Aston Down Spartan Super 2018

Aston Down Spartan Super

The 2018 South West Super was the first race of the season (for me). When was the first chance for me to back out? A long time ago. If I could say I was not prepared for this race, that would be an understatement. Two weeks previous to this race I was bungee jumping off the Auckland Harbour Bridge, hardly Spartan Race preparation. In any case, it’s been quite some time since I did any sort of race, and I felt it on this Super. At least this time, I wasn’t on my own. Joined by two of my three brothers and our friend, we stuck together as a team for over 3 hours in a blistering 23 degrees (Yes. This is hot in Britain).

The first 30 minutes are always tough for me. Many thoughts go through my head including and not limited to “I’m going to die.” or “Why am I doing this?” and more importantly “Can I stop now and still get a medal?”.  Maybe it was something to do with the fact that the first five obstacles were all walls. My arms are puny.

The next couple of obstacles were well varied and consisted of two Barbed Wire Crawls, Twister (why?), the A-Cargo frame and Block Wall. This last obstacle was a personal triumph for me. I have NEVER completed this before and was beyond ecstatic that the Super 2018 was the moment that I defeated it. Dramatic I know. In any case, it was short lived because the other Z Wall I failed epically on. Small victories.

This race gave me a new appreciation for hills, although I’m sure I thought the same last year. My chat with Karl Allsop, Race Director of Spartan UK, had already given me some idea of how the course had been created. I’m not sure I was quite prepared for this though. This year, Aston Down sported a long hill switchback section which unfortunately spelt out a longer word than ‘Aroo’ that was used the year before.  Amongst the moans and groans (some from me) of those first seeing the hill, there were plenty of grunts and shouts of those already taking it on. I know what you’re thinking, come on its just a hill. No. Not just a hill. It was a good 10 – 15 minutes of ascent, descent, hidden holes and twisted ankles. After that, the sandbag carry was a walk in the park. A really big park where there was no discernible need for us to carry sandbags.

The 6′ wall came next. At this point, we were hot, sweaty and seriously tired. This is where the famous Spartan spirit came in to play. Struggling on the second wall, a group of fellow Spartans lent a hand (a shoulder and a head) to get our entire group over all three walls. It was a brilliant moment of the race and by far my fondest memory. We caught up with these lads in the T-shirt line at the end of the race. It’s such a good feeling to know that there are those who race that just want everyone to cross that finish line. It’s also nice that it feels like a rite of passage to shout other Spartans on and make sure that everyone is OK when they’ve just stopped to catch their breath.

Rolling Mud wasn’t really all that muddy (great) but it was a welcome cool down in the scorching heat. It was also just enough to make the Slip Wall a little more slippery. It was the water station on the other side that saw me almost run up the wall. Cue the foot cramp coming down the other side.

Once we had eaten copious amounts of bananas, drunk and poured water over us, we entered a gentle jog along the unusually flat ground. We all reflected on the race so far and how we were so glad that we had managed with no major injuries and no dropouts. It was such a great feeling to know that our bodies were capable of so much.

As we reared around the corner, I spied the familiar abandoned building nestled in amongst some trees and bushes. Bucket Brigade. Those running with me could tell my distress, we could see the last few obstacles to our right but first, we had to endure. Last year, we filled our own buckets with pebbles. This year, Spartan Race graciously filled our buckets for us and tightly secured the lid. I was grateful/ungrateful for this. Whilst re-arranging the position of the bucket last year, some pebbles may have fallen out on the way. Oh, how unfortunate. Along with the suspicious piles of pebbles that were found as we heaved the buckets around the course, I think Spartan Race cottoned on. This year, no such luck. I held it in front, to the side and finally settled on the ‘half on the back half on the shoulder’ method. The heat at this point was almost unbearable and I felt for the men and women who had chosen the heavier buckets. Several people along the route were either stopped or stopping with their buckets falling to the floor. It was tough. But we all knew that it would be this, a small jog, four or five more obstacles and we would have the sweet victory of the Spartan medal. 

We endured it well and all welcomed the short (light) jog to the next set of obstacles. The atmosphere approaching the finish line was electric. It makes such a big difference when you can hear the music blaring and the cheering of the spectators when you are trying to pull the last few particles of energy together. It’s also comforting to note that everyone else looks just as dead as you.

Herc Hoist is usually trouble free, but at this point in the race, it was horrendous. It felt like all the muscles in my legs were cramping. I’m glad there were no photographers here. I then hobbled over to the Spearman throw; failed as usual and attempted some burpees. Next up was Monkey Bars to which my calves decided enough was enough. I know, who uses their legs for monkey bars? Me apparently.

These last obstacles were sort of a blur mainly because we could see the finish line and desperately wanted the end to come. I didn’t care if I threw myself or was thrown over the 8′ Walls that separated us from the glorious finish line. The lads heroically completed them without help whilst I called upon some more shoulders and heads. I’m just too short. And that was it. Our Fire Jump picture was possibly the best one I’ve had yet and it perfectly embodied the joy we felt after finishing the race.

On our way to our Brazilian BBQ, post-race treat, we discussed the day at length. We laughed and groaned at the best and hardest parts then quite deservedly stuffed our faces.

The course was well balanced but we did agree that the significant amount of hills was almost demoralizing. This didn’t, however, take away from the fact that once completed, there was a greater sense of achievement. A few more water stops on such a hot day would have also been beneficial. But the layout was definitely challenging enough but not impossible to complete. We all came away knowing exactly what our weak points were. The volunteers were there to offer support and encouragement (and sometimes an inaccurate portrayal of how long we had left).

Overall, the race was a great day. The atmosphere was amazing and you really felt like you were taking part in something epic and that everyone else thought you were epic too for simply being there. The pre-race warm-up always makes me feel a little silly, but it was nice that everyone else was willing to make a bit of a fool out of themselves. Please, just don’t ask us to do more burpees.

A big thanks to Karl and the team for putting on such an eventful day at Aston Down and shout out to the incredible volunteers at the end who let four thirsty finishers raid their water bottle stash.

Aston,  we will be back.

All images are credited to Epic Action Imagery, Alec Lom, and Paul Pratt.

Aston Down South West Super, Sprint and Hurricane Weekend 2018

Spartan returns, once again, to the Aston Down Airfield used by the RAF from the First World War. I have a love-hate relationship with this place, mainly stemming from my solo experience with the Spartan Super last year. Going into my first Super alone was certainly a daunting task and the aching, bruised body after certainly made it a day never to forget. This year, a little more of a seasoned racer and a little better prepared for what is to come, I have decided to return to Aston Down and be one medal closer to the Trifecta in 2018. This time, I’ve got friends.

“Every step you take gets you closer to the finish line”

Karl Allsop, Race Director at Spartan Race UK, ran his first Spartan Sprint at Bassingbourn Barracks in 2011. Karl spent some time talking with me about his love affair with Obstacle Course Racing that spawned from his first ever Spartan race. As Director of Race Operations, Karl has complete responsibility in the operational planning of Spartan Races within the UK.

 

The design of the Aston Down course, for Karl and his team, has really been a process of looking back on previous years and learning from them. I can tell that the course this year has been meticulously planned out, ensuring that the racers experience a challenging yet not impossible race that will really push them to their limits. “We really have had the benefit of being able to say, if we place this obstacle here, then what next? If we have the Atlas Carry here do we really want to be going into Bucket Brigade? Are our racers really going to be able to do it? But what we don’t want to do is sort of deflate our racers.” As a racer, it’s nice to know that those behind Spartan are interested in helping participants reach their goals even if it is in a painful, brutal way.

“Aston has become sort of synonymous with the ‘Death Valley’ it’s this valley that we flood with obstacles.”

I asked Karl how he felt this season, and the approach that has been taken to it is different from the last. “I think we have seen some great growth, not just for Spartan, but for the sport as a whole over the last few years. I think Aston South West is a great example of how we have seen it change and grow. The first year we had maybe just over a 1000 people for the race day. We then grew to just over 3000 last year and we’ve topped just over 4000 this year.”

As the numbers have grown, I really felt that Spartan Race has focused on listening to their racers and strived to make changes based on their experiences. “A lot of our obstacles have been upgraded for this race and the reason for that is that our racers are getting better, they’re getting faster, they’re getting stronger. It’s great that we now have to adapt to our racers”.

The desire that every racer will have the same experience when taking part in a Spartan Race is what drives the team to talk to the racers and spectators to get their views on what would make race day more enjoyable. Aston will improve on Spartan’s ‘rocking festival’ area where spectators and tired racers and finishers, can enjoy the Spartan atmosphere. It’s free to spectators and will even contain ‘festival obstacles’ to entertain throughout the day. “We spent a lot of time last year asking what do you want, what do you want to see, how do you want to do it? So this year we have more spectator areas and have designed the course a little differently just to give the spectators something to look at.”

And finally, an important part of enjoying the course rides a lot on the support you have around you. Not only the friends you run with but the encouragement you get from Spartan volunteers. My experience of these guys has been nothing but positive. I’ve seen many cheering, clapping and dancing the racers through the tough challenges that Spartan puts them through. “You get the guys who are just smiling, they’re laughing, they’re high fiving everyone you know there is mud flying everywhere and its infectious isn’t it?”

“A big focus this year has been on what does the racer actually want in terms of when they come to a Spartan Race? What do they want to see, what do they want to feel? And how do we slowly adapt and progress to that?”

A final round-up of Aston Down? The course layout for Spartan Race is always kept under tight wraps until race day but Karl was sure to let me know the gist of what to expect come Saturday. “If people want intensity, but they also want fun, then Aston is a great place to do it”. It’s going to be bigger and better than ever.

Aston did me right last year, it took me, chewed me up and spat me back out a better stronger racer. I’m glad to hear that Karl and his team have really taken these races up a notch and have done everything they can to make sure that those racing really get the most out of their time and out of themselves. Aston Down proves to be a show-stopping weekend of OCR magic and I wouldn’t miss it for the world.

There are limited spots available for this weekend’s South West Super, Sprint and Hurricane Heat in Aston Down, Gloucestershire. Visit http://www.spartanrace.uk to book your place and get further information.

Photo Credits: Epic Action Imagery (www.epicactionimagery.com)

Spartan Beast Windsor, UK 2017

My Spartan journey began way back when (2014) when my brother persuaded me to run the Spartan Sprint in Calgary, Canada. Since then I have done another Sprint, a Super and now this. The Beast.

I’m excited and scared all at the same time.

First Spartan Experience

My Sprint experience in Calgary was interesting. I had trained to “run” sure, but I wasn’t prepared for the world of hurt that this 5K obstacle course race had in store for me. It took me so much longer than my brother (@theOCRGuy) that he finished the race and walked back along the course looking for me (embarrassing). After that, I vowed to never not train for a race again. It was also the day I experienced post-Spartan Five Guys Burger and Fries. Soon to become a new tradition, one that I took home with me to the UK.

Trifecta Hunt

My next Sprint in Wales, UK was better. Way better. I did it in half the time with a harder course. And as a bonus, I beat some of the lads running with me. Score. There’s something to be said about training well for a race;  you enjoy it far more not only because the world of pain is far less, but also the satisfaction of finishing without wanting to die is great. Post-race Five Guys burger and Fries was also amazing. Yay for recovery food.

The Super was next on the list. I took to this race alone. I was due to take part in another Sprint but it clashed with a friend’s Hen party so I deferred my entry and in a spur of the moment decision, decided to level up. It was a great decision. The race was well laid out and was really tough. That’s a great compliment for Spartan Races. I was exhausted by the end but was so happy to add to my own trifecta display. Sadly, no Five Guys after this race but Nandos would have to do. (Nandos is a chain of Portuguese Chicken restaurants).

I had to complete my trifecta (I know, I haven’t done it in a single season this year). It was a no-brainer. And after the Super, I am glad to be taking part in this race with three guys. Let’s be fair to me, I can handle the race alone, but the lonely trip to Windsor and then Five Guys Burger and Fries on my own after was not appealing. No doubt that this race I will be referred to as ‘one of the lads’. Game on.

The dreaded day came. I had already been assured by my brother that, “You’re going to die Nance, but you’ll be alright.” I was trying to hide the fact that I was actually terrified of what this Spartan Beast would entail. A couple of days earlier, Spartan published their race layout and the amount of Beast Green on the map was enough to realise that it was true and that I might actually die. The death waiver was signed and filed so, at least Spartan Inc. was covered.

Windsor Beast

This will be the 4th Spartan race I have taken part in and up until this point, I have always had nothing but good things to say. Having said that, I was a little disappointed with a few aspects of the day.

I’m not sure how much control Spartan had over this, but it was absolute chaos getting into Rapley Farm. A busy two-lane road already had a lane closure meaning that we were left sitting in traffic for a good 15 -20 minutes before we even got to park. Then there was a decent walk to registration, a little bit of a queue which all accumulated in us missing our 12 o’clock heat.

But, hey ho. We tagged along on the next heat. I knew this was going to challenge me, so I took the slow and steady approach. After waving the lads off I put my head down and began running.  

The obstacle count for this race was intense, so instead of boring you all with a description of each one and how it slowly destroyed my will to live, I’ll just talk about the ones that were mildly aggravating and the ones that I kind of liked (WHAT?).

Beastly Obstacles

Bottlenecks are my least favourite part of an obstacle course race. Sometimes it can’t be helped, but the first pipe crawl (which seems to be missing on the course map) caused lots of people to climb out of the muddy ditch in which it was situated and take the burpee forfeit. Not cool. I was in a queue for at least 15 minutes. Not the best way to start this Beast.

I loved any type of ‘a-wall’ obstacle and there were a few. I particularly enjoyed the climb the rope up one side and cargo net down the other side. Otherwise known as the ‘Slip Wall’. I saw strong men and women slip on this one. I instantly felt better about myself because I nailed it. Amongst these a-wall obstacles were ‘Stairway to Sparta’ and a good old ‘Cargo Net’. I mean, I was allowed to enjoy myself some of the time right?

Every time I reached one of the life draining 4′, 6′, and 8′ walls I was reminded that I hate walls. The first lot I could manage. The last two I decided to look as helpless as possible ’til someone noticed and asked if I needed help. It worked of course.

There were also plenty of ‘Pick this up, carry it round there and bring it back please’ obstacles. Tyre Carry, Log Carry, Sandbag Carry, Atlas Carry, Bucket Carry, Farmers Walk, and yet another Sandbag Carry. So many carries. My only negative opinion about these challenges was that they really weren’t that challenging. I figured that the sheer amount of obstacles they needed to cram in meant that we didn’t have to carry anything for all that long. Why am I complaining you ask? I’m not sure. I think I just felt like these obstacles were a bit of a break from the rest and I’m not sure how I felt about that.

Three barbed wire crawls meant that my forearms are significantly battered. I can see the bruises as I type and my colleagues at work are a bit concerned. They think I’m crazy and they are probably right.

Bender, I have a bone to pick with you. I hated you in the Super until I beat you. Then I loved you, then you hurt me. Taking a friction burn on my upper inner arm was a gift I could have done without. The pain was real. I beat you, but I’m sorry. Our friendship is over.

On a similar note, Rope Traverse – You are just as bad as Bender. I like the skin on the back of my ankles where it is because it serves a purpose. And after taking that away from me, you also dropped me and gave me burpees. Cheers.

Next up were Twister, The Multi Rig and the Rope climb. No, no, and Just no. I hate you all. Sensing a theme here? My arms were out of energy now and I failed all of them. My legs were getting heavy now, and the race was becoming a blur. Not because it wasn’t good, I was fatigued and probably high on a combo of Clif Shot Bloks and bananas.

The last 10 – 15 minutes of the race were packed with obstacles. What a way to lull you into a false sense of security! I could see the finish line, but was still not there. My personal favourite was the ‘Balance Walls’. I am so glad I practised hard in gymnastics on the balance beam. Come at me jelly legs. Olympus just earned me more burpees. A left calf cramp on 8′ wall number 1 made it interesting and the 8′ wall number 2 was scary at the top, but when I turned to jump down, I was greeted by cheers from the rest of my team (who had probably been waiting for hours). Fire jump, medal and done. 

The Windsor Spartan Beast certainly lived up to its name. Aside from a few hiccups in parking and getting into the race, I am so glad I did it.

I have come to realize that my motto for these races really has become, ‘You can tell a race is good when it makes you never want to do it again.’

Tough Mudder UK Southwest 2017

 Tough Mudder South West UK 2017 – Badminton Estate

Last year, I joined a number of my work colleagues in my first ever Tough Mudder. I have always been skeptical about this event. I had previously taken part in two Spartan races, Invncbl, and some other minor obstacle course races in my area. For some reason, Tough Mudder had never appealed to me. I think I felt like I didn’t want to be tortured for a distance of 10 miles for a headband. But in the end, I mostly decided to take part because it was an excuse to do something ridiculous with a bunch of my friends.

 

All it took was the Kiss of Mud and I was hooked.

 

On the day, it actually took our team an unexpectedly long time to get through that first Tough Mudder, but I really felt that we took ‘team effort’ to a whole new level. At every obstacle, we waited for all of our crew to join us before moving on. From the Arctic Enema to Everest, we helped each other tackle the next nightmare whilst covered in mud and freezing cold (cheers Britain).

 

For weeks after, pictures circulated the office and we laughed at how epically we failed at some of the obstacles. We reminisced about how I got dropped on my back, how my legs cramped endlessly and how my manager almost chickened out of ‘Electroshock Therapy.’ It wasn’t long until I found myself wanting to do the whole damn thing again.

I thought everyone had shared my insane love of this form of torture. I was wrong. When the time came, I sent the obligatory chirpy email around the office attempting to recruit members for my team. Much to my dismay, big fat “no way!” responses were all I got.

Crap. I had spent the year training for Spartans and my ultras, thinking that I would be ready for Tough Mudder when it came to it… well at least I would be ready for a team challenge.  I slowly realised that I was going to have to go it alone.

Tough Mudder relies heavily on teamwork. This was something I had made great use of in 2016. And now, I would be going it alone. I hated the idea but was determined that despite my obvious lack of a team, I would do the race.

So the day came, I woke up bright and early ready for some mud.

Getting signed up for parking was easy (dare I say expensive, £10) Editor’s note: roughly $13 USD. Registration on the day was pretty simple, just filled in a few forms and was on my way. I was given a standby wristband as I wasn’t on a specific wave. So I took my time as there were waves leaving every 15-30 mins. I got in line for standby but wasn’t too impressed with the wait. We were in line for a good hour and a half before being let in. People in the ‘pig pen’ consisted of latecomers, those who were running the race again (absolute nutters), and those who were running for magazines or websites. Still, it took too long.

Finally, we got into a wave and took part in the obligatory workout and pep talk and pledge recital.

Then we were off!

If there is one thing that I have learnt from this year’s Tough Mudder, it was that I absolutely LOVE this stuff.

The course eased you into a grueling 10 miles of blood sweat and tears. It started with a short jog to ‘Skidmarked’ which really got us into the spirit of ‘leave no man (or woman) behind’.

On to Bail Bonds, Kiss of Mud, and Pyramid Scheme. The lack of helping hands at Pyramid Scheme made it difficult to do it properly. Was a bit disappointed. On the Hero Walls is where I really showed some grit. I was devastated last year to be dropped by a team mate. I made it up one wall this time. Small victories.

Arctic Enema came just after mile 3. For which I was eternally grateful. Plenty of time to recover, rather than be freezing cold.

Agustus Gloop or Snot Rocket (Legionnaires) were new to 2017 and were a heck of a lot of fun. Next came Devil’s Beard. I didn’t really get this one last time and still don’t (not my favourite).

Blockness Monster was just as fantastic as before, despite the water being just a little too deep for most people to even get a grip on the floor to help push it over. We relied heavily on the tall mudders to get it to the tipping point.

The Liberator, Birth Canal, and Lumberjacked. All solid obstacles. I didn’t stick around, I just got it done and moved on.

The course was very well planned out. 2016’s layout left a lot of next-to-impossible obstacles. In comparison, last year’s course was poorly planned out leaving many obstacles too slippery to have a good go at.

Last year,  Funky Monkey saw even the fittest racers fall at the first rung. This year was far more fun and more manageable that even I, EVEN I, got halfway across before face planting the water and almost winding myself. All part of the fun, hey?

‘Mud Mile’ was one of the highlights of my previous Tough Mudder experience. I loved every second this year but wished it was longer. Definitely was not a mile long – last year was longer. The racers really lived up to the Tough Mudder pledge in this one though. It was hard not to stop and help out your fellow mudders. Everyone really just wanted everyone else to make it to the end. My faith in humanity was restored.   

‘Hold Your Wood’ saw me joining forces with a team I was waiting in line with. What I really liked about this race was that despite me completing the obstacle with another team, there was no obligation on either party to then stick together. A quick chat, get the job done, a round of “well-done mate and good luck” and off they ran.

So, that was 9 miles down. 1 mile to go. I was getting TIRED.

With just Hero Carry, Everest, and Electric Shock left, I was getting worried. Everest was my nemesis from last year. It was one of the few obstacles that I just could not do no matter how hard I tried.  The Hero carry came and went without too much trouble, and although I wasn’t looking forward to it, I knew I could do Electro Shock Therapy.

But Everest…. I didn’t want to stand in line for 20 minutes, freezing and covered in flies, to try countless times to then have to walk around, ashamed of myself. As I rounded the corner from the Hero Carry I could see it. Thank goodness there were no queues and I had well and truly dried off from the epic face plant at Funky Monkey. I was ready for this.

Took a decent run at it, reached two hands (yes), held on (YES), swung my leg up and some other tough mudder (an absolute legend) grabbed it and pulled me up. YES!!!! I was beyond ecstatic (cue the awkward fist pump to myself – but I didn’t care). I ran up the final straight toward the finish line grinning like a goon. Just one more obstacle to go.

I had a choice, as a legionnaire I could choose Kong or Electroshock Therapy, I knew at this point my arms were shot and if I failed the last obstacle I would be devastated so I took on Electroshock Therapy instead. As I ran through I thought, “Dammit, should have done Kong!” I regretted calling all my teammates wimps last year for avoiding Electroshock Therapy last year. This round nearly floored me. I started running and got a shock that propelled me into a hay bale (in the course I might add). Face full of mud I straightened up only to get a shock in the face. These pictures are going to be incredible. Only a couple more strides to go. Inches from the finish, I sucked it up and rubbed some dirt in it. Crossed the line and was presented with some well-deserved rewards.

This Tough Mudder was definitely 10 miles of blood (bloody elbow), sweat (so much sweat) and tears (promise, there was just some mud in my eye). Epic.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Photo credit: Tough Mudder and Author