Spartan Race: 4 Women Share How It Changed Their Lives

You Find Out A Lot About Yourself When You're Pushed To The Extreme

By Alexandra Hongo
September 14, 2017
Lifestyle, Sponsored Post

The Spartan Race is about facing and conquering your deepest fears, say four women who have been there, done that, and are going back again. Here are their stories.

The picture isn’t pretty: They’re covered in mud, heavily sweaty, bruised, and on the verge of giving up. They’ve been running, pushing, pulling, throwing and crawling, jumping over fire, hills, trees, and walking under barbed wire all day long — in addition to months of training. 

A Spartan Race team going strong together.

Welcome to Spartan Race, the world’s most popular obstacle course challenge. After being introduced in 35 countries already, it made its debut in Japan earlier in May and is now coming back in October for a second — and bigger-scale — round. As we watched photos (and videos!), we couldn’t help but think that one must be insane to take part in it. But our assumptions are quickly brushed off with a laugh by organizers and participants:

“The person who crosses the finish line will be very different from the one who starts the race,” Spartan Race Japan Country Manager Emily Downey says in an interview with Japan Today. Race participants echoed this, saying that if others can make it, everyone can. After all, 5,000 people joined in May and about double of that are joining in October.

Inspired to know more (and why the heck they would do it?), Savvy Tokyo spoke to four women who have pushed themselves to the extremes at the race, but don’t regret a moment.

Finding that long-needed motivation boost: Tove Kinooka

For Tove, a director and co-owner of Leadership & Organizational Development company Global Perspectives, and a resident of Japan for over 19 years, the idea of joining the race was accidental. Earlier this year, she and her business partner, Gavin Dixon, had set up a goal to challenge themselves physically, intellectually, and professionally, and when one day the two were on a coffee break, Gavin suggested joining the Spartan Race. Not particularly listening, Tove casually agreed without being aware of what she was in for. “I almost had a heart attack later on when I looked at some Spartan race videos on YouTube!,” she laughs.

Wires and mud, but it’s all good. Tove fighting her way through the race.

However, after overcoming the initial panic, she knew that the race was exactly what she was looking for. Once an athletic teen (and a hockey player at university), Tove gave up on sport following two knee operations. Add two C-section births to that and the idea of active training no longer fitted the big picture. But she was still looking for a trigger to challenge these excuses.

I wanted to prove to myself that I could still take on a tough physical challenge and succeed.

“I was feeling embarrassed and miserable about how flabby and unfit I had become,” she says. “I wanted to prove to myself that I could still take on a tough physical challenge and succeed.”

The race surpassed her expectations. It not only gave her a new group of lifelong friends (and well-deserved post-race beers) but much more confidence and professional motivation.

“Three days after the race, Gavin and I did a demo session for a potential new client. I had been feeling really nervous about it, but walking in there after completing the Spartan race, with the bruises still proudly on display, I felt so much calmer and more confident. We rocked the demo and got the contract – our biggest to date.”

Completing a tough challenge like the Spartan race, alongside the guys, takes guts and determination, and that leaves a positive and long-lasting legacy.

She doesn’t think it’s a coincidence, though. Through her work, she frequently discovers that women leaders struggle with self-esteem and confidence. “Completing a tough challenge like the Spartan race, alongside the guys, takes guts and determination, and that leaves a positive and long-lasting legacy,” Tove says, as she prepares for the October race.

Overcoming fear and finding herself again: Adrienne Gilliver

After living in Japan for 24 years, Adrienne, currently an HR manager at a global consulting firm based in Tokyo, within a year underwent three experiences that shook her life. Lost and unsure of the future, she had the urge to restart her life.

“To me, the Spartan Race was about going back to the basics,” she says. “I wanted to reconnect with myself.” She took part in the race as a step toward recovery, hoping that it would help her deal with the impact of the sudden life changes. 

Adrienne on the day of the race.

But it wasn’t an easy decision, she recalls. With a major fear of falling — after multiple former injuries — she was reluctant. Working in a team, however, helped. “I have never worked with such a team of people who could each naturally adapt to the needs of other. There was struggle, joy, pain, challenge, loathe, discomfort, joy, elation and more… And we kept together the whole way,” she says. “I felt so blessed because there was always someone who got my back.”

[W]e kept together the whole way. I felt so blessed because there was always someone who got my back.

A member of Adrienne’s team also recalled this moment. “My favorite memory is seeing Adrienne overcome her fear of height, scale walls and A-frames,” says Jennifer Shinkai. “Whilst a few of us were helping pull her up a slip wall, another Spartan gave her a boost. It’s that kind of selfless and supportive attitude of the racers that makes the Spartan Race a unique experience.”

After successfully completing the race in May, Adrienne became aware of the significant changes in her. “I am less fearful in all areas of my life — especially work,” she says. “I feel mentally strong and confident that I can handle issues and challenges more calmly.”

Now, in preparation for her second race in October, she trains five days a week and can’t wait for the day, no longer intimidated by the challenge.

Becoming a role model — for herself: Melissa Grant

Originally from Australia, Melissa established Japan as her home twice. First as an English teacher in 2001, which made her stay for seven years (and give birth to her first child here), and then again, in 2014, following a brief return home due to her husband’s work.

A leap forward: Melissa completes a challenge at the Spartan Race in May 2017.

“Returning to Japan was like coming home in many ways,” she recalls.

But returning also meant quitting her career in Australia, leaving her newly bought house and coming to Japan with a newborn.

A mother of three and a busy wife, there is always much ado about daily life. Yet, something was missing. “I feel accomplished if my kids are doing well or if I cook a good dinner — and that’s great, but I needed something (outside home) to put me out of my comfort zone,” she says.

After witnessing many of her fellow expat friends joining the race, she was intrigued. “All these women are like me — they’re just as busy. If they can do it, I can do it. I wanted my kids to see not just mommy’s doing the washing, I wanted them to feel that I’ve done something good. I wanted to tell them, this is what I did today — and I’ve got a medal!”

All these women are like me — they’re just as busy. If they can do it, I can do it.

Two months prior to the May race, Melissa signed up and never looked back. When she went back home after completing the race, bruised and “filthy,” she appeared somewhat different to her family. “My husband told me he was so proud of me, and that he regretted not joining,” Melissa says with a laugh.

Today she still keeps her medal in her home entrance. “I did it not for the kids, not for someone else, I did it for myself. It’s a wonderful feeling.”

I did it not for the kids, not for someone else, I did it for myself.

This fall, she is racing again — and has even managed to inspire her husband and three children to join, too.  

Going stronger: Jennifer Shinkai

When Jennifer first arrived in Japan 18 years ago, she intended to stay just for a year “before she started her real life.” But one thing led to another and she never went back. Now married with two children and running her own training and development business that helps people to improve their lives, Jennifer stands on the frontline of initiating change. However, at work she often witnesses the setbacks which prevent people from heading forward.

Not an easy task — Jennifer at the race.

“In my coaching practice, I focus a lot on building grit and resilience. Ability to bounce back from setbacks and adapt to new challenges is one of the most important mindsets,” she says. 

It’s addictively fun and I like the community spirit around the race.

“The Spartan Race philosophy about creating a “new normal” really resonated with me.” By joining the race, she set an example not only to her customers but to her family as well. “I wanted to be stronger and be a role model for (my children) in terms of taking on challenges and enjoying sport.”

Jennifer proudly holding her medal after completing the race.

After completing the race, she not only earned higher self-confidence but also managed to build new friendships and new accountability to train — even joining the gym for the first time in her life. And just like the other women, she will be back to the race this October together with her daughter: 

“It’s addictively fun and I like the community spirit around the race.”

So what is it about this race that makes women so inspired? As we hear their stories, we can’t help but think that taking part in this race is not about winning it, but about gaining — or regaining — something that’s been lacking in your life. As Melissa said, “No one else cared if I completed the race — but I did.”

Can any other race make you feel this way? Perhaps. But Spartan seems like a good place to start.

The Deets

Spartan Race Tokyo
When: Sat, Oct 21 – Sun, Oct 22, 2017 (Saturday sold out)
Where: Sagamiko Resort Pleasure Forest
Cost to join: ¥11,000-¥19,000 (depending on race)