Completing a Spartan race: I got through the barbed wire ... but then came the monkey bars

Ultramarathon or sprint? An exercise in setting appropriate fitness goals

Samuel McSherry and Conor Capplis jumping over a fire pit finish line at Spartan London West last month. Photograph: Spartan UK

It was intimidating to say the least, approaching the start line of my first obstacle course since spectacularly floundering the last time I undertook one of these kinds of events (like a newborn giraffe walking for the first time).

Enter “Spartan Phil” to settle the nerves. Dressed like the ancient Greek equivalent of those Abercrombie and Fitch store models, Phil riled up the crowd of wannabe Spartans under his hoplite helmet.

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Phil soon turned to me among the hundreds of burly men and women and called me out: firstly, for my mullet and moustache combo (apparently faux 1980s revival has its roots in some very stylish Spartan soldiers); secondly, for my clothing: “I don’t know if your mates encouraged you to wear a white T-shirt, but on an obstacle course like this, it’s gonna get messy.”

Looking around the bemused crowd, almost entirely in black T-shirts, eyes hungry to be let loose on the course, it was clear I wasn’t CC’d in the memo.


Last summer, I learned the importance of setting appropriate exercise goals the hard way. Some friends talked me into a Spartan ultramarathon in Andorra – that mountainous microstate nestled into the Pyrenees – which went as well as you’d expect.

Spartan races are considered by endurance runners as some of the toughest you can do. At a staggering 50km – including 60 brutal obstacles – the Spartan Ultra is the highest level of difficulty. Safe to say, despite months of gymming it, cantering around Phoenix Park and dabbling in some poo-inducing caffeinated carbohydrate gels, we floundered at the task. After more than 10 hours, 33km and 2,450m of total ascent, no glory was worth the injuries waiting for us at the finish line, so we called it a day and limped home.

Just 10 burpees would be enough to have me wincing after little exercise in recent months: there were no excuses not to come home with a finishing medal now

This year, I got wind of some other friends looking to complete a Spartan Sprint (a brisk 5km and 20 obstacles), and this time around there would be no terrifying mountains in the way. Henley-on-Thames, the picturesque town west of London, famous for its regatta and idyllic riverside setting, was to be the scene of my woes.

To my surprise, the signature nail of Spartan races – 30 burpees upon failing an obstacle – was replaced with a mere 100m penalty loop. Just 10 burpees would be enough to have me wincing after little exercise in recent months: there were no excuses not to come home with a finishing medal now.

Channelling my inner ninja warrior – or closer to Japanese game show Takeshi’s Castle in my case – I downed some carbohydrate gels for energy, and Spartan Phil finally let us loose on a stunning Oxfordshire valley near Henley-on-Thames.

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Soon we hit the barbed wire.

I can assure you, dear reader, it was quite real. The uphill ascent under the wire was purposefully brutal, but with a sort of leap and sideways-tumble strategy, I just about avoided a scratch – unlike some of my comrades.

Conor Capplis comes up against all-too-real barbed wire during Spartan London West last month. Photograph: Spartan UK

Next up was a makeshift pool of muddy water only giants can stand in, and many were soon grateful for the warm weather. In fact, mud traps dotted around the place kept one’s feet firmly drenched: it’s a miracle my squelching didn’t prompt a banana-style slip.

Leaping up to some monkey bars, I hadn’t the grip nor the energy to fling myself 45 degrees up to the next rung. Hanging there for a moment, suspended in mid-air like a forgotten sock on a clothesline, I thought I’d take the penalty loop.

Conor Capplis enduring the weight of a heavy bucket at Spartan London West. Photograph: Sierra Lindman Marshall

The final obstacle was a fire pit, which I am pleased to say has produced the most epic photograph of me to date. Hand-in-hand with my bro, pointing at the camera, jumping over flames: the testosterone is nearly bursting from the frame.

I may not be anywhere near sporting the chiselled exterior of Spartan Phil, but at least I’ve finished a race

As I crossed the finish-line the line blurred between sweat and muddy water on my body, and I felt a sense of accomplishment that could only come from completing such a gruelling race.

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Andorra was far too ambitious as an entry point into ultramarathons. Henley, or London West as it’s creatively labelled, was a sensible goal, and one reached with fortunately little training on my end, with some residual stamina carrying over from my previous Spartan odyssey.

Irish Spartans: Craig Thiel, Adrian Federis, Conor Capplis and Samuel McSherry after finishing the Spartan London West event last month. Photograph: Sierra Lindman Marshall

Between Henley and Andorra, as an exercise in setting appropriate fitness goals, I’ve learnt my lesson. I may not be anywhere near sporting the chiselled exterior of Spartan Phil, but at least I’ve finished a race, brought home a chunky medal to my proud mum, and walked away without a limp – never mind that ultramarathon folly.