On Saturday, I had the good fortune of competing--no, not competing, but rather participating--in the Spartan Sprint at CitiField.
For those who have yet to discover the world of the Spartan, it is among a variety of obstacle course races gaining in popularity today, along with races like the Tough Mudder, The Urbanathlon and The Extreme Wolverine Challenge. Like those races and the many others like them, the focus of the Spartan Sprint is to test the body and the mind with physical challenges that exceed the old-school marathon mentality. Think: "a functional race for the functionally training": box jumps, wall climbs, monkey bars and on and on...
Why participate is something so ghastly? There are many motivators to make someone choose this kind of training, and the combination of extremist training and competing is certainly having its day. Most would say that, in addition to being extremely physically challenging, these races are fun because the test isn't simply just running, like the races of yore. You will run, oh yes, you will run. But these races really test your mettle. You will also jump, crawl, throw, carry, shimmy, lunge, bounce, rattle, and heave.
Admittedly, my primary motivating factor wasn't the personal challenge. I had been hired by the good folks at Men's Fitness magazine to write a series of articles on how to train for obstacle races like the Spartan. So for eight weeks, I designed workouts, trained hard and shared my experience with readers. When I finished the articles a couple of weeks ago it occurred to me that I could skip out on race day and it wouldn't really matter. I mean, come on. Saturday is my day off. Do I really want to have to run around CitiField all day the one day I give myself to rest?
Well, maybe I didn't want to, but I am a man of my word, so I was going to do it.
But I'd be damned if I was going to do it alone. I gathered a group of tough, like-minded Spartan virgins and we began our training program. I created a workout for all of us to use, a sort of litmus test to prepare ourselves as well as gauge our progress during training. It was a pretty bad-ass workout, if I do say so myself. But we had no idea what we were getting into, so we felt obliged to make our asses badder.
We trained as a team. We raced as team. And we finished as a team.
Here are a few things I learned:
1. Fear is a nasty, petty, little b*tch
You know what the worst part of the whole event is? Not all the climbing. Not all the box jumps. Not even the burpees. The worst part of the whole thing is that, during the weeks up to the event, every single third grade gym class humiliation comes flying back into your head. For me, it was the memory of trying to shimmy up the rope of the school gym so that I could touch the asbestos in the ceiling. Unfortunately, though we can train on rope pulling machines, we didn't have the opportunity to actually climb rope before the event. So now, forty years later, I have this terror that I am going to be struggling on that rope IN FRONT OF THOUSANDS ON THE PLAYING FIELD OF A STADIUM. But I climbed it, and much faster than I could have ever anticipated. And I realized that, succeed or not, the psychological gauntlet I had put myself through was far tougher than anything in the race itself.
2. What may seem god-awful and unpleasant when going alone is god-awful, unpleasant and really, really fun when doing it with your friends
I split my training for the event 50/50 between training with members of the team and training alone. Solo training is always great. For me, it is alone time when I can settle into a nice rhythm and test my limits and myself. Training with teammates made me throw that rhythm out and adjust to everyone who was around. It made it more challenging and pointed out parts of the workout where I could push myself even further. But aside from that, it just made it fun, as we could commiserate with each. The teamwork came to fruition at the race, where we assembled in our matching t-shirts, nicknames emblazoned on the back. The team dressed as members of the superhero universe easily outclassed us. I also had to tip my hat to the people who chose to compete in speedos and knee socks -- though I tried to avoid following too closely during the cargo net climb.
3. Upper body strength is easily the most important part
When we started training, I wasn't sure where to put the emphasis. Cardio? Upper body? Lower body? I am very satisfied that we went hardcore with our upper body work. The strain of the push ups, the lifting, the carrying, the wall climbing, the rope climbing and throwing made all that work easily the most important part. Except...
4. Lower body strength is easily the most important part
You can't climb the damned stadium steps over and over and over again on your hands. Up and down, up and down, over and over. With sandbags. Without sandbags. Over and over. And running and jumping. Then running again. If the legs hadn't been up to the task, it would have been a misery. I think most Spartans occur on a mountainside somewhere near Area 51 so when they bring the circus to an urban environment and set up in a stadium, they are forced to make use of all the steps and ramps. I know I will not be able to watch the Mets in that stadium the same way ever again.
5. It's all about that bass AND the treble
Probably the smartest thing I did in prepping for the race was adding yoga to my workout schedule about a month before the race. With all the stress building up (see Item #1), I developed a mindset that could have lead me down the path to over training. But yoga served to keep me not just calm, cool and collected, but extremely limber. It was the perfect balance to the hardcore training.
6. Never ever say never
Like I said, I didn't plan on this. It was not on my bucket list. I have my challenges. I like to push. I like to fight and win. But I had no interest in this. Thanks to the coincidence of writing the articles, I had the chance to throw myself in the event. I got the chance to train with a great group of people. And the event brought us closer in a way that we might not have shared otherwise. We will always have that first Spartan Sprint to bind us together. And I can guarantee you that, because of that camaraderie, we all had an extremely fun, albeit physically challenging, experience. Would we do it again? I can't speak for the whole team, but I for one feel as though a new door has opened. I'm not running through it just yet. But I am peering in to see what I might see, and maybe test myself a little further.