Spartan Race AT&T Park: A Race Review

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A couple weeks ago I did the Spartan Race Sprint in AT&T Park. Despite the fact that I did a Tough Mudder way back when it wasn’t even cool yet and despite the fact that I know everything about obstacle course races after working on my documentary this spring, I’ve never actually done a Spartan Race. I’ve never actually really raced one of these obstacle things either, because the few I’ve done have always been casually and with friends.

So, I just wanted to try one actually hard. Unfortunately, the only one that fit my schedule was the sprint in AT&T Park—which really does not sound like the kind of thing I’d be good at. Short and heavily strength-based? Definitely!

I realized exactly how over my head I was when I was lined up with the elite heat of women at the start. These were some seriously intense and ripped women—the sort for whom this was exactly the kind of thing they’d be good at. And the announcer guy was making a speech about penalties and warnings on certain obstacles and “when you get to the traverse wall, it’ll be like the standard traverse wall you’re used to seeing…” (hah, right) “…except there will be a gap in the middle. do not put your foot on that gap or you’ll be penalized. and of course you all know how many burpees are the penalty.” (uh?)

I went in the second group of 15 women, so that at least maybe there’d be people in front of me when I got to the obstacles so I could see how to do them. And then I enacted my plan: run hard, because the running is the only thing you’re going to be good at here.

It worked ok. As in, I would get a decent gap when we had to run up and down and up, up, up, and around the stadium, and then I’d have to take my time figuring out what the hell I was doing on some obstacle. I mean, I got the gist, but my technique was off. At one point, on the 8-foot wall climb, I was hanging upside down backwards from both my knees and the official/volunteer guy was looking at me like he wasn’t sure if that was penalty or not, because he’d never seen anyone do it that way before. And, of course, 6-7 women passed me when I missed the target on the spear throw and had to do my penalty burpees. (FYI, it’s a 30-burpee penalty.) But, and this is a huge but, the spear throw was the only obstacle I missed. I got through the weird monkey bars and the rope climbs and the Herculean hoist thing (even though it was basically my body weight that I was trying to hoist and the weight kept dragging me around through the sand instead of me dragging it).

It was really an exercise in deliberate-ness. I mean look at how deliberate I was being:

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I really, really didn’t want to get hurt. And, at one point, I was running down concrete stairs, between hard plastic chairs, and then down across the benches in the outfield seats, so that I was stepping from bench to bench, and I thought, “You could really mess yourself up on these; it wouldn’t even be hard.”

Expo/Goodies: Spartan Race isn’t really about the goodies? I think. I dunno. At least not at these stadium races. You got a t-shirt and a sweat armband and a medal for finishing. And I think that was it. There might have been some bananas and water somewhere too. But part of the problem with these stadium races—as opposed to their usual ones outdoors—is that there simply isn’t that much room. Everything is a little cramped in the stadium halls, so there’s no big expo. And it was hard to even find water. The woman at one of the concession stands told me she couldn’t give me a cup of water, but she could sell me some. Awesome.

Course: It’s more or less what you would think it would be inside a stadium. You run up a lot of stairs. Like, if you don’t want to run up and down stairs, do not do this race. And then, in between running up and down stairs, you do some pretty standard strength obstacles: push-ups, heavy jump rope, stone carry, box jumps, rope climbs, walls to get over, etc. It’s cool being able to run on the field, but it’s sort of a mess running through the stadium rows. It’s fun, and that’s what you signed up for, but concrete is not particularly forgiving.

Organizational Details: On the one hand, props for putting on a 5k race inside a major sports stadium inside a major city. That takes some organizing. On the other hand, it was a bit unorganized. Where is the start? Where are results? Where is water? And I was there really early, so I was able to park on the street immediately in front of the park and still be done before the parking restrictions went into effect at 9 a.m. I’m not sure how parking and logistics worked out for other people later. The main problem was that because you were running all over the stadium there was a lot of yellow tape up to direct you in and out of doors and around columns, etc, but it was still a little unclear at times—and you’re running full speed, because this is only 40 minutes long—and some of the stadium staff (as opposed to the volunteers with the race or the Spartan staff) could not have been less happy to be there. They did not care that you were running a race. So it was more than slightly frustrating to be charging hard down the concrete walkway and have the person standing there shrug when you asked which way to go.

On the whole, though, it’s a fun race and a good kind of wacky mix-up from your regular races. If you want to race hard, then go in the elite wave at the beginning, but know that means you can’t get any help on the obstacles. And, because they can only send off 15 people at a time in the cramped corridors, you still won’t really know how you’re stacking up as you go. (ie. I went off in the second group of 15 and I ended up 12th woman overall. So I guess I beat some people ahead of me and a couple behind me beat me? Maybe.)

Also, there’s an attitude to Spartan Race that I sort of respect. Like, you might hurt yourself running across benches over concrete. Guess you should be careful. And, when I would catch guys in front of me, they’d move over and get out of the way or let me go first, because let’s be real: if I’m catching you, with your 10 minute head start, then you’re not in contention to win anything, and it would considered very bad form to not get out of the way. At one point, we were just running up and up and up, and usually when things hurt in a race I think, ‘well, they wouldn’t make something that I can’t do,’ but then I thought, ‘this is Spartan, they might.’ At least more than most mass commercialized races. And I sort of respect that.

Grade: B-

Chasing the Real Danger

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Thursday, Death Valley National Park announced its new rules regulating increasingly popular crazy endurance races (see: The Badwater Ultramarathon above). The park will no longer allow events during the day from June 14 to Sept. 9 because of heat and the chance of dying, etc. That effectively kills the traditional Badwater 135-mile race, moving it out of Death Valley. This comes on the heels of the Grand Canyon’s revised rules about Rim-to-Rim runners. This isn’t the end. We’re only going to see more places and organizers making safety rules to govern what was once the domain of extremists. There never needed to be rules regulating runners doing the Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim route in one day, because there never were that many runners doing it. That’s no longer true.

There is a reason we’ve seen such an increase in extreme endurance events, in the (pseudo) intense adventure/obstacle events. It has something to do with a growing societal desire to chase what people are missing in their commuting and their sitting in offices. They want to feel the thrill of real danger, the excitement of the un-doable. Of course, real danger is dangerous. And real un-doable isn’t do-able for a reason.

My sister and I did a Tough Mudder once. It was fun, challenging, and different from regular races — right up until you had to run through a field of wires that electroshocked you at random. That part was stupid. Why would they mix that in with the physical challenges? Because the clientele demands a feeling of having defeated something tough and insane, something they can brag about to co-workers on Monday. But, that same clientele doesn’t have the training to do anything more physical. All it takes to run through electrified wires is the desire to do so. Tough Mudder feeds that desire.

Of course, Tough Mudder is now having to deal with the dangers that come with running these kinds of events. People die. People die in running races, in triathlons, in obstacle races, in ultramarathons. People die chasing the thrill of living. (People also die all the time for no reason.) That’s part of the appeal, even if no one admits it to themselves.

We are not ok with that fact — and for good reason. When we participate in an event, we believe that we will be safe and that preparations and precautions have been made for our safety. We also believe that we will have a real, genuine experience. These things are at odds. They will continue to be at odds as more and more people try to reconcile them. Ironman’s “hard” races tend to go out of business, while it’s “easy” ones sell out in minutes; no one wants to try and fail at finishing. They want a challenge that they can ultimately safely overcome. It has always been dangerous to run through Death Valley in the summer during the middle of the day. That was true when the Badwater Ultramarathon started in 1987 and a half-dozen crazy people tried to run the 135 miles to Mt. Whitney. They wanted to try because, not in spite of, the dangers. It is still dangerous, but now hundreds can do it. Or, at least they could — until we decided it was too dangerous to try anymore.

My sister wants to do a Spartan Race, since we’ve already done Tough Mudder and loved it except for the whole electroshock thing. (And, let’s all admit that the whole growing adventure race industry is just ripe for a disaster/large casualties.) So, I sent her this article about the Tough Mudder v. Spartan Race wars and stealing. Changes your ‘tough’ perspective.

http://www.outsideonline.com/outdoor-adventure/multisport/Playing-Dirty-November-2012.html