Monday, August 11, 2014

Boston Spartan Sprint 2014

August 9, 2014

The Boston Spartan Sprint was my first Obstacle Course Race (OCR).  The past few years had been tough on me and my family, and so seven weeks before the event I signed up as a way to motivate myself to try to get back in shape. Given the condition I was in, seven weeks wasn’t long enough to prepare for a Spartan race, but at least I could get started. I was confident I would be able to finish, and this race would serve as a means to learn what I needed to work on to better prepare for the next one.

As an additional motivator, I held a fundraiser, hoping to raise $1,000 for the Oral Cancer Foundation.  My wife had gone through surgery, and then grueling radiation and chemotherapy treatments for oral cancer in 2011-2012.  If she could pull through that, I could do an OCR.  I announced on social media that I would cut my hair into a mohawk for the race if I reached my fundraising goal.  By the day of the race, I had raised $905, and even though I had fallen short, I cut my hair anyway to thank those who contributed.
My racing mohawk
 A couple of friends encouraged me to join the New England Spahtens, a large, friendly, inclusive Obstacle Course Racing team, which proved invaluable in learning more about the races, getting tips on gear, etc, and was a great source of camaraderie leading up to and during the race.  

I arrived at Seabrook Greyhound Park a little over an hour before my heat time at 11:30am. Fortunately parking was well organized, and I was directed into the parking lot with little trouble. There were porta-potties set up close to the shuttle buses, which I thought was a good idea. There were several buses ready to go, and although there was a continuous stream of people arriving at the parking lot, there was essentially no waiting at the buses and I was on board and on our way within minutes.

Amesbury Sports Park was a zoo. Tents and people everywhere, but despite the chaos, it appeared well-organized, with plenty of signage. I had read multiple times on the Spartan website to print out my waivers and sign them ahead of time, as well as learn my bib number (2292).  Yet the race organizers were aware that a lot of people wouldn’t do this, so there was a tent for waivers and another to get bib numbers, both of which had long lines. I breezed right past them to the registration tent, where I picked up my registration packet without a wait and was into the festival area. Kudos to the organizers for handling this well.  

I was looking for the NE Spahtens team tent, and so I wandered aimlessly for a while in a daze and couldn’t find it. It turned out the tent was near the exit from the park, so I gone past it and was looking everywhere but where it was. Fortunately I saw a team member in Spahten swag named Glen who brought me over to the tent. I met a handful of people too quickly to really take it all in, and before I knew it, it was time to head up to the Start Line for the team photo.  

We had to climb a 6’ wall to get to the Start Line, which whetted our appetites for the start. I found myself surrounded by teammates who I didn’t know since I was a newbie, and I was too keyed up and confused to start introducing myself. After brief pep talk from the MC, we were off up the hill.

Mile 0-1
In the midst of the dense crowd, I crossed the starting line at a walk, but the crowd thinned out enough that I was able to jog to the crest of the hill.  And then we were in the mud. The first part was a mud pit maybe calf or knee deep that got us all dirty right off the bat.  

A quick jog/hike through the wood brought us to a large field, and the first obstacles. Rolling Mud was the first, which consisted of several thigh to waist deep muddy water pits, the last one crossed by logs.  Soon after that was Over-Under-Through, which was a set of three walls that, predictably, you had to go over, then under, then through.
"Thru" wall. Photo from

This was followed by a long jog generally downhill along a trail that led to a water station at the 1-mile marker. Right after the water station was the 6’ / 10’ walls, and you could either go over the 6’ wall individually, or go over the 10’ wall as a team. After helping a few people over each wall, I went over the 6’ wall by myself.
Mile 1-2
Next was a run into a field where you were given two options--a 250-yard jog with a hill, or a flat 200-yard jog plus 15 burpees. Most people, including me, chose the hill. Back into the woods following a winding trail, we ended up faced with a large mud pit. Most of us skirted the edge, but then a big guy behind me decided to go right through the middle and immediately sank into the mud up to his thighs and became stuck. I was closest to him, and tried to give him a hand, but naturally I sank in too, and it took several of us to yank him out. Soon after, another guy nearby suddenly yelped, “Hey, what’s with the bees?” and started slapping at himself. Almost instantly a bee landed on my chin and stung me. Great.  

Next was an Inverted Wall. I helped several people over while contemplating if I would be able to manage it myself. But when I tried it, it was a lot easier than I expected and I did it just fine.

More trail running (or mostly walking in my case), and we reached the Tractor Pull / Log Carry. You could either carry some logs as a team, or individually drag a lump of concrete by a chain for a distance across muddy ground. I chose the chain, and this obstacle wasn’t too bad.

Tire Drag.  Photo from

More trailing running and then there was the Tire Drag. For this you had to pull a large tire towards you with a rope, and then drag it back with your hands to the starting place. There were many tires available for this; I foolishly chose a tire that was mired in mud. I succeeded, but it took time and I was exhausted. I had to rest a long while for my heart rate to go down enough for me to continue.

More trail running up and down steep hills in the woods, and then was the Sandbag Carry. I’m not positive but I heard the sandbags were ~40lbs for men, and ~20lbs for women. We had to carry the sandbag down a hill and then back up to the starting point. After that was the 2nd mile marker and a water station.
Mile 2-3
Following this was a lot more trail running, and then the Monkey Bars. Not ordinary monkey bars, however, as these bars were of varying heights. I got to maybe the 4th bar (of about 20) before I slipped and fell.  Then I had to do the penalty 30 burpees. I was already spent at this point, so they weren’t easy.

Following this was more trail running, up and down some truly heinous hills, and my already slow pace slowed to a crawl. At this point in the race I noticed several people were stopping to rest, and one man was face down on the ground. He was already being attended to when I arrived, and he was conscious and lucid, but had a muscle spasms that forced him to stop. A medical team was on the way. I didn’t pass a single person who was resting without hearing people ask them if they were all right or needed help.

At the top of the hill was the next mile marker and water station, and we were back at the hill where the race began. 
Mile 3-4
At the crest of the hill was the Rope Swing. You had to swing across a gap on a knotted rope above muddy water. I was worried about this one, but when I finally did it, it was a lot easier than I expected. On down the hill.

At the bottom of the hill, and back on the field turf and in front of the crowd, was the Hercules Hoist. A heavy sandbag (I later heard it was ~110lbs for the men, ~70 lbs for the women) attached to a rope that went over a pulley. You had to hoist the sandbag to the top, maybe 25 feet in the air. I got it maybe ⅓ of the way up before my arms and my grip gave out, and got a small rope burn on my fingers as it slid back down. My second failed obstacle, this meant 30 more burpees for me.

Bucket Carry.  Photo from

Next was the Bucket Carry. We had to fill a large bucket (no handle) with stones, then carry it at waist height halfway up the hill and back down again. You were not allowed to carry it on your shoulder or your head, but despite the volunteers constantly telling people not to do that, some people did anyway, intentionally or not. This was brutal, and people were frequently stopping to rest. I stopped three times--twice on the way up, once on the way down, but each time I rested the bucket on my thigh rather than let it touch the ground (which was legal to do--I just didn’t want to do it)

Then the Flyover. We had to climb up a tall wood ladder made of 2"x6"s, then walk across more 2"x6"s (with gaps, which was scary to people who are afraid of heights), then back down another ladder. I was a little shaky at this point due to exhaustion, so I took it slow and steady.  

Back up the hill, and then a crawl under barbed wire over rough ground. Then a Slip Wall, which is a steep wall to climb with a rope you can use to help pull yourself up. This ended up being easier than I expected.  

Climbed up the rest of the hill and towards a field filled with obstacles, and at the front was the 4-mile marker water station.
Mile 4-4.8
After the water station was a 7’ / 15’ wall. I helped a guy over the 7’ wall, then he came back around and helped me over. Then onto the Rope Climb. I knew that this one was going to be tough, and it was the first obstacle I was convinced I was likely to fail. You had to climb a vertical rope and hit a bell at the top. As I approached, I heard people complaining that the ropes had no knots, and also that the ropes appeared thinner than usual. At the bottom of the ropes was muddy water that was about mid-chest height. I sat on the edge for a while, watching other people attempt the climb while I psyched myself up. I did notice that very few people were using any real technique--most of the guys succeeding used only their arms, and flailed their legs around wildly. One kid maybe 20 years my junior charged in, and then immediately froze in the water, his muscles cramping up, and he needed help getting out.

Rope climb.  Photo from

Finally I bit the bullet and went in, and grabbed the rope. The bottom was like quicksand, the longer I stood on the bottom, the more I sank. I tried going up the rope, locking it with my foot using the “scoop and stomp” method and then pulling myself a little higher on the rope. I managed that twice, but on the third time I couldn’t get hold of the rope because I couldn’t see it in the muddy water, and I fell off. I swam to the far side of the water pit (much easier than trying to walk it), clambered out and did my 30 penalty burpees.

Next up was the Horizontal Wall Traverse. This one looked hard.  It consisted of a climbing wall with small 2"x4"s nailed to it to serve as hand/foot holds. I found it hard enough to even get onto the thing.  I got barely 1/4 of the way through when I slipped and fell. (all the holds were muddy & slippery). I was angry at failing this one. 30 more burpees.

Traverse Wall.  Photo from

Then the dreaded Spear Throw. Before the race, a lot of people call this one the “automatic 30 burpees” obstacle. You have to throw a javelin at hay bales. You only have one attempt.  If your spear hits and sticks, you  pass. If you miss or the spear falls out, you fail and 30 burpees. I hit the target, but it didn't stick. 30 more burpees. I was up to 150 burpees at this point, and my form wasn’t exactly good by now.

However, I had seen what the rest of the course looked like at this point, so I actually felt like I could relax somewhat the rest of the way. The next obstacle was a long Barbed Wire Crawl. I thought it was maybe 60 yards long, but some people said it was more than 80. Either way, it was long.  It was also crowded under the wire, and most people rolled their way through it. There were some log jams, and people were laughing ruefully about the mud and the sharp rocks. Some were complaining about the rocks as well. At the I didn’t think much of their whining, but then I got my comeuppance when I rolled over and a large stone jammed me right in the pubic bone. Ouch. I took out my anger by tossing the rock away so no one else would roll onto it.

After the interminable barbed wire was a Dunk Wall. It was a muddy water pit with a wall over the top, so you had to dunk your head under the wall to get past it. A lot of people didn’t like that idea and were hesitating, but I just dunked and went through. On the other side I saw a photographer taking pictures, so I tried to look tough and manfully charged out of the water, and then promptly slipped and splashed around instead.

Back to the hill above the festival area, and the Finish was in sight. At the top of the hill was the Fire Jump, which is mainly a photo op as you leap over some burning logs while an automatic camera snaps pictures. Then a jog down the hill to the Finish Line at the bottom.
Showing off my medal
At the finish line were two volunteers handing out medals, followed by more volunteers handing out fresh bananas.  At that point the racers left the finish area and there were more volunteers handing out Cliff bars and water. After eating my post-race loot, it was time to find the washing area to get rid of all the mud.

I felt accomplished making it to the finish line, but not as much as I thought I would before the race.  Perhaps I was just too spent to feel much more than relief. There wasn’t any big “moment of truth” or anything. For most of the race I guess I was just in the zone and therefore didn’t think to philosophize about my predicament or give myself any pep talks to keep me going. I was angry at failing some of the obstacles, and that has just made me wish to train more to do better next time. And since training to get back in shape was the point of this whole enterprise, I definitely succeeded in getting that started. From now on, I will try to improve my performance.

After the race I got back onto the shuttle bus and looked at my phone, and I saw that I had received an email informing me that barely an hour before my heat started, I got another donation that put my fundraiser over the top to $1,005. I had accomplished both my goals, my first OCR and my fundraiser. Aroo!

Other races in this series


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