Despite enthusiastically entering some time ago, I aggressively did not want to run the Beast last weekend. Because rain. It’s all very well training your obstacle strength in perfect conditions, but when the rain renders them slippy, it’s very easy to have your confidence knocked. I was expecting to be eaten alive by the Windsor Beast, and I was not in the mood.
Unlike the last time I earned a cheese in my Spartan trifecta, I had a secret run-buddy weapon– my cheerleading, amateur personal training and incredibly encouraging other half, Matthew. The plan was to write an article on running with a partner – how it can significantly up your game and enhance your run experience, as long as you don’t kill each other in the process. If anything is going to prove a good test to any kind of bond, it’s a 14-mile OCR in the pouring rain.
Windsor’s Beast was held as a standalone race on Saturday the 6th of October at last year’s Bagshot venue; one marred by absolutely disastrous entry/exit, parking and long registration queues that saw participants missing their start times. Happily, entry did seem a little easier this time, though I can’t speak for later in the day. The main issue on registration was that dozens of people needed start time amendments. There were numerous reports of Spartan customer services completely shutting down in the weeks leading to the race, leaving many racers completely in the dark as to why their start times had changed. Spartan CS is usually quite good, but after experiencing this complete blackout myself, I shared their irritation.
Due to our aforementioned issue with start times, Matt and I had hours to kill before we kicked off, and were really pleased to be able to hunker down in a tent and stay dry. We watched the elite men’s wave roll in before lining up with hundreds of distinctly more enthusiastic runners and embarking on what was to be a course that was quite reminiscent of last year, but with a few beneficial alterations. I honestly felt quite sorry for the village designers and organisers; having billed this weekend as a festival vibe to end the UK season, to see it washed out by miserable weather was sad. Volunteers and staff were still in good spirits though, which really made a difference when I started to flag later on in the day. I was pleased to see that the sun came out for everyone on Sunday though. Or bitter. I’m not sure.
Last year, the Beast stuttered at the start with an abrupt drop into a sticky bog – this year, some old walls had been flattened and placed, Walter Raleigh style, over the worst of the water. The first switchback wasn’t quite enough to spread the field to prevent an immediate bottleneck though, but thankfully this part eventually gave way to gorgeous, springy trails, winding through the forest, and avoiding any tunnel crawls. This allowed us to up the pace in this part of the race, and keep warm, as any exposure led to cheeky bites of wind and deluges of relentless raindrops.
All of the running trails in the forest were absolutely joyous to run; though uneven underfoot, you still had to keep your eyes up, as skeletal hands of tree branches were often outstretched to catch you at head height. It was a good lesson in technical running on a largely flat course, and I thoroughly enjoyed them. I found myself able to keep up a really steady pace on the winding tracks, and traffic wasn’t much of an issue. As obstacles loomed in the distance, so too did my doubts about being able to complete them in the rain, but the formulaic nature of a Spartan race means that you most often know what to expect, and what you’re usually capable of.
Obstacle:run ratio was spot on for this race. I found myself really able to get into the swing of the run sections (mainly because the course was so flat), and felt recharged enough to crack on with whatever challenge was thrown at me. I’ve seen a lot of criticism of the race for being ‘samey’ – and I’ll readily admit that there was nothing ground breaking about it, but again, I’m not sure what anyone would expect from an end of season race that has a set obstacle format. Though I wouldn’t hate it if Spartan threw in a new season obstacle preview now and again.
This wasn’t the most technically challenging Beast I have ever run, and that wasn’t due to some intense training schedule. It was the weather and conditions that gave it a real feel of a feat of attrition. Had it been done in better weather, I think most would have found it quite pleasant, to be honest. Participants got increasingly grim-faced towards the 9-mile mark, infuriated by the higher weight extended carry sections - you’d be amazed at how a little ditch can stump a runner when they’re carrying the log equivalent of a Labrador on their back. I’m like a little packhorse, so a tough carry is something, I actually appreciate, plus I believe that Spartan should be about feats of strength and endurance, so I don’t mind. I’d rather do that than run up a hill any day.
I was also happy to see that the obstacles in the event village weren’t all the same as in previous races. I get pretty nervous about the idea of people watching me attempt certain ones, so getting them out of the way in the depths of the woods was so welcome. I’m quite happy to mince around dragging plates and hoisting hoists in front of people because it allows me to play to my strengths, but fall off the Twister again? No thanks. I’m sure others feel very differently, especially since the weight increase on the hoist (for no apparent reason) has really stumped male competitors in particular. I watched some of the best athletes struggle with that, and it did not make for comfortable viewing.
In all, the Beast was a tough day out, but not necessarily because of anything overtly technical or devilish about it. The obstacles were sturdy, came at the right time, and were manned by unfailingly cheery marshals. The general atmosphere was dampened, mainly because of the weather, but this did benefit the theme of the race, making it feel like more of an achievement when we finally lurched across the finish line. I’m not sure it would have felt so Beastly without that element, but I know Spartan can pull that out of the bag when they want to. It may even be a venue thing – the trails at Bagshot are somethind special, but that is pretty much all the venue has to offer, and I think it’s assets have been exploited about as much as they can be.
If you’re thinking about taking on the Beast, I can highly recommend doing it as part of a very small group or a twosome. Completing it with a partner is a gamble of course; Matt had to put up with an itemised list of what was hurting me as we trudged into our tenth mile. (For reference, it was, my toe, my foot, my calves, my knee, my thighs, my right hip, my back, my right shoulder and my head.) He also has about 98% less body fat than me, so was much more likely to feel the cold while he dawdled at my slow pace. Lucky for me, he also has 98% more patience than I do and a profound tolerance for my whining which should, frankly, be bottled and sold. Running in a two was ideal for a long race in conditions that were not conducive to having a jolly day out, and I would have been miserable, less motivated, and slower without him. I wouldn’t recommend traversing the Beast in a large group, simply because the distance of 22+ Km can make speed differences in a team very distinct, and it’s inevitable that people are going to get cold waiting for others, or hanging around while burpees are being completed.
Unless you’re literally on a group activity day with the most tolerant people from the United Church of Tolerance, keep your team size down, and either matched for pace, or (as in my case) balanced with kind and understanding counterparts to the less speedy.
As for the season, I think it’s largely been a success for Spartan UK, and I’m interested to see where 2019 will head. Hopefully, in the case of the Beast, to another venue though, because, nice as it was, the English Beast could do with a little sting in the tail that isn’t skidding your car out of the waterlogged car park.
[Thanks to Spartan/Conquest for photos]