Where: Squamish (this event is held in various cities around North America)
Cost: Price for the Super Spartan ranges from $65 to $110 depending on how far in advance you register (it gets more expensive closer to the race). There are discounts for teams of four. Spartan Sprint prices are a little cheaper, and the Spartan Beast costs nearly twice as much.
Time: Required time varies depending on whether you want to seriously compete or go at a more relaxed pace. For the Super Spartan, if you walk some of the steeper hills and jog rather than run at full speed for most of the course, expect to take a couple of hours. It will be much faster if you’re running the whole time and slower if you spend a lot of time walking.
Difficulty: The difficulty level varies based on the race. Race types include:
- Spartan Sprint: 3 miles, 15+ obstacles
- Super Spartan: 8 miles, 20+ obstacles
- Spartan Beast: 12+ miles, 25+ obstacles
- Spartan Death Race: A 48-hour+ adventure race with a 10% completion rate
- Junior Spartan Adventure Race (for kids)
Terrain varies from place to place. The terrain for the Squamish race we did was quite hilly, with some relatively steep uphill stretches and sets of stairs, and there were loose rocks and dirt in many areas of the course, which increased the likelihood of slipping or turning an ankle when going fast. Also, those who fail to complete a Spartan Race obstacle must do a set of burpees, which involve jumping, landing, and sprawling over and over again (the penalty was 25 burpees for each failed obstacle).
Obstacles: Spartan Race organizers do not provide course maps in advance, though the trails were well marked. They also do not provide lists of obstacles, because these change from one race to the next, but there are a few themes that recur in most or all races, such as water, mud, fire, climbing, and carrying heavy objects. The race I completed had the following obstacles (not in any particular order):
- Fire: We jumped over a fire at the beginning of the race. It was taller than the one at Warrior Dash, but still easily leapable.
- Over-under fences: There were a series of fences, the first of which we had to go over (it was only around 4 to 4.5 feet high), the second to crawl under, and a third that required moving through the center of two wide boards. This obstacle was easy, and we did it again on the way back.
- Burpees: After running up a steep hill, everyone had to do 25 burpees.
- Balloon: This hilarious obstacle involved blowing up a balloon while running up a steep flight of stairs (because there were often bottlenecks at narrow obstacles, we actually ended up walking this one, though many people were still huffing and puffing).
- Short rope net: This obstacle comprised a rope net that looked like it should be easy to climb because it wasn’t very high, but it was stretched loosely between two trees so that it sagged and tended to throw people off. It was very difficult to complete this obstacle without having others hold the ropes taut. Fortunately, people were considerate and held the ropes for one another after completing the obstacle themselves.
- Climbing wall: This vertical wall could only be climbed with the help of a partner to boost you up within reach the top ledge. For those on their own, there were plenty of friendly people willing to lend a hand.
- Climbing wall with ropes: This obstacle comprised an inclined wall with hanging ropes that could be used to pull yourself to the top and beams on the other side to climb down. The wall wasn’t that high and I found this one pretty easy.
- Balance boards: This obstacle included a zigzagging series of narrow board edges to traverse – the challenge was balancing on the small surface. The boards were low to the ground but the obstacle was surprisingly difficult. I saw very few people complete this obstacle successfully (I fell off this one).
- Embankment: This obstacle involved running up and down a very steep embankment. It actually wasn’t too difficult, as there were roots near the top to hang onto.
- Pet brick: This obstacle required dragging a concrete brick attached to a rope leash for a short distance and back over rocky terrain. It was pretty easy for everyone with good upper body strength.
- Sack carry: Another strength-and-endurance obstacle required running up a steep hill and back down carrying a weighted sack (the sack wasn’t exceptionally heavy or large).
- Tire jumping: Racers were required to leap in and out of the centers of a series of tires without separating their feet. I didn’t have a problem with this one because I’ve done a lot of plyometrics (jumping exercises), but many participants seemed to find this one quite difficult.
- Tire flip: This strength obstacle required flipping an oversized tire. The obstacle was relatively easy (the tire wasn’t too heavy), though I couldn’t get a good grip on it until I removed the gloves I was wearing.
- Climbing wall: This obstacle involved traversing a wall with a small number of smooth little wooden handholds spaced so far apart that it was actually impossible for those below a certain height to reach from one to the next, and participants were not allowed to hang on to the top of the wall (which eliminated the strategy I had hoped to use). We ran in the second-to-last wave and of the nearly 1,200 people who attempted this obstacle, only 31 had successfully completed it by the time we arrived (we weren’t among this elite group).
- Spear throw: For this challenge, participants had to throw a spear at a bale of hay. This one was surprisingly difficult – I didn’t see anyone complete it successfully among the group around us, though I’m sure some people must have over the course of the race.
- Tunnel: This obstacle involved crawling through a long polytunnel of material that lay flat on the ground. It wasn’t difficult except for the claustrophobia.
- Mud crawl: This obstacle required crawling through the mud under barbed wire. The wire was low enough that racers had to actually shimmy on their bellies rather than crawl on hands and knees. There were lots of small rocks on the ground, which made this one unpleasant.
- Vertical climbing ropes: One of the obstacles near the end involved rope climbing. Unfortunately it followed the mud crawl, so the ropes were slick with mud to the point where they may as well have been greased. I saw plenty of fit people who obviously expected to shimmy right up find that they were unable to get a good grip. I only saw one person complete it successfully and I have no idea how she managed it.
- Water pit: This one was actually quite nice, as it took a layer of mud off right before the finish line. The water wasn’t deep, so those who couldn’t swim were able to walk with their heads above the water.
- Pugil bats: People in gladiator outfits swung pugil bats (sticks with giant padded bulbs at either end) to block our path to the finish line. They didn’t swing them very hard, however, and there was no risk of injury, given how soft the bat bulbs were (this one was kind of disappointing – I was hoping for a bit more of a fight at the finish line, though I suppose there would probably be liability issues associated with that).
- Picture ID for package pickup (pre-race)
- Clothes and shoes that are comfortable for trail running (and that you don’t mind soaking in water and mud)
- CamelBak or running belt with soft plastic water bottles (not mandatory, but recommended)
- Cash for parking and food
- The race had a great atmosphere. There were lots of friendly people having loads of fun, entertaining costumes, and wonderful volunteers.
- The race course included a number of beautiful trails through the woods.
- The trails were well-marked and there were volunteers controlling traffic at all road crossings.
- The race package included free stuff: a race T-shirt, finisher medal, one free beer, and access to the post-race party with food and beer for sale and live music.
- Lack of water: It was nearly impossible to get water on the course. Over the entire 15K run, there was just one water station (despite the fact that the website said that there would be up to four stations for this race). To make matters worse, they didn’t stock enough water at the stations, so racers could have only one tiny cup. By the end of the race, they had run out of water altogether, so it was beer or nothing for those who had not brought their own water, creating a serious dehydration health risk.
- Lack of information: It was difficult to get much information about parking, bag check, and other issues from the website in advance.
- Bring your own water, or you may end up doing the entire race in a state of dehydration. A CamelBak is the easiest water container to run with. Some people use running belts with soft plastic bottles, though there is a risk of snagging these on an obstacle. Don’t carry a hard water bottle – you could get injured if you fall on it.
- There are no fueling stations, so bring carb gels or something similar if you think you might experience an energy crash during the race.
- Fitted clothing that won’t soak up too much mud is the best choice for running gear.
- Wear your race number on your back – it may get caught on the ground in the mud crawl if you wear it on the front of your shirt.
- Don’t bring any valuables on the course with you – there’s a good chance you’ll lose them.
- A lot of people lost sunglasses on the course – I wouldn’t recommend wearing them (significant portions of this race took place in the forest anyways, so sunlight glare was not a problem).
- Lace your shoes tightly so that they don’t come off (water and mud can pull loose shoes off your feet).
- Bring a plastic bag for your muddy clothing or something to protect your car seats on the trip home – there is a hose to clean up, but it doesn’t get all the mud off so having a change of clothing is nice (there were no changing rooms – bring a towel to wrap yourself up for a little privacy if you want to change).
- Be aware of people coming up behind you on narrow trails – let faster racers pass and let slower participants know when you are trying to pass. Some people get so tired that they don’t notice when someone is trying to get through unless they’re given advance warning.
- Do some trail running to train – I don’t know about other Spartan Race courses, but the Squamish race had a lot of different terrain, so I was really happy that I’d been doing trail running so that I was accustomed to dealing with rocks, hills, tree roots, and loose dirt. Participants who had only run on smooth pavement found the more varied terrain difficult.
- Women tend to have less upper body strength than men. Building upper body strength by doing chin ups, pull ups, and other upper body weight training exercises in advance of the race will make the strength-challenge obstacles easier.
***UPDATE: We did the Spartan Sprint this year. This 5K race had many of the same or similar obstacles as the one we did last year, though most of the obstacles and the course itself were more challenging due to the snow on the mountain. Racers became exhausted more quickly because they were running up steep hills in mushy snow, and we saw a lot of wipe-outs, especially on the down slopes (I avoided falling by using a mountaineering plunge step while running downhill).
Injuries were far more frequent in the colder, snowy conditions. On the dry course we did last year, we saw some minor scrapes and bruises and a couple of sprained ankles but a lot of people came out of it completely unscathed. On the snowy course this year, people fell off slippery obstacles, in some cases from the tops of climbing apparatuses. We ran in one of the later heats and while we were waiting to head out for our race, we saw participants limping across the finish line, many with large dark bruises and nasty scrapes. A lot of the finishers had blood dripping from their elbows and running down into their shoes from their knees.
Most of the elbow and knee injuries happened in the mud pit, which had low barbed wire to force crawling and lots of sharp rocks embedded in the mud. I found that the secret to completing this obstacle with minimal damage was to belly crawl in a manner similar to that of a swimming frog, which spread the contact over more body surface area rather than concentrating it on the elbow and knee points.
As with the other Spartan race, there were only a couple of water stations and we were dehydrated throughout the entire race, though not as badly as the one we ran in hot weather. They really need to get more water on these courses. Otherwise, we had a great time, and will do the race again the next time it comes to town.
Out of the two Spartan races I’ve run so far, I preferred the 15K Super Spartan that ran through wooded trails to the 5K snow run, but they were both really fun.
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