I spent yesterday in Pippingford Park, near Nutley East Sussex, an MOD training ground, taking part in a Spartan Race Training Day…[Spartan Race Training is the Spartan Race Training arm of Wild Forest Gym, coached by Head Coach Michael Cohen.]
“‘Don’t be late’ said the welcome email. ‘Spartans are always prepared’. ‘AROO! AROO!’ A-what…? More of that later.
“I arrived on time (a miracle!) and chatted to the other ‘Spartans’, many of whom are regulars on the obstacle course circuit. I was in the advanced group, ‘You think you’re fit! You’ve signed up for the advanced course’ group leader Michael reminded us. There were five women and around 10 guys. The women included Annie, a former world class triathlete, Lauren, a super fit regular obstacle racer, Chrissie, a PT/pole dancing instructor and member of a rock band, and Alexandra, who regularly trained with Michael and had immense core strength. The girls kind of stuck together, and we certainly gave the fellas a run for their money!
“Spartan is one of many obstacle races popping up all over the UK, with others including Tough Guy, Tough Mudder, Storm, Warrior, Zombie Race, Insanity etc… These races aren’t cheap, but they’ve captured the imagination of those who are time poor, want total fitness, a mind body workout and love getting outside, getting dirty, and pushing a few boundaries.
“Spartan, massive in the US, comes with an impressive business model behind it and has recently been valued at $50 million (£30 million). Joe Desena, the brains behind Spartan is a serial entrepreneur, former Wall Street Trader, and extreme endurance athlete, who says things like: ‘I can’t doesn’t mean anything to me’. He has driven the business to grow from less than 10,000 entries in 2010, to 250,000 entrants in 2012 and projections of 750,000, and races in 10 countries this year.
“The objective, says the Spartan website, is ‘being uncomfortable, overcoming obstacles and finding out what’s possible when what you expect of yourself is everything.’ With these words ringing in my ears and my log (instructor Michael told us, this was to be referred to as our friend) precariously balanced on my shoulder, I decided to go for it and wholeheartedly join in the four hours of training!
“The day started with Michael explaining that when he says, ‘Spartans’ we shout back, ‘Aroo!’… After an initial cringe, I was soon giving belting out ‘Aroo’ with the rest of them, like an over enthusiastic parent at a panto. We got to know our ‘friend’ by balancing it on our shoulder as we stood stationery, and Michael explained the importance of our Centre of Gravity, and posture (stand tall by lifting through the head, not pushing the shoulders back).
“Michael wearing Vibram Five Fingers took us on a jaunty little tour round the woods, we followed him as he moved between the first obstacles: trees, branches, rocks and hills – agile and with super-quick movements. ‘It’s about being ambidextrous’ he reminded us, ‘swap the log from right to left shoulder’. Something I found was naturally doing, as it was bloomin’ uncomfortable! Darting between trees in single file, a big concern was not to whack a fellow Spartan across the head rendering them unconscious, and this thought alone kept me literally on my toes and concentrating on the terrain beneath my feet.
“Michael not for the first time explained that we needed to be adaptable. In the outdoor gym, it’s a key word. The purpose of the training session is to prepare Spartans for the race season, and to teach them technical skills so that they can become more proficient at obstacle races, but also, an all round better, and adaptable, person!
“As we ran with our friend, he suggested we think of it as part of us, and with an air of an ancient Martial Arts Expert from a Kung Fu film, he explained that we shouldn’t fight nature, as it will fight back.
“Some of the first skills we were taught were the finer points of the ‘crab’ and the ‘crawl’ – efficient ways to get up and down, muddy and treacherous hilly courses. Functional and natural training would get us in best shape to tackle the environment and get the most from racing Spartan.
“The crawl is a technique to get up hills quickly. Michael was like a creature from another planet has he scuttled along on all fours super quick. The crab is the position that teaches you to move efficiently going downhill on slippery muddy courses. We positioned ourselves into the bridge position with our hips lifted, hands pointing towards our feet, and putting the weight on our forefoot, not heels. We, a group of fully grown ‘grown ups’, then obediently crawled through deep and a little bit smelly mud, with Michael shouting ‘hips’ ‘hips’, a cue for us to remember to lift our hips, or, as he put it, ‘you’ll end up with something up your arse’. And incentive to keep the hips high – and good work for the core!
‘”Onwards with our friend aloft now achy shoulders, Michael took us to the ‘gym’. Here we hung from a beam, then lifted our feet up to our hands, excellent core work, and something a runner like me needed to work on. Here was another opportunity for Michael to share some philosophy. ‘You each have strengths and weaknesses,’ he explained. And he added, how we needed to push through our comfort zone and improve the things we’re weaker on. If you can’t climb he pointed out, it’s likely to be reflected in life, you won’t climb the career ladder either.
“Upper body, as I mentioned is not my strong point but in true Spartan spirit, I was hoisted up the beam by the others. Another cornerstone of Spartan teachings: Michael continually reinforced the ethic of team work and working together, reminding us to always help a fellow Spartan, and that our energy will impact on everyone else taking part in the training. His words, although potentially a little clichéd, did lead us to work together on every exercise, and made the whole thing a bit more fun and helped us, dare I say it, ‘bond’.
“Following some more bodyweight exercises on the beam, Michael suddenly began to demonstrate running and falling over. In another context we’d have been rolling in the aisles as he did ‘roly-polies’ and leapt up to a run, with Norman Wisdom like dexterity. But, as we were Spartans, we were soon joining in, practising ‘roly pollying’, as the best way to land when you fall. The key thing is not to allow your head to hit the ground, and once the technique was mastered, it was amazing how much better a ‘roly polly’ felt!
“By this time we had removed our shoes and in my case muddy, wet compression socks, and were running around barefoot. This was to again, put us in touch with nature, help us to feel the ground beneath us and understand and get to know what we were running on. Michael and Spartan as a group are pro barefoot running. Strangely, we were joined by some very large ants, perhaps planted by MOD people to intimidate army cadets, and for some of us we literally got in touch with nature as they nipped at our tootsies.
“Next, it was onto the river and the ropes across them. Not quite ‘I’m A Celebrity‘ in terms of danger, but good fun, and surprisingly hard to stay on (as my pics will show). By this time the group were getting to know each other, and having a bit of fun shaking the ropes to try to get each other make a splash, as well as genuinely supporting and encouraging each other, to literally hang on in there!
“After some more running and jumping, and an inexplicable walk through the river, we encouraged each other on the exhausting final ascent back to camp, for a welcome cup of tea (appropriately the kettle was plugged into a generator – enhancing the whole rudimentary experience) and a hob nob. By this time the cold had set in, and shivering I decided to get into my warm car and head home.
“As I drove home with my heated seat warming me up and creating the unpleasant aroma of rivers and pond-like whiff in the car, I smiled inwardly at once again enjoying being a bit daft, and pushing myself. Michael’s right, what you do with your body is a good metaphor for what you do with your life, and getting out of the comfort zone is always a good choice. My sister’s taking part in Tough Mudder, with some other tough mothers from the school next week. We’ve laughed a lot about it (grown women
being like big kiddies) and wondered whether this is a new kind of female midlife crisis – maybe it is, but one thing’s for sure… I’m ‘aving it!”
Check out The Spartan Race Website at
by Fiona Bugler
Fiona Bugler is an Editor and PR specialist, running coach and writer with over 20 years experience of communicating the fitness message.
She moved from just writing about fitness to teaching it in 1998 and is a Level 3 Advanced Instructor/Personal Trainer (Register of Exercise Professionals). Fiona has run 14 marathons and an ultra, and has a PB of 3:09 for the marathon and 39:37 for 10k.
As an Editor and writer Fiona has specialised in health and fitness. As well as editing http://www.therunningbug.co.uk and Running Free Magazine, she has written for national newspapers, websites, books and magazines.
In July 2012, she set up The Fitness Writers’ Association, with co-founder, Cheryl Hersey of Action PR. Fiona has contributed to various TV and radio shows as a fitness specialist and is happy for journalists to contact her for expert opinion on running or anything related to fitness.