A few days before the Spartan Race in SoCal, I got a note from my uncle Pat Sweeney asking if I wanted a free entry. My initial reaction was HELLZ NO.
I do not like obstacle races. I do not like jumping through fire and I am afraid of electric shocks. I have trouble opening pickle jars and I dislike paying money to roll around in mud, which I could do for free.
But I also had some second thoughts: Maybe I shouldn’t be such a pussy. Maybe I could take this as 100-mile mental training. I should get used to doing things I’m not comfortable with.
Pat said he couldn’t open jars either, so I said fine. I’d run it.
The night before the race, Pat slept over and kept me up past my bedtime playing Trivial Pursuit. On race morning I didn’t really feel like going. I was kind of nervous.
I had no idea what the obstacles would be, but I had seen some other mud run pictures where people have to sprint through live wires. I’m not scared of much, but I’m actually pretty scared of electricity. Sometimes I get a chill when I plug in my hair dryer. I may have been electrocuted in a previous life.
When we got to the race, we met Pat’s hook-up, Anthony. I asked him if there would be electricity. He said, “No, this isn’t Tough Mudder.” I felt better. Pat says that if it weren’t for electricity, I would have taken over the world by now. Truth.
After picking up our bibs, we were instructed to write our ages on our calves and our race numbers on our forehead. Shacky and I weren’t really into writing on our faces, so we wrote on our arms instead.
I was pretty intimidated looking around at the other race participants. Everyone was bigger than me and they all had more muscles. At the starting line, Shacky and I looked out of place. We stood there like good little trail runners, waiting for the start. Everyone around us was screaming and doing chest bumps. These guys ate testosterone for breakfast.
This wasn’t our scene, and it was making me nervous. These guys looked like gladiators and I was just a short little mountain runner. I decided I should probably start in the middle or back of the pack.
Finally, the race started and we were off. It was an 8-mile course, with 10+ obstacles. We were only a few yards into the race when we hit the first hill. Seconds later, we were walking. Seconds after that, we were stopped completely. Just standing there.
What was the deal? Cross-fitters don’t do hills? The guys who had been screaming at the starting line just a few seconds ago should have probably saved their energy for the first hill.
As soon as we got some space, I weaved ahead with Shacky. It was obvious these were not trail runners. At one point, we got stuck behind a girl who was running a good pace uphill, but as soon as she hit a downhill, she would stop completely and inch her way down.
We were wearing Vibrams with no tread, so it was extremely hard to stop suddenly to avoid falling on top of her. I started getting frustrated and soon left her behind.
We ran for what seemed like a long time before hitting our first obstacle. A lot of people were walking, and I realized I should have started further ahead in the pack. I always imagine I’m in worse shape than I really am, so I always get stuck in race congestion.
A few days before this race, I watched Two Weeks in Hell with Shacky. This a series about some really intense military training. Much harder than any 100-miler, and unbelievable challenging. This is actually what I imagined obstacle races to be like. So I came up with a little soldier mantra for myself:
DON’T THINK. JUST DO.
I’m a thinker by nature. I like to take my time and analyze whether I can make it through an obstacle or not. But I knew this would work against me at the race. I had to just DO. I needed to complete the obstacles as they came, without questioning or doubting myself.
So this is the mantra I was thinking of as I came up to the first obstacle (D’oh! Thinking again!).
OBSTACLE: BARBED WIRE
I am really short. I was nervous about this going in, because how the hell am I supposed to scale a wall? But it didn’t occur to me that it might also be an advantage. Like in the barbed wire crawl.
Several of the big guys ahead of me were dragging themselves on their bellies and getting their backs nicked. I saw one guy with a big gash in the middle of his forehead.
I was so tiny that in certain spots, I could crawl on my hands and knees and still not touch the barbed wire. When the wire got lower, I lay down and easily rolled under it. I noticed that nobody else was rolling, so I caught up quickly to the people ahead of me. There was no room to pass, so I had to wait for them to finish the obstacle. Then I rolled right out.
It occurred to me as the race progressed that these obstacles were not at all about strength, but about efficiency. However, most of the big guys were approaching them as tests of strength. They were exerting more energy and moving slower. I’m lazy. I don’t like to exert any extra effort. Why crawl when you can roll?
OBSTACLE: OVER AND UNDER
For the next obstacle, we had to crawl over or under a series of bars or logs. I could crawl under faster than most people could climb over. I’m a fast midget.
Next we had to climb some haystacks and jump off of them, into a big soft pile of hay. I don’t like heights.
“DON’T THINK, JUST DO,” I told myself. So I did.
From the top of the haystack, it actually looked like a significant drop. People were hesitating and taking their time. I just went for it and leaped off that shit without thinking. I landed like a fucking ninja.
The volunteer at the bottom said, “Whoa! That’s the best jump I’ve seen!” I tried to run away but fell on my ass instead. I’m a clumsy midget.
Next was more running and more hills.
The people around me were not running anymore. C’mon Cross-Fitters! I watched the Cross-Fitters slog through the uphills and inch down with worried looks. This was a trail runner’s world.
OBSTACLE: MONKEY BARS
I was so short on this one that I literally could not even reach the bars. I had to CLIMB up the side of the posts in order TO GET to the bars. Then I had to swing across. Elementary school all over again. This one was no big deal.
OBSTACLE: SPEAR THROW
I’m a gatherer, not a hunter. I’m supposed to suck at the spear throw, and I did. At least I knew this was about technique, not strength. I watched some guys throw the spear with all their strength, have it land flat against the target, and fall to the ground.
The target wasn’t even that far away. All you had to do was aim it straight, so the spearhead would make first contact. I knew what I had to do, but I couldn’t do it. I got one try, and then had to do burpees as a punishment.
The next obstacle was a bouldering wall. It looked pretty straightforward, and I’ve done bouldering before, so I hopped on. I put my feet on the first rocks, then looked up for the next step. They were too far away!
I couldn’t reach them at all. Even stretching my entire body across, I was way too short. I didn’t have the arm length or foot length to reach that far. Damn my mini-ninja frame. I had to do “in and outs” as punishment.
I was getting pissed about being short after that and decided to speed up. I ran to the next obstacle.
OBSTACLE: BUCKET CARRYING
Next we had to fill a bucket with sand, carry it up a little hill, and back. I was determined to get this done and get it done fast. I filled up my damn bucket.
It was obvious as soon as I heaved it on to my shoulders that this was about balancing and positioning. Again, someone forgot to tell the burly guys who were trying to push through with brute strength. Some were even carrying the bucket by its handles, which was the LEAST efficient and most uncomfortable way to carry it.
I don’t have kids, but I have a lot of baby sisters. As soon as I lifted that bucket, the weight felt familiar to me. I hooked it onto my hip like a toddler, wrapped my arm around for support, and started running. It felt pretty awesome to hustle past all those big guys who were struggling. This is how women run with babies, bitches.
Running the short downhill section was challenging, but I knew weight distribution was key. I shifted the bucket and held it right in front of me like a big ol’ pregnant belly. It felt light there, so I kept running. This was by far the most female-friendly obstacle. If you’re a woman with a baby, you can nail this.
OBSTACLE: TIRE CARRYING
The tires were similar to the buckets. You had to heave one on your back and carry it up and down a hill. There was a big pile of tires to choose from, and I noticed that many runners were picking one from the start of the pile, which was further away from the trail we had to start running on. So they had to carry their tire an extra few feet to GET to the trail. I’m no dummy. I ran to the end of that pile, and picked the last damn tire. I turned around and I was right on the trail.
I hooked the tire on my back in a way that did not feel heavy. People did better with the tires. If it were up to me, I would have rolled it. But I don’t think that was allowed.
More running was next.
I don’t think this was an official obstacle; it looked like pretty natural mud. But the four skinny girls in front of me must have thought it was obstacle because they were tiptoeing and whimpering all the way through it. Why do you sign up for a mud run if you are afraid of mud?
My favorite part was when the girl in the lead (who was walking about 10000-minute miles) kept asking her friend right behind her (who was walking 200000-minute miles) if she wanted to pass. Her friend kept saying no. In the meantime, other runners were catching up and clogging right behind them, causing a huge congestion. I watched them until they started irritating the hell out of me. Then I passed.
OBSTACLE: PULLEY ROPE
There was a big bucket full of cement that we had to lift with a pulley, and then let it down slowly. Again, it would seem this was about strength, but I knew I didn’t have the muscles to lift the bucket. So for me it was about momentum and body weight.
Instead of lifting with my arms, I leaned back into the rope and used the weight of my body to get it up. Combined with the momentum of swinging, gravity was my best friend and I finished the challenge quickly. As I ran off, one bigger dude let his bucket come crashing down because he couldn’t hold it anymore.
Next came a lot of hill running. A LOT of hills. And steep. The terrain reminded me of Los Pinos, and it was actually a satisfying, familiar burn on my legs.
The Cross-Fitters were dropping like flies. I spent a couple minutes standing behind one guy who was crawling on his hands and knees, grabbing at the dirt in front of him. Other people were standing on the sides. Big guys were sprawled out on the ground, and some were putting their heads between their knees.
I just kept moving. These trails were definitely hard, but it was a good hard. It was the kind of hard that I knew and loved. Some people were getting upset and cursing. Ironically, the angrier they got, the more at peace I felt.
How can a mountain goat get angry at the hill? It is his home. And like them, this was where I belonged. And then I was at the summit.
OBSTACLE: WALL CLIMBS
The walls we had to climb were about a thousand feet shorter than what I had imagined. I could hop over and scale them, or I could climb over using some of the footing on the side. I saw one lady who kept trying to work up the courage to hop the wall. She’d run up to it, and then she’d stop cold and turn back. Finally, someone had to give her a hand.
“DON’T THINK, JUST DO,” I told her telepathically.
Going up to those walls could be intimidating. So I made a point not to think about how I would get over. I just ran, full-force into the wall and let my ninja skills take over at the last second. And that’s how I scaled those mother-fuckers.
It was windy at the top of the hill. At one point, a huge gust came by just as I was at the top of a wall, and I had to cling to it to keep from being blown off. I felt like Piglet.
After this, it was downhill. I passed more people than I cared to count coming down hill and I still had a lot left in my legs.
I was passed by only one person here—a 51-year-old female trail runner and fellow Dirt Devil. I found out later that she actually started half an hour after me, and she passed me easily like a freaking gazelle. My new hero.
OBSTACLE: DRAG A CONCRETE THING
There was a rope tied around a big concrete block, and we had to drag it through mud and water. People coming up to this obstacle were just grabbing it and going. But I knew that I had to get an efficient position, so I shifted a couple of times.
One of the volunteer saw what I was trying to do, and he told me that the best way to hold it was with both hands behind my back, near my bum and dragging it behind me. That worked great. Thanks volunteer!
OBSTACLE: ROPE CLIMB
This was the only obstacle I completed that Pat did not. Surely rope climbing is about upper arm strength? Nope. I just used my arms to hold myself in place, but used my legs to push myself up, as well as more momentum.
OBSTACLE: MUD PITS
The mud pits were FUN. Some people were jumping right over them, but why the hell would you do that? We’re here for the mud. I sloshed right through those messy pits. Heh.
OBSTACLE: MORE BARBED WIRE
People were tired, and were moving slowly. I repeated my rolling technique, but still had to wait for the people in front of me to finish before I could get through. There was no way to pass.
OBSTACLE: ROPE LADDER
This was a short rope ladder like the ones you see in playgrounds for little kids. Yeah, I still play on this stuff.
OBSTACLE: DRAGGING WHEEL
We were right at the end, so all these obstacles were one right after the other. This one looked like a gym machine. We had to manually pull down a wheel-thing that would count down from 200 yards. We had to make the wheel move for the entire distance. It wasn’t hard, but it took a minute.
I almost didn’t see the fire pit because it was so tiny. One hop and my short legs were over it. I was envisioning a tight circle of fire that I would have to dive through. I can’t believe I was nervous about the fire.
OBSTACLE: GLADIATOR HIT
They had guys right before the finish line, hitting you with gladiator stick-things (I don’t know any of the Spartan terminology). I put on my best I’m-a-scared-little-weak-girl-please-don’t-hit-me face, and it worked. I just got lightly tapped.
And that was it! At the finish line, I saw defeated Spartans sprawled out on the grass with pulled muscles. Efficiency is everything and flexing is overrated.
10 THINGS I LEARNED
1. I’m way stronger than I think I am.
2. Girls rule and boys drool.
3. Looking cute at the finish line can eliminate an entire obstacle.
4. Put the muscle away and use your brain.
5. Being short improves stealth ninja skills.
6. Wall climbs give you camel toe.
7. This was way easier than the Krispy Kreme Challenge.
8. Pass the skinny girls. They’re slower than you.
9. Pass the husky guys. They’re slower than you.
10. If you see a 51-year-old female trail runner, follow her. She’s faster than you.
If it weren’t for this race, I might have never done a Spartan event. I might have always thought the big guys were stronger than me.
Above all, I learned to not be intimidated. To be confident in my fitness. And that in the end, maybe the life awards don’t go to the biggest guys. Maybe it’s better to be tiny. To slip easily under every obstacle.
Maybe the award can go to the shortest girl who can hold a bucket like a pregnant belly. And run all the hills.