A man in a flowing red robe and whatlooks like an ancient bronze breastplate screams "Aroo!" at the 100 of so anxious men and women in the middle of a rocky quarry. Along with the rest of the adrenaline-stoked horde, I scream it back, gutturally and with glee. "Aroo!"
Somehow, yelling it manages to be simultaneously ridiculous and deadly serious. Either way, I am ready to run the gauntlet. It's this mix of silly and strenuous, the fun and the fearful, that defines Spartan Race, an increasingly popular series of obstacle races attracting massive numbers of people around North America and Britain.
"The best way I [can]describe it is an element of Wipeout meets 300 with hints of Death Race," says Selica Sevigny, referring to the Japanese game show Wipeout that sees people trounced by wacky obstacles, the movie starring Gerald Butler about Spartans doing battle, as well as one of the world's most gruelling obstacle races. "You put that together and you've got Spartan Race," says Ms. Sevigny, a native Montrealer who founded Spartan Race Inc. with her husband and fellow endurance athlete, Richard Lee, in 2005.
In their races, Ms. Sevigny and Mr. Lee put participants through a series of intense tasks, from crawling through mud under barbed wire to throwing spears at targets. It's a peculiar activity, yet more and more people are eager to do it. Last year, 25,000 people competed in Spartan Race events in Canada, the U.S. and U.K.; this year, more than three times as many competitors are expected to participate in the company's events. Not all of them are men in their prime trying to prove their mettle. In fact, the gender split is about 60-40, men to women, Ms. Sevigny says: The oldest women to ever finish a Spartan Race event was 68; the oldest man was 67.
Other companies are seizing on the trend by staging similar events across Canada, including Warrior Dash and Tough Mudder.
Unlike a marathon or triathlon, where you generally know what's ahead of you, these races are totally unpredictable. "We've become very comfortable in our lives. We go to work, we come home and watch TV," Ms. Sevigny says. "Yeah, [the race]is fun, it's muddy, but there is a primal aspect to it."
There's also something about the races that reminds you of the giddy excitement of play days back when you were in grade school. As Ms. Sevigny acknowledges, part of the draw is "getting back to being kids, being in the mud and playing and just being outdoors."
Every Spartan Race includes mud, fire and water, although the company keeps many obstacles secret so that no one can train for them.
"We do keep certain elements of the course secret because it's kind of like a metaphor for life - no one really gives you the map, you have to adapt as you go along," Ms. Sevigny says.
Last month, the five-km race in Milton, Ont., attracted about 2,000 participants who, among other challenges, willingly climbed a giant pile of rocks, lugged car tires up and down a hill, jumped over a fire pit and shimmied under barbed wire to reach the finish line.
"It's designed for everyone to finish. It's fun, it's challenging. Everyone will find something that they struggle with, but they cross that finish line feeling amazing about themselves," Ms. Sevigny says.
The company also hosts Super Spartans, with courses longer than 12 km. Its most extreme event is the Spartan Death Race, a 48-hour test of endurance that's "designed to break you," Ms. Sevigny says. Obstacles in past races have included standing in a ice-cold pond for half an hour and then having to chug a gallon of milk, or shooting three targets with a handgun and having to run five kilometres if you miss. (The death races have a 10-per-cent completion rate.)
While no one type of athlete can expect to dominate Spartan Races, Ms. Sevigny says it helps to have good running skills and decent upper body strength, which comes in handy when you have to scale a rope wall or pull yourself up and over an eight-foot high wooden barrier.
Although the Spartan Sprint event boasts a 100-per-cent completion rate, it is still exhausting, especially when you have to drop and do 30 burpees (a punishing exercise where you drop to a squat position, kick your feet back and do a push-up and then leap up as high as possible) if you can't complete an obstacle. Even the fittest people were slowed down at the Milton event when they failed to hit a target with a spear. I had to drop and do my own burpee penance after failing miserably to climb a rope, a reminder of how embarrassing it was back in gym class.
At the Milton event, the second-to-last obstacle required racers to climb a rope barrier and then slide down a slippery incline wall, which sent many of us crashing into the dirt. We picked ourselves up and then ran toward two large men bashing contestants with padded jousting batons. In any other context, most people would run the other way. But almost everyone seemed to smile.
Perhaps it was because we started the race as regular people, and finished as Spartans.
"It's really about crossing that finish line as a different person," Ms. Sevigny says.
Looking for a dirty challenge? Thinking about testing your physical strength? Maybe you just want to see what this whole phenomenon is about. If so, there's still several high-intensity obstacle races left on this year's event calendar.
AUG. 20: WinSport Park, Calgary
JULY 9: Horseshoe Resort, Barrie, Ont.
AUG. 6: Whistler-Blackcomb, B.C.