July 24, 2015
On Saturday, July 18 I ran SURVIVED my first OCR (obstacle course race), the Toronto Sprint Spartan Race. Like the Colour Run last summer, this was a very new experience which I’m glad to write about it in a “Race Report.” I tried getting as much of this down as possible right after the race to preserve the detail for this report, but I apologize if some details are out of order. So, put your feet up, maybe have a mud bath and enjoy this rather lengthy post.
I used to swear I was never going to do a “mud” run. Then I won a free entry to this race when Nicole posted a contest on her blog. I’m very thankful for the free entry which was worth over $110! And it was an interesting new experience!
It would be an understatement to say I was apprehensive about this race. This certainly isn’t a goal race for me, so getting injured during this would be very unfortunate. And the marketing for this race is rather cruel against typical road races saying things like “marathons are boring” and such.
I expected whatever I wore could be ruined from this mud run. So, I dug out some retired gear: Shoes I wore out last fall, shorts that were in a bag to go to Goodwill soon, and an over-sized poorly fitting shirt I haven’t worn in a while. I was careful not to wear a race shirt so that I didn’t look like a seasoned marathoner. Would be embarrassing for a seasoned marathoner to flub at my first Obstacle Course Race.
July 18 however happened to be one of the hottest day in years. I was scheduled for the 1:30pm heat, and I strongly suspected that the 35ºC+ humidex would be uncomfortable at that time of day. Being a rather experienced athlete, I do know to pre-hydrate and pre-salt before humid runs. As you’ll read later, some didn’t.
The event is held at the Brimacombe Ski Resort about an hour east of Toronto. Being hosted at a ski hill I expected that the 5k+ would be hilly. I quite underestimated it!! It didn’t fully occur to me that it was being hosted at the ski hill because the course would go up and down the ski hill at least 6 times!!
I traveled to the race with my mother and aunt. They wanted to come along. They’re retired seniors so the terrain, even around the spectator and parking area was hard for them to walk on. But, I’m especially thankful to my mom for taking some great photos during the race.
Check-in was pretty painless. They scanned my “Event Pass” and checked my photo ID. I was handed a timing chip and a numbered headband. I brought a headband to use, but was happy to use the provided one. It was like the race bib! No one checked that you had the band when starting or finishing the race though and many people didn’t wear the headband.
The Event Pass was also a rather lengthy waiver, which I now fully appreciate after having done this race. I rather like this idea of having to check in on race day with your idea because it could help prevent “bandits” and means only those who have signed a waiver should be on course. But, because they don’t enforce wearing the headband, anyone who entered as a spectator could just join a heat and go.
I then went to the start area a little before my scheduled heat at 2pm. I had a few extra minutes so I explored the “warm-up” area. It was interesting to see some of the obstacles and try them. The warm-up area was a nice touch because some of these obstacles I’ve never tried or even seen before. I tried the SPEAR THROW and it took some getting used to the amount of force required to make it stick to the hay bale. Then I tried some odd-looking horizontal climbing wall which I later learned is called the TRAVERSE WALL. There was also a balance exercise that was like a balance beam, but the beam was a slack seatbelt.
Shortly after there was the call to the start. There was an announcer in a full Spartan costume. His voice reminded me of a voice I often hear at other races like ATB.
Getting Down and Dirty
After a few pleasantries we were off. I stayed in the back of the corral. Some people took of running up the hill, but a few steps in I joined those walking up the hill. It’s like the march of death during a marathon, but it was right at the start.
It was just a grueling hike up the hill. Not a run, a hike. Going up the hill I overheard many people already considering quitting because of the heat and how they were having trouble breathing. A couple people collapsed on the walk up, and I saw at least one person throw up. That’s pretty intense for less than 5 minutes into the “hike.”
Got to the top of the hill and hit the first obstacle and had to CRAWL under a net. I read a couple of article on Runnersworld.com about training for an OCR, and one of them mentioned a “bear crawl.” I practiced that a few times and that form came in handy at that point for keeping my knees from getting too beat up.
After that down the hill through some “glades.” It was nice to have some shade going down because it was a little cooler. Then back up again! On the way up there was another net to crawl under and then climb over a little log. Then go through a wall with a slit in the middle. I think this is the OVER UNDER THROUGH obstacle referred to in the Official Rules. I’ll try to refer to the official names for the rest of the report.
At the top of the hill was a WALL, probably 7 feet high. There were some ninja-like people who ran at the wall and vaulted over it like it was two feet tall. I couldn’t climb it alone. I helped a lady over it, then a guy in a blue shirt helped me! I suppose helping others over the walls is part of the experience and working together. However, after getting to the top of the wall, I had to figure out how to jump down safely. After that was another THROUGH wall.
At the top there was a BIG CARGO CLIMB obstacle. This thing scared me. It was about 15 feet high and angled at 45 degrees. It was not a very tight net, but after looking at it for a while I noticed that the net had less flexibility near the edges where it attached to the frame. I’m kinda afraid of heights, so looking through and down pretty scary. I was very proud of myself for climbing over and down on the other side.
On a side note, being at the top of this made me think about how dangerous this is and why that waiver was so important. Every year I have to go through safety re-certification at work. One module is “ladder safety” stressing always having 3 points of contact. And for going to any height without a handrail we are required to wear fall-arresters and harnesses. This training and safety gear is really for liability. At the top of the BIG CARGO CLIMB obstacle I realized that if someone were to pass out at any point during this obstacle, they could fall off and take a bunch of people with them, or fall off the side for a potentially fatal 15-foot-or-so fall. I could see any Insurance Company cringe at the sight of these obstacles, and every personal injury lawyer salivate.
After the BIG CARGO CLIMB was a water station. I wasn’t thirsty yet, but I drank two cups knowing that more and more time in the sun would cost me a lot of water.
Then back down the hill. There are a few places on the course where they turned on the “hoses” which are probably used for snow-making in the winter. They were a mixed blessing. On one hand, the cooling mist of the hoses is very pleasant. On the other hand, these hoses have been spraying for hours and the ground is a very soft, sticky mud. The announcer at the start of the race warned us that the course had shoe-sucking mud. He wasn’t kidding. Even where it used to be grass, the course was now so soft that you could get up to your ankle in the mud. I suppose that’s part of the race design.
At the bottom of the hill back near the start area was a ROPE CLIMB. Surprisingly had strength to climb a bit. To free my hands to get higher, I needed to grasp the rope with my feet. But, my mud-covered shoes were giving me no traction on the rope. So, I gave up trying to climb. Failing any obstacle means you are supposed to do 30 penalty burpees. I did the whole set at this obstacle. Later in the race volunteers were saying “this is your race” and I took that to mean you don’t have to do all 30 if you don’t want to. And, if I did 30 for each obstacle I failed I probably would have passed out.
After the rope climb it was a hike back up the hill. Half-way up the hill there was a hay bale to climb over. Then back down the hill again. I tried jogging down the hill but that was also pretty hard on the legs.
At the bottom of the hill is an obstacle that the official rules call a HERCULES HOIST. There’s a propane tank hanging from a pulley about 20 feet in the air. You have to pull down on the rope to bring the weight all the way up, then safely all the way down. I don’t know how heavy the weight was, but it felt pretty damn heavy. I certainly hope those propane tanks weren’t ACTUALLY full or propane. I tried just pulling the rope with my arms but couldn’t get enough power with my lats. But, I got traction by doing a kind of squat then resetting my hands. I was pretty proud of myself for being able to lift the weight. Bringing it back down slowly I got a bit of rope burn on my hands. Oops.
On a side note, there were two sets of weights for this obstacle. There was a “ladies” weight and men. Many obstacles had “lady” versions.
After the Hercules hoist, back up the hill again. On my left you could see the Junior Spartan for little kids. They seemed to be having fun on a kids version of the course. Most seemed really good at climbing the rope. I suppose little kids have better power-to-weight ratios than adults.
At the top of the hill was the TRAVERSE WALL. This is rather hard to describe. It’s essentially a winding horizontal climbing wall with a few hand and footholds. But this had a “back-yard” kind of quality to it. The holds were just pieces of 2×4 screwed to the plywood. I had a hard time at first, but then watched a few people do it and mimicked their footwork technique about traversing the wall. I got to the end and happily rang the bell to complete the obstacle.
Next was the MONKEY BARS. I was dreading this obstacle. I can barely do a pull-up at the gym, so the thought of going a whole distance didn’t seem very possible. To my surprise, I was able to make it a few rungs before losing my grip. I think I may have had enough strength, but I didn’t have the right technique. More burpees. At least I tried it.
After that Monkey Bars was a BALANCE BEAM. I had a lot of trouble with it in the warm-up area, and still really struggled in the real obstacle. I just couldn’t seem to get across! The first part was a piece of wood on its side and I couldn’t for the life of me balance properly on the 1″ wide board. Eventually I got to half-way, and then it was that slack seatbelt thing that was even harder. I’ve recently learned that this seatbelt thing is called a “slackline.” It took a while but I kinda got it. In the meantime a lot of people passed me.
Then another VERTICAL WALL. I kinda “cheated” and used a “kicker” to get myself over it.
After that was a jog downhill through mud. This time A LOT of mud. I think this is the first time they trucked in some mud and watered it down. It really was shoe-sucking mud and I tried to walk in a way such that the mud didn’t claim my shoes. By the end of that my shoes were covered in mud.
Somewhere at this point some people started passing me really fast. I think they must have been the speedy ones from the wave (or two) behind me. You need Batman or Ninja-like skill do do this course quickly.
I think the next area was two obstacles together, the SPEAR THROW and INVERTED WALL:
The SPEAR THROW wasn’t really a spear or javelin. I think it’s actually a garden-tool for weeding like one I have at home. Anyways, when it was my turn I threw threw with good force, but missed the target completely about two feet to the right. It would have suck if I hit it! Only one try though. *sigh* burpees.
Then the INVERTED WALL. it was like the other walls so far, but this time it was slanted towards you about 30 degrees. There were some foot holds. It was hard to get over, but I was proud that I did. However, I felt like pulled something in my left shoulder getting over it.
After that was a PARALLEL BARS. I didn’t have enough upper body strength to get across properly. More burpees. I think I was only doing about 10 per failure at this point.
After that there was a CRAWL under net through mud. The bear crawl didn’t work this time; it was low net and essentially my arms up to my elbows and everything below my knees were soaked in mud. It was very dirty. Guy beside me had water belt and it got stuck in net a lot.
The mud itself was pretty gross. Some places on the course you can tell that they just really watered down the grass and that’s why it was muddy. In other places they obviously brought dirt in. But this wasn’t gardening topsoil or play sand: It smelled like farmland manure! And it was warm. GROSS!
I was kinda reeling from having my arms encased in this hot, stinky mud, and was thinking of how to scratch my nose without smearing mud all over my face.
With muddy hands, I headed to the SAND BAG CLIMB ‘obstacle.’ Men pick up a 40 pound sandbag and carry halfway up a hill and then back down through a glades (The ladies sandbank was lighter). To me, it was like carrying some heavy groceries like a case of bottled water. Vanessa Runs mentioned this obstacle in a post about an OCR she did. She recommended carrying it on hip like a baby. I switched between each shoulder and each hip.
This next obstacle was probably unintended. There was a little path running through some woods and then there was a big lineup. There was a little stream that seemed more like a gorge with a 3-4 foot drop. It was only about 2 feet wide, but the sides of the gorge had eroded a lot. People were lining up to ‘jump’ across the little stream. When it was my turn I lined up the run, then just decided “no” and went in. It cleaned my shoes nicely!
After that was a long flat stretch around a pond. It actually rained a little which was refreshing. And for prettymuch the first time all race, I broke into a jog. However, it was a lousy path, and I twisted my ankle in a rut in the ground. I’m sure regular trail runners are used to those kind of conditions, but not me.
There was a hose nearby spraying the course and making the ground really muddy. I took the opportunity to wash my hands. Little did I know that right around the corner were the two muddiest obstacles of the course.
The next is probably what would be called TRENCHES. Effectively, there are several small wall of mud (about 3 feet high), then a watery trench. But the water trench was murky and you couldn’t see how deep it was. One trench was only 1 foot deep under the water, and another came up almost to my waist! Someone ahead of me had a nasty tumble going into the water because they couldn’t tell how deep it was. And the water was warm, and murky, which was also gross.
And right after that, the muddiest obstacle in the whole course: CRAWL under barbed wire. The barbed wire was so low that I wouldn’t use the bear crawl. Just had crawl on hands and knees, winding up elbow deep with my arms and mid-thigh in the mud. My shirt snagged the wire a couple of times too. I imagine people with backpacks or water belts had an even harder time.
Some people around me commented that the barbed wire was lower than last year. Others also commented that there seemed to be sharp rocks hidden in the mud. I would later notice cuts on my legs and wondered if this is where I got them.
After getting covered in this smelly, warm mud, struggle up a hill that was also very muddy. My mom was there taking photos and said I smelled bad.
After the hill was what they call the PLATINUM RIG. It looks like you need to swing from several ropes across the length of this contraption. Of course, I’m covered in mud, and the ropes are covered in mud from the 2000 people that went before me. So that was a no go and burpees ensued.
One of the last obstacles was a SLANTED WALL with a rope. I did surprisingly well on this obstacle. I was worried my muddy shoes would slip against this sheet of metal, but I got up without too much difficulty. Getting down was another story. It was essentially a slanted ladder with really big spaces between the rungs. Again, I just wanted to survive and not break my neck.
And finally, the last obstacle, the FIRE JUMP. Most people got great photos at the finish. There was a big group in front of me that blocked me from getting a photo. Oh well. The fire wasn’t really hot when I got there but my Aunt said it was really hot earlier.
Then crossed the finish, grabbed a medal, t-shirt, cup of water and started to reflect on the whole muddy ordeal. My “official” time was 1:56:01.
There was a shower station not far from the finish which I used to try to thoroughly clean myself. It was still VERY warm out so I didn’t mind that it was ice-cold water. I was glad I brought a complete change of clothes (including underwear), towel, sandals, and spare bags. It felt glorious to shower clean and clean off.
I noticed after cleaning that I had a lot of small cuts on my legs under the mud. Most were small but there were a couple of big ones on my knee. At least most of the damage to me was superficial.
I have mixed overall thoughts about the event. On one hand, I encourage any activity that gets people exercising. We have an epidemic of inactivity in North America that is literally killing us by the millions. Inactivity and poor health kills way more people than guns, drugs, airplane crashes, car crashes, and Ebola COMBINED, but the media seems to fix on these sensational dangers. So, if an event like this gets people out to exercise, I’m all for it.
However, this event really just seems geared at one thing: Maximizing profits. The entry was quite steep at over $110 for a “5k+ event.” You had to pay $10 for parking. Each spectator had to pay $15 for admission; which was essentially admission to nothing. You couldn’t even go into the ski chalet to use their washrooms. Meanwhile there was a truck selling merchandise, sponsor tents hawking gear and supplements, and vendors selling $7.50 beer and $5 ice cream. But the marketing is slick, “hardcore” and makes you feel like you’ve conquered the world! And the race photos were free, which is something nice.
The course and obstacles are quite challenging. It’s no joke
running HIKING up a ski hill 6-7 times. And these obstacles require significant upper body strength and coordination. I’ve compared the people who do this well to Ninjas or Batman. The best times were less than 35 minutes, which is crazy!! But with specialized preparation, I think almost anyone could excel at a course like this. I understand that there are coaches and paid programs to prepare people to do well at these events. Running a marathon requires specialized preparation too; it’s just a different kind of challenge and reward.
I think the best purpose of an event like this would be a group bonding exercise. I could see this as good alternative to a ‘stag’ where “men go out and be men.” Or a group of friends get custom t-shirts and enjoy the event together. Other than the Ninjas, it seems like a kind of event to hike leisurely, occasionally challenge yourself with an obstacle, and get muddy for photos. I saw several such groups of friends doing it together, helping each other through obstacles, and passing a GoPro camera among them to capture the whole experience. I think that’s how you make the most of it.
I don’t think this kind of event is for everyone. Patty did the course a couple hours before me and as you can see from her blog post, she did not enjoy it. My mother was horrified that I did it, and she didn’t enjoy it from a spectator point of view. The really didn’t do a good job accommodating spectators. I’m glad I experienced it, but I don’t think I would do one by myself again. Maybe if a big group got together and treated it like an un-timed “day out”, I would consider doing a similar event in the future.
Overall, I’m pretty proud of myself for hiking through that hilly course on such a hot day and at least attempting each obstacle. I’m really proud of myself for completing many of the obstacles. And I’m feeling a little guilty for not doing 30 burpees for each obstacle I failed.
So, I wonder what kind of “alternative” event I can do next? A foam run? Electric run? City Chase? Hmmm….