By Alex Springer, MTI Contributor
In October 2022, following our annual Spartan Super (10km obstacle course race) tradition with my wife and friends, I found myself with an expiring coupon code. I had planned to use the code for my first Spartan Beast (21km); having only run Sprints (5km) and Supers for years, I figured it was time to step up my game and accept the challenge of a Beast. However, as I scrolled through the options, I impulsively purchased a pass for the Spartan Ultra (50km) instead. I don’t know if it was my competitive nature, the desire to achieve something unheard of among my friends, or sheer audacity, but the challenge beckoned me despite my limited long-distance racing experience and an injury-plagued year.
Growing up, I’d always been active: I played soccer, I went skiing, I ran local 5ks, and generally enjoyed exploring the outdoors. When I went to college, however, I let all of that go. I abandoned the gym and the soccer field and the trails for class, parties, and wasting time with friends. By the end of my freshman year, I had gained 15 pounds, my GPA had plummeted, and I found myself depressed. The next semester, I knew a change was necessary. I found a few friends who knew their way around the gym, and I tagged along. Within a year, I was regularly lifting weights and eating healthy; by the time I graduated I had surrounded myself with a group of athletes: runners, lifters, crossfitters, and swimmers.
The year I graduated was when I ran my first Spartan race, a Sprint at Ft Campbell, with a small group of men from my church. I was confident, almost cocky, going in, but by the end I was humbled. I had failed more than my fair share of obstacles, mostly due to a lack of grip strength, and had done enough burpees (the penalty for a failed obstacle at the time was 30 burpees) for a lifetime. But I was hooked. It reminded me of childhood: running through the mud with friends, climbing over rocks and trees, a healthy dose of friendly competition.
I’ve made the Tennessee Sprints and Supers an annual tradition with my friends, and have tried out other brands of OCR. A few years ago, my wife started joining us, making us officially the “crazy ones” of the family. I’ve also competed in crossfit competitions, run half marathons and marathons, and generally continued growing myself as an athlete since that first OCR. I had yet to run an OCR solo, though, and I wanted to know just how hard I could push myself.
The Spartan Ultra consists of 50km of trails with roughly 60 obstacles. The race is broken into two laps, each lap running the course of the Beast, which is also run during the same day, and an additional “ultra lap.” The race I signed up for was in Fayetteville, NC, often touted as one of the easier Ultras because the course is relatively flat and the terrain is mostly grass or sand.
Spartan Ultra obstacles fall into one of three categories: climbing, gripping, and events. Climbing obstacles must be scaled and include walls, stacks of hay, and ropes. climbing obstacles consist of, well, things that must be climbed over, through, or under, such as walls, hay bales, and ropes.
Gripping obstacles include monkey bars, rings, and horizontal ropes.
Event obstacles are not something you must traverse but rather do: carry a sandbag or a bucket through a course, throw a spear, or lift a weight using a rope.
The penalty for a failed obstacle was changed in 2023 to be a penalty lap of the race director’s design. The race director for the Fayetteville Ultra made the penalty loops hard–through the brush, up steep climbs, or crossing creek beds–to make up for the notorious ease the race is known for.
All that being said, I did not appreciate what I had signing myself up for.
It did not take long for me to realize I had no idea how to begin preparing for the race in only six months. Building a support team became crucial, incorporating a mentor, an accomplished runner himself, friends with ultramarathon experience, and later, a chiropractor and physical therapist. The collective wisdom and encouragement proved vital to my journey, keeping me focused and injury-free during the entire process.
Two of my friends, one a coworker, the other a neighbor, are highly talented middle-distance runners, consistently placing or winning in local 5Ks and 10Ks. I leaned on their expertise to design workouts for improving my VO2 max and running economy, such as sprints, tempo runs, and when to chill out and have a recovery day. Other teammates, including my uncle, friends from college, and a personal mentor, are experienced trail and ultra runners. Their expertise in the nutritional, mental, and technical (e.g., terrain, gear) saved me on multiple occasions, particularly during long solo trail runs and for race day. The most important teammate was my wife: supportive of my crazy schedule balancing training, work, school, and a social life, encouraging me during the hardest days, and pushing me when I wanted to take shortcuts or skip a workout.
A Spartan Ultra, unlike the shorter distance races, is much more of a running and endurance event than an obstacle frenzy. There can be one or two miles between obstacles at times. The race is not so much about who can power through the obstacles the quickest, but who can outlast everyone else with running endurance.
I threw myself into learning about long-distance running: I began by reading Matt Fitzgerald’s 80/20 Running book, scouring Spotify for ultramarathon running podcasts, and reading articles online about how to train and prepare for a Spartan Ultra. I chose not to increase my running volume as much as some sources recommended, topping out at just over 38 miles per week, focusing instead on the quality of my workouts and balancing them with strength and recovery.
One of the most practical pieces of advice I received was that the first half is a race and the second half is an eating competition. I tried different foods on my long runs to dial in my race nutrition and to test my gut and energy. My final race menu included chocolate granola balls, Stinger waffles, Gu energy gels, halves or quarters of PB&J sandwiches, and flat Dr Peppers.
During the training up, I completed a couple local trail races and a half marathon, in which I tested my nutrition strategy at race pace. One learning point I took from the experience was the importance of carbohydrates: resistance training and weekly mileage don’t mix well, and the food you eat to recover and fuel throughout the day is more important than ever.
A Spartan Ultra may be an endurance event, but it is still an obstacle course race. To that end, I built a loose training plan that included two days of strength training and one low-intensity OCR skill-building day per week, with a rest week built in every third week. Any day not spent weight lifting or skill-building was spent running: track workouts, tempo runs, trail runs, long slow runs, and recovery runs. A significant challenge was simulating race day by balancing explosive strength movements with endurance running, which was managed by adding a “race simulator” workout every few weeks. Race simulations consisted of a circuit that involved multiple rounds of running 1-5 miles, then doing a varying amount of HIIT: a 20 minute AMRAP or a 10 minute EMOM, for example.
Strength and obstacle training (using a pull up bar, a DIY sandbag, and the local playground’s monkey bars) combined with strategic running training resulted in improved running economy and OCR skills. Throughout the course of training, my overall weight did not change, but there were noticeable physical adaptations. I lost upper body muscle mass but not strength–my bench press and barbell curl remained unchanged. My calves, quads, core, and back all grew in size. Overall, my body fat was reduced, my grip strength exploded (thanks mostly to plate pinch carries, dead hangs, and bucket/sandbag carries), and my running fitness soared – I set a PR in every distance from 800m to 21km in a half marathon I ran as a litmus test a month before the race.
The Mental Side
The training proved intense, and it did not take long for doubt and fatigue to cloud my mind. When I signed up for the race, I knew it would be intense physically, but I had underestimated the mental challenges I was signing myself up for during the train up. The lowest point came during a 20-mile run cut short due to food poisoning. I was dehydrated, malnourished, and feverish–but that didn’t stop me from feeling failure and shame.
To train myself mentally for the race, I began leaving my phone and headphones at home when I ran: motivation and upbeat songs are artificial and fleeting, but discipline, desire, and mental fortitude are muscles that, when trained, will carry you far beyond the race.
Most of my running was done alone and sometimes this could be a mental negativity trip – doubts about fitness, inadequacy and fears of failure, rejection, and meaninglessnes. The liar in my head always advised to quit. I learned to answer by immersing myself in nature, and embracing the moment. My pre-dawn runs evolved into their own form of prayer, meditation.
Race day breakfast was a bagel with two scrambled eggs. Check in was at 6am. I asked a Spartan official how long he thought it would take me to finish the run so I could tell my wife when to expect me at the finish line. He looked me up and down, asked if it was my first race, and replied 11 or 12 hours.
A Spartan Race is a manufactured outdoor experience–equal parts fitness challenge and trail run–but that, in my opinion, doesn’t detract from the overall experience. An OCR is where nature meets machine, where tall metal rigs and wooden obstacles blend with the natural beauty and serenity of woodlands or mountains. Far from being just another gym experience and shy of being a full natural immersion like backpacking or backcountry hunting, it threads the needle of challenging man in both his natural and manufactured states. As an adult, it’s one of the most exciting ways to be a kid again–crawling through mud, hopping over fences, running through trees. But before the race starts, the race corral and Spartan camp is a festival of excitement. I wound my way through groups of contestants warming up, laughing over a pre-race cup of joe, or yawning trying to wake up, and found the bin drop. In my bin I had the following items: a fresh pair of socks, a backup pair of shoes, sunscreen, advil, two full bottles of water, a roast beef and avocado sandwich, a flat Dr Pepper, a first aid kit, and a ziploc bag of running fuel (Gu packets, Stinger Waffles, and oatmeal balls) for the second half. I checked my watch, did 10 minutes of light warming up, and pushed my way to the front of the corral for my race start.
A tradition at Spartan races is for the hype man to get the crowd in the corral to yell ‘AROO!’ before running, one which I’ve often found a little over the top. That morning, however, as I donned my purple penny and my running vest, I felt myself give in to the hype.
After a few frustrating miles of single-track trails congested with slower runners, I found my rhythm, remembering the advice that the first half is a slow run and the second is an eating contest. I injured my calf at the tyrolean traverse but the pain faded soon enough. Halfway, I fueled with the sandwich and soda in my drop bin, refilled my water, swapped my bag of empty Gu packets and food wrappers (I don’t care how hard you’re racing, I believe in leaving no trace) for the pre-packaged ziploc of fuel, and ran back to the course. All told I was in the bin drop for less than three minutes, which was my target. During the second half, soaking in the “Ultra passing!” and “good job Ultra!” calls of those who parted to let me pass, I ignored my watch and instead focused on finding my flow. I relished in passing every Ultra jersey I could, letting the heat of competition overtake me. I finished 7th, at just over 7 hours.
Alex is a civilian who works for the Army as an aerospace engineer and is a competitive Spartan Race athlete.