Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Ow, My Ass! -- Race Report Part 1: Pennsylvania Spartan Sprint 2012

(This issue of "Earn Your Donuts" is probably going to be more vulgar and profanity-laced than usual.  Don't say I didn't warn you.)  

I had three goals for Saturday's Pennsylvania Spartan Sprint:

1. Finish
2. Don't get hurt
3  Don't sack my nuts

Two out of three ain't bad.

This race, if you can even call it that, held at the Blue Mountain Ski resort in Palmerton PA, was absolutely brutal.

I've run two marathons.  The five miles I traversed (It's not fair to say "ran", as we'll get to in a minute) on Saturday took roughly the same amount of time as each of them and were at least as -- if not more -- challenging.  I expected the Spartan Sprint to be a good deal more challenging than the only other mud/obstacle race I'd ever done, Mud Chasers, but I was completely shocked by how tough this was.

Chris and I left for the race, two hours away in the Lehigh Valley, at 11:00 and arrived around 1:30.  Our heat started at 3:30, but we were anticipating getting lost along the way and having to take a shuttle from the parking lot the staging area.  Neither occurred.  We found Blue Mountain easily and parked right by the starting area.  This gave us a chance to pick up our packets, liberally apply sunscreen, write our race ID numbers on each others' arms, legs, and foreheads so that they'd be able to identify our bodies, and gaze in terror up the steep inclines that we could see runners in the earlier heats ascending.  

We could see several places on the mountain where runners were ascending or descending.  In some places, they seemed to be moving quickly, in others it seemed as though they were standing still.  From our parking lot vantage point, we could see rope climb, an obstacle both of us were pessimistic about, but not much else.

At about 2:30, the rest of Team For The Love of the Run arrived, and after they picked up their packets, we chatted for a few minutes, dropped off our bags, and then it was time to head for the starting area.  There was a little too much pomp and circumstance at the start for my taste.  There was a bit of a speech from one of the race organizers about the triumphant weight loss journey of Chris Davis -- no, not the Orioles' designated hitter -- a guy who is going from almost 700lbs to under 200lbs with Spartan races as a goal and part of his training; some Spartany type cheers from a guy in Spartan warrior garb ("Who are you?"  Spartans!"  "No...I'm just Brian.")

Then, to the cliched sound of Dropkick Murphy's "Shipping up to Boston", our heat began and we charged up the hill.  I will try to describe the course as best as I can remember it, but as I outline the obstacles that we faced, I cannot emphasize enough that the mountain itself was the most fundamental obstacle.  I train on hills.  I live in a hilly area.  I ran a 10K a few weeks ago that brags about how hilly it is.  I'm not afraid hills.  This was not hilly.  This was insane.  The steepness of both the uphills and the downhills made it so that we did very little running during the race, instead treading carefully.  The race began with a steep uphill.  I'd love to give estimates of time or distance, but with no GPS or even a watch, I can't even guess.  I just know that it took us five hours to a little more than five miles.  I apologize if these aren't in the right order...I'm going off of painful, painful memory.

The course began with a steep climb with no obstacles.  As we turned downhill, things started to get fun as obstacles started to appear.  These first obstacles came in the form of walls to climb or vault over and "Spartan Windows", taller walls with window-shaped holes that you could climb or hop through.  I did well at these, I was able jump a little grab the top of the wall (4 feet high) and jump up and vault over it, or some that were a little higher, get my feet up and jump over it.  Chris and I had very different, but equally effective techniques for the windows.  She went through backward, I grabbed the top and swung through.  Nothing so far to challenge my badassness.

The next obstacles were a steep hill that you walked up by climbing  a rope.  There were several of these throughout the course, and they were fun!  Not so fun was what appeared next, a legitimate rope climb, the scourge of middle school Brian and still not something I can do.  I think on dry ground I'd have a shot at this, but the bottom of the rope was down in a 2.5ft (guessing) mud pit, and I either couldn't get my feet high enough to get purchase or there was an under-mud knot that I just wasn't finding.  

The penalty for failing or skipping an obstacle was 30 burpees (get down in a crouch, kick your feet back as if you were going to do pushups, pull back into a crouch, and stand or hop).  I burped 'em out, no problem.  Burpees would become more frequent and progressively harder throughout the day.

After this, and then a steep, endless climb up the mountain.  No obstacles for a long time, just the steep ascent.  I felt decent during this, and we paced ourselves, but IT JUST DIDN'T END!  Eventually, though, the course briefly leveled off, to allow participants to fill big buckets 3/4 of the way with gravel (gee, thanks!), and carry them around a several-hundred foot course.  I did really well at this.  I know that I'm at my strongest when I can carry something on my shoulder or above my head, and so I got the bucket up on my shoulder and just concentrated on not putting it down.  There were bales of hay to step over, but I navigated this obstacle pretty easily.  Another rope-assisted hill climb, and then more, unending ascent up the mountain.

Finally, we neared the summit, and the course started to level off for real.  There was a rope ladder to climb over, which was tough but fun and a good example of the teamwork that existed throughout the course.  As we climbed, the people who went ahead of us held the bottom of the ladder steady, and then we in turn held it for the next racers.  Nice.

Thusly, we came to the top of the mountain and what I feel was the single most devastating obstacle of them all.  The aforementioned Chris Davis was camped out here, serving "Spartan Pancakes".  Mmm...pancakes.  No!  Emphatically no!  Instead of delicious syrupy breakfast pastries, these pancakes are 40lb (for the guys) or 20lb (for the girls) pillows (for lack of a better word) that needed to be carried.  A course volunteer said "Head down Nightmare and back up The Razor's Edge".  Ominous?  Yeah.  These are the names of two double-diamond (tough) ski slopes.  Carrying the pillows (really sandbags) down was not so bad.  It was steep, but the the terrain was clear.

Going up?  Hell.  Pure hell.  The uphill climb seemed straight vertical, and you had the choice of either a slippery, grassy right side of the slope or the more traveled left side, with sharp rocks.  I started on the right, and it was literally take one step forward and slide two steps back.  I'll be honest, I was ready to quit here. This equaled the discouraging, defeated feeling I had when I bonked at the Philly Marathon, but this time Chris was there to encourage me. 

The rocky side was a little better, but the incline just made it hard to make progress.  Everybody had their own way of coping with this obstacle, and I finally found a "system" that worked for me, basically, pick the thing and scramble uphill forward as fast I could for as long as I could (usually about 30 feet -- I think?), drop my pancake, and sit on it so it wouldn't roll or slide down at all.  It wouldn't surprise me if we spent 30 or even 45 minutes on this probably quarter-mile uphill torture chamber.

Once we'd climbed back up The Razor's Edge, we were back at the summit and almost immediately -- Monkey Bars.  D'oh.  I have a fighting chance at Monkey Bars, but after the pancakes?  No fucking way. One of the volunteers yelled on the way to the bars "You don't have to get all the way through, just touch bar at the end.  Still, maybe I should just take the burpees.  You know what?  I gave it a good try.  It was probably about 20 feet and I made it to the last bar.  Arms failing, I swung my feet for the bar, hit and dropped, and was ordered to 30 burpees.  Sorry to say, but I went into Angry Brian mode and cursed out the person in charge of monkey bars, but I should have been mad at the guy that had given me some false info.

The next obstacle, just past the bars, was a pulley that was used to lift a cement block in the air.  Supposedly the guys' were 60 pounds, but I just couldn't do this.  I sat on the ground and pulled (the suggested way to do this) but the weight of the block kept lifting me into the air.  I weigh 145 pounds, so I don't understand this.  I probably should have been able to figure out this one, but still frustrated from the monkey bars, I took the burpees.

After the pulleys, we had a long trek downhill through the forests and at times across the ski slopes.  At times, the footing was very treacherous.  We kept our pace, but like the uphill sections, these long downhill stretches just seemed to go on forever, and with no idea of time or mileage it was frustrating.

The next obstacle we came to was were two high walls to climb over.  These walls were higher than I could "vault" over.  I tried to jump up, grab the top, and haul myself up, but I just wasn't tall enough and to be honest didn't have the arm strength.  However, mind over matter prevailed.  On we are able to use the triangular support beams that held the wall up, climbing up them to get over the wall.  Other participants and the volunteers at the station gave us some helping, telling us where to put our feet since it was hard to see down.

I wasn't sure I'd be able to get over a wall this high, and as we descended back into the woods Chris and I high-fived, badassness restored.  We had another long descent through the woods, and the whole time I was saying to Chris and race volunteers that we encountered "There had better be a Slip'n'Slide somewhere soon!".  

Instead, the next race was a series of 2-foot log posts driven into the ground about 3 feet (guessing) apart.  The idea was to make it across 10 or so posts without falling to the ground.  Being short seemed like a big disadvantage here, and I didn't make it past the second post before I was off doing 30 burpees.  At this point, I was having to take little breaks to make it 3 sets of 10 burpees.

Next was a fun one.   A windy path in the woods and a jump over a ravine took us to a series of huge mud mounds with muddy pools in between.  I hopped into the water of the first pool, and was surprised by its depth.  Instead of being a negative, this made it more fun because I could confidently take a big jump into each pool.  

Then...at last!  The obstacle I'd been looking forward to the whole race, a big Slip 'n' Slide into a lake.  This was gonna be fun!  And it was!  I was laughing gleefully the whole way to the bottom....until the moment a big rock underneath the slide nailed me right in the sphincter!!!

I was in immense pain.  I half-crawled, half-swam to the shore where I dragged myself up on the rocky "beach".  A volunteer, who turned out to be an EMT came over and helped me up, leading me over to a bale of hay that I sat down on for several minutes.  At some point, Chris made it safely down the slide and came over.  I didn't want to give up yet, but I also didn't think I could stand.  I was in a lot of pain, but we'd come so far and I didn't want to give up when the had to be near.  With help from Chris, I stood.  The EMT checked to try to see if I'd broken anything.  I guess there was nothing obviously broken (more on this later in the week), and I decided to continue.  The pain was bad but seemed manageable.Of course it had been the obstacle that I was most looking forward to that I got hurt on!

We swam through the lake, going underneath some floating barrels.  The next obstacle involved dragging 30 pound rocks up and down a loop course that went downhill, into a lake, and then back up the hill. This was not terrible, but I think me levels of rage and adrenaline were just so high that I could have powered through almost anything at this point.

That said, what came next was awful.  A long narrow (100 feet?  longer?) field of hardened mud and rocks, with barbed wire strung approximately a foot and a half high, which we had to crawl under.  According to the volunteers, the best way to go through this was to roll rather than crawl.  I went as fast as could, covering the obstacle quickly but developing a huge headache from dizziness in the process.  There were also some mounds that forced the rollers to crawl for awhile.  And there were guys shooting at us with a big pressure hose.  I think I let loose on them with a string of profanities that would have been not out of place in a Tarantino flick.

I came to the end of the barbed wire field, I climbed over a fence, rested for a minute, and then helped give some other runners a boost over.  Then, more barbed wire to roll under.  This barbed wire seemed lower, but the second field was mercifully shorter and flatter.  

The ground was flat here, and Chris and I ran for awhile, hoping to end our suffering as quickly as possible.  The next obstacle was huge monster truck tries, that we had to lift up and roll onto and then off a post four times.  I could barely lift my tire off the ground, much less roll it.  Burpees ensured.  I don't feel too bad about this one, the volunteer at this station, who had run the course earlier that morning, said that he was estimating their weight at 200-250lbs each. 

Next obstacle:  Traverse wall=climb sideways on a wood wall on which the hand and footholds were brick sized wooden blocks.  My arms were toast at this point.  Burpees.

Next obstacle.  Spear throw.  I gave a good effort and chucked my spear with all my might.  It went far enough but unfortunately had a little too much spin on it and bounced off the target.  By spin, I mean that it was going end-over-end.  Burpees.

Jump over fire.  Badass.  (And relatively easy!)

Next, another rope-up-hill obstacle.  This time, the hill was really just a wooden structure with a rubber mat on it, that volunteers were spraying with a pressure hose.  I did well on these rope-hill-climb obstacles all day and did well on this one.  

Chris and I got over the top with just one obstacle to go...pugil stick armed Spartan warriors guarding the finish line.  At this point, however, these guys were only really making a token effort to hit runners, and I was making a token attempt to deflect the pugil sticks, and I with a noticeable absence of any Spartan war cry, I "leaped" over the finish line, victorious(?).

For our troubles:  A medal, a t-shirt, a delicious "free" Long Trail IPA, more bumps and bruises than I can count, memories -- both good and bad -- of a unique experience, and a broken ass.

At least I didn't sack my nuts.

It took me long enough to write this post that I didn't feel like grabbing photos of every obstacle from Spartan Race's facebook, where there are tons of photos of the event.

Spartan Race Facebook: Photos from Saturday (Spartan Sprint and Kid's Race) 

WPHL 17 (Philly TV) coverage with photos and video 
Coming in "Part 2" -- Thoughts on the Strengths and Areas for Improvement for the event, and more personally where I think I did well and could improve, and where I think this leaves me as a runner.  I've got some very good things to say about the race, and some constructive criticisms, too.


  1. We seem to be on the same page re: this race. Not a big deal, but you didn't link to my blog properly- which scared the crap out of me and made me think my domain name expired...

    I DREADED the water slide. I cannot believe you got hurt in this! I remember actually being grateful for the cement block/pulley obstacle because it gave me a longer break and some relief from that horrific terrain. I took my sweet time with that thing...

    1. Sorry about that! I always forget the extra "the". It's fixed now.

      Yeah, I think we're on mostly the same page. This was going way long so I decided to split the mental aspect of the race, praise and criticism, and critiquing myself for a separate post.

  2. What they couldn't work zombies chasing after you into this??? Hope your ass feels better soon. Mind hurt just reading about yours! :)

  3. You rock buddy! Seriously. Breaking your ass AND YOU KEPT GOING! You are more than Spartan tough...you are POOKA tough! LOL!

  4. Good review. Just about what we expected. Brutal terrain (frustrating, treacherous, and slow) and a lot of "digging deep" moments. Congrats on finishing, this course was no joke. FYI, Hobie told us the only part he didn't run was the uphill portion of the sandbag carry.. 59 minutes to complete the entire course! -Mike M (RD)

    1. Thanks for the reply, Mike! 59 minutes to complete...I can't even imagine that!

  5. Oh my god...why would anyone voluntarily participate in this event! You might not have sacked your nuts, but you ARE nuts! Congratulations on surviving. Sorry about your ass.

  6. I am so glad I read this!!! You described this torturous race to a TEE!!!!! I was in the 430 heat, took me about 4 hrs to finish (so I'm sure we met up somewhere along the course... in fact I remember seeing someone at the slide getting attention and thought, oh no, someone got hurt... may have been you??) anyway, I too kept saying where is the slip n slide!! I giggled and laughed all the way down the 250 slide only to have friggen rock burn on my ass!!! I too screamed profanities at the guys at the barbed wire obstacle becuase my head was pounding!!! They were nice enough to give me advil when I completed it (Wouldn't give it to my husband, I had to finish it to get the goodies!!)

    Thanks for making me relive that torture.... now onto train for the 2013 race, which I am a glutton for punishment!

  7. Now that I look at your pic... I think I was talking to you and your wife at the end! We were pretty much the only ones there. You two were drinking the beers and your wife told me she had to go to the medic for her finger

    1. Yep, that was us! Good talking with you, too. My wife has a review of it up, too at nevertrade.blogspot.com.

      It's good everyone can have a sense of humor about Spartan Race when it's over!

  8. ok, a little different perspective; im 55 and first time participant; i thought this course was outstanding! when i finished i knew that completing this course had pushed me to the limit of my physical ability; i was not expcting an easy road thru the mountains so mayb i was prepared a little better; i honestly thought i was going to have a serious problem carrying that freakin sandbag up that hill, but im glad i made it and now consider that one of the toughest challenges ive ever completed; there wer only 25 people in this race my age or older that finished, so im quite proud of my 4th place finish at 2 hours 36 minutes!im hopin next years race is tougher than this years race cause im going to train with sand bags on the hills we have here in pittsburgh and will b in better shape; plus a few pounds liter will help too!

    1. Great job! I am really enjoying reading other people's Spartan stories.I am not sure if I'd do it again or not. I would like to see how I did in another Spartan but on the other hand its now almost a week later and I can still barely sit comfortably after getting hurt through no fault of my own. Not sure I'd risk it again when there are other things to train for too.