Dispatch from the Razor's Edge, the Blog of Michael Stephen Fuchs

So regular readers (and more so facebook friends) will know I ran the Spartan Race (South London Super) in August. (More on the madness that is the Spartan Race here and here. I ran in support of the Special Operations Warrior Foundation – rather a lot more about that here.) Here's a recap of race day!

So it's worth noting that this event was preceded by about five weeks of ass-walloping training (and no drinking). My racing partner, Jana – the only person I knew maniacal to do this with me – also happens to be a part-time personal trainer (in addition to a lot of other stuff), and a mean one, and she spent much of this time beasting the stuffing out of me. I got smoked a lot. Anyway.

Day started early – we had to get to some weird place in South London the closest station to which was, swear to God, East Grinstead (*) – and I started as I meant to go on: all moto. So – stick-on tattoos!

That third photo is Victoria Station – normally (in my view) one of the least pleasant mainline rail stations in London, but looking all jaunty in Union Flag bunting this day.

On the train down, Jana applied some additional body art. Two of the super-generous contributors to my fund-raising effort made their donations in honour of two fallen groups of American special operators, to whom they are personally connected. Being able to run in their honour, to tie my day to them in the smallest way, was of course hugely elevating and ennobling. Jana got her own flag tattoos – British and Czech. She's an immigrant like me.

So we arrived at the venue, and got our sacks into which we had to stuff everything we weren't racing with – virtually everything we had on us. The event was held on the grounds of some lordly manor – the aristocracy in this country has been a little bit in reduced circumstances lately, see e.g. this (the fabulous Noel Coward opening from The Grass is Greener):

We hit the check-in area – and pretty much immediately started being transfixed by all the jacked, fit, scantily-clad people. Many of them bore repeated viewing:

We took a few trophy photos – it was a lovely day for it, sunny and cool – then kicked around scoping out our "competition". (Scare quotes because our goal was to finish. Though that went out the window pretty quickly – specifically at the moment, very early on, when Jana took off like an antelope out of hell, more on which in a minute.)

Despite a few scary-looking dudes and dudettes (photo-documented a bit later), it seemed like a really nice, happy, friendly crowd.

So one of the earlier heats was about to be off, so we wandered down to the starting area to get some sense of what we might be in for.

Then it was time to suit up!

My new shoes – the third pair I bought for this madcap escapade, actually (luckily only second paid for…). I should have been smart enough to stick/start with a brand I trust, namely ASICS. They had clever little RFID devices to loop in your shoes and record your time exactly and electronically.

Then, naturally, it was time for me to run around trying to get photos of some of the absurdly jacked people. (I admit I have a certain fascination with the human body, not to mention the perfectibility of humankind.)

These dudes were terrifying. These guys were hiliarous.

That middle photo above is the practice area for one of the more feared Spartan obstacles, the rope climb – and which is a hell of a lot higher in its incarnation on the course. There would be 20 total obstacles in our race. Another problematical one is the spear-throw – there was supposed to be a practice spear-throw area, but there wasn't. Another is the monkey bars; but if you're not ready for those by now, you're not going to be.

My chip, plus wristband. I was determined to run shirtless – they say once you're soaked in mud, a shirt does less than nothing to keep you warm, plus it just sounded really freeing and primal – so I began as I meant to go on. Another heat off. DAMN, DUDES! I have no excuse for taking this photo. Fire!

That's when we got our glimpse of the final obstacle: the fire jump. Believe me it looked a hell of a lot bigger in person. Luckily, the first dude we saw take it didn't die:

*DAMN*, Dudes!

So it was getting closer to the time. We wandered down to see the heat before ours set off – and, moreover, go through their whole chanting, grunting moto Spartan routine. Ours was exactly the same 30 minutes later, except we were ourselves stomping our feet and banging our spears into our shields and grunting at the tops of our lungs (I'm getting goosebumps watching it again!):

After this, I figured I'd have a quick go at the practice rope climb. In addition to, obviously, all the damned training, I'd watched a fair number of Youtube videos on how to conquer the various obstacles. There's this clever thing you can do to lock the rope with your feet, and take the weight off your arms and shoulders.

Clever foot thing

What I actually worked out was that I could easily exhaust my arms and shoulders by endlessly faffing about with my feet like that (at least without a lot more practice). When I got to the actual obstacle, I was so completely knackered anyway that – thought and strategy having gone right out the window, never mind finesse – I just brute-forced my way to the top.

We met an early finisher who had ruined his (Achilles?) heels. Holy ouch, Batman!

Ouchers See that hill? Remember that hill. Help for Heroes!

And then the clock caught up with us. There was nothing to do but take one last "before" photo, check in our bags of crap – and take a headlong dive for GLORY!

Although there were a few people with GoPro cameras strapped to their bodies, I wasn't one of them. However… one of the great blandishments of the race is they employ professional photographers at a few places around the course; then, afterwards, they post all the pictures, and you can hunt through them for super-awesome trophy photos of yourself. I was delighted that there were a handful of us – but they didn't nearly represent all the obstacles. So I think what I'm just going to do is salt ours in with A) ones from the official promo shots, which are super-awesome; and B) some of conspicuous badasses (and, okay, yeah, hotties) that I pulled out for this purpose when I was flipping through looking for ours.

So a major theme of the first stretch, and the first obstacles, was me getting all cocky. The first obstacles were sort of climb over a wall or climb through a hole in a wall or jump over something. We were pretty jaunty. Felt great, obstacles easily overcome.

And then came the mud. We were mentally prepared for mud. I was like: Mud! Yee-hah! Here are a few good mud photos (again these were our actual course on our exact day, just not us in them).

Yee-hah, punks! Mud rocks!

But then… then there came the mud you might not get out of. It merely looked like a section of swamp, and one went brashly galloping into it… and then you went into it up to your waist. And it wasn't muddy water like you see above. It was serious, thick MUD. And then you'd try to take your back foot out to take another step… and it didn't want to come. And you're sort of seized with this primal, atavistic fear that your ancestors must have known in the tar pits, thinking: Shit, what if I actually can't get out of this? F&%$!

You could get out, eventually, of course. Though not without some of the field referees helpfully trying to herd us in a safer direction. "Over here," they chirpily cried, "if you like your shoes. We've got a whole pile over here from people who tried to go the hard way…" Here's some more mud photos.

Then shit started getting real with the obstacles. I recall that the first one that actually tested me was the 40lb sandbag carry. You just had to heft that bad boy up on your shoulder and walk it up and down a hill. This hit me hard, and was a bit of a shock to the system. Forty pounds is a fair bit of weight, and you definitely felt in your legs – and even moving it to the other shoulder, to relieve the first one, was a challenge. I was markedly less jaunty after this one.

Now we were in this for real.

And soon after that was the obstacle that beat me: the damned monkey bars. Here are some badasses who ruled the monkeybars (unlike most of the Spartans, who were falling and splashing into the mud like a meat meteor shower). And, okay, these badasses are mostly really hot, too.

Glorious monkey men Damn, dude DAMN, dude

Like I said, this is a much-feared obstacle, for two reasons: one, it's a damned hard way to travel, especially when you're knackered. And two – every inch of the bars is stupidly slick with mud. I learned two very important things attempting this obstacle: 1) if you don't make it on your first attempt, you're not going to make it on your second; and 2) if you don't make it on your second, you're really, seriously not going to make it on your third. But I came really close the first time, slipping off just before the end, which was tantalizing, and I guess I just wanted to be all Spartan and not give up. I should have, after the first fall, just done my damned burpees like a man – and like Jana, who was smart enough to do so.

Did I mention the burpees? For any obstacle you failed, you had to get down and do 30 burpees. Americans, who never know how good they have it, won't know what a burpee is. Here's a burpee:

It's basically a push-up followed by a leap in the air. They're more knackering than they look. I've done my share since moving to the UK, mostly in boxing training. But I'd never done burpees like this. Holy shit, was I smoked. I presume it was because of context: I'd just run like a 5K, slogged through mud, jumped over a bunch of shit – and done what was basically body-weight bicep curls trying to get across the monkey bars (three times). By the 22nd burpee rep, I swear I would have had to perk up to keel over and die. I was completely smoked. (Oh, I also learned how contact lens wearers ought not do burpees in the mud: with eyes open. Caught a big dollop in my right eye on rep two… whoopsies.)

It's probably worth pausing here to note: that's the only obstacle I failed on the whole day. I finished the day 19 for 20. I'm pretty proud of that, but then again the real cause must be obvious: I would have climbed over Mt. Rushmore to avoid another goddamned set of 30 burpees. I would have done anything. Never again!

Here are two hot chicks in mud, and a swamp thing:

Oh yeah, speaking of climbing over Rushmore: it was after getting totally smoked with the burpees, that we hit the first hill. Remember that picture of the hill? → See that hill? Remember that hill. Getting ready for this bad boy, we trained for distance running. We did a ton of cross-training and high-intensity intevals (HIIT). We did functional training, to build up the muscles we'd specifically need for these obstacles (grip strength and forearms, conspicuously). What kind of training didn't we do? CLIMBING. You really have to go out of your way, too, because London is flatter than a plate of p!$$. And training on hills never even occurred to us. Because no one told us that the whole 15k was going to be UP and DOWN and up again, and over the top and down the other side, then back up and down the first side again, of a HUGE FREAKING HILL. Holy shit. Let me tell you that running 15k is one proposition. And running 15k up and down steep hills on tough terrain is a totally other one.

And it was the climbing that did me in. The climbing – and Jana, who runs hills like a mountain goat on meth. After doing her post-monkey-bar burpees like a man, she took off like an ibex with its ass on fire – and I was forced to try and catch her. Going up the hill. Jesus. That was crushing.

On the upside, we were passing people all damned day. That felt good. But I was fighting for breath at certain points. I seem to have a developed a little mild asthma, I presume from having run in polluted central London every day for 11 years, and it sometimes comes out during really serious exertion. And that was the main thing I was battling today. Dammit! With enough air, I could be CRUSHING this… But, as we all know, the effective range of an excuse is always 0.0 meters. Adapt and overcome.

Somewhere up in the hills was the Atlas stone carry. Looking around the web now, I see claims that this stone (the men's version, anyway – anything involving weight had different mens and womens version) weighs 100 pounds. (I also saw 120.) And I totally believe it. When I leaned over to try and pick this thing up, my immediate reaction was: You're kidding. I cannot lift this.

Getting the stone up to my chest was just unbelievable. Keeping it there was no picnic. Here's what it looks like:

The punchline to the Atlas stone carry is: on our course, you had to carry it up a somewhat steep hill, around a flag, and then back downhill again. And as I headed back, I said this aloud: "I have absolutely no idea why I am not simply rolling this emm-effing perfectly spherical stone right back down this goddamned hill…" It was weird. The explanation had to be: one preferred to look like a moronic hardman, rather than a smart wuss.

Here's the overall men's winner and (I think) the women's winner, jumping into a water hazard I well recall, as well as dude doing the water-can carry.

I recall that water obstacle because, back when I was still feeling all jaunty, I remember saying: "This course is great! Not only do you get to wade through mud, and work up a sweat running… but every so often they give you a body of water to wash the mud off, cool down, and emerge all refreshed! I love this race!"

But that was then. Now, Jana and I started doing the worst possible thing: we started pushing each other. Our original agreement had been just to stay together, no matter what, and finish the damned thing. But once we started passing a lot of people, we had the scent of prey. It got to the point where it was like, Thank God, another obstacle – I can catch my damned breath!

We came to the vaunted spear throw. Basically, you have to hurl it at a hay target about 10 or 15 meters out and get it to stick – and you only get one try! After we discovered there was no practice area, I hold told Jana something to the effect of, "I really wouldn't count on the very first spear throw of your entire life going very well." Apparently getting it to fly straight is hard, it drops off much more quickly than you think it's going to, especially at the end, etc. But I had watched a few videos, and now I tried to apply the lessons. And it worked! Stuck in one go. That would have been one dead Persian. Rock. Or maybe it was just the terror of more burpees. I'm pretty sure Jana scored in one as well.

Some of the obstacles, like the wall climb traverse →, just required care and focus. With this one, it was basically all about keeping your center of gravity maximally forward, and focusing like a laser beam on your handholds.

Others, it turned out, could be hacked. Never having done virtually any of this, and as my run of successes started to tick up (ratcheting the pressure), I started very carefully watching the people ahead of me, while I queued. You could spot the successful people quickly – and, in many cases, see what they were doing that made them successful. In the case of the rings here, it turned out that momentum, rhythm, and timing were everything. Nail those, and you could just basically hang on and sail through to the end. Screw those up, and you were toast. Specifically, if you swung back and forward – and grab! – and back and forward – and grab! you were golden. If you didn't, you were totally hosed. I was golden. Jana was hosed. But she looked great doing it.

Now! The vaunted barbed-wire mud crawl – including a later documentation of where it reached down and bit me:

Cool Sikh dude we met Ouchers

We actually met the dude in the first photo - a whole group of Sikhs, actually - on the way out. I noticed their bangles (I've been doing research for a Sikh character) and asked where their daggers were - under their turbans, it turned out! This dude, incredibly sharp and totally nice, and named Deep (naturally), works in the City doing financial risk analysis - and lives in the East End, by night playing drums and Indian percussion in a globally distributed electronic band. So, basically, totally London.

The wound, by the way, actually worked out pretty well. I started out doing it the stupid way, which is a low front crawl, nose down in the mud. But the first time the barbed wire bit me, I said Screw this and went into a log roll. This turned out to be all of easier, faster, and safer.

Quite late in the day were… the vaunted rope climb, and the "Hercules Hoist", which is a rope over a tall pulley – with a damned pressure cooker, or fuel tank, or some damned huge thing tied to the end of it. The former you had to get yourself up. The latter, you had to get the cooker up. Here's (roughly) what those looked like:

We emerged from the treeline into this big open area, both knackered – and daunted. (Well, I was.) I walked around with my hands on my hips for a few minutes, getting my wind back and just getting psyched up. I knew this was going to take some doing. Finally, there was nothing but to do it. With the rope climb, here's what I remember: 1) As predicted, I blew off the foot technique, did what I could to grip the rope with my knees, and just hauled myself the hell up with my arms; and 2) as I got near the top, I felt my strength beginning to fail – and I looked all around, and down, and thought: This would actually be a pretty serious fall from this height

With the cooker pull, I found that stepping on the rope after each pull was about the only way I could manage it. This felt a bit like cheating, but then again it worked. Jobs jobbed. We were on the home stretch now!

After that, as I recall, was the mud hurdles. I thought they were a blast, leaping off of them into the air, whooping. Here's Jana, another hot chick, and another hot chick who would have fit right in with the Pep Band painting Beta Bridge (i.e. with handprints on her breasts).

Finally, all that remained was a sort of net climb (which you can see in the background of the photos below) – and we already felt like champions going over it; our main job was to not screw up and get injured in the home stretch – and, finally… the vaunted fire jump! Here's two very happy dudes finishing – and a totally fantastic bearded fat guy jumping through fire! That guy's awesome.

And here's us. When I saw these, I was like: Yeah – worth whatever we paid. And whatever they're paying their photographer, it's not enough.


Here are some (glorious, triumphant) after photos!

Doesn't look much like the before photo, does it? They gave us Coors Lite at the end. It was shittiest beer I'd drunk in probably 20 years. It was also one of the most enjoyable. Medals! Nor do the shoes look quite like they did before. Worse - much worse - was what was actually <i>INSIDE the shoes</i>. T-shirts! Kick-ass. The awesome group of Sikhs we met on the way out. Additional minor injuries, noted the day after.

Oh, right – our times. As I recall, we both finished in about 2:05:00. The overall winner did it in just under 30 minutes and the last person to finish took 4.5 hours, so that doesn't sound half bad. (If I hadn't had to hang around waiting for Jana to do burpees, it would have been better! ;^) Looking them up now, here are our actual results and rankings:

Jana Semiradova  31    F       761      44         11            2:06:24
Michael Fuchs    43    M       762      713        37            2:06:25

So we finished 761 and 762 and out of 2788 racers. Pretty good for a first go! Oh, and holy cow – I only just noticed Jana finished 44th amongst ALL WOMEN, and 11th in her age group. That's freaking amazing! It pays to be an antelope. And I definitely take back what I said about the burpees.

Next race will be the Spartan Beast (25km vs. 15km, 25 obstacles vs. 20 – including the terrifying pugil sticks!


Now, that looks like fun. And, mainly, next race, I'll definitely be training on some damned hills – not to mention going back and forth on monkey bars, working on grip strength, until I lose consciousness. (*)

And last but far from least:

Thank you, thank you, so, so much, to all the wonderful, heroic, generous people who shelled out fat stacks to raise an amazing $1000.00 (four times my original goal) for the education of the children of those who gave their last full measure of devotion (via the Special Operations Warrior Foundation). In increasing order of awesomeness: Jeff Kasunic, Abbe Hoffman Macbeth, Nicole Edmondson, timcorrigan.com, Maureen Nelson, Ian Miller, Loredana Sisson, Erin Fuchs, Glynn James (my awesome writing partner who leapt into the fray to round us off at four figures), Mandy Moore, Matt Grabowy and Susan Giebel, Kliffa and Dennis Hall (parents of Captain Ryan Hall, USAFSOC), Alex and Shannon Heublein, and finally Major Stephen Blose (Command Pilot, USAFSOC, Ret.) – who kicked things off by instantly and singlehandedly meeting the entire initial fundraising goal himself, and setting the bar for everyone else, and after already having donated 21 years of super skill and dedication and not to mention severe danger to life and limb in the cause of freedom, and to whom I earnestly apologize for embarrassing here, as I know I am.

  running     spartan race     spec-ops  
close photo of Michael Stephen Fuchs

Fuchs is the author of the novels The Manuscript and Pandora's Sisters, both published worldwide by Macmillan in hardback, paperback and all e-book formats (and in translation); the D-Boys series of high-tech, high-concept, spec-ops military adventure novels – D-Boys, Counter-Assault, and Close Quarters Battle (coming in 2016); and is co-author, with Glynn James, of the bestselling Arisen series of special-operations military ZA novels. The second nicest thing anyone has ever said about his work was: "Fuchs seems to operate on the narrative principle of 'when in doubt put in a firefight'." (Kirkus Reviews, more here.)

Fuchs was born in New York; schooled in Virginia (UVa); and later emigrated to the San Francisco Bay Area, where he lived through the dot-com boom. Subsequently he decamped for an extended period of tramping before finally rocking up in London, where he now makes his home. He does a lot of travel blogging, most recently of some very  long  walks around the British Isles. He's been writing and developing for the web since 1994 and shows no particularly hopeful signs of stopping.

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ARISEN : Operators, Volume I - The Fall of the Third Temple by Michael Stephen Fuchs
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