‘A brutal 50 km race, with obstacles. I felt a strange urge to give it a shot’

A few months ago I came home from work to find my roommates chatting in the living room. “Hey Conor, we are thinking of doing this race next summer. It’s hard but it should be good craic!

Biggest understatement I’ve ever heard.

Spartan races are considered by endurance runners to be some of the toughest you can do. At a staggering 50 km – including 60 brutal obstacles – the Ultra Spartan is the highest level of difficulty. Not only do they want to give this behemoth a try, but they plan to do so in June in Andorra – yes, this mountainous country nestled in the Pyrenees, littered with steep ski slopes.

Why Andorra? Of course, you can run this race on flatter ground like in the south of England; but with pints in Andorra at around €2 a pop, there’s no competition.

A sane person would bail at the mention of this breed. And I almost did. But I felt a strange urge to give it a shot. Something inside me wanted an exercise goal to work towards.

Why not? Sounds like a fun bonding experience, right?

To the right?

I’ve never attempted anything remotely like this. While I was quite active as a kid, at 23 I’m not really on top of my game anymore. I don’t know what photo of me will be used for this column, but rest assured I’m no fitness guru flaunting a six-pack and running shirtless all the time. I still have my confinement belly!

Before that the most I had ever run was probably 5km in one go. Maybe 10km once or twice. So facing 50km over steep terrain at high altitude and obstacles designed to make you fail miserably?

Did I mention that if you are beaten by an obstacle, the punishment is 30 burpees?

If at this point you are worried about my health, don’t worry, my mother is also on your side. She’s a nurse and she never fails to tell me it’s a stupid idea. So I try to be careful.

Like many others, I started running during the pandemic. The short 3km runs were easy, refreshing and a good chance to get out. Accelerating to 50km was never going to be easy, but training had to start immediately.

Conor trains with his friends Johann Hedlund and Jack Murphy (right). Photography: Dara MacDonail

Our training started about eight months after the big day – a little less if you take into account the three weeks of “shrinking” beforehand, when athletes have to stop most of their activities to prepare their bodies. 15k runs around Phoenix Park in the dark of winter were a good place to start. My two American housemates and I (only Americans would have such an idea) tried running every week or so until Christmas, desperately trying to avoid the herd of deer near the papal cross at night. Supplementing that with some do-at-home fitness cards I bought from a charity shop and a membership to my local gym, everything was going according to plan.

My routine was working; my physical condition was improving, what could stop me now?

Like everything in the past two years, Covid has ruined the fun. I caught the virus alongside half the country in January and although the symptoms were pretty bad for a few days, what happened next was much worse.

About a week after reentering society, long after beating the plague, I decided to hit the gym. Foolishly, I jumped into a class called “Fat Burner”.

“Aha! ” I was thinking. “I have belly fat rolls to burn after a few weeks sitting on my ass.”

Bad idea.

My muscles were raw. The energy I once had vanished. I was completely out of breath within minutes. I felt pain in places I had never felt before and was afraid that this virus had delayed my progress.

The next day I was in agony. Piercing muscle pains along my legs prevented me from finding a comfortable sitting position – all day. Despite the pain, I put pressure on myself to resume my training. “I have a schedule to keep to,” I thought. A 10 minute run a few days later really had me worried. Searing muscle pains with every step knocked me out for more than a week, and every aching step seemed to drag me away from the mountains of Andorra. I pushed myself too hard.

Before that, I was quite cautious before catching Covid, mainly out of fear of spreading the virus to more vulnerable people around me. Now I feel an extra layer of terror. Getting Covid again would drive the nail in the coffin of my Spartan odyssey and potentially ruin my body once again.

My doctor says these long term side effects are normal and not necessarily long covid. The virus can cause severe damage to muscles which will take time to repair. Although it’s hard to know when I’ll recover, other people I’ve spoken to said they were back to their previous fitness level in just over a month. For me, there is no way of knowing.

My body is recovering, slowly but surely, and my muscles are regaining their strength. If there’s one piece of advice I would give to young, healthy people like me: even if the pandemic is “over” or whatever, the virus can still really mess you up. Don’t take it lightly.

This supermarathon I’m dumb enough to train for is right around the corner. Summer is only a few months away. I can’t say how prepared I will be for the unforgiving Pyrenees, but I will definitely give it a try.

Stay tuned . . .

Sign up for one of Get started in the Irish Times programs (it’s free!).
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Beginner course: A course to go from inactivity to running for 30 minutes.
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Good luck!

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