My website originally started out as a way for me to chronicle my triathlon journeys. After over nine years of training and racing triathlons, I decided that I was ready to venture out and try something new. Lifting weights and staying strong has always been part of my triathlon training, despite knowing that shedding some muscle would likely make me a faster biker and runner. When I started to think about what athletic endeavor I wanted to do next, I immediately thought of obstacle course racing. The use of obstacle courses to train soldiers likely goes back to ancient times, though they were used in a less structured manner. Roman legionaries, for example, trained for battle by practicing jumping over natural barriers like hedges and ditches. But obstacle course racing (OCR) as a competitive sport has only been around since around 2010. The sport is definitely on the rise and there are hopes of making it an Olympic sport by the 2024 or 2028 summer games.
So, I signed up for the Spartan Sprint race at Ft. Knox Army Base. Much like triathlon, there are varying distances in the OCR world. For Spartan brand races, here are the options:
SPRINT – 3-5 miles | 20-23 Obstacles
SUPER – 8-10 miles | 24-29 Obstacles
BEAST – 12-14 miles | 30-35 Obstacles
ULTRA – 30 miles | 60+ Obstacles
There are over 70 different obstacles listed in the Spartan Rulebook that the individual race organizers can pick from. They do not publish which obstacles will be part of the race ahead of time, so you don’t know until you show up race morning what you will be doing.
The obstacles are spread out over the course with some challenging terrain to navigate between them. The race in Fort Knox consisted of running lots of dirt trails with some dry creek beds, some 6-7 foot trenches and some ankle to hip-deep creeks that you had to run through.
The rules state that for every obstacle that you fail, you have to do 30 burpees. If you do know know what a burpee is, you are lucky. They are not fun and no matter how many burpees you’ve done, the next one always sucks. Watch the video below to see how to properly complete a burpee. Each obstacle had a volunteer that watched for proper burpee form. If you don’t do it correctly, you are forced to do another one.
There are three different categories available for racers. The Elite Category are athletes that are competing to win prize money, test themselves against the best of the best, attract potential sponsors, and rise to the top of the Spartan Race Point Series. Athletes must complete obstacles with no assistance.
In the Age Group (formerly Competitive) Category racers are expected to follow the same rules and standards as the Elite racers. Racers in this category compete for glory and bragging rights, not money. Age Group racers will start immediately following the elite waves, taking advantage of a wide open course while competing for points in a Regional Point Series.
The Open category is for everyone, period. Weekend warriors, novice athletes, first-time racers, and teams are all welcome here. The Open category offers the same opportunity as the Age Group and Elite categories to get far outside your comfort zone, test your body’s limits, and experience the awesome rush of the finish line. However, there’s no pressure to push your pace and racers can help each other complete obstacles.
I figured that I could be “competitive”, so I signed up for the Age Group category instead of the Open group. That may have been a mistake…
As I stood at the start line on race morning, I knew that I wanted to pace myself because I had no idea how difficult the race would be. There were about 100 athletes (male and female) in my wave, so I just hung back and didn’t run hard to the first obstacle. I’m glad I did, because I needed the energy later!
I’m going to list the obstacles that were part of this race in the order that they appeared. I’ll give a brief description of each and let you know how I fared on each.
Over-Under-Through. It is a three parts obstacle that starts with jumping over a 5 foot wall, crawling under a wall, and going through a hole in the last wall. I had no problem with this one.
2. Inverted Wall
The Inverted Wall is a deceptively hard obstacle that can be scaled in a few different ways. For the pure power and brute strength method that is generally used by most elites you will want to approach the obstacle without slowing much and jump up and grab the top of the obstacle. From there you want to pull yourself up and over as if it is a wall but you won’t be able to rely on pushing off the wall with you feet. This becomes more of a muscle up. Once you are pulled up to your hips you can roll over the wall and jump down. The second more common approach is to scale the wall using the built in hand and feet grips. This is more the method the obstacle was named for. You are now climbing an inverted ladder up the inverted wall. Once you are at the top you can wrap your arms around the top and roll your body over. It’s fairly simple to do but requires some upper body strength. I used the climbing method as I knew I wanted to conserve my upper body strength.
3. 6’ Wall
Not much to describe here. Just find a way to get yourself over a six foot tall wall. I just jumped, got my hands on the top of the way, swung my leg over the top, straddled the wall and jumped down the other side.
4. Sandbag carry
Pick up a 40 pound sandbag and carry it however you want down and back up the side of a hill. Very tricky and slippery terrain. This one was hard. I had the bag over my shoulders and stayed low to the ground, using tree roots and rocks to keep me from slipping all the way back down the hill. I have a 60 pound bag at home that I workout with, so the weight wasn’t the hard part. Keeping my footing was!
5. Monkey bars
Similar to what you see at a playground, but harder. The bars were much thicker and the distance between them varied. The height also varies as you go. I had to swing twice before reaching for the next bar a few times. The large gaps in the bars, coupled with the bars being wet and muddy, made it difficult. I managed to get though it and ring the bell at the end.
6. A-frame cargo net
As the name implies – two steel beams form an A-Frame. A cargo net is draped over the frame. Climb up one side and down the other. It’s not hard, but it is at least 30 feet in the air. If you fall, you are likely going to get hurt. I took my time on this one.
7. Hercules Hoist
Hercules Hoist is a weighted pulley system that requires athletes to pull a rope that raises a very heavy weight (150 pounds) off the ground. You also have to lower it slow. I watched some people do it in earlier heats and I learned to leverage one foot on the gate, while keeping one foot on the ground. Reach as high on the rope as you can before using your lower body and core to sit down. Repeat the process until the weight gets to the top. The wet rope slipped through my hands after my first few pulls, ripping the skin off at the base of my fingers (see picture below). After that, I decided to step on the rope after each pull to keep it from sliding.
Obstacles 6, 7 & 8 were one after another, with just a few yards between each, giving you no time to rest. Twister is a twisting set of handles on a rotating bar length-wise. Each handle is off set from the next at about 20 degrees. So when you grab on handle the next handle is slightly above and angled down. Every time you grab a handle the whole set rotates. I knew this one would be hard. I’d watched videos on how to conquer it and despite bleeding hands, I made it through about 80% of the rig. I had three handles left and my grip gave out. I fell to the ground. 30 burpees for me!
9. Bucket brigade
You grab a 5 gallon bucket full of loose gravel. Then you must carry it at waist level, up and down a hill, until you get back to the beginning where you picked it up. The full bucket weighs between 80-100 lbs and is very hard to grip from the bottom as required. I had to stop three times to regrip the bucket. I was definitely gasping for air at the end of this one.
10. Multi Rig
This obstacle can consist of anything that you can hold or swing from. Ours was just rings, like the ones the gymnists use. My hands and grip were shot by this point and I literally made it about one third of the way through before falling. Another 30 burpees. Total burpee count - 60
11. Atlas carry
Pick up a big stone (weighs about 100 pounds), walk with it about 25 feet, set it down, do 5 burpees, pick it back up and walk back with it to where you started. Heavy, but manageable. I didn’t have any trouble with this one.
12. Vertical cargo net
Seems easy, but this net goes straight up and down about 15 feet in the air. I took my time and managed not to fall!
13. Rope climb
Climb a rope about 15-20 high and ring the bell at the top. There are sometimes slight variations to them such as whether there are knots on the ropes or not and if it is over a water pit or over pads. I knew this one would be tough and I had watched some videos on how to do it. I had a game plan, but just couldn’t get the rope to wrap around my feet. This meant that I was using upper-body strength only to try and climb the rope. I made it about 4 feet from the top and started slipping. I managed to stop my slide after a few feet, but just didn’t have the strength to pull myself back up. Failure. Another 30 burpees – total burpee count – 90. After the rope climb, I was spent. This is where I started to run-walk between the obstacles instead of running between them all as I had done up until this point.
14. 8’ Wall
Same as the 6’ wall…just two feet taller. I had to implement a crawl strategy on this one as I didn’t have the strength to hoist myself up on the top of the wall. I grabbed the top with both hands, then walked my legs up the wall while keeping my body close to the wall. Got one ankle up on top and then was able to pull myself over it.
15. Olympus wall
It’s a slanted wall with 3 different props to hold onto: A chain, a hole and a red wall climbing grip. The wall itself is far too slippery to use for balance so you’re relying on nothing but your upper body and grip to get through this. The 3 different props are in different levels of the wall so you have to grab onto them and sometimes either swing up or down, but doing this each time makes it risky to touch the ground, which if you do, you fail the obstacle. With my hands all jacked up, I was expecting this one to be hard. I started with using the climbing grips and then switched to the holes as my fingers didn’t have the strength to hold on. I made it to the end. This was a nice little victory for me at this point in the race.
16. Spear Throw
It’s a simple obstacle, you walk up to a target and get one chance to throw a crude spear into a hay bale. If you miss, you do burpees; If it hits and bounces, you do burpees; If you hit the edge and it skims through, you do burpees. The only way to move on without burpees is to hit the target and have the spear stick. I had perfect speed and distance, but I glanced off of the left side of the hay bail. Failure. Another 30 burpees. Total burpee count - 120
17. Rolling Mud
Rolling Mud consists of is a hill followed by a water pit and this repeats 2-5 times in a row. The hill is between 5-10 feet tall and the water is 2-4 feet deep. And as you can guess the hill is a slippery muddy mess and the pits are never predictable in their depth. I just stepped fast and cautiously though the pit and used my hands and feet to run and claw my way out of the pit.
18. Dunk wall
You just swim under one of those walls that you had jumped over earlier in the race. Yes, your entire body (including your head) will be under water in mud. The cold water actually felt pretty good at this point in the race.
19. Barbed wire crawl
It’s not complicated to crawl under approximately 50 yards of barbed wire about 18 inches off the ground…it just hurts to crawl through dirt on sharp rocks and get the occasional barb wire to the back or shoulder. I alternated rolling and army crawling. Neither was easy, but I made it through.
20. Slip Wall
The obstacle is made up of a wet and muddy wall at about a 45 degree angle with ropes hanging about every 1.5 feet apart. To get up the slippery wall you have to walk yourself up the wall while keeping your legs at nearly 90 degrees to the wall you are walking up. The only way this is possible is by using the rope to support yourself while walking. Once you reach the top, you climb down a ladder on the other side of the wall. I just used sheer desire to finish to complete this obstacle. I could literally see the finish line and I wanted to be done!
21. Plate drag
For this obstacle, you have to drag a flat plate with sand bags stacked on it. You start by standing in a leaning back manor, so your weight is naturally moving in the direction you are pulling the plate/sled. Then get two hands on the rope and pull it towards yourself. You can also incorporate your legs as you would while using a rowing machine to add power. You repeat this by leaning forward again grabbing further down on the rope and pulling until the plate reaches you. Then you walk around the plate and grab a chain on the other side and drag it back to the position it started in until the rope is tight for the next competitor.
22. Fire jump
The Fire Jump is typically the last obstacle at all Spartan Races. It is about 20 feet wide and 1 foot to 2 feet tall of wood, and it is on fire. This is more of a glamour obstacle since they usually position a photographer there. Nothing hard, other than your legs are dead and you don’t want to fail and fall into the fire!
This race humbled me. While I’m not in as good of shape as I am when I peak for a triathlon, I thought my strength and base endurance would serve me well. I was wrong. This one kicked my butt. Not only were my hands a bloody mess, but I was covered in cuts and bruises. I’m not used to finishing near the back of the pack, but I as the amount of people at each obstacle thinned out, I knew I was trailing behind. I ended up finishing in 1:37:47, which put me 56th out of 74 in the Male 40-44 age group and 182nd out of 235 males in the Age Group category. These aren’t the race results I’m used to seeing.
So now I have to decide what I want to do. I really don’t feel like I can train and be competitive at both triathlon and obstacle course racing. I have the desire to do another one just to prove to myself that I can mix it up with some of the faster athletes. Plus, I really enjoy challenging myself and seeing what I can get out of this body. But I know that in order to do that, I need to focus my training on getting stronger and more agile. My grip strength needs to improve as well. None of these things really go along with being a fast swimmer, cyclist and runner.
I now have a much greater respect for the men and women that can dominate these races. It requires an amazing amount of strength and endurance! Aroo! Aroo! Aroo!
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Wishing you optimal health and peak performance,