Obstacle course racing opens gates to many different pursuits; many of us find ourselves exploring bouldering, expanding into different distances or types of runs, or trying out parkour, or, dare we say it – triathlon. There is also another added benefit to expanding your OCR horizons, and that is travel.
An OCR with an historical twist going back to its ‘hometown’, is therefore the perfect excuse to grab your passport, lace up your trail shoes and take in some culture all at once. I’m talking, of course, about Spartan making its now annual pilgrimage back to Ancient Sparta.
Given that we were covering the weekend’s elite competitive activities, running a trifecta was out of the question, but there was a hint of possibility at getting onto a final wave Sprint, just to see what these European course designers are made of. Boy, are we glad we did.
As with every wave of the day, the race began with some historical hype from everyone’s favourite partially clothed master of ceremonies, Spartan Phil. Adept at raising spirits and creating ripples of energy, it was strange to hear him ask us all to walk, slowly and respectfully for the first 500m of the course. But walk we did, through the quiet, cobbled park of Ancient Sparta, clusters of ruins either side of the well-trodden path. After passing through the gates of this hallowed landmark, bets were off and watches were on, as we careered downhill to the backstreets and outskirts of the town. Mountains screamed into view, but they were reserved for longer courses. While they were beautiful and would afford spectacular views, I wasn’t mad about not climbing them.
The race took in the gritty and the glorious, oscillating between dirt tracks under roads and vast orchards. We wove in and out of olive groves, and were occasionally thumped by low hanging oranges on trees. The fast flowing river featured heavily in all courses, with some having to complete a barbed wire crawl through it. Not so on the Sprint, but we still crashed in and out of its meandering path, slowed down by the sizeable rocks that had cruel plans for our feet and ankles.
As with any Spartan, the obstacles were published beforehand, and didn’t present any surprises – they were positioned to allow a certain amount of running and recovery in between, except for the hoist and rope climb, which were right next to each other and in full view of spectators; just what you need to give you that extra push to hit the bell.
Despite the open Sprint being the end of a long and hot day, everyone seemed in good spirits, as marshals from literally all over the world kept everyone on the right track. The race director (the one and only Thomas Blanc) and team responded quickly to any course marking issues that had cropped up earlier in the day, which made for an easily navigable jaunt through the countryside.
As always, that damned spear throw put a spanner in the works, as competitors had to stand in water when aiming their sopping spears at a tarpaulin covered bale – also somewhat off putting were the runners coming in not far behind them. Thank goodness for sturdy safety ropes, I guess. Burpees were rather fiendishly set in the water, which wasn’t an appealing prospect, but the weather meant that getting wet wasn’t end-game.
Descending back into the village after some suburban antics was a lovely experience; fellow competitors and local people lined the course, encouraging everyone past them with smiles and high fives. It seemed every child in Sparta wanted to watch, and some even grabbed at the barbed wire to lift it up as we squelched about underneath it. They took every chance they could to nip onto course to play on obstacles when races weren’t in full swing. It was the atmosphere and support of the locals that really made this weekend special – racers were treated almost reverentially by a lot of people, and it was great to see Greeks getting involved and taking on their very first obstacle races.
Nothing felt particularly unattainable about the obstacles too – despite it being a world championship platform, everyone took on the same course and obstacles as the elites, which just goes to prove that something doesn’t have to be almost impossible to keep the elite athletes’ attentions, and make good viewing. It was exciting enough watching the speed at which they completed them, rather than seeing repeated obstacle failure and injury. The rig was great too; providing a bit of variety from UK rig set-ups, that so often only feature one element.
Most people attending were going for the Trifecta, but some used the weekend as an excuse to dip their toe into unknown waters. What a weekend on which to start OCR too – with absolute legends of the sport tearing up the course mere minutes before you. Having that mix of elite and everyman made the weekend quite special, with achievements celebrated right down from World Trifecta Champions, to age group podiums to spirit awards on Sunday night.
Trifecta weekends are indeed about atmosphere and endurance – the hundreds of hobbling hoards in the streets of Sparta certainly proved that, but they don’t always have to be. If you’re planning a long weekend away with a partner or friend who isn’t strictly an OCR type, they can still have a good time and not feel excluded. Taking on something like a Sprint and then just enjoying your surroundings is a great way to get your fix of sport, support and culture in one fell swoop. It’s relatively cheap to exist in Sparta, with excellent restaurants surrounding the event village that won’t break the budget.
With registration open for next year already, we’d say it’s a mainstay of the Spartan calendar and well worth considering. The atmosphere really makes it something quite special, and I say that as someone who doesn’t often get swept up in the emotion of an event. If you’re interested in going, Spartan also put on travel packages to make things easy for you… which maybe takes the sting out of burpees in the water.