As someone who usually spends weekends consuming vast quantities of cheese-filled baked goods, I’m not sure what possessed me to join in the UAE’s first Spartan race challenge. Let’s call it peer pressure, or a temporary moment of madness.
It started with training sessions two weeks ago, where hulking great tanks of Schwarzenegger-muscle completed squats and monkey bar swings with the ease of someone popping to the fridge for a third bar of chocolate. “I travel all over the world for these races,” announced one man in a thick Swedish accent, as he hauled his body weight several feet into the air above a solid metal bar. Sitting on the floor in a puddle of sweat having tried (and failed) to slither even a quarter of the way up the vertical rope, I could feel those prize money purchased Jimmy Choos slipping away from me. (Let’s face it, if it took me over an hour to finish a 10k, winning was always going to be ambitious.)
Technically the 5k Spartan track at the Jebel Ali race course should have been a doddle compared to some of its obstacle race competitors. (15k ‘Tough Guy’ crawl through mud, electrifying tunnels and ice, anyone?) But in true Spartan style, there were a few things working against us. Firstly, the terrain: A 5k up and downhill climb through the squishy, untouched desert dunes. Secondly, one of the most impressive dust storms of the past two years had chosen that moment to whip Dubai into a scene from a post-apocalyptic movie, with neighbouring buildings barely visible and spectators half-expecting to see helicopter-delivered rations arrive on the scene. With the flying grit burning our eyes and our feet sinking into the ground like jelly, it became near-impossible to muster more than a half jog.
Unlike other obstacle courses, which allow you to skip the difficult bits if you don’t really fancy it, Spartan competitors incur a 30 burpee penalty for every obstacle failed. For anyone who doesn’t know, the burpee is an energy-sapping torture method comprising a press up/squat/jump combo, presumably developed by military professionals as an effective way to crush the physical strength and mental spirit of their enemies.
Fortunately for the more exhausted competitors, Spartan’s organisational failings worked in our favour, with a lack of volunteers available to monitor the burpees, or in some cases, even the challenges. I’d had recurrent nightmares about a red-faced ex-marine refusing to let me pass until burpees were completed to military standards, but the reality was a grinning teenager in a red t-shirt, cheerfully distributing bottles of water.
In general, Spartan Dubai was the race that organisation forgot. Starting an hour late, the elite runners didn’t get off until almost 8 o clock, causing congestion for the rest of the day. Queuing for obstacles meant those who had been hoping to get a good time were unable to achieve it, and there was over-crowding in certain areas.
Water was handed out during the race (with more waste than seemed necessary), but was scarce at the finish line, with participants having to wander to different stands like Dead of the Dead zombies, before eventually stumbling across a van hidden and unadvertised next to a juice stand.
Despite the weather, the organisational hiccups and my usual hatred of enforced exercise activities, we successfully slithered under barbed wire, launched ourselves over wooden vaults, carried sandbags up hills, made valiant attempts at the rope climb and got ourselves stuck in boggy trenches.
Finally, after sacrificing an attempt at the spear throw due the ever-growing queue and taking my burpee penalty like a big girl, the end was in sight. One leap over what was arguably the competition’s easiest hurdle and I’d be done. Unfortunately I’d forgotten one small detail: Fire is hot and I am a massive pansy. It took several minutes of run ups and encouragement from my coach before I found the ‘least firey’ spot to jump, and was awarded a medal even the bigger than the ones I fashioned for myself out of cardboard as a child. If only Spartan could speed up the entry registration process, I think I’d be ready for the 12K version.