Disclaimer: I ran my first obstacle course race this weekend, and it was awesome. I gave a sort of holistic overview of the whole race from this past weekend, and that overview is here. But it occurred to me that one, I left out a lot of what I was thinking during the race, and I wanted to get those thoughts down. And two, if you’re reading this and thinking of signing up for a race, having a blow-by-blow account might be more helpful to you than some unfocused, broad thoughts on the whole thing. So what follows is that account of the whole run. It might take a couple of posts. Skip at your pleasure!
It’s 10:30 on a Saturday morning, and I’m walking through a cow pasture.
I parked the family van in the grass after driving it a half mile down a gravel drive in rural Dallas, GA, and now I’m following the crowds of people toward the top of the hill. The low sound of birds gives way to the drone of human voices the closer I get to the staging area, and before I know it I’m surrounded by people: musclebound men and women who’ve already run and finished the race, and some more moderately dressed folk (like myself) who have yet to run. Some of them look as uncertain as I feel — other first-timers, I suspect — others swagger around the commons, lounge around the tables and the food trucks, or stretch casually by the starting line. Some are individuals. Some are friends. Some are co-workers. Some are families.
This is Savage Race — a mass of humanity about to embark on six miles of pain in the backwater hills of suburban Atlanta. All of us have spent the past months if not years training for the event, but how do you train for an event that has you crawling through mud, jumping like a lunatic from a twenty-five foot height into murky water, vaulting over walls and fences, and slithering under barbed wire?
I’ve previewed the course and the obstacles dozens of times in the months leading up to now, but being here is different. Down the hill there, at the bottom of the pasture, I can see racers on the course trudging up and down a series of rills with long wooden beams across their shoulders like Jesus on his way to the crucifixion. In a little gully off to the side is another leg of the course that features a series of grooved telephone poles that ascend toward a cowbell. I watch a few racers clamber adroitly across the maze of poles and whack the cowbell triumphantly; I watch several more slip off the second pole, unable to find a foothold, and walk on, shaking their heads in frustration.
At the top of the hill is the big one: the monstrous sixteen-foot quarter-pipe ramp outfitted with knotted ropes and smeared with mud from the failed attempts of would-be climbers sliding back down its face. That’s Colossus, the final obstacle on the course, and it’s flashy, but it’s far from my mind.
I’ve been at the gathering areas of dozens of races, and the atmospheres are as varied as the events themselves, but the central area for Savage Race is a unique animal. It’s part tailgate, part wildlife retreat, part bacchanalia. There’s the usual array of merchandise tents, packet pick-ups, and volunteer stations. Then there are the tents set up by participants and their cheering stations, complete with kegs and captain’s chairs and college logos. There are food trucks and a surprisingly well-stocked beer stand (attached to every participant’s bib is a voucher for a free brew, which they rightly advise you to detach now and store safely, as it is likely you’ll lose it on the course). And then there are the people.
The participants at any road race tend to be a fit bunch, but this goes a step further. About a third of the men are shirtless, and would look right at home in a promotional spot for 300. The women, alike, are dressed to show off their gym bods, many with their bib numbers inked on their shoulders (pictures during the event are sorted by bib number, so this is a good way to find your photos even if your bib is hidden, say, underwater, in a shot). Lots of beards. Lots of tattoos. Lots of skintight clothing. Superhero shirts and custom-made group tees: Bailey’s Badasses, for one. But there’s a fair contingent, like me, a bit more modest, watching from the fringes, trying to take this all in.
The course is set up in a strange, almost clover-like arrangement, so that the runners pass again and again near the central area. As such, you’re often in view of other obstacles on the course and other participants in various stages of distress depending on what particular pain they’re undergoing at the moment. So it’s a lot to take in. But there isn’t much time for that, now. My heat departs in five minutes, so I make my way to the starting corral, where I line up next to a couple of guys dressed in Dragonball shirts and wigs and a dude who looks like a black version of the Rock. Suddenly, I feel very out of my depth.
There’s an announcer at the starting line, which is a novelty. He asks how many are repeat racers, five-time racers, and finally, how many Savage Virgins are with us today, to a chorus of WHOOOOOO’s each time, and I throw my lot in with that last. He tells us what we already know: that the next six miles are designed to test our limits, to punish us, to show us what we’re made of. He invites us to stare down the people in the corral with us, to see which of them each of us is going to beat to the finish. I keep looking at the Rock (this is the last time I’ll see him — he leaves me behind early) and the Dragonball guys (surprisingly, I’ll see them again and again throughout the event), and feel pretty confident that I’m going to be in the bottom third of this particular heat, but who cares? We’re all shouting and laughing and high-fiving and chanting “you got me, and I got you,” and even though I’m the kind of guy who stays silent when Gene Simmons comes onstage and demands are you ready to rock???, I’m hollering and shouting myself hoarse with the rest of the Savages. It’s all very cult-ish, all very for those about to rock, we salute you.
And then we move to the starting line, and the gun sounds, and the waving, sun-baked grass stretches out before us.
And we run.