What makes on Obstacle Course race? Well, obstacles obviously. What makes an OCR that you fear? Fail-able obstacles. What makes a competitive OCR? Penalties for failed obstacles. And what makes a Spartan race? Burpees. Or should I say, skipped burpees.
Go to any Spartan race, anywhere in the world, and I can guarantee you there will be complaints over skipped burpees. Whether that's from one the top three finishers, skipping burpees and taking the spot from someone who worked hard the whole race, or a competitor in the elite heat performing three half hearted kick outs before walking off hoping no one was watching (I was). When urged on by the guy who has made 2015 what it is: that we are racing Elite, that this event is a World Championship Qualifier, to still see and hear of so many people cheating (and yes, it is cheating) is not only disgusting, it's totally pointless.
Take a look at race results, when you know how people normally finish, in what order, and you see those people come above others at a Spartan, you know what has happened. I didn't race strong on Saturday, but I pushed myself, and although I am not aiming for a top spot, my goal was to qualify for the World Championships, it would be heartbreaking to lose out on that to someone who had not raced honestly.
What I am still unclear on, is why after years of moaning, countless arguments, and thousands of lost places, Spartan headquarters are still so stubborn that they can't say “you know what guys, maybe you hundreds of thousands of racers are right, and we actually, are wrong. We can admit that. Let's take a look and see how every other brand does it and try to improve.” Unfortunately, I can't see this happening any time soon....
Rant over, now to the race.
Double race day, Spartan Manchester, the Sprint and Super in one day. This, as we know, was not the original plan, but it was what we had. To be honest, after much moaning, I am just happy they didn't cancel. We don't get many races up here, and I was pleased to be welcoming Spartan to my home town.
Despite my complaining, I love Spartan. It holds a special place in my heart. It was my first ever race, and it feels like the big one to me. I know the rulebook inside out, the obstacles, the races, the racers... I get angry because I want Spartan to succeed, but I can't see it happening over here. Where as with other homegrown races, the RD has developed a race from day one, he (she) has put their heart and soul into the race, they will often run at a loss just to get the race going, and ultimately they have final say over what happens. With Spartan we have a huge global brand, with a head office half way around the world dictating what happens here which must be intensely frustrating for those who are trying to make this a success.
The week leading up to the race was baking hot, unusual for Manchester, let alone the UK. Through temperatures in the high 20s to rolling storms the weather was decidedly unsettled and no one knew what to expect.
The day dawned bright and sunny and we headed off to Heaton Park ready to take on the races, the Sprint and Super. A 5km and 13km race respectively, filled (hopefully) with Spartan classics such as rope climb, spear throw and fire jump.
Registration was incredibly quick and easy, I decided to forgo bag drop despite having a free pass for a season ticket holder as I would know enough people to leave my things at a “base camp” and also, without the Spartan branded bags of last year, there was little point for me!
Guzzling the last of my mountain fuel and slapping on suncream I debated a last minute toilet stop, but thought I din't have time as it was nearing the 9.30am start time. Rookie mistake. With the race running late I ended up running the course bursting for a wee, adding to my list of moans as I went around.
Waiting around near the start line I was nervous, as Rich Pringle was introduced he geared us up and urged us on to race fair and take all penalties, that we would be marshalled on our burpees by Royal Marines who wouldn't be easy on us (favour please: in future can these guys be stationed at the rope climb and spear throw?).
Leonidas riled the crowd even more before stating “you are Elites, you need no warm up. GO!” What?? No warm up? As we all dashed across the start line I was thinking...but no warm up? Why? Yes we are racing “elite” and yes people will be warming themselves up, but that doesn't negate the need for a warm up on the start line, and if it does, I wish we had been told so we could be better prepared. Also, with the race running late, it was impossible to get the warm up timed correctly for the start time as we had no idea when that would be. It may be a small moan, but I find the first KM or so of any race very hard, and I think amongst less seasoned runners I am not alone. As your body gets into rhythm and your heart speeds up, it is at this point that you struggle. With a warm up where not only you stretch, but you get your heart going just before you set off, it helps just over the start line.
Despite it being still early in the day, the sun was baking hot. For the first time ever I was running in shorts and a vest, and was still overheating the whole day. Despite having been out of training for a long time due to injuries and other circumstances, I had asked Scott “Honey Badger” Seefeldt to pace me as I did want to try to aim for a qualification at the OCR World Championships.
Within minutes I could feel this wasn't going to be a sterling performance from me, by the first slight incline, my legs were heavy and I was being overtaken on all sides. Scott plodded ahead in front of me, gamely cheering me on as we hit the first few obstacles.
In contrast to the Yorkshire Sprint last year and the South Beast, where very quickly the course turned into narrow paths, here the course was open for very much of the route, allowing people to overtake and giving those who had started further back a chance to move forward.
The course was well planned around the event village for the spectators, with the biggest obstacles being placed strategically around the route, weaving back towards the village. The only issue for the spectators was not knowing in which order these came, but it could probably be easily worked out.
Tackling the classics such as A-frames, hercules hoist, and atlas carry we continued our course through wooded areas, red faced and dripping with sweat. I wondered when the water stop would come up and was continually surprised when it didn't happen.
A small sandbag carry (which I walked uphill to save my legs for the rope climb, before running back down the hill) preceded the rope climb. I have always liked rope climb and have failed it only on one occasion. After my experience at the RAW jam at Wild Forest Gym however, where mid race I had slid from nearly the top of the 9M rope to the bottom, leaving the skin from my hands and stomach behind, I took my time before starting the rope climb to gather myself as I was not doing 30 burpees here.
Once I worked out my grip I began the slow journey up, pausing just above half way. With Scott and Foz shouting at me to continue, encouraging me to reach the top. I dinged the bell and made my way down the rope.
A brief loop away from the event village through some undergrowth led us towards the spear throw, and the finish line. Taking aim I launched my spear through the air...and then headed off to do my 30 burpees. Grateful that this was the only failed obstacle, but annoyed at the time it would add onto my finishing time, I started off as fast as I could to get to the finish, which was in sight.
It was here that I watched in disbelief as one of the competitors who had been on my tail for the whole course failed the spear throw, performed three...well I don't even know what they were, hands on the ground and legs kicked out a few times, before standing up, and slowly walking off.
Checking no one had seen her she jogged towards the finish line. Are you only cheating yourself? No you're cheating me. I struggled on Saturday, I am not at my best, I struggle in the heat as much as the cold (my body is entirely incapable of regulating temperature) but I pushed on to keep ahead, only to have that taken at the end. You may say it doesn't matter, but seeing as this was the elite heat, it does. This event is a World Championship qualifier, for competitors to be able to gain a few minutes over others by not fully taking part means the event loses its integrity.
I know this also happened in the top three finishers, taking what should have been a gap of a few minutes lead for one place, to a narrow victory of a few seconds for someone who cheated. When someone has pushed themselves to the limit, and competed fairly, it is not ok for another competitor to cheat and take this away from them. This will always be an issue with Spartan and so it baffles me that they will still not rethink their rules, and create a race that when it is over people say how awesome it was rather than complain about the cheaters, to create a race that you can believe in and believe in the results.
With the first of the days races over, I was hot, sweaty, disappointed in my own performance and left with a pounding headache due to dehydration. We saw the wonderful Fay Kelly who has been working her socks off to make these events a success, the only complaint I could give her was the lack of water around the course. For such a hot day we needed more water around the course. She promised that this was being done and indeed in the afternoon there were much more water stations dotted around.
The time between races passed very quickly, and the turn around by the Spartan staff was impressive as the mornings races had over run.
Seeing how much I had struggled in the morning, I decided to still take on the Super but ran with Ami Sawran and Lucy Clay, who was coming back after a long time out with injury. Our plan was to get around the course, with Lucy pushing herself as much as she felt possible, with myself and Ami encouraging her.
Off we trotted at the back of the first wave, the gap between races had meant I had started to get stiff, and the sun was higher in the sky, leaving us panting after less than a KM. Passing the event village we saw one of the sponsors, Lucozade and cheekily asked for a bottle to carry with us. They obliged and we carried on our way. Crossing the traverse wall with no one else around meant we had time to take it slow, and then we approached the hoist. I got chatting to one of the marshals and asked what the difference between the red and black was. “Red for women, black for men”. “Oh! No one told me that this morning, I did the black one.” I replied. “which one?” he said. As I pointed out which hoist I had taken he then explained how each side had different weights. I decided to give the heaviest weight a try (for fun) and could barely lift it above the ground. Helping me we hoisted it up and then lowered it. I then completed the same mens weight as I had in the morning (just so you know I'm not cheating!). I did wonder though, how many people were unaware of the differences and maybe took a weight that they couldn't do...also, why were there different weights? Why not two weights, one for me and one for women, or even better, one for the elite heat, and then men and women’s separately for other heats.
We passed through a field, this being the most considerable addition over the sprint. Here the heat was intense, and myself and Ami achieved a first by running in our sports bras and shorts. The field was tricky, and I was glad to not be running in it. Filled with deep holes covered by grass I know several competitors had to walk. Despite taking care I turned my ankle over in one of the holes. Although not too serious, along with the rope burn it is now very sore and swollen, but will go down in a few days I am sure.
One of the other obstacles which was only for the super was a rig of sorts, comprising of rings, bars, and then one side continued with monkey bars and the other had short thick ropes. Earlier in the day they had been advising people to go left or right, when we arrived the course was much busier (having been overtaken by heat two...whoopsie!) and we were greeted by a marshall stood in the middle of the rig, unhelpfully shouting “THIRTY BURPEES!!!” at the top of her lungs.
Making the most of my training with Coach Michael, I swung across the rings with ease, across the monkey bars and stopped at the ropes, trying to grab one I fell. “THIRTY BURPEES!!!” Was screamed in my face. “Can I try the other side first?” I asked. “THIRTY BURPEES!!” screamed the Spartan automaton. “Well, to be fair” I said “I didn't know there was an alternative because rather than directing me there you were too busy shouting at everyone!”
Here there was a water station and we took the time to have a drink and inspect what Lucy thought was a blister emerging. It turned out to be one mother of a blister on her heel. Ami went off in search of a blister plaster, and was a little surprised to find that the marshals were not equipped with basic first aid kits. We were however the least of their worries, as another racer, upon completing the rig, had jumped down and got his leg caught on a protruding screw, cutting him so deeply that the fat was hanging out of the cut. (sorry, graphic but ouch). He was quickly attended to by an ambulance crew who arrived quickly and we were provided with a plaster. A quick sock swap, drink and toilet break and we were on our way.
Now, we were trying to work out how much farther we had to travel, some birdy had told us that there would be a mile + of brick carry so we were expecting that. I was surprised that they substituted the sandbag carry for a different route of tyre carry, with the final distance clocking in at just above 10km, I'm sure they could've kept both.
Tackling the rope climb again was tricky, myself and Ami side by side made it to top. Ami had an awesome weekend, completing the rig and the rope climb: it's wonderful to see one of your friends achieving so many of their goals and improving.
With her bad knees Lucy struggled with the burpees but attempted them anyway. Although not enrolled as a team, we were running as one, and so shared her burpees with her, taking ten each. In retrospect, we should have asked for a modified penalty, but I suppose the marshals would not have an option for us.
We were pretty tired by this point, and hungry having not eaten in between races. Stationed at the rope climb was some of the best kind of marshals..the ones with food. I have to say, a hobnob has never tasted so good. I wolfed it down, ignoring my dry mouth and how thirsty I would be. It is so good to enjoy something so much. A biscuit that people can eat four or five of without thinking, one can be the most delicious thing in the world when really needed. I think this is one of the reasons people do OCRs (no not for the biscuits and sweets) but to go through something uncomfortable, makes the stuff you do in real life not so bad. To enjoy things and make the most of them.
In and out of the woods we weaved, attempting to calculate the remaining distance, I was wondering when this brick carry would appear as we were nearing the end of what was the Sprint course.
Before we knew it we were at the spear throw, having clocked about 10km, the brick carry it would appear, being a red herring!
I lined up yet again for the spear through, and as I weighed the spear in my hand, the marshal next to me shouted at a marshal further on “they've missed their burpees! Send them back!” A couple who were making their way to the (melted) ice pit were sent back. I had a quick chat with the marshal and then threw my spear...and again headed off my penalty. Seeing the couple scurry off and I shouted back to the friendly marshal “your chaps have sodded off without their burpees!” I told him. “Get back here!” he said the girl cheekily turned around and said “We did 30!”. “There's no way you did 30 in that time” I said, as she shrugged and walked off. Ok, I admit it...I boo'ed at her. I can't help it... I've been caught out at the spear throw too many times! One day, I vow to volunteer on an elite heat and specifically request to be stationed at the spear throw...woe betide anyone who tries to sneak past me!
We three slowly completed our penalty and slithered across the tarpaulin masquerading as an ice pit (it would have been lovely as that day was hot even at a slower pace!).
Hand in hand we leapt across the fire, before collecting the second pie wedges of our Trifecta, the medal for the Super.
Although I had been annoyed at the two races being combined, I think the Spartan UK crew handled everything well, and I hope they come back up North again next year. The course was good, not overly challenging for the top of the elites I imagine, but a good introduction for the many newbies who would be trying their first race. Seeing as we have so few up here it is good for the course to accessible to those who don't often get the opportunity. My only complaint which could have been handled by the ground staff was more water stops on the Sprint course, but this was quickly remedied.
It was my first summer race, with every race I have taken part in being September through winter. Racing in the heat is just as challenging as the cold, with the heat dehydrating you and sapping energy. I do seem to have issues with regulating my body temperature, but everyone has their own issues to work through.
Coming away from the race I was shocked by how much my performance has suffered, and I vowed to fix my injuries and my mind and get out there training again.
And how did I fare on my aim? Well, I'm pleased to say with the Honey Badgers help, I just about managed to qualify for the World Championships in Ohio 2015.