It’s quiet on the subway ride to Queens—parents entertain their children, a woman stands relaxed against the doors holding a bag of groceries. And then there’s us. Distinctly out of place, my colleague Morgan and I sit together in silence, dressed in black and clinging to our stash of BODYARMOR SportWater. It’s the official sports drink of the Spartan Race we (foolishly) signed up for, and we’re counting on it to give us a shot of strength like Popeye’s can of spinach.
The train rumbles to a halt, and we exit, catching a first glimpse of the stadium that will serve as our stage. Adrenaline racing, we push through the onlookers and sign in. Wild faces chant at us, an unsettling “Arooo!” trailing in our wake as the crowd parts to make room for the racers up next. In just a few moments, Morgan and I will throw spears, sprint for cover, and climb walls—all because, like that sweet idiot Katniss Everdeen, we volunteered.
We get herded through a series of checkpoints and line up with the rest of the participants in our heat. A man behind me has biceps that could crush bricks. The woman to my left is performing a series of warm-up punches and kicks. Determined to go down fighting, I break out my best intimidating warm-up move: a standing lunge. Morgan ties her shoes. The others look impressed.
There are 10 seconds left before we start. I give Morgan a reassuring pat on the back, both a gesture of encouragement and a farewell in case I don’t make it and end up trampled on the pavement somewhere. She’s a fighter; I know she’ll make it out. The buzzer sounds, and before we can breathe we’re off. Nothing to do now but run—we’re officially Spartans.
Before you call me dramatic, I should say that it’s been about five years since I last ran an obstacle course race—and Morgan had never run one before. But we both love a good challenge, so when the folks at BODYARMOR reached out to us looking for first-timers brave enough to give the 20-plus obstacles and 3-mile Citi Field course a shot, we threw caution to the wind and signed up.
I consider myself an active person—I run, do HIITs, lift (bro, I really do)—and Morgan, a spry 23-year-old, is powered by the unstoppable jet fuel of her youth. But without training or preparation, these qualities do not an expert OCR runner make.
As we quickly learned from hoisting ourselves over 11-foot walls (or being hoisted on more than one occasion), lifting bags of sand weighing roughly the same as a small car, running up and down endless flights of stairs, and being passed by totally badass racers in their 60s who aren’t even breaking a sweat, obstacle course runs are a bit like a punch to the face—if that fist then gave you a high five for being such a good sport.
Surprisingly, that proverbial punch to the face was outrageously fun (I think I finally get Fight Club)—so much so Morgan and I are already itching to sign up for another race. This time, though, we’re determined to do our homework.
That’s why we compiled this list of essential things to know before your first obstacle-course race or mud run, hard-earned from the mistakes of two ambitious, but supremely naive, OCR newbies.
1. Find your team.
Sure, you can do an obstacle course race by yourself, but some things are better in a group. While Morgan and I made an agile team of two, we saw groups of up to 20 people taking down the course together. Whether it’s a Spartan, Tough Mudder, Warrior Dash, or whatever, these events encourage teamwork, community, and support. Crossing the finish line makes you part of a tribe, so recruit early and get ready to make some memories.
2. Come up with the right training plan.
When the reality of my lack of preparation finally hit me, certified personal trainer and repeat OCR competitor Luis Pertuz consolingly told me, “You survived
my class, so you’ll be fine.”
About a week before the race I went to Pertuz’s group OCR training class. Sure, I nearly died, but I made it through 45 minutes of squats, jump ropes, sliding bear crawls, lunges, and push-ups. The combination of cardio, strength training, and balance work definitely came in handy on race day—now imagine if I had gone more than once.
3. Don’t assume all races are created equal.
Having completed a 13-mile Tough Mudder, I mistakenly thought the Spartan Race would be 1) similar in nature and 2) infinitely easier. I was, unsurprisingly, wrong on both accounts. The race we attended took place at Citi Field in Queens as part of Spartan’s stadium series. That automatically made the race a “dry run,” a.k.a. no mud. The obstacles also differed from a typical Spartan Race to accommodate the stadium setting.
Even though the military-grade obstacles I faced in my Tough Mudder—swimming through ice water, belly crawling under barbed wire—were a bit, well, tougher, I had mile-long jogs between each one, giving me time to regroup and get my heart rate in check. In the Spartan Sprint, the obstacles came at us without mercy, one after the other (Z-walls, rope climb, atlas carry, Hercules hoist)—the only reprieve was more stairs. You know how they say comparison is poison? You get the point.
Plain water doesn’t always cut it when it comes to properly hydrating before, during, and after intense physical activity (here’s why). Turns out there’s a reason pro athletes cling to their sports drink of choice—when you sweat, you lose bodily fluids and electrolytes, two vital components for overall health and physical performance.
Since our Spartan was only three miles, I didn’t go overboard with electrolyte gels and a hydration pack. Instead I spent the day before drinking BODYARMOR SportWater, an awesome alkaline (pH 8+) water that contains electrolytes. Day of, I slowly drank a BODYARMOR LYTE Sports Drink (think delicious natural flavors and a dash of electrolyte-packed coconut water) before the race. The result: I was able to stay focused and hydrated and power through the hardest moments.
5. Read the race rules.
Remember our talk about not comparing races? Here’s how to take that a step further: Do yourself a favor and read the race rules. Thanks to a tip from Pertuz, Morgan and I learned that if we skipped, failed to complete, or broke any rules required to “succeed” at an obstacle, we would have to complete a set of 15 punishment burpees. Multiply that by 20 obstacles, and we’re talking a lot of muscle-draining burpees. In Spartan Beast races, punishment doubles to 30 per failed obstacle (yeah, Spartan Races are essentially Japanese game shows).
Knowing that tidbit—and taking the time to research the obstacles we’d be facing—meant we not only went in better prepared but also followed the proper etiquette, making the whole experience smoother for everyone involved.
6. Work on your mental fitness.
Did I mention Morgan and I did zero training before our Spartan Race? Once we knew we were participating, we peppered in a couple extra workouts but overall understood we had to rely on our bodies as they were to carry us across the finish line. At first, it was the office joke that we were going to blunder our way through this thing. Then reality set in, and we realized we might very well be screwed. But as most athletes know, the mental aspect is 50 percent of the game.
Was I strong enough to climb a 16-foot rope with my uncalloused hands and baby seal upper-body strength to ring a bell at the top? Maybe not, but I could believe it was possible. And when that technique ultimately failed, I womaned up and powered through those punishment burpees. That’s mental toughness: believing enough to try, hunkering down when you fail, and getting back on that mother-fluffing horse.
7. Take the wins with the losses.
I think a lot of people miss the point of an obstacle-course race. We all go into it wanting to conquer every single challenge like Gerard Butler in 300. But the reality and the beauty of it is there are challenges to test every strength and weakness at every fitness level.
While Morgan was a natural at climbing over walls, I had to endure a mortifying four attempts—on a 6-foot wall, mind you, not even one of the 11-foot beasts—before a compassionate racer finally boosted me over by the seat of my pants (#nailedit). So yes, I sucked at the walls (so, so bad), but I also completed the obstacle almost every racer fails: the spear throw. As Morgan was cranking out her punishment burpees, I put Gerard to shame and landed my spear in the belly of a humanoid target. Then I celebrated with an “Aroo!” warrior cry. Not embarrassed.
8. Get a foam roller.
Post-race soreness is a real beast. For about four days following the race, Morgan and I both struggled walking up and down stairs (and, if I’m being honest, rolling over in bed). As an added bonus, I was covered in some pretty gnarly bruises, which I proudly displayed to my coworkers as a badge of honor.
To combat muscle soreness, Pertuz recommends foam-rolling target areas (read this for expert foam-roll
ing tips). As for the bruises, you can avoid most of them altogether with a solid training plan and athletic wear that covers arms and legs. Most of mine were the result of unconditioned (and tired) muscles trying desperately to climb those killer walls and banging myself up in the process (Morgan did not have nearly as many bruises).
To placate the rising fear as race day approached, Morgan and I turned to Greatist software engineer, friend, and four-time Spartan Race finisher Simon Hau for advice. Fun fact: He ran the same race we did and failed only two of the obstacles. Simon’s most sage bit of wisdom? “Just have fun.”