You make friends fast when you’re crawling under barbed wire. Here I am, slithering along marinated in mud, sweating heavily and trying my best not to cramp up. “It’s like running, but lying down,” I mutter, panting, to no one in particular.
Just then a young lady in a pink tank top and black knee socks passes me easily, rolling over like a log instead of the spidery crawl I’m doing. “I was worried there would be more cow pies,” she confides. For a brief moment we are kindred spirits in a world of self-inflicted hurt.
Although I’m hating life, the scenery from my three-inch vantage point is pretty sweet. Green valley walls disappear off into the Ko‘olau mountain range here at Kualoa Ranch, a cinematic cattle spread amid O‘ahu’s windward cliffs. Kualoa has been the setting for dozens of Hollywood productions from Jurassic Park to Lost and is also an adventure vacationer’s mecca of zip lines, ATV trails and the like. The lure of standing in King Kong’s footprints brings busloads of tourists here daily, but this summer weekend has also delivered hordes of CrossFit maniacs, ultramarathon extremists and a fair share of masochistic armchair warriors to Kualoa for a punishing trio of obstacle-course races called the Spartan Trifecta, designed to challenge not just your fitness but your very sanity.
The Spartan circuit, which now includes more than two hundred events a year worldwide, dares participants to run races ranging from a few miles to a full marathon, each packed with obstacles reminiscent of the worst tribulations my Marine Corps tormentors put us through back in my basic-training days. Think barbed wire, ropes, mud, fences and even fire.
This madness all started with Joe De Sena, a onetime Wall Street trader by day and extreme adventure racer on weekends. In 2004 he cofounded the infamous Death Race on his organic farm in Vermont, forcing participants to endure twenty-four-hour-plus treks injected with diabolical tasks that would make a lumberjack cry, like diving for coins in a freezing pond, uprooting a tree trunk and dragging it down the road as you attempt to run, and even brain-busters like reciting all the US presidents in exact order.
Seeking to bring the concept to a wider, slightly less demented following, De Sena eventually designed the Spartan format, and it took off. Today the Spartan brand is a slick, Reebok-sponsored juggernaut incorporating races, a TV series, merchandise, training regimes and more, with a credo of “ripping 100 million people off the couch.” And at about a million participants each year and growing—eight thousand at the Kualoa event alone—that goal is well under way.
The racing kicks off with the Beast, a thirteen-mile course peppered with more than thirty obstacles—or, for the truly hardcore, the marathon-length Ultra Beast. (“Every Spartan Race is a baptism,” the organization’s web site proclaims. “The Ultra Beast is an exorcism.”) Also on offer are the somewhat more manageable eight-mile Super and five-mile Sprint distances. The hardiest souls take on the Trifecta challenge, requiring them to run the Beast, Super and Sprint races over two days. That’s twenty-six miles and about eighty punishing obstacles overall.
Dear God, why? “There’s just something in our DNA that drives us to experience the outdoors by doing really hard, physical things. Modern life is too comfortable,” muses Kevin Donoghue, one of twenty Spartan Pro Team members who travel around the world competing in select races throughout the year to earn cash purses, TV stardom on NBC’s Spartan: Ultimate Team Challenge series and the chance to win top honors at the world championship race in the fall. The races run a gamut of venues in some thirty countries, with stadium and urban courses in addition to more pastoral settings like Kualoa, where the house herd of intimidating Texas long-horn cattle roam fairly freely through the course, adding a whole extra level of running-of-the-bulls challenge along with their copious land mines of dung.
At 42 years young and standing just a surprising 5’5”, Kevin is a veteran of more than 130 Spartan races. He’s made the trip out to the Kualoa event, he says, because “this is the kind of race-cation that people dream of.” Just as muscled and enthusiastic as you’d expect him to be, the former semipro football player shakes hands and chats it up with fans. When not on the circuit, he runs his own gym in Florida and is a performance coach specializing in training folks to tackle race obstacles in record time.
At the other end of the Spartan spectrum are local first-timers like Richard Park III, a forty-something financial adviser from nearby Kailua who decided to indulge his nine-year-old son’s fascination with the obstacle-racing show American Ninja Warrior. For Rich, the lure of Spartan glory was the nudge he needed to get himself back in shape. After whipping flab into muscle with the aid of a few torture/training devices he built in his garage, he eventually went all-in for this year’s Trifecta. “I trained hard for about eight months,” he tells me, “without knowing exactly how to train or what to expect.”
The first race day at Kualoa is sweltering by Hawai‘i standards, with the Islands’ cooling tradewinds blocked by the towering Ko‘olau ridges. The course winds up and down the valley, splashing through streams and following longhorn trails around familiar jungle movie locations. Just looking at the obstacles induces night-mare flashbacks to the worst of what the Marines put me through. On the Tyrolean Traverse, for example, you shimmy along a rope suspended over muck or wood chips, a cruel, dirty cushion if you fall. There are monkey bars, for sure, but do they really have to be so uneven?
The obstacles pop up about every half-mile, or basically just as the racers begin to think they’ve caught their breath. It isn’t uncommon to see a competitor stop and gasp for a while before attempting a challenge like the Atlas Carry, which involves lugging a heavy, rounded stone. But the aspiring Spartans suffer through, each more cheerful and/or profane than the last.
At the start-finish complex, the races’ Bronze Age military mythos merges into a party atmosphere. Many of the competitors show up in whacky costumes, including at least one pair of newlyweds in shredded nuptial attire who are clearly having one hell of a honeymoon. Weekend warriors in plated battle gear straight out of The Iliad mix it up in the mud with hundreds of active-duty military folks from nearby bases wearing fragments of their uniforms. I spot a team of Marines clad only in their boots and standard-issue underwear: tiny, green shorts known as “silkies” that leave little to the imagination. My people.
Taking the chance to scout out the course a bit, I stop to chat with one of the red-shirted volunteers who tend the water stations or vigorously shout instructions—and the calisthenic penalties for failure—at each of the obstacles. “How’d you find your way to volunteering here, man?” I ask him. The guy, who turns out to be another Marine, spits sunflower husks into a red cup and says, “I was volun-told”—military speak for being pressed into a bit of extra duty. “But we get to run a race for free, and the Spartan guys are funding part of our Birthday Ball.”
“Not a bad deal, all in all,” I say. “Does any of this remind you of boot camp?” He gets a faraway look in his eye and says, “It’s familiar.”
Another set of volunteers are manning a ten-foot plank fence. One of them, slim, bearded Brendan Lampman, tells me he’s here with his new bride, Chantae, volunteering one day and racing the next. He points her out and I jog over. “This sure beats the Spartan in Montana,” she says, all smiles and positivity. “There it was forty degrees and raining—in the summer! There was no grass, so we were crawling over gravel and rocks the whole time. But such camaraderie!”
When the results come in, it turns out that Kevin the pro has just barely survived the Kualoa Beast after cramping up during the final set of soul-crushing obstacles. “That jungle holds the heat like an oven,” he says following a stretch in the first-aid tent. Even as an elite racer, the Beast had taken three hours of his life and most of his spare body fluids.
Another three hours later, regular guy Richard makes it to the finish. He calls me from the car as his wife is driving him home (hey, at least it’s not the paramedics). But all he can really muster over the line is, “That was intense.”
It’s been fifteen years since I did my“formative year” in the Corps, and to be honest the last time I ran was to catch a flight. But still, I gotta do this. So when the shorter Sprint race rolls around at high noon on the second day, it’s go-time to take my Spartan shot. I tell myself that Rich and Kevin had to be exaggerating, right? It couldn’t be that bad, right?
My goal is simply to survive. Over the loudspeakers, audio clips of a hoarse Spartan King Leonidas mix with high-energy techno beats, setting a soundtrack for my furious stretching and water chugging. Before the race even starts, we have to enter the starting corral by scaling a six-foot wall. At 6’3” I hop right over, but for my shorter fellow Spartans it’s a sobering preview. The announcer makes a rousing speech about commitment and honor lifted straight from some gladiator B movie. Then, we run.
On some purist whim, I’ve insisted on running the course without comfort items. No water pack to sip from, no gloves, no sunscreen and, just to be sure I feel every rock and pebble, a pair of minimalist toe shoes. But when shooting foot pains and dehydration symptoms set in, I quickly realize that my false bravado has proved me more moron than Spartan.
We scurry along the course, ducking in and out of that infernal jungle, splashing through muddy streams. And then the obstacles start. Some are straight-up misery: The slog up and down a hill with a five-gallon bucket of gravel makes my back start to seize up, so I have to lie on the grass and stretch for a few minutes. A half-mile later we encounter the Hercules Hoist, a vicious task of hauling a 130-pound sandbag up a twenty-foot tower via rope and pulley. Man, I think, those gloves I didn’t bring sure would be handy right about now.
The penalty for failing to complete an obstacle properly is thirty burpees, the same torturous squat-thrust punishment that the sadistic Marine mentors back at Quantico loved to lay on us. I get my first dose of burpees when I miss the target on the spear toss (a bit wide to the left, but with ample distance, mind you). I get my second dose and a mild shoulder strain after failing Mount Olympus, a near-vertical traverse across a climbing wall with no footholds. At that point I decide that blowing obstacles is no longer an option.
The finish line is drawing tantalizingly close, but the most difficult trials are still in the way. There’s the Multi-Rig: rows of gymnast rings about eight feet off the ground. On a playground you might enjoy swinging ring to ring like it was elementary-school days. At the end of five miles of self-abuse, it’s no joke. And when was the last time you did a rope climb? High school gym class? But here I am, hefting my dripping two hundred pounds up all twenty feet and slapping the cowbell at the top to signal triumphal avoidance of burpees. One slanted wall and a fiery barricade later, I cross the finish line.
My hands are shaking as I type my bib numbers into the race-results computer. Two hours and twenty-two minutes for five miles? If this were a plain footrace, I would be ashamed. But after this ordeal I’ll take it gladly.
Next, I punch in Kevin the pro’s number. It turns out that he had bailed on the Trifecta after his broiler on the Beast, opting out of the second morning’s eight-mile Super race. But he had recovered in time to take an impressive fourth-place finish in the Elite division Sprint in about forty-four minutes, smoking my time like a prime Cuban cigar.
The next number I enter makes me pump my fist in the air. Our local hero Richard, having never attempted a Spartan event before, had finished all three Trifecta races, completing the final Sprint in a solid two hours. That’s a big win for the home team in my book.
Sure, Rich had suffered his fair share of burpees, he admits later, mainly from the dreaded rope climb. “But I just kept telling myself that I had already bought the Trifecta Tribe T-shirt, so I had to finish it.” Just a few short months ago, he would never have dreamed he could complete more than twenty-six miles and eighty obstacles in two days. “Now,” he declares,“I feel like there’s nothing I can’t do.” HH