A few months ago my good friend, Rudy really stepped up his work outs and started working hard to lose weight and get fit. He picked a goal several months out, sort of a culmination of his training if you will, and that is the super challenging 12 mile Tough Mudder obstacle course race in November. His ambition quickly became contagious and others around him began working out and eating better, myself included.
Because I have raced a whopping two races I considered myself more experienced and suggested to Rudy he do a race in advance as sort of a dress rehearsal. He had already planned to and found something called the Spartan Sprint, a 3.5 mile obstacle course. Although I have no desire whatsoever to take on the Mudder, this Spartan thing sounded reasonable so I decided to sign on to show Rudy my support and have something to train for in the meantime.
We didn't have much to go on. The Spartan is a touring obstacle course style race. There are three levels, each varying distances, culminating with the Spartan Death Race which boasts a 10% completion rate. We were told the Sprint was around 3.5 miles, hilly, muddy and that there would be about a dozen obstacles. There was no course map, no description of the obstacles - pretty much nothing but a location and a date.
Two days prior to the event we received an email with some crucial information like our bib numbers, etc. Also included was a note from the Race Director saying that the course was shaping up nicely and is 4.5 miles, 2.5 of which is up the mountain. We then found out the the PA Spartan Sprint is the longest and hardest of the lowest tier of Spartans. And that was only the beginning.
We arrived yesterday at the race and were immediately intimidated. We said it several times yesterday and I will say it again; thank God we didn't know what we were getting ourselves into, because we most likely would not have shown up.
We talked to some folks, including a women who quit a quarter way through, and watched the top five finishers cross the finishing line. All we knew at this point was that no one was actually running up this mountain, and that as we approached the finish we had to jump over fire, climb a wall, throw a spear into a target and do burpees as punishment if we missed (think jump, squat into a push-up then stand back up thirty times). Lastly, we had to face three incredibly fit people dressed as Spartans with jousts who hit you as you passed. Fun.
Ironically, at the peak of the mountain we could see some movement. The people up there were as big as ants to us at the base and we wondered what was going on up there. Little did we know this would be our toughest obstacle or that I would collapse up there in a few hours.
We queued up at the Roman style pillars for our 12:00 heat start and did our best to amp ourselves up. Our Spartan host informed us we would be facing "dozens" of obstacles. Rudy and I looked at each other with wide eyes at the word "dozens". What the hell happened to a dozen? We were about to jog into the unknown.
Before we knew it we were off jogging into what would be 2+ hours of torture we would often exclaim we actually paid $100 for (including the mandatory insurance of course). I was in way over my head.
The incline kicked my ass five minutes in and I was hoofing it gasping in air. Most people were. And oh look, a wall. I hoisted myself up and over the first wall then crawled under a second then up and over again and under. By the third wall (about fifteen minutes in) I failed two attempts and a man asked if I needed help and yes, I asked him to "shove my ass over this thing".
The incline was torture. The obstacles were just uncalled for and mean. Rudy and I mostly stuck together 2/3 up the mountain (about 1/3 of the race). As if walking straight up a mountain isn't enough they threw in some tunnels for us to crawl through for fun, I'm sure. If that wasn't fun enough at least Rudy threw grass at me and I tried to knock him unsuccessfully into the side of the tunnel. When everyone is suffering it's best to make your own fun.
To emphasize how steep the incline was - two parts of our course upmountain (uphill does this no justice) were so steep that there were ropes to help us hoist ourselves up. Rocks we used as foot holds gave out and trees we used to grab on to bent. This was no hike in the woods. There were other obstacles on the uphill that my brain blocked out.
I wanted to quit fifteen minutes in to this hell and caught up to Rudy as he was resting a moment and told him so. I also told him we can no longer be friends. (This was his idea after all). He admitted the thought of quitting was crossing his mind as well and he would if I did. I don't recall this but Rudy said after this exchange I took off running so he did as well so I wouldn't get a lead on him. We didn't speak of quitting again out loud (although I know I thought it).
We parted ways about 2/3 up the mountain. I just couldn't keep up. The last third of the uphill was excruciating. People were dropping off to the sides every where and some were even vomiting. I developed the chills and began to shake. Every hair on my body stood. But I could still see Rudy up ahead and I knew I had to keep going. But I grew increasingly nervous over my current physical state and finally told a man suffering beside me how I felt. He said I wasn't getting enough oxygen and that I should put my hands over my head and take deep breaths. We stuck together a few more yards (which took minutes) and I finally sat. The view was incredible. I was so high up the mountain that I knew I was far beyond the point of quitting. The top of the mountain (and I knew water would be up there) was within sight. I continued onward taking baby steps leaning forward. It felt like hours, but I made it.
I expected a water station, but I faced a hell far worse. Immediately to our left was the double diamond ski slope. I was told I had to fill a five-gallon paint bucket half way (men had to fill theirs 3/4) with gravel and walk 50 yards down the incredibly steep double diamond slope then back up with my bucket. I exclaimed "where's the water!?!" and was told it was after I completed this obstacle.
The slope was so steep that our buckets prevented us from tumbling forward to our deaths (if we were lucky maybe the finish line). All we could do was lean sideways and take a few baby steps and drag our bucket to catch up. If you spilled your gravel you had to scoop it back in. As I started my journey down I saw Rudy on his way up. He was a sight for sore eyes to say the least and I managed one "Yeah Rudy!". I didn't see him again until the finish line.
I collapsed on the upside. I had already walked up a mountain. I couldn't walk 50 yards up a double diamond slope while carrying a 30 lb. bucket. People were dropping like flies, apologizing to the people behind them only for them to say "it's okay, I can't move anyway". Finally, like an angel sent from above, a girl beside me said, "on the count of three we walk 10 steps." She counted the ten steps aloud and then we dropped. We rested and started again while she counted aloud. We did this at least ten times and together we made it to the top. I have no idea who she is but I may not have made it without her.
To add insult to injury there was a massive wall between us and the water. I was physically incapable of getting over the wall so I went around it. A volunteer told me to drop and do 30 burpees. I uttered a simple "no" and I guess by the look on my face he knew to leave it alone.
Finally. Water. And back down. I was half way there. I knew at this point that Rudy faced whatever I was about to face and he did it so I could too. I didn't want to see him. I knew the only way I would see him was if he got hurt.
After the water I had to lift a cinder block on a pulley up 25 feet and let it down slowly. This was surprisingly easy and I completed the task without incident. Now for the downhill and more surprises.
The downhill was incredibly technical single track. I trained on trails so I could navigate fairly quickly so I managed to pass many people who stepped aside as they heard me coming. But there was no running. This was far too steep and far too muddy. Many, many times I got too much momentum and had to grab a tree to stop myself from crashing. We spent a lot of time on our asses sliding far too fast down rocky mud using our sneakers as a steering wheel. I was constantly brushing my ass to make sure my pants didn't rip open. (Rudy mentioned he saw his fair share of girl butt LOL!)
I slid my way down a trail and saw a sort of opening. I rised, and my heart sank. Another godforsaken obstacle. This one a 20 foot cargo net to climb up and over. I have a fear of heights, but even a greater fear of faulty manufacturing. But I knew I had to do it. I made it to the top and straddled the top bar and froze a little. It took me a minute or two to swing my other leg over but the volunteer on the ground was very encouraging and told me to take my time. When I finally swung my other leg over I felt like a winner. I conquered a fear. (Later on Rudy will say that he was concerned for me as he tackled the net knowing my fear of heights. And I will smile and say I made it up and over and conquered my fear.) Rudy actually climbed the net so damn fast that the same volunteer yelled at him to slow down!
More incredibly technical single track lay ahead and it became abundantly clear that we weren't navigating actual "trails" but ways down a mountain that were created just for this race. We had to push trees and branches aside and do our best not to break our ankles (or our necks). (Many ankles were actually broken.)
I once again emerged to a clearing and saw a series of three foot tall totem poles to hop across. I made my way up onto the first one and froze. The next one was pretty far away and I did not trust my muddy sneakers. I could not step across. I had to jump across. Instead I hopped down and again refused to do the penalty 30 burpees. Fuck that shit was my attitude at the time.
After this the trail went uphill again and I was again cursing the sadistic person who developed the course. Again I passed people taking breaks off to the side. I heard running water and continued ahead to the sound of "head first folks!". A MAKESHIFT WATERSLIDE!! I didn't go head first but I jumped down onto the massive make shift plastic tarp water slide and plunged into an icy cold mountain lake and it was incredibly refreshing! I swam 100 yards to the exit making small talk with a fellow Spartan about how this was by far the best obstacle. (Yes, they put a row of barrels in our path so that we'd have to go under water.)
Little did we know we weren't finished with water. We emerged again to some sort of lake (mountain drainage hole?). We were told to grab a rope that was tied to a cinder block. We had to drag it down a hill, through waist high water and back up. By this point I have no shame in admitting I was looking for female advantages. I asked if they were all the same and was told they were. I grabbed a rope and heard "Hey dude, give that to her!" Apparently the guy a few feet ahead grabbed a broken cinder block so it was a "6" instead of a complete figure "8", He sheepishly handed it off and I was grateful for the slight advantage. The uphill was, again, a bitch to say the least.
After that more trails and then a "lovely" series of three hills (think motocross) all with waist high muddy water in between. I ran all three nearly plunging face first as I hit the water in between. This was also a little fun in retrospect. Little did I know that the second hardest obstacle lay around the bend.
I was greeted by nasty, wet thick MUD and two foot high barbed wire; VERY REAL barbed wire that my tired ass had to army crawl under. I stepped up into the mud and nearly broke my knee because my foot sank about a foot and prying it out took great effort and great suction noises. It was all hands and knees and then strictly elbows and feet FOR OVER THIRTY YARDS!! We discovered as a group about half way through after our elbows and forearms were bloodied that rolling was far easier. We turned on our sides and rolled slowly, being very careful not to snag the barbed wire. (The wire was so low that Rudy had to ball his empty camelback up in his first.)
I rised, dizzy, to face another massive wall. This was the same height I was physically incapable of getting over the first time so proceeded around it and exclaimed, "are you fucking kidding me!" because I faced another thirty plus yards of barbed wire. I made my way slowly rolling under the wire trying not to kick anyone in the head and fighting the urge to vomit. The mud had rocks in it and smelled like fertilizer. I couldn't help but think of the scene in Shawshank Redemption when Andy climbed through the sewage pipe to freedom.
I made it through, and rised dizzy, but thankful not to see any obstacles. The mud was so thick that when I shaked my arms out I head a loud "SPLAT!" as the mud hit the ground. The mud definitely added several pounds and I was completely encased. But for the first time I heard life other than complaints or heavy breathing; I heard the finish. I knew only fire, a wall, a spear and Spartans with jousts lay ahead.
I rounded the corner and I was right. There lay the spear toss. Of course I missed the target and by now I knew Rudy was waiting for me at the finish and may have spotted me even encased shoulder to toes in mud. I did the freaking burpees. Well, ten of the thirty. (We knew most people missed the target because we had watched so many heats finish. Rudy, AMAZINGLY, hit the target and applause erupted around him. I'm fairly certain this felt almost as good as finishing.)
I ran toward the U-shaped fire blaze and the heat hit me like a ton of bricks. I froze right before I was supposed to jump. Before the flames was thick mud and the black smoke was so thick and I couldn't decipher the width. I backed up for another running start and took off again and damnit, I froze again. The simple truth is that I didn't trust my legs at this point.
I ran around the blaze and got hit with a high pressure fire hose as punishment. I welcomed it at this point because it took off some of the mud. The final wall lay ahead; a slanted 8 foot pyramid with a rope to hoist yourself up and over. I ran and jumped, grabbed the rope and pulled myself to the top. Before I could get a leg over I slipped and slided down. I took another running start, grabbed the rope like my life depended on it and this time I got a leg over. I slipped down hard and crashed into a pile of hay and took off for the finish praying the Spartans took mercy on me.
By this point I was near tears from a mixture of exhaustion and accomplishment and the Spartans must have seen it in my face because one ever so gently tapped me in the belly and one tapped me in the back and they both whispered, "good job, honey". I crossed the finish to the sound of Rudy's cheers. Someone put my medal around my neck and I made my way to the water, shaking; shaking from fear I didn't have time to experience, adrenaline, accomplishment, muscle exhaustion, so many things. I did it.
I am Spartan. Rudy is Spartan. We are both incredibly proud.
*I ran the course in 2 hours, 15 minutes. Rudy ran the course in 2 hours, 3 minutes. I placed 36th out of 76 women in my heat and beat 58 men in my heat. Rudy placed 75th out of 156 men in our heat and 99th out of 232 overall in our heat. We both placed in the upper 50th percentile of our sexes. Will we do it again? I think we could convince one another of that.