How to carry a sandbag

You might think this post is akin to a “Learn to Walk” program. As in: obvious.

Step 1: Pick it up
Step 2: Carry it

As those of us who raced in the 2014 Vermont Spartan World Championship Beast realized, there’s a little more to it. If you are in the OCR community, you probably saw your Facebook feed blow up with horror stories about just how terrible this obstacle was. Indeed, it really “made” the race. Elite women had to carry one 60 or so pound sandbag up, elite men had to carry TWO. Yeah. That crazy course designer Norm, and his crazy ideas.

Number one, I suggest you carry big old sandbags up and down mountains in training. But here are a few tips to help you make carrying the least effort (and back ache possible).

1. Practice proper sandbag clean form. If you only have one to carry, you’ll want to balance it on one or both shoulders. Of course, to carry it on your shoulders, you’ll need to get to your shoulders from the ground. Often easier said than done. In the video below, you’ll notice that I “lap” it or put it on my lap before throwing it up and getting under it on my shoulder. You’ll also notice that I throw it too far back and almost over my shoulder. You want it to land balanced so you don’t need to readjust. Good bad example hey?

2. Once it’s up there, do not set it down unless you have to. The hardest part (and biggest risk) comes from setting it down and cleaning it back up. On that note, before you pick it up or set it down, get as tight in your core and keep your spine neutral (do not hunch your back to lift or drop it). That being said, there are no penalties (outside of extra time) from setting the bag down. You are also permitted to drag it or carry it in your arms (which has been done successfully). You are not, however, allowed to let it roll downhill.

3. Keep your back flat as you walk with your abs in and try not to side bend excessively. You’re hoping someone could see you from far away and not see that your carrying a frick load of sand in a giant bag.

4. Step carefully if the bag is heavy. You might get away running downhill with the pancake sandbags but you’re not doing that with a big bad heavy-weight on your neck. On that note, keep a brisk steady pace… the sooner you’re done, the sooner you’re done!

5. Balance the bag but move it a bit. Little adjustments go a long way. I put it on one shoulder, then both (you have to look down to make this position comfortable), then a little more on the other. You get the picture. Just don’t make big adjustments that are likely to throw you off or ones that require you to grip the bag. You want it to rest on your shoulders. Even if your grip doesn’t feel tired at the time, you’ll want to save it for the obstacles to come (like rope climbs and monkey bars.)

6. When you’re racing, pick a good bag… even if it takes an extra second. The ones at the top of the pile will be easier to get but if it’s been raining out, they will probably have picked up some water weight. And if you’re wondering why there are two styles of bags, there will probably be ladies bags and mens bags so ask the volunteers if you’re unsure. Some times they’re pink… which makes things easy.

7. In Spartan Races, you cannot choose penalty burpees. You must complete this obstacle to finish. So get it done and get a move on.

Sandbag carry training:

Some more tips from a heaving sweaty person on a mountain:

Spartan World Championship Race Report

The first and most nerve wracking obstacle was the crazy car cue up the hill to the race. I finally made it out of the car with 15 minutes to spare… which gave me just enough time to get my package and hoof it up the hill to the start line. I could hear them doing the PreRace speech so I was thinking I hadn’t a minute to spare: and of course they put the start halfway up a hill.

Turns out it was the male elite striking off late. Phew.

Holy gosh was it freezing. The wind blew right through your soul. This was going to be a long, cold day.

The race started off with a big steep gnarly climb. In fact, the entire race was made up of big steep gnarly climbs, followed by big steep gnarly descents. The ground looked so soft and grassy. Looks sure can deceive. It’s hard, lumpy, rooty and rocky. Perfect conditions for rolled ankles and twisted knees. Go carefully.

The course was punctuated with nearly impossible obstacles and heavy carries to dull the monotony of climbing up, and going down a ski hill on terrible footing for hours on end.

A bucket brigade was the first major obstacle, just to get your back ready for a few hours of cramping.

A bunch more mucky climbing.

Which meant I was careful on the traverse wall since I had no desire to start my penalty burpees so early on.

The next obstacle was the infamous Tarzan swing. Swim through ice cold water to a rope latter, climb it to hit the first bell – and then swing across several short hanging ropes to hit a second bell before plunging in. At last years race, you continued across the water to the grassy side. I thought I’d be smart and pick the very last rope – about 50m out – and then have a shorter swim to shore after the big plunge.

Turns out, I’m not all that smart. Which might not surprise you if you’ve read any other of my race reports. The exit this year was back by the first rope. Duh. That’s a lot of unnecessary ugly swimming/hyperventilating.

Most major races have the male elites take off before the females elites. This works because male elites are generally much faster than female elites. At Spartan though, this is not the case. Which is fine… but then televised or not, it makes way more sense to start all the elites together in a Spartan race.

We had to run along the side of the trail on a skinny little rock path and I got stuck behind some male elites who were walking. Almost every male elite I passed would stop and move to the side (and give me some encouragement while they were at it) but there were a few very frustrating times where I was just stuck behind guys that couldn’t or didn’t get out of the way.

Of course, this isn’t their fault in the least. It’s just poor planning. You’re giving hundreds of guys a 15 minute head start on a course almost entirely comprised of technical single track and then releasing people who are going to start running into them two miles in. It must be super annoying on their part too, having to constantly jump off the trail.

A bunch more climbing.

Pretty tame tractor pull for the ladies, women elite pulled one, men pulled two. Hardest part was dodging the poor dudes pulling two.

A bunch more climbing.

My two new least favourite obstacles came next: the memorization and spear throw on a rope. Especially in that order.

I have number dyslexia. I can almost always remember numbers… but they almost always come out backwards (which apparently is loads of fun if you’re my husband). People were writing down their numbers with sharpies. I felt like I should stay true to the concept (ok, I didn’t bring a pen) so I did my best to memorize my number and hoofed off to the spear throw. There was some blow-you-over type wind there, so I waited for a somewhat less gusty moment and went for it. And then I realized that the rope was caught on my foot.

So burpees… ok… no problem.

Counting burpees and trying to remember a number sequence… that is a problem.

They were quite strict on burpee form, making sure that you’re right in front of the camera and hearing you count out loud if you’re in the top 25. I didn’t want to get penalized so I’m pretty sure I did a bunch of bonus ones. I love that they are working hard to standardize the burpees. That was a real issue and they’ve done a great job solving it.

A bunch more climbing… an inverted wall and another bucket brigade.

After a bunch more climbing, came the tire drag. Pulling a tractor tire on a rope up a bumpy slick hill is ridiculous. In the rare case that I didn’t pull myself down heaving on the rope, I had to throw my entire body at the ground to budge it. And I mean budge it. Every vigorous slam to the ground would net me about a foot. I finally got it to the top and then drug it back down. Two elite women had failed and done their burpees in the time it took me to finish that sucker -but I was mad at it and glad to have hauled it up the hill to show it who’s boss. Even though I still hated it. And was still mad. And would be mad for a while.

I’m not sure of the order of obstacles but there was also a pole hopping obstacle to a decently easy tree as balance beam over water bit that I failed. The posts were so far apart I’d have to had jumped with all my might and landed on a pole smaller than my foot. Yikes.

There was also the rig obstacle in there somewhere to emulate the American Ninja Warrior. It was rings to bars to square bar to ropes to rings that hung just off of the floor. The only direction we got was not to let our feet touch… which confused me greatly since the last set of rings were about two feet off of the floor. I later watched a video: you put your feet into the rings. That makes a lot of sense. Sense, I’m afraid I have very little of when I’m racing. So I bailed.

A bunch more climbing.

Oh the sandbag carry I was so looking forward to.

The women elite got off easy: we had to carry one heavy bag, the male elite had to drag two of those bad boys up. This is where the real carnage started. The last bucket carry had a bunch of people hunched over buckets, backs a spasming. The trail from there was littered with bodies writhing on the hard ground. I had to jump over a few. Although to make my callus act feel a little less inhumane, I would always ask if they were ok. And I’d make sure their pupils were still showing. Anyway, right, the horror show of a sandbag carry.

The hardest part was again probably dodging the guys who were dragging the two bags up – or worse, who had given up on the steepest nastiest slickest part and were just lying there sobbing with their bodies and bags covering the narrow trail. I had to put mine on my back and crawl over some of them. I felt bad for them. I did. But I also felt bad for me. I’m not sure then, and I’m not sure now, if my back hurt and I felt like I was going to barf or my back hurt so much that I felt like I was going to barf.

I fell on the way down and kinked my shoulder a bit. But, it also gave me the opportunity to change shoulders which was nice.

A bunch more climbing… and then a bunch more climbing. On the second bunch more climbing, you could hear the yelps and screams of people cramping on the last climb, and the desperate hollers of people at the sandbags. It was either funny, sad or unnerving. If I had any emotions left, I’m sure I’d have felt something like that.

The Tyrolean traverse was slicker, longer and bouncier than the one I have at home. I tried the over top method, which was super uncomfortable on my tummy, and then swung under and crawled the rest of the way like I usually do. I did find that I had to hook the back of my knee instead of my ankle when it started really bouncing so as to not risk a fall – although I can imagine that may cause some nasty hamstring cramps for some.

I had almost forgotten my numbers by the time I got to the memorization test. They started off coming out backwards but I was able to reroute them. Phew.

Always late in the game: the rope climb. I took a few seconds to find a somewhat dry rope and collect myself and nailed it. I then decided to let go early and landed on my bum in the mud. Awesome. Looking cool as always.

Another spear throw, 30 more burpees.

The eight foot wall was up a hill and I was growing tired but I managed to heave my sorry butt over it.

An extra rocky barbed wire pit came next. I remarked that they seem to get longer, rockier and sharper every race. I then took some barbed wire to the forehead. Yup, definitely sharper.

Some rolling mud with a dunk tank came before a pole traverse complete with an extra thick, extra long, extra muddy pole. And with ensured wet hands! Uck.

Joe Desena was there telling us, “just a little over 2 miles!”

That would have been nice.

But the last volunteer at the barb wire had told us that we had less than a mile. I guess the problem was not in how far we had gone but the fact that the course was actually 15 miles, not 13.

We all had a good “laugh” about that.

I came into the Herculean hoist ready to crush it and ended up crashing it. Somehow I thought they’d make it as heavy as that darn tire pull (I was still angry at it’s existence). It was so light in comparison that I ended up heaving myself at the floor. And that my friends, is why we love to do very hard things: perspective.

The monkey bars were insane. Thick bars, really far apart – and they went up.

“Less than half a mile left!” – several people yelled. I almost believed them. I wanted to believe them. But I took another gel. The other issue is always: 800m of what?

Oh – surprise! Another hill climb!

I stumbled up, like a dirty drunk in torn spandex.

Some guy tore past me on the downhill. I kept on plodding, hoping my knees and ankles wouldn’t snap. It took me until I was sure there was no barriers between me and the fire to open up my stride. Spartan, I think you and I have trust issues.

I was pretty darn impressed with the course marking though. Clear as day.

I’m hoping the Sun Peaks UltraBeast next weekend is a little less insane but I do feel like I could have kept going out there today.

It was nice to get out there with athletes at the top of this sport from so many different countries. For that, 17th place ain’t half bad. I can do better though. And I hope to.

* the order of obstacles are only a guesstimate and I may have forgotten half. But it went down something like that.ments