Spartan race: DFL > DNF > DNS

You'll know at the finish line: how true that motto proved.

You'll know at the finish line: how true that motto proved.

Three weeks ago, I finished the Spartan Sprint in Malibu. In theory, a Spartan Sprint is a 5K with 15 obstacles, but the Malibu Sprint was nearly 5 miles, and 18 obstacles. 5K, some obstacles… maybe some burpee penalties… how hard can it be? 

Hard. Damn hard, as I discovered.

This race was a huge milestone for me. To explain why, here's a little background.

Why I put myself through this:

Sept. 2012 — I'm standing in one leg of my largest old pair of pants, a 26/28.

Sept. 2012 — I'm standing in one leg of my largest old pair of pants, a 26/28.

In January 2011, I was severely out of shape, and weighed somewhere in the neighborhood of a small asteroid. For years, I'd been eating a low-fat, low-calorie diet, and doing endless hours on the elliptical machine, but that wasn't enough to halt a medication-induced weight gain. I finally got sick and tired of beating my head against the wall, and decided to give the Paleo diet a shot. I dropped about 35 pounds over the next eight months, which wasn't bad, but I still was severely out of shape. In Sept. 2011, I started working with a personal trainer, Mark, who introduced me to CrossFit and Olympic lifting. I was hooked. I'd done some weightlifting in high school when I was throwing the shotput and discus, and enjoyed it enough to lift in college. But I'd always loathed any sort of running; the long hours going nowhere on the elliptical machine were mind-numbingly boring. So when I discovered that I could simply lift weights faster to get my cardio done, I was thrilled. In the first year of working with Mark, I lost 38 inches, gained 28 pounds of lean body mass, and lost 75 pounds of fat. I went from wearing a 26/28 to a size 18. I kept on lifting and eating a Paleo diet, and focused on getting stronger. After years of wrangling with my HMO, I finally got referred to an endocrinologist, who took one look at my history and lab results, and figured out that I had polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS), Syndrome X, was hypothyroid, and couldn't tolerate sugar or starch — no wonder getting healthy had been such a Sisyphean task. With hormone therapy, I continued to lose fat and gain muscle, and kept getting stronger, which made me happy.

race_alone.jpg

In January 2013, I started getting restless, and started thinking about ways to challenge myself. I considered the CrossFit Open, but after doing the Open's workouts, it became abundantly clear that I had no chance of competing against people in their 20s and 30s, and would have to wait until 2014, when I'd be old enough to qualify for the Masters division. But in March, my friend Phil decided he was going to run the Spartan Sprint in Malibu to celebrate his 49th birthday and wanted moral support. When he asked who else was in, I was the first to sign up. Because friends don't let friends race alone, right?

How I trained:

Over the next six months, I trained for the race by getting stronger, and gradually adding hill sprints and intervals into my workouts. By Thanksgiving, I was the strongest I'd ever been in my life, and was confident that I'd have no problem with any strength obstacle I encountered.

The bodyweight obstacles, I was less confident of. Even though I was much lighter than I had been years ago, my upper body wasn't strong enough to haul my body mass up over anything, or do a pull-up. But, we had a couple of big guys on our team, and I figured they'd be willing to help me get over the walls. Besides, if I couldn't make it through an obstacle, it was only a 30-burpee penalty, and after years of CrossFit, I was certainly no stranger to burpees.

The running, however… that would be more problematic. Years of basketball and fencing has left me with arthritis, patellofemoral syndrome, and bone spurs in my knees. I've torn ligaments in my knees and ankles countless times. Squatting to full depth is still extremely painful, and doing high-impact things like running is a world of hurt. I figured that if the race was 5K, and would have 15 obstacles, then I wouldn't ever be running more than about 330 meters between obstacles. So I focused on short distances, enough to manage without my knees feeling like a coffee grinder, mashing my ligaments and what little cartilage I have left. This would prove to be a massive mistake.

Yes, it was really that muddy and wet. Photo: http://www.gettingdirtypodcast.com

Yes, it was really that muddy and wet. Photo: http://www.gettingdirtypodcast.com

Race day:

On race day, I got up at 3:30 a.m, packed the car, ate a breakfast of protein and caffeine, and drove the hour to the race's parking lot in Malibu, which opened at 6 a.m. The weather in Malibu was cold: 37° and oscillating between drizzing and full-on, not-screwing-around icy rain. There was frost on the ground at the parking lot. Awesome. Just what my arthritis needed.

I was supposed to meet my team there at 6:45 to catch the shuttle bus up to the race, but by then, only Phil and his girlfriend had shown up at the parking lot. Instead of waiting for the rest of our team, we went ahead and took the next bus up. The shuttle was extremely well-run; every 15 minutes, another bus or van took a load of people up the 7 miles to the starting point — Calamigos Ranch, which also houses the Biggest Loser resort.

Check-in went smoothly and fairly efficiently; I'd brought my waiver with me, and picked up my race packet without a hitch. My packet had my bib, $5 worth of merchandise credit, a ticket for free beer, and a headband with my bib number on it. After we checked in, we started preparing for our 9:15 heat while we waited for the rest of our team. I had my gloves, my Vibrams, a change of clean clothes, buffalo jerky, and a bottle of Vicodin. I wisely wore compression pants and my biggest, most-industrial, and ugliest knee braces. Unwisely, I wore my team shirt, made of cotton. Although I'd designed it, I didn't realize that they'd ordered my design printed on thick cotton men's shirts. Cotton is the very last fabric you want to be wearing for an obstacle course race. My shirt was a men's XL, a size too large. Not wanting to be an asshole, I sighed and wore it, even though I now looked 40 pounds heavier, and the cotton would weigh me down. It's a horrible thing to be both overweight and vain.

At the race's main staging area, there were a few booths, a bag check, changing tents, and the chance to test yourself doing competitions of pullups, tire flips, slosh pipes, vertical rowers, and wall and rope climb practice.  I chose to save my energy for my race, but a few spectators were giving it a shot.

My goals were to finish the race, get my finisher's medal, not get any burpee penalties, and help my teammates finish. I had decided to focus on helping my teammates, and make sure they got through okay, as a way to keep my mind off feeling uncomfortable. At this point, I'd been awake for 6 hours, was cold, soaked to the skin, and decided to just embrace the suck. My team decided to stick together and finish together, regardless of how long it took us.

The trail wasn't just uphill — it was upmountain.

The trail wasn't just uphill — it was upmountain.

The race itself:

Our heat headed to the starting line. Before we even got there, we had to scale a 6-foot wall. An emcee did his best to get us amped up, and noticed our team shirts, and gave a shout-out to Phil for his 49th birthday. After chanting Aroo! Aroo! Aroo! until we were hoarse, the smoke bombs fired, and we ran through the smoke, onto the trail.

Immediately, it became clear that there was no way I was going to be able to run. The trail was nothing but six-inch-deep muddy clay. It was so steep that if you didn't step carefully, you'd slip downhill. I stuck to the right edge of the trail, letting the faster runners pass me.

My knees and ankles began to ache. There were parts of the trail that were so steep, I saw deep finger indentations in the mud, where other runners had had to shove their hands into the mud to haul themselves up.

The uphill slog felt interminably long. I caught up with my team at the first summit, where we faced the cargo net climb. The net was shaky, and at the top, the wind was fierce. It was fairly easy, if a bit time-consuming to scale.

After the cargo net. You can tell it's early in the race because we're not very muddy, and we're still smiling.  

After the cargo net. You can tell it's early in the race because we're not very muddy, and we're still smiling.
 

We climbed again, until we came to the monkey bars. Crossing monkey bars is usually fairly easy, but when you're trying to grasp cold, slick, mud-covered metal — even with gloves, it becomes diabolical. This was the first obstacle people did burpees for.

Photo: unknown Spartan.

Photo: unknown Spartan.

Photo: unknown Spartan.

Photo: unknown Spartan.

Next, we had yet another summit to scale, before we came to the Over/Under/Through walls. We clambered over an 8-foot wall, under another wall with a foot to spare, and then through a hole in the third. So far, so good. Our spirits were still high as we began to climb again, then descend.

Phil and I at the beginning of the sandbag carry.

Phil and I at the beginning of the sandbag carry.

I was in a strangely good mood at this point in the race. If you look carefully, you can see the raindrops and mist.

I was in a strangely good mood at this point in the race. If you look carefully, you can see the raindrops and mist.

Going downhill was much worse than uphill. My knees were beginning to protest and I was lagging behind the rest of our team. (Here's a video where you can see us being lapped by a fellow Spartan who was filming his run.) But I focused on chatting with Phil, who'd stayed behind with me. After a bit, we came to the sandbag carry. We had to carry our sandbags on a loop of fairly difficult and rocky trail, full of tree roots and branches that had to be scrambled over. The path became so narrow that it bottlenecked several times. At one point, Phil shouted, 'Come on, people! This is not the 405!' which drew laughs. I didn't mind the sandbag carry, because, hey, it was a strength obstacle, so it was a piece of cake. One of the photographers caught me as we schlepped uphill.

After we finished the loop and dumped our sandbags, we climbed again to the first aid station. I drank four cups of water, while Phil shoved a packet of energy gummy candy down my throat.

In the crush at the aid station, I lost track of Phil and the rest of my team, apart from Daniel. How you lose seven people in red shirts, I'm not sure, but we managed. So much for sticking together. Daniel and I climbed some more, but still didn't see our team. We hit another obstacle: 'The Gamble,' where we had to choose between a steeper-but-shorter or longer-but-easier path. Daniel and I guessed that our team had taken the longer path, and we soon discovered we were both 1-wrong, and 2-the longer path wasn't easier at all. That added nearly an extra mile to our course, 45 more minutes than the rest of our team, and a very steep downhill slide. I wrenched both knees and both ankles there, and eventually decided that sitting down and sliding would be better. However, a couple of guys who were training for the Spartan Death race who were on their second lap of the course, gave us the tip to turn around and face the ground, then climb down, which put us closer to the ground, and made us more stable. Much easier.

The walls of pain: 10-foot wall and the traverse wall.

The walls of pain: 10-foot wall and the traverse wall.

We then came to a 10-foot wall, and the traverse wall. I lifted Daniel, who's a small guy, over the 10-foot wall, and then I lifted a few women up while I waited for some larger guys to help me over. The traverse wall's footholds and handholds were only 2" thick, and caked with mud. It seemed like every other Spartan was falling off the wall and doing burpees. I asked the official at the traverse wall if we could help each other; she shrugged and said, 'No one's made it through and rung the bell in hours, so sure, go for it.' So I put Daniel on my shoulders, and squatted him up. He grabbed the handholds while I walked sideways until we reached the end of the wall, where he rang the bell, a sweet, sweet sound. I don't know what I enjoyed more: hearing the bell, or hearing the other racers' astonishment that I'd carried Daniel.

The Hobie hop was next: tie your legs together with a small, thick rubber band, then hop through a short loop of mud. Hopping: exactly what my twisted and sore joints did not need. After the slow and painful hopping, I began to limp in earnest.

Every man complained loudly about 'shrinkage' to everyone within earshot. Guys, no one's checking you out while we're freezing. Trust me.  

Every man complained loudly about 'shrinkage' to everyone within earshot. Guys, no one's checking you out while we're freezing. Trust me.
 

Next was an icy pond of black water, which reminded me of Tolkien's Morgulduin. The cold water was enough of a shock to make some people hyperventilate, but I've swum in the Pacific in winter with no wetsuit. It began to feel almost pleasant, since there was no longer any pressure on my joints, and the cold gave me some relief from the pain. I wished we could've done more swimming, and I quickly got my wish: the next obstacle was a pit of muddy brown water. Sweet!

rope.jpg

The course had wound its way back to near the start of the race, and we finally saw spectators cheering and taking photos, when we got to the rope climb. The ropes hung into a pit of thigh-high water, making it nearly impossible to wrap my legs around the rope. every time I moved, the water sent the bottom of the rope moving away from my body. I gave up, and decided to hold the rope for a few other women; some I just lifted up high enough that they could get footing on the first knot. After a while, I decided that I should just take the burpee penalty and headed over to do them, but Daniel told me the official said I didn't have to, because I'd helped enough people. Unexpected, but I wasn't complaining.

hoist.jpg

The Herculean Hoist was immediately after the rope climb: haul a concrete block up to the pulley at the top of the rig, then let it back down under control, instead of letting it fall. The favorite tactic seemed to be grabbing the rope, then sitting down and letting your body weight do most of the work; or to stand on each segment of rope as it was hauled down. But the concrete felt surprisingly light, and I was able to stand up and just pull hand-over-hand without any trouble. I was glad of my gloves, though; several people's hands were torn up after the rope climb and the hoist.

Daniel and I waded through another pond, then uphill a bit, then faced the inverted wall — a wall that slants toward you at a 45° angle. Our strategy of lifting him over first, then my helping other racers once again paid off, and I got told to go ahead by the obstacle official.

Then we faced the barbed wire crawl. Uphill. Over muddy, sharp rocks and roots.  That crawl was interminably long; no one seemed to know afterward exactly how long it was, but somewhere between 200 and 250 yards seemed to be the consensus. Daniel got ahead of me fairly quickly. I spent what seemed like hours, facedown in the mud. Putting pressure on my forearms and knees while I scrabbled for footholds in the slick and rocky mud was excruciating. I very nearly cried with each jolt to my knees. My vision began to go dark at the edges, and I could have sworn it was midnight. My focus narrowed to just the inch of mud in front of me. Then the inch after that. Then the next… until I was at the last 15 yards, where the crawl became so steep that ropes had been embedded in the ground for people to haul themselves up. I grabbed each wire post to my right and pulled myself upward, yard by yard. I heard Daniel yelling to encourage me, but he sounded miles away. Finally, I pulled myself out from under the wire, and was helped up and led over to the side of the course where I could sit upright and rest for a minute before tackling yet another uphill climb, then back down the hill to the javelin throw.

The hallmark obstacle of a Spartan Race: the javelin throw.

The hallmark obstacle of a Spartan Race: the javelin throw.

I'd prepared for the javelin throw by getting a crash course from a friend of a friend, who was ranked #7 in the PAC-10 in the javelin. I'd made my own javelin (such as it is), and practiced enough to be reasonably confident about hitting my target. Daniel was less confident, but with some coaching and cheerleading, he nailed his hay target like a Spartan, passing the dozens of people doing burpees as a penalty. I remembered my footwork, hand position, and follow-through well enough to stick my javelin reasonably close to center on the target. 

Daniel helps me out of the muddy water as I struggle to see through the mud caking my eyes shut.

Daniel helps me out of the muddy water as I struggle to see through the mud caking my eyes shut.

The course turned again, and we could almost see the finish line. We clambered up some more mounds of mud, waded through muddy pools, back up the mounds of mud, and came to a wooden wall with barbed wire at the top, and its bottom submerged in the water. Luckily, it wasn't submerged deeply, so we ducked under and through, with no idea that one of the course's automatic cameras was taking pictures of us. After doing my best wounded water buffalo impression as I surfaced, we only had three more obstacles to go: the slippery wall, the fire jump, and the gladiators with pugil sticks.

An incline of plywood, covered with dish soap and water. Climbing this when you're dripping wet is amazingly difficult. It's diabolical.

An incline of plywood, covered with dish soap and water. Climbing this when you're dripping wet is amazingly difficult. It's diabolical.

The slippery wall was… well, it was unpleasant. Unlike every other obstacle so far, you could not do 30 burpees if you failed. If you failed, you got a DNF (Did Not Finish) for the entire race. One side of the slippery wall was butted up against a metal fence; the other was blocked off by an official. Daniel took a few tries, but got over the wall fairly quickly. The obstacle official told me I could take as many tries as I needed to get over the wall. It took long enough that I sent Daniel ahead of me to go see if any of our teammates was able to come back and help, and I found myself alone. We will not speak of how many tries I needed.

After the damn wall, there was the fire jump, with firefighters standing by to help anyone who managed to fall in. I'm a pagan: I can fire-jump in my sleep, right? Well, no. I was so exhausted that I couldn't manage to jump, and instead just high-stepped over the fire. There aren't many advantages to a 34" inseam, but that's one of the few. Well, except for it making a very anticlimactic photo.

As I staggered toward the gladiators, they both bowed their heads, and stepped aside for me to pass. I was very touched, and thanked them as I limped toward the finish line. A woman draped a medal over my head, and I gave serious thought to crying.

After the race. My pride doesn't quite show through my exhaustion and pain.

After the race. My pride doesn't quite show through my exhaustion and pain.

After the race:

I drug myself to the bag check, got my things, hosed myself off at the showers, then changed in the women's changing tent. The blessedly heated changing tent. Once I stopped moving, the cold set in, and my teeth were chattering and I was shivering hard. I wore my finisher's shirt proudly as I slowly made my way up to the first aid tent, to make sure nothing was broken.

I have to give it to the first aid crew: they treated my cuts, my scrapes, made sure I hadn't broken anything, threw a space blanket over me, and insisted on pouring as many liquids as they could down me. Then they piled ice bags on both knees and both ankles, and used so much saran wrap to attach them that my legs looks mummified. I sat there for a while, and took the Vicodin that I'd had the foresight to pack. Eventually, two of my teammates came and found me, and piled me into the shuttle bus, which took me back to the parking lot seven miles away, and my car. (Jeff and James, thanks for waiting for me and looking for me, guys; it meant the world to me that you stuck around.)

I answered texts from a few friends wondering how I did, then headed down through the hills to PCH, and the pub in Santa Monica where I met the rest of my team for drinks.

Lessons learned:

  • I thought it'd taken me five hours to finish, but it only took me four. That placed me not quite last overall, which was a bit of a blow to my ego. But — DFL > DNF > DNS: Dead Fucking Last is greater than Did Not Finish, which is greater than Did Not Start. I could have gone faster if I didn't stop at so many obstacles to help people, but I'm glad I stopped.
  • Next time, I'm not wearing cotton. The shirt got heavy, stretched out, and began to weigh me down, as well as chafe against my skin. Screw that.
  • Bringing Vicodin was one of the best decisions I made that day.
  • I should've worn my CamelBak for hydration. Next time, I'll definitely bring it, and pack some jerky in its pockets.
  • Having your team with you helps you compensate for your weaknesses. But — you can get it done on your own, if you have to.
  • Tape my knees and ankles instead of wearing braces.
  • Jump over the fire to make a better photo.
  • Take the steep route, no matter what you think your team's done.

My goals were to finish the race, get my medal, and do no burpees. I accomplished all of those, because I was focused on helping my teammates, instead of on the pain I was in, or how hard the race was.

Make no mistake, the race was brutal. Physically punishing doesn't begin to describe it. I stopped counting my bruises after I found the twenty-third. I gained 30 pounds from water retention the next day; my lower legs were so swollen, I couldn't wear my jeans. I went to urgent care to get my legs x-rayed, and discovered I had, in fact, sprained both knees and both ankles, slightly tearing the ligaments. I spent the next two weeks on painkiller, icing my legs, and doing mobility exercises to get my range of motion back and recover.

Would I do it again? Absolutely. Why?

You'll know yourself, at the finish line.

 

[Update: the official video's been posted.]

finisher.jpg