Am I really a blogger now? Can hack it out here in the high seas of the internet or will I retreat to the safety of just reading. Writing has always been a very mild hobby of mine and it’s time to commit to an audience.
To kick off this thing, I want to share this piece of writing that’s been sitting dormant at the bottom of the “My Documents” folder.
Back in September 2012 I did the Spartan Beast obstacle course race at Killington Mountain in Vermont. This little essay was written as a practice for the cross country bike blog I wrote as I rode last summer: (www.crazyguyonabike.com/doc/bnb2013).
Can I Beat the Beast?
It’s 7:30am and I’m standing at the base of Snowshed Lodge in Killington, Vermont watching a band of racers disappear up the mountain as a snow making jet spews water all over them and the course. It’s an ominous scene. They are out of view so quickly, into the unknown, on a course that only the race designers know. Soon, with much anticipation and loads of enthusiasm, I’ll be disappearing up the mountain myself. The start of my first obstacle course race.
This is the Spartan Beast Race. The World Championships. A ½ marathon (or full marathon Ultra Beast if you do two laps) up and down a ski mountain with 26 or so obstacles to test strength, endurance, balance, and resolve.
I’m a newbie at this stuff and watch the other racers prepare as I wait for my 8:30am heat to line up in the starting chute. It’s a parade of CamelBaks, Under Armor, and minimalist shoes. People are geared up, literally and emotionally. I check in with myself on both:
Is my hydration pack too big? (100 oz).
Do I need another layer because it’ll be colder at 4000’? (No).
Did I put in enough training not to bonk? (You’ll know in about 4 hours).
It doesn’t matter. 8:15am. Time to line up and start running. One minute before the start, my buddy Sean and I bump fists and acknowledge without words that things are about to get uncomfortable really quick. The race starts and we are moving out of the chute on soft grass and a moderate incline.
Incline, hill, steep grade, mountain, UP. I’m feeling this will be the theme of the race.
¼ of a mile in, wasting no time, we hit the first obstacle – water ditches that look like little moats. Even though it’s less than 5 feet across and I know I can leap over it, I don’t. It’s cold and my hamstrings are tight. At 42 years old, I know my legs all too well and risk a strain or pull before they are warmed up. So in the water I go. It’s waist high and doesn’t shock me too much. I’m more concerned with getting the hell out of the way as the pack bottlenecks behind me. I scamper out of the water and move on assured that this race is certainly going to be more than just a trail run.
A few hundred yards later and still going up, it’s under some netting and over a couple 4’ walls. I bound over them like a kid hopping the fence to get to the pick-up baseball game. FUN! I notice a few racers sucking wind a bit and struggling with the walls. All I can think is,
It’s going to be a long day for them. Hopefully, they just went out too fast.
We bound through some more water/mud bogs and take a hard left off the wide ski run and into the woods single file. Running has tapered to a fast hike at this point. There is not much of a trail and if I want to go faster, I’ll have to bushwhack my own path off to the side or ask to pass. There are so many racers ahead of me that I opt to stay put in the line and save my legs for later in the race when I’m predicting there will be more room to run.
Up we march. The grade is steep and even though a bunch of us are clumped together, there is not much chatter as we all try to come down from the high of the start and zero in our individual racing zone.
We approach some barbed wire that’s 4’ off the ground and I notice that the volunteer manning this obstacle has a megaphone. I want to break the silence and loosen up the scene:
“Can you give us a Spartan AROOO!” I ask.
“No” she says, looking at me like I just asked her to give me $100 or something.
“But, be my guest if you want to.”
I don’t hesitate and grab the megaphone anticipating that I’m about to author a motivational moment.
“Come on Spartans! Can I get an AROOO!” I bellow at 100%, my amplified voice breaking the silence.
“a-ro-o” I hear at 10% effort from two of the 50 people in earshot.
“That was weak” says the guy behind me.
“I know” I reply, feeling a little stupid. “But at least I tried.”
It’s time for me to zero in. Goofing around is over, Beat this course!
I slouch down and move through the barbed wire quickly with my CamelBak clipping the 2nd to last strand. I’m not hung up, but hope like hell the tube didn’t get punctured. I do a quick calibration sucking some Gatorade through the system while wiping the tube and feeling for moisture.
No leak. Crisis averted.
Get moving fool.
Out of the woods briefly, we cross an open ski run and head back in. Descending the trail and following the white markers dangling off the low tree branches, a vertical cargo net appears before us.
I climb up and over no problem then hold the net taut for the next guy just like the previous guy did for me.
The pack has thinned out and I find some room to run. This feels good. Trail running is my gig and I soak in the beauty of the woods along with the energy of the race. This Spartan thing is pretty special. I’m starting to get it.
Back on an open ski run, two 7’ walls are in front of me.
Up, over. Up, over.
I run some more and then I see it. I’ve watched it on video a dozen times, but haven’t practiced or trained for this obstacle. Now it’s right in front of me.
THE BARBED WIRE CRAWL.
Not hesitating, I dive down on my stomach and start crawling. I’ve read the best technique for this is to roll, but I don’t. I’m not sure why. Maybe I don’t want to take off my CamelBak? Instead, I push myself an inch off the ground and lurch forward. It works and I’m moving quickly until the dry ground turns to mud as water rains down from a snow making gun. COLD! I’m in some shit now. The ground is not groomed. It’s hard and littered with rocks and sticks. This is an arduous effort that I love and hate it all at once. My progress slows and the racers behind me are rolling right into my feet. This gets me moving again like flicking a frog between its rear legs to get it hopping. I’m not hopping, but grinding out this hundred yard crawl.
That’s me! Some of the other pics are random racers. Just want to show the obstacle.
Finally, I get to the end stand up and check my watch. It’s an hour into the race and I’ve planned to take in calories every hour. So ironically, I take my pack off at the end of crawl to get a GU.
I could have taken the GU before the crawl and rolled through that effing thing… Whatever… MOVE!
Too much thinking and I have to remind myself to just relax, have fun, and not bonk.
I’m an hour into the race, wet, muddy, cold, a bit fatigued, and there is no happy chatter from the other racers.
We are all focused. I feel invested.
The real race starts here.
With the mud crawl in my rear view mirror, the course heads up a service road and under dormant chairlifts. I alternate running on the light to moderate grades with a fast hiking on the steeps. My legs feel better, the sun is coming out, and my attitude is light and positive.
The course flattens out as I approach the monkey bars. I reach up and grab the first bar and, as expected, it’s wet and slippery. I know I have the strength and technique to tackle this, but I step back and take a moment because my sweaty hands may slip on the bars and I’m determined not to do any burpees here. Reaching down, I grab a handful of dry dirt, rub it in and give my hands a big clap like a gymnast chalking up before the high bar. I step up again, this time to the far left thinking that this will be a bit dryer than the middle. It is and I start moving from bar to bar slow enough to ensure every grab, but quick enough not to lose momentum.
Still on the flats, I approach the next obstacle which is a 25 yard trench with barbed wire over it and a brown mix of water and mud in it. This is not a crawl and not difficult. The water is up to my waist and I have to amble out on some mud. At this point, the water and mud are not affecting my race. The sun is warm and since I’m wearing a lot of earth already, a little more is of no consequence.
The course winds down an open slope and I’m running, but feathering the brakes so I don’t become a runaway truck and wipe out. Down and down, I can hear the PA at the starting area so I know what the next two obstacles are as we got to eye them up at the start.
I approach the traverse walls and have my pick of the 6 to tackle. I step up on the first 2×4 stub screwed to the vertical wall, grab the stub above that and start the traverse. I’m as focused as I was on the monkey bars and going slow. No burpees are my motivation. Half way across things get a little dicey as I have to put both feet on one little 2×4 stub and simultaneously reach for the next stub with my right hand. If I’m going to fail this obstacle, it’s going to happen right now. But, I refocus, manage this little technical hiccup, get across, and ring the bell.
200 feet brings me to the rope climb. I haven’t practiced this, but the rope is thick and has knots in it. Plus, I have enough pull ups in the bank to attack this one without too much fuss. Up I go no problem, but notice my calves are cramping as my legs grab the rope. Weird, but no biggie and I repel down without incident and hand the rope to next racer.
I see the 3 mile dignified exit.
The route has us running around the base lodge campus and I can see that a wedding is happening at the hotel across the way. I’m sure the event planner didn’t volunteer to the loving couple that they’d be sharing their mountain nuptials with a bunch of odd ball obstacle course racers. Either that or they got a huge discount!
This thought is a nice distraction as I weave around a little foot path to the shore of the small lake that sits between the hotel and the base lodge. A bridge cuts the lake in half and secured under it are rope ladders with series of single short ropes knotted at the end in a line accessed from the ladder.
I witness racers falling into the water as they try to swing from rope to rope and ring the bell at the last one. Looks easy, but I see a dozen racers on the opposite shore doing burpees. The volunteer explains the obstacle as my mind is not focusing on anything except which ladder has the shortest line.
In the water I go, swimming to the furthest ladder which has no line. The water is warmer than what was raining down on at the mud crawl. I’m comfortable swimming with my running gear including CamelBak and sneakers as I did a lot of this during training runs. Good thing, I can see others who are very uncomfortable. In 3 minutes I’m at the ladder and happy to find it anchored to the bottom of the lake. I get up easy enough and hang on the ladder and the first rope. Grabbing the second rope, my mind is nowhere, not focused, not telling me to hold on tight or it’s burpee city. Reaching for rope #3, I lose hold and in the drink I go. Failure. I’m not bummed, just anxious to get to shore and out of the water.
I do my 30 burpees on the rock strewn shore with the pitch of the bank and overgrown brush allowing me to get only ¾ of the way out of the water. I don’t even think or care about this. I’m completely immersed in the race and just want to bang out my penalty and get moving.
I walk the next 30 yards to compose myself after the burpees and do a systems check:
Legs: Feeling strong
Upper body: No Issues
Hydration: Bite valve in my mouth now.
Then run you slouch!
Back into the woods again and climbing, the route forces us single file on the new trail that was blazed by the racers before me. At this point, I’ve caught up with some of the Ultra Beast Spartans. They are all wearing green armbands which instantly give them elite status in my eyes. Like I’m regular Army and they are Special Forces. I listen in on their strategy and don’t speak. It just feels like a time for me to observe while I trudge through the overgrowth.
In 10 minutes I’m out of the woods and running on a service road. Rounding a blind corner, I hear the racer in front of me,
“Shit!” He announces not knowing I’m listening.
“Whatta we got?” I ask thinking it’s something difficult. Sandbags, more mud?
“Memorization”, his voice trailing off before the last syllable.
I stop in front of a white mini billboard with a heap of black text on it. Alpha-numeric phrases are listed in four long columns. A wonderful volunteer explains that the last two digits of my bib number (50) tell me which phrase I need to memorize and that I’ll have to repeat it back later in the race. I do a quick scan and read the one I need (Echo-816-8964). At this point, I notice other racers have pulled out sharpies and are writing down their phrases. I see them offering to share the marker and I’m tempted, but put my eyes back on the board and repeat my phrase in a hurried whisper a dozen times. I take off still muttering the phrase. I’m up for this one and feel good about not writing it down. This is part of the course and I’m not about to cheat it.
“Echo-816-8964, Echo-816-8964, Echo-816-8964.” I repeat, determined to burn this into my memory.
Feeling good and winding through the middle of the mountain, I arrive at the next task. Obstacle number something is the Herculean Hoist the banner informs me. Cement slabs attached to a rope which is looped over a pulley must be pulled up then lowered in control about 12’.
I grab high on the rope and use my body weight to pull down and get my slab off the ground. It comes up easy enough and I’m estimating that it weighs 70 pounds or so. Pull, pull, pull – let it down slow.
Three minutes later with obstacle completed, I’m running on a service/fire road through a tree canopy. It’s sloping down a bit and I enjoy some long strides and easy running. Then suddenly,
The chest strap on my CamelBak has unclipped from the shoulder strap. Bugger! A mechanical problem. I didn’t think my gear would break down before my body. It’s not a big deal, but the trail has narrowed, I’ve got some company around me, and we are all moving fast. The trail dumps us out onto another road and I move right while the course heads left to get my chest strap rigged up. I watch racers continue to stream out into the clearing which has me thinking about the time and placement I’m losing while in the pits.
Gotta get going.
Now, my agenda has changed from just finishing the race to racing the race.
With repairs complete, I charge out of pit row and back on the course. In 200 yards , the road hits its terminus and widens out to a flat, open field complete with port-a-potties, water stop #1, and of course, 2 obstacles. It’s a makeshift Spartan village and a beehive of varied activity. While some racers are attacking the obstacles, others are filling hydration packs, hitting the toilets, adjusting their gear and retooling for the next round of battle.
With enough Gatorade on board, I simply run through and up to the next obstacle – Atlas Stones. Pick up the stone, carry it 100’, put it down, pick up another stone and carry it back.
The stones are heavy. Maybe 60 or 70 pounds, but this task is not a killer since it’s all on level ground and the distance isn’t too long.
I complete this in short order then zip off to the second obstacle in the village.
BARBED WIRE CRAWL #2
This time I take off my pack, but find the rolling technique difficult as not only are there dirt mounds strewn about the course, but it’s also uphill.
I pull and claw at the ground making slow forward gains while getting some help from the other racers who lift the low hanging barbed wire as I pass under. I repeat the favor for those behind me and together we all manage to complete the crawl without any casualties.
I stand up and transform back into running mode.
The race is inside of me now. My endurance is holding up, I’m keeping hydrated, and my mind is buoyed in the present taking on the course as it comes. The sun is out warming the mountain and I notice that for no reason, I’m smiling.
Over the next couple miles I negotiate a couple wall climbs and log jumps mixed in with pulling a rock up and down part of the slope. Running and fast hiking all over Killington, I now have no idea where I am and couldn’t find my way back to Snowshed if I had to. I just follow the trail which leads me to something very familiar to my training.
THE SANDBAG CARRY
The trails where I trained had some very useful large rocks and busted concrete. I was sure to do an uphill rock carry at the beginning, middle and end of each session.
Excited and motivated, I grab a bag, wrap my arms around it, and pull it into my chest like a big bag of groceries. The beginning of the carry is flat and I can see the turnaround point 200 yards ahead. Not too far, but my legs begin to burn as the flat turns to an incline and I’m walking uphill with 50 pounds of sand. This is now difficult, but with bullish pride I am committed to not stopping or dropping the bag so as to not insult my training or something. Up I go, breathing heavy and just gutting this one out.
Perched at the turnaround is a photographer documenting the pain and I want to bring the bag up to my shoulder thinking this will make for a better picture. But, the grocery bag method is working so well and keeping my center of gravity low as the grade increases.
I don’t want to rollover like an SUV so I choose form over vanity and just hold steady. I hit the turnaround and march back to the finish point.
No stopping. No dropping. Mission accomplished.
I can see a couple of obstacles bunched together up ahead in a parking area, but before I get there it’s time to repeat the phrase I memorized.
A volunteer holding a clipboard meets my gaze and motions me over.
“50” he says glancing at my race bib then down at his sheet. “Do you remember your phrase?”
I pause and prepare my recall because knowing how the race has worked up to this point, I’m only getting one chance to answer correctly.
“Echo-816-8964” I say confidently with a dash of doubt like I’m repeating the license number off my fake ID for the doorman.
“Yep” he says pointing in the direction of the next obstacle.
Only one set of burpees so far…Not too bad.
It’s on to the sled pull which is a milk crate fixed to a pair of skis and loaded with rocks. I loop the rope around my waist and start pulling. The ground is loose sand and rocks and I’m not struggling with this too much, but I look back just to make sure the rig tracking straight behind me. 100 yards later I drop the rope and move on.
I’m scampering across the parking lot eager for the next obstacle and in moments arrive at the Tyrolean Traverse.
It’s a tensioned rope about 8’ feet above a small pond that I have to pull myself across. I’ve watched this one on video multiple times and though I didn’t train for it, I’ve mentally rehearsed a technique that I think will work.
I grab on and hoist up my legs cradling the rope between my ankles. I begin the traverse hand over hand and foot over foot. I work my feet the same as my hands instead of sliding them to avoid a rope burn. It works. I make it to the bell, give it a swipe, drop into the water, and swim the 30 yards to the shore.
On autopilot, I just exit the water and start running, but before my legs get warm again, mounds of mud and water ditches are next.
This is not a tough one. Me and a couple other racers are having a laugh as we roll over the brown piles and waist deep water. This helps break me out of obstacle concentration mode and into fun in the sun again.
Clearing the last mound with the help of a rope, I see the course leave the open slopes and break hard into the woods.
Again, the course is not on a proper single track path. It is just a vague route smack in the middle of dense, virgin forest. A team of three Ultra Beast racers are ahead of me and I tag along with them at the beginning of what looks to be a steep accent. I’m loving this. We are slogging up some of Vermont’s best terrain. There are no paths, no switchbacks. We are going straight up the mountain.
I’m slipping, grabbing tree branches, crawling on all fours, and soon the Ultra guys ask me if I want to pass. I decline as we are moving at a good clip and I’m enjoying our light banter.
The effort soon becomes more mental because each time I look up to see if the end of the climb is in sight, it’s not. Just more steep woods. The Beast is trying to break us right here, but I’m not yielding.
If you want me to go up, I’ll go up.
Just as this thought runs through my mind, I feel my right leg begin to rebel. It quivers and spasms lightly with each stride.
Shit! Bonking? Come on man!
I don’t panic or even stop. I dig my thumb and forefinger into my thigh and rub where it’s shaking. Then I make sure to take shorter strides with my right leg and lead with my left for any tough pushes.
This works, no bonk for the moment and I keep myself in maintenance mode for the remainder of the climb. Finally, after at least 45 minutes of big ups, we emerge from the forest with relief and bewilderment over how far and how much vertical we just hiked.
But there’s no time for celebrations, another rope climb awaits. Several knotted ropes are dangling from the chairlift wheelhouse. It’s about 10’ to the bell. Not bad, but my calves are cramping again as I descend the just like they did on the first rope climb.
It’s of no consequence and I’m on the run again, alone, and grateful to be on flat ground.
In less than 10 minutes, I round a corner and exchange salutations with a very nice volunteer who tells me I’m almost done. She points at a cargo net affixed to a small rock face. Up I go climbing slow and careful with each grip.
More walls ahead.
I bound over them and turn right. Now in a clearing on top of the mountain, all of Killington opens up before me. I stop, forget about the race, forget about everything, and just look out over the countryside below. I stand still for 30 seconds, survey the land, and just take in the moment like I was on a day hike to get to this peak. I have arrived at the top of the Beast, a thought that is humbling and fulfilling all at once.
I break the moment knowing I have to check in if I’m on the hour to take in more calories.
My stopwatch reads 4:23 which lights a fire inside me.
I can finish this thing in less than 5 hours.
Why this is important, I don’t know. The only goal I set was to finish strong. But, right now, I want to hit this time and now move with more urgency.
But, the first moves to sub 5 hours are racing down a slope that I probably couldn’t manage on skis in the middle of winter. The grade is super steep, the grass is tall, the ground is wet and I’m half sliding sideways down the trail. It feels like skiing anyways, but I focus on each step because a wipe out seems inevitable no matter how careful I am. I may literally fall and take out the racers ahead of me so I double up on the careful.
Winding, sliding, slipping, I alternate leading with each foot.
I’m physically feeling the mountain now. The exact point where my hips meet my legs is aching from riding the brakes all day on the downhills. Now on the meanest downhill of the race, I just hope to get off this black diamond without coming apart at the seams.
During small intervals of the decent, the grade lessens enough for me to run normally. Right when I think I feel the base of the mountain ahead, the course pitches into the woods and I’m grinding down a route very similar to the hard accent I finished less than 20 minutes ago. It’s a treacherous mix of mud, rocks, and brush. Again, this route is not a cleared trail, but just a direction in the woods.
Alive and still moving, I spill out onto a service road, cross it, and dive immediately into a nice piece of single track. It’s groomed, hard packed, and trending down. At last, I’m off the brakes and striding out.
Time check. 4:42.
This trail is bliss and I hope it rolls me right to the finish. My right leg begins to twitch again. Lactic acid is attempting to sabotage my race, but I’m having none of it. I’m so close. A quick massage on the move like before does the trick.
Off the single track, I can see an obstacle ahead. I run up ready to devour the challenge and listen to the volunteer explain the details.
Put a big rubber band around both ankles, hop over a series of logs and crawl under the yellow cord a foot off the ground. I bound through this eager to check my watch.
Get after it.
I’m on the run, not feeling the fatigue, the pain in my joints, or hunger in my stomach. Sub 5 hours is all I’m focused on and I can feel the finish up ahead.
But, first things first.
THE SPEAR THROW
I forgot all about this and know I’ll be hitting the deck and banging out some burpees. Spartan TV is littered with inept attempts to throw a makeshift spear 10 yards into a hay bale. It seems easy, but if world class athletes fail this, my amateur ass is toast. Not to mention that there are already a dozen or so other racers paying their penalty as I look through the pile of spears for one with a sharp tip. Confidence is low.
With my weapon selected, I take a moment to feel the weight and gauge a release point.
Tick, tick, tick. Throw the damn thing.
I give it a good heave, but the head angles up and it bounces right off the bale. No surprise, but I still stare in disbelief and momentarily replay what just happened in my head. This is just hopeless procrastination before I start you know what….
I hammer them out quickly and try to keep good form as all the spectators and finished racers can witness the effort.
I get up and go, purposely not checking my watch.
It’s close, but I think I’m still in there.
The last three obstacles are bunched together over the last hundred yards.
First up is a short 10 yard mud crawl under barbed wire. I’m one with the mud now and get under and out pretty quick.
Next is a wall pitched at 45 degrees and covered with dish soap. It has a rope to aid the effort. I grab the rope and plant my right foot on the wall expecting it to slip. It doesn’t and I think I’ve lucked out as the wall appears to have not been re-soaped in a while. Up and over, I can see the finish.
After I hop some burning logs, it’s me vs. the gladiators to get to the finish.
I’m in no shape to try a dodge, spin, or other evasive move. I figure I’ll just slow up and take my lumps.
Whack, I take one in the chest.
Whack, another blow to the back.
My smile is big and I laugh out loud.
A few more strides and I cross the coveted finish line IN….
I coast to a stop where I’m immediately greeted by three volunteers who guide me through the finishers’ assembly line.
First, I get my coveted green Beast medal placed around my neck. After such an effort, I feel like I’m being knighted
Second, I’m handed a banana which turns out to be the most delicious piece of fruit I’ll eat all year.
Last, I get my t-shirt which I tell the volunteer to drape over my shoulder so I can devour the banana with both hands.
I BEAT THE BEAST!!!!
Time to find a quiet patch of grass…..
Random After Thoughts
It’s been a month since the Spartan Beast and I can tell I’m hooked. First, I spent a good amount of time writing this story. Usually, for regular trail races, I’ll just scribble a summary on the back of the race bib. But, the Beast was such an epic experience and so much fun that I want to document the physical as well as the feeling. Second, I’ve been dredging the internet for all things Spartan Race. Reading recaps and blogs, watching video, and researching what motivates people have consumed 90% of my online time since Vermont.
I’m pretty happy how the race went for me. With no OCR experience, I was afraid of bonking somewhere on the mountain and having to walk it in. But, that fear drove my training in the right direction. Go long, go up, and go up carrying shit.
I’ve run trails for a while. I’ve hiked all my life. But, I never thought of combining them until Killington. The Beast uncovered that I love the run/hike combination and it’s not defeat to hike up an incline instead of running it.
The organization and logistics of the race was top notch. It’s pretty clear that Spartan Race is a for-profit business. And the Beast ain’t cheap. But, they ran a first class event and the dividend of a wonderful life experience was well worth the investment.
The volunteers were awesome. They provide humor and compassion along with manning the obstacles and other stations. Thanks to you all!
I will be back on the mountain next year.
I have to be back on the mountain next year.