Wednesday, July 18, 2012

The Pain, the Blood, and the Gore: Race Report Part 2: Pennsylvania Spartan Sprint 2012

In my previous post, I tried to describe my experience at the Spartan Sprint PA.  In this post I'd like to review the event itself in terms of organization, strengths and, in my opinion, a few things that could be done to improve the event, as well as my critique of my own performance and what I would do differently.

Race Review 
This race was a unique experience, and three days later I'm still not sure how I feel about this one.  Did I enjoy it?  Parts of it I enjoyed very much.  Other parts were less enjoyable, and some parts made my question my own sanity and that of the course designers.  Would I do it again?  I'm not sure.  Am I glad I did it?  Absolutely.  It was an adventure, a great story, and a unique challenge that my best friend and I triumphed over together.  I went in as a somewhat jaded marathoner ("Whatever.  It's five miles.") and left with a true sense of accomplishment (despite all my burpees!).

The Pennsylvania Spartan Sprint definitely lived up to Spartan Race's billing as a super-tough obstacle race.   Sadistic, even.  (Having the monkey bars right after the pancakes?  Evil!).  The ascents and descents were brutal.  While I wouldn't say I enjoyed all the obstacles, I would say that they were generally well-designed to be challenging.  Some of them were really fun.  The mud pits were fun.  Climbing walls is fun.  Rope ladder is fun.  Spear toss, fun, even though I failed. Jumping over fire was cool, too.  And I think the others were generally tough but fair.  Being tall is an advantage the higher walls, but Chris and I both found ways over them, despite our vertical challenged-ness.  There was a mental aspect to most of the challenges that made them enjoyable.  Not just "can I do it?", but "what's the best way for me to do it?"

That said, I think they should change how they market this race.  Here's how a Spartan Sprint, the shortest Spartan Race distance, is described on their website:

Spartan Sprint - 3+ MILES / 15+ OBSTACLES. The challenging sprint obstacle trail races are a great way to get off your couch and start living. From beginner trail racers and mud run participants to hardcore warriors, tough guys and marathon runners, they all come out to test themselves on the insane obstacle races! 99.9% of all people who try this event will finish, and 100% will have their thirst for mud & trail racing fully satisfied! 

This is how they described the 2012 Pennsylvania Spartan Sprint (from their facebook page):

Spartan Staffers are currently testing out the PA Sprint course and the verdict is in! Our Pennsylvania event will go down as the toughest Sprint we've ever done.

More (from a congratulatory e-mail):
Hey PASpartans! Congrats on finishing the race! Spartan Sprint Races are typically 5K long...but we thought you were tough enough and made the course ~5 miles long!

Don't underestimate your potential! You are much stronger than you think!
It's cool to know I finished their toughest Sprint ever.  It also seems that the element of surprise and the challenge of the unknown are important parts of the Spartan Race mystique that the company is trying to build.  No course maps, no exact mileage given, and people only give vague hints given by on-course volunteers about inquiries about what's next, etc.  But when people sign up for "3+" mile Sprint, to then late in the game make it "The toughest sprint ever" and 5 miles long on really, really challenging terrain, well, I feel that crosses the line from badass/challenging to dangerous.   Two extra miles on this type of terrain is nothing to sneeze at.

I personally would warn anyone that when Spartan Race says a race is tough, they mean business.  (There's a lot of mud/obstacle race series out there now, and it seems as if there are several different niches of difficulty level, and the differences might not be apparent from descriptions or websites).  I just think people signing up for this should have had a little better idea of what they were in for.  

I'm not advocating making the course easier, or  suggesting that organizers shouldn't take full advantage of the rough terrain. I think just some fair warning for people before they sign up that this is longer and more brutal than a typical sprint would be a positive. Call it a mini-beast or just mention that this is significantly longer (again, two miles on this type of terrain is no small thing!) and tougher than a typical sprint.

One obstacle that I do have some really negative feedback on is the one I was looking forward to the most.  I either broke or bruised my coccyx on a rock underneath the slip 'n' slide.  While there were some obstacles I couldn't complete and I did some burpees, I felt like the slide was the only one where I was completely at the mercy of the course.  On the hills, I could choose to press for speed or  to go slow and steady.  I could choose my own strategy to carry Spartan pancakes.  On walls that appeared to tall for me, I was able to pause and think of ways to climb up (or I could have done the burpees).   On the slip 'n' slide, I slid into a lake and there was nothing at all I could have really done to try to avoid injury.  I enjoyed every second of the slide until I landed in the water in immense pain, but on this obstacle I feel (in hindsight) like I was completely and totally at the mercy of nature and Spartan Race for the only point in the whole race.

Please don't think this just sour grapes from a guy not up to the challenge.  I did finish, and in the process of doing so I got over obstacles that I didn't think I could, pushed my mind and body to the limit, and I found the experience of finishing to be very rewarding.  I am no stranger to endurance sports with two marathons under my belt (and more on the way next year) in addition to two half marathons and more races than I can remember at shorter distances.

One thing that was really disappointing was that when my wife and I finished, the food vendors were closed and the merchandise tent was closing.  We started at 3:30 and did take 5 hours, so I know that our performance wasn't great, but we still rose to the challenge and had a memorable experience and we were by no means the last to finish.  I think those last finishers deserve the same finish experience as anyone who finished earlier and/or faster.  God forbid I want a cheesesteak or to buy a second beer after one of the most physically and mentally demanding things I've ever done!  (Thank you to the Long Trail Ale table for staying open!) And I didn't want to buy a hat or sweatshirt until after the event because what if I'd hated it, or worse yet, didn't finish?
I also thought all the staff and volunteers were responsive and extremely encouraging.  The EMT who rushed to assist me at the bottom of the slip 'n' slide was both professional in trying to make sure that I could physically go on but also understanding of me in the challenging situation of being in immense pain while also trying to make the go/no go decision, and in general there seem to have been adequate and responsive staffing to make this even relatively safe. In talking about the staff I must also say that I really appreciate the Race Director taking the time to read and respond to my previous post.  (He mentioned that elite Spartan Racer Hobie Call ran the whole course with the exception of the uphill sandbag I'm glad it's not just my imagination that this obstacle was super tough.)

The camaraderie and collaboration among participants was superb and I think was my favorite part of the event.  For example, everyone held the bottom of the rope ladder for the people after them, and I was happy to return the favor when I could help boost some people up some of the walls.  

The registration/bag check seemed well-organized and I appreciated that there was a post-race cleanup station and locker rooms. The medal and t-shirt are very cool, too. And I also wanted to add that honestly, I can't imagine the level of work that goes into setting up events like this one quickly and repeatedly throughout the country.  Spartan Races and other obstacle events seem to be quite a bit more expensive than similarly distanced road races, but it's easy to see why that's so.

Performance Review
Despite doing a decent amount of burpees, I'm pretty happy with how I did on the obstacles. I climbed high walls that I didn't think I'd be able to get up.  I gave a good effort on the monkey bars.  I don't kick myself for not being able to flip the tires.  That was so far outside the realm of objects that I'm able to lift that I was glad to take the burpees.  I should have been able to do the pulley obstacle...I know I can lift 60 pounds.  

If someone asked me what advice I'd give them about preparing for a Spartan Race, I'd say "Go ask Hobie Call instead of me."  But, if they insisted, I'd say do a lot of hill repeats and try to get really good at doing pull-ups.  

I'd say don't really worry about being a really good distance runner, just being in overall good cardiovascular shape and having good upper-body strength are more important than being able to actually able to run the whole course distance.  On this particular course, I, and I suspect the average participant, didn't do a great deal of running.  More upper body strength would have helped me quite a bit, though.  I think that even in my peak of lifting back in 2009 that I couldn't have gotten up a rope climb as high as the one on the course or flipped the 200lb tire, but I might have been able to pull myself up over some of the walls without having to precariously climb up the support beams.
In general, I still think of myself as a road runner and marathoner more than an obstacle race runner or ultra-endurance or multisport athlete, and I'll always run more "regular" races. I said after Mud Chasers, which was a cakewalk compared to this, that I wasn't sure that these mud runs were my cup of tea and I stand by that. But I'm grateful for the experience of this Spartan Race, because after finishing this unique and uniquely challenging experience, I feel like I can do anything.   

Overcome injury to get back in marathon shape?  Absolutely.  I've been through hell and back again.


  1. Totally agree with you on the event culture part!! Was starving... No food. Not a big IPA fan but drank it none the less because it was the only thing to drink and you better believe your ass I was taking advantage of the free beer. But the part that I was dissapointed was the fact that those who took longer to finish missed out of the crowds cheering them on and the whoopla that goes with it. With that in mind, I have a better idea on how to train for 2013 race and it's only up to me to have a better finish time

    1. We were really hungry, too. I ate breakfast but then deliberately didn't eat again because I didn't want my stomach to be upset on some of these obstacles. We were thinking it would take us like 2 hours, not 5! (And I say that being pretty happy with our level of effort, too!)

      We ended up hitting Red Robin on the way home, since we needed another beer to calm our nerves and celebrate!

  2. Loved this! Thanks for sharing. I, too, am a veteran marathoner - Boston 3x, New York, Phila. etc. and I did 2x week boot camp for about 3 months before this event KICKED MY BUTT!!! Now, I approach everything that I do with an intense (read: stupid) amount of competitiveness so I charged thru the course. I think it helped that my team started at 9 a.m. so the course wasn't as slippery as I'm sure it got later on but I was ass-kicked! I finished in 2hr 12 min and was, at first, a little disappointed with my time but after hearing the feedback and the overall results, this time was actually halfway decent.
    I am happy that it was considered one bad-ass race by organizers otherwise I would've thought this 44 year old was getting soft and weak!
    I am still sore - monkey bars killed me - but am recovering. Will I do another Spartan? Not sure...would like to try a tough mudder to see how it compares.
    I am very glad that the majority of people I talk to were a little humbled if not annoyed by the billing of this race and the challenge of the course!!!!
    Thanks for your words!!!

    1. 2hrs 12 minutes? I'm awed by that. Great job! We paced ourselves conservatively on the uphill climb and descent through the woods (I was sure at several points that I was going to go flying on the descent) and probably took 30 minutes if not more on the Spartan pancake ascent alone. So that's where we could conceivably make up a lot of time.

      It makes me feel better that everyone, no matter how much longer or shorter than us it took them, says this course was ROUGH!

      Thanks for reading!

  3. I am so gratful for these blogs. I was feeling SO defeated at the end of this race. I had signed up PRIOR to the race distance an intesity increasing. I was a little worried but still excited. I never expected what I got...I too killed my spine on the bottom of the slip and slide, landed an crippling migraine after the barbed wire and unlike you had a TERRIBLE experience with the staff volunteers.

    I was told twice, by red shirt wearing Spartan Staffers, that fat chicks didn't belong in a Spartan Race, got relentlessly shot in the butt with a fire hose until SPECTATORS pleaded with the man to knock it off and NOBODY had their remaining distance correct. I crossed the finish line in 2:38 with a migraine, numbness in my spine and an incredibly bruised ego. I even left coveted race shirt and medal on the table next to my free beer and left, ON PURPOSE. Now several days later I know I am not up for the Spartan challege again, physically yes, mentally and tolerance NO! However, seeing that others had simial gripes makes me feel a little bit better.

    1. Congrats an on a great finishing time despite your trials! That's awesome. You got the best of their course, and you shoved in their faces, too!

      And I'm sorry other people got hurt on the slide, but it makes me feel less like a clumsy idiot that I hurt my butt on the slip 'n' slide of all things. I hope you feel better! :-)

  4. Oh gosh, I heard these races are uber tough. I'm such a klutz and pretty sure I'd never survive the first obstacle. Nice job completing such an amazing event. Hope you're recovering well and ready to race again soon :).