July 5, 2010

My Spartan Race

This is one event I’d been looking forward to. If I recall correctly, I was made aware of the Spartan Race on an office morning while taking a distracted look at my facebook. Since it seems to have a nick for throwing targeted advertisement at me, my “home” page blared an image of an armor-clad Spartan with a war face and a slogan in the lines of “Are you tough enough for the Spartan Race?” One look at the image already had my blood-adrenaline mix all fucked up. Three clicks later, I was signed up.

For those too lazy to go check out the website, The Spartan Race is an American cross-country race circuit that was created in 2009 as a qualifier for an ultimate XC challenge called “The Death Race”. It essentially consists of a 5KM course and about 15 physical challenges. In the own words of the organizers: This international race is set up to test not only the strength and stamina but the cunning and creativity of each athlete’s warrior essence. Participants will confront obstacles ranging from extreme to absurd that gain their inspiration from sources as varied as Spartan training, Navy SEAL training and American Gladiators".

I personally recommend the YouTube video, if you want to get an idea of what the event feels like.


A couple weeks later, I was on a brunch with the unique Jocelyn Saurini, whom I affectionately call Sporty Spice, but this name doesn’t render her full justice. She’s my happy mix of geeky, sassy, sporty, girly. She’s also the Queen of TMI, but that’s an entirely different story. While sharing mimosas and breakfast sausage, I mention the race in all its awesome promise of mud and pain with great gesturing and excitement. Without even a frown, in all her Sunday casual, she’s like “Yeah, that sounds cool. I’m in”.

Wait. What?

And just like that, a couple days later we were both signed up. We went our separate ways, her to the jungles of Guatemala and me to the abyssal boredom of my deserted office.

Weeks went by and I kept training regularly. Three to five runs a week, two to three swims too. And some yoga. The usual. Each time I thought about the race, I got jumpy, twitchy, excited. The event seemed just like it had been made for me.


But on Sunday morning, both Jocelyn and I are feeling a sense of anxiety. Despite her good shape, she hasn’t trained that much lately and I, after my recent calvary at Lac-Brome, have humbly learned to appreciate the difficulty some courses can offer. The talk in the car is all about mutual abilities to jump hurdles, speculation on the mystery obstacles and the dreaded Mount Impossible, a 12-foot straight wall.

We got to the site early enough to walk around, sign the injury and death waiver (I shit you not) and get our race bibs. We felt a mix of dread and excitement when a Spartanette grabbed our hands and arms to write down our bib numbers with a Sharpie pen...

Since great courage was needed, we’d brought a secret weapon: face paint. We walked back to the car and got the colored stuff out. I went for a tribal-inspired warrior design with 3 red scratches over my right eye. When I turned to Jocelyn, I first thought she’d gone for something much more discrete than I expected. She had two red-white-and-blue stripes on the cheeks, to celebrate her dear National Day. But something in her smirk told me there was more. I frowned: she raised her left arm, on which she’d written AMERICA FUCK YEAH :)

All dressed up and ready to go, we walked to the starting line, warmed up a little and waited for the first step of the race: The War Cry. Instead of the traditional starting gun, they have participants gather at the starting line and yell at the top of their lungs before they're let onto the course. Runners were jumpy. The atmosphere was jolty. The Chief Spartan got in front of the pack and called for the war cry.

One huge scream. The race was on.

The first stretch is a twisty path under huge pine trees in the woods. I choose to press on at first, to try and distance myself from the pack of runners. This is usually a poor strategy but in this case it would prove very beneficial.

Not 45 seconds in the race, the first obstacle stands in our way. They cut huge logs and laid them at an angle, leading to a 3-foot jump right after which suspended sand bags await. As runners line up, I look back and see Jocelyn a couple feet behind, wide-eyed and primed up with adrenalin. I give her my best enraged smile and go ahead. I leap, touch the ground and jump through the heavy curtain.

On the other side, warriors are holding fireman hoses and splash the ground in front of us. As soon as the first runners come up, they lift the hoses and soak everyone. As I sprint to get through as fast as I can, I realize there’s a 3-foot hurdle in the way... and they set it on fire.

It’s too late to stop. I sprint some more and jump right through, feeling the sting of the fire on my soaked legs. If my adrenaline wasn’t already at dangerous levels already, that pretty much fucking did it right there. We were literally two minutes into the race.

A short run along the path led to a first steep climb. Being barefoot, the special posture makes me a fast climber, so I pass several contestants on the way up. At the end of a sharp turn, a race official stands by the lake shore and points us to the water. He yells “This way! In you go!”. As I pass him, I ask if I can swim. He answers to use whatever means I like. I have a grateful thought for Marc-René Dussault, my office-mate-turned-into-a-coach who’d been teaching me how to swim since last November. Without hesitation, I jump in the water and start swimming. Most runners are stumbling through the water with wet running shoes, so once again I gain several additional positions. This is going well.

There are huge rocks to climb to exit the lake. I experience the spirit of the race for the first time as a buff guy grabs the back of my leg and pushes me up the boulder. I thank him and dash forward. What felt like three strides later, there’s a clearing, and there it stands. Mount Impossible. A 12-foot behemoth of a wall, standing straight up. There’s a race official at the wall, directing guys to one part and girls to the other. The difference between both is obviously based on average height; the girls’ side has a cross-section in the middle where you can (attempt to) put your feet before reaching up to the wall’s edge. As I wait for my turn and look at the wall in total despair, the official points at me and another small dude and yells “You two can take this side”. I bolt forward, convinced I’ll never make it. I step on the middle section and throw both my hands up, but my left misses! Hanging only by one arm, I muster the strength to pull up, mostly out of the fact that I know if I drop down, I have to do it again. Thank you chin-ups-at-the-gym!

As we get deeper and deeper into the woods, it’s becoming clear that we’re only starting to climb. The hill gets steeper and steeper, up to the point where it’s not quite possible to run. The race then turns into a frantic hike, as faster contestants pass others left and right, trying to get to the top as fast as possible. You can already see signs of exhaustion among some of the runners.

All the way up, I pass people who either encourage me, tap me somewhere, make jokes or ask about my being barefoot. Spirits are high and every encounter turns into an instantaneous friendship. This is awesome. But the sun came out and the temperature is now rising by the minute. Big blades of sun are stinging my wet arms and legs. For the first time in the race, I lose my breath. Refusing to slow down, I keep going. My heart is pounding in my ears and I get a couple shivers of weakness in my legs. Suddenly, it strikes me: I’m risking to end up like a couple exhausted racers I’ve seen already, slowly walking by the track, unable to keep running.

I decide to slow down and I finish the steep climb with Bib 287, an awesome funny guy whose face I’ve never seen. My head needs to be down at all times because of the insane amount of things I can’t afford to put my feet on – or in.

As the descent begins, I’m obviously faster so he lets me pass. That’s when a twisted game of downhill survival begins. Hundreds of runners from previous heats had already gone down the trail, so everything’s covered in slippery mud. Every possible grip they enjoyed earlier is long-gone. The essence of our strategy is to use gravity in moving forward, and to skip, slide and dodge as best we can on the way down. We sklodge.

Half way down, I meet “Mama Cougar”, just long enough to mistakenly put my hand over hers on a tree, sparking sleazy jokes and out-of-breath giggling. The descent gets even steeper and ropes have been installed at critical points. I can’t quite brake, so I grip the ropes to help me down, coming down so fast at times that my feet leave the ground for a moment. My head’s about to explode in excitement and I yell “I love this shit!”. In the distance, Mama Cougar echoes “If I was a guy, I’d have a hard on!”.

Some more sklodging and I’m out of the steep descent and down onto the last stretch of forest before a clearing. And things are getting muddier by the minute. I’m not making such good time at this point, because I miss a critical element: water. Like everybody else, I thought there would be water stations on the course. There are none. I guess it’s not manly enough to drink while performing feats of a true Spartan... but I’m REALLY thirsty.

As my head fixates on images of dripping-cold water glasses and naked girls covered in Gatorade, there’s another clearing. I get there alone, and a pretty relax guy hands me a spear. Yeah, you heard me right. Not a dulled-down high school imitation of a javelin, a genuine deadly steel pointed badass war spear. Don’t ask me how I did it, but I made a perfect throw into one of the three circles, avoiding a painful 20 push-up penalty. Yaaarrrgghhh!!!

The clearing ends with a gorgeous path covered in wood chips, like it was made in heaven. This is a barefoot runner’s paradise. That type of surface, because it is soft and bouncy, makes me deadly fast. I pick up speed. 250 feet into the stretch, an official yells at me in the distance. “Follow the red flags!”. But they veer off the path, I thought naïvely, until I came to the full realization of what this entailed. These maniac bastards had hosed down the ditch, transforming it into a waist-high river of mud. Crazed in excitement, I jump right in and feel and instant relief from the surprisingly soft and cool substance. But it sticks!!! I slow down to a hectic stumble, trying to be as efficient as I can. There’s a photographer at the end of the stretch with a huge smile. “Face paint! Awesome!” he yells. As I close in, I make my best war faces for his lens, growling and screaming like a berserker on acid. He laughs.

I jump out of my mud bath, only to cross the path onto another one. This one’s shallow and covered with black tarps, to make it creepy, damp and claustrophobic. I caught up with a pack of runners and I have to wait a couple seconds before I get in. In front of me is Bib 303, a very cute girl in tight shorts. As she crawls down, I can’t help but make bad jokes. “You’re the best thing that happened to me today”. I hope she didn’t think I was some sleazy maniac, but then realized I stood no chance of convincing her of the contrary in this very moment, with my entire body covered in mud and my war-painted face. Then I have the very happy thought of realizing I’m soon 38 years old and I’m spending my Sunday morning frantically running through the woods and confronting every possible hurdle that is thrown my way among a bunch of obviously younger fitness freaks. I have life by the balls.

Another sprint on the trail, which suddenly turned into coarse gravel. Not the most barefoot-friendly surface. But I’m wearing my trusty FiveFingers, so no sweat. Half way through, there’s another crawl. I’d passed 303 already, but the thought of letting her in front of me crosses my twisted mind...

That crawl’s scary. It’s no more than a foot-and-a-half high, the ground is mud-covered sharp rocks and tree roots and hovering inches above is a net... of barb wire. “Stay down”, says the official as I come in. “No shit”, I echo silently in my head. I’m suddenly afraid. This is serious stuff, and definitely no place to freak out and try and get up. I wonder if anyone got hurt. I crawl the last foot, then add another one just to make sure I don’t hit the wire. All clear.

Another stretch of rocky trail, a couple turns, then it’s the hanging wire bridge, which frankly no one seriously tried to cross. It became utterly apparent that the wire had slacked off, making it ludicrous and time-consuming to try and get through. I take two steps, swing off and fall into the river below. I swim to the shore, get back up, veer 180 degrees on the path and come back running on a 12”-wide concrete ledge over the lake shore.

More forest, more trail, steep rocks and twisted turns. I start hearing the cheering crowd in the distance, which makes me think I’m closing the end of the course. I jump down a 4-foot rock and get to a cliff rigged with knotted ropes. As the official hands one to me, he tells me to push away from the cliff as much as I could with my feet. Awesome advice. I climbed it like it was nothing, growling all the way up.

A couple more jumps, then I’m face-to-face with an armored Spartan with a huge Q-Tip of a weapon, looking at me angrily. I kinda get that he’s thinking I’m small and he should take it easy, so I start jogging in his direction with a straight face. But a couple steps away from him, I release a primal scream from hell and dash straight at him, all teeth out like a rabid wolf. (I probably looked more like a rabid gerbil, but please let me live in my fantasies. Thank you.) I successfully surprised him, and he barely touched me with the stick. A breeze.

From that point, I know it’s the end. I see the last clearing, the club house where we started and I’ve seen the last challenge, a set of 4-foot-tall hurdles that don’t really scare me. At this point, I’m muddy, I’m bloody, I’m exhausted but I’m ecstatic. Not only have I made it with success, but I am also among the first dozens of finishers from my heat. R’aaaahhhh!!

I had just enough time to turn back to the last clearing to see a sweaty, dirty Jocelyn Saurini come out of the woods, with the Eye of the Tiger. She’s done it! She’s obviously proud and trots the last bit of the trail, jumps the last two fences and finishes in as much grace as a girl with dirty pigtails, bloody knees and all covered in mud can. Awesome!

It took me hours to come down from the huge adrenaline rush and, even the next day as I’m writing this, I’m not convinced it’s completely gone yet.

And I just can’t fucking wait for next year :)


  1. Too bad they don't have an ISO for insanity, you set the standard! :DD

  2. Awesome blog, I work for Spartan Race thanks for sharing, you will be pleased to know vibram 5 fingers is sponsoring all our races. Richard

  3. Wow, thanks!

    The Spartan Race is awesome. And I wish FiveFingers sponsored ME! ;)

    See you in Boston,