There's one thing that you could never accuse Spartan Race of being and that's "boring". Saturday's London Spartan Beast event was the UK's most anticipated obstacle race of the year, if not ever. As well as seeing some of the UK's best racers duking it out, there was an enormous field of us mere-mortals hitting the course at a less electric pace. Many were striving to earn their "Trifecta" medal, which is achieved when you've completed a Sprint, a Super and a Beast in the same year. Mother Nature had decided that she wouldn't be kind to us and had produced cold, wet and miserable conditions. Despite that, spirits were high as the first wave grouped to cross over the threshold of a smoky battlefield at 10am and, over the following eight hours or so, we would witness quite a few thrills and spills...
As I watched the first wave and ran in the last wave, it was interesting watching the day pan out. First of all we had the battle of the elite, with Jonathan Albon, Ross Macdonald, Conor Hancock and Thomas Blanc running neck and neck at the half way stage, with Jonathan and Ross eventually pushing for dominance (watch the video coverage of the elite wave here). Unfortunately, everything outside of the top four positions became a bit muddled and meaningless due to large groups of people taking wrong turns and cutting off significant sections of the course, but more on that later. Firstly check out our video run through and highlights of the course:
As you can see, the weather had really taken it's toll on the course. Having experienced the London Sprint and a couple of Spartan Training sessions, I had a fair idea about the potential brutality of Pippingford Park. It really is your dream obstacle racing venue with ample hills, rivers, lakes, bogs and woodland and, with the recent rainfall, virtually every footstep of it had transformed into a mudfest, particularly by the time I got on course in the last wave. I'm a big fan of natural terrain obstacles and I could spend all day praising every detail of an exceptionally well crafted route through constantly challenging and varied terrain. With the size of the Beast course (somewhere between 21 and 25 kilometres) I just can't imagine how much time and care must have been dedicated to route planning.
Although post race feedback has been predominately positive (just read our forum thread here) there have been a few negatives as well and unfortunately the exceptionally well planned route became one of them. At last year's Spartan Beast I reported on the disappointment I had with a poorly marked course and unfortunately it wasn't any better this year. Throughout the day people took the wrong route. As I watched the elite wave there was a lot of confusion around the area of the dug-out trenches and Hercules Hoist. I had to call out to the front four to stop them missing that whole section of the course, then while the 5th and 6th place runners (Ross Phelan and Richard Crewe) were pulling on the Hercules Hoist, a crowd of 20 or so runners had accidentally skipped the whole section. It sucks for Ross and Richard, as they never really got back into the race again after that.
I also fell foul to the course markings myself within a couple of minutes of the start. I took a wrong turn and ended up doing the tyre drag having missed off an enormous section of the course. After finding out what I'd done from the marshal I ran back in the direction I came from to get back on the right track (others carried on regardless). For me, my competitive spirit had gone. From then onwards I would just take my time and soak up the course. As this seemed to be one of the most contentious issues, we asked Spartan Race UK Director Richard Lee to comment:
"The high winds and torrential rain both the day before our event and on race day itself made staging this Spartan Race a substantial challenge. The night before, the wind took away some of the tagging, and our main course crew stayed up throughout the night replacing it but we were up against a constant battle. When people are running a race, you can't barrier them in at every corner. There will always be room for interpretation, whichever way you sign it." - Richard Lee (Spartan Race UK Director)
I can definitely vouch for Richard there. For the two hours I stood watching the competitive heat, Richard and his crew were frantically running around trying to keep everything on track. I didn't envy them, it seemed like there was a lot working against them and they were doing there best to keep it on track with the limited staffing that they had. With Spartan being at the a forefront of competitive obstacle racing this needs to be brushed up on, as do the reports of skipped obstacles and missed forfeits. Here are Richard's thoughts on that:
"With a course of this distance, it is hard to marshal every meter of the race. We do our best in briefing our marshals, especially during the elite heat, that it is very important to make sure that competitive athletes complete every obstacle. In addition, although Spartan Race is a timed event, and we do stress the competitive nature, a Spartan Race is essentially challenge by choice and we leave it to the participants' discretion to complete the penalties. We understand that, especially with prize money involved, we do rely heavily on the integrity of the elite racers."
I found myself doing many a burpee throughout the course. Of course I failed the spear throw and monkey bars (standard) and I started to wonder more about the harshness of the 30 burpee forfeit for failing an obstacle. I seem to remember it being 20 burpees last year. I'm not wussing out, I'm all for a tough challenge, I just think it might be a little too much of a disadvantage and hard to marshal in some cases. However, it seems my opinion isn't shared by many, here are the thoughts of our forum community: 30 burpee forfeit discussion. Burpees are here to stay - suck 'em up beeeyatch!
As you'd expect from Spartan, the challenge of the terrain was only the beginning, the selection of man made obstacles were excellent. Particular highlights for me were the monstrous A-frame cargo net, the 50 foot stretch of monkey bars over a muddy pond, the Hercules Hoist (where you pulled a lump of concrete sky high with a rope) and the large selection of walls throughout the course. Each of them were extremely well constructed. One of the biggest challenges of all was an enormous rope climb just before the finish line. I saw very few people even attempt it and hardly anyone make it to the top. Conor (3rd place) made it, so well done to him, but apart from that I only saw a marshal make it up - it was quite respectable considering he did it in wellies... he was really gutted that I didn't film it - sorry about that 😀
There were several smaller constructions throughout the course - smaller sections of monkey bars, rope climbs, etc. They helped to whittle away at your energy levels but, for me, what really gets to you are the large selection of carrying tasks. Spartan more than most other event set to working on your whole body. We carried buckets of water, sand bags, logs, ammo tins and finally an atlas stone (awesome), which whittles away at your arms, core and legs, which I'm still really feeling today!
I think one of the greatest challenges of this course was the length of exposure. It was an extremely wet course, even without the rain, there were tonnes of lake and river crossings. I struggled to keep my body heat up at times, even though I was relatively well prepared on the clothing front. I wasn't out to set any records but I found myself really having to get a move on towards the end because I don't think I could have stayed out there much longer without the cold getting through to my core. In fact, as I changed back in a muddy car park I really was starting to verge on the dangerous territory that I experienced at the harshest of last winter's events. In my opinion the biggest danger in obstacle racing is hypothermia and with a wet course and lengthened exposure, it can take hold suddenly. In the far reaches of the course I started to get very worried for the many competitors who were starting to look dangerously cold. It was very isolated out there and, in my opinion, I don't think there was enough support. It would have taken people a long time to get back to the safety of the event village at the speed some were travelling at and when I realised how long it took for me to get back I did fear for the safety of those I left behind.
I think those of us with an obstacle racing obsession are aware of the importance of clothing and dangers of exposure but, with Spartan being a very commercial event, there were plenty of people out there who were unprepared on many levels. I saw a lot of miserable faces, which is quite sad. I really hope those guys had an enormous sense of achievement if they did finish that made it all worthwhile, and that it hasn't put them off obstacle racing. Spartan Beast was a serious course and, like many of the toughest courses, it had genuine dangers. If you are reading this having had a bad experience out in the isolated areas of the course, please don't think that it's always like that. There are less harsh races out there that introduce you to this amazing sport, whilst still challenging you. Here's what Richard Lee had to say on the subject of hypothermia and the support in the far reaches of the course:
"Firstly, yes, we plan to improve every race. We learned a lot of valuable lessons yesterday. Next year we plan to have more heating stations and we intend to move the Beast earlier in the season to minimize the risk of runners being exposed to extreme weather conditions. We want to focus on the physical challenges of the course rather than the environmental challenges. With regard to hypothermia, we are doing a full debrief with the medical team, but we managed to get everyone warmed up. With any course of this distance and level of physical challenge, an extreme amount of training is required. We do recommend that first-time Spartan racers cut their teeth on one of our shorter events, such as a Spartan Sprint or Super before taking on the Beast, so that they can first discover at first hand what level of training is required." - Richard Lee (Spartan Race UK Director)
One of the highlights of the day were the many "above and beyond" achievements. I ran alongside Ross Cohen and his father Michael (Spartan UK Head Coach) for a fair amount of the course. At only 14, we believe that Ross is the youngest Trifecta in the world! That's an amazing achievement and I know I wouldn't have been able to get round that course at that age. Also James Lodge and his team continued a prolific year of obstacle racing by completing two laps of the course in 9.5 hours. James is raising an amazing pool of money to help fight cancer, please check out his charity page here.
Another incredible story is that of James Simpson. Back when we interviewed James in September (read here), we were amazed that he had completed a Spartan Sprint despite having lost both of his legs. Since then he has gone on to complete the Midlands Super Spartan and had a really good crack at the Beast. Here's what James had to say after the event on Saturday:
“I completed 10 kms of the course but the weather and the conditions were just too bad. It was not doable. It was way too boggy. I was sinking into the mud up to my waist, which really slowed me down. If we had kept going, it would have taken till four in the morning to complete the course and we were worried about the dropping temperatures after nightfall. I really enjoyed the race and the course was amazing. But after seven hours, it was time to call it a day. I’d like to tackle the Beast again, in a warmer climate, possibly travel to somewhere like Texas.”
It was such an amazing achievement to event get around 10km of that course. Well done James!
The overriding feeling from Saturday's Spartan Beast is very positive. It was a brutally challenging event, with incredible terrain and plentiful unique obstacles. Sadly the organisation of the event wasn't quite up to scratch, which may well be as a result of the weather conditions and the number of volunteers being less than hoped for. On that note, a massive amount of respect has to be given to the volunteers who were standing around on a wet cold day for up to 10 hours. I really don't know how they managed to stay cheerful!
So there it is, the end of the UK's second Spartan Race season. What will 2014 bring? I can't wait to find out!
Thanks to Epic Action Imagery for all the epic action imagery!