Over the weekend I competed in the Spartan Sprint race with fellow tech geeks Joe Heitzeberg and Will O’Brien. Some call it a Burning Man triathlon mash-up, the race is designed by ultra athletes and a Royal Marine. The Spartan tagline is “you’ll know at the finish line”. This 3 mile course with 15 obstacles was suppose to be a warm-up training session for the much longer 10-12 mile Tough Mudder we are doing later in September.
To prepare, I ran hills, hit weights to get strong and Yoga to stay limber. I was ready. I suspected that these macho mud tests were more pro wrestling spectacle than ironman endurance. No worries.
We arrived to a sea of cars parked over rolling hills, it felt like a concert. Right after we got out of the car, 3 cuties competing in the race parked next to us and started flirting. Yes they did. Either the sunblock we just sprayed on was loaded with pheromones, Will & Joe are babe magnets in geek clothes, or the symmetry of the 3=3 math was undeniable — this kind of shit never happens to me. Ladies loved us Spartan’s. My middle-aged ego was pumped up, until they passed me on the course.
Over the PA system, the words “Are — You– Ready” reverberated through the hills over the thumping music. This was definitely WWE time, I was ready to rumble.
We started the race at the back, which means we had a frustrating start pressing forward as the crowd funneled uphill on a narrow path. The hardest part was just keeping my footing on the slippery path wearing a pair of old running shoes with no traction. I didn’t want to buy a pair of trail running shoes. Spartan means frugal, right?
The night before I saw a tweet from @ben_watts who was buying gloves, a camelback hydration system, & knee pads. Really, is all that necessary? The unspoken dude rule is not to be that over-geared ass clown. We hit the first obstacle, pulling a big concrete weight with a rope and pulley. I let the weight down too quick and burned my fingers on the rope. @ben_watts was right about the gloves. It hurts to type this post.
The crawl-in-mud-under-barbed-wire obstacle was next. The photo of the barbed wire crawl in the Spartan registration page is flat, optimized for conversion. Our reality had hills, lots of them. Being sandwiched between the mud and barbed wire is claustrophobic. You feel like a meatloaf sandwich. But I made it, barbed wire mud crawl done, check! I expected our young buck & former captain of Harvard’s Ultimate Frisbee team Will O’Brien to have smoked me and looked ahead for him. Instead he was behind, helping several people get through the escape from San Quentin.
While the Tough Mudder competition has a help-thy-fellow-mudder ethos, none was called out in Spartan. We were mostly strangers, yet everyone helped, providing grips on slippery slopes and high-five audibles when it got tough. We didn’t bifurcate into a two-class helper and receiver system. Almost all of us needed a hand, we were all enablers.
I wasn’t shy about taking handouts. As I approached a 10 foot wall, a guy backed up against the wall and cupped his hands together to give me a boost. I needed momentum, so I kicked up with all my strength and I nailed the guy right in the nuts. He groaned, and doubled over. After a few minutes of making sure he was ok, he insisted that I try again with his help. Will looked at me and said “hey buddy, you may want to move a little slower this time”. I got over that wall with no collateral gonad damage.
There were more obstacles like climbing up ropes or a balance walk on thin alder poles. A fall or fail resulted in doing 30 burpees. Burpees are a cruel combination of push-up, sit-up, and squat into a movement that burns 50% more calories than other exercises. No one hates burpees more than Joe Heitzeberg. I love working with Joe because he has a “reality adjustment field”. When he sets his mind to something, he is unstoppable, he adjusts reality. So the next challenge was chucking a spear about 15 feet to hit a target. Everyone missed, everyone did 30 burpees. Joe hit the target, but was more excited about not doing burpees then realizing he is one of a few folks who actually beat the challenge.
At this point, I thought the rest would be downhill, but then I looked up and saw a 200 foot muddy hill with people inching their way up and pinned down by more barbed wire. I thought we had checked that obstacle off. Now I know why so many great war movies like Hamburger Hill involve taking some hill. There is no better metaphor for an uphill battle. At this point most of us were tired, dehydrated, and over-heated. As I crawled up our Hamburger Hill, I became painfully aware of the rocks cutting my knees into chopped liver. Did @ben_watts buy knee pads? Mud flew in my eye and I couldn’t see, for a couple of moments I thought I might need to bail. Then I heard some navy seal fire jumper triathlete yelling out like a drill sergeant “let’s move, let’s move… hand over hand.. man-up, let’s go”.
Mr. testosterone, STFU! This did not motivate or inspire me. I was thirsty and needed to take a crap. The worst part about this hill is that it has 2 sections, and is longer than you think. My final ascent was powered by annoyance. Mud is good for your skin until it gets in your cuts. I was done with this shit.
Nearing the end, there is a big bonfire burning and you jump through it — everyone knows it’s not as difficult or dangerous as it looks. Most of the crowd sees our high spirited leaps over the campfire, and not the hell on knees plodding ascent of Hamburger Hill. That is deviously hidden in the middle of the course, to convert more spectators into Spartan’s for the next race.
The last obstacle is borrowed from American Gladiator with a bunch ofsuper- sized guys stopping you from reaching the finish line with Q-Tip shaped training weapons the Marine’s call “pugil sticks”. There was no one in front or behind me, I had the crowd’s complete attention. Red rover, red rover send Kevin right over.
Let’s do this! I mustered all the strength left in me, and started running as fast as I could straight into one of the guys, dropping my right shoulder before impact to take him down. Instead he flicked me to the side, getting me off balance spinning past the finish line landing into the dirt, chest first. In my mind, this Spartan just kicked a Gladiator’s ass. The crowd headline was different: Spaz Flails Across Finish Line.
The Spartan race was no sunday stroll. We climbed ropes, went up walls, traversed walls, jumped over walls, lifted semi-truck tires, dragged cinder blocks, carried heavy weights on our shoulders up a hill, swung on pull bars and climbed more ropes. I didn’t respect it until I was mud-deep. I got whooped, but left feeling like a bad-ass. After the race, we even did 50 more push-ups for the US Army to win a free water bottle. HOOAH! We were unstoppable.
As fortune would have it, we again bumped into those 3 cuties. We are all Spartans after the race, and toasted our shared accomplishment with a cool beer provided by the event. There is no catalyst for new friendship like physical pain.
I saw the guy who boosted me up the wall and I yelled out “sorry for kicking you in the nuts”, he gave me a big smile back and said “dude… great job, we did it.”
Kevin Nakao, Joe Heitzeberg, & Will O’Brien: Tough Mudders in Training
I originally wrote this post for The Best Thing This Year .