The 2012 Spartan Race series wrapped up last weekend with their inaugural UK Spartan Beast at Brands Hatch motor racing circuit.
According to Spartan, the Beast is an obstacle event from hell. They claim that if you've run any event in the world: "whether a mud run, fun run, olympic run, bike race, death march or any kind of event claiming to be the "toughest race on the planet" you will be happy to know that this is where it ends". That's a very bold claim. Ridiculously bold in fact! Even if you were to discount ultra trails and other elite events, Spartan would really have to go some to even come close to some of the UK's well established obstacle events, like Tough Guy and Tough Nuts.
Having experienced a few Spartan events this year, I took their words with a very large serving of salt. To be honest, I probably wouldn't be in the best shape for taking on the world's toughest event anyway, having already taken on Survival of the Fittest the day before (read my review for that event here). I thought I was just about fit enough to take on a 12 mile / 20 km Spartan race though.
I've had my fare share of problems with Spartan's organisation this year (as have a lot of other people I hear). I think they really need to sort there act out, but I'm not going to ramble on too much about it here (if you want you can read my articles Disappointment with Spartan Season Pass and Midlands Spartan Races have moved venue and date). They didn't get off on the right foot this time around, when we ended up driving aimlessly around the country roads of Brands Hatch when we followed the post code and street name provided on their website. There was no signage that we saw and there were a lot of other people driving around facing the same problem.
When we did eventually find the event, to be fair the registration was the best I've seen at their events this year, with very little queuing, which was great to see. After my usual faffing, there was very little time to get to the start line, but we got there to see the usual Spartan "you're going into battle" style rant - this time delivered from a girl reading awkwardly from a script, so it maybe wasn't quite as rousing as it could be!
I lined up alongside a couple legends who I've got to know this year as fellow regular obstacle course runners - Richard and Haemish. Together we were Team Mudstacle, even though we had no intention of running together! As the start was sounded we were all separated in the melee.
|Team Mudstacle - Post Race|
The first section of the race was a lap of the main Brands Hatch race circuit, which was a really cool feature. Of course none of us had signed up to a Spartan Race to run on tarmac, but for some, it was like treading on hallowed ground! It was nice twist and I quite enjoyed it. The track was a lot hillier than it looks on TV though, which meant that the down hill sections were very high impact.
It was a nice relief to get off the road and to start circling the outside of the track. Before long we were running alongside the track on the other side of the barrier, the conditions were extremely different though. The ground wasn't churned up yet, and so was very deceptive. What looked like grass and light mud actually turned out to be extremely slippery. It was impossible to run properly - it was hard enough even staying on your feet, especially when the track started going up and down hill. We must have looked quite amusing to those on the running track on the other side of the barrier as we slipped and slided all over the place.
After a while the course cut left into some woodland, which was quite a relief, as the ground was a little more secure. A large proportion of the course winded through overgrown woodland, with no obvious pathway. The course was marked with bits of plastic tape tied onto the occasional tree, so you had to keep your wits about you to spot them. I found it far easier when running behind somebody, as I could leave them to navigate, whilst I concentrated on working a safe path through. You constantly had to keep one eye on the ground and one eye straight ahead. The footing was uneven and had a layer of leaves and shrubbery to hide stumps and holes that could twist an ankle easily enough. Then all around there were branches of all shapes and sizes ready to scratch and poke into your face. When I found myself leading the way with nobody ahead, life got a lot harder. Concentrating on protecting your feet and face, whilst also looking out for white tape was a real challenge.
Occasionally we would bump into the classic Spartan woodland obstacles. Including rope climbs, hanging ladder climbs, cargo nets and sandbag pulleys. Because this was the beast, we faced at least two lots of each of them.
By far the darkest thing in the woodland, and the entire course, were the brambles. Miles of them! Being in the first wave, I'm pretty sure we must have had it worse than anyone else. I'm sure the mud was far more churned up and harder to deal with for the later waves, but we had to take a massive bullet treading the brambles down. They were beyond brutal, they were thick from foot to knee for the longest distance. They scratched and clawed away at raw shins. It was fine for a while, you've got to expect to get scratched up on a course like this, but things got ridiculous after a while. I started looking around at my legs and others' to see that they were red and dripping with blood, my white socks had a band of red at the tops of them. You could see the blood of others on the brambles themselves. After the race I got to thinking how minging that is; I'll share a lot with my fellow runners, but I'd rather not be sharing blood!
After a while me and five or so other runners broke into a small clearing, where one of the exercises was waiting for us. A couple completed before me and headed on into the next patch of woodland and along a narrow pathway. After a few hundred yards we spotted another pathway running parallel to the left, along which there were some people running in the other direction. They were a fair way behind us - we had already been that way before. A little confused, we continued along the pathway we were on. Things were starting to feel a little wrong, we hadn't seen any markings for a while and eventually we hit a cross road with no markings at all. By the time we had a good look around there there were 10 of us, starting to get a little agitated. We ran back in the direction we'd come from, but still couldn't find any course markings. There ended up being a group of 20 or so runners getting pretty angry. Eventually we decided to cut off the path to the left and head down hill, which seemed to be quite a good decision, as we soon found some more markings.
The problem with the way that the course was marked is that it wouldn't take much for a branch to get snapped off, or for some tape to get trampled into the ground. That could well be what happened or we just didn't see a markers. Either way, it would have made more sense to mark the course with a continual roll of tape in the dense woodland areas.
Eventually we burst out of the woodland and into a muddy swamp area. Before heading into the knee-high mud I glanced again at the open wounds on my legs. Instinct told me that it was a pretty stupid thing to do... but hey-ho, we all just got stuck in anyway! Surprisingly, that was the only water / mud obstacle on the whole course.
We trotted on down hill and came across a mountain bike track with wooden Northshore style ramps. We ran over them but they were extremely slippery with a covering of wet leaves. Most of us slid on them and fell of to the sides on a couple of occasions. I was still running with the group of 20 or so people that had got lost before - at the bottom of the mountain bike track we all burst out of the woodland into a clearing to find another group running across our path from a different direction. I spotted another yellow Mudstacle vest 100 yards ahead, and realised that Richard was part of the new pack. I knew that he was ahead of me, so either we had cut a section off the track or they had got lost themselves. Later it transpired that we had been the ones to take the wrong turn. It really shouldn't be possible to lose the correct path in a race once, let alone twice! I was pretty angry that this had happened, and it wasn't fair on those ahead for us to inadvertently cut a corner.
We were now very close to the main events village. I was feeling tired, but I was pretty sure there was a fair amount to go yet. Sure enough, we ran up a section of track and crossed through the crowds that had gathered and over into fields on the far side. There we faced a few more challenges, like climbing walls and balance beams.
I always struggle a bit on the monkey bars but the ones set up here were some of the best I've even been through. The bars were the perfect thickness and, although they were smooth metal, they had a good grip to them. Having successfully accomplished that challenge we were faced with a few tractor tyres scattered around. We were instructed to pick one and flip it over three times. It was a lot harder than I thought - those tyres are damn heavy! Doing it reminded me of World's Strongest Man... although I'm sure the tyres they flipped over were five times the size!
From then onwards we mostly ran around the edge of a field but, to add to the challenge, we had to do several relays while carrying an awkward array of objects. First of all it was a couple of heavy supply tins (one in each hand), then a tyre and then a sand bag. It was hard to keep jogging during each of the exercises, but it certainly made you appreciate the runs in between with no weight to carry!
Finally the end was in sight and I made my way through Spartan's classic finale of obstacles. First of all was an extremely full ice pit. There was barely enough room to squeeze under the barbed wire, but I managed to get through without scratching myself up any more!
Then I looked up at the slippery sloped wall. It had grown a lot since last time I saw it. It was maybe twice the size! Thankfully there was still a good amount of grip on the rope, so I managed to walk up it Batman-style with relative ease. Making a dive for the top of the wall was a little sketchy, but I managed to keep my grip and pull myself over. Unlike before, where you slid down a slope on the other side, you had to grab a rope and lower yourself down. I thankfully had gloves on so made short work of it, but there must have been a few painful rope burns for those with bare hands.
Now all that stood in the way of me and the finish line was a pugil stick wielding gladiator! I've faced them a fair amount of times now, but I still get nervous, so I ducked my head and ran straight ahead. Thankfully I managed to stay on my feet, which may even be a first (balance isn't my strong point!!).
Once over the line I was awarded a medal for completing the course, as well as a Trifecta medal for completing a Sprint, a Super and a Beast in the same season. We were also given an excellent quality black Spartan Beast training shirt.
All in all I really enjoyed the race. It was fairly tough, but I'm afraid to say it's definitely not the world's toughest obstacle race, despite their claims. I can't blame them for talking it up though - they need to paint a picture and they probably wouldn't pull in the crowds they do if it were super tough! I think they could have done with putting a bit more effort into obstacles, there really weren't many more than the Super and Sprint. It's a bit of an easy option for them to add a bit more running distance onto a course and repeating a few of the obstacles more than once.
For the front runners, the amount of brambles were unnecessary, I don't think the organisers thought that through. Also, allowing runners to get lost on the course as a massive cock-up. There are a lot of things that Spartan really need to tighten up on and I really hope they do.
As I've said before, I really want to love Spartan, I think they're great for the UK obstacle course market. They've had a lot of success and have made a lot of money in the US, but if they're going to start thinking globally, they'll need to put more effort into acting locally. They've clearly done enough to pull in the crowds, but they need to make sure they keep the crowds happy, otherwise there is no long-term for them. I'm amazed at the value of my season pass, I really did get a lot out of it, but I'm seriously considering whether I will invest again next year. If I do, I'll be sure to let you know if the situation improves!
As promised, here are a few bramble war wounds!