Hardcore In Hong Kong

Spartan training ramps up intensity.

Portrait of Tammy Strobel

Spartan training ramps up intensity.

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This April, the hills of Hong Kong were echoing with shouts of “Aroo! Aroo! Aroo!” as its second Spartan sprint race took place in Kam Tim Country Park. This is weekend warrioring at its most warrior-like. The 6km course is dotted with 22 obstacles, 200 tonnes of mud and over 4,500 wannabe Spartans sporting tribal face paint, headbands and attitude. At 8.45am I was adrenalined-up at the start line, about to test my physical fitness, mental endurance and fighting spirit for the second time.

From the Beginning

The first Spartan launched to an unsuspecting Hong Kong in November 2016. I was eager to revisit my childhood memories of messing around on playground obstacles, albeit transformed into adult-size challenges with a fierce dose of competition thrown in. I signed up with my boyfriend, and due to a perfect storm of injury, travel and lack of focus, we were woefully out of shape as the event drew near. In a flash of inspiration we spent our pre-race week running up down-escalators and down up-escalators. Hilarious, but hardly efficient.

As a result, our 96-minute attempt at Spartan involved mostly walking between obstacles, reserving our energy for heaving ourselves over, through, under or around each one. We loved every minute, other than the 120 burpees we earned for the four we couldn’t manage. The two monkey bars – too fat and slippery, the rings too far apart – the spear throw (could they have been designed any worse?), and the sleek nylon rope climb all defeated us.

But we finished jubilantly and collapsed on the grass for the free beer, comparing war wounds and prowess (or lack of) in the sunshine, absorbing the highs of the Spartan tribe around us.

Extreme Racing

Everyone seemed to be in the same high-fiving, triumphant zone. Spartan is more casual than a triathlon and more fun than a multisport race. Along with the elements of surprise, mental challenge and physical exertion, you get to remember what it’s like to be covered in mud, just like being a kid again.

Personal trainer Andrew Cox at Joint Dynamics had several clients demand Spartan training and believes the emotional and even spiritual rewards of the post-race high outweigh the physical discomfort needed to achieve them. He also adds, “In a tech-driven, connection-deprived world, these events build community. When I wear a Spartan, Tough Mudder or Iron Man shirt (tattoo even) it speaks of my tribe – who I am, in part, and who I spend time with. Sit down for dinner with three or four friends who have completed an Iron Man event and you see the bond is solid.”

Spartan 2017 Training

Come April, I cautiously hoped for a more successful approach. The year started well with around 2kg of weight lost via diet and plenty of bootcamp, running and yoga. I joined one of personal trainer Camilla Fernstrom’s Spartan sessions, which included playground monkey bars, carrying heavy backpacks and tyre heaving and a short rope climb between bursts of cardio.

But as Spartan’s own trainings started and Hong Kong gyms launched special training packages, I fell victim to an excruciating three-week flu followed by three weeks of travel. Once well, I returned to running and yoga, and the occasional series of burpees, which are all easy to do on the road. But monkey bars, spear throwing and rope climbing weren’t easy to find in Bangkok and Luang Prabang.

Cox had counselled, “The best way to train for monkey bars, for example, is to use monkey bars; you get what you train for. Use monkey bars, and pull-up bars to incrementally develop the functional strength needed for these events.” Hmm.

While I lagged behind on my training schedule, my friend Natasha Jitander followed textbook training with Impakt HK’s Spartan sessions and trainers Nadir To and JB. She was already streets ahead of me with her usual routine of weights, mobility and strength training, plus boxing having just taken part in the White Collar Boxing event before Spartan.

“I trained for the Spartan race for about a month and a half, mainly to build stamina and learn the techniques of rope climbing and monkey bars,” she says. “It’s really not about how strong you are, but about your agility and technique.”

My Reading Room
My Reading Room
My Reading Room
Take Two

Once again undertrained, yet undeterred, I found myself at the start line. This time I was uninjured however, so feeling relatively ready for the challenge. My partner in muddy grime was my bootcamp buddy and super-fast runner Lindsey.

I was gung-ho over the obstacles, some familiar, some new, while Lindsey forced the running pace between them. A new obstacle called the Olympus was the first to take its toll on us. Then we hauled stone balls, shouldered sand bags and carried buckets of gravel. We scrambled over walls, under walls and under water. We speed-crawled through mud and under barbed wire. Still covered in mud, the monkey bars loomed. So wide a small hand won’t close around them, plus slippery from previous contenders, I gave it a shot but my upper body and grip strength fell far short. Later on, the rings were so far apart there was no way I could even take one reach. And the spear throw was another washout. We had done 120 burpees each already (30 per failed obstacle) and still had the rope climb to come.

A few days beforehand I’d had pointers from Billy Tam at the fabulously equipped The Warrior Academy. He dismissed the S-Wrap Marines method and taught me the BUD/S Navy Seals method; under one foot, over the other. Armed with the technique, and finding less slippery ropes than last year, I hauled and squeezed my way triumphantly to the top, hit the bell and added to my bruises with a shin burn on the way down. Who cared? I aced that rope climb!

“The monkey bars and the ropes are really hard if you don’t get the technique right, but as soon as you manage, it’s super easy,” agrees Jitander. (Well, I’m not sure I’d say super easy…) “The monkey bars took me one session to get the hang of and the rope climbing two sessions,” she adds. “On the actual race day I did the rope climbing but couldn’t do the monkey bars as they were too fat for my hands and way too far apart.”

My other favourite obstacle was the cargo net. I climbed fast up the first side, put both hands over the apex and grasped one of the horizontal straps on the other side, then forward rolled over the top, scooting down the other side as fast as possible. And just 15 yards from the cargo net was the finish. Lindsey and I had been perfect partners, each with a different strength and plenty of encouragement all the way through. Our time? An hour and 10 minutes. Aroo!

Jitander also loved her race, which she did with 25 people making up the Impakt HK team. “The feeling of doing it together, helping and encouraging each other was the best. It’s not every day you get to roll around in mud, climb walls and ropes and do it all with friends, helping each other and laughing non-stop along the way,” she says. “Each one of us completed the race and waited for each other to do every obstacle – the feeling of team spirit was amazing. We trained together, did the race together and then drank together. I would totally do it all over again!”

The next Spartan will take place in November 2017 and instead of a Sprint will be a Super – that’s 13–15km long and 24–29 obstacles. Venue to be confirmed. See you there!