Matt Blackwell joins legions of fierce warriors in an obstacle race that has been centuries in the making
Spartans gained their fearsome reputation through hundreds of years of battle, eventually emerging as the dominant military land power in ancient Greece. With a culture centred on loyalty, strength and fitness, the warrior society is perhaps most widely renowned for the Battle of Thermopylae, in which King Leonidas and 300 Spartans blocked the advances of a huge Persian force until they were overrun in one of history’s most famous last stands.
And now I would be joining their ranks, having signed up to compete in the Dubai Spartan Race. The weight of history and expectation was heavy on my shoulders.
Don’t get me wrong; I’m into my fitness and have competed in events ranging from military boot camps to Horizon’s Adventure Challenge last September, but with the word “Spartan” having become synonymous with strict self-discipline and austerity, I had a feeling this obstacle race would be a different kettle of fish entirely.
My “training” had consisted of daily runs with my five-month-old puppy, although these were never more than a couple of kilometres at a time. I did, however, take some solace knowing that I had only signed up for the five-kilometre Sprint race and not the Super (13km) or the Beast (20km). After all, how hard could five kilometres be?
This confidence went right out of the window when I arrived at the Jebel Ali Racecourse at 7.30am on Friday morning to find that through some sort of admin error or glitch, I had been bumped up to the Spartan Super.
As the rope was lowered, battle cries of “Aroo” and chants of “We are Spartans” filled the air and my fellow warriors and I were unleashed on the course. Apprehension was replaced by adrenaline and I set about my task with a determination that would’ve made King Leonidas proud.
The tone for the race was set barely 20 metres in, when we were forced to plunge into a waist-deep pool of muddy water before scrambling up a steep dune. I still had a smile on my face at this point though and had no idea what kind of trials and tribulations lay in store over the remaining 30 obstacles.
You can’t be scared to get your hands dirty in a Spartan race, you just have to embrace the pain and jump in with both feet.
And that’s exactly what I did, climbing over fences and wading through further pools before throwing myself to the floor to crawl under numerous stretches of barbed wire that were little more than 50cm off the ground.
One thing that sapped my energy reserves more than anything else was the fact that we were often running up, down and along sand dunes, meaning it constantly felt like I wasn’t actually getting anywhere, despite expending double the energy.
My first moment of weakness came at about 10 obstacles into the race, when I was faced with a rope climb. There was a time when my upper body strength was such that I would’ve been able to comfortably conquer this challenge, but having already scaled four-metre high wooden fences, hauled weighted bags high into the air on a big rig and plenty more, my muscles failed me. I humbly accepted the punishment of 30 burpees – the penalty prescribed for failure to complete any obstacle.
There were no distance markers in the race, but shortly after the failed rope climb I overheard someone saying that we were only four kilometres in. Just the nine more to go then.
Tyre flips, spear throwing (yes, you read that right; after all, this is Sparta!), scaling cargo nets and yet more crawling under barbed wire were just some of the obstacles I would encounter for the remainder of the race and amazingly, there was only one other task – widely spaced out rings, pipe and rope that we had to swing between, monkey-bar style – that would best me.
Finally, when I’d almost given up hope, the finish line appeared on the horizon like an oasis in the desert. Spurred on with a renewed sense of purpose, I overcame the second to last obstacle, an inverted fence climb, with ease and launched myself over a pit of burning embers with a spring in my step, before crossing the line with a sprint to collect my medal.
All in all, I finished 324th out of 935 competitors, with a time of two hours and 26 minutes, putting me in 64th place among the 186 men in my age bracket. And while it’s a long way off first place material – the winner completed the 13K course in a blistering one hour and seven minutes – I’m pretty happy with my performance.
Battered, bruised and beaten, I couldn’t help but draw a strange pleasure from the pain as I reflected back on what I’d just done with a colossal sense of achievement coursing through my veins.
Next stop, the Beast. Aroo!
1st: Sergey Perelygin
2nd: Marco Becerra
3rd: Gregoire Rezzonico
Photos: Spartan Race