Tillsonburg’s Shannon Hulme learned to ‘expect the unexpected’ competing in Spartan Races, a popular obstacle race series.
“When you run on a road it’s simple and you know what to expect,” said Hulme. “But in a Spartan Race, you have know idea what to expect. The unknown is really what’s attractive in the sport. It’s for people who want to experience something different and fun.”
Even more important, he said, over the last two years he’s learned the importance of a healthy, active lifestyle.
Ranked 33rd world-wide in the 2012 Spartan Racing Series – that’s 33rd overall out of 120,000 racers – and currently 11th in the 2013 series, Hulme recently added a few sponsors, and is actively seeking sponsorship to stay competitive in the sport.
“It’s hard to figure out how best to do it,” said Hulme, a 30-year-old self-employed construction consultant, and a father of three kids, who competed in 28 races last year at 22 North American venues.
“I just got some sponsors this year, just this week I finalized things with a couple of them, and hopefully that will help.”
Currently his sponsors are INOV-8 Shoes, who gave him off-road shoes and energy gels, Hammer Nutrition, and KRONOBAR, a Canadian company based out of Montreal. He hopes to add more this season.
“As the sport’s growing we’re reaching a lot of people at the races. We have a Meet The Racers tent so people from the general public can talk to us. We can target a lot of different people.
“There is talk of creating a (TV) series and following the racers around. Probably this year it’s going to happen.”
Next month, Feb. 16, he will be racing in Nicaragua in the Fuego y Agua Survival Run – a 70-km extreme ultra-distance obstacle race on the island of Ometepe, home of two volcanoes (one of which is still active).
“The Fuego y Agua is going to be televised. I’m hoping to hear back from CBC about somebody filming up here then coming down to film some of the race.
“I met the race director in Vermont. He started in 2008 with ultra marathons – 25km, 50km, 100km. This year is the first for the Survival Run, which is running through the woods… plus obstacles. It’s by invite-only and there’s a maximum of 60 people.
“It’s similar, and a lot from Spartan are going to be there, but it’s also very much different.”
He doesn’t know exactly what to expect in Nicaragua.
“We have absolutely no idea, they won’t tell us a thing. Basically all we know is there’s… well, we don’t know anything except there’s an 800m swim. I think we go up the side of one volcano, I’m not sure. The other volcano, we actually go inside and apparently there’s water inside.”
Competitors have 18 hours to complete the course and earn the special four-part Fuego y Agua medal.
“That’s really one of the things that attracted me to this – I want the medal. I want all four pieces. It will be the hardest thing I’ve ever attempted and I’m quite nervous as to whether I can finish. The elite of the elite are doing this and there will be several people well beyond my capabilities. That just makes it all the more nerve-wracking.”
Hulme competed in his first Spartan Race in the Toronto area (Kelso Quarry Park in Milton) in 2011 with his brother-in-law, Bradley Davis. It was his first of three that year.
“It was a shorter race, so that was nice. I got through all the obstacles, but I failed the spear throw. If you fail an obstacle you have to do burpees – a pushup then jump up.
“I found it quite challenging and I wanted to improve my time, so I went back and trained a little harder. Three months later I went to Pennsylvania. That was by far the hardest thing I had attempted in my life because it’s straight up a black diamond ski hill (40 per cent slope)… a couple times.”
Davis, injured early in the 2012 season, was ‘support’ for Hulme.
“He helped me tremendously to get me where I am.”
The obstacle race was challenging, he said, but the kind of challenge that can be conquered.
“Anybody can do it,” Hulme stressed.
“It’s about challenging yourself. All the obstacles, if you can’t do it, you do the burpees. You might not get through it quickly, but anybody can do it. There’s no way somebody can’t finish if they want to finish.
“There’s a 68-year-old lady that finished it. There’s a few people that are tops in points – ahead of me – that are 50 year olds. The average age for females in the Top 10 was 36 years old.”
Every year Peak Races, parent company of Spartan Races, adds new venues, and eventually franchised into Canada. Canadian race sites have been chosen for proximity to urban centres – Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal and Calgary.
“Last year, I think we had four races in Eastern Canada, and this year I believe there’s seven. The American races are usually better, mainly because of the population. The Americans just had their first event at Fenway Park and that’s now going to be a trend, they’re going to have a Park series.
Hulme is one of about a dozen who competed in most of the Spartan circuit. He ranked third on the list, worldwide, for number of events.
“I haven’t met one person, in the whole series, that hasn’t been an incredible person. Every single person, almost, has become a great friend. I’ve never experienced that anywhere else. Everybody’s there to have a good time. Even running the course in a competitive heat, you’ll chat it up with somebody you’re competing against.”
Other popular obstacle races include Tough Mudder, Warrior Dash and Superhero Scramble.
“I’m going to do one (Tough Mudder), just so I can say I did one. But I don’t think it’s a good challenge – it’s not timed, you’re just competing against yourself.”
This weekend he hopes to compete in Miami at a Superhero Scramble.
Spartan Races typically begin at 8 a.m. with an ‘elite’ race for 300 people who want to do it competitively. Overall points are awarded, but there are also male/female and age categories.
“The rest of the day, it’s more for fun. You are timed and there are points, but it’s more for fun and the general public.”
The Spartan series’ standard obstacles usually include a cargo net climb, 6-8 foot walls you climb, barriers you go under, log hops, tractor pulls (dragging 50-lb rocks), and sandbag carry. The mud-pit barbwire crawl is one of their trademark events.
“Some of the mud pits are worse than others – some are probably 100m long.”
The fire jump is exactly that –jumping over a burning barrier.
“Basically that’s just for pictures,” Hulme smiled. “It’s a whole lot more daunting thinking about it, than doing it. It’s pretty easy to jump over. But they always have cameras set up there.”
At the end of the race, you confront the ‘gladiators,’ who are there to knock you down – in mud – with a jousting stick, a nod to the American Gladiators TV series.
“The gladiators try to stop you, which I thoroughly enjoy because you’re at the end of your race, beat, and there they are trying to take you out. And I go right at them.”
Hulme got to experience ‘the other side’ actually being a gladiator in South Carolina.
“Probably the best time I ever had at an event. Seeing the people finish, you’re almost cheering them on… then you take them out with what we call ‘the Q-tip.’”
The Spartan theme is drawn from both history and ‘Hoo-ah’ Hollywood, with the 2006 movie ‘300’ figuring prominently.
“That was kind of the inspiration for the whole race series and I refer back to it quite regularly. It’s motivating, the speech he gave. We also have a group of competitive racers called ‘The Elite 300.’”
Spartan races (Spartan Sprint, Spartan Super, Spartan Beast) generally range in distance from roughly 5-8 km, 10-13 km, and 18-22 km. They also have a 67 km race, but Hulme has not tackled the ‘Death Race’ yet.
“We got into this when my brother-in-law (Davis) and I were looking online for something to do. We thought it would be fun. Ever since then it’s been an addiction. I’ve met so many great people. And who doesn’t like playing in the mud, climbing ropes, and things like that?”
Hulme grew up in Tillsonburg, but did not have athletic background.
“No organized sports as a kid,” he said, shaking his head. “I did use have a bicycle. I tried a lot of different things but never stuck with things. Definitely I was not an athlete.
“I guess I’m just a late bloomer,” he laughed. “I’m just not one for team sports – I like to go at my own pace.”
He started working out in a gym about two years ago and considered racing, but he wasn’t interested in traditional distance running.
“They’re kind of boring. I actually did one Fun Run in Tillsonburg before I started all this. But I found it just… boring.”
Now he runs, of course, for training, but that’s just to keep active. Since June 2012, he’s been racing just about every other weekend, so time between races has been recovery.
“My training has been cut way back. Recently I started running a lot more, and weight training.”
With the Nicaragua survival race in mind, and the 800m swim, he wants to improve his speed in the water.
“George Papadakos just started training me in swimming,” said Hulme who had participated in Papadakos’ charity duathlon last fall. “I’m not a swimmer. We’re kind of figuring out how to make it work and get through the water. I’ve always been a scuba diver – I’ve done that since I was 13. I can get through the water with fins, but take them off and I’m very inefficient. And I’ve never even remotely attempted 800 metres.”
Adding that skill to his race repertoire, Hulme figures he will have to eventually try a new sport.
“Yes, I will try a triathlon at some point,” he nodded.
“In the fall, there was a weekend I didn’t have a race, and four days before a marathon I signed up. I ran it and finished it – didn’t finish strong, but I finished it.”