Ashlie, having completed several obstacle courses over the past few years, had always been looking for the ultimate challenge. Was the Spartan Beast it? Read about her encounters with rough terrain, lake swims, ‘pancakes’ and spears in her toughest race yet.
On the last Sunday in September, I participated in my first ever Spartan race, the Spartan Beast London South. The Beast is a gruelling 20+ km, 25 obstacle race with mud, and lots of it! Here’s what I experienced in my 3 hours 47 minutes on the course…
Registration was very efficient and I was quickly registered (even though I turned up without my disclaimer – there were plenty of spares), toilet stop, timing chip strapped to my shoe and in the start line chanting ‘I am Spartan’ and twisting to warm up in less than 30 minutes after arriving.
I was running in the Elite wave at 9.00a.m. Now I knew I had no chance of placing, but after being held up at previous obstacle races by slower runners and queues at obstacles, I was determined to run this race and get the best possible time.
Off we went, I started next to my brother who had placed 3rd in the Sprint and Super the weekend before and he was quickly a distant figure up ahead. There were some trails runs to start before facing one of the first obstacles – the Barbed Wire Crawl. Thankfully the mud was nice and wet so you could slide and roll through this quite easily. Next up, less than 15 minutes into the race, the obstacle I was dreading the most – the Rope Climb. Just over a year ago I attended a Spartan Taster session in Covent Garden, at this event we were taught by Race Director Richard Pringle, the correct technique, but with no practice in over a year I knew I wasn’t going to complete this obstacle. At Spartan races if you fail to complete an obstacle you have to do 30 burpees, so after obstacle 2 I’d already done my first 30!
Next up I faced the Tyrolean Traverse (a rope over water) – this was the first queue I experienced during the race and I had to wait over 5 minutes before I got to attempt it. After watching other competitors, I only saw one complete it correctly (on top of the rope). I followed suit with the majority of the competitors falling underneath and pulling myself along with only my arms – I’m sure a much less efficient way of completing it (and after reading the instructions on the Spartan website – incorrect) – but I made it across. Next up came the Cargo Net before the first Swim, the Under, Over, Through and the second Swim. I knew there would be lake swims and had got some last minute training lengths in the week before the race – these really paid off and I overtook quite a few competitors during the swim. I also regularly have cold baths after running and I really think this helped me with the water obstacles, as I didn’t seem to experience the shock factor from the cold temperatures when I first jumped in.
Into the woods to the Traverse Wall and another queue (I thought going into the Elite race this wouldn’t be a problem) – it appeared some of the hand grips were broken and that knocked out two of the walls from use. However I quickly (and successfully) completed this, rang the bell and ran off with the first water station and sweets in sight. A lemon lolly in my mouth and off I went to the Hercules Hoist – at the training event in Covent Garden I successfully raised the weight to the top but then dropped the weight, so had to complete 30 burpees. I’d learnt my lesson and after successfully hoisting the weight to the top at the Beast, I slowly, under control lowered the weight to the ground. Next up, Bucket Brigade. I’d heard bad things about this, however I filled my bucket to the required level, ran the majority of the prescribed route, returned the filled bucket with no problems, before heading off on the next trail section with first sight of my supporters. They watched me climb the Bridge before I headed off into the woods once again.
Over some (very high) Walls, more trails, before I emerged into a large field; I was feeling great up until this point and had just been told I was approximately the eighth female racer. However, I then faced the Log Carry, a log that I could only just pick up and I had to run round a field with it. Running soon turned into walking and I started to struggle. Everyone I could see seemed to be casually carrying this log over one shoulder, yet I felt like I was going to drop it every 20 seconds. I very slowly made my way round the field, being overtaken by lots of people and was glad to never see that log again. Note to self: must practice running carrying a log.
Onwards through more trails before I faced the first Tire Flip (a ladies option was available here), followed by a Spear Throw. Now I cannot tell you the last time I threw a spear, possibly because I never have. I know this is one of the obstacles that catches out even the most Elite racers, so I wasn’t feeling too positive. Failure! My spear didn’t hit (or stay in the hay) and so I had to complete a second set of 30 burpees. More trails led to the first part of the Memorization Test – what?! A memory test, I hadn’t trained for this! There was a large board with a list of words/numbers that corresponded to your race number. You had to memorise your word/number combo and then recite it to a race marshal when prompted later in the race. Combo in my head (kind of) I headed off.
More trails led to some very deep mud – everyone clung to the edges of the trails, but these were so steep or full of tree roots you occasionally toppled in…at one point I was thigh high in the stuff and had to quickly pull myself out so I didn’t end up stuck or shoeless as I’d seen others experience. I carried on the trails for some time before emerging into large fields consisting of another Tire Flip (no ladies option this time), double Log Carry (these had rope straps), and Tire Carry with Balance Beam and Log Hop. This seemed to go on forever and was the first part of the course I didn’t really enjoy. Part of the excitement of the race is that you can’t anticipate what is coming next or around the corner, however as soon as you entered the fields you could see the zigzagging of antlike racers going up and down the hills and what obstacles were coming next. Racers were also out in the sun for a long time during this section and whilst there was a water station, it would’ve been good to break this up with a little shade or trail running. After the mammoth field was complete, I headed back to the woods and was handed two bricks to run with. I struggled with the size of these as my hands weren’t quite big enough to grip them properly, yet the men running around me all seemed to be carrying them fine. I pushed on before slipping down a bank, into a waist deep river, dropping one of my bricks – this was the worst moment of my race. I was frantically scrambling around at the bottom of a muddy river for a brick, in the middle of the woods, all on my own. Some fellow racers soon appeared behind me and after helping me search for a bit but we admitted defeat and I accepted the burpee forfeit which awaited me. After 30 burpees in a bog (10 times harder than on dry land) I ran onwards to the second and much tougher Barbed Wire Crawl, this time with really hard mud, rocks and logs in the way. The wire also seemed to be much lower and at points was lying on the ground. I was so relieved to be free of the barbed wire but my relief didn’t last long; I was distraught when asked by a race marshal to recite my combo for the second part of Memorization Test. After the dropping of the brick incident, I hadn’t recited it for a few miles…GOLF-547-3626? No, the final digit was 7 not 6 …30 burpees for me! By this point my arms had started to give up and hearing every other runner recite their number correctly was hugely disheartening. However, I was spurred on by the thought, surely there can’t be long left!
Downhill to collect a Spartan Pancake (again no ladies option) to crawl under a Cargo Net and over an Inverted Wall, followed by some smaller walls and then into the woods for another trail run. I copied a few fellow racers and put the pancake on the back of my neck between my shoulders to give my arms a break – great for the race, however the following day I felt like I had whiplash, my neck was so sore. At the end of the pancake carry, the final water station and energy gels greeted me, followed by a long hill climb. The hill climb went along the side of the car park so I knew I must be approaching the main spectator area. At the top of the hill awaited the Pole Traverse and my brother! He’d finished in 3rd place, cleaned up and ran back to find me. He gave me some much needed encouragement and technique guidance for this obstacle, helping me avoid more burpees; it helps to have a professional obstacle course racer as your brother! A short trail run back into the woods led me to the main spectator area and to all of my family. This was the first time some of them had seen me during the whole race and I failed miserably at the obstacle they all watched – horizontal bars, a series of hand rings, swinging ropes and foot rings.
After stepping up to the obstacle I soon realised I couldn’t even reach the first horizontal bar and after jumping to reach it, suddenly cramp set in. I clung on to the first bar but lost momentum, I knew my arms were not going to make it all the way across, disappointing resulting in ANOTHER 30 burpees.
After the slowest set of 30 burpees of the race. I set off for the final mile, starting with the Slippery Wall, I was advised to take a good run up and found strength in my arms to power over this and down the Cargo Net the other side.
Into a small stream, back through the woods before reaching another Log Hop – vertical logs of varying heights which you must navigate without letting your feet touch the ground. I completed the first Log Hop earlier in the race (carrying two tires with no problem) however this second one was much muddier and all the logs looked really slippery. Advised by the race marshal which one I should choose, I set off, very slowly. No other competitors were getting across and whilst I was half way I witnessed one competitor get very angry with a marshal as he had failed and was told to complete 30 burpees – he ran off without completing them! I made it all the way across before falling one post from the end…more burpees! By now, race time had gone out the window and I just wanted to finished.
Round the corner and the finish line was in sight but I came across the second Spear Throw and another 30 burpees. The marshals on this obstacle were the toughest of the race and were very strict about the burpee technique – I am all for doing things properly and hate cheaters, but I think rules should be enforced by all and not have some stricter than others. Next up, the Atlas Carry, where you must pick up a round stone (ladies options were available), carry it to the opposite side, put it down (don’t drop it) do 5 burpees and return the stone. Whilst hard, I quite enjoyed this obstacle, having been a fan of strong man for years and it’s something I’ve always wanted to try and managed it successfully. Over the final wall of the race and one obstacle stood between me and glory – the Fire Jump. I’d spotted my husband in the crowd, jumped over the fire grinning for photos before crossing the line and being handed a great medal and t-shirt. Aroo!
I can honestly say The Spartan Beast was the hardest thing I have ever done physically and mentally but it was amazing at the same time. Yes, there were times when I was tired and exhausted, but I never thought ‘why did I do this?!’ Instead, my thoughts throughout were more around the frustration of not having trained harder and making silly mistakes which cost me time (dropping the brick and not reciting my combo correctly) – those additional 60 burpees really slowed me down and used up so much energy. I also learnt valuable training lessons and worked out the best clothes to wear. Trail shoes are a must and if you are thinking of racing in a Spartan Race I would recommend looking at the All Terrain shoes by Reebok. I wore the Reebok All Terrain Super 2.0, these were really soft, light-weight and have drainage ports to prevent water build up. I stupidly however wore running shorts and regretted this about 30 minutes into the race – next time fitted shorts will be worn. I also wore compression calf sleeves for the first ever time, these were a lifesaver and the only thing which didn’t hurt me the following day were my calves!
My overall feeling was extremely positive and for my first ever Spartan, completing the Beast was always going to be difficult. However I think my train journey home from the race summed it up – I spent the entire journey online pre-registering for all UK 2016 races, researching the 2016 Season Pass and desperately waiting for photos and race times to be uploaded online. I’m going for the Trifecta in 2016 – finishing one of each Spartan distance: Sprint, Super and Beast, in a calendar year!
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