Training for an obstacle race is tough but fun

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Have you ever considered running a Spartan?

No? Well you should. Seriously.

I know what you’re thinking: but I don’t have a six-pack, or marathon legs – the kind that are all bone and muscle and ligaments – I can’t pull off a bandana or a muscle tee, and my sunglasses are grocery store-bought in all their un-polarized glory.

I get it. The obstacles look tough (you have to jump over a pit of fire – whaaaaat?) so you figure you need to look and feel even tougher.

Well I’m not going to lie, the courses are designed to test your athleticism and push you outside your comfort zone, but after getting a glimpse into the world of obstacle course racing last weekend I would no longer shy away from a Spartan so easily. Neither should you.

Obstacle course racing has taken over Alberta. From incredible displays of strength and agility to badass adventures (Calgary’s Rugged Maniac features water slides and trampolines) to fundraising events, these races are everywhere.

When I asked St. Albert personal trainer and owner of Alberta Fitness Kelsey McQueen why these races have gained in popularity she said it’s simple: it’s a different kind of work out (outdoors no less) and it’s functional.

“We’re doing movements that you do every day: pushing, pulling, carrying, maybe not climbing so much, but movements that give you a good range of motion,” she said. “It’s an exciting and new way to do things.”

I joined McQueen (who by the way is the only female Spartan coach north of Calgary) and fellow trainer Simon Vickers at the bottom of Seven Hills last Saturday. I was one of a dozen newbies in a group of more than 40 people taking part in an obstacle race training class designed to prepare racers for the upcoming season.

After being introduced to a series of 15 obstacles, all of which we could expect to face on race day, Simon told us to divide into teams of three or four and pick a station.

Apparently we weren’t fast enough and were instructed to drop and give him 10 super burpees. (A super burpee is when instead of falling straight to the ground after jumping you bring your legs to your chest then back out again before completing a push up.)

Here’s a tip if you decide to attend a future training session: always do what Simon says. Here’s another tip: learn to love burpees. Or at least get good at them – they’re what you’ll do if you can’t complete an obstacle on race day.

My group started with the wall jump. Being just shy of five foot two inches, I was not sure how I would fare against even the shortest of walls, but I managed to clear the four feet of wood fairly easily.

Then we were on to (more) burpees, uphill suicides, uphill cement block drag, uphill bucket carry (the race takes place on rough and hilly terrain we were told), tire flips and the famous army crawl, among other things.

Probably my favourite obstacle, and I imagine the reason behind so many muddy Spartan pictures, the army crawl requires you to sludge over rocks and through puddles “like a salamander” to avoid being nicked by barbed wire. For us it was orange safety mesh draped over construction pylons, which meant I didn’t lose chunks of hair every time I lifted myself a little too high off the grass, but I still think I would have thoroughly enjoyed the real thing.

As McQueen told me it’s “refreshing” on a hot day like Saturday.

We ran through the series of obstacles twice before being told (by Simon) to run up the hill to the parking lot and back, as a group. We were to encourage each other and make sure no one was left behind.

This is what hooked me. I had no idea that Spartan races were so welcoming. I thought it was every hardcore athlete for his- or her- self.

While there are elite and competitive heats, there are also open heats designed for beginner athletes, first-time racers or those who are just getting back into shape.

Edmonton resident Jacob Roch ran the Spartan with his security team at the Royal Alexander last year and loved it. This year, after working hard with McQueen and Vickers to lose some extra pounds, he’s hoping to “crush” the trifecta (which means completing all three distances: the Sprint, the Super and the Beast). That is no small achievement. The Sprint is 5 km or more with about 15 obstacles, the Super is 13 km with 20 or more obstacles; and The Beast is 20 or more km and 25 obstacles.

He says it’s a mixture of the great atmosphere and the fact that he’s seeing results (down to 285 lbs. from 320) that keeps him coming back.

“I come here and there are other people struggling alongside me. I want to do better than them, but I also want to be running along with them,” said Roch.

Open heats also allow for team competition, where racers can help each other out by, for example, boosting a shorter person over the eight foot wall.

“I really believe in Spartan’s mentality,” said McQueen. “It’s really not just for your top athlete. It’s for everybody. As long as you’re OK with mud and getting dirty, you’re good.”

Alberta Fitness offers both registered and drop-in obstacle race training classes throughout the spring and summer. For more information visit: albertafitness.ca.

Find an obstacle race near you

• Woman 2 Warrior, Easter Seals fundraiser at CFB Edmonton Garrison, June 18
• Spartan Sprint at Oilfield Technical Society Park, Edmonton, June 25
• Mud Hero and Alberta Ultra 10K at Canyon Ski Resort, Red Deer, August 5/6/7
• Tough Mudder at Hwy. 10, Drumheller, August 6/7
• Down & Dirty, Cross Cancer Institute fundraiser at Sunridge Ski Area, Edmonton, August 13
• Spartan Super and Spartan Sprint at Heritage Ranch, Red Deer, September 3/4
• West Country Hearth Attack, fundraiser at near Calahoo, Sturgeon County, September 10
• EdMUDton at Chappelle Gardens, Edmonton, September 24

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Michelle Ferguson