The Spartan Race returned once again to Chicago, but brought along some friends for the ride: the heat, mud & cast of Friday Night Lights. The bright sunny sky and 72 degree weather wasn’t a problem for the early morning runners and only pumped up the runners anxiously awaiting their turn. Spectators claimed their land on what they thought was the best place to view their competitors.
Off in the back, away from the peering eyes of the crowds, 4 more individuals were preparing for their run as well. Zach Gilford, Minka Kelly, Taylor Kitsch, & Aimee Teegarden, best known from the hit TV show Friday Night Lights were reunited to tackle the course together. For the past few weeks, they have teamed up with two of Spartans top competitors to prepare for the battle to come. Spartan Pro Team member Ryan Kent and Elite Obstacle Course Race competitor Rose Wetzel helped get the acting team ready for the course, then made sure to run it with them side by side on the day of the event. The whole thing was spawned from the minds of the marketing team at the Marriott Rewards. Yes, like the hotel. So here’s the sales pitch: If you become a member of the Marriott Rewards program, you’ll get 10-20% off your registration for any Spartan Race, receive discount pricing (15% off) for the closest Marriott to the race, free VIP bag check, $5 off coupon for Spartan Gear, free training tips and more. It’s free to sign up, and yes, you can sign up at any race. The program started this year with their first introduction down in Atlanta in March. On June 11th, the Marriott Rewards members had the chance to run the course with the cast of Friday Night Lights and it was fun to watch. I sat down with Zach and Minka prior to the race to see what their preparations were for the run.
For Zach, coming “home” to Illinois had it’s ups and downs. “I’ve not been in a Chicago summer in so long…it’s really humid and hot here, which won’t be fun for the race but the flatness will be very appreciated.” With temperatures working their way up to the mid 90’s, the course alone wasn’t the only challenge.
But that didn’t stop Minka from wanting to participate in the event either. When the Marriott Rewards reached out to her, she had two words for them. “It took me no time to answer. I was like: Hell Yes! I was excited.” What about it though made her want to do it? “The physicality of it. The training…I love this kind of stuff. I love adventure, I love getting dirty, I love challenging myself…I love seeing how far I can push myself to see what my body is capable of.”
“I remember back when we shot the pilot, Minka was definitely a girl who likes to get down and dirty.” Zach didn’t seem to have any doubts about her physical ability for the course. “She would go do boxing training while we were doing the pilot. She would come back and her knuckles would be all cut up.” As Spartans, we can all appreciate that. As for the training, that was entirely up to the Pros. “We do whatever he says. Tons of crazy stuff.”
“I had to do push ups on my finger tips,” Minka recalls, “which strengthens your grip strength…so I could pull myself up the rope. I’ve never been able to do that.” But it’s not all in the arms. Or as Zach says, “It’s all about the foothold, it makes a HUGE difference. Cause even if you’re strong enough to get yourself up there, by the time you need to hold yourself up and hit this bell…it’s difficult.”
“The monkey bars I know are going to be a challenge for me…carrying your own weight as a child playing on the monkey bars is very different from carrying your own weight as an adult.” Even though Minka is petite, she’s spot on. We used to do this sh*t for fun, now we have to train for it.
As for diet, how did that change? “I just was hungrier. I was working out so hard that I was just eating and eating and eating. But it was more guilt free, cause I know I earned this.”
But all of it was worth it for the two of them. Some say we’re crazy for doing these races, to that Minka says “You’re right. I’m okay with that. What’s fun about being not crazy?” THAT is what Spartans are all about. A little bit of fun, mixed with a little bit of crazy. But much like the Marriott Rewards program (see what I did there?) this is not an exclusive club. Anyone can join and, at least in the opinion of these Spartans, everyone should. “In training for this, I’ve learned, of course, there are things I can’t do. But once I push myself past that point of discomfort, that’s where you grow and that’s where you realize maybe I can do this. That feeling is addicting.”
“Just do it.” Zach’s statement is to the point. “Honestly, just give it a try. Worst case, you walk part of the course. But you can finish if you want to. Just work for it.”
The course itself didn’t hold back. Zach, Minka and thousands of other athletes took on the 8.5 mile journey with the sun beating down and getting hotter minute by minute. You’d seem to have no idea that the night before the area was hit by heavy rains (which redirected parking to an off-site location). That is, until the mud started taking over. Now, we all expect the mud to show up at some point (or at least we should, I mean seriously people, stop wearing your Air Jordans or Converse or no-grip running shoes or hiking boots, you only slow yourself and those behind you. I swear by my Icebugs!), but this mud seemed to drag on for miles. Shoes were abandoned, lines got long, and the sun was only getting worse.
It started to take its toll on all the runners, especially in the afternoon. The streams and creeks were a welcomed part of the course, but the Spartan organizers did a great job making sure everyone was hydrated. Water stations were placed every 1.5-2 miles and runners were allowed to fill up their hydration packs. God knows we needed it.
Unlike previous Spartan locations, this course was flatter. Normally, you’d have someone complaining that “it was too easy,” but that wasn’t the case for Chicago. The heat and mud made the flat terrain a welcome addition. Around mile 7, the heat really started to take it’s toll. More runners were walking, stopping, cramping or taking their time with the last few obstacles that seemed to be loaded up at the end. Atlas Carry, Rope Climb, Hercules Hoist, Spear Throw…and for some that meant a lot of burpees in a row in (did I mention) the heat.
With athletes pushing themselves to the limit both physically and mentally, the mid-day and afternoon waves had to deal with an unintended obstacle: spectators. It took the onlookers a little bit of time to realize, they could walk around the course and try and watch their loved ones mid-race. The negative was that they didn’t always stay out of the way. Runners would often turn a corner to find a small family or group of people right in the middle of the course runway, having to stop or dodge passers-by.
But at the end of the day, we’re all Spartans and we all know Spartan Law: No Retreat, No Surrender. And once again, Chicago proved that we’ve become a tight community of athletes that regardless of the ability, have grit. Oh, and to the cast of Friday Night Lights: You may not know it yet, but you’re addicted. Welcome to the family.
Photo Credits: as noted, Katie Leiva and Spartan Race
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