If there’s one thing that a pair of underpaid, endorphin-addicted, former collegiate athletes can’t say no to, it’s free entry into a race that involves barbed wire, spear-throwing, and enough running to sort out the pretenders.
That’s why Topher and I found ourselves on our way to the Spartan Race near Burlington last weekend. They’d offered media free entry, and we somehow managed to convince ourselves that the six-hour round trip from Williamstown would be worth it.
We drove up the night prior to the race, and stopped for some delicious breakfast sandwiches downtown. There were some posters around town, and Topher couldn’t resist posing with one.
In truth, since leaving Williamstown the day before, I’d been watching previews and randomly shouting lines from The 300 (“Tonight, we dine in hell!” [More accurately, “tonight we dine on Annie’s macaroni and cheese,” but whatever.] “This. Is. Sparta!”). I kept waiting for Topher to draw the line, especially once I started assailing random passersby in Burlington, but surprisingly, he didn’t seem to mind. Maybe because I wasn’t wearing a FasterSkier hat.
I also had been trying to grow my best Spartan beard, but sadly, even after like three weeks of no shaving, I still ended up just looking mangy and malnourished.
Upon arriving at the Catamount Outdoor Center, where the race took place, I was unimpressed to see a sign with arrows pointing toward the “bed and breakfast.” Now, I admit that my only experience with ancient Greece during college was when I studied Latin (which Wikipedia actually tells me has nothing to do with Greece, only Rome—I guess they’re both just old), but I’m pretty sure that real Spartan warriors would have frowned upon things like bed and breakfasts. The impression that I got from The 300 is that if Spartans slept at all, they probably would have slept in a fearsome manner, like on top of the dead bodies of their enemies, which would not have entailed a bed.
So it was with some trepidation that I emerged from the car in the parking lot. But the race was actually awesome. It was a wave start, but each wave had about 75 people, so it was still pretty exciting. And they had us doing two laps of the course, which took a little over half an hour, so it did end up being about fitness.
This is how it went:
Some guy in a Spartan helmet says go. We all take off running through a field, make a sharp left after about 50 feet, and keep cruising along. Some guy in front of me goes “water cannon on the left!” and indeed, there’s a water cannon on the left. Then we have to jump over a small bonfire. Then the trail narrows and we’re running through some small hemlocks, branches bashing us in the face as we start hearing heavy thuds from somewhere up ahead. After one last branch hits me, I look up in a clearing to see a 6’5” nearly-naked dude with a huge padded stick, whacking everyone in sight as they try to go past him. I sneak by on the right just as he clobbers the guy in front of me.
We run down a small hill, and then there’s a stupid pond. I hate swimming. Hate swimming—like, I was that kid who wouldn’t go to swim lessons because he didn’t like putting his face in the water. And I’m still wearing my glasses (idiot—Spartans obviously didn’t need glasses—they all had 20/20 vision). But I jump in and feebly paddle my way across. Run along another 20 meters of muddy path, and then there’s another pond, this one with a short (three foot) underwater tunnel to swim through. Not cool, but I do it.
Keep running along a rocky path, jog along some sketchy logs, throw a spear at a target (miss, and you have to do 10 push-ups—I think I missed, but nobody seemed to be paying attention so I kept going). Jump over two four-foot walls, climb over two eight-foot walls. Worry about your knees. Run down a rocky creek bed into a bigger, wet, muddy creek bed. Crawl under a tree, through a foot of really thick mud. More running. Slither under three strands of barbed wire, and sincerely hope that the scratch you just got on your butt wasn’t very deep. Climb up a rope ladder. Repeat for a second lap, except this time you swallow lots of pond-water, which you hope sincerely is not giardia-infested. Bemoan your utter lack of upper body strength.
So yeah: challenging, painful, but not absurdly ridiculous. Actually, kind of fun. Topher and I were in the same heat, and sadly, he ended up taking the win, whereas I was defeated by two others in the sprint for second place (which, I will admit, seems to have occurred a good couple of minutes after Topher was finished). They apparently were taking the top ten finishers from each heat for a final round a few hours later, so Topher and I retreated to the car to nurse our wounds.
It was pretty sweet. We were both pretty much entirely covered in mud. I had looked at my watch mid-race to discover that it was entirely obscured with mud. We were both bleeding from our knees, which had taken pretty serious beatings from all the rocks on the course. We were both freezing. And all we had for food were these foul-looking Raw Revolution bars. Spirulina-cashew? It looked like a pesto bar.
Somehow, and very fortunately, they ended up being kind of delicious. I think I had four. And some pickle juice, more because we had eaten all of the delicious pickles in the jar than because I thought it would be particularly helpful to my cause. Gradually, our knees warmed up enough so that we could bend them again, although the mud congealing and cracking on our arms and legs made for a pretty uncomfortable afternoon.
Though supposedly 80 people had qualified for the finals, it seemed as if there were only about 35 or 40 who were stupid enough to want to try it again. However, there was legitimate stuff on the line for the winners—an authentic Spartan helmet for first place, and free entry into the Death Race for the top three in each gender.
We set off around the course one more time (the finals were only one lap). Topher was totally going to dominate until the 6’5” Spartan gave him a full-on Mark McGwire-style home run swing to the back of the head with the club, which practically knocked him out. Topher still pulled off second to the skinniest dude I’d ever seen. I think I cracked the top ten.
It’s very embarrassing to lose to Topher, but there are a number of reasons that I didn’t come through for the win.
1. I forgot to take my allergy medicine in the morning.
2. Substandard footwear.
3. Inferior upper-body strength, which is a direct result of Topher forcing me to work an unreasonable schedule this winter and inhibiting my training time.
4. I suck at swimming.
5. Topher got an extra boost forward when the 6’5” dude clubbed him on the back of the head.
After some serious pressure-washing to get a small proportion of the mud out of our clothes and off of our bodies, we traded our beer tickets to the guy in the food cart in exchange for free French fries (a superb swap, since we had to drive home). After determining that Topher had NOT locked the keys in the car (oh yeah, they were in my pocket), we set off towards home, complete with a seven-foot Spartan spear that was Topher’s reward for second place. He has yet to decide whether or not to enter the Death Race.
It took a 20-minute shower and two shampooings to get rid of the rest of the mud. 72 hours and a handful of ibuprofen later, I think our knees are starting to get better.
Nat Herz is an Alaska-based journalist who moonlights for FasterSkier as an occasional reporter and podcast host. He was FasterSkier's full-time reporter in 2010 and 2011.