“This course is ranked as one of the top five most challenging Spartan Race’s.” We were informed of this right before we were given the OK to begin our march up Blue Mountain. Talk about perfect timing! I’ve always wondered where this course ranked difficulty wise and now I know the answer. If you haven’t completed either a Sprint or Super (officially I’ve completed both) I hope this review will give you the information for what you can expect and what I experienced. After Saturday’s Super I’ve come to conclusion that in regards to Spartan endurance events I’m in way over my head.
I ran the Spartan Sprint in 2013, 2014 and 2015. Each year was more challenging than the previous. Finally, in 2016 I decided it was time to attempt the Trifecta so I opted for the Super at Blue Mountain. I knew this wasn’t going to be an easy race, but I had no idea that it was going to be as challenging as it was. This race was the most difficult race I’ve ever and probably will ever complete. I said this same line right after the NJ Spartan Beast and never expected a Super, which is less miles and less obstacles, to be more challenging. I was wrong and I paid for it. I asked Ange, Mike and Keith after the race their thoughts and they agreed with me. We all would rather do the NJ Beast again rather than this PA Super. I spoke with some other people at obstacles and saw some posts on social media that also agreed with our opinion. This race was no joke.
Before I even get to the course or the obstacles let me start with the heat we endured for the 5 hours we spent on the mountain. The heat was unbearable and brutal. I’ve never experienced this much heat exhaustion in any previous race. Part of this was because it was just flat out hot, but the majority of it was because I didn’t appropriately prepare myself. I didn’t hydrate myself as much as I should have. Would it have made a big difference? Maybe, but I’m willing to bet it played a huge factor in me feeling the way I did. So lesson learned, hydrate as much possible before the race. It will be too late to hydrate during the race.
Spartan developed a grueling course for us. It was roughly 8 miles and 30 obstacles. Since we were at a ski lodge the most challenging ski lanes were used for the uphill climbs and heavy carries (bucket and sandbag specifically). The course took us up the mountain twice and back down twice. The first time we went up I called it “the death march to hell.” Seriously, it felt like I was marching in a single file line, with the heat, to hell. No one (in the open heat) was even attempting to run up this severe incline. Right after the first mile marker and about a quarter mile from the top I had to sit down and rest. During this time I heavily considered tapping out. It’s probably the closest I’ve ever been to throwing in the towel at any OCR race. I ultimately decided to wait until Mile 3 to make my final decision. Once at the top we finally hit some obstacles and then began our descent back down the same mountain that we spent an hour climbing up. For the most part the first descent was through wooded terrain so the shade from the sun kept the temperatures slightly cooler. After reaching the bottom and Mile 3 I decided since I made it to this point already I should just finish the race. Going back up the mountain wasn’t as difficult the second time, but we still had to rest a few times. The second descent took us down a path of some very dead trees and some tricky terrain that required a lot of fancy footwork. We were in the sun the entire time so that didn’t help us either. This course was challenging and totally not what I expected.
I think my biggest issue with Spartan Races is the lack of obstacle creativity. In fairness to Spartan they do have some obstacles that are unique (spear throw, tyrolean traverse), but most are heavy carries of some sort that can be done in your own backyard. There is no doubt they have the toughest obstacles, but they are also what I call “everyday obstacles.” This means for the most part I can do their obstacles in some capacity without signing up for a race. I can carry a bucket of rocks, sandbag or even a wooden log up a hill or in a circle. I’ve even debated doing this for practice, which is something I should have done. However I’ve become more of a fan of unique and innovative obstacles that I don’t have the option of preparing for prior to the race. If you feel the same way then hopefully you understand what I’m saying. I’m not knocking Spartan for their obstacles. I just wish they would change them up every so often.
This race did have a new obstacle called Apehanger. In a pool of water we had to climb a rope then transition to monkey bars. In a way it reminded me a rig, but in water. I didn’t see a lot of people complete this so the difficulty level is definitely high. It was nice to see something different.
I will admit I skipped a few obstacles at this race. I’m not proud of it, but when faced with the possibility of passing out and being medically transported down the mountain I chose to opt out. I do these races for fun and my goal is always to avoid the medical tent. Don ‘t worry though I fully intend on completing my burpees during my exercise routines. On the obstacles I did complete or attempted some that were normally easy for me were a struggle. My two highlights were at tyrolean traverse and the monkey bars. These are two obstacles I normally feel pretty confident about and enjoy to see at any Spartan event.
The barbed wire crawl wasn’t as brutal as last year’s Sprint, but still pretty rough on the skin. My knees got pretty torn up and so did my hydration pack. Spartan strung some of the barbed wire pretty close to the ground making it very difficult for me and my hydration to fit under.
Each year there are more vendor tents at each event. I remember at my first Spartan Race there was maybe only one or two. Now there is at least six or seven (State Farm, Fit Aid, Organic Valley Protein Shake, and Marriott just to name a few). If you were looking for free stuff then you had plenty to choose. There was a DJ playing some music and a decent seating area for spectators. Most spectators were stuck in the sun though, except for a few who got there early and got seats under the tent. It’s important to note that Blue Mountain will not open their lodge for spectators.
In addition to the Festival Area, Spartan also offers a Kid’s Race. The course looked like a lot of fun and had some obstacles. While we were running we passed the part of the course where kids were at their version of the spear throw. They looked like they were having a lot of fun. Probably more fun than I was having at the time!
One thing Spartan never disappoints on is the SWAG. They always have nice finisher t-shirts and unique medals, that change slightly from year to year. A lot of people are proud to display their medals and wear their shirts. Also, instead of a bib you get a headband that has your number on it. It’s another item that can be added to your OCR wardrobe collection.
Official time: 05:21:51. I estimated five hours so I was close.
Registration was quick and easy for me, but Keith stood in line for about 15 minutes before he got checked in. There’s always a possibility check in can take this long.
There were no lines at any of the obstacles. I heard later there were some delays at the sandbag carry because people would start with a bag, drop it halfway and walk back up without it. This resulted in not having enough sandbags for everyone.
One of the biggest complaints of the day was at the water stations. Spartan had plenty of water stations, but everyone was told they could not re-fill their hydration packs due to the fear of running out of water for the later afternoon waves. This upset a lot of people. At the first water station we were told we could fill up at the second water station. However this was false. I brought my hydration pack with 1L of water and was going through it rather quickly. Eventually, I took one of the cups they gave us and filled it up with that. Hopefully others did the same. Post race message boards were very divided on this topic. Some thought Spartan should enough water to cover everyone and others thought that people should have been better prepared. My only opinion on this subject is to have a hydration pack at any Spartan endurance event.
We weren’t asked after 1:30pm if we had headlamps and glow sticks by any volunteer or Spartan staff member.
Parking was $10.00 for cars and $5.00 bag check, which was very secure. There was a fee of $25.00 for spectators. If you bought in advance it was only $20.00.
Plenty of porta-potties. They also had some along the course.
There were volunteers and medical personnel all over the course.
Spartan has some of the best post race showers. Plenty of hoses and plenty of water.
Even though I struggled with this race I’m still thrilled I participated and finished. It wasn’t easy, but it was another great experience I’ll never forget. Hopefully you understand now why I felt I was in over my head. Spartan races are supposed to be tough and that is exactly what it was. There are so many lessons I learned about the proper preparation and being physically prepared for a race of this caliber. If you’re looking for a tough race then look no further than the PA Spartan Super.
In my next mile I’ll offer my opinion on OCR burnout. Is it real?
Photos courtesy of Spartan Race’s Facebook page. Patch not included with SWAG.