By Jason Herring
Perhaps you’ve heard about the Spartan Race. It’s an obstacle course race (OCR) that runs between 4 to 17 miles with anywhere from 20 to 40 obstacles. The distances are divided into Sprint, Super, and Beast, and if you can manage to do all three of the races in a calendar year, you earn your Spartan Trifecta. All of these races take place on trails through dirt, rock, mud, and sometimes rain or snow. I’ve raced in extreme heat reaching close to a hundred in the mountains outside Ogden, and I’ve raced in near freezing temperatures at Tahoe. I’ve choked on the dust clouds in the dry hills of Southwest Idaho, and I’ve sloshed through a cold downpour near an equestrian ranch outside of Seattle. So you get the point. It’s basically a crazy race for crazy people that lack the good sense to come in out of the weather.
The Spartan Race was designed to push you to your physical and mental limits. There’s so much to prepare for. Besides the elements, you have to factor in elevation, terrain, and the obstacles. Some obstacles test your strength, like pulling a 90-pound sandbag 25 feet in the air in the Herc Hoist or carrying a 100-pound bucket the length of a football field on the side of a mountain in the Bucket Brigade. Other obstacles, like the Spear Throw, test your coordination as you launch a 2.5-pound spear over 30 feet to hopefully find its mark in a 3-foot target. Some obstacles, like the Multi Rig and Rope Climb, will test your upper body and grip strength as you haul yourself vertically up a 16-foot rope or across a 20-foot apparatus where you swing from rings to a bar to a rope with a knot on the end.
So what happens if you fail one of these crazy obstacles or lack the skill to even attempt it? Burpees. Yes, that weird and dreaded word that defines an exercise that goes from a push-up in a plank position to a jump squat. Chest to the ground in push-up and feet off the ground in the jump-squat. Thirty times. For every single obstacle you fail. If you’re wondering what kind of sadist would invent an event like this, his name is Joe DeSena. This is a guy who did the Iditarod on foot, 14 Ironmans in one year, and the Ukatak – a 250-mile race in the most extreme winter weather conditions in Quebec, Canada. So he’s actually the biggest masochist on the planet to punish himself that way and get pleasure out of it. Why not package that much fun in manageable increments and share it with the rest of the world?
When I did my first Spartan Race in the summer of 2016, I was told by my coach to run hills on dirt and build my grip strength. I had been running since I was 6- or 7-years-old, but I felt like a novice when I started hill running for the first time. I could easily bench press my bodyweight but working on rings and monkey bars exposed my grip strength. Little by little, I made progress, however, to get ready for my first Spartan Race. I finished the Boise Sprint without failing a single obstacle, and then it was on to Super in Utah.
On the website, the Ogden Mountains looked lush and green, nothing like the arid dusty desert outside of Boise. I was in for a rude awakening. The Utah Super was Boise 2.0. Just as hot, just as dry, breathing in just as much dust except at a higher elevation over a longer distance with even more obstacles. Of six thousand registered participants that year, 1,500 either quit or had to be taken off the mountain. That’s one out of four!
Then came the Tahoe Beast on my birthday weekend in September. Because it was the site of the Spartan World Championships, the obstacles were doubled in length, and the course was a lean 17.2 miles, topping out at Granite Chief Peak at 9,000-feet elevation. The race opened with three giant ditches filled with freezing water that you had wade through at chest height. The windchill on your soaked skin reminded you that were still alive and yet a mere 15 miles from the site of the Donner Party. Over halfway through the race there was a swim in an alpine pond. Lifejackets were mandatory, which made sense given the temperatures, but only made the swimming more difficult. I can honestly say that I’ve never been that cold in my life.
I came out of the water and trudged around the corner to face an 8-foot vertical wall. This was an obstacle I could have easily done under normal conditions. But I couldn’t stop shaking and wondered how in the world I was going to make it over the top. A friend of mine who is a certified personal trainer had to quit because he was hypothermic. Famed NFL wide-receiver, Randy Moss, was competing that day as well and almost quit until Joe DeSena put him in a pickup truck with the heater running. But there was no heated cab waiting for me, and it took me over two miles to get my core temperature back up.
Somehow I managed to successfully finish all of the obstacles before I came to the last one with the finish line in sight just behind it. It was a 40-foot Spartan Rig, and I made it to within a few feet of the end when I slipped and fell. Exhausted and depleted of every electrolyte in my body, I went to the designated burpee area and did all 30 of my burpees, even as I watched other racers cheat and cut their numbers short.
The following year I was back at Tahoe to earn my second Spartan Trifecta. That year there were signs saying that you didn’t have to complete an obstacle if you lacked the skill or strength to do so. Exactly. But you still had to do 30 burpees. And if you couldn’t do that, then you needed to consider a bubble run or color run. I always tell people who ask that at the very least they need to be able to do 30 burpees without feeling completely gassed in order to seriously consider a Spartan Race at the entry-level Sprint distance. Throughout the course that afternoon, I kept passing these contestants and wondered how we were leapfrogging each other since they didn’t appear to be in very good shape. Then at the next obstacle I noticed them just walk right past it. No burpees. No effort. They didn’t even try. They just kept walking. The thing is they got a nice t-shirt and medal to show off to their friends at the finish line, but they did a 15-mile hike in the mountains, not a Spartan Beast.
Life is full of obstacles, and seldom if ever do we get to determine the obstacles that we face. We certainly don’t get to skip them, nor do we get to opt out of the burpee penalties that life makes us pay. We have to prepare to the greatest extent that we can and remember that failure is a wonderful teacher. Every time I failed an obstacle it gave me experience and a way to improve. You can’t go around your obstacles, but you can grow through them. And each victory will make you more ready for the next test waiting around the corner.