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Grecian Burn

Adventure racing goes to new heights in inaugural Spartan Race


Published May 19, 2010 at 6:50 a.m.

I am a desk jockey. Despite the seemingly glamorous title of “newspaper reporter,” I might as well be in a typing pool for the amount of keyboard pecking I do in a day. Warrior woman I am not. But that doesn’t mean I’m not up for a ridiculous challenge when it presents itself. I might not have a hooker’s chance in heaven of winning, but if the contest involves throwing spears, jumping over fire and getting pummeled by a giant wearing leather underwear, well, then, heck, sign me up.

When I heard about the first-ever Spartan Race — ostensibly an adult obstacle course meant to test even the meatiest gym rats and gung-ho-est jarheads — I knew I had to go. Scaling a greased wall and scurrying under barbed wire on a three-mile course sounded like too much fun to miss. With that attitude, I found myself crawling through a river of mud at the Catamount Outdoor Family Center on Sunday on a quest to become a modern-day Spartan.

The race — the first in a nine-city series — is the brainchild of Joe Desena, a Wall Street trading veteran turned ultra sports impresario and adventure masochist. Desena and his crew at Pittsfield, Vt.-based adventure-racing outfit PEAK Races decided to put on the Spartan Race as a way for regular folks like me to feel a sense of danger and excitement without taking true risks. (Tell that to the guy who broke his leg during the race or the woman who had to get stitches afterward.) Desena also designed the race as an antidote to our tech-dependent, sedentary lives, where many of us can’t function without our iPhones within arm’s length.

The Greek gods must have been pleased with Desena’s ingenuity. The weather for the event could not have been better — mid-60s, slightly breezy, with enough sunshine to bake the exposed bodies of the nearly naked Spartans milling around the venue.

I was not the only person intrigued by the event’s quirky elements and gimmicky theme. The race sold out at 500 participants, all of whom paid $50 for the pleasure of getting the jelly kicked out of them by a course that mixed trail running with wacky obstacles. In addition to taking home the glory and respect that comes from winning one of Desena’s wackadoodle races, the top three men and women nabbed “authentic” Spartan swag in the form of helmets and spears. More importantly, they won automatic entry into Desena’s Death Race, billed as the world’s toughest race. Sadly, I didn’t win.

My heat took off at 11:30 a.m. That gave me time to schmooze with the aforementioned scantily clad Spartans hired to rouse the crowd, visit the blacksmithing tent and watch an archer shoot a flaming arrow into a one-story Wicker Man. It also gave me time to prepare for my own personal Battle of Thermopylae by scoping out the course, which consisted of a 1.6-mile loop filled with a dozen obstacles. Each participant had to run the course twice, assuming he or she didn’t expire during the first lap.

As the clock crept closer to 11:30, my nerves kicked in. See, I hate running. I did more than my fair share of it as a student athlete in college, and now I never run unless I’m being chased. In the past five years, I’ve gone running twice — once two weeks ago and once on Sunday.

With that in mind, I trotted off with the other 125 people in my heat toward almost certain death. The first obstacle involved jumping a fire that spanned the width of the access road down which we were running. No problem. I didn’t even notice the flames nipping at my ankles.

From the fire pit, we snaked through a stand of young pine trees. The crush of runners created a bottleneck that brought traffic to a standstill. We basically walked through the woods. The person in front of me was nice enough to hold the pine boughs so they didn’t thwack me in the face.

As we exited the forest path, we were greeted by a curly-topped Spartan wearing a red cape and leather briefs, wielding a padded jousting stick. His job was to whack us. I begged him not to hit me in the mouth. Instead, I got it in the gut.

From there, we followed the course into a pond that immediately became too deep to stand in. The cold water was a shock, and I thought I was going to drown. But I somehow made it to the other side.

The next challenge was another pond obstacle that involved swimming underwater beneath a wooden pallet. When I surfaced, I couldn’t see anything. My contact lenses had migrated to different parts of my eyeballs. This is why people get Lasik.

Finally, my contacts righted themselves as I followed the course through the trees toward a 4-foot wooden barrier. I got up and over that easily. Then came the hard part — jogging while sodden.

If I was remotely concerned about winning the race, this is when I would have started worrying. As I managed some approximation of running, a song called “Little Lungs” by An Horse popped into my head. I laughed at the cruel irony of my self-sabotaging subconscious.

After running about an eighth of a mile, I hit a pair of 8-foot-tall wooden walls. I had attempted to scale these the previous day while scouting the course and met some resistance from the obstacles. Because I am not 8 feet tall, getting over them would be the first true test of the race.

Using a sliver of a beam placed horizontally across the wall, I braced myself and hauled my body up and over. I used the same technique for the next wall. I was immediately pleased with myself, not just for completing the challenge but for having the forethought to wear gloves.

The spear throw was next. I made a valiant effort, but my spear (a modified garden hoe, really) didn’t come anywhere near the target. Ten push-ups for me, and for everyone else who missed the javelin lesson in high school gym class.

A short distance from the spear throw stood the greased incline wall. Empty gallons of cooking oil littered its underside. With a good running start, I was able to dash up the 10-foot-long wall, grab the rope, and pull myself up and over the lip. I watched a man beside me struggle and congratulated myself on being a badass. Think Xena, warrior p rincess.

A slog through the woods turned into a dicey stream traverse. Everything was covered in pudding-like mud, which only got deeper as the course progressed. Soon I was on my hands and knees crawling through a natural tunnel full of rough rocks and sharp branches. I am still finding that mud in places I’d rather not.

The worst part of the course was the long, gradual uphill run through mud as thick as wet cement. At this point, my movement could barely be called running. I imagine it was like watching a mime “run” — you can see him moving, but he isn’t going anywhere. King Leonidas would not have been impressed.

Finally, my nightmare ended as the next obstacle came into view. While I liked the challenge of shimmying under barbed wire, it served as yet another reminder of why I’m not in the military. As if I needed more than two — Iraq and Afghanistan.

Right after the barbed-wire crawl came a weird tarpaulin-tunnel belly wriggle that nearly caused me a panic attack. It was a claustrophobic’s nightmare — hot, dark and not at all to my liking.

I rounded the trail and encountered the last obstacle — a rope wall. Piece of cake. Now, just one more lap and I could call myself a Spartan. At least for one day.