown him over to Greece, which was a nice touch. I’m not a fan of chest thumping send-offs, I like a more sardonic affair.
So, to the first race, the Super. All we knew was that it would be at least 16 km in length, with 400 plus meters of altitude gain and a final section of rigs and walls that ran the length of the main street in Sparta. The race started with a walk through ancient Sparta before what was, in essence, a rolling start, down a set of trails with the odd obstacle to the banks of the river Evrotas where things got interesting. The next 3 km saw us in and out of the river including a set of tall walls and a barbed wire crawl. I’m a fan of wet races, helps me keep cool, what I struggle with is the rocky terrain and the river bed, and banks consisted of nothing but rocks, some big, some small but all intent on destroying ankles and biting shins, even the elites found this section taxing.
Once out of the river it was a muddy balance beam and a first for me the memory test. You had to memorise six symbols that were tied to the last digit of your race number, in my case this was Face, Shield, Snake, Snakes, Pyramid and Scorpion; at some point later somebody was going to leap out of a bush and demand I repeat the sequence, with burpees if I got it wrong. Following the balance beam and memory test was nice leg stretch through some olive groves before we hit walls and more water and finished with a block drag along the river bank.
That was the last of the water for a while; the trails started to ascend into the hills around Sparta as did the temperature, indicating that the Sprint later that afternoon would be a sweaty affair. One hundred meters into the climb came to the Olympus obstacle, made slightly harder by the use of a very slick boarding and wooden handholds, following that was the log carry and then a nice steady climb to Menelaion, the site of Menelaus and Helen of Troy’s tomb.
The trail now dropped down to a lower plateau where Spartan had installed one of their stalwarts The Twister, after this was a steep rocky descent to a tire drag, after which the course followed the route of a dry river bed through a small canyon before climbing back towards the town of Sparta.
More olive and fruit groves, walls and an atlas stone carry later we were back at the river, just this time going upstream, which given the rocks and water depth (up to my waist in points) made for a challenge. Climbing out of the river we hit a trio of obstacles, a barbed wire crawl (on dry land this time), a rope climb and finally the weighted hoist; clearing these challenges led back to the river and another Spartan mainstay, the spear throw, however, this time with a twist. You threw from the river towards the bank, which meant the targets were uphill. This caught a lot of Spartan regulars out as they were used to being level with the targets and not up to their knees in water. Failure for the spear throw was the traditional 30 burpees, but like the throw, these were in the river, cue aqua-burpees for the unfortunate.
Leaving the river, the trails led back to ancient Sparta and as expected a memory ambush, manned by school girls, so fighting was not an option. Once the brain cells had been expunged, it was downhill to the town centre and the final series of obstacles before the traditional fire jump. This last set of obstacles, consisting of walls, rigs and balance beams were configured as a “there and back” along one of the main Sparta streets, which gave a nice finish. Spectators cheered everybody onwards, with additional gusto when a competitor cleared a rig or crested a wall.
Clearing the small pyre, it was over the line for your medal and finishers headshot before wandering back to the stadium for free drinks and fruit, which given the now 26-degree temperature were well received.
A quick refuel, stretch and change of socks saw me ready for the next challenge the Sprint
The Sprint started in the same way as the Super, a nice stroll to a timing mat before heading down to the river and the ankle biting rocks. Being much shorter, billed as 8km, the Sprint simply cropped the hills from the morning’s race, meaning no Olympus, no Twister and no carries.
Like the Super, enthusiastic spectators lined the routes cheering every racer on and offering high fives every few meters. With high temperatures and backlogs caused by late starting Super racers I lost a little time, but to be fair, I was there for the experience, not the glory.
Again, the schoolgirl ambush was in place, but I was prepared; the memory test is not part of the Sprint, so I pointed to my nice red Sprint wristband and jogged on. More so than before the streets were lined with cheering supports and every now and then a bemused local who had no idea why his town was full of foreign lunatics.
One fire jump later and Saturday was complete, two races, just over 26 km (did I mention that the Super came in at 18 km) in my legs and only one set of burpees after a stupid mistake on a slackline.
Time for a wash and some food
With a later start time on Sunday, I had time for a leisurely breakfast followed by the usual packing and repacking of my bag; a catch up with friends and a chat with Mrs W before race time.
Today it was the turn of the Beast, 28 km and over 1000m of altitude; the temperature was already in the mid-twenties, this was going to hurt. Unlike the previous day, the Beast began as a race, no gentle walk, we were straight into it. Letting the loons take the lead I settled into a steady pace and followed the route until we hit the now familiar obstacles and river section.
The first 6km of the Beast followed the same route as the Super, but just after a water station we went right rather than left, and a whole new world of hurt emerged. Hills, lots of hills, hills with rocks to carry, hills with walls on top, hills with chains to carry, hills with hills on top, you get the idea.
The spear throw was at the highest point of the course, but to get to there you had to scramble up a scree slope then get over a 3-meter wall, most walls I can reach the top of with a standing jump, not this one, it took a proper Ninja Warrior running leap to get a couple of fingers on the top plank and secure another burpee free obstacle. Paying homage to the locality the spear throw included holding a shield on your non-throwing arm, like the river this messed with the Spartan regulars who were getting some very dusty burpees.
After, the spear throw came a stone block carry followed on the next hilltop by a rope traverse and then after another ascent we descended to the chain carry, another new challenge for me. The chains weigh perhaps 30 or 40 kg and are around 2 meters long, not the easiest thing to carry. After a few meters of stumbling I got the links in the right place, something my shoulders would remind me about the next day and headed down to the halfway challenge, the memory board. It’s very surreal to be standing atop a foothill in Greece carrying a chain that would have made Jacob Marley weep trying to decide if the small billboard in front of you is a trick or the same board as the day before. I decided that is the same board, but I’d still take two minutes to be sure, my chain convinced my brain that one minute was enough.
After the chain, it was more up and downs until the route spat us out at the section, of course, we’d raced on the previous day. Now, only the bucket carry remained to test the body, everything else was just running and familiar obstacles, finishing the bucket carry and then the subsequence sledge drag I headed downhill towards the Atlas carry and then the river. Going down the hill I glanced left and saw what looked like bodies slumped under a tree with sandbags at their feet, must be the Hurricane Heat guys and girls, after all, I’d seen them the day before crawling up the track as I finished the Super, not my idea of fun. With a mental note never to enter that race I continued downhill and round the last bend towards the river plateau, and there it was, the sandbag carry, back up the hill I’d just run down, crap.
Being almost at boiling point a 60lb sandbag carry uphill over rough terrain was never going to be fun, but one foot in front of the other and 1km later I was back at the pile of bags and bodies, heading downhill and desperate to get in the river and cool down. After a final inverted wall, I could see the river, salvation, but the course veering to the right, what was this madness, this Yorkshireman was about to go into meltdown. A small sign above a ladder said “One More Challenge”, sounded good to me. What followed was perhaps the coolest part of the race. The ladder dropped you into a large drainage culvert, big enough to drive a car through, should you be so stupid. The culvert quickly became a tunnel which in turn became very dark, very quickly. We so infrequently experience total darkness, this was not the heavy curtain kind of dark you have at home this was the complete absence of light, reaching for a wall I gingerly pushed on until a small patch of light appears, a glow stick, then another and another. Some 400 meters of so later we emerged into daylight and the short section of the course that led to the river.
From here it was the same route as the Super, with a slight surprise, no spear throw after the hoist, I have to admit that was a relief, although aqua-burpees sounded appealing, I was melting. Heading back to Sparta there was just the small matter of the schoolgirl ambush before hitting the main street and the road to glory. However, these were not the schoolgirls of yesterday; these were some kind of Harpy sent to torment the weary runner. I knew my sequence; I still know my sequence, the Harpies did not.
Following ancient tradition as an Englishman abroad, I pointed and spoke explaining that none of the sequences they were showing me was mine, cue much confusion and conversations that were “all Greek to me”. Then, like a bolt from Zeus, I had it, they were showing me a sequence based on the first part of my race number, not the last (3 not 4 for those that care). Pointing to my number and the other sequence sheets the Harpies conceded defeat, and I sped on my merry way.
Into the town and down the main street for one last time, over the A-frame and through the rig, up the slip wall, over the balance beams and….. a new rig. This was a nasty rig, a twister section to short ropes then another twister section, looking at the masses doing burpees it was taking no prisoners. Not keen to join the prone Spartans I kept my head and took my time picking the right route. Thirty seconds later the rig was toast, just one last obstacle and then the fire jump and it was over.
Standing in the queue for my post-race goodies it occurred to me that this was only the second time I’d raced two days in a row, and if I say so myself, I felt pretty pleased with my performance.
Once dripping in bling, I called Mrs W, sent her pictures of the spoils and then hooked up with friends to eat all the food.
And so, the magic question, would I do it again? Erm…. hotel is already booked, and I’m looking for qualifiers, so that would be a yes then. Better still, Mrs W will be coming along too, happy days.
Ah yes, Iceland or The Spartan Ultra World Championships to use its full title will be Spartan number five in 2018, it was the reason I did the Perth Ultra. The race will take place over the weekend of December 8th and 9th, and once I have thawed out, I’ll write about my experiences in the Land of Fire and Ice, cue Game Of Thrones Theme, a Sean Bean voice over and a nice veggie-burger.
All images copyright Spartan Race, Inc