Crawling under barbed wire, scaling three-metre tall walls, throwing a spear and jumping over fire while being caked in mud and drenched in water – it’s all short work for Hallvard Borsheim, a Norwegian who competes in obstacle course racing all over the world. But the sport is not just for serious athletes like him; in recent years, obstacle course racing has gone mainstream all over the world.
Hong Kong will have its first taste of international-standard obstacle course racing in November in the shape of the Spartan Race. Some 8,000 people are expected to tackle some 20 obstacles over a 6km course at Kam Tin Country Club in Yuen Long.
“We wanted to do something that’s not just another run,” says Charlz Li, founder of Hybrid Group, the organiser of the Spartan race. “Looking at the number of runners, trail events and sports clubs in Hong Kong, [it shows] the demand is there.”
Obstacle course racing has been called the fastest-growing sport in history, with some 4.9 million people worldwide having participated in an obstacle course race in 2015, according to industry report
“Obstacle Race World: The State of the Mud Run Business”. In 2016, the number is expected to grow to 5.3 million.
Spartan Race – one of the industry’s big three, along with Tough Mudder and Warrior Dash – started in 2010 with 500 competitors in its first race in Vermont in the United States. By the end of 2016, some one million people will have taken part in 170 Spartan events in more than 25 countries. In Asia, South Korea was the first to have the event in 2013, followed by Malaysia and Singapore in 2015, and very recently, along with Hong Kong, Indonesia, Taiwan and mainland China joined the list.
Created by adventure and endurance racer Joseph De Sena, who previously owned a Wall Street trading firm, Spartan has various race distances: “sprint” (at least 5km and 20 obstacles), “super” (at least 13km and 25 obstacles) and “beast” (at least 19km and 30 obstacles). There are also competitions for children aged four to 14, ranging from 800 metres to 3.2km long.
For Hong Kong’s inaugural race, only the “sprint” distance will be offered. For the past two years, there has been another obstacle course race in the city – the Tissot Limitless Challenge – but Li says that race is much easier compared to the Spartan.
“You can pretty much just wake up and do it,” says Li, referring to the Tissot race. “I guarantee if you don’t have a regular exercise programme, you won’t be able to complete the Spartan Race.”
Even for a regular, high-intensity athlete like Borsheim, the Spartan is not a walk in the park.
“Running a Spartan Race gets me out of my comfort zone. No matter how fit you are, it will be challenging and different from other sports, as it tests your overall strength, balance, mental tenacity and endurance,” says Borsheim, 36, who is based in Dubai and works as an air traffic controller. A former cross-country and water skier, he was champion in the Dubai Spartan“sprint” and the Singapore Spartan “super” events this year. That qualified him for the Spartan World Championships in Lake Tahoe, US, which take place on October 1 and 2.
Natalie Dau, owner of Singapore-based wellness platform Urban Remedy, is also heading to the World Championships after finishing second and third elite woman in the Spartan “super” in Singapore and Malaysia respectively.
“If you had told me a year ago I would be neck deep in mud, running around, I would never have believed you – but now, the muddier the better!” says 44-year-old Dau. “Spartan races have something for everyone. For me, I like it because no one is good at everything in the race – you can be a great runner but terrible at obstacles and vice versa, so the challenge is never-ending to try and get better across all the disciplines.”
Apart from the couple of hundred people who will be taking part in the elite race at the Hong Kong Spartan, everyone else will be in the open category, where competitors may help each other to overcome obstacles. Participants will be flagged off in heats of up to 200 people every 15 minutes. Failure to clear any obstacle will incur a 30 burpees penalty before being allowed to continue the course. The fastest competitors take about 40 minutes to complete the sprint, while the average finisher takes about 90 minutes.
So how does one get in Spartan shape? Borsheim suggests doing a lot of running and some circuit training. “Being able to run while being fatigued from different strength obstacles is key,” he says.
Dau also recommends training grip strength, which is important for obstacles like swinging on monkey bars and climbing ropes. Plus, make burpees your best friend, she says. “You have to be comfortable with doing 30 burpees, so doing some each day helps.”
In terms of special skills, the only tricky one might be the spear throw, says Borsheim, where you have to throw a crude spear to hit a target set in a hay bale. (This would probably be tricky to practise in Hong Kong – better practise those burpees instead.)
In terms of gear, lightweight, skintight gear is best, because they won’t hold water when wet and will keep you streamlined under obstacles like barbed wire. For shoes, wear something light and with good grip. Unless you’re doing the “beast” distance, you won’t need to carry your own hydration – there are water stations along the way. But, like Borsheim, you might want to carry one or two packs of energy gel to refuel.
When the gun goes, don’t go out too hard or too fast. Take a quick moment to catch your breath just before each obstacle and refocus, Dau says. “I usually pace myself and slow down just a little ahead of each obstacle,” Borsheim agrees. “I’d rather lose 10 seconds and manage the obstacle than risk failing the obstacle and getting a penalty.”
To get participants ready for Spartan Race Hong Kong, the race organisers have teamed up with fitness solutions provider All About Aesthetics to provide free hour-long workouts for participants twice a week on Thursdays 7.30pm and Sundays 9.30am at Tamar Park in Admiralty.
Here, fitness trainer Tansy Fong demonstrates five essential exercises to get you Spartan ready.
From a standing position, squat and place your palms on the floor. Kick the feet back and land in a push-up position. Perform a push-up with proper form (chest to the ground while keeping back straight). Kick the feet forward under the hips and land in a squat position. Explode up with a jump as high as possible. Repeat.
2. Squat jump
Stand with a narrow stance and feet flared. Squat, keeping the weight on the whole foot and the chest up, and ensuring the knees track over the middle of the feet. Descend as deeply as possible while keeping a flat lower back. Jump straight up explosively and upon landing, smoothly transition into the next rep.
3. Mountain climber
Bend over and place your palms on the floor. Sink the hips down and straighten out one leg behind the body. Alternate between jumping one leg forward by flexing the hip and kicking the other leg back by extending the hip in a climbing manoeuvre. Repeat.
4. Army crawl
Keeping your head and neck in neutral alignment, start on all fours so your forearms and feet are on the ground. Keeping low to the ground, crawl forward by flexing the arm and hip on one side of the body while simultaneously extending the arm and hip on the other side. Crawl forward for the desired length and then crawl backward to starting position.
5. Sandbag carry
Hoist a heavy bag (during the race it’s 9kg for women and double that for men) onto one of your shoulders, staying as upright as you can. If it’s on your left shoulder, keep your left hand on top of the bag with the elbow up. Enure you keep good posture while walking forward.
For more details about, and to register for, Spartan Race Hong Kong, see spartanrace.hk or check out its Facebook page at facebook.com/spartanracehongkong