Transcript of the Tough Girl Podcast with Rachel Gibson - Her Journey to the Spartan World Champions



Hello and welcome to the Tough Girl podcast which is all about motivating and inspiring you. I'm your host, Sarah Williams.

Today we're going to be talking to Rachel Gibson who has just recently attended the Spartan World Championships.

Hi Rach, how are you?

Rachel Gibson:

I'm good, Sarah. How are you?

Sarah Williams:

I'm fantastic. Really excited to get you on the podcast. Can you just tell our listeners just a little bit more about you?

Rachel Gibson:

Absolutely. I'm Rachel Gibson, I'm thirty-six. I live on the Wirral. I'm a dentist which, yeah, I basically work in a practice in Birkenhead. I'm a part time partner there and I'm a trainer as well so I train junior dentists. I'm also married, I'm a mother of two young boys. I've got two little boys who are age two and four. Yeah, I love training as well so I try to mix all that in with my life and keeping busy.

Sarah Williams:

Fantastic. Let's hear about the story of how you got to the Spartan Wold Championships. How did it all start for you?

Rachel Gibson:

Well basically I've always been really into the sport. I've always done all sorts of stuff. After I had my boys I did a quite a lot of triathlons and things before I had the boys. It was trying to work out what I wanted to get back into when I started training again after having had Alie , my second child.

Training at Underground Training Station there was one of the trainers there, Lisa, who was quite into it and I know that she was training me and she competed at Spartan World, sorry, the Spartan Manchester race the year before and told me all about it. It sounded brilliant and sounded like the kind of thing I enjoyed and kind of played to my strength.

Quite fancied it and thought I'd give it a go. Signed up to a few of those kind of things like Tough Mudder and stuff. Basically decided that Spartan Sprint was going to be the race I do because it suited kind of the way I trained and my strengths.

Sarah Williams:

Just quickly, what is the Spartan Sprint? What's the distance involved in that?

Rachel Gibson:

Okay, well they've got three categories in Spartan. Sprint is the shortest one. It's basically, the course is usually about five or six K. The one I did was in total about six and a half K and there's usually between fifteen and twenty obstacles.

Sarah Williams:

What type of obstacles are there?

Rachel Gibson:

Okay, there's a variety. The sprint that I did there's pretty much always a spear throw. That's pretty much classic for Spartan which sounds easy but actually really isn't.

There's quite often things like monkey bars. There's pretty much always big cargo nets that you've got to climb over. You know, crawling under barbed wire. That's pretty standard as well. Barbed wire that's usually about twelve inches off the ground, crawling under that and make sure you don't kind of cut yourself to ribbons whilst you're doing it.

Rope climbs. There's what? Like a thirty foot rope you've got to climb to the top of, ring a bell, and come back down again. That kind of thing.

Sarah Williams:

Which ones do you like the most?

Rachel Gibson:

I love the rope climb. That's something that I'd like to think I'm quite good at. For me, that's relatively easy. There's lots of ones that I don't like quite so much.

Sarah Williams:

Which ones are your nemesis, then?

Rachel Gibson:

Well, in the sprint - touchwood, there weren't really any, too much. Although, having said that if you fail any obstacle because I did fail the spear throw which I said was a lot harder than it sounds, you have to do thirty marine burpees. The proper full burpees, which are quite challenging so it's a good incentive to try and get the obstacle done as best you can.

Sarah Williams:

You talk about the spear throw, is that basically like the javelin?

Rachel Gibson:

Pretty much, yeah. Although, I mean, it's probably, I don't know, maybe thirty yards away from you. It's not that far away. You've got to aim it at this literally like a small hay bale. If you don't get it into the hay bale and actually stick there. So, even if you get it in and it falls out it's classed as a fail and you've still got to do thirty burpees. It, as I said, it sounds a lot easier than it actually is. That's also on a day to day basis quite hard.

Sarah Williams:

With the rope climb, what are your tops tips with climbing ropes?

Rachel Gibson:

Climbing ropes. To be honest it's all about the technique.

Obviously having a bit upper body strength helps. So, doing a bit of stuff to improve your upper body strength definitely makes a difference. It's all about technique.

You've just got to get somebody who knows how to do it to show you kind of the way of wrapping your foot around it and kind of getting your two feet on top of each other so you have a firm basis, basically, to then be able to pull yourself up from. That's all there is.

Sarah Williams:

The Manchester Spartan Sprint race, you've signed up for it. Were you going into this race with sort of any expectations about getting a place? Were you going in it to win or were you just doing it purely for fun?

Rachel Gibson:

I'd be lying if I said I was doing it for fun. I was doing it partly for that but I'm quite competitive and because I'd been training with Lisa, I was quite keen to kind of try and roughly try and keep up with her at least. That was my aim.

So, yes I was kind of going into it hoping to do quite well. Never expected to certainly not win. I didn't expect to place either. I hoped I'd probably come at least top ten. I was hoping for that. Then when I came in third I was really, well, really pleasantly surprised. I was really chuffed.

Sarah Williams:

That's absolutely fantastic.

Sarah Williams:

What was the highlight from that, from the Manchester Spartan Sprint race?

Rachel Gibson:

To be honest the whole atmosphere is amazing. People kind of really encourage you on. Really good team event. Even though everyone's kind of competing against each other, everyone's also really supporting each other and getting behind each other. Kind of encouraging each other on, that kind of thing. That was really, really nice. Just kind of at the end the main thing was once I realized I finished third, because I didn't even realize I had I was so focused on kind of going as fast as I could I didn't even know I was third until they told me at the end.

I was just, I was really, really chuffed. I felt like I had achieved something I'd always felt like something I was hopefully capable of but never quite got there before. I was just really, really chuffed.

Sarah Williams:

You placed in that event, what did that actually mean?

Rachel Gibson:

Placing, basically if you place in an event, so come in top three, you get a Spartan coin. Being a coin holder means that you then qualify for the Spartan World Championships which takes place, I think it takes place annually. I think this year's the second time ever, but I imagine it's going to be an annual event from the way they've talked about it.

Sarah Williams:

You've got your Spartan coin. You've been invited along to the Spartan World Championships.

Rachel Gibson:

Yup.

Sarah Williams:

How long did you have between your race in Manchester and the World Championships?

Rachel Gibson:

The race in Manchester was on the fourth of July and the World Championship race is on the fourth of October. I didn't actually realize it straight after I'd finished the Manchester race that I'd qualified. I heard whispers of it but I thought that was maybe just a rumor.

Then I got an email from Spartan. I think that was about seven weeks before the World Championships just saying, "Congratulations. You've qualified. We'd officially like to invite you to come and compete in Lake Tahoe for the World Championships."

Seven weeks pretty much bang on.

I had to pay for my own flight but then they basically paid for most of the stuff once I was there. They paid for my accommodation, like breakfast. Like a B and B basis type thing. They put us up in the Olympic Village because it was in Squaw Valley where the winter Olympics was held in 1960 I think it was. They paid for accommodation and breakfast and they also paid for our race entry and our insurance. That kind of thing. They sponsored us with a load of clothing and stuff as well.

Sarah Williams:

Seven weeks to prepare, what did you do?

Rachel Gibson:

Well, I had a bit of a nasty shock. I did a lot of preparation as I had for the original Manchester Sprint but five weeks before hand read the fine print which I had neglected to do originally and found out that everyone who qualified for the World Championship had to do a Beast race which basically is normally between twelve and fourteen miles with usually about forty obstacles.

That's obviously a very different type of race than the one that I qualified for. That kind of gave me a bit of a shock because I'm not massively into endurance stuff.

I had to change what I did a little bit. I started doing some more personal training sessions with Stu, my trainer at the gym and he had, again, me doing more kind of high intensity but endurance related stuff as well. Kind of reduced recovery time.

I was just trying to get out each week just trying to greatly increase my running distance, basically which was quite challenging in such a short period of time. I had a good motivational point because obviously I knew I had to do it.

Sarah Williams:

The Spartan World Championship was going to be a Beast race?

Rachel Gibson:

Absolutely. Everyone who qualified for the championship. You didn't qualify to do the race that you had qualified from which is what I originally anticipated it would be. It was anyone who qualified from any of the race distances had to do the Beast which was the World Championship race.

Sarah Williams:

You obviously you've got your job, you've got your two young children as well and you're trying to increase your training in relation to this. How did you fit it all in? Have you got any sort of advice or tips about how other women and mothers can do that?

Rachel Gibson:

Yeah, you've got to want to do it. I'm not going to lie, it is really challenging trying to juggle all of it. I absolutely love it so I was able to kind of motivate myself in that way. I think having the encouragement and support of your family is really important because they've kind of got to help you a little bit with things like childcare and stuff.

To be honest it's just about being organized, I think. I was trying to, anytime I'd have an hour, hour and a half where I knew the boys would maybe be at nursery, I had to finish work a bit early or something like that, I'd just utilize that time when it came. As I said, just trying to be organized and my husband's really supportive in that way. When he was around he'd give me an hour and a half here and there to go do a bit of training. Probably about five times a week I was getting to train and I just had to plan it in ahead of time to make sure it was protected time.

Sarah Williams:

That's really good advice.

A bit of a shock to the system, going to be doing the Beast race over in America. Talk us through what happened when you got over to the states.

Rachel Gibson:

Okay, so we flew out on a Wednesday. It was a really long journey, just about twenty-six hours to get there door to door so we were pretty tired. Then when we were there it was in Squaw Valley which is on Lake Tahoe which is absolutely beautiful. We were really lucky to have a couple days of sight seeing and stuff and seeing the area.

The Spartan race itself has completely taken over the whole Olympic Village so it's just like a big, almost like a festival atmosphere. There were Spartan tents everywhere and there were the flags from the different nations who were competing. Great big flags that were bigger than I was all over the place which was really, really exciting. It kind of made it feel quite real. They had different events on things, kind of introduction events and basically talking you through the course and advice and that kind of stuff.

Then the actual race was on a Saturday so we started really, really early on the Saturday morning. I think I started about quarter to eight, something like that. That in itself was quite hard as well because it was obviously being an Olympic ski resort it was very, very cold first thing because it was October. To prepare for that and juggle the layers and that kind of thing as well was difficult.

Sarah Williams:

You said about at least forty obstacles. Were these obstacles that you could prepare for in advance? Did you know what they were going to be or was the course a complete surprise?

Rachel Gibson:

Complete surprise. They've never done the course before anyway because it's only the second World Championship that they've done and it was the first time at this site. In that sense there was no kind of, you couldn't look up on YouTube and find out to get a heads up. It did kind of keep it a surprise as well. So, even until the morning I didn't know what the majority of the obstacles were going to be. I didn't even know for sure how long the race was going to be until the day before and then I found out it was just shy of fifteen miles. A little bit of a shock as well.

You go in having a vague idea. There's always a spear throw, there's pretty much always a rope climb, that kind of thing. We were told as well there was going to be a swim which I was a bit shocked about because I'm not a great swimmer and there wasn't one in the race that I was qualified from. I wasn't quite sure about that.

Sarah Williams:

What were your fears while you were on the start line or just before the race? Can you try and describe your emotions?

Rachel Gibson:

Yeah, it was a definite mixture of nervous excitement. I was anxious because I had never done anything like this length before.

To be honest I was nervous because I was there representing my country which, again, not something I've done before. I didn't want kind of ... Sounds silly I suppose, but I didn't want to let anyone down or make it seem like I didn't deserve to be there.

I wanted to prove myself and I wanted to do as best I could because of what I was there for. I was also just really excited because of what it meant and being part of this huge international event and wanting to kind of see what I could do and challenge myself. It was a combination of excitement and nerves.

Sarah Williams:

Awesome. How did they start it? With a big clang or was there a Spartan roar?

Rachel Gibson:

You know what? I can't remember. They basically the Spartan kind of, they've got a Spartan chant I suppose and it's literally "Ah-oh!" Like that. They kind of build you up a little bit before hand and they say, "Who are you?!" We shout, "We are Spartan!" The you have to do "Ah-oh, ah-oh!" a bit like with your fist in the air. You have to do that a few times. They kind of get people fired up like that. Certainly build it with that.

Sarah Williams:

Can you remember how many people were racing? Were you done in, was it like a hundred girth at a time or was it just like a thousand of you and off you go?

Rachel Gibson:

No. They basically had waves all day, but only ... There was basically all weekend there was about ten thousand people entering the race. However, there were only I think roughly three hundred men and three hundred women who had qualified and they were doing waves of about three hundred.

They did the men's championship race first. They went off at half seven, quarter eight. Something like that. Then they did the women's championship race which started about fifteen minutes after them.

After that it was just loads and loads of open waves of about three hundred people. Other people could come and pay to race the same course on the same weekend. They just weren't involved in the actual championship.

Sarah Williams:

Got you. Talk us through the race, then. What were your highlights from it?

Rachel Gibson:

Again, the team atmosphere. Even though it's not a team and everyone very much was there to do the best they could as an individual and you can't help each other over any obstacles. If you're in the elite you basically get disqualified if you're seen being helped.

As I said I loved the rope climb. For me, I find that relatively easy so that was quite good. I felt like I was able to kind of get ahead a little bit there. It was beautiful. It was up in the mountains and stuff which was good because it kind of gave you a visual distraction because it was very, very challenging. It was altitude, it went up to about ten thousand feet so the air was noticeably thinner and that was really challenging. Having beautiful scenery definitely helped.

Sarah Williams:

Which bits were you thinking, "Oh my goodness, this is a real challenge."?

Rachel Gibson:

Oh god, I was thinking that for most of it, Sarah. Okay, well the first probably seven miles roughly it was pretty much up hill and it wasn't just a gentle incline. It was, at times, very, very steep. Almost scrambling. Honestly, pretty much within half a mile I was thinking, "Flipping heck, this is pretty hard work."

All the obstacles as well were significantly harder than they'd been in Manchester. The organizer said to us at the beginning, "Look, it's by far the hardest course we've ever done because it needs to stand up to it's name. This is a world championship course and it needs to really represent that."

All the obstacles were really challenging and the actual terrain was challenging. As I said the inclines were challenging, the distance was challenging. So, the whole thing was really, really hard. It was amazing, though. There were probably two main, well three main obstacles that were really horrific in my eyes.

Sarah Williams:

Talk us through those three main obstacles.

Rachel Gibson:

Okay, well the first one which was by far the worst was the swim, which, again, apparently if you're in the open waves you didn't have to do that, but the elites had to do it. It was in a mountain lake with an altitude of about seven and a half thousand feet. They pre-warned us about the temperature of it but it was just like nothing I've ever experienced. I can completely understand now why people, if they fall under ice, how they just, they stand no chance. It was that cold.

We got into it and within I'd say ten seconds it just felt like vise was on my chest and my body just felt like it didn't belong to me, basically. No matter how hard I tried I couldn't get my breath. I've never had a panic attack or anything like that before, but it almost felt like that because I just, I physically couldn't breathe. Everyone around me was the same. I could hear people gasping for breath and really struggling. That was very, very hard. It was about four hundred meters that we had to cover, so it was a reasonable distance. That was just a nightmare.

Anyway, we came out of that and we were so, so cold then you had to carry on and loads and loads of other obstacles with your body shaking and not being able to feel any of your limbs. That made that much more challenging. That was definitely the hardest part for me.

Sarah Williams:

Sounds horrendous.

Rachel Gibson:

It was. As I said, I've never experienced anything like it before but it was just mind boggling what an impact it had on your body.

Sarah Williams:

I did a race called Tough Guy which is in Wolverhampton.

Rachel Gibson:

Yes

Sarah Williams:

great fun. One of the obstacles is you have to go under water and you're in that cold and as soon as your head gets wet its like you get this massive brain freeze.

Rachel Gibson:

Yeah, completely.

Sarah Williams:

I mean, I felt it effected my coordination and my ability to think and rationalize and just ...

Rachel Gibson:

It paralyzes you, doesn't it?

Sarah Williams:

Yeah, I can imagine, especially with more obstacles coming up where you've actually got to use your brain to think about, "Right, where do I place my feet? Where do I place my hands?

Rachel Gibson:

Exactly. You had to go climb up one of the obstacles, basically, to get out of the lake. I remember, again, this is about eight miles in so you're already reasonably tired. Yeah it was, it was just really challenging, really, really hard.

Sarah Williams:

You got through it, though.

Rachel Gibson:

Got through it. Then the next worst obstacle was, I think, called the Bucket Brigade. Which is basically there's these enormous buckets. The men have slightly larger ones than the women and they've got really narrow rim around the top, so you can only just get your fingertips around them.

At the bottom of the hill is this big pile of buckets and there's this enourmous full of basically soil and rocks. You got to fill your bucket up to a level with all this soil and rocks. The bucket weighs, I reckon, about thirty-five kilograms for the women, something like that. It was heavy.

You can't carry it on your shoulders, you can't carry it on your head. You've got to carry it with either you fingertips, which you can barely get underneath this rim, or carry it in your arms so your forearms and your biceps are burning like you wouldn't believe.

You've got to carry it up this really steep bridge, really uneven terrain. Then all the way back down the other side again. It's a distance of probably, again of about four hundred meters or so. If you get to the bottom, because there's marshals checking everybody's buckets and if your bucket wasn't full to where it was originally you go and do the whole thing again. That, apart from the swim was the most challenging thing I've ever done in my life. There were people being sick. There were people having to stop about every sort of ten steps because they were exhausted because it was so heavy. That was very, very, hard.

Sarah Williams:

Please tell me you got to the end and you didn't need to go back and do it again.