Last weekend, I had the opportunity to experience Spartan Race from two different perspectives – as an Elite racer and as an Open class racer.
As a little background – I have only been participating in Spartan Races for one year. Last December, I ran the Castaic Sprint with a team of fourteen Power Jam Fitness bootcampers, clients and friends as an end-of-year bonding activity. We all had a blast and I was excited to run with them again in the Sunday Open heat of this year’s Castaic race. But something funny happened in between - I fell in love with Spartan Race and OCR. Since my first race in December 2015, I have run four more Spartan Races of varying lengths, earning my first Trifecta at the World Championship Beast in Lake Tahoe. I created a goal of eventually competing as a Masters Elite, and I knew the first step was to dip my toe into the world of elite racing. And although I’m still very much a novice in the sport, and know full well there are obstacles I’m still unable to do, I made the commitment and signed up for the Saturday Elite heat at Castaic. Because sometimes you just have to bite the bullet and go for it.
And now to recap my weekend. Two different races. Two completely different experiences. Both awesome.
SATURDAY: BECOMING ELITE
I rolled into Castaic at 6am pumped, excited and a little bit terrified for my first ever Elite heat Spartan Race. In order to channel my inner beast, I wore my Incredible Hulk shirt and purple pants, and added some green stripes on my face just to feel extra badass. I checked in and I won’t lie, I got pretty giddy at the site of my first-ever bright red Elite wristband.
Although I knew racing elite ultimately meant racing alone, I was relieved to run into several of my new OCR friends in the festival area before the start of the race. Because in the world of Spartan, you are never truly alone. I knew that, but it didn’t truly sink in until it was right in front of me at the site of the race.
As 7:45am approached, I made my way to the starting corral and found my friend and photographer of all the amazing photos on this website Heather Bode. The emcee gave his speech and we were set loose. Heather and I wished each other well and then went off on our own to run our races.
At the outset, it definitely seemed like everyone was passing me up. But once we got to the hills that would comprise the first three miles of the race, I was able to take some opportunities to pass people. It felt good to know that I had some endurance for hills and was able to push forward at those moments.
I was able to get through the first couple obstacles with ease. But then I reached my first tall wall. I had a lot of apprehension about tall walls going into this race. They have been a constant challenge for me. I have practiced running at them, jumping and grabbing – and yet I always had a hard time getting my hands on top of the wall or having the strength to pull myself up. In the Open heat, this isn’t an issue as I can get help. Not so much here. I really didn’t want to do burpees simply because I couldn’t get over a wall. So once I reached my first tall wall, I had to take some time to let my heart rate come down and assess before moving forward.
I made my first attempt, grabbed the top, and couldn’t get my legs up. I backed up a bit, ran at the wall, jumped and grabbed the top and scurried my feet until I was able to get a leg over. And with a sigh of relief, I was off and running again – crossing my fingers extra hard that a taller wall wasn’t in my future.
The next couple miles were slow uphill climbs. I had a few people that I kept my eye on as pace markers for myself. I told myself that if I could keep pace with these ladies, I was making good time for myself. Sometimes they’d pull ahead of me, and other times I’d pull ahead of them. But we all seemed to keep pace with each other pretty well. I even ran into Heather a few times, and we cheered each other on and encouraged each other as we crossed paths at obstacles.
And then I hit the rig…or the beginning of what I now call the Burpee Mile.
I have never successfully completed a Spartan Race Multi-Rig. And despite spending a month training and building my grip strength, this was not going to be the day for me to reach this particular milestone. About a quarter of the way in, as a transitioned from a bar to a rope, I fell to the ground. And I headed off to do my first set of thirty burpees of the day.
From there, I hit obstacle after obstacle that sent me to burpee purgatory and separated me farther and farther from the Elite pack. I took my first solo attempt at the Hercules Hoist, and despite some great pointers from a fellow competitor, I could barely get the bag off of the ground. It quickly dawned on me that it would take me less time to do the burpees than continue this obstacle.
I hit the Monkey Bars and couldn’t make it to the second rung. Burpees.
At this point, save for one or two, I had lost most of the Elite pack. My goal became to simply complete the race as fast as I could.
It wasn’t all despair at this section of the race. I had my first-ever successful completion of a Z-Wall! I completed a Bucket Carry that was not awful! This was immediately followed by a Rope Climb that, despite being something I couldn’t remotely do just one year prior, was easy for me now.
I wish I could say I was done with burpees for the day. The Spear Throw and the new Olympus obstacle still awaited. I have never landed a Spear Throw and, well, that statement still stands. And Olympus came after the Dunk Wall and I couldn’t yet figure out how to navigate the different ways to grip or hold on to the wall with the slipperiness of the wall. So another 60 burpees came my way.
But ultimately, with a time of one hour and fifty minutes, and 150 burpees under my belt, I crossed the finish line for the first time as a Masters Elite! When all was said and done, I came in 12th in the Masters Category out of 21 people.
Happy to have done it. Happy to know where I currently stand. Happy to know what I need to work on for future races.
Speaking of future races, I had one more ahead of me the very next day. But this would be a completely different experience.
SUNDAY: TEAMWORK MAKES THE DREAM WORK
I was back at Castaic Lake on Sunday morning to run the same course again, this time in the Open Heat with a group of eight of my bootcampers and friends. The age range of my team spanned from 27 to 57, with a solid mix of repeat Spartan Racers and first timers. With a combination of excitement, mild apprehension for some, and soreness for me, we were off!
This time, I got to take on the course armed with some knowledge of both what lied ahead and some techniques on how to overcome those obstacles. The first wall that I struggled on just one day prior was easy for me to get over. I even got some cheers when I scurried on over it! Then I went back and helped my teammates and a couple strangers get over it before going over it one more time myself. Because why not? This was practice time!
As we hit the Inverted Wall and Stairway to Sparta, I continued to offer assistance to my teammates and fellow racers. Sometimes it was in the form of physically helping someone up and over a wall. And other times help meant climbing a tall wall or A-Frame alongside a teammate who had a fear of heights, just to make sure she knew someone was there with her. This race was definitely shaping up to be a completely different experience than the day before.
On Saturday I was a Novice Elite pushing myself outside my comfort zone. On Sunday, I was a leader.
I worked with my teammates to complete the Herc Hoist. And after watching another woman completely beast it on her own, I took a couple minutes to practice pulling up that crazy heavy weight without assistance. I did better than Saturday, but still have some work to do on that one.
I hung out at the Rope Climb for several minute teaching technique to my teammates, and giving tips to at least one stranger who was able to complete it for the first time that day. That felt pretty awesome.
A funny thing happened at the Monkey Bars. I got farther than I ever had before falling off. And then I watched my teammate, who is just as short and whose hands are just as small as mine, as she breezed her way across and rang the bell. At that moment, I knew I had to try again – something not allowed in the Elite Heat, but one of the great things about the Open Heat. I hopped back up, swung my way to the next bar, and the one after that, and the one after that. Bar by bar, I made my way across before gloriously ringing that bell for the first time in seven races! This was my happiest moment in the entire race, possibly the entire weekend. It was also the moment that solidified what a good idea it was to run both races. They say practice makes permanent, and this was my first step to having the Monkey Bars locked down for future races, including future Elite races.
If only we could just end the story there. But alas, this would not be burpee-free day. The rig still kicked my butt, and remains on my future "to-do" list. And I may need to convince a friend to build a Spear Throw in their backyard so I can get some practice and maybe just maybe land one someday. A girl can dream.
After nearly three hours this time around, alongside the muddy and happy faces of my team, I crossed the finish line for the second time over the course of the weekend. And proudly wore both medals as I enjoyed my post-race beer.
A TALE OF TWO RACES: WHICH WAS BETTER?
Since last weekend, I’ve been asked repeatedly which race I liked better. And I don’t really have an answer for it. It’s not that one was better than the other. It’s that the experiences were simply different, each carrying its own benefits and drawbacks.
The Elite race definitely placed me outside my comfort zone. Even with friends and kind strangers along the course, I was mostly on my own. I had to create my own motivation and deal with my own shortcomings. But I also got to challenge myself in a new way and learn where I stood among a field of strong athletes. And although I have a ways to go if I want to get on that Masters podium, what I ultimately learned is that I could totally hold my own.
The Open race, on the other hand, was all about team, community and the opportunity to practice on the actual obstacles that are in the race. It was an incredible inspiring experience to watch my teammates and fellow racers face their fears and conquer the obstacles, many for the first time. I love using the knowledge I’ve gained at the races and in my training to help others. But on top of that, getting extra practice and pointers on actual race obstacles was massively valuable for me.
So between Elite/Competitive and Open – what is right for you? It depends on the experience you’re seeking. I would encourage anyone – no matter your age or athletic background – to try the Open heat. Even if there are obstacles you can’t do on your own, there’s always someone willing to lend a helping hand. The Spartan community is pretty great like that. But if you’re looking for an additional challenge, go ahead and push yourself into one of those higher categories. I was definitely apprehensive about trying Elite, and despite my dedicated and intense training, I had no idea if I was ready. But that’s the fun of Spartan – you never really know what you’re getting yourself into until you are on the course. So you may as well just go for it.
Just make sure to practice those burpees!