Spartans Take on the Cold at the Winter Sprint

Be careful what you wish for.

Last year I grumbled that the heat at the Tri-State Spartan Sprint slowed me down. In general,  I don’t like the heat and humidity that comes with many races each summer in the Northeast. If only there were a race where that wasn’t a factor! Spartan HQ must have been reading my mind, because this year, they organized their first US Winter Spartan Sprint after trying out the concept in Europe.

When I signed up for the race, I saw that at the Greek Peak Ski Resort, where the race took place on Saturday,  the average temperatures topped out at about 30 degrees this time of year. Chilly, but certainly not the coldest race I have done, and doable with a few layers. As the race approached, I kept checking the weather. Earlier in the week, temperatures were hitting an unseasonable 70 in the Northeast, which made me wonder how they were going to handle any winter-based snow-dependent features. Mother Nature had other ideas. A few days before the race, Spartan sent out notices warning racers that temperatures were going to start out in the 20’s and that we needed to dress accordingly. No such luck.

When I made it to the venue, the air temperature was 10 degrees. That’s minus 12 in Celsius, for those who use the metric systemI was grateful for the extra layers I had packed.

The sprint course was similar to those that take place at other mountain venues in warmer months, only with the added elements of snow and ice. A handful of obstacles were adapted for this: Rolling Snow instead of Rolling Mud, for example. Some were removed (no Dunk Wall, no water crossings). The rest were the same, but frostier.

Obstacles that are easier in the winter:

Barbed wire crawl: usually I loathe this obstacle, as I end up putting my entire body weight on every single rock as I crawl along, piling on the scrapes and bruises at every yard I advance. This time? I could pretty much drag myself along the frozen surface, and while I wouldn’t call it smooth, the bumps were cushioned by the extra layers that protected me from the cold.

Plate drag: I had hoped that this area would be like a skating rink, and while I was disappointed, it turns out that it’s still easier to drag a heavy object across a frozen surface than a dusty, rocky one.

Obstacles that are harder in the winter:

Anything where you need to take your gloves off, such as the Rope Climb or the Hercules Hoist. The layers I was wearing were good at keeping my core warm, but as soon as the wind hit my hands, there was little else I could think of.

Between the obstacles, my main concern was not losing my footing. On other courses I have worried about slipping because the surface is muddy or wet or dusty or loose. Here, the same instincts applied, and I spent a lot of time crab walking down slopes, figuring that the sacrifice in my personal dignity was worth it to avoid a broken wrist or collar bone. There were also a number of muddy patches, which was baffling – how could there be watery soil when it was 10 degrees out? But I spent most of the time making sure that my feet would not slip out from under me in the loose ice and snow.

The sandbag carry up the slope was challenging because the sandbags were frozen rather than pliable, but some of the open wave racers figured out a way to put the snowy conditions to good use by sitting on the bags and sliding down the slope to the end of the carry. A Spartan volunteer tried to put a stop to this (“No tobogganing on the sandbags!” he shouted repeatedly), which was probably the appropriate safety instruction, but racers did have some fun with this while they could.

My biggest take-away from this winter event was that I never stopped enjoying myself. At other races I have caught myself thinking “this isn’t fun anymore” as I climb up yet another steep rocky trail, but this time I was happy from start to finish. Even the burpees were less unpleasant, as the ground, while not soft, was not as sharp under my gloved hands.

Some logistical observations: when I arrived, check-in had been moved indoors, causing a long line which snaked out the door. Apparently, registration was supposed to take place outside, but the computers had frozen, both literally and figuratively, and the operation was moved indoors, causing delays. The weather had also caused Spartan to move the parking for the event off-site, but when I arrived at the satellite parking I was told that, on the one hand, the lot was already full but, on the other hand, I could park at the venue after all. Rain the week before had caused the lot to be too soft, but it would seem that the sudden freeze had fixed that problem. In both cases, Spartan staff and volunteers adapted and fixed the problems.

Bling (because there are some readers who take this very, very seriously): yes, there were special Winter Sprint medals in the shape of a snowflake. You’ve seen the pictures, but what I didn’t know was that they also have “Nothing burns like the cold” stamped on the back. I’m not exactly sure what that’s supposed to mean, but it sounds intense. Aroo.

The finisher t-shirts (white, long sleeve, miracle fiber) were unique to this race. They also caused a bit of a stir. I noticed that mine looked a little dirty, but I assumed that I must have dropped it at some point. On Facebook I read a good deal of chatter saying that, in fact, the shirts had been exposed to water at some point and had gotten a little moldy. Racers were reporting that the mold stains weren’t coming out in the wash. Yet another Spartan t-shirt controversy in the making?

[UPDATE: on March 21, Spartan HQ sent out the following e-mail: 

“Hi there,
We appreciate your patience regarding the Finisher Shirt discoloration at the Greek Peak Winter Sprint. Spartan Race is committed to providing the best possible experience from the parking area all the way to earning that coveted shirt. For that reason, we are working with our vendor to have all of the shirts remade from this event and shipped to you at our cost. We simply need you to fill out the form below to confirm your size and shipping details. The estimated arrival time is 60 days to allow for reproduction of the shirts and shipping. Please do not reply to this email, as we will touch base as soon as we have the shirts in our warehouse to let you know when we will be shipping them to you.

(link to form to input your data)

Thanks!

AROO!”

Seems that Spartan heard the complaints and is working on fixing the problem.]

What does the future hold for the Winter Sprint? There are already two more on the calendar for 2018, one in New Hampshire and one in Utah. The racers I spoke to were willing to drive over six hours to get to this event, and despite the cold, cold weather, seemed to enjoy themselves. Many already had other plans to complete a Trifecta, so it would appear that they were doing this race for the novelty, not just for the sake of doing a Sprint distance. It is unclear at this point whether Spartan will come back to Greek Peak, whose name must have resonated with Spartan founder Joe De Sena. There are references to Classical Greek themes throughout the area (I flew into Syracuse, the ski resort is not far from Ithaca, etc.), and the trails we used for the race were named “Odyssey” and “Olympic”. How could Joe not come back here? However, I have to wonder at how effective it is to host an event at a ski resort while it is open for, you know, skiers. OCR as an industry has done a great job of making use of venues that are otherwise empty, providing revenue for the owners and the local communities. Hosting a large event that could displace the regular customers doesn’t seem to be as clever a move.

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Christopher Stephens

Christopher is an attorney, a middle-of-the-pack triathlete, a marathoner, an open water swimmer, and a recovering Jeopardy contestant. A native New Yorker, he trains in the rugged wilderness of Central Park and can sometimes be found swimming in the Hudson. He also bakes pies. Delicious pies.
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