Sunday, August 10, 2014

2014 Boston Spartan Sprint

I had a great time hanging out with the NE Spahtens yesterday at the Boston Spartan Sprint at Amesbury Sports Park in Amesbury, Massachusetts. Seth and I left the house bright and early to get to the inconveniently located town of Amesbury.

Honestly, you can find an OCR at Amesbury most weekends in the warmer months. The venue is a favorite of race directors and for good reason. As a racer, I have mixed feelings about racing at Amesbury. For starters, the drive there is almost always a hassle as 495 is a very congested road on weekends in the summer. Second, the parking for Amesbury is off-site at a casino in nearby New Hampshire. This means you have to get bussed about ten minutes from the parking lot to the venue. Buses are always plentiful, however, and there is never a wait, so this is well handled even though it's kind of a drag to not have on-site parking. Also, they don't allow in outside food or drink, which is a hassle for days like yesterday when it's 80 degrees and you want to stay hydrated while you wait to race.

Amesbury has some nice hills. Nothing too killer, but your legs will definitely feel the burn traipsing through the woods there. Spartan Race did a great job using the terrain and nicely mixed-up the sections your run on flats, downhill, and uphill. The trails were well-marked and easy to navigate. The woods of Amesbury are poison ivy central -- with all the races they hold there you think they might want to take care of that -- so you have to proceed with caution. We will see how well at avoiding a rash I did in a few days time.


We arrived at the race at around 10:15 a.m., just a little over an hour before the NE Spahtens team heat at 11:30 a.m. That's right; there were so many Spahtens in attendance that the group got it's own heat. Check in was a breeze. I had my wavers all set and went right up and got my packet. Conveniently, everything was pre-organized in an envelope. Spartan doesn't have you wear your bib (because honestly you'll just lose it anyway), so they provide a headband with your bib number that you use for identification along the course. I put on my chip for timing and my headband and headed over to the biggest team tent to find some of my Spahten friends.

From what I heard there were around 300 Spahtens racing that day. I definitely agree. I was happy to get to see several of my Ragnar teammates and some of the other attendees of the Shale Hill weekend and from BattleFrog. I'm starting to know quite a few people and really feel like a member of the team. It's great to have like-minded individuals who share your interests.

At around 11:05 a.m., we headed over to the starting area for Vince Rhee to take our team picture. As you can see, we are a sizable group. I am in the lower right-hand corner somewhere sitting next to fellow ginger and Ragnar companion Mike. Good luck trying to find me!


Following the picture, we headed into the starting area. There was a quick wall to get into the coral and then we were in place. NBC Sports was filming the race for airing on September 23 at 10:00 p.m., so they were shooting footage. They encouraged those of us in team gear to stand towards the front so the cameras would see a wave of blue. I headed semi-towards the front but didn't really make it, which is fine -- I think they had enough people.


There were some brief remarks a few "Aroo!"s, and we were off!

 

We began the course by running straight up the hill. We took a quick left and headed towards the first obstacle, Rolling Mud. There were a set of two or three mud pits that we had to navigate and they were deep. I was wet up to my chest. Rolling Mud also featured a short log balance beam that we had to traverse. 

 


From there, it was immediately on to Over-Under-Through where we went over a wall (probably around six feet), under another, and through the third. No problem so far.


Next we headed off towards a part of the sports park that I was not familiar with. We probably jogged around 1/3 of a mile until we came to a field with two walls. There was a 7' or 8' wall for people that wanted to go over by themselves and a 10' or 12' wall for people to do as teams. There were lots of Spahtens about, but I knew some of them were helping newer people and were busy. I decided to handle the shorter wall myself. I was going over the wall and put my foot on the side support. Behind me I heard, "Burpees!" (Note: For failed obstacles at Spartan Race, you have to complete 30 burpees.) What? Apparently you were not allowed to touch the side of the wall. I apologized, saying I didn't know about the rule, agreed I should have, and said I would definitely do the burpees. The staff person, either out of kindness or my attitude being respectful said that I could do the wall again and if I did it correctly would not have to do the burpees. I can do a wall that size without the side supports no problem (I had just been trying to save energy), so I did and reminded myself to take the walls the proper way going forward.

Next up was the Gamble. There were two signs:
1. Do 15 burpees and run 200 meters flat
2. Run 250 meters with a hill.
I decided to opt for option number two since I was guessing I would have to do burpees later and running an extra 50 meters is nothing even if it is with a hill -- much easier than burpees. This ended up being a good choice because the hill was a downhill. Gamble won!

From there it was back into the woods for more trail running. I think here is a good place to comment on my main complaint about the course. The obstacles were very poorly spaced. They were all concentrated at the beginning and end of the race with only a few scattered in between. I understand that this is likely to make filming easier for NBC and makes for awesome spectating -- Seth said he had the best spectator experience at this race of any to date. This sort of set-up might be the reality for convenience, but it's not great for the participants.


I would estimate there were around nine obstacles in the last mile. There were maybe 2/3 of that in the first almost four miles. This meant that we had long stretches of just running in the woods. At 4.8 miles, the course was fairly long for a Spartan Sprint. I think that's great -- more bang for your buck -- but I would have liked to see the course be laid out in a way that was more participant friendly so that I didn't feel like I was running down the same hill a few times just to pad the mileage and tire you out before the obstacle glut at the end.

The next obstacle was Inverted Walls. I'm a fan of this obstacle and tend to find them fun. The ones at Spartan were actually the easiest that I have come across. Along the back of the wall were two rungs of boards that you could grab onto and step on. This meant that you could almost climb to the top like you would a ladder. You still had to be able to pull yourself up and over the top, but it was a lot easier to get there. The Inverted Walls had similar boards on the back to let you climb down easily.

After the Inverted Walls was the Tractor Pull / Team Log Carry. Individuals could drag a cement block on a chain and teams could go a log carry. I was not in sight of any Spahtens that I knew, so I did the Tractor Pull. This was done over some muddy and uneven ground, but the pull was short and we weren't having to pull uphill or anything crazy like that. As long as you kept moving the Tractor Pull wasn't too bad.

After some brief running, we came to the Tire Drag. The Tire Drag was over a fairly short distance. We had to pull the tire towards us using the rope that was attached and then carry it back out. Seth had been at the Tire Pull waiting for me and had noticed that the volunteer who was running the obstacle often had to bring the tired back out for people. To do this, he was stepping in the tire, lifting the front, and then walking out. Seth recommended I try this tactic. I did, and it worked extremely well. I struggle on the obstacles that require lifting and carrying, but I got this one easily.



Next up was the Sandbag Carry. I knew this was coming and had fears based on my Shale Hill Sandbag Carry pseudo-meltdown. I need not have worried. Spartan had nice soft little sand disks that were probably around 10 pounds for the women and I am guessing around 25 for the men. We walked down a hill and then back up. I rested the sandbag on the top of my back kind of across my shoulders and it was totally fine. I didn't even feel like I was suffering.

From the Sandbag Carry we went back into the woods for quite a bit. This entire stretch was just running with some hiking up and down the hills in the woods of Amesbury. As I mentioned before, these hills were enough to get you breathing and your legs working but they were certainly not killer killer hills. That being said, over time, they definitely started to cause fatigue and when we excited the woods for the last set of obstacles, later in the race, I was feeling it.

After our trail run / hike, we excited to the Monkey Bars. These were not your standard Monkey Bars. The bars were at three levels so you had to bring your self up two bars and then down two. I have to admit that the Monkey Bars are one of my favorite obstacles and this variation was super fun. I think I am lucky enough to have a body-type that is well suited to the Monkey Bars, and I like the feeling of being able to tackle an obstacle that others have trouble with. That's not to say I was always good on the bars -- I definitely failed them at my first Tough Mudder. But I've been working at it, and now this obstacle is one I have come to enjoy.


 

From the Monkey Bars, it was back into the woods for a very long stretch of running and hiking. This was a very long stretch with out obstacles. I think we could have run for even a mile or so with nothing but terrain and woods. It was a bit of luck that I came upon some Spahten friends to chat with and pass the time; otherwise, this bit of course would have been very tedious. When we excited the woods, it was at the top of the hill in Amesbury overlooking the festival area. We had probably around 1.5 miles to go, and they looked to be obstacle heavy. Finally!

First up was the Rope Swing. We had to grab a rope and swing from one side to the other over a pool of water. I usually nail this obstacle on the first try, but didn't get enough momentum the first time and had to do it again. (You got three tried before having to do the burpee penalty.) The second time I did a much better running start and made it across with no problem.

We ran down the hill to the area adjacent to the festival area. It was time for the Hercules Hoist. I hadn't been all that concerned about this obstacle after doing fine with hoists at Down & Dirty and Shale Hill. Perhaps that had been foolish. The Hercules Hoist bested me for sure. I've heard reports of the weight for the women's hoist being between 75 and 85 pounds. I believe it. I could hardly get the bag moving. At Shale Hill I had learned a technique where you pull down once and then walk back using the strength of your legs to do the hoist. However, at Spartan, I could not get the bag more than a couple of feet of the ground. From there, I was unable to move with it at all. Nor could I get my arms to pull it up. The result: my first set of burpees for the day.


The Hercules Hoist (and my burpees) led directly into the next obstacle, Bucket Brigade. This was what I feared the Sandbag Carry would be -- brutal. We had to take a bucket, orange for women and black for me, and fill it with rocks to the top of a taped line. We then had to walk the bucket about half way up the hill and then back down. We were supposed to keep the bucket in front of us at all times and not carry it on our back or shoulders. What a struggle! I made it but not without having to take a few rest stops. Since pretty much everyone else was doing this too, I didn't feel so bad.


I had about a mile left in the race. I had been feeling pretty good, but the hoist + burpees + bucket carry combo was a killer. I was definitely getting tired. It was also a very warm day and I had brought limited fuel. I had thought the race would be a bit quicker than it was. Spartan took good care of us with four water stops on the course. I drank thirstily at each one but wished I had brought some fuel. I ended up being on the course for 2:19, and only had one GU. I definitely will bring more next time and might even consider bringing a hydration pack if I know it's going to be a hot day because I could have used more fluids. This is not to say that I boinked terribly. I had just anticipated having a slightly faster race and should have brought more food so that I could have felt a little more charged at the end.

I was immensely relieved when Bucket Brigade was over. We got to climb the Bridge that we had entered the course by passing through. This wouldn't be a good obstacle for you if you mind heights, otherwise, it was a snap and a nice rest after all that heavy work.


From the Bridge, we headed back up the hill and did the Slip Wall, and inclined wall that you climbed with a rope. I got great traction with the Icebugs and climbed up the wall no problem. The wall wasn't very steeply inclined, so it was a fairly easy climb in my opinion. After the Slip Wall, we finished climbing the hill and took a right back towards the area where we had started our race. We had less than a mile to go!

The obstacles kept coming fast at this point. There was a second set of 7' or 12' Walls (for individuals or teams). Then it was on to the Rope Climb. My arms were a bit tired from earlier but nothing terrible, and I was feeling good about the Rope Climb, especially after making it up the super slippery rope at BattleFrog last weekend. As at most races, we had to get on the rope from a pool of water -- thought I might say that this was was a bit deeper than usual. I was in up to the top of my chest. This made it a little hard to get started, but I was able to pull myself up and get my legs wrapped around the bottom of the rope. Seriously this technique of wrapping the rope around the legs to take weight off the arms has changed the rope climb for me a ton. I am now much more confident when I do it. Yesterday, I nailed it!


 
 
Right after the Rope Climb was the Traverse Walls. These are usually a favorite obstacle of mine. Because they were right after the Rope Climb, they were drenched and very slippery. I actually slipped trying to get on the wall and had to reposition. My arms were a bit tired after the Rope Climb, so I was glad that this was not the longest Traverse Wall I have ever done. Placed elsewhere on the course this might have been easy, but with a slick wet wall and tired arms, it was a nice challenge where it was. Well done, Spartan!



We went right from the Traverse Wall to the Spear Throw. The Spear Throw is an infamous burpee maker since so few people actually hit the throw. For it to count, the spear has to stick in the hay figure. I made a valiant effort and my spear did manage to make it to the figure and sort of hit the side, but I did not sure nearly enough force. Time for my second set of 30 burpees for the day.


The Spear Throw led directly into the longest Barbed Wire Crawl I have ever done. There was actually a bit of a pile-up here, and people were moving a bit slowly as they rolled or crab crawled under the wire. There were four sections of the Barbed Wire Crawl. The first three were dry, the last was wet and muddy. I was getting kind of scratched up on the crawl and was looking forward to the muddy section if only so that I didn't get more bruises and nicks; however, the muddy section was somehow even rockier. I always think the Barbed Wire Crawl is more of a drag than a challenge since the discomfort of it is about getting scrapped up instead of dealing with a physical challenge. I'll take a Barbed Wire Crawl on grass any day but these rocky ones are a pain -- literally.




The Barbed Wire Crawl ended up at a pond of muddy water with a wall. You had to submerge yourself and swim under the wall. For those of you who are water / swimming adverse: don't worry. The wall was only a couple of inches into the water. I was actually eager to get into the water and get some of the mud off from the last section of the Barbed Wire Crawl, plus I was hot. The water felt great!

There was just one obstacle to go before the finish line, Fire Jump. This may sound crazy, but I have been waiting for years to do an obstacle where you jump over fire. Somehow, have never attended a course that had a Fire Jump until now. Was it fun? Yes. Was it as epic as the pictures make it out? Not quite. There wasn't really a lot of fire at the Fire Jump, per say. It was more hazy with smoke. So, no, there aren't any epic pictures of my jumping and emerging through the flames, but am guessing that they can't really do that without fear of danger to the participants anyway. Still, you can be sure I will comb the Spartan pictures for one of me doing Fire Jump soon. I was glad to get to living the dream.


It was just a short run down the hill from Fire Jump to the finish line. I was lucky to race through and get my medal from a fellow Spahten.


I grabbed a banana, protein bar, and some much-needed water. I added my name to the Wall of Valor -- kind of cool. I then picked up my t-shirt, which at size small is almost comically over-sized. I hope that eventually more races do what BattleFrog is doing and get women's t-shirts too. After picking up all my swag, I then headed to the hoses.


I had a lot of fun at the 2014 Boston Spartan Sprint. I have heard that it was one of the most challenging races people have ever done at Amesbury. I found the race a challenge but certainly not killer and definitely not as taxing as BattleFrog (last weekend) or Shale Hill (two weeks ago). Overall, I liked the obstacles but didn't love the obstacle placement or how it felt like we did a bunch of random running to just add miles. I think the mileage would have been fine if the obstacles were evenly spaced across them. Spartan always seems to do a lot of carry / lift obstacles like the Sandbag Carry, Tire Drag, Bucket Brigade, and Hercules Hoist. These are not personally my favorite sorts of obstacles. I tend to prefer obstacles that require climbing and agility over ones that are just tests of muscle. For that reason Spartan Races will probably never be my personal favorite. This is not a statement against the race or a criticism -- it's just me, as a consumer, being honest about what I like. I had a lot of fun at the Spartan Sprint this weekend, but I loved Shale Hill last month. That's the difference.

Probably the best part of the Boston Spartan Sprint was getting to spend time with my fellow Spahtens. I would probably sign up again next year just for the chance to hang out with the team and race with some cool people.

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