I spent five and a half hours last Sunday running up and down ski hills and through swamps, climbing under and over all sorts of obstacles, and generally getting beat up – all in the name of completing my first Spartan Beast race. And what’s more, I actually paid someone about $80 for the privilege of doing all of that shit! So what gives? Why would a cheap bastard like me pay money for an organized form of exercise (torture) like this? And actually be planning on doing it again? Well, since you’re reading this anyway, I’m going to tell you.
For someone who’s always trying to find cheap or no-cost ways to stay in shape, paying money for an event like this seems a bit antithetical. But for me, even though I aim to do most of my exercise regimen at little or no cost, there are times when a person needs a sort of goal or benchmark to evaluate one’s progress. This race was one of those benchmarks for me. I’m not an endurance guy really. I don’t log countless miles of running each week. I don’t run marathons. For the most part I subscribe to the less is more, school of thought surrounding exercise. Practically, that means a lot of weightlifting, sprinting, met-cons, tabatas, explosive movement-oriented sports – that sort of stuff, with a few middle distance runs and swims thrown in for good measure.
This race, pardon the pun, was a different beast altogether. 24 kilometers long (most of those at significant elevation). Not at all like my regular training. But I’m an advocate of well-roundedness (or at least I’d like to think so) in fitness as well as life in general. Excessive specialization in any field has never really appealed to me (perhaps a little bit of ADD…). So this was a new challenge. At the end of the day, I really just wanted to see if I could do it, in the absence of any real distance training. Prior to Sunday, the last time I’ve run any distance much greater than about 7 or 8kms was at least 5 years ago (prior to my daughter being born).
In the lead up to Sunday, I have to say I was pretty nervous, which is unusual because I’m quite calm by nature. Like I said, I hadn’t done any long runs leading up to the event. Hell, I hadn’t even run a 5k in about 3 weeks. My last workout beforehand was on Tuesday and consisted of a few sets of muscle-ups on rings. After that, I figured a few days off would be good in order to come into Sunday totally fresh. I was genuinely scared of failing at this thing, especially since I had mentioned it to a few people and would have been pretty embarrassed if I wasn’t able to complete it.
I had been pretty casual about the whole thing in the weeks prior. A friend of mine, who was also planning to do the race (and who has a lot more experience with distance events), was really concerned about issues like food and water, talking to me about all manner of energy gels, camelback packs for water, electrolytes, etc. In hindsight, I was a bit cocky and flippant about all of that stuff. Food, I thought, ha! I already fast for sometimes 20 hours each day. What do I need food for in a 4-5 hour race! Water, ha! I’ve heard there are some water stations throughout the course, and in the 7km Spartan Sprint earlier in June I had skipped past the only water station on the course without even stopping! I didn’t like the idea of spending 50 bucks on a bulky camelback and getting it caught on the barbed wire and other obstacles. My ego and my desire to be tough and minimalist was getting in the way. In the end I acquiesced a bit and the day before the race I went out to Canadian Tire and spent 12 dollars on a little 1 litre leather wineskin thing. I hung it from my belt with a climbing carabiner, with the thought that if it started to get in the way, I could simply ditch it somewhere and only be out $12. I also stuck a handful of my kids’ dried Fruitsource bars and a granola bar in the cargo pockets of my shorts.
The day of the race was absolutely beautiful. The week leading up to the race had seen humidex values in the 40 degree Celsius range, but Sunday was low twenties, sunny and breezy. Absolutely perfect. I had run a 5km Spartan Sprint 3 years previously in 30+ degree heat and it had been brutal. Once I started, I realized that the wineskin flopping around at my waist wasn’t going to be a huge burden. I had been worried that it’d interfere with my ‘speed’, but the first massively-steep ascent convinced me that that likely wouldn’t be a huge issue! Some of the downhills saw it knocked around a bit but not a real problem. On obstacles such as the barbed wire crawls and monkey bars, I just pitched it down to the other end and then picked it up later. The fruit bars and granola bar came in handy too.
The first third (roughly of the race) posed no real problems. I knew what to expect from the Sprint distances I had done before. I was trying to be proactive with my water consumption to avoid cramping and dehydration and I wasn’t pushing myself to the max (hell, I knew I wasn’t winning this thing and I just wanted to finish and place somewhat respectably). It wasn’t until I got to, I’m guessing, the 10km mark and we had to stop and do a set of 20 wheelbarrow-style deadlifts (really light weight) when I started to get some cramps in my inner quads. I kind of pushed past them, scarfed down a fruit bar and few sips of water and kept on trucking. But they didn’t get better. For the whole remainder of the race my quads kept cramping – then it moved on to the calves and hamstrings. It was a learning experience for me because I’ve never experienced this kind of muscle cramping in the past. After briefly stopping a few times to stretch them out for a few seconds, I quickly realized that my best defence was to keep moving (and to massage them a little bit when possible to get the knots out). Strangely the worst cramps came at sections of the race that were really upper body dominant, such as having to stop and do chin-ups. That was when the legs cramped up the most and I ended up doing chin-ups in an L-sit position because it seemed to help with the leg cramps. Strange!
The other, somewhat unexpected (although shouldn’t have been) thing that got me were the blisters. At about the halfway point, I could really feel a huge one forming on the inside of my right foot. I put up with it for a while but then decided to take a short break on the side of the trail during one of the forested sections. I had stashed a few band-aids in a ziplock bag, so I quickly covered it up and kept going. In hindsight, it was a total waste of time, since it only provided a bit of relief, and pretty soon I had one on the same spot on my left foot anyway. Your feet get so wet during these races, running through streams, mud, etc. – this one even had an open water swimming portion – that it’s impossible to do much once the blisters start. Next time, I know where I’m susceptible to getting them, so I’ll try preventatively wrapping those parts of my feet in moleskin or tape. For this race, it just got to a point where you just had to try and ignore them. My attitude was basically to just deal with the discomfort and worry about it later. It certainly did slow me down in parts, because it’s hard to resist being more tentative when something hurts. Oh well, next time I’ll have to try the whole “ounce of prevention…” strategy.
Aside from the cramps and blisters, I was pretty pleasantly surprised that cardio wasn’t a limiting factor. I had thought that I might have a problem with such a long distance, never having trained much for longer runs. For most of the second half of the race, I could have pushed harder, if it hadn’t been for the leg cramps and blisters. Live and learn I suppose – and good info to have for next year.
All in all it was a great event. Tonnes of variation and some really spectacular mountaintop views of the lake country all around Mont Ste. Marie – the only bad part was that I was reluctant to stop even for a minute to savour those views for fear of cramping up worse. The best tactic was to keep moving. The final uphill section, following the swim, was so steep in parts that you were scrambling on all fours over fallen tree branches and rock faces just to get up, but it helped to just keep moving, however slowly, one foot in front of the other.
Many of the obstacles were similar to the Spartan Sprint races I’ve done in the past, just longer and more difficult, but there were some cool new ones. My favorite was a progression of hanging boards, rings, chains and ropes, all at different levels, that you had to swing across like an orangutan. Very reminiscent of some of the stuff on American Ninja Warrior! I was pleased not to fall on that one. Actually, I only had to do one set of 30 burpees (standard punishment for failing at an obstacle) the whole day – on the spear throw. That’s been my nemesis for the Spartan Sprints. I missed the spear throw in my first two Spartan Races. I actually hit it for the first time this past June for the Ottawa Sprint, after taking the time to get it well balanced in my hand before the throw. This time I did the same thing, took my time, and hit the target smack in the middle of the chest….but it didn’t stick. The spear (well, shovel handle with a dull metal poker attached) hit and bounced right off. Oh well, burpees it was for that one, but I felt pretty good about it still. Most of the obstacles themselves are not really that difficult. They don’t require a lot of brute strength. But interspersed with the distance and the elevation, they take their toll. I’m reminded of that great quote from Rocky, “it ain’t about how hard you hit, it’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward.” The last quarter of the race at least is purely mental.
I set out basically to finish the thing, but secretly I was kind of thinking that 5 hours would have been a good goal. I finished in 5 hours 38 minutes, so lots of room for improvement. I have no illusions that I’ll ever match the top guys, some of who run this thing in just over 3 hours! (WTF). One friend of a friend flew through it in just over 4 hours, and apparently had scouted out the course for 2 straight days ahead of time and had his wife strategically placed to offer food at different sections throughout the course! Another guy I talked to (who beat my time by about 10 minutes) had trained 6 days/week in preparation for it. My preparations (or lack thereof) pale in comparison. But still, I’m happy. If you would have asked me in the half hour following the race, as I lay on the ground stuffing a cheeseburger David Hasslehoff-style into my face (lovingly provided by my wife), if I wanted to do another Spartan Beast, the answer might have been no. But, once that initial fatigue subsided, I can definitely say I’ll try it again and hopefully learn from some of the mistakes I made this year.