Competing in Breckenridge’s first Spartan race |

Competing in Breckenridge’s first Spartan race

Yes, actual Spartans compete in the Spartan. One of several dozen costumed racers.
Phil Lindeman / |

SDN at the Spartan

Want to experience the Spartan first-hand but don’t want to wait for next year? Head to the Summit Daily News YouTube page for a video recap of the Spartan Beast, shot with a group from Colorado Obstacle Racers.

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I caught the “aroo” bug around the second time I hauled logs up a mountainside with Spartans.

For the past four hours, I’d been hiking and occasionally jogging across the slopes at Breckenridge with a small group of fellow masochists from Colorado Obstacle Racers, a state-wide group of adrenaline junkies whose fix of choice are events like the Spartan Race.

As usual with these voluntary torture sessions — people pay up to $170 a pop just to wallow in mud and slaphappy misery — the adrenaline fix involves scrambling up 25-foot walls, crawling through snow covered in barbed wire (a signature of the brand-new Breck course) and, of course, carrying logs some 5 feet long up and down a mountain. Then we get back on the trail to pound out another mile or two until the next obstacle. All told, we needed to tackle 12.5 miles and 30 devious obstacles before a delicious, well-earned Coors Light at the base of Peak 9.

And trust me, that watery Coors Light sounded like heaven on the trail, like a fat Chipotle burrito on day six of a weeklong backpacking trip.

But for now, I was standing near a log pile about halfway down Bonanza — easily past the halfway point of the entire race — and people were beginning to struggle. The 2,500-some-odd Beast competitors had been at it since 9 a.m. Our COR team (a mean-sounding acronym) left the start line with the first wave, and after traipsing across a 10,500-plus mountain for most of the morning the early starters were feeling the effects of altitude, rocky roads and the previous log carry, not to mention three other strength tests involving sandbags, barrels of dirt and piles of rocks.

At one point — maybe it was when our teammates looked completely deflated after spotting yet another pile of logs — COR’s unofficial flag bearer, James McGregor of Denver, stood at the log pile and started into a chant of “aroo” with an American flag by his side. He carried it through the entire course, including to the top of walls and scaffolding.

See, I’d never tried a Spartan before, but for veterans on the COR team, the bark/yowl is on par with electrolytes and energy bars at Mile 6. It’s the same for just about everyone on the course: One person lets out an “aroo” and dozens more reply, like some kind of animalistic rallying cry. It perfectly fits the Spartan mood, to the point that race organizers even printed the phrase (familiar to fans of the hyper-stylized flick “300”) on the thick, impressive-looking medals finishers collect at the finish line.

One thing is for sure: You definitely won’t join a chorus of “aroos” at the average marathon. And as hard as I fought against the urge to join in — more on my weird fly-on-the-wall syndrome to come — I just couldn’t resist. I mean, my dog gets to bark all the time. Why can’t I?

“Arooooo!” I joined with McGregor, and was met with tired replies and high-fives from Spartans who had just finished the log hill.

With four miles to go, our team was feeling reenergized — just in time for the late-race gauntlet.

Fly on the 25-foot wall

I have a love-hate relationship with obstacle races like the Spartan. The Tough Mudder at Beaver Creek in 2012 was my first introduction to this strange new world, a wholly different type of racing where teamwork and camaraderie are often more important than sheer competitive intensity.

Take the COR crew. Of the 150 or so at the Spartan, the majority met through gyms and a Facebook page, like two of my teammates, Jennifer Parker and Alicia Marie of Denver. Jennifer and Alicia weren’t newcomers to the Spartan — both had tackled the shorter Sprint courses in the past — but they had never raced with the rest of the team before. Another, Stephanie Ritland, occasionally made it out with McGregor, Jen Jorschumb and Kym Butcher, three die-hard Spartan who have traveled across the state and country for races.

In all honesty, I was the most random addition to the team. I’d never heard of COR before cold-calling Kym (yet another random connection through my roommate in Breck), but if I learned one thing from the Mudder, it’s that you never want to do an obstacle race alone. I raced with Vail ski patrollers in 2012 and Dusty Boot employees in 2013, and both times I was happy to join.

Again, camaraderie is the name of the game. Not only is it easier to clamber over inverted walls and up the half-dissolved remnants of the Peak 8 superpipe with a helping hand — it’s just plain fun to share the torture with like-minded crazies.

But I’ve never sought out an obstacle race. The Spartan and both Mudders were linked to journalism, as in go out, run the race, remember what happens and write about it. Sure, I was all about going big with the Beast — the Spartan organizers assumed I wanted to try the Sprint when I first reached out — but a little voice in my head said 12.5 miles would make for a better article, not necessarily be the most enjoyable morning and afternoon. I was simply there to observe, not get wrapped up in the culture.

Oddly enough, this whole fly-on-the-wall mentality reminds me of “War Photographer,” a 2001 documentary about lone-wolf photographer James Nachtwey. He works solo, traveling the world to capture Bosnian rebels, AIDS in Africa and, most recently, the aftermath of Nepalese earthquakes. At one point in the film, the producer asks James how he mentally separates from the images and atrocities he witnesses, even when in the heat of the moment. He can’t quite explain — all he knows is that he can, and does.

I’m not trying to put war photography on the same plane as an adult-sized fun run. But in the last few seconds before the starting gun, just as I was taking cell-phone photos and triple checking the GoPro on my chest, I snapped into Nachtwey mode. Time to observe, not quite join.

Then we hit the second log haul and, well, I just couldn’t help myself.

Round four

So, how long did it take our COR crew to finish the Beast? I have no idea, and I really don’t care. There’s a small subset of Spartan racers who compete at the Elite level, where top athletes stand to win $3,000 for making the podium. They train and travel in search of masochism, and they’re good at it.

But for the majority of Spartans, including my teammates, the races are about community. It’s why they travel from state to state, sometimes tackling as many as 10 in a year. COR isn’t a team, exactly — it’s more of an athletic family.

It sounds cheesy, but it’s true. When we finally reached the final mile, we could see the finish line through a forest of rope climbs, barbed wire, snow fields, muddy water and flaming logs. (It was comforting to see those dastardly logs put to better use.) The Coors tent was within sight, and I absolutely needed one to wash the mud water out of my mouth.

After my third obstacle race, I can’t quite say I’m hooked. But I’m admittedly registered for the Mudder in September, and this time I’m doing it with no journalistic motive. I think I caught the “aroo” bug.

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