Crawling under barbed wire, scaling 8-foot walls, running up steep hills and climbing 30 feet or more up cargo nets are some of the challenges area racers are taking on as they participate in races put on by the world’s leading obstacle race company, Spartan Race.
Spartan Race offers open heats for all fitness levels, as well as competitive and elite heats for those who may want to test their endurance levels even further. The first company of its kind to feature timing and global rankings, Spartan Race provides a playground of sorts for beginner and professional obstacle racers looking to test themselves in new ways.
Racers conquer mental and physical challenges in a series of obstacle races of varying distances and difficulty ranging from three miles to marathons.
The races are held in the United States and have been franchised in 14 countries, including Canada, South Korea, Australia and the European countries. Strength, speed, stamina and skill are needed to overcome the obstacles that line varying course levels. For the racers, however, it’s well worth the effort as they test their limits.
A course for every fitness level
Swansea couple Greg and Deanna Amma have participated in Spartan races for the past three years.
“It’s a sense of accomplishment. I’m a little bit different than a lot of the people on the team. I’m an avid hiker, farmer and fireman. I just do it,” said Greg, a volunteer firefighter with two Calhoun County stations.
The three main race types in the Spartan Race include: Sprint, which tests racers’ quickness through a 3-plus mile course filled with more than 20 obstacles; Super, which spans more than 8 miles with 25-plus obstacles; and Beast, the longest and most difficult race that is more than 12 miles and features more than 30 obstacles.
Racers who complete each race within one calendar year receive a Trifecta medal -- and, of course, bragging rights.
Greg and Deanna each received a Trifecta medal this year.
“I will double trifecta this year. I’ve got the two short races down. I’ve done one medium race and on Halloween weekend, I did two long races and will do a medium race again in December,” said Greg, who completed the Beast on Oct. 30 at Carolina Adventure World in Winnsboro.
He said what he likes about the Spartan Race is that there's a course for every fitness level.
“The thing about Spartan is that anybody can do it. That’s the reason why they’re set up like they are. With the Sprint, you learn what you have to work on, and then you do the Super and work on things you need to work on there, and then you’re ready for the Beast,” Greg said.
He doesn’t recommend starting with the Beast.
“People who’ve done that swore up and down they would never do another race again. These are physically active people that have done this, including runners. But you just don’t have to be a runner because there’s a lot of strength in this, too,” Greg said, noting he’s “not a runner.”
“For me, these races are a reason to go to the gym. I get enough physical activity out of just the firefighting and farming -- and that is a lot -- but I also have to go to the gym. It gets boring after a while if there’s nothing to push yourself with again,” he said, noting he enjoys the constant challenges the races bring.
Deanna said while she and her husband have participated in other obstacle races outside of Spartan, her last Spartan race was the Spartan Sprint on Sept. 10 at the Smith Lake Recreation Area in Ft. Bragg, North Carolina.
“My constant team member has been my husband. We’ve been married 10 years, but have been best friends for 24 years. He and I are like a well-oiled machine with this thing,” she said.
She said while people call her “crazy” for participating in obstacle racing, the sport has given her a reason to go to the gym.
“I’ve always struggled with trying to be healthy, trying to lose weight and all that, and it gave me something to work for. It gave me a reason to be mindful of what I eat because I have this end goal, which is doing this race,” Deanna said.
While physical preparation is key, developing mental fitness is just as important, she said.
“I have done races where I have been in the gym five days a week, and with the last couple of races, I fully admit I have gone with no preparation whatsoever and still finished. It's every bit as much a mental game as it is physical,” Deanna said. “It really just becomes a matter of getting past that nonsense in your head that says, ‘You can’t do this.’”
She admits she almost didn't survive a Spartan Super Race in Asheville, North Carolina, that entailed hiking through woods and mountains.
“It was by leaps and bounds past the hardest thing I’ve ever done. When I dragged my behind across that finish line, that was the most unbelievable feeling,” she said. “The thing that I tell people more than anything is, ‘Don’t focus on the physical stuff.’"
“Yeah, they want you to climb an 8-foot wall, but you can climb over people to do it, or you can skip it and do a burpee,” Deanna said.
Those who fail an obstacle course are required to do 30 burpees, a full body exercise used in strength training and as an aerobic exercise.
“If somebody doesn’t feel comfortable or safe doing an obstacle, there are other options,” she said.
Joe Bates of Orangeburg said he has run several different types of obstacle races, including some that took him as far away as Illinois.
“The different topography and climates and things like that add a unique challenge as well,” said Bates, who has been participating in Spartan races for the past two years.
“Before that, I had done similar Tough Mudders and mud runs,” he said, noting he's not yet completed all three of the main Spartan races.
“I’ve done the Sprint and I’ve done the Beast. Honestly, it’s just a personal challenge for me, but it’s also liberating to know what your personal limitations are. You find that you can actually accomplish more than what you thought you could,” Bates said.
He added, “It even puts some of your daily challenges a little bit more into perspective. Some of the little issues like walking across the parking lot to get to the mall is not that big of a deal anymore.”
The obstacles vary from short river crossings and wall climbs to more intense cargo net climbs, Bates said.
“You climb a cargo net and then you climb back down the other side. Some of the more physically challenging obstacles are things like the rings, where you go hand-over-hand sort of like monkey bars. And there are variations of those. Some are rings, but some are vertical ropes and bars,” he said.
“It challenges every aspect of your physical ability" but also fosters a camaraderie among team members, Bates said.
“In one of the Sprints this past year, we had a new runner who had an issue with heights. It took a team effort to surround her with encouragement and make sure she could accomplish things, and she did, including the taller obstacle,” he said. “It was an absolute life-changing success for her, but we all got to share in that.”
Challenge to spirit, inner strength
John Bates, who teaches martial arts and yoga at the Orangeburg County YMCA, said he once foolishly ran a Tough Mudder and Spartan Beast in the same weekend.
“That was a little painful and was probably not the smartest thing I ever did,” he said, adding that he finds the challenges fulfilling.
“I used to be quite overweight and I have a bad knee. I’ve had three surgeries on one knee and then when I started moving, I was able to physically do more. I just wanted to challenge myself and see what I was capable of,” Bates said.
“I started with the smaller race, but went to the other races once I did the smaller race just to see how it went. You train ahead of time for a race like this. You can either do it or not, physically, and the mental part is the challenge, especially on the longer (races),” he said.
He said he didn't properly prepare for his first Spartan Beast race.
“I hadn’t had enough to drink or eat that day, and about six miles in, my calves started to cramp seriously,” Bates said.
One Beast race he ran in 2015 took nearly six hours over a muddy, flooded course, he said.
“The last two hours were in the dark after the sun had gone down, and the temperature dropped into the low 40s,” Bates said.
While he doesn’t have a Trifecta medal, he’s already looking for new challenges, Bates said.
“I did the Sprint and the Super this year, but the thing I’m running into now is since I’ve done two Beasts, one Sprint and one Super, I’m getting tired of them. I don’t really have anything to prove to myself anymore. They’re still challenging, but they’re kind of a boring challenge,” he said.
Marzyeh Gorbanalli, a native of Iran currently living in Orangeburg, won a Trifecta medal after completing the Beast race in Winnsboro on Oct. 30. She and Bates have completed obstacles races together over the years, she said.
“Me and John did Tough Mudder. Other people like Greg and Deanna Amma had been doing the Spartan. So after that, we followed them,” Marzyeh said.
“I’m not physically strong, but it really challenges my spirit and my inner strength. That’s what I get from it. If I can do it in my age and my physical ability, then young people should look at me and say, ‘If she can do it, I can do it, too,’” the 53-year-old said.
“It really is a part of me. Being able to get to the finish line with all of my limitations and the age and everything, I can face anything else in life and go through it,” said Marzyeh, who ran a Beast in November 2015.
“That was really challenging. It was cold, and we did four or five miles in the dark with head lamps. You always get wet when you do this stuff, going through mud and water. It was really tough and kind of broke me down. But, at the same time, I said, ‘I need to beat this.’ That kind of pushed me to do it again," she said.
Marzyeh added, “I couldn’t ask for better team members. Oh my God, they are awesome. We went through all of it together. One of the things is you face your fears."
Nicci Smith of St. Matthews, a fitness instructor at the Orangeburg County YMCA, also enjoys participating in the obstacle races.
She participated in the Beast in November 2015 and completed a Sprint in April 2016.
“For me, it was really just conquering fears. I did it simply because it was something that I didn’t think I could do. It gave me a great reason to really push myself in training and try some physical stuff I had never really tried before,” Nicci said.
“The other great thing is the camaraderie. When you do it with a team, you are really forced to bond with those people because you need each other. It’s just a neat thing how we all pitch in and help each other,” she said.
Nicci noted she has survived crawling under barbed wire, jumping walls and pulling herself up on a rope.
Jim Johnson Jr. of Orangeburg, regional director of the Small Business Development Center at South Carolina State University, has been racing for approximately 10 years. He said John, Joe and Marzyeh were instrumental in getting him interested in the Spartan races.
“They had already been doing them last year, and they asked if I was interested in going,” said Johnson, who earned a Trifecta medal on Oct. 30.
“I did the Sprint in Charlotte this past spring with five miles and 25 obstacles. It was a challenge, but nothing like the Super that we did in Asheville, which was probably one of the hardest things that I’ve ever done other than run a marathon, mainly because it included a lot of mountain hiking that we didn’t expect,” he said.
“One of the (obstacles) that I have a challenge with is called the atlas ball, a big concrete ball that I believe weighs 80 pounds," Johnson said. "You have to lift it up and walk maybe 30 feet or so."
His forte is throwing spears through targets and cargo net climbing, he said.
“When you look at obstacles, there’s just so many different ways you can approach them. You have to be creative sometimes, and it helps to work with a team, especially when you get to high walls,” Johnson said.
He prepares for the races by running on a regular basis.
“That basically helps my cardio and my heart. As far as the strength part, I’ve been doing a lot of primal exercises with John Bates, who does a lot of drills that kind of help build upper body strength,” Johnson said.
“Your body can do it, but it’s your mind that stops you,” he said, noting the races benefit a goal-driven person like him.
“I have athletic, physical and fitness goals, so when I envision having to try to get the Trifecta and then accomplishing it, it’s definitely major fulfillment as you go along the way,” Johnson said.
He added, “I’m still up in the air whether I will continue, at least with the Spartan. I might move on to something else because there are a lot of fun things to do out there."