Commentary

First Spartan Race true test of will

Originally Published: June 6, 2010
By Brandon Sneed | Special to Page 2

Matt Medeiros emerged from the knee-deep mud, ran down a trail through trees and then up a hill, moving with the urgency of a man being chased -- which he was.

On the other side awaited a garden of barbed wire suspended no more than a foot and a half above the ground. Medeiros scurried beneath it and, in his hurry, slashed open his shoulder. No time to worry about the blood; he kept moving, surging ahead, next plunging through a tunnel filled with more mud.

A few minutes later, Medeiros scaled a cargo net, the last of the dozen obstacles, then crossed a finish line to cheers and roars.

It was May 16, 2010, in Burlington, Vt. He was exhausted, filthy and bleeding, but Medeiros had just won the first-ever Spartan Race.


"This is Sparta!"

Thus roared Gerard Butler, as King Leonidas, in the iconic scene of "300," the fictionalized retelling of the Spartan king's waging of an epic battle against invading Persians at the Pass of Thermopylae in 480 B.C. Out of the hearts of men woeful over the loss of bygone eras such as those, the Spartan Race was born.

At youmaydie.com, there's a 10-minute New York Times documentary about the Death Race, a 12- to 36-hour ordeal created by Joe Desena a few years ago.

"Ninety-nine percent of the population would like to talk about it, would like to watch it, but would never do it," said Desena of the Death Race. "So we felt, let's put on a 30-40 minute mini Death Race that's doable for the rest of the population."

By "we," Desena, an event organizer from Vermont, means his crew: endurance athlete and British Royal Marine Richard Lee, adventure sports enthusiast and event organization veteran Brian Duncanson, and Canadian Selica Sevigny, one of only three women ever to finish the Death Race.

"If you do something like this, even for a couple of hours, it really puts life in perspective," said Lee, who won the Death Race in 2009. "You never feel more alive. You never know what's going to happen next."

That unpredictability is why Desena took up adventure sports in 2000, and it is something he craves.

"Whenever people are confronted with something that is not 'normal,' like their iPod not working or their coffee's not hot or there's a biker in the road, they flip out," Desena said, "And we think that flipping out is ridiculous. Especially when you think back to the thousands of years humans had to live with 'real' problems. We forget that. So we want to present you with these 'real' problems again, in a way. You might not care anymore after one of these races that it's a little cold out, or that your heat doesn't work, or that your iPod is broken."

The attention the race has garnered since Desena and company began talking about it the week after Christmas has been remarkable. "I thought we were kind of crazy, thinking we were going to be able to pull off something like this on such short notice," Duncanson said.

Since spartanrace.com launched in February 2010, the site has collected a quarter-million views. The Facebook fan page, created not long thereafter, already has more than 10,000 fans.

About 500 people participated in the first Spartan Race, and another 25,000 are expected throughout the seven more scheduled this year. Four races will be held outside the United States: two in Canada and two in the United Kingdom.


Medeiros, a 24-year-old high school track coach from Saranac, N.Y., learned about the race from one of his athletes. After deliberating for two-and-a-half weeks, Medeiros signed up the Wednesday before the race.

"I had no idea what I was getting into," he recalled. "I didn't want to risk injuring myself."

The race consisted of nine semifinal heats followed by one final in which the top 10 percent from each semifinal heat competed. While waiting his turn as part of the fourth heat, Medeiros watched ambulances blare in and out of the area. Rumors began circulating.

Someone had a heart attack. Someone broke both legs. Someone nearly drowned.

Oh boy, Medeiros thought. Am I going to make it through this?

In Burlington, participants raced two laps around a 1.6-mile course filled with treacherous terrain such as log-strewn creeks, mud trenches and three-foot walls of fire, plus obstacles such as spear throws, angry gladiators, barbed wire, mud pits and greased walls.

Medeiros survived, finishing in 32 minutes, 37 seconds.

As it turned out, nobody actually drowned or suffered a heart attack. There were some broken ribs and fingers and a badly sliced leg, but such injuries are inevitable, and a small army of medics was on standby.

"With a little preparation and a little training, anybody can get through it," Duncanson said.

The final was one lap, champion determined by whoever crossed the finish line first. Medeiros, a veteran steeplechase runner who's 6-foot-4 and 160 pounds, bolted ahead, cleared the wall of fire with ease and held his lead the rest of the way.

An hour later, the awards ceremony was held. A woman wearing a warrior outfit bowed to Medeiros, then presented him an authentic Spartan warrior's helmet, the race's gold medal. He shed his glasses and hat and pulled it on as the crowd honored him by chanting as Leonidas' soldiers had: "Ahhh-oooh! Ahhh-oooh! Ahhh-oooh!"

He arrived back home in Saranac around 5:30 p.m. By 6:00, he had passed out.

The next day, he took his helmet to practice. Naturally, all his guys begged to wear it. Medeiros laughed.

"No way," he said. "You want to wear it? You have to earn it."

Brandon Sneed is a freelance journalist and can be reached at bmsneed@gmail.com