Spartan Run: Are We Too Old to Tackle the Challenge?

by Deb Springer

At some point in the process, I had to ask myself, how did I get here?  Flashback to Saturday, October 23, 2021 at the Nassau Sportsmen's Club sitting at the table with a bunch of high school classmates at our 30th reunion. I turned to my friend Amy and said we should start a bucket list and help each other knock them off.  “Yeah, that’s a great idea but where do we start?”, said Amy. We go around the table listening to everyone’s bucket lists. It comes full circle. Then someone asked, “What’s a Spartan Race?” Spartan Races are of varying distances with obstacles. I say to Amy, “I always wanted to do one too! Let’s sign up for one!” We immediately started to talk our other friends at the table into it. The high school peer pressure or the alcohol may have helped, but pretty much everyone agreed to join in.

Once home from the reunion weekend we began looking at location options that would be central to those that were interested, and far enough out on the calendar so that we had a chance to train our less than fit midlife bodies. We scoped the Spartan pages and found and pegged a Spartan event in Rutherfordton, NC on November 19, 2022. This would give us a year to procrastinate, or train. We created a team name, registered, and secured a rental cabin. All was set, except for us.

The next part was thinking oh heck, what am I going to do for training? I realized I was way out of my comfort zone. It wasn’t the 5k that scared me, as my friends have known that I was a competitive runner since the end of 9th grade.  Although I have to admit, like most, I may have let my fitness slip over the pandemic and come out the other side with an additional 25+ pounds. I knew I could get through a 5k but at that current fitness state I am pretty sure I couldn’t have done weighted carries or picked myself up and over 20 obstacles along the way. I decided to join a gym to get some basic fitness. I watched a couple of CrossFit videos and competitions, decided to take the plunge, and signed up for their trial visit. I remember thinking that I wasn’t sure this was in my comfort zone. I’m definitely not a lifter and I tend to lack coordination and balance. The first two workouts were tough but I showed up for their Sunday morning free community workout. Unbeknown to me, it involved reps of 400-meter runs followed by kettlebell swings, box jumps and burpees. Although at this point I’m far from my spry fast running days, I was able to pace myself and keep picking off gym members on each rep.

I then realized I wasn’t there for getting better at running. I was there, for getting better at all the things I never did before, like Olympic lifting, weights, carries, and gymnastic skills, with the goal of being able to pick up my own body weight to get through most of the Spartan obstacles. Considering I started this goal at 48, I knew I had a lot of work ahead of me if I was going to be able to do most of the obstacles. I started hitting the gym 2 days a week and I slowly built up to 3 days a week while running and biking on alternative gym days. My strength improved, I made progress on being able to do strict pull-ups, and to climb a rope. September 2022 hit and I knew all I need to do is to maintain and not do anything stupid and I would be in good position to do the obstacle(s).  My 49th birthday came and went, and about a week after that I came down with an awful migraine following the Farm Aid concert. I figured it was from all the “incense” at the concert and tried to push through. However, 4 days later I tested positive for COVID-19. I knew COVID-19 wasn’t going to be a walk in the park for me as I’ve struggled with asthma since my childhood days as well as some other genetic preconditions that could make COVID-19 much more problematic for me. But unfortunately for me, here I was with COVID 2 months out from the Spartan event, and to say the least I was a bit demoralized. I tested positive for COVID for 14 days and it was another 13 days before I made it back to the gym and back to some minimal form of jogging. At this point I didn’t really know if I was going to be able to complete the Spartan, but I hoped my body would get its act together before then. I finally started to feel a bit like my old self about two weeks out from the event. However, my weights and strength workouts had suffered as well as my running. I could barely do 3 pullups and getting up a 15 ft rope was a serious challenge.

Spartan Obstacles Ultimate Guide

Unlike running races, the course route, obstacles, and exact distance are kept secret until just before the day of the event. This keeps several elements of surprise in the race. At that time the course had been posted but the exact obstacles were posted much later in the evening. Of my friends, only Rose had previously competed in Spartan events so we relied mostly on her knowledge. I think we all were feeling quite apprehensive and nervous as we Googled the obstacle elements, but we tried to stay positive.

As a competitive runner for several years of my life, the Spartan was unnerving because I took comfort in knowing the course, length, and likely entourage of local competitors that I could visualize by my side. I was in new territory; I couldn’t visualize the event to make me comfortable. We all kept Saturday calm and relaxed but a few of us went out for a ~1 mile shakeout jog followed by a walk with the rest of the team.

Our team registered for a 9 a.m. start time as we felt like the earlier the heat starting times would have better course conditions. We all got up early and decided to arrive around 7:15 a.m. at the site. This would give us time for parking, bathrooms, checking the course out and getting our change bags checked in. However, what we didn’t quite plan on was how cold it could be at 9 a.m. in Rutherfordton on an average November day. The local weather app predicted 32 to 37 degrees Fahrenheit at the start of the race. I was pleased when I went to the car and there wasn’t a deep layer of frost coating the car windows. We all loaded into the car and headed to the equestrian center. Checking in was similar to a big road race or triathlon. We received a headband with our race number, timing chip with bracelet, a couple of event bracelets for entry into different sites, and beverage coupons. At check-in we were all surprised to learn that due to the cold temperatures one of the water obstacles (Dunk wall) had been removed. Upon entry, our first stop was the huge racecourse map with exact locations of obstacles and what they were.

About 45 minutes out from the race start, I began my cathartic, somewhat ritualized warm up routine and one of my friends decided to join me. Like most formerly competitive runners, I’ve honed a warm-up ritual that both functions to get my body loose, prepared to run at full capacity, but also evolves into calming nerves and focusing the mind on the work to be done. Observing non-runners like my friends may find all of these behaviors odd and overly excessive.  On this day I was more acutely aware that I was likely being watched, assessed, and maybe laughed at during my muted warmup routine. After I finished my routine, I joined my friends under the heater. About 10 minutes to the race start I corralled my friends and ushered them to the starting area. We found a position in the middle of the starting field. None of my friends were competitive runners, and running 5k would be an adequate challenge without the obstacle. Francis had been going to the gym and training. Rose was an experienced Spartan competitor some years ago but spontaneously injured her arm a couple of days before the event and was in an arm brace. Amy had completed a few 5ks (Freihofer's Run for Women) and her husband Mark trains for MMA but is not a runner, per se. We discussed what our starting plan was. Amy and Mark were going to start walking or with very light jogging and stick together through the event. I was going to jog at a controlled pace in hopes of pacing Francis through his first longer distance running event. Rose was going to start with Francis and me to get some photos and then wait and work through the course with Amy and Mark.

They started announcing the race directions, warming up the crowd, and giving small bits of warning/advice on the course. There is some mud, there are some hills, there is some water, and the course is close to 4 miles. Of our group, I may have been the only one happy about the extra distance!

There’s nothing better than the anticipation of the start of a race! This may have gotten me a little bit excited and when the start buzzer went off my instinct clicked in and off I went, weaving between all the runners. I realized I had taken off faster than expected and started to chill as I assessed where I was positioned and where my friend Francis was. As I eased back, Francis came up on my left side. The course started out like a rather ordinary XC race until we hit the first of a series of sticky clay mud puddles. People were trying to run off the course to avoid the red muck but as a highschooler I was known as a very tough mudder and I felt both comfort and joy as I barreled through the puddles. Francis managed to stick with me, but we had lost contact with Rose quickly after the first muddle. The course was a standard XC race for approximately a ½ mile and then we headed down a steep hill. Francis and I had moved up into the top 20 or so positions and gained headway on the downhill sections. However, there were several very steep inclines on our way to the first obstacle. Francis went ahead but I caught up to him and told him to walk the hills as we went out at sub 10 minute pace. The hills were steeper than anything I remember running in all of my XC years. Near the apex of the 3rd and biggest climb was our first obstacle, the hurdle. The hurdle is about 4 ft high and you must throw yourself up and over it. Francis and I both cleared it pretty easily and continued on our way. Up a little further we hit the inverted wall. Francis made it over but I struggled to jump high enough to reach my fingers over the top edge with enough grip to pull myself over. I’m of average height (5 ft 4) but this middle aged long-distance XC runner definitely wasn’t ever known for her high jumping ability. Eventually another woman came along and gave me a boost and up and over I went.

This is the thing that definitely separates the Spartan participants from the average running race. Here teamwork is a virtue and fellow participants will help each other out. I caught back up with Francis and I said we need to slow down, as we took it out pretty fast, and then eased into the downhill. As we came around the bend, we saw that the next obstacle was the sandbag carry. There were probably 15-20 men in front of us but only 2 women that I could make out from behind. Men and women carry different weights and they are coded by color. I grabbed a red rectangular sand bag typically between 20-35 lbs. which is much easier to carry versus a pancake-shaped bag. However, Francis wasn’t so lucky, being about 20th in the men’s event, there were no available rectangular sandbags and was left with a 40lb. pancake-bag.

I took off jogging with the weight and slowly passed several people, including one of the leading women. However, due to the rough course terrain I had to switch to some speedy walking while still trying to navigate around people. I came up the hill and out of the sandbag carry where I saw my friend Rose. She mentioned that we had taken off and she couldn’t catch up. She managed to get a photo of me coming out of the carry and I waited for Francis, who had a more challenging time with the carry.

We continued jogging down the course and quickly hit the next obstacle which was the Z-Wall. Here it was an advantage to be up front of the participants, as the foot-holds were dry and clean and much easier to navigate. Francis and I cleared that pretty quickly. Then we took off running. We then realized that there was a long uninterrupted segment. I looked down at my watch and noticed we were close to 9 minute per mile pace and I immediately told Francis to slow down, as we are ahead of expected pacing.

We jogged close to ¾ mile and came upon a very steep muddy hill about ¼ mile long and above 60% incline. I led the way and set the pace. At some point I saw my heart rate spiking so I slowed the pace. We got to the top and there were more rolling short inclines, gravel, a short segment of single track, and grass trail which led around to the bucket carry. At this point we had cleared 2 miles and were somewhere close to 3 miles, and I could see that after that last climb Francis was laboring and the running had slowed. We walked some inclines and did what I call the slow shuffle jog until he recovered a bit. We rounded the corner and saw the bucket carry ahead (50-80 lbs. for women). At this point I knew Francis was going to struggle with the carry a bit. I got mine and took off to see if I could catch the other women ahead. I did, but then waited for Francis. He came out of the carry fatigued, so we walked to the top of the hill and then slowly progressed into jogging before we saw the next challenge.

The Atlas carry is likely the most challenging one, as you have to lift a 50-70 lbs. smooth round ball off the ground, carry it around a pole and back to the original location. I knew this was likely the toughest carry for me as I had broken and smashed my right wrist the summer before 8th grade and the result is limited flexibility and grip strength. I squatted, rolled the ball to my feet, got my hands under it, got it up on my thighs, and used my legs to lift. Now I just needed to lock my hands and wrist and maintain the carry. I quickly headed to and around the flag and got it back to its origin. Francis had just gotten the ball up and slowly progressed around the flag and back. I was pretty stoked that we both made it through. We walked a bit to catch our breath and progressed into a slow jog.

There was another longer running section but neither one of us had any excess energy to push the pace, as we knew some of the most challenging obstacles lay ahead. However, we were both still maintaining our position in the race and had even passed several competitors who had fallen back in the second half of the event. At this point I was feeling pretty great that we had made every obstacle so far but I knew we were on borrowed time.

As we jogged along, we could see several obstacles that lay ahead! The cargo wall is a climb straight up and over and probably is the most challenging for those who fear heights. The more people there are on the wall at a time, the more the wall rocks. Thankfully it was just Francis, me, and one other guy, so the rocking was minimal but definitely a gut check for me to throw my legs over the other side and traverse back down.

Following that was a short jog around to the Monkey bars. This is where I knew my trouble would begin. These are the events that favor a very strong upper body, big hands, grip strength, and arm span. These are basically chunky metal bars with varying distances between bars that you have to swing across and hit a bell on the other side before dropping to the ground. I made it past the first easy set but couldn’t span the distance between the second set of bars even when trying a double arm swing, so I dropped to the ground.

Here is where the rubber meets the road. When you can’t complete an obstacle, you must (on the honor system) compensate with 30 burpees. Because this was a team event with friends and our first time doing a Spartan race, we chose to do an “open” heat that is not judged. This is where one can choose to do a competitive heat or age group heat which is referred to a higher standard. Now many folks do the burpees as a team and split the 30, others do what they can and move on, while others like Francis and I drop down and each proceed to do 30 burpees. After all, I had been doing CrossFit so I felt prepared for the burpees.

Next up was the shimmy under the barbed wire section. The key here is to keep your body low to the ground and don’t forget about your butt and head. I don’t recommend having a ponytail or your hair bunched in a bun on the top of your head.

A few steps after the barbed wire we could see a series of several mud hills and puddles for the next obstacle. I ran straight through the puddles to the first mud hill, down into the very slippery North Carolina clay mud puddle that varied in depth up to 4 ft, climbed up the mud pile on the other side, and repeated. Directly following the muddy hills series was a A-frame slip wall with a rope. I grabbed to reach the rope and carefully got my first muddy shoe up and as flat to the metal as possible and I hoisted myself up, making sure to have my feet higher than my butt and using the rope to leverage myself up the wall. This obstacle went much better than I expected. It was hard to maintain foot position and to hoist yourself up over the wall without slipping back down. I made it up and over, back down a cargo net, and took off and running to the next obstacle

We got up and it’s a short jog to the climbing rope. Two things I noticed is that the rope was much thinner than I expected and made of what looked like black nylon. I grabbed the rope to feel it and I could feel how hard it was to grip and how slippery it was. But I had been practicing almost a year to climb a rope so I jumped up and did the J-lock. I put my arms up and clamped on to pull myself up and made it about 6 inches. As I reached up to grab the rope again, my arms were shaking and hands were cold, so I could barely clasp my hands tight enough to hold the rope. I tried to lift my legs up and I just couldn’t hang on, and dropped down. My attempt had failed and I was disappointed, but I immediately headed off to do my 30 burpees with Francis.

He managed to finish his burpees first and waited for me. The next obstacle was the spear throw, which really is like a long broom handle with a metal peg taped to one end and a rope tied to the back. You have to throw ~30ft into a hay bale target. I traveled down the line, grabbed a rope, pulled the spear back, and attempted to use the two-step javelin type throw. The rope got caught along the fence and I missed the bale. I gave it a couple more tries but didn’t make it and proceeded to the burpee pit. Francis made the throw on the first try and appeared pretty antsy as I started my burpees, so I told him to go ahead and not wait for me. After the first two sets of burpees these were progressing a bit slower. 90 burpees and counting!

I walked a short distance to the A-frame cargo climb, which was easy compared to the vertical cargo. At this point my arms were getting a little shaky with fatigue so I tried to shake them out as I ran to the next obstacle, the Multi-Rig. The multi-rig here was a full set of rings that you had to traverse, ring to ring, without dropping to the ground, then tap the bell at the end. I jumped to the top of the stairs and tried to psych myself up to hold on. Starting with my weak right hand, I made the second ring, grabbed the third, and felt my grip fail just as I had reached for the 4th ring, and down I went. Back to the burpee pit I went for what I hoped was my final round of 30 burpees. There was another male contestant with me and we tried to encourage each other through the sets of burpees. 120 burpees completed!

Immediately, I Jumped up and ran to the Hercules hoist. Again, a director was shouting out “red” for women (75 lbs.), “black” for men (105 lbs.). I approached and saw that the bags were arranged in a square, with men’s bags on either end and women’s bags on the sides. I ran up to the left side, grabbed a rope, and jumped up to leverage my body weight and fell to the ground to hoist the bag up. However, it barely made it 3 ft off the ground.  I sat on the rope, leveraged my feet and began trying to move the bag higher, and after about 5 minutes I got it maybe 6ft up but nowhere close to the top of the rig. At this point I was totally flabbergasted that I couldn’t get the bag up! I sat down and glanced across the apparatus at a couple of other women and notice their bags are all red with black handles. As I looked at mine, I noticed it was all black with red handles. CRAP!!! I grabbed the wrong bag? NOT all the bags on the sides were women’s!! What a rookie mistake! If this was the competition heat, I’d only get one try, no matter what, but I dropped the men’s bag, shifted to the women's bag, and slowly up she went.

Next was the Helix, which is slanted walls with bars and footholds of differing angles and sizes. This requires good body perception, hand grip, leg strength, and body perception, much like rock-climbing skills. Except for hand strength I’m usually good at climbing walls. Since my right hand was not at its best due to the cold and fatigue from the other obstacles, I just made sure to keep holds on the right as short and brief as possible. I made it through and now only had the fire jump to the finish line.

I started my run and easily hurdled the fire! With a few steps I finished the run, wet, muddy, arms shaking from fatigue, and hands so cold It was hard to hold onto my water bottle.  As soon as I got to the aid tent Francis was there and waiting with his medal! We put some warm clothing on and proceeded around the course to cheer on our friends! We caught up to them at the multi-rig and followed through the last 3 obstacles. Mission accomplished!

We all challenged ourselves, covered the distance, got muddy, and had plenty of stories to share. The Spartan is a challenging race and just being a good runner is going to help but it's not going to get you through without doing some weight training and a substantial number of burpees.

Ed. Note: I asked Deb if she enjoyed doing the race and she replied, “Well I must have had fun because I signed up to do a trifecta in 2023. That's one 5k ish Sprint, 10k and 21k Spartan!”

                 Deb examining fungi

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