Spartan Race World Championships
25th September 2014
Spartan Race is one of the major brands of obstacle course races (OCRs) in the world. With events in several countries, it is also recognised as one of the top OCRs for competitiveness. In previous years when I’ve raced the Spartan Beast (21km) in the UK
, I’ve faced some of the fiercest competition of my obstacle racing career. As it turns out, this was nothing compared to the competition I faced at the Spartan World Championships in the USA where the Spartan brand has its origins.
This race would again be a ‘Beast’; roughly the same distance as the UK version but with some noticeable differences. I had mainly heard the American races could be far more strength based than the UK ones, but the real difference with this particular race was the location. Set on the ski slopes of Killington in Vermont, the race was billed to have something in the region of 2000m of vertical ascent!
Before flying out, I had thought long and hard about my chances with this race. I knew, being mainly a runner, the heavier carries would hinder me but felt my strength on hills could counter this to a certain extent. Considering myself being more or less unbeaten at OCRs in the UK, I figured there was at least a slight chance for a podium finish – but I also knew I had never faced the kinds of competition I would encounter in the USA. Many different athletes from all over the world were making the trip to Vermont to battle for the title: from mountain running legends to Olympians to OCR specific athletes on pro teams. No matter what the result I was nevertheless intent on enjoying the experience and performing to the best of my ability. Part of me was actually excited to meet the people that could run and jump over stuff faster than I could!
Arriving with a day to spare my fellow UK athletes and I soaked up the atmosphere, enjoying novelties like a press conference, podcasts and interviews. Thankfully no one had heard of me so I could enjoy mainly being left alone to further ponder what the race would be like.
Rumours about the course were flying around with people saying there were two of each carrying obstacle as well as two spear throws and a memory test! Too late to worry I figured we would soon find out as we all hit the hay the night before.
Being on UK time we were all awake with time to spare and started to prepare for the race. What to wear and whether to carry water were the main conversation topics. In the end I decided to stick with my initial clothing choice of inov-8 212 trainers, socks, shorts, Compressport shorts and my race vest. Under this I also decided to wear an inov-8 long sleeve merino wool top to help keep me warm after the water section and on the windy summits of the ski resort. I’d also be carrying my inov-8 race ultra 1 belt – holding 7 gels and 500ml of water. All ready and still feeling hungry I stuffed another cliff bar in my mouth before we all headed out for the short drive to the event centre.
At registration I was ecstatic to find my race number would be 7 – ‘a good number for a good day’ I thought to myself. The weather felt warmer than the day before but I was sticking to my choice of the merino wool top, figuring I could always roll the sleeves up if I got hot.
Before I knew it we were standing on the start line… I hadn’t exactly studied my main competition but had managed to spot who the main guys were from the day before. Most were all lined up at the front ready to charge downhill before turning to head straight back up the first ascent. I chuckled to myself as I stood back in the 5th row about to start the biggest race of my life so far.
The initial climb felt very much like other races I had competed in, everyone has the energy to charge uphill but the smartest people are not afraid to take some walking sections to pace themselves into the race. I nestled somewhere in the top 15 and was feeling good as we reached the first obstacle at the top of the slopes. After the simple over/under obstacle we were soon charging back downhill on winding trails through forest. Now, this was running I could enjoy! Flying around tight bends, jumping rocks and logs trusting in the grip of my inov-8s to keep me comfortably in control.
Through the first carries I started to wonder what all the fuss was about and actually started to enjoy myself, relishing the experience of holding within the top 10 obstacle racers in the world. Following some more technical running and a traverse wall, we arrived at the lake for the Tarzan swing. Swimming out to the rope ladders which led up to the swinging ropes I found myself next to one of the favourites for the podium who I recognised from the press conference. I smiled as I noticed he was wearing a swimming hat and goggles which he would have to carry with him for the entire race. As it happened, my breast stroke kept pace with his front crawl which meant I kept a dry head and regular breathing. I completed the obstacle without incident, ringing both bells for the climb and the swinging. Many were given a burpee penalty for failing this obstacle, so as I skirted the lake and dived back into the forest I felt a bit lonely. Some flatter technical running and still alone I asked a camera man how many were in front. I could just make out someone 30m ahead and he said ‘that’s it’. Swearing and smiling to myself I couldn’t believe I was now in second place at the Spartan World Championships! Though it was definitely too early to have risen so high in the standings, I wasn’t about to give it up. A few obstacles and an atlas stone carry later I had caught up with the leader.
Everything had been pretty straight forward thus far but a hiccup was just around the corner. I had prepared myself for a lot of eventualities in this race but had totally overlooked such a simple obstacle as the next one: after hopping from log to log we had to transition to a balance beam (!!) where slipping and touching the ground earnt me a 30 burpee penalty allowing my rival to retake the lead. With over half of the race remaining, I knew the race was far from over so without panicking I started to steadily burpee away being counted out by a race marshal (who also kept an eye on my technique). Finishing up and turning to the climb ahead I could see a lone figure above who a few minutes ago I was racing next too. Crap.
Once at the top I was again closing in on first place and managed to catch him just as we reached the memory test. After a few double takes, I was relatively confident I would remember my numbers and went on to repeat them continually in my head. We then had the first of the two spear throws; having limited experience at any sort of spear throwing apart from the broom handle we threw about in the garden the day before I was intrigued to see whether I would manage. To my surprise, my closest competition just missed his as I arrived and I went on to plough mine into the target where it stayed. A sudden jolt of adrenaline hit me with the knowledge I had a 30 burpee lead and a downhill section to follow. Still crazily repeating my memory test numbers aloud I hurtled down still wondering why I was managing so well and whether my luck would continue for the remainder of the race… it didn’t.
As I approached the sandbags I thought to myself ‘hey, they don’t look too big!‘. As I got closer I heard the heart breaking instructions of the marshal… two sandbags! We had to carry two!! I looked up at the ski slope and could hardly see the turn around point in the distance. The following minutes were quite embarrassing as I struggled to even pick both bags up. Moving at a snails pace I knew I had to find a way soon and wondered if I would manage at all. Cody Moat in second place was upon me within no time and as he passed I rallied myself deciding to carry the bags only as far as each course marker before stopping to rest and repeating. This worked, but I could feel my grip strength failing as I carried the bags by my sides like buckets by there handles. Once on the steeper sections I could only manage to haul one forward at a time slowly clawing my way up the hill. Nearing the top I saw third place, Ryan Atkins, hoist the bags onto his shoulders before powering up the hill! In no time he had caught us and then flew back down to drop his bags off. Now in third place (and finally at the top) I started to use gravity’s assistance to help me slide my bags downhill. Overtaking Cody, I returned my bags and gave chase at a somewhat slower speed than before. The effort had bored a huge hole in my energy levels and my muscles hurt from the continual effort of racing for what was now about 3 hours.
I was two minutes back but still happy to be in second place at such a prestigious event. After seeing Ryan’s impressive display on the sandbag carry it was clear how strong he was and I discounted any chance of me beating him. Re-entering the forest I tried to convince myself second wasn’t good enough. I was making good speed but knew I could run quicker so decided to push on faster and faster on the uneven terrain.
The added effort resulted in some mistakes with me running head first into a protruding log and scraping my shin over one on the floor. Feeling my eye for blood I was thankful it was on the side of my eye socket and just a graze. Nevertheless, the extra speed was paying off and I could once again see Ryan through the trees.
I knew we were nearing the end of the race but could still count so many obstacles that we would have to face. My main worry was the hoist; I knew this would be heavier than in the UK and my grip strength was already nearing its end. The next obstacle however was the rope traverse. I had never attempted to complete one of these by laying on the rope instead of dangling beneath it, but it was now or never because I didn’t think my grip would hold out. Still neck and neck, we reached the bells and dropped to the water which was refreshingly cold. Leaving the water I managed to down my last gel thinking to myself the end must be soon.
Coming into the second spear throw, Ryan threw first… missing! Without thinking I threw mine – once again it hit and stuck fast allowing me a 30 burpee lead! This was my ticket, I had a lead but I was in a bad way with an obstacle heavy final stretch ahead. After completing his burps Ryan was catching me fast completing the obstacle with ease as I struggled. Most damage was done at the hoist: I managed to get my weight within half a meter of the top before my grip failed and I couldn’t heave any more. In a desperate attempt to manage, I just got my foot onto the rope allowing me to rest my hands. Psyching myself for one more big pull I wrapped my hand around the rope, screamed in my head and heaved one final time until I felt the knot hit the top. Lowering my weight carefully to the ground I still had a lead but it was now reduced to seconds.
Over a bridge and we were upon the final obstacle
: the monkey bars. On dropping to the ground at the end of them I knew it was now or never. I started hammering it up a small ascent as I was sure the finish was around the corner. However, on rounding the corner the route took a turn and started ascending the ski slopes again! I had smashed it and now had to continue… I couldn’t even see the top of the climb. Even though I was tired I was determined; my turn of speed had brought me a lead, so tired or not I started once again ascending. After about 200m, the route turned and started to descend. My lead was now up to a minute and as I looked down the slope I could see a finish arch just behind a fire jump. Unable to believe my eyes I asked a camera man if that was it, if that was the finish. He said yes!
I felt a wave of emotion as I suddenly realised I had more or less done it, I had won. All I had to do was run down a hill, jump over some fire and cross the line and I would be the Spartan World Champion. Within a second I snapped out of it and thought ‘it’s just another race‘ so down I went and before I knew it I was over the line and done! I knelt facing the course as if to salute it before accepting some congratulations and receiving my medal.
I can’t help but feel lucky to have been allowed to pass through the course how I did. I can imagine many scenarios as to how the race would have turned out differently, but it just so happened that the day was mine. If Ryan hadn’t missed his spear throws he would have smashed me… but equally without the sadistic sandbag carry I feel I would have managed to grow my lead further. No matter how I think of the race, I know I put 100% into it and was forced to dig deep within myself to find additional strength to succeed. To meet and race with the athletes I did was a great honour and I am in awe of them and all their different past successes. To take part in such a race was an incredible experience and to win makes it even more amazing.
I have already seen posts along the lines of ‘worlds best obstacle racer‘. I definitely don’t think thats the case though. I worked hard but this Spartan race did play to my strengths more than others. It was an exceptionally hilly course and quite a bit longer than many other races. OCR is so diverse it would be hard to label any one person as the best, but I’m ecstatic to have finished first in what will probably be one of the biggest races of my life.
I’d like to thank the UK OCR community for all the support. I felt our small contingent represented the UK well, bringing the best possible attitude to racing and showing the world how to truly enjoy an OCR even whilst racing. Fellow Brit and inov-8 OCR
teammate James Appleton finished an amazing 10th place overall, taking the spot as second place out of all the European competitors. Despite a harrowing fall early in the race, Lucy Martlew showed outstanding resilience by continuing to finish the race accompanied by Katie Keeble. Sam Cherry was unfortunately unable to continue after an injury. However, he showed courage by making the decision to pull out as to continue would no doubt have made the injury worse potentially affecting his ability to race in the coming weeks or months. Thomas Blanc representing France and the UK had a great run, eventually finishing 27th and also went on to have go at the short course held later in the afternoon. We found Jaroen Reesen of the Dutch Mud Men at the airport when we arrived and he ended up accompanying us for the entire trip. Jaroen gave the Ultra Beast a try on the Sunday and showed the best attitude at any sport I have seen even though he failed to ‘slay the ultra beast’ this year.
Future plans: At this moment in time, the only race I have planned is for this coming Saturday in my new hometown of Bergen. With 700m of running with 300m of elevation gain it is somewhat shorter than the Beast but will no doubt be amazingly painful! Moving forward I will have to assess what races I want to do and am looking forward to getting back to training!