by Steffen “Cookie” Cook
James Appleton’s accent cut through the press conference room like a shaft of bright light. “My background is in the UK Tough Guy competition.” He paused and smiled wryly, “I’m here because it’s tougher than Spartan Race.” With his last comment, he glanced at Spartan Race founder, Joe De Sena who chuckled.  The comment reflects his his deadpan British humor, rushing to the surface, and catching the pre-Vermont Beast press conference unaware. James Appleton lets a fleeting, impish grin dance across his lips before it’s lost again. Blink, and you would have missed it.

Appleton continues, “Spartan was kind enough to fly me out here on the Wednesday prior to the race, about 16 hours of travelling, to allow some time to adjust to the different time zones, so I’d feel right on the day. It was a great chance to get a feel for what was in store beforehand too. I’ve never raced a Spartan Race, let alone the Killington Beast, so it was good to put the landscape in my mind and prepare for what was in store.”

Ever the polite English gentleman, James deliberately makes no mention of his finish (placing 7th) ahead of many recognized and veteran names within the Spartan Race series. “It’s been a real honor to come and race against the guys here as a competitor from a totally separate race, and I’d like to personally thank the guys that helped make that happen – Scott, Robert, Carrie and obviously Joe. I hope that my involvement helped add to the race, in however small a way, and I’d love the chance to come back stronger, wiser, and faster. I’d like a podium finish next time around.”

Appleton has an incredible back story. Born in Manchester, England, but now living in London, he was the only elite competitor from the UK at the Vermont World Championships, but of many from across the world to have taken on the Beast. Something he was very excited about as the sport continues to grow.

“This sport is clearly growing, which is fantastic, and it’s not going to be a passing phase – there’s clearly huge interest, enjoyment and challenge from these races and the adventure that comes from having to really develop all-body strength, agility and endurance. That, and that I hope I did them proud in my first ever chance to represent my country in this new race – I learned a lot on the course, sometimes through making mistakes, and I’d love to come back with greater experience and understanding and apply that, see if I can’t do better than I managed this first time round.”

The three-time winner of the UK Tough Guy competition was keen to see the parallels and to test what he’s learned in England against what is now the biggest obstacle race championship in the world. Comparing the two, he sees parallels.

Photo courtesy of Scott Keneally

“They’re similar in so many ways, but ultimately it’s quite a different experience, at least to the Winter Tough Guy, which is my background in the UK. In terms of calories burned and elevation gained, the Spartan Beast is further and higher. That said, the site in the UK is a permanent one, so the obstacles there have been built over years and years and they’re pretty epic. But most of all it’s a temperature thing – the first year I won the UK Tough Guy I collapsed on the finish with severe hypothermia and spent four hours being slowly warmed back to life by medics. It takes you to such a level of physical destruction in such a short amount of time, and the electrocution side really kicks you in the teeth, that even for the best runners it’s a case of surviving to the finish, let alone racing. But the sense of comradeship, of sharing the experience with the other contenders, is very similar, and it’s a real family of people there, and it was awesome to see that same sense of loyalty and family with the Spartans at this series. That, and the journey each person goes through – you learn about yourself and your abilities, and always come away a stronger and better person for it – that’s a universal thing with obstacle racing and it’s such a huge part of why people come back time and time again.”

With Spartan Race experience under his belt, James will come back armed with better training next time. Pondering his plan of action, he says, “I’ll definitely be adding a lot more rope work to my training, both traverse type and climbing – both for the upper body development and also the grip strength, along with the technique of moving quickly across this challenge. I want to come back next year and nail that particular obstacle.”

Beyond the physical, Appleton remarked on the mental challenges he faced on the course. “I think the most mentally difficult obstacle was the gravel carry. That felt more like a Death Race task rather than a racing obstacle since there was a fair amount of luck involved – one small slip and your race was ruined, having to restart, refill the bucket and carry on, as opposed to just re-picking up something like a sandbag.”

The race involved suffering for all the competitors, for James, it was the newness of an obstacle he’d never faced. “On a personal level, the obstacle I suffered with the most was probably the Tyrolean Traverse, purely because I’d not come across something like that and the strength/technique/speed required to get across underneath was new to me. I didn’t get it right first time, and that was frustrating to deal with and the subsequent loss of time.”

With so many aspects of the race still fresh in his memory, he thinks back and that wry smile plays on his face again when he tries to pick his favorite moment. “It’s hard to pick a highlight for the whole weekend, there were so many different moments, people, and performances that I saw that were just incredible. But personally for me, on a slightly selfish note, it was being called up to the start line on behalf of my country right before the race – as the names of some of the best obstacle racers from all around the world were called. I took great pride in stepping up for the UK. In my opinion, that list of names and countries really showed how far this sport has come and will hopefully continue to go, and was a real benchmark for taking this sport forwards to new and exciting levels.”

But it’s his closing statements which prove that despite his only having done one race so far that prove that he quickly learned what Spartan Race is all about.

Congratulations to James and his 7th place finish.  We look forward to seeing him on more of our Spartan Race courses.  His parting thoughts are with those who he watched cross the finish line hours after his impressive 4 hour finish time.  “Switching from all the talk that comes in about who’s going to make top ten, I always feel that some of the truly hardcore people are those that are at the other end of the scale – the guys and girls out there for way longer than everyone else who take a much higher dose of pain and suffering.  I always have great respect for them and their mental determination to plug on despite the long hours out in the elements taking a beating – they take way more punishment than we do at the front.”

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