By Pete Williams
ALDIE, Va., – Maybe it was the 130 yards crawling in manure-smelling mud under low-slung barbwire. Maybe it was tunneling under a mesh net while being drilled with paintballs by a sniper. Maybe it was hauling a five-gallon bucket of gravel up and down a hill, pulling a block of concrete 50 yards or navigating over and around countless logs and obstacles.
Maybe it was doing countless burpees, the penalty for being unable to complete an obstacle or being whacked with giant mallets by guys dressed as extras from the movie 300 protecting the finish line.
This is not you’re ordinary mud run or obstacle challenge.
No. This…is….Sparta – or at least The Spartan Race, perhaps the most creative of the many adventure mud runs that have popped up in recent years.
Conceived by the founders of the legendary Death Race with input from the Royal British Marines, The Spartan Race is less a run than a punishing death march through a roughly three-mile course featuring two-dozen obstacles and challenges that get progressively difficult.
Unlike other events in the category that set up the same course all over the country, The Spartan Race, which made its Florida debut in April in Miami, adapts to the site. For Saturday’s race, held among rolling horse farms and wineries in rural Loudoun County, the site was “Pev’s Paintball,” a sprawling complex of built-in obstacles.
That’s how athletes, who embarked in half-hour waves of roughly 300 (of course), found themselves being used as target practice. (The mesh nets provided some cover, at least from hits to the head). At another point competitors had to pick up a paintball gun and hit a small target 10 yards away. Penalty for missing? Thirty burpees.
Burpees are even more challenging when covered head to toe with mud and mentally and physically fried from completing 90 percent of an obstacle – such as a meandering balance beam – only to slip on muddy shoes or mud left from a previous competitor.
The Pev’s Paintball property has no significant bodies of water, so this edition of The Spartan Race lacked some of the formidable water obstacles featured in previous events and recorded on the many terrific videos on the Web site.
To compensate, race organizers added endless mazes of giant log obstacles, usually used as paintball positions. The lack of water challenges meant competitors could never wash off until after the race. Some men went shirtless, avoiding a heavy, bogged-down T-shirt, but subjecting themselves to more inevitable scrapes and abrasions beyond the legs.
There were greater casualties. Twice I saw ATVs equipped with litters hauling competitors off the course to the medical tent, well staffed with local rescue workers. Spartan Race officials reported later that only 81 percent of the field finished. (The Spartan Race waiver is extensive even by the lawyered-up standards of endurance sports boilerplate; you literally sign your life away.)
A buddy of mine who accompanied me to the race suffered a hand laceration early, a minor injury but one that significantly added to the degree of difficulty to his race, especially at the end.
Having thrown the javelin in high school, he had no problem sticking a spear throw into a bale of hay 10 yards away. (Thirty burpees for me).
The final gauntlet included getting over a six-foot wall, a seven-foot wall, and an eight-foot wall, all greased with mud from previous competitors. There even were volunteer hecklers assigned to berate competitors still gasping from 30 burpees. (Most missed the spear throw.)
One took a look at me and said, “Are you really wearing bike shorts to this race?”
“Those aren’t bike shorts,” her partner said. “Can you believe he’s actually wearing tri shorts? This isn’t some wimpy triathlon, pal.”
No kidding. I grabbed the top of the six-foot wall and pulled myself over, banging my ribs in the process. I caught my breath and flung myself over the seven-foot wall, struggling to maintain my grip on the muddy ledge.
The eight-foot wall looked imposing. A team of four guys racing together was hoisting each other over. This is allowed, though hardly encouraged. One guy noticed a small piece of wood nailed to the wall about a foot off the ground and took off running.
“Dude,” a heckler said. “That’s for shorter women.”
The guy pulled up shy of the wall and accepted help from his buddies. I turned down their offer, pausing to contemplate strategy. I figured I had enough left to get off one good attempt or succumb to 30 burpees.
Between my muddy clothes, lack of calves, and four-inch vertical leap, it was a long shot. Still, I got my right elbow over the muddy wall and made it over, banging the ribs again.
The last obstacle was an inverted V-shaped wall, which volunteers kept lubed with grease. At least this time ropes were provided. I made it over this obstacle relatively easy.
All that stood between the finish line were a pair of 300 wannabes wielding mallets. Unlike the HGH poster boys from The Spartan Race videos, these guys were a little doughy. Apparently the Loudoun County talent pool is a little thin.
Still, Betty White would have provided a formidable challenge at this point. I knew from watching the previous wave that the strategy was to bull rush the Spartans so they couldn’t swing their weapons.
I did just that and pushed by the first guy, took one last shot to the torso from No.2 and dashed to the finish line, where I received my medal and black T-shirt, which served as a nice face towel until I could hit the temporary-installed showers.
Not sure if non-finishers received shirts. Perhaps for an additional 30 burpees?
Touch-screen monitors were positioned nearby, providing real-time results. Unless I missed it, there was just water, sports drinks, and a race-sponsored energy drink available, no food. This, after all, is the Spartan Race. (There was, however, food available for purchase.)
I finished in 43:45, good for 40th among the 122 men who finished my wave. As I washed the mud and hideous pig farm smell off – cold water only for the Spartans – I thought of the 200 people who this weekend will embark on “The Death Race,” a marathon version of The Spartan Race in Vermont that has lasted three days in recent years. (No one is told the length or duration of that event.)
I won’t be competing in The Death Race.
That is Sparta.