The Spartan Race makes Breckenridge debut with lung-busting course at 11,000 feet | SummitDaily.com

The Spartan Race makes Breckenridge debut with lung-busting course at 11,000 feet

Cassidy Watton can hardly remember how many Spartan Races she's won, let alone how many she's completed.

"Let's see, I've raced about once a month for the past two and a half years, so I guess whatever that comes out to," Watton tells me, legitimately wondering how many times she's barreled through muck and mud and flames, only to come out on the other side ready to face it all over again. "I usually tell people I've done 30, but I've been saying that for a while now."

Based on her rough one-a-month math, Watton has competed in exactly 30 Spartans, a wildly popular obstacle-race series that's a cross between military boot camp and self-induced torture. And more often than not she comes out on top. Again, she's not quite sure how many gold medals are on her trophy shelf in Malibu — "I've hardly been off the podium in the past two years," she says — but one thing is for sure: the 26-year-old professional obstacle racer doesn't lose often.

"There's got to be an app for that, right? Keeping track of all this?" Watton says with a laugh, then turns from our phone call and yells "Hi!" to a friend.

It's the day before Breckenridge's first-ever Spartan Race and Watton is exploring Main Street with her boyfriend, fellow Spartan phenom Hunter McIntyre. As two of the most recognizable (and unstoppable) athletes in the obstacle-racing scene, the couple tends to run into friends-slash-competitors just about everywhere they go, from their home turf in California to the one and only stadium race Watton lost in Australia. (She took second).

Watton and McIntyre left their home state of California two weeks ago for a bit of altitude training in Colorado — a must for the highest starting line in Spartan history at 10,200 feet — and have hardly slowed down, exploring local trails and even competing in the Ultimate Mountain Challenge at last weekend's GoPro Mountain Games in Vail.

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"That thing crushed me," says Watton, who admits she's drawn to strength training, although the Spartan has forced her to log miles on the track and treadmill. "I'm still feeling pretty beat up after that race. It was kind of on a whim, but I don't mind going into something blind. That whole weekend was probably one of the hardest things I've ever done. I love to test my fitness."

Still, the Breck course is weighing heavy on Watton's mind, even if she doesn't admit it to me.

"My girlfriend is in the best shape of her life and she's kind of second-guessing herself right now," McIntyre says shortly before handing the phone to Watton. "If she can change her mindset in time, I think she can just destroy it out there."

When Watton takes off this morning for the Elite Spartan Sprint — a pro-level course with 19 obstacles strewn over 5.3 miles and 1,600 vertical feet — McIntyre will be on the sidelines cheering her on. He hasn't competed since suffering a midwinter injury at the Spartan in Temecula, California, but he still travels to just about every race with his girlfriend.

Again, it's part of the obstacle-racing culture: After little more than five or six years in the mainstream, Spartans and Tough Mudders and their like-minded peers might as well be blood related. Making the trip to Breck is a family reunion.

"It's kind of like a river flowing in the same direction," McIntyre says. "We all run into each other eventually. A lot of these guys are some of my closest friends, only to be my worst enemy on the race day. It all works itself out."

Ground floor at 10,200 feet

Pedigree aside, Watton has good reason to be nervous about the inaugural Breck Spartan. Race day features two different courses, the Spartan Sprint and Spartan Beast.

On paper, the Sprint is the easier of the two, when in reality it's a completely different monster. Race director Mike Morris says it comes down the race aspect: Competitors like Watton, McIntyre and Breck local Orla Walsh are fiercely competitive on the course, often tackling the entire thing in less than an hour and a half. That sounds leisurely for a 5-mile hike, even on rough terrain, yet when Morris and his crew add obstacles like adult-sized jungle gyms and snowfields covered in barbed wire — not to mention burpees for anyone who falls or slips — the clock becomes a racer's worst enemy, even for the Elite crew.

"Even the 5-mile sprint is incredibly hard," says Morris, who's built courses in Montana and California, including the Spartan Race World Championship course in Lake Tahoe. "The minute you turn something into a race and time it, it becomes hard. If I told you to do as many jumping jacks as possible in three minutes, even that takes on a new element."

But the Spartan Beast is, well, an entirely different beast. At 12.6 miles, plus 30 obstacles and 3,000 feet of vertical gain, the Breck Beast is easily one of the most intimidating Spartan courses — on paper and in reality.

Morris is no stranger to working with alpine venues. His crew started working on a design in June 2014 and finished a final plan about two weeks ago, thanks in large part to lingering snow. In typical obstacle-race style, the surprisingly deep swaths of snow on Peak 9 are now part of the race, similar to a 2012 Tough Mudder course that forced runners through the guts of the Beaver Creek halfpipe.

"May was epic in terms of snow, and we have so much snow out there right now," Morris says. "We're setting records here in terms of elevation. We've never been this high before, and Summit County just has some incredible terrain to work with."

Mental meets physical

Obstacle races have fast become a legitimate sport in the vein of CrossFit competitions — the Breck Spartan will be televised on NBC Sports Network Aug. 18 — but their true appeal is much broader. These are made for anyone and everyone who has the verve, determination and, of course, the physical grit to simply try something new.

Kym Butcher, a 39-year-old radiological technologist from Denver, got into obstacle racing in 2013 with the Beaver Creek Tough Mudder. She admits it was crazier than she expected — "The volunteers lied! A lot!" she writes in an email to me — but after just one race she was hooked. Come 2014, she dove headfirst into Spartans and quickly fell in love with the culture.

"The people, the friends I've made, the complete and utter high I get during the race and then at the finish line — I'm doing something that other people are afraid of or are intimidated by," Butcher writes, explaining why she runs obstacles races rather than run-of-the-mill 10Ks. "There isn't judgment or humiliation or discrimination. We're all in this together."

Today Butcher joins a handful of fellow competitors with Colorado Obstacle Racers, a Denver-based group dedicated to the obvious. She's taking on the Beast for the first time — the final race she needs to complete the Spartan "trifecta" of a Sprint, Beast and mid-length Super.

Similar to racing itself, completing the trifecta is a sort of mental game. Butcher has been working up to it for nearly two years, and much like her pro-level peers, she won't underestimate the course, her competition or the last-minute "what ifs?"

"I think it's totally mental, and once you get to the elite level it's all about how you mentally prepare," says McIntyre, who also works athlete biographies and Ernest Shackleton books into his routine, sometimes reading up to one per week. "Once you're in shape you only have to switch a few pieces on the board for different races, but once you really get to the upper levels, it comes down to the mental game."

By the time Watton makes it to the starting line, McIntyre hopes those last, lingering doubts are put to rest. She has the chance to christen the Breck race with another win, bringing her total to — well, it might not matter.

"This is entirely new for me and everyone else in terms of elevation, but we've all seen the mountains before," Watton says, referring to another ski-area course outside of Palmerton, Pennsylvania. "That course is notorious for just being horribly evil. When you add the elevation, plus having every top female competitor here, ready to race, it will definitely be historic."

Sprint vs. Beast

When Breck plays host to its first-ever Spartan Race today, competitors from across the country are in for one hell of a learning curve — and it has everything to do with elevation. A look at the two courses:

Spartan Sprint

5.3 miles — total distance

19 — total obstacles

1,600 feet — vertical gain

Spartan Beast

12.6 miles — total distance

30 — total obstacles

3,000 feet — vertical gain

11,500 feet — top elevation (highest for any Spartan)