“Did the waiver really say I could die?”
“Holy crap, these people all look incredibly fit.”
“I have to climb a wall to get to the starting line?”
“What did I get myself into?”
These thoughts and more rattled through my mind as I stand in a crowd of hyped-up mud-run athletes, their rapt attention on the zealous stump-mounted race host/hype man hybrid who’s every prompting brings a raucous roar of “I AM A SPARTAN!” I’m Alex Huth, I’m not a finely-tuned athlete, and I’m standing next to my buddy Will at the beginning of our very first obstacle course run, the Austin Spartan Race Sprint in Burnet, Texas, and we have no idea what we’re doing.
This all started when a long-time friend of mine, Matt Willis, invited me to join him. As an Elite competitor (the highest level of competition in Spartan Race) I couldn’t run with him, but he assured me that my limited fitness would be fine and it would be a blast. I was skeptical, to say the least. I had always tried to stay pretty active, with football in high school and rugby in college, but after a major shoulder injury in 2011 I never really got back into it. I unenthusiastically jogged once in a while and lifted some weights when I had access, but nothing significant until January of 2016. I started doing Crossfit at a gym near my apartment and was pretty focused on it for the past three months. Matt assured me that at this level of fitness I’d be ok.
My skepticism remained. I did agree to do it, coaxed by the promise of free beer, and immediately roped in my friend Will. Will is another recent Couch-to-Activity convert, having been persuaded to train for a triathlon beginning in February. Suffice to say that we had some kind of fitness base, but for two friends whose most recent other serious commitment was a Dungeons and Dragons game, this was going to be interesting.
Spartan Race Austin
The shot fires and we’re off! My fragile preconceived notions immediately begin collapsing. I’m not sure why I thought this, but I believed that the run was going to be on paved or roughed out trails and that the real challenge was the obstacles. That was incorrect. The first area is a rocky outcropping sloping at a precipitous angle that you run along like a mountain goat. At this point, the “trail” consists of white flags guiding you along pretty aggressive, hilly terrain. We’re picking our way along the rocks when they transition into a tight, winding, and delightfully wildflower-lined deer trail that takes you right up to the first obstacle, a set of three jumping walls (I will not be using the technical terms for these things because I don’t know them). The first wall is a five-foot flat wall. Easy peasy. If you’ve ever jumped a fence and/or can do one real triceps dip, it’s fine. Second is one with a gap underneath – and so the mud begins! Still easy, just roll underneath. Last one has a hole in the center and you can Jackie Chan double-foot kick through it for bonus cool points with some extra effort or just kind of climb through it. I chose the middle ground of trying to jump kick and getting caught up and then untangling myself. Net loss of cool points, I think.
The next were large suspended beams to go over, like giant hurdles. They required a little more effort to go over because they had nothing to catch yourself on, but not too bad. Definite risk of impacting the jimmies, though. Around the bend appeared a large wooden A-frame made out of two-by-sixes, like a giant ladder. Not exceptionally draining, but as high as it is, it can give you the nerves. This is the first obstacle where you really get the feeling that there is actual, tangible danger on an obstacle. I’m sure the experienced people scale it and forget it, but to me it was intimidating for that alone.
Finally, we reached the first fail-able item, the monkey bars. Literally just large monkey bars at varying heights for extra difficulty. Failure to complete it in one attempt means 30 burpees, which are legitimately terrible. People with short arms are at a major disadvantage and this is first painful reminder that grip strength is essential to OCR. While Will and I both cleared this event, we would learn that all too well later on.
There’s a cargo net climb (a girl freaked out at the very top and climbed down, failing the climb, which is crazy because she was at the top, so why not crest it and climb down because that was your plan anyways; whatever. Two more five-foot walls to hurdle, and onto the infamous barbed wire crawl! In the (probably only one) photos I’ve seen, it was muddier, but this was pretty dry and rocky for most of it. Rather than struggle along army crawling, I just rolled like an idiot on my side. I must have looked dumb, but it worked rather well and seemed efficient. Once the height raised a little bit, we just moved to more of a bear crawl motion and went right through it.
The next fail-able event was also the first failed event – the Z Wall. It’s like rock climbing sideways, but the holds are crappy two by four chunks bolted to the wall, everything is at weird angles, you have to turn two 90-degree corners, and it’s all covered in mud. After two steps and a fall, it was burpee time for us. After exhausting ourselves and cursing the inventor of that wall, we ran along to a large A-frame wall with a solid 5-foot plank at the bottom and a ladder above it. It is very annoying because you need to jump and pull yourself up with pretty insufficient footholds. From there, we jogged on over to the spear throw. This event looks pretty reasonable – throw a spear into a bale of hay – but you only get one shot or its thirty burpees. Having never taken Spear Throwing 101, I chunked that piece of wood and hit it broadside, started up the burpees while cursing the lack of spear training in modern academic settings.
I would just like to interject at this point that, rankings-wise, we aren’t doing so hot. I’m pretty confident everyone we’re jog/walk/crying with is from the heat behind us, maybe two. I recognize none of my starting cohort. We’re achy and sore and at the pace where you’re really questioning if your jog is actually any faster than your walk but just more tiring. Our pace could possibly be described as glacial. It’s still fun though and when you’re with a buddy these things tend to be more fun.
The next event sucks and is not fun. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise, things like, “Oh man, the pipes are a blast every time!” No, they aren’t Matthew. The pipes are the pinnacle of human versus two-foot PVC tube competition. The valiant challengers shimmy onto their bellies and attempt to pathetically inchworm along this tube that feels about three miles long but is more like 40 feet. There are people in front of you, people behind you, you can’t stop to rest, your shoulders ache, you keep trying to find new ways to shimmy but through lots of twisting and spinning you sadly realize that just elbows and toes is really the only way it works. If you are a small, petite person, you can get up on your knees and just fly through it. If you are a large male (me), it is uncomfortable and just not fun. Having been through way too many MRIs, I was comfortable with the small tube type enclosure, and there really was zero fear of being trapped or anything like that. If you are not happy with tight spaces, just simply don’t want to do it, or are a larger competitor, there are large tubes that you can go through, but the price of admission is 15 burpees.
We then advanced to an obstacle I actually enjoyed the plate drag. In a very inelegant fashion, you sit down and pull a weighted plate to you with a rope, then hop up and drag it back. My only real strength is moving heavy things, so this was kind of fun and easy. We ran over to the next move-heavy-things event, the tire flip. After discovering the hard way that the tires at the far end are twice the weight the tires in the middle, I did my requisite six flips and moved on. Will got in trouble for unknowingly flipping girls’ tires, and went and did his real ones after. All good things must come to an end and so must non-bodyweight obstacles. We had arrived at “The Rig”, a contraption where you have to hand-over-hand up an upward-sloping pipe, swing across two rings, a softball suspended from a rope, a knot in a rope, two more rings, and hit a bell. My lack of grip strength reared its ugly head and I lost it about halfway across. Will did a bit better than me but lost it on the knot. We sullenly did burpees together while glaring at the contraption.
Somewhere before this, they make you run through a knee-high creek for a hundred yards and throughout the trail there are pits of water to wade through. We’re already pretty wet and muddy and have about a pound and a half of tiny river stones in our shoes. And now we’re faced with a large series of deep mud pits with hills in between them. At least they’re quite cooling as you tumble down the mud hills. Another wall climb, this one about 8 feet tall, but angled toward you, giving a very Cliffhanger vibe. It had footholds, but definitely required upper body strength to make it happen. We ran into a memory challenge, and I guess it didn’t apply to us, but apparently you had to memorize a series of numbers at the beginning and repeat it back to the staff or owe burpees. From here, you can start to hear the music of the festival area and know you’re on the home stretch. They are spaced pretty close and come at you rapid-fire.
The first of the final group of events is the bucket carry. You load up a five-gallon bucket with gravel and carry it around a very long track. I didn’t have that much trouble with it, but it seemed like those who did had trouble getting a good grip on it. The next is the slip wall, a smooth wall set at a 45-degree angle with a rope on it. You have to carefully set your feet and use your upper body to pull you upwards while staying flat and secure on your feet. The next was the dreaded rope climb. I am ashamed to admit that my four minutes of YouTube watching a “How to Climb a Rope” video did not adequately prepare me to climb, but did successfully teach Will (now the proud owner of a sweet photo of him at the top of the rope hitting the bell). I did my burpees as quickly as the shame allowed while Will gloated above me. You then climb up a wooden ladder type frame, over the entrance of the festival, cross a bridge made of wide-set board, and move to the Herc Hoist. This is in my wheel house and consists of using a pulley to hoist a really, really heavy bag high in the air. You had the option to do it as a team twice or individually. Still simmering in the bitterness of my defeat at the rope climb, I knocked out that pull pretty well on my own. Will, on the sweet, sweet other hand, couldn’t move the bag.
Time slowed. Sound diminished. Sweat beaded heavily on the forehead. An important decision was to be made. Do I, a good friend and cohort member help a friend in need? Or do I, a fellow competitor who was just bested, condemn him to the ultimate fate – thirty burpees! I was heady with power, fantasizing about the score being settled, taking my victory lap of gloating burpee-observation – but I couldn’t do it. I took the high road and because I am a both nice the author of this piece, Will was eternally gratefully and almost obsequious in lavishing praise on the strength of both my arm and character. You’re welcome again, William. We finished it up together and sprinted the final stretch.
Through some mud pits, down underneath a wall the forces you to go underwater briefly, and made sure to synchronize our leap over the fire for peak awesomeness and great Instagram photos. We’re dripping mud, exhausted, sore, banged up, and, remarkably, not in last place (166th and 167th of 176, thank you very much). In the brief moment when we crossed that line, all of our other chaotic thoughts were quelled, and we realized that we made it, together, and had a blast doing it. It was challenging, different, engaging, and fun in a way few events ever manage to achieve. We loved it.
I’m Alex Huth, I’m not a finely-tuned athlete, and I’m standing next to my buddy Will at the end of our very first obstacle course run, the Austin Spartan Race Sprint in Burnet, Texas, and we are unrepentantly hooked on Obstacle Course Racing.
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