Of Mud and Barbed Wire

Posted on July 4, 2011


First, let me wish American readers a happy 4th of July! Don’t nobody blow any limbs off. Second, this is a bit of a long post. My usual propensity to ramble is only exasperated by my enthusiasm for the subject: The Spartan Race (3+ mile/12+ obstacle “sprint”).

July 3 was one helluva day. The Ottawa race was held at Camp Fortune, 20 km north of Ottawa. I’d never been there before, and I’m glad I hadn’t, in retrospect. Not sure how enthusiastic I’d have been for the race if I’d known the terrain; the entire course was laid out up and across ski hills and the woods between runs.

Let’s start at the beginning, though, since just getting there was a trial in and of itself.

Getting there
Dan, along with his wife and infant daughter, picked me up at my place at 10:30am. We hit Spartan Race participant traffic at the highway exit a good dozen kilometres out from Camp Fortune itself, around 11, and so we crawled along through Chelsea and into the outskirts of Camp Fortune. An ambulance flashed past us. An ominous sign, as Dan observed. (Turns out someone had broken a leg on the 11th or 12th obstacle — the A-frame obstacle. Someone else broke an ankle on the same obstacle later on.)

All the normal parking lots were packed full. RCMP and Quebec police were trying to reroute overflow traffic back to lots already full. The two-lane, winding road was jammed with cyclists, people trying to walk up to the venue, and vehicles — participants as well as park staff on ATVs and emergency/police vehicles. People walking were making better time than we were in a car.

Finally got parked and sorted out. We had to walk 5 or 6 km (uphill) just to arrive at the Spartan Race area. It was grueling. By the time we arrived, Dan and I were sweating and I’m not ashamed to say I was focusing on steadying my breathing. Dan’s poor wife, though — she was carrying their daughter and some of the baby gear up the whole way! Oh, and it was 37 C (almost 100 F) with the humidex. The sun was just beating down.

Dan and his daughter, post-race (and post-stream wash)

We got registered — receiving our “free” shirt, as well as our chip timer — and had all of 60 seconds to get to the start line for the 12:30pm heat after tying our timer chips to our shoes.

Oh, a quick note on “gear,” such as it was. I wore my Vibram FiveFingers and Patagonia Nine Trails shorts. (Those shorts rock, by the way. A wee bit heavy after getting mudified, but I had no issues with them breathing or weighing me down/getting in the way on any obstacle or while trail running.) I’d put SPF 45 full-spectrum sunscreen on before leaving the house (thank Jesus God-dancing Chrst). By the time we were 15 minutes into the race, I then applied Primal sunscreen: full-body mud, smearing it over my head, arms and shoulders especially.

The Race
So yeah. We stepped outside the registration office just as the announcer was calling 60 seconds til step-off. Then we were off!

. . . straight up a 600- or 700-metre ski hill. No one ran more than 100 or 150 metres; everyone trudged and panted up it. It was the perfect start, actually, since that muddy slide of a hill spread out the 300+ people in our heat, a necessity as we came next into the [narrow] trail running portion immediately after getting to the top of the hill — the first of four brutal climbs.

Don’t read the next few paragraphs if you don’t want to know about any of the obstacles. That said, if you’ve watched any of the venue videos on the website, you already know what kinds of things to expect, and each venue is different, matching obstacles to the terrain to make the most out of what the natural area offers.

One of the first obstacles, after a chest-high wall, was mud-crawling under barbed wire, then picking up a car tire and carrying it up a 100-150 metre steep, muddy (does that need to be said, really?) slope and back down, and then under more barbed wire. Up a steeper, longer hill. At the top, climb a mud-slicked rope attached to the ski lift at the top or do 30 burpees. (Rope.) Trail run. Up a rope net and over. Trail run. Grab a pail, fill it in a stream, carry it 300-400 metres and dump it. Trail run. Vertical wall. Huge-ass steep hill. (Amazing view from the top.) Down the hill and hurl a spear at a target dummy. Miss? Do 15 burpees. Dan and I both hit ours. Jog across a small stream. (Here we stopped for 3 min to wash our hands so we could get the stinging sweat and mud out of our eyes and cool our feet.) Then haul a cinder block up a pulley using a rope. Jog to a dirt circuit. Drag or carry (I did both) another cinder block around the circuit.

Jump down into a rib-high stream (god, that cold water felt good!) and swim four or five metres through a 3/4-full culvert/storm drain. Cross a good 7 or 8-metre metal pipe across a water pit. Most people butt-shimmied across, but Dan and I tight-rope-ran it. RAWR! We had long had our second wind by this point, which was good because the path we ran to the next obstacle was shin-high, sucking mud (and it was hot and stinking, to boot). (We bypassed the A-frame obstacle because it had been roped off due to aforementioned broken limbs.) The final obstacle before facing the gladiators armed with American Gladiator-style beating sticks was a huge box filled with ice chips (under barbed wire, of course).

Spartan Race finisher medal (see banner image above for the reverse side)

Once past the gladiators (we weren’t knocked down but didn’t knock them down, either) and a leap over a line of burning logs, we were across the finish. Leather corset- and skirt-clad women placed finisher medals over our heads and we got two pictures taken. (Can’t wait to see those!)

1 hour 1 minute was our time. Had we not stopped at the stream to wash off a bit (and had I not needed to stop for a few breathers on the last hill — sorry, Dan!), we’d have beaten 60 min, which was my own loose goal. Ah well.

We were fucking exhilarated. We couldn’t stop grinning and laughing, but all we wanted right then was to clean up a bit, drink a good 10 litres of water, sit down in the shade and have a burger and beer. We did all the above, washing off in a woods-shaded stream. The burger was crap and went down in three or four mouthfuls. The beer, as Dan noted, was quite simply the best beer ever. . . mostly by virtue of being glacial.

Some Reflections
I’m really really glad I did the race, and very glad that Dan joined me, with some cajoling from his wife. For me, this race was the culmination of my journey from out-of-shape fat fucking slob to a getting-in-shape and active. . . ummm. . . well, yeah. Slob. But active!

Some thoughts:

  1. “Adversity does not build character; it reveals it.” Suffice it to say, if you get a chance to do a Spartan Race (sprint) in your area, fucking do it. There were 14-year-olds and 60-year-olds out there. There was a guy with only one arm. There was another guy with a prosthetic foot. People, you have no excuses, especially my fellow Primals. Get out there. You’ll have an absolute blast.  The completion percent is 99%, with only those who injure themselves not finishing. Do it. You’ll thank me later.
  2. Hills can kill. Those damn hills were murder. I’ve watched most Spartan Race videos, and I’ve not seen any other venue with such steep and brutal hills as the Ottawa race venue (which is basically a ski hill). They killed me. Dan did pretty well on them, but I had to stop a few times to catch my wind. My advice: do some serious stair climbing, and I mean being able to do 20 flights of stairs two at a time without issue. Also, there’s no shame in needing to pause and catch your breath. Almost everyone plunked themselves down off to the side at some point.
  3. If you do it, do it with friends. Don’t worry about doing it for time — just go and experience it with your close friends and family. Next year, I’m going to try to get more folks out, though I’ve also made it a goal to finish next year’s in less than 40 minutes.
  4. Be smart about it. You’ll spend at least 35+ minutes out under the sun. Protect yourself as best you can. Wear a proper shirt (that means no cotton) and sunscreen. Dress light and in clothing that can take a beating and that you don’t mind getting battered.
  5. Make a day of it and time your arrival as though you’re in the first heat. We had serious parking issues and almost missed the start of our heat. Even though we didn’t, we stepped off right on the heels of a 7-km uphill hike! Don’t do that.
  6. A note about wearing Vibrams. They were great everywhere except on the downhills. My VFFs are M42, so about size 10 (?), and fit really well. Or so I thought. There’s a tiny bit of slack in the toe pockets, as there’s sure to be for everyone. However, once you add mud and water to the mix, your foot will move inside ’em, guaranteed. On the downhill slopes, my pinky toe, particularly, was being jammed up against the front of the toe pocket. Next year, I think I’ll do it full-on barefoot. It just wasn’t worth the minor slipping and sliding inside the shoe. No blisters or anything, but it caused some discomfort. That said, I had awesome grip and the ability to really “feel the trail” during the trail running portions. That was a huge plus!

Overall, it was a phenomenal experience. Thank you, Dan, for putting me on The Primal Blueprint path at the end of last August. I owe you more than I can ever repay! Thank you, Mark Sisson, for writing it in the first place and for keeping such a damn amazing and comprehensible blog going over at MDA.

Have a great week, all!

(Once pictures from the event appear, and once Dan fires me the ones he and his wife took, I’ll update this thread and call attention to it with a quick update post.)

edit: Just saw that someone has already done up an unofficial video for the Ottawa race: