James Nair racing a Spartan’s life
“A Spartan lifestyle is marked by strict self-discipline, simplicity, frugality, or the avoidance of luxury and comfort.” — Merriam-Webster Dictionary
In Ancient Greece, Sparta was known as home to iron-hearted warriors who competed to the very end. Now meet young James Nair, who has embraced a Spartan Racing lifestyle in the world of obstacle course racing, which combines endurance running with the mental and physical strength of working through a series of obstacles and challenges along the course.
Nair, a 16-year-old Douglas High School student, now competes in the sport at technically a professional level for stakes that include prize money and sponsorship opportunities. And his ultimate goal is to go as far as possible.
Spartan Racing distances have three standard categories. A Sprint Course is roughly 3-5 miles. The Super Course is between 8-10 miles. And then you have the Beast Course, which measures between 14-16 miles.
Then there are obstacles to overcome. Nair said one of his favorites — “and one of the most challenging” — is the 400-pound tire flip. Two of the other challenges, he explained, are bucket and sandbag carries in which participants carry weighted buckets or sandbags around an approximate quarter-mile loop. Oh, and by the way, they are asked to run through mud or cold water and even jump over a fire pit.
“When you approach these obstacles and you know you have to get through this obstacle,” Nair said. “If you fail an obstacle, you have a 30-burpee penalty … and 30 burpees; whew, that’s rough.”
It all sounds downright grueling. Maybe even risky. Nair has a different outlook.
“I know it sounds crazy,” he said, laughing. “But it’s super fun. As my buddy Scott Keneally said, ‘There’s some magic in mud.’ You know, running through the mud, climbing up ropes, climbing over walls, scrambling under barbed wire. There’s something compelling and drawing about that.”
Nair recently achieved two podium finishes at the Spartan Los Angeles Sprint Weekend at Castaic Lake, Calif. He placed third back-to-back days (Dec. 9-10) behind two Spartan pro team athletes, 19-year-old Veejay Jones in first-place and Ryan Kent.
The Douglas High junior, who stands in at nearly 6-feet tall and 150 pounds “soaking wet,” added that the podium performances were memorable for another reason.
“Veejay Jones was the youngest podium finisher in Spartan until I came along. So now I am the youngest Spartan race podium finisher,” Nair said.
Nair remembers how he found this sport and eventually made his debut with a first-place age group performance on Nov. 8, 2015, at the Sacramento Spartan Sprint.
“I was sitting on the couch and I see this commercial on TV for a Spartan race,” he said. “They were running through mud and jumping over fire, climbing ropes and carrying buckets, and I’m like, ‘I want to do that. That looks like an amazing sport’ because it combines running with physical strength. And then over the next year, I progressed from competing at the amateur level to taking on my first elite race at the end of that year.”
Nair says he now competes under the guidance of coach Robert Killian, the 2015 Spartan Race world champion, who also placed third at the 2016 and 2017 world championships.
Nair made a decision this past year to forgo running cross country and on the track for his high school teams in order to pursue obstacle course racing on a full-time basis. Is the training different? Absolutely.
“It is definitely different because you have to keep up a really strong cardiovascular base, work on sprinting and all that and then going in and lifting heavy weights in order to prepare for the obstacles and whatnot,” he said. “I run about six days per week. And then, about three of those days, I also go in the gym and do a combination of standard body building type lifts combined with some cross-fit style lifts and heavy carries.”
The distance itself is not the challenge, Nair observed, but rather competing against the other athletes.
“When you’re what we call red-lining it, and the whole time you feel like your heart is going to fly out of your chest,” he said. “When you’re at that elite level, it becomes a whole different game. It’s no longer the course, it’s your competitors who push you the most. And even past that, you’re constantly working against yourself the whole time to make sure that you are pushing as hard as you know you can. So every time you want to quit or every time you want to slow down, you’re like, ‘OK, here is the point where I need to push harder. If I want that podium, I need to dig deep now.’ If you want that podium, you’ll do anything to get it.”
Is obstacle course racing for anyone? Nair advises all would-be participants that they need to be prepared for the rigors of any race.
“It can be for anyone, as you can take it at whatever pace you want,” he said. “I would only say that if you choose to take on these events that you should have a moderate fitness base. To those who want to compete at the professional level, you would want to come in with a very strong running and lifting background. I also caution that you can get very seriously injured at these events. Some of the obstacles have dangerous elements to them, which may deter some hopeful participants.”
What are his goals moving forward?
“This year I went to West Virginia and placed second in the 14-17 age group at the first Spartan age group championships,” Nair said. “My goal next year is to go out and take on that course again and get first.”
There is one other big goal.
“Spartan Race has a U.S. Championship Series stretching across the U.S., I think there are five races in the series, and my goal is to be in the top 20 or even the top 10 as a 16-year-old,” he said. “I just feel like this is my calling. I’ve had a lot of luck but it’s also been a lot of hard work and I feel like the two of those combined next year that I can do that. I know it sounds kind of like an ambitious goal, but I’m like, ‘Shoot for the stars.’”