This Saturday, I underwent the most trying physical experience of my life, running the 11-mile Super Spartan race on the Mountain Creek Ski & Snowboard course in Vernon, New Jersey. The ski lift wasn’t operational and bridges were sparse, so between the 30 obstacles laid out, we had to climb up, and down, and up, and down the ski slopes; and swim across the lakes and rivers interspersed between them. A Tornado Watch and intense storm shut the course halfway, but we continued on regardless, through abandoned water stops and obstacles, with only our fellow Spartans for safety and support.
Here is my story. It’s not a short one but, neither was the race.
High spirits before the race
Our race started at 2:30 in the scorching midday sun, to the usual inspirational call-and-reponse speech and a charge through the smoke and fire onto the first hill.
This first hill was, of course, a ski slope, as were the three that immediately followed it. The first 30 minutes or so were spent in this fashion, walking up endless inclines in scorching heat, with smiles on our faces and minds firmly fixed on what was to come.
Our home for 5 hours
A couple of easy obstacles later – some up-and-unders and cargo netting – we came across a river with some boats parked at intervals within. Plunging into this provided much needed relief from the heat, and swimming across the river and under the boats was the first challenging obstacle of the event.
Past this, spirits still high and muscles nicely warmed, we ran through some beautiful nature, through thankfully flattish forest trails and around lakes, passing Jersey party kids listening to Call Me Maybe with beers in hand and laughing at soaked runners. Then thin balancing poles embedded in the mud to be run across, with 15 burpees for anyone who fell. In fact, most people, feeling confident about the race after the flat stretch, dropped for a quick workout even after succeeding. This was not, it turned out later, a wise use of energy.
Descents and Storms
After this was a tricky downhill section, made heartbreaking as we saw dispirited and tired Spartans trekking and crawling back up the very incline we were heading down on the other side. At the bottom was some much-needed water, and smiles prevailed as we got to the next obstacle, a 25-foot jump off a cliff into the water below with a decent swim at the bottom. Peer-pressure reigned supreme as people stepped to the edge and nearly bailed upon seeing the sheer drop beneath them, but were convinced by chants and clapping behind. A couple of folks even chose to jump despite not being able to swim, but at this point the course was still open and lifeguards were on duty to pull them out.
Running back uphill after this, drenched once again, the weather turned in just a handful of minutes, going from the scorching sun that greeted me as I took my heart into my hands and leaped into the water, to darkness beneath ominous clouds, with violent winds ripping the very water from our skin into a light mist.
At the foot of the next obstacle stood a solitary course staff member, with his 4 volunteer helpers nearby seeking cover from the elements. In his hands he held hostage the rubber bands to be tied around our feet for the next obstacle, and stared out at the crowd of 300 or so Spartans that were massing at the foot of the obstacle waiting on his next words.
We’re on tornado watch, there’s lightning just ahead. The course is closed, the obstacles are closed, you have to go back down to the last water station.
The mob looked at one another and, without word, without gesture and, alas, without a battle cry of ‘SPARTAAA’ decided that, having come this far, the mere potential of a tornado wasn’t going to stop us, and charged the hill past the bewildered staff member who was swiftly discovering a name badge and a clean set of clothes were mere proxies for power once civilisation had been abandoned. 300 Spartans held the Thermopylae against a horde, but a single volunteer with no natural defenses at his side had no hope of stopping this 300 from rushing up the hill and on to glory.
It was in the pouring rain, hail and winds that we struggled up and down hills before reaching our first abandoned obstacle. Here, with no staff or volunteers in sight, Spartans were wordlessly passing 50lb sandbags to one another and working as a group to fulfill Sisyphus’ legacy, bringing these bags up and down a hill, before flipping over tractor tyres in the mud. Having completed these challenges, we began our ascent of a hill which had equal amounts of traffic made up of those quitting the race and heading for the road below; and those gritting their teeth against the elements and beginning their ascent.
It was now, with the ground mere mush and slurry beneath us, that we were to climb the hill which, even when dry and firm, we’d scrambled down with fearful glances at those climbing back up. Bent at the waist, looking like hunchbacks and pressing our palms against the tops of our knees with every step, we’d urge legs straight for just one more cycle. Eventually we’d realise this wasn’t sustainable and, straightening our backs, take a series of more determined steps, looking around at the phenomenal altitude achieved and the immense distance to go, before bending in exhaustion once more.
Walking past the wounded and exhausted littering the sides of the road, lying down and giving themselves completely to the mud and the rain, words of encouragement were sparse as everyone fought their own inner personal battle with the hill.
Endurance is mental, not physical.
It was after we’d scaled this, and run through some more forest trails that the peak of our hardships came and our resolve was truly tested. Rounding an innocuous corner we came upon a sight to cripple the strongest spirit. The previous hills we’d climbed had, at least before the heavens opened, been reasonably climbable. The next few hundreds of metres would be a scramble up a rocky slope, with cargo netting spread over the steeper areas to prevent a full-scale landslide as we dug in hands, feet, knees and elbows and strove for the summit. Weary, battered and covered in mud, all I could do at this prospect was to laugh, uncontrollably and loudly, and as my race-buddy Noemi and other Spartans came around the corner too, they understood, but few joined in the merriment.
The End of Civilisation
Finally, we reached the top. Noemi and I limped in wordless tandem to a muddy puddle here to wash the worst of the mud from ourselves and, as our eyes met over the dirty water, we realised we were pretty far from home, and had a hell of a distance left to cover. The next sets of obstacles, with more running between them, were all empty and abandoned, looking like ruins of some lost and oddly competitive civilisation, but the entire set of racers still standing never considered for a moment simply running past the climbs, hill walls and rope-obstacles.
A rotating cadre of Spartans had even replaced the volunteers, after completing obstacles we would hold down nets, ensure safety on the walls and treat one another for various injuries, including some awful cases of cramp which lent the air of a battlefield to the course with screams of pain howling through the hills.
Eventually we reached a manned obstacle, a set of ziplines across a lake, which Spartans were to pull themselves along whilst hanging upside-down. These were in the process of being dismantled and a smugly dry member of the course staff urged racers to bypass the obstacle and run around it. Naturally, he was ignored with a smile and a nod, and we lined up to take turns on the remaining 3 zip lines whilst the 4th was being winched away. Plunging into the lake after reaching the goal halfway across the wire helped to remove some of the more ingrained mud, and the shock of the water combined with having some new authority to flout perked up spirits, as we continued along with smiles and banter once more the order of the day.
The photographers had all left by the time we reached the obstacles
Yet more obstacles and more muddy paths awaited us after a brief swim. I finally succeeded in passing through monkey bars and scaled walls so high that I could only just get the tips of my fingers onto their rim with a running jump. A heroic volunteer had chosen to drive up with water and man a water station, providing much needed hydration and provoking laughter when, smiling at the wall-climbers nearby, he told us that everything was closed and would we please all just leave the mountain, knowing no-one would think of doing so.
The next obstacle, again unmanned and turned back on by some mischievous anonymous racer was the downhill water slide (tarp laid over rocks with water pumped down it) and, with no-one to give directions, I plunged headfirst down this, sustaining a few extra scratches and scrapes, but earning applause and shouts of Pete Rose from the top, and the opportunity to plunge face-first into yet more muddy water at a fantastic speed.
From here, it was all downhill. With the knowledge that we were more than 9 miles through, given to us by that heroic water-station volunteer, our smiles grew with every step and the sight of some fresh obstacles at the camp couldn’t deter us. The remaining three obstacles were nearly identical to those from the 3 mile Spartan Sprint. The sideways bouldering climb had some extra barbed wire on top to deter cheating. The fire jump was a lot higher.
And then, the barbed wire crawl. What felt like unending death after 3 miles was a mere annoyance after 11. Crawling uphill under thrillingly low barbed wire, with thick gravel and sharp rocks beneath us, the vantage was too low to have any idea as to progress. Crawling on hands and feet worked for the first few minutes, before tired muscles gave way and eventually we were reduced to lying in the mud, rolling our bodies sideways up the hill and allowing any number of rocks to cut and bruise us. Fleeting attempts to resume more sophisticated methods of ascent invariably led to cuts from the barbed wire and nervously outstretched hands trying to still the dangerously bouncing wires.
We cleared the bouldering wall. We cleared the barbed wire. We cleared the fire jump. We ran through the finish and nearly collapsed with hunger, exhaustion and jubilation.
I have used the plural pronoun throughout this post. Only 30% of the starters finished this race, and without others by my side, I would have been on the wrong side of that split. Without the 9 people I started with, 3 of whom I lost early and 4 more who dropped back when the rains started, I wouldn’t have spent the first third of the race in such high spirits. Without runners on every side of me, constantly providing me with support and drawing strength from mine, I wouldn’t have been safe and would have struggled to persevere.
Finally, without my fellow Capoeirista Noemi constantly by my side, I would have quit, without doubt. My body wouldn’t have been able to take the punishment and my mind wouldn’t have pushed it on anyway. She was a rock for me, as I was for her.
It was hard. It took nearly 5 hours. Two days later, my body is still a wreck. But it was worth it.