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Taming the Spartan Beast

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Thursday 5th October 2017
Tags  OCR   |   Obstacle Course Racing   |   Spartan   |   Spartan Beast
By James Jelfs

“Spartans what is your profession?!” “Aroo! Aroo! Aroo!” This is the familiar question and response at a beginning of a Spartan Race before the runners are let loose on the course and something I heard nearly thirty times between 2011 and 2015. Spartan Race is not new to me and used to be my obstacle course race of choice until I decided to give other races a try. At this time a lot of races were bringing out new innovative obstacles and I felt that Spartan was not moving forward (simply making things heavier), however this year I heard quite a few good things and I really felt like I had been missing out by not signing up. 
This weekend I decided to change that and took on the Spartan Beast in Windsor. For those that don’t know Spartan Races originally came in three distances. The 5km+ Sprint, 13km+ Super and 20km+ Beast making up the Spartan Trifecta, and they have now added some more brutal endurance events (Ultra Beast, Hurricane Heat, Agoge) which I haven’t had the pleasure of trying out just yet. The Beast seemed like a good option for me to see how far Spartan has come, the longest of the normal events containing all their obstacles.
I’ll start off with the negatives and then move on to the good points…mainly because the negatives were from arrival for most people up to about 2km into the race and then it was all positive afterwards. I arrived very earlier and therefore did not have much of a wait to get into the carpark, others were not so lucky, with a number of people I spoke to complaining of 2 hour delays getting into the carpark and missing their start wave because of this. When I arrived the queue for registration was rather large and took about 20 minutes, this could have been avoided if I had bought a fast pass for priority queuing but I hadn’t so spent the time catching up with friends while I waited and to be honest the time flew by. After getting through registration I sorted my kit and lined up at the start. Spartan Phil gave us a briefing and his usual rousing speech which has always been a highlight then we set off at a fast pace heading into the nearby woods.

Spartan start

Well…we started fast but the moment we hit the woods the pace slowed dramatically. I love trail running and I enjoy bounding through the twisting paths through woods which this race had loads off, unfortunately roughly the first 2km of the race was covered in tree stumps and branches that had been cut down. It was virtually impossible for the average runner to run on (I imagine Tristan Steed just floated across to victory, however us mortals struggled badly) every step had to be placed carefully to avoid damaging ankles or falling over. I was desperate to open out my stride and get running but it would be a while before this happened, the whole wave were walking or high stepping single file only to eventually come to a pipe to crawl through…a single pipe with only one lane which caused a lot of queuing. This inadvertently spread the field apart but did mean that if you arrived at the pipe close to a number of people you left it barely able to see half of them as they had been able to get running again while you were still crawling through. Shortly after this we left the woods and were able to start to run and the whole day improved. 
Obstacles and carries were evenly spaced through the course, some traditional obstacles that I’ve seen many times before and others that I was seeing either for the first time or at least the first time I’d seen them at a Spartan. I should point out that I suck at carries, I really suck at carries, not even a little bit of me has any carrying ability so I tend to spend the carries trying to get out the way of the people who can move above a snail’s pace. Happily for me although there were SEVEN carries during this event (if you include the atlas stone) they were not too long and they all used different equipment. Though I struggled it was a good struggle. All the previous Spartan obstacles I remembered from years ago were back, although much better quality versions of the ones I first encountered in 2011. There was a full selection of walls to climb over ranging from 4ft up to 8ft including inverted walls, the rope traverse, a weight hoist, barbed wire crawls and a rope climb. 
The main obstacles were saved for the area/event village section which was great for spectators as you could witness your friends and family complete the final few obstacles before the finish, for me it meant people could watch be do some penalty burpees. One of the new obstacles Spartan has brought in for this year is “The Twister” which I was really keen to try, it’s hard to explain but could possibly be described as a number of handles attached to a rotating horizontal pole which to try to traverse across like monkey bars. It’s hard work and I could feel my grip failing as I slowly worked my way across, luckily I managed to hit the bell at the end before my hands gave up. Having watched a lot of other people attempt this throughout the day I can see that my technique of going sideways was not as good as people who attempted to go across backwards (I’ll be trying that next time). Next up in the area was the spear throw and in earlier years I loved this, having hit 15 spear throws in 15 races, however that run had to end eventually and I had missed at my last 6 races. I stepped up, found the centre point of the spear and launched it at the target…then walked over to start my 30 burpees penalty. Missed seven in a row now. Damn! The balance walls were next, should be nice and easy but after thirty burpees I was a little shaky and my balance wasn’t great but manged to walk across carefully without falling. Next up was an obstacle called “Olympus” which was a traverse across a wall using various different handholds, my hands were tired from the earlier obstacles but thanks to advice from one of the marshals I chose the correct holds and made it across. Then it was a case of over the final walls, pull a stupid face while doing a jump over the fire before crossing the line and collecting my medal. Spartan Beast complete!

Spartan fire

I have to say that I’m quite torn with this review, I’ve spoken to people who have done the entire Spartan season and they loved it all apart from this race, it seems like this was just a blip which is a shame as it was the final weekend in the Spartan season and my only Spartan Race this year. Maybe the fact the Spartan brand is so large means we aren’t as forgiving as we would be for a smaller event and we judge them more harshly, maybe the fact the Spartan Race World Championships being on at the same time was a bit of a distraction, I’m not sure. I’m going to give Spartan the benefit of the doubt, and say the issues here were just a one off. Having had a night to sleep on it I realise that my expectations have been raised hugely over the past few years and I may have been unfair. Looking back over the 5 Beasts that I have previously done, this was without doubt the best one (I haven’t done the one in Edinburgh which is supposed to be incredible).
The important question is would I go back and should you?
If you’re new to OCR then definitely give a Spartan Race a try. The fact that there are three different distances means you can steadily move up through the difficulties as and when you feel ready, however if you have no arm muscles maybe do some training on carrying heavy awkward items around so you don’t suffer the way I did and if you don’t think you’ll be able to do all the obstacles get practising your burpees. If you’re going to fail something in front of crowds at least make sure your burpees look good.  I saw enough to convince me that I should jump back into Spartan Races next year. If this was their worst event of the year then I imagine the others would have been pretty epic so I will be signing up to gain a Trifecta and possibly even give one of their races abroad a try next year. Do they still shout Aroo in other countries? I might have to find out.

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