Edinburgh Spartan Race 2017
Spartan Beast – 15 miles
5 hours 40 minutes 25 seconds
346th of 869
51st of 196 Females
14th of in 38 in Age Category
This time a couple of weeks ago, I was seriously considering my life choices. By 11am, I had been up since 6am and had been running up, down, and around the Pentland Hills in lashing rain and wind for nearly two and a half hours. Two months prior, I had been challenged by the race to take on the event of my choice from the Edinburgh Spartan Beast, UltraBeast, and Sprint weekend. This event was two days of obstacle course races which promised to challenge mental strength, endurance, grit, and perseverance as we tackled challenging obstacles in addition to running over punishing Pentland hills and terrain. I’m usually up for a challenge, so I decided to give it a go…
From the events on offer, I selected the Beast distance which was stated to be between 12-14 miles. I was tempted by the UltraBeast until I saw it was a double loop of the Beast course, and thought that doing the course once would probably be enough. Spartan kindly offered me a place for a friend as well, so, being the generous wife I am, I signed Kynon up so that we could share the experience together.
If you are a regular reader of RedWineRunner, you will know that I have never ran an obstacle course race before, but that I am a regular competitor in Scotland’s toughest and longest off-road ultramarathons. Distance, climbing, and endurance are my bread and butter, but I rarely step foot in a gym. Functional training looks like fun, but I never have time to go to the outdoor boot camp classes I see happening around Edinburgh. As a result, I can run for (actual) days but I don’t have a great deal of upper body strength beyond being able to bust out some push ups on command, and flex a mediocre gun show on occasion. My right arm is stronger than my left, as that’s the one I lift my pints with.
Earlier this year I shared my thoughts on tackling my first obstacle course race, and why I had decided to take part in a type of event which I have been known to be quite disparaging about. You can read the post HERE, but to re-cap; I always strive to provide evidence-based argument, and I was keen to see what all the fuss was about regarding obstacle course racing. It’s one of the fastest growing and most lucrative sports markets in the world, and a lot of people seem to be quite intimidated by it. To be a ‘Spartan’ is to allegedly have bragging rights, to have proven yourself against something (the thing is not actually defined – but it is said “You’ll know at the finish line”) and to have a selection of Spartan-branded ‘bad-ass’ pictures to share on your social media accounts (defined as a finisher benefit in race communications).
None of these factors hold any real draw for me at all, but I certainly was not intimidated by the concept of throwing myself around an obstacle course, even if some of it is was fire. So, I accepted the challenge and went undercover to try and understand the mentality of the Spartans and their sub-culture. What makes people spend all their money to come back to these races around the country? What would being part of the Spartan Family feel like? And what on earth was I going to find out at the finish line?!
Edinburgh Spartan Beast
The awful weather was never going to be in doubt. The forecast all week had been for rain and wind all Saturday, but given how wet I knew I would get anyway, I didn’t really care. We arrived at the Spittal Farm site about 7.30am and got parked up before heading to the Race Festival. Spartan Race offers camping; useful since it’s in the middle of nowhere, so many people had elected to stay over the night before. This meant there were food trucks, coffee trucks, plenty of toilets, and a fairly genial festival atmosphere despite the rain. It’s worth noting that I obviously didn’t take my phone with me on the course, but I also didn’t take any pictures at the start because of the weather, so all photos from now on are used with kind permission of Spartan Race.
The race crew provided fantastic service and we were able to check in and get rid of our bags quickly and easily. We then sat down on some hay bales, ate some bananas, and took in the atmosphere. Edinburgh Spartan Race is a huge event, with waves of competitors starting from 6am to well into the afternoon. This meant there were 100s of people wandering around, upon whom I made the following observations:
- Nearly everyone wears branded kit to participate – you enter the race through the Merchandise tent, and you can buy everything from Spartan shoes, to leggings, to iron-on patches.
- OCR teams and clubs are a thing – lots of people were wearing custom team kit, which looks a lot slicker than your average running club vest.
- It was a really international event! There were dozens of different languages being spoken, in addition to large numbers of Americans and Canadians, and over 30 countries were represented.
- OCR racing has a very diverse participant profile and puts the Scottish Ultra scene to shame.
- There were a number of people walking around on crutches or in orthopedic moon boots. This seemed to be a badge of honour.
- Even though they were about to trek around an obstacle course, some people still wear costumes. There was a man in an actual Spartan outfit.
- OCR racers don’t know how to use bins. The amount of litter being thrown around was atrocious.
We didn’t have too long to wait until our start at 8:40am, but in the meantime we chatted to Abby and her husband Jamie. It was nice to meet Abby in real life and they shared some last tips for survival with us. We had both elected to wear finger-less mountain bike glove-mitt things to protect our hands – apparently this is quite controversial in the scene, and you are either in Team Glove or definitely not. Maybe this is like the minimal/maximal footwear debate in ultras? Who knows.
At the start, there was a lot of shouting. A lady had a microphone and people were responding with vigour to her shouts, and jumping and cheering a lot. It was all a bit enthusiastic for first thing in the morning for me, and I also couldn’t hear what she was saying. However, off we went, and our big adventure had begun! I felt quite excited until I had to stop running after 50 meters to queue to traverse a small stream, and I hoped that this would not be a theme for the day.
Over the whole course there were over 30 obstacles. I’m not going to describe each one as I don’t have all day and neither do you. The first ones were mainly climbing over things and going through mud pits which was all fun and games, until we got the the first significant water obstacle. This was constructed using the natural environment and utilised a huge pond full of reeds, upon which was floating a large, wooden ladder-shaped construction, where the ‘steps’ of the ladder shape were actually about 3 feet wide. The challenge was to get into the water and then swim under the three wide wooden planks. This didn’t seem too bad from a distance, but when you were actually submerged in the freezing water, with your muscles paralysed with cold, getting underneath a flat, floating structure and out the other side safely, provoked a genuine ‘fight or flight’ fear reaction in me. For a second I wasn’t sure if I could do it, and nearly ducked out to do the 30 burpee penalty for skipping the obstacle, but my brain kicked in and took control – I’m in charge of what scares me, nothing else – and I took a deep breath and swum under.
HORRIFIC BRAIN FREEZE. I can’t describe the shock of the cold – I’ve never felt anything like it before other than being hit directly on the head with a blunt object. I emerged on the other side gasping and hyperventilating, before taking a few seconds to calm down and then swimming under the second, and the third. Getting out of the water, I jumped up and down and jogged around to try and regain full control over my body, and waited for Kynon to complete his burpee penalty after he decided he couldn’t do the obstacle. We went on together, and that was the last time I was dry until I finished five and a half hours later…
The next few hours were a Tour de Force of physical challenges – not just climbing over and under things, but dragging breeze blocks on chains, balancing on posts, memory tests, carrying sandbags, tyres, buckets of stones, swimming across a loch, and huge leg sapping climbs to the summits of the hills. I can’t deny that this event was TOUGH, and challenged me in ways which I’ve never experienced. To that end, I also found I could do things that I didn’t know I could – apparently I’m actually a pretty solid contender in carrying a 20kg sandbag on my shoulders up and down a hill on uneven, wet and treacherous terrain. I passed dozens of people collapsed around the carrying course, some just lying on the ground crying next to their sandbags. Guys, cheer up – you are PAYING to do this.
Mentally, the course was designed to mess with your head. You could see what was coming ahead in some places, and the carrying challenges were especially cruel as you could see how far your had to carry your bucket of rocks up ahead and how far you had to climb, only to come right back down the the start. There were some running sections between obstacles which were simply a hill rep – down half a mile over wet tussocky reeds and grass, around a cone, and back up again, just to be particularly cruel.
Don’t forget the weather of course – the rain continued to lash down and the wind made the conditions on the tops of the hills very, very harsh. There was thick clag (fog) on the tops which at times extended all the way down to the Race Festival. Visibility was very poor and sometimes down to only a few feet in front of you. I’ve said this before, but, welcome to Scotland in July…
Teamwork is a major part of many people’s Spartan Race. Operating as a pair we weren’t very efficient at climbing over the huge things, but just having someone there to encourage you was good. Sometimes other Spartans would help out too, but I didn’t see too much of the collegiate atmosphere which so many websites write about. On one occasion I helped a girl over a barrier and then she just ran off instead of helping me too – cheers mate, much appreciated. So I was glad that I had Kynon to keep my spirits up; that is, until he was done at about 10 miles/3h 30m in. The less said about this the better, probably, but the weather, lack of food and water, and water submersions took their toll and he was definitely done for the day when he was visibly blue, talking nonsense, and with numb hands and pins and needles in both arms. It’s not very nice to use your recently acquired Outdoor Emergency First Aid training on your own husband, nor to have him carted away with a body temperature of 35C and for you to keep going on the course, but I wasn’t going to let the Beast get both of us.
You might understand that I had a bit of a sense of humour failure at this point. I was royally fed up of being wet and cold, I had no idea how far I had to go to the finish or how long it would take, and this daft event with its stupid testosterone-fuelled, all-or-nothing culture had hurt my husband. Amusingly, it was just after this that the event photographers popped up.
So I charged on, sprinting past dozens of people who were just walking between the obstacles at this point, and just tried to get done as quickly as possible. I noticed that I was passing people from the elite and competitive waves which started before us, and there were no other women around (and actually, few other competitors in general). I wondered for a bit if I was going to inadvertently show up and accidentally place in my age category, which I found hilarious especially since I’d spent ages hanging around with Kynon when he was sick, and had done several time-consuming burpee penalties for failing obstacles.
The route took you cruelly close the the finish before fucking off up another hill for another mile to carry some logs, and then you came back down to the finish area. “Well done lady! You are putting all the men to shame!” said a marshal. Cool, but I just want to get this event done so I can make sure my husband isn’t dead.
The last obstacles were right next to the finish festival. I gave them my best shot but I just couldn’t do the ‘Twister’ hanging traverse thing, and found myself doing more burpees in front of a handful of fed-up looking bedraggled spectators. The final obstacle was two 8 foot walls which, by myself, I tried to get over and failed. No cheering, no encouragement, more burpees whilst people just stared at me throwing myself repeatedly into the muddy ground. This is what I found out at the finish line.
Five hours and forty minutes later I took the ‘Fire Jump’ in my stride, declining the opportunity for the bad-ass social media photograph, and finally finished the race. Having consumed 200 calories of gels in since my previously consumed banana at 8am, I was delirious with hunger and consumed the finish-line offerings like a rabid dog – I’ve never been so excited to drink a bottled bro-tein shake in my life.
I can imagine that if it had been a lovely hot July day it would have been great to dry out in the sunshine and enjoy a burger and a beer, but I was just so cold and done that I wanted to get home as quickly as possible. I got my kit bag and headed for the showers, only to find that they were just water bowsers with hoses. I couldn’t handle any more cold water, so I peeled off my wet clothes and struggled into some dry ones, and it was finally time to go home.
Some Closing Thoughts
- Spartan Race is an extremely well-organised event, and it’s easy to see why it costs as much as it does to participate. The course was very well designed, and decorated with some very high quality obstacles. I would have liked to see some fuel on the course though – there was one water stop with bananas, but other than that the only thing which was on offer was water.
- The litter situation was completely unacceptable. Participants were throwing litter away all over the course – in Scottish Hill and Ultra races, this is an offence which will result in disqualification. Hopefully Spartan Race collected it all, but they need to do more to change participants’ attitude.
- The medal is amazing; very heavy duty and good quality, strung on thick, satin ribbon. Attached to it is a segment which you can use to complete a memento of completing a ‘trifecta’ of Spartan events. The Finisher TShirt is also great quality and very soft technical fabric.
- Unfortunately, the ‘Fast Pass’ is a complete rip-off. I purchased two £12.50 ‘Fast Passes’ which give the user the benefit of ‘free’ parking and bag-check (usually £5 and £2), the ability to skip queues, and 10% off merchandise. Firstly, there were no queues and even if there were any later on, there was no dedicated FastPass lane. Secondly, in order to get any value from the 10% discount, you would need to spend over £55 in merchandise before you would see any benefit. So, I paid £24 to park one car and check two bags – things which could be purchased on the day for a total of £9.
- I requested a breakdown of results from Spartan Race for the Beast, since it was clear that the race had taken its toll on a lot of entrants. Allegedly across all waves in the Beast, there were 1135 starters, and 1134 finishers, so only one DNF. Given that there was a guy who was literally unconscious in the ambulance with Kynon when he was being taken off the course, I’m reasonably convinced there were at least two… and that’s without going into detail about the dozens of other people in the medical tent. Kynon also received a ‘Congratulations on Finishing’ email the next day despite not being included in the race results, so I am not convinced about the accuracy of the race result processing. I’ve requested further updated results or comment from Spartan, but they are satisfied that these statistics are accurate.
I’m grateful for the opportunity to have experienced this type of event for the first time. OCR racing is a different world from normal running, and is clearly developing a thriving community with their own standards and traditions. There’s no denying that the weather impacted my enjoyment of the event, but in general, I’m in no hurry to return to the Spartan or wider OCR scene. Kynon was fine once he got warmed up and fed, but I don’t think he’ll be back either…
Once again I’ve found that smaller, low-key events are what I enjoy the most. Thankfully there’s a wide selection of events out there to suit all tastes, so I’ll leave the Spartans to do their thing and I’ll go back to ultramarathons.
Did you take part in the Edinburgh Spartan Race?
Have you ever taken part in an event like this?