When I failed an obstacle, I always felt quite sad,
But then I started in the gym and now my form’s not bad
I signed up to a Spartan race to see how far I’d go
But Aston Down is full of hills, now pain is all I know…
I’ll stop. But you catch my drift. There were hills, and rather a lot of them. Let’s talk about the Spartan Super South West.
It takes some steely balls to sign up to a race that christens an entire section ‘Death Valley’, and yet there I was, on the start line of a competitive category at the South West Spartan Super. Why did I put myself in that position? I was putting my feet where my mouth was when I suggested the Spartan Super to be an ideal stomping ground for intermediate racers. I wanted to up my game a bit, so why not?
Spartan, as most know, has a very predictable format – there are obstacles that you can guarantee in each race; various walls, over-under-throughs, a rope climb, a spear throw, barbed wire crawls, a carry or two. There are also some repeat offenders; traverse walls, bender, incline walls, monkey bars or variants. In short, the races are formulaic, and the penalty for obstacle failure is always the same: 30 burpees. Because of this, one can really focus training on competing in, and subsequently getting better at, a Spartan Race. When a level up feels necessary, the Super steps in over the Sprint and offers a greater test of endurance, with a considerable distance hike and the addition of further obstacles.
Set in the rolling South Cotswolds, Aston Down airfield looks innocuous enough; it has great access, lovely parking (because we’re sad enough to get hot and bothered over hard standing) and you don’t need a Sherpa to get to the event village. Registration and settling in to the village is all very easy: it’s predictable in the best way. What is also predictable is the fact that the build team are going to take full advantage of the dastardly terrain that lurks behind the treeline.
Starting a race when you’re a beginner is intimidating, but your aims are different; to conquer a fear, an obstacle, hit a distance, or just have fun. When you’re starting to push for time, improvement and position, you somehow feel like everyone is watching you, and missing your target time/position/obstacle is a great personal failure. (Sidenote: they’re not, and it isn’t, but you can’t help but feel that way). Already jarred by a new set of circumstances, it’s difficult to stick to your own pace because you’re suddenly so concerned about your ‘competition’, and so it goes.
What I’m trying to say is, it can be hard to ‘level up’, as it’s easy to kick around at the back and pretend you’re not trying. It’s easier to laugh off a bad race when you don’t stick your neck out. What is not so easy to laugh off, I learned, was swallowing a fly, whole, on rounding the first corner of the race. Horrified, and trying desperately to hack it up, I will have looked like an overweight greyhound that had found herself, inexplicably, in a horse race. That was perhaps the first natural insult to my person – the second came when I inhaled a blade of grass when face down mid-burpee. Of all the scenarios I imagined myself in that day, on all fours, gagging and spitting like a choking cat wasn’t one of them. And so began my renewed foray into the world of ‘trying to do obstacle racing’ rather than mincing around at the back.
After a start that managed to be rallying without inciting eye rolls, the first half of my race felt steady and well-paced for what I had set out to do (stay smooth, don’t blow out, and beat least year’s time from an open wave). While the course is still challenging in an open wave (due to the nature of the terrain and the wearing in of the obstacles), the first trial a competing racer must endure is the creation of the trail itself. Later waves may see wider paths and worn-in tracks, but the frontrunners must crash through plants, branches, occasional nettles and undergrowth as they forge the most efficient path in the course whilst vying for position. That in itself, is brutal.
Aston Down is a notorious test of will and leg power, as the course tears up and down the valleys, giving you a brief flirtation with an obstacle, before forcing you do it all again. In parts, it seems everywhere you look, you see the puffed out, stony faces of fellow racers both ahead and behind, trudging up relentless switchbacks. Full credit must go to the course designers, who know the terrain well, and understand the psychology of allowing racers to see where they are going, before cruelly pushing them into another difficult section, leaving the finish line just out of sight. Every millimetre of elevation is used repeatedly to prevent any sense of security. There’s not one second on that course that you can devote to anything other than where your feet are, because if you’re not screaming down a grassy hillside, you’re fighting up a mud-dusted wall of forest, and when you’re done with all that, you’re still running along a steep incline that stops you confidently speeding up. It’s horrible, but it’s horribly deliberate.
Happily, I had learned some really helpful hill techniques from Natasha Mansell and Dan Eyre, and some breathing tricks from Matthew Adamson that genuinely made the running a lot easier – if it hadn’t been so relentless, I may have even called it fun. That said, the forest trails were beautiful, and I noted happily that much of the barbed wire on boundaries had been tagged and taped for safety, save for one glaring loop of it on a forest downhill section. I do think Spartan should know better than that by now, as it could have proven very dangerous if we weren’t all fixated on our feet, but it was clear that effort had gone in to securing an obvious path.
Attention to detail has been ramped up another notch at Spartan UK, as the branding was the most uniform I have seen it. Gone are the haphazard straw bales strewn around the bases of obstacles in favour of some funky, interlocking crash mats. The often painful, splintered wood of the incline walls is banished in favour of a smoother, more forgiving surface that gives a sense of quality to them and the imposing metal a-frame. It may seem like reinventing the wheel, but changing these few details on something as basic as an incline wall, has massively increased the quality of the obstacle experience, and they should be very proud of that. I loved the ramped A-frame and the challenge it presented to some racers did not go unnoticed. Much like bender, it was beautiful in its simplicity. Even the balance beams have had an upgrade, and it is finishing touches like that which prove that Spartan is investing in itself despite the shaky climate for other races. I want them to know that it shows.
Into the more obstacle-heavy second half of the race; the heat began to hamper progress. Despite my arms feeling very strong, my legs were reeling from the terrain based torture, and I found it difficult to stay positive – something remedied incredibly well by the Marshals (shoutout to Jess at the walls, for snaffling me some crisps and being a genuine angel). It was a very hot, and very exposed spot in those valleys, and everyone did a stellar job at staying perky and helpful. With regard to the race itself, well, it just got more and more punishing. The threat of the dreaded bucket carry loomed, and though it felt considerably shorter than last year after missing out the derelict building, it was still something that felt more of a mental battle than a physical one. The hoist seemed to cause a lot of heartbreak after being considerably increased in weight. Thankfully, since I heft sheep and cows around every day, strength tasks don’t often hamper me. The more slight athletes will have suffered with that, as it is not an obstacle they’re used to failing. I’ve always said that Spartans Races favoured those who flourished in strength based and attritional exercises – it gives the race that historical niche, after all.
Aston Down also debuted a new breed of spears – considerably lighter, and differently weighted, they caused an already high failure rate to increase. Astonishingly, I landed mine, but my high was short lived, as I crashed out of the monkey bars, lacking in technique and confidence, and unable to reach the bar to get myself properly on board.
Despite my personal failings, I felt I could take a lot away from this race in terms of my own development – which is something an intermediate should be doing. If I didn’t have points to improve upon in this predictable format, I’d be up there rubbing elbows with Andrea, Natasha and Becky. Alas, I am not, but I’ve certainly found the textbook race in which to hone the skills and demonstrate them, and the beauty of a Spartan Race is that you can do that anywhere in the world. With its challenging distance and its reliable set up – the Super is the perfect ground on which you can tighten your technique and fine tune your fitness.
With the South West weekend over, it’s evident that Spartan UK have upped their game yet again. The question is, next time, given a Super opportunity- will you?
[Images courtesy of Epic Action Imagery]