This past weekend I was able to participate in something very exciting and challenging. I had done this once before last year at the same venue and it was the hardest event I had ever taken part of. I’m talking the Spartan Race.
More specifically, the race I ran both times was the Spartan Super at Blue Mountain Ski Resort, Palmerton, Pennsylvania. This is one of the three “Devil’s Trifecta” courses, the other two being the Spartan Sprint in Virginia and the Spartan Beast in Vermont. The name was given to these three course because of how much harder they are compared to other courses of the same type.
If you’re not familiar with the Spartan Race, I’d suggest checking it out here. You’ll learn about all the different types of races and events they have.
Before we get into how the race actually went, let me tell you about my personal reasons for doing this race, and more importantly, how those reasons changed after the race.
Reasons For Doing It
Before this year’s race, my reasons for doing it was mostly to see if I would have an easier time finishing it than I did last year. I didn’t train at all for the race last year, and this year, I did not train as much as I liked. Some of that was due to my fractured rib, but besides that I hadn’t been as disciplined as I should’ve been.
Another reason was to test myself physically. I wanted to see if what little training I did had actually paid off. If anything, I should see a slight improvement in fitness this time around compared to last year.
The reason I wanted the physical challenge was to see if my preparation for this year’s race is better than last year’s. Matter of fact, I didn’t prepare at all for last year’s race so this year’s prep was definitely better.
And speaking of challenge, I’ve always known in the back of my mind that only things that are challenging can make us better.
“If it doesn’t challenge you, it doesn’t change you.”- Fred DeVito
I wasn’t particularly looking to get physically stronger from this event. I don’t think anyone expects to get physically stronger from events like these. It was definitely more of a test than anything else.
But it wasn’t just the physical challenge that I was looking for. There was something much more important that I wanted to test. And unlike physical prowess, this aspect of me got stronger throughout the race.
I remember having a very hard time last year on this course. I was out of breath and my quads were cramping beyond belief. I walked most of the second half of the race then and felt extremely lethargic throughout. It was a grueling experience.
I came out of that race feeling defeated, beaten, and not wanting to do it again.
But I know that before signing up for this year’s race, I’d be mentally tougher coming out of it. The difference between last year and this year?
I went into last year’s race just wanting to get through it. It wasn’t really my idea exactly. My sister wanted to try this race with some of her friends and invited me along. I figure I’ll go since I had nothing to do that weekend.
Not exactly the type of attitude from someone looking forward to doing well in an obstacle race.
But this time, I went into the race with a purpose. I wanted to do better. I wanted to see how hard I can push myself and still keep going. I wanted to feel how much lung-busting, leg-wobbling pain I can take and still go on.
That was the mental toughness that I wanted to train and develop.
Plain Old Fun
And of course, I wanted to do this race for just the fun of it as well. As much as I dreaded the race itself last year, I loved the atmosphere and the people that I was surrounded with. It was fun to help others and see certain ones make it through obstacles that they didn’t believe they could.
This year, I knew I was going to love all of the race. Regardless of how many inclines, object carries, or slippery rope climbs there were, I knew I was going to have a blast. I went into the race this year to not only test and push myself, but have a blast doing it too.
Spartan Race Obstacles
So the part you’ve been waiting for, the obstacles from the race. For the most part, the obstacles were not much of a challenge. I failed a total of 3 out of the 20 something obstacles, which amassed 90 burpees for yours truly (30 burpees for each failed obstacle and must be performed immediately after the failed attempt).
One particular obstacle that I had some trouble with but finished was the Tyrolean Traverse. Last year, I simply rested my lower legs on the hemp rope and pulled myself all the way to the end to hit the bell.
Hopefully you can imagine the kind of rope burn I got on my calf. It is not for the screamish so I’ll spare those of us that are and post the image at the very end of the article. And yes, the scar is still here a year later, and probably will be forever.
So instead of getting the matching tattoo on my other calf, I used my momentum to swing my legs one before the other to move ahead. By hamstrings and calves were so burned from the running at that point that my body felt like a million tons.
But mental toughness ftw.
There isn’t much to really talk about with most of the other obstacles. The Spear Throw was one of the ones I failed at. Didn’t throw hard enough and the spear fell before the hay bale. The second one I failed in was the Traverse Wall. Missed my footing on the last turn and stumbled off. Definitely mad about that one.
I’ll be getting into the last obstacle I failed at later. Before that I want to get into what is not consider an obstacle, but in my opinion the biggest obstacle of all.
Trying to run, or even walk at a steady pace up those hills were absolutely leg crushing. Feeling like your heart is coming out your chest doesn’t help either. But this was by far the hardest part of the race for me.
And I’m talking about Double Black Diamond ski slopes. Yes, going up that slope in 80 degree temperature under the beaming sun left more than just a tan as far as impressions go.
The declines I had not problem with. I actually had a blast barreling down the declines, especially with my trusty speedcross 3s. I felt like there wasn’t a decline that I couldn’t tackle and sprint down.
But those incline definitely humbled me. So much so that it’s on the top of my list of things to work on.
Now let’s get to the obstacles! Out of all of them, 3 really stuck out to me. Not because they were the hardest, although they were plenty difficult, but my experience with them compared to last year’s were the most different.
This obstacle was the bane of my existence last year. It was closer towards the end of the race and my arms and lower back were completely trashed at that point. The cramping quad? Yea, they made it extra to carry that 70ish pound bucket of gravel down and back up the slope.
But this year? Not to brag but it felt like a piece of cake.
It could very well had to do with the early placement of this obstacle. I think within the first 3 miles? But I think a lot of it came from my state of mind of pushing myself and not giving up. The rest came down to improving my technique.
Instead of hold the bottom of the bucket like I did last year, which completely destroyed my lower back, I wrapped my arms around the bucket and pressed it against my torso. This took A LOT of the weight off my back.
Having the determination to push through the agony helped a great deal too. Getting over the initial state of the burn in your arms and chest, it wasn’t so bad.
This was a definite major improvement from last year’s Bucket Carry.
Barb Wire Crawl
The Barb Wire Crawl also came earlier this year than last year. And this time, it was only uphill on mostly grassy terrain. Last year’s had us going downhill on muddy and rocky terrain and then back uphill on even worst surfaces.
Again, this one was a major improvement for me.
In addition to getting through the suffering without stopping, I kept toward the edge of the wires so I have more room to move than the center.
I did experience a upper hamstring cramp towards the end of this. I had to move with my leg straight out, which was awkward because there wasn’t enough room for that with the other racers around me. But I worked it out and the cramp dissipated.
Rope Climb to Monkey Bars
This was a new one for me. I had these obstacles separately before, but never combined into a single one. And it was placed strategically too, before and after other grip intensive obstacles.
This is the third obstacle I failed at.
Getting up the rope wasn’t too much of a problem. But transitioning onto the monkey bars took a bit because I kept spinning on the rope. Holding on only taxed my grip even more.
Trying to transition from bar to bar after they’ve been covered with wet mud was what did me in. Splash! In the muddy water I went after just three rungs.
Even though I failed this obstacle, I’m glad I encountered it. Something else I can work on!
With every challenge are lessons to be learned, and as you can probably tell, there are plenty for me to learn here. Right off the bat, preparation and mental attitude is a HUGE deal.
Of course, getting in better physical shape for these events is major as well. But having the right mental game was the game changer for me.
And part of that mental game was knowing that I was prepared.
I had my hydropak filled a quarter way with pickle juice, the rest diluted with water. I added in a few teaspoons of salt for good measure.
I had compression shorts and moisture wicking shorts and socks on. I taped up my knees and ankles, which was great for knee and ankle stability. I’ll be talking about these in a future article.
Last but definitely not least, my Salomon Speedcross 3s were along for the ride. These wheels are unbelievable on tough terrain. What to know how they can up your trail running/obstacle racing/zombie apocalypse escape game? Check out my review of these babies.
Get Good At Inclines
Remember those inclines I dreaded? Yes, those are the inclines that I will be working on getting
good awesome at. I’ve experienced the burning sensations in the legs, the lungs, the heart, and everything else that comes with racing up steep inclines.
After doing a lot of research, reading experiences from elite trail runners, obstacle racers, mountain marathoners, and sports scientists, there are a few conclusions that all groups came to agree on.
- Running inclines fast is not sustainable
- The pace will be slightly slower than on flats
- Some use short choppy steps, others long strides
- Each of us should experiment with what works for us
- Standing tall is better than hunched over
- Keep those arms swinging
I’ve tried out for myself what the best method is, and I found that short choppy steps work better than longer, slower strides. It’s more like a fast jog than a run just to keep the legs from burning out.
When I tried the longer strides, I found my back and hamstrings had to work a lot harder. And I constantly felt the urge to push off my front knee with my hands. This technique actually works great for some elite athletes, but no so much for me.
The best analogy I read was relating uphill running to the gears on a bike. Cyclists switch to lower gear when they climb. They have a much higher cadence than on flats and it makes the climbing much easier.
I love how this relates to running uphill in the same fashion. Although our feet may have to turn over a lot more to cover the same distance than long strides, the ascent is much easier and more sustainable.
Know How To Run Declines
I know I said I had no problems doing the downhill runs. But I thought about how many declines I ran through and realized that learning how to run downhill was a VERY smart thing to do.
I’m by no means an expert at running downhill, but I was able to pass plenty of people on the descents, even in muddy, rocky, tree root laden, uneven terrain. It was at a sub 6-minute mile pace. A big part of that had to do with my awesome trail running shoes, but I had to learn the technique as well.
It’s going to be a bit scary and uncomfortable thinking of barreling down a steep decline head-on. But if you start small like I did, there’s nothing stopping you from burning those descents. Here are a few tips I followed.
- Start with a slight decline and gradually transition to a steeper slope
- Choose outside terrain instead of a treadmill if possible
- Keep the torso perpendicular to the ground at ALL times
- Land on the balls of our feet, heels should barely touch the ground, if at all
- Definitely bigger strides than flats (when you get good)
- Arms up to around shoulder height for balance mostly
- Shuffle step starting out
I found these tips have worked very well for me. The one important thing to keep in mind is to not stop once you start going. This will teach your mind to stop EVERY TIME you feel uncomfortable with the descent, and it’ll be very hard to learn.
Instead, shuffle step diagonally downwards if you want to slow down. Then pick up the pace going straight down again. Aim to lengthen the distance you can cover going straight down with each attempt. Repeat as necessary until you get over the fear of falling.
It was as simple as that for me. Running downhill took some practice, and also some daring moves at times. There were a few instances where my mindset was “I don’t care if I fall and face grind the whole slope, I’m sprinting down this thing!” And off I went.
I was scared, nervous, and did not know what was going to happen.
But I knew one thing for sure, I was going to keep my legs moving and learn to get down the hill as fast as possible without falling. And that I did.
Learn To Love The Suck (and Burpees)
This is where most people stop and catch their breath. It’s the place where no one likes, but where a lot of us go to get things done. Borrowing from the United States Nay Seals, we must learn to “embrace the suck”.
It’s those moments where it feels like your heartbeats gonna crack your chest bone, or when your legs are in a constant burning sensation, or you’re breathing heavy and there’s 75% more to go, that we must learn to love those uncomfortable, dreadful, painful feelings.
Like with everything else, it helps to be in prime physical shape. But even the best athletes experience those sensation in a race. And what makes them the best is that they can handle the suffering more than the next guy.
Beyond just practicing to learn to fall in love with suffering (masochist anyone?), there’s one trick I plan to use in my training from now on.
Take the burning sensations I feel and imagine that it’s my burning desire to succeed and get better. The more of that I feel, the more I want to be the best at whatever I put my mind to.
This is somewhat related to another quote from the US military, this one by the Marine Corps I believe: “Pain is weakness leaving the body.”
Translate that pain into something else and you’ll be surprised at how much longer you can go.
And the other thing we need to love is….
Just do a lot of them. Plain and simple. No tricks, no shortcuts, because nothing replaces this exercise. Every failed obstacle rewards us with 30 burpees with chest to ground pushups (I don’t consider burpees without pushups to be burpees anyway, just want to make it clear that’s the requirement in the Spartan Race).
Not too smooth on the obstacles? We’ll be in burpee heaven, or hell, depending on our perspective.
I failed 3 obstacles and did a total of 90 burpees throughout that race. And that isn’t much compared to what some racers
had were supposed to do.
Train The Grip
Two out of the my three failed obstacles were grip-based, and the Rope Climb To Monkey Bars I failed at solely because I lacked grip strength. The Wall Traverse was less taxing on the grip but I know how important grip strength is there.
The fact that the Rope Climb To Monkey Bars were later in the course AND in between other grip heavy obstacles showed that the race can throw anything challenge at us. The grip obviously was not my strong point and it showed.
This was on a warm to mildly hot day. I can only imagine if I had done a November race in the northern areas and had to grip in sub-freezing temperature…
So yea, by all means do not neglect grip training.
Mind Over Matter
This has been hinted at over the entire article. The whole race really was mind over matter. It had more to do with mental strength than physical strength.
Again, this is not to say that we can be totally out of shape and be able to dominate the race with mind power alone. On an interesting note, physical training, especially tough, grueling workouts, develop mental toughness as said before. So they go hand in hand.
There was actually one point during the race where I felt like giving up. I thought to myself: “Why am I doing this? Why am I going through this suffering? I’ve challenged myself enough. I’m satisfied with what I can do. I can walk the rest of the race and take it easy.”
But I didn’t.
Remember I said before how my reasons for doing this race changed throughout the course? This was it.
I didn’t want to just test myself at that point. When those doubts came into my mind, I had entertained them for a bit, and gave it some thought. But then threw them out the window.
My goal from doing this race changed from just challenging myself to toughing it out no matter how crappy I felt.
And am I glad I followed through.
I found out how much more I was capable of, even when both my body and mind were telling me to stop and take it easy. I had so much left in the tank, and all I had to do was keep focus on what my goal was.
It really is true when they say it’s all mind over matter.
Next Race and Beyond
I couldn’t possibly relate all the positive experiences and insights I gained through just writing. I feel this is something that needs to be experienced in order to understand. To really get the full gist of what I’m talking about, we have to go through that experience.
Even if you’ve never done anything close to as intense as this before, go and do something adventurous, do something daring, something that you’re not really comfortable with. Remember the first quote of the article?
For my next adventure, I’ve decided to try the Spartan Beast in September. This race is at Mount Killington in Vermont. It’s the other one of the three that makes up the “Devil’s Trifecta” in the Spartan Race world.
I’ll be expecting the worst from this race. It is on one of the steepest course in the all of Spartan Races. It is the longest style of the 3 race types. And a common belief is that it’s one of the hardest, if not the hardest race out of all Spartan Races.
It seems I have much to prepare for and look forward to.
The week after I finish the Vermont Beast, I will be in Philadelphia for a Spartan Sprint. This is a stadium event so no mud or rocks are expected. And I think it’ll be a nice cool down event for me coming back from the Vermont Beast.
I’m also aiming for the Trifecta, which is completing a Beast, Super, and Sprint event in a single calendar year. After this, I should be able to complete that.
Of course I can’t end this article without talking about training. So skipping to the chase, here’s what I have planned for training for the beast:
- HIIT 3x per week minimum
- Combination of running, rowing, burpees
- Steep Incline and Decline Practice 1x week
- Include 2 hour steady pace cardio and one HIIT session
- Strength Training 3x per week minimum
- Include TONS of grip training
- Train fasted whenever possible
- To replicate race conditions
I hope you guys enjoyed this experience. I will definitely be posting my experience from both the Vermont and Philly races. So stick around!
As as promised, here’s the photo of what I did to my calf last year (last warning, do not scroll down if you don’t like icky wounds)