Spartan Ultra Beast: Hawaii 2015
Originally posted by Stephen on August 21, 2015
Where do I begin? Let’s go back to the beginning of this year when I dubbed 2015 as my “Year of the Ultra”. Three Ultra Beasts were marked on my calendar as well as a handful of other ultra distance events. The stress fractures I developed in May threatened to undermine these goals. I was off of my feet for a solid 9 weeks, no strength training in my legs for 12 weeks and no running for 12 weeks. It was hard to see the power that I’d worked so hard to develop in my legs begin to wither. We cancelled 3 races within that time, all with flights already booked. As much as I really wanted to do them, I had to remind myself of what this year was all about: the ultra. Being no stranger to this injury, I decided to be strict about my recovery. Those 12 weeks felt like some sort of prison. It may sound exaggerated, but my life was changed. I could no longer do the things I loved to do. I was depressed, confined. I turned to creating art again as a therapy which really helped me cope with it and release the frustration. Most of that art will be included in The Painted Warrior art book that we’ll be releasing later this year. Nearing the end of my recovery phase, I was so nervous to try running again. Afraid I might feel that sting which would mean another setback. I was able to get in two runs before my trip out to Hawaii, consisting of 3 and 2 miles. Each of them was with extreme caution and each causing significant soreness throughout my legs and feet as if I’d never used them before. I would feel a little twinge here or there and freak out about it. I had a hard time trusting that my feet were ready. Fast forward another week and I’m standing at the starting line, committed to over 26 miles in the first ever Hawaii Ultra Beast.
Having so many fellow racers ask about how I was doing was very touching. The only honest reply I could give was that “I think they are okay. We will find out.” The notion of having to potentially withdraw from the race was very present in my mind. I had another pair of Ultra Beasts just ahead on the calendar and did not want to risk missing out on those as well. I wore the markings of prosperity and strength in our Hawaiian inspired “Makau” body art. I had to cover up the majority of it with a tank top, just to protect myself from the intense sun casting over us in the valley at Kualoa Ranch. At around 7:00AM we were released to fight our battles with this Ultra Beast. He was massively tall, green (they are always green), glowing eyes and covered with roots and vines.
The humidity there was unreal. It did not take long before you were completely soaked in your own sweat, head to toe, like the type of profuse sweating you get from sitting in a hot tub for a while. Hydration and electrolyte intake would be paramount. The beginning of the course was rather tame, but very diverse, with rolling climbs, creek traverses, high stepping through tall grass fields and zigzags through the jungle. Once settled into the run I found that my feet seemed to be doing well.
The first heavy-hitting obstacle that I arrived at was somewhere around mile 4-5: The Bucket Brigade. This rendition was on par with some of the bucket carries you see in Killington. We can thank Norm for this one. His fingerprints could be seen throughout the event. Not far from there, the course led deep into the backwoods of the ranch. Probably the hardest section of all was what Norm called “the notch”, but I began referring to it as the “jungle from hell”. There was a sign on the side of the gravel road labeled BEAST pointing to the right and into a dark tunnel of shrubbery. It began leading upwards, very steep, and very slick with foot-swallowing mud. The only way to advance upwards was to use the trunks of small saplings and pull yourself up. Legitimately, every other step required a tree, a muddy root, or hanging vine to pull yourself up with, from one lifeline to the next. It was a full-body effort. I lost my shoes at least 5 times from the strong suction of mud. I attempted to pull over and untie them so I could retie them tighter, but both my hands and the laces were too caked.
The humidity was at its worst in the jungle. After a few false summits, the trail finally took a downward turn. Going down was surprisingly harder and I would say downright dangerous for the inexperienced. Instead of pulling yourself up with each sapling or tree root, you were using them to stop yourself on the way down. My biggest fear was slipping and impaling myself on a cleared sapling stump rising out of the mountainside. Ropes were added, but they became so slippery that they were barely effective at slowing you down and more likely to give your hands rope burn. It was slow going. I’m doing my best to do justice to this section of the course, but words will probably fall short. The best feeling was finally skidding out the bottom of the jungle into the open air. The thought of having to do that section again on the second lap was not a pleasant one.
A few miles later, the scenery took a strange turn. All of a sudden I was in a forest of giant Ironwood trees whose fallen leaves had made the softest ground to run on. It was almost like I had been momentarily teleported to another region, certainly not what you’d expect to see in Hawaii. It was here that Aeni was waiting to capture a photo of me. I stopped long enough to give her a kiss and then disappeared into the trail again. As the greenery would allow visibility of the valley below, I would take it all in, running with arms outstretched and my soul open to receive all that the surrounding beauty had to offer my senses.
The next several miles toggled between gravel roads, muddy single track and traveling up a rocky stream. The stream was one of my favorite parts. The water was cool and refreshing, but the maneuvering was very technical. You couldn’t see below the water, so each step was a bit of a mystery. You might stub your toe on a rock, or get it wedged in a crevice, or slip on the slimy rocks above water. I was making good time through this section along with a couple of friends, Jesse Moreno and Eric Lhuillier. Jesse and I would continually check in on each others’ status as we both were coming off injury. “How’s your foot holding up?”, “Good, how about yours?” Our spirits were high. Stomping through the creek, we spotted a familiar yellow hydration pack up ahead. We had caught up with Ashley Seeger who seemed to have slowed and was visibly fatigued. After all the miles she had already logged this weekend, I was surprised she was even racing. After climbing up the winding creek for a while, Ashley was falling behind. I let the others move ahead and continued with her as morale support.
Miles later, we arrive at the last few obstacles on this first lap. This rope climb has to be the highest of any Spartan Race. It must have been at least 25 feet high. By this time on day two of the event, the ropes were so slick with mud that the failure rate was exceptionally high. Needless to say, the burpee pit was full. Though I continued to slide down, I somehow managed to get high enough on the rope to where it was bit drier. I hit the bell and slithered down the rope in exhaustion. Ashley was unable to get a solid grip and had to pay the burpee toll. Next we moved on to the Spear Throw. Similar story there. I hit mine and she had a narrow miss. 30 more burpees. Eek. The final obstacle was the Spartan Rig, consisting of monkey bars, rings and a pipe traverse, easily the most fun obstacle of the day. I finished up and waited in the transfer station with Jesse and the others who were already resting and refueling.
I was halfway into a peanut butter and jelly sandwich when Aeni surprised me with a shaved ice from the concession truck. Oh man, it was perfectly timed. Sugar! I gave myself brain freeze from wolfing it down too fast. After seeing the condition of another racers soggy bare feet, I decided I would take my shoes off and let mine air out and massage them before changing out socks. All of a sudden a wicked cramp struck my calf and all I could do was roll on to my side, grit my teeth and ride it out. After a minute or so it passed but for the rest of the race it would keep threatening to fire again. Before long, Ashley was raring to go and was about to drag me out of there. I did some stretching, laced up my shoes tighter than before and we were on our way. We spent a total of 25 minutes in the transition station.
She rebounded rather quickly while I was starting to fade. We started off with some light jogging to ease back into the course. “Run to that sign up ahead?”, “Sounds good.” We would then hike the uphills and run the flats and downhills. This went on for a few miles but it was getting harder and harder for me to match her energy. I was just not in condition for it. She would call out the section to run and I would oblige but not without giving a nasty stare. When we reached the Bucket Brigade for the second time I figured this is the spot where I would maybe pull ahead and be waiting on her at the bottom of the hill. Not the case! I had to set my bucket down about 5 times, versus just once on the first lap. She was crushing it and I knew I was holding her back at this point. I didn’t want to do that. I only wanted to make sure she finished. My part in her journey had come to an end so when I met up with her at the bottom, I told her to please go ahead without me.
I refilled my water pack and took a short break under the shade of a nearby tree, eating some energy chews to hopefully bring me back from the gray. I looked at the paint that remained on my arms, or what was left of it. Never has the art been so destroyed. Somewhere in that mix of sweat, splotchy paint and sunburn was a symbol for strength. It was a rallying moment and one that I preferred to embrace alone.
The jungle from hell was not far ahead and I was mentally preparing to face it. Another mile or so later I approached the dark, familiar doorway. Dread. There was no welcome mat laid out. One foot in front of the other I trudged up the mountain, which clearly did not want us there. It was using every weapon it had to keep us from moving upward. I passed a few who were barely hanging on, huffing and dragging their feet up like zombies. Eventually reaching the top of the climb, I began heading back down even more slowly and carefully, more sliding than stepping. Sometime later, I rappelled down through the jungle exit using a bent over sapling like a rope. What a relief it was to be done with that. Comparatively, I knew the rest of the way was smooth sailing.
Making my way down through some of the single track, I started noticing man made shortcuts through the trees from an earlier section of trail that would potentially cut out many miles from the equation. All I could do was shake my head. What a waste of an opportunity for these people to see what they are really made of. Is the finisher medal really the reward in all this? Sure, the medal is a great reminder of your effort, but it does not prove anything. I take that back. It proves that you have a neck for a ribbon to hang from and at some point you were standing near a volunteer who placed it on you. That is all. Go ask the guy in the festival area on day one, proudly strutting around with his Ultra Beast medal 4 hours after the heat was released. Everybody knows you are a poser man! What did you do when nobody was looking? What about the journey? What about breaking through boundaries in your life? I’m sorry, but you missed out.
As typically happens when I see blatant cheating, it angers me and I was able to use it as fuel. I had no idea how far Ashley or the others were ahead of me at this point, but I set a goal to try and catch up to them. Through miles of upstream, I plotted my steps in the cool, murky creek. Each time I would lift my foot, I would feel a cramp in the arch and just as quickly it was silenced when I stepped down again. Sandbag carries came and went, walls passed by beneath me. I was getting closer and closer to the finish and my body was getting that empty hollow feeling, a motor sputtering on the last ounces of gas.
The skies opened and began pouring down. I welcomed it. I could see the final rope climb towering in the distance. I knew that it was going to be the hardest climb I’d ever done. My hands were tired and depleted. As I neared the obstacle, I could see the ropes were still sheathed in mud and now extra wet from the rain. I tested out a couple different ropes until I found one that I thought might give me a chance. My feet were locked in mud underneath the water pit. I took a moment to compose myself and then went for it. I gave a jump and clenched the rope in my hands, wrapping my leg around and pinching it with my feet. Immediately, I was sliding down. My feet did nothing to hold me in place and my muddy, wet hands had no traction either. I quickly did a few pulls to get higher and hopefully above the muddiest parts of the rope. Gah! Still muddy and still sliding down. I could feel my grip starting to weaken. Hanging there, with 2/3 of the way still to go, I looked down at the volunteer and shook my head at him, as if to say “This is just physically impossible”. Just when I thought I was done, I decided I wasn’t. There was some hidden reserve of strength left. At that moment it felt like a life or death situation. I gripped the rope – harder than I ever thought I could. Pull up, slide down, pull up, slide down. It wasn’t getting any easier. My body began involuntarily yelling out with each pull. At 25 feet up, I swung and hit the bell! I could no longer hold myself for a descent. I fell with my leg still wrapped, rope burn all the way down, fully plunging into the water. When I emerged, I couldn’t see through the cloudy lens over my eyes. I was still in disbelief that I was able to do what I just did. I let the amazement soak in as I slowly moved ahead.
I finished out the last couple of obstacles, thankfully hitting my spear throw again and crossing the rig when Ashley began cheering for me from the sideline. The rain had driven away almost everybody at that point, but she had stuck around to see me finish. I jumped the fire after 9 hours and 27 minutes. Ashley was there to put a medal around my neck. She thanked me and started getting emotional, which in turn set me off. I retreated to the end of the finisher chute, sat down and just cried to myself. It was not even close to the hardest race I’ve finished, but it was so special to me because it meant that I was truly healed. For the past 3 months I had been unable to do the things I loved. Even leading up to this race, I was not convinced I was okay. The injury had such a power over me that I was having a hard time accepting that I was free.
I want to thank my sponsors for their support of me, even during the long recovery phase where I felt all but worthless to them: Athletics8, Core Power, Beet Elite, Born2Run (B2R), and Reel Creations. It has been good to hear that others with injury are comforted by the fact that I have been able to make a successful comeback and that the same is true for them. The injury taught me a lot of things and I do believe I’m stronger because of it. So, for those who are sidelined from what they love, learn the lessons that you can and grow in other areas. It is not the end. Many of my friends and supporters have helped me to learn that and hopefully I can pass it on. Thank you to the racers who shared in my Ultra Beast journey and those who showed true strength of character when it was so easy not to. For some, the hardest obstacle of all was doing the right thing when nobody was looking. Thank you to Spartan Race Hawaii for putting on a great event, despite the shortcomings and limited resources. I would love to come back again and from what I hear, others will be back. Thanks to Norm Koch for his contributions to the course design. I have a feeling you are going to exact revenge for all the negative chatter surrounding this race. The bear has been poked. Vermont Ultra Beasters, beware! Over the next few weeks, I will be preparing for that very race in Vermont: VT UB 2015. Until then, you will find me on many a mountain.