Spartan Ultra Beast: Tahoe 2015
Originally posted by Stephen on October 8, 2015
I must have checked the forecast 50 times in the days leading up to the 2015 Spartan Race Tahoe Ultra Beast. The weather would fluctuate daily up in the Sierra Nevada. All I knew for sure was that it was going to be cold. Aeni, my other half, was unable to make this trip, so things felt a bit off, but I knew I’d have enough support from my fellow athletes. I arrived at the Squaw Valley Ski Resort with my friends Brandon and Odette at about 5:30AM. Fresh rain puddled on the ground, reflecting the orange light of the resort against the charcoal night sky. Our breath was visible in the crisp air. Brandon and I hurried our gear bins over to the transition area to drop them off before joining the others already huddled near the starting line. The base elevation was 6,200 ft and would top out at just under 9,000. I have historically had very poor results when racing at altitude, so I was apprehensive to see how severely this one would affect me. Having recently left my 100°+ temps back at home, I was not looking forward to this massive temperature swing either. Worrying aside and hand-warmers in hand, I was there and going to face it head-on regardless. Standing in the starting wave, the jacket came off and revealed a new work of art. Shades of green and purple gleamed across the woven aegis and a white fur adorned the shoulders. “Ultra Slayer” was its name and it was fashioned for one purpose. This arduous race was set to be the final piece in my book – one last titan to contest before presenting my story to those who would hear it.
Just after 6AM, the mass of chilly bodies was released to the Ultra Beast. Its bitter, stinging presence draped over the entire mountain, yet we collectively pressed onward along the dark pathway ahead. Not even 5 minutes in, we were ushered into a series of water filled trenches. Not wanting to get wet so early on this brisk 40° morning, I tried to keep as much of myself dry as possible. I eased into the moats gently and methodically. The only attrition was below the waist, certainly uncomfortable but it was only a small taste of what was to come. Most of the racers wore a headlamp, but I decided I could manage half-an-hour in the dark with the occasional stray light from somebody nearby, if only to save the little bit of extra weight. I almost regretted it as we funneled into a single track to begin our steady climb to 9,000 feet. The bright headlamp behind me would cast a dramatic shadow of myself down on the wooded trail before me, rendering me almost blind to the hazards at my feet. Roots, branches, and plenty of shale from the mountainside were all threatening to cause a misstep. I kept a focused eagle eye down in front and was able to navigate safely until first light began creeping in. A Vertical Cargo Net and Uneven Monkey Bars were the next duo of obstacles in our path. The bars were cold and slightly wet from the night’s rain, but I crossed safely. Retrieving my hand-warmers from my pockets, I gripped them tightly and continued on my way.
The next seven miles would be a slow toil up to the summit of Squaw Peak, the belly of the Beast. This was usually the point in a race where we were all bogged down enough that somebody would call out a smartass remark to lighten the mood, but all was quiet. There was a certain seriousness that seemed to be present in the air this time. For all the hard effort of the upward push, my breathing was noticeably shallow. I would expand my lungs to the max and inhale much deeper than is comfortable and still come up short for oxygen. This resulted in my body adopting a quick, panting sort of breath. It was manageable. I was just glad that it was an endurance event and not something I would be tempted to redline. Steadily, I climbed and as the morning grew a bit brighter, it became clear that we would not be receiving the sun’s warmth that day. A vast umbrella of heavy cloud had it blocked with conviction. It was all part of the plan.
Miles later, I encountered the next obstacle: the Hercules Hoist with waterlogged weight bags. Grabbing the still damp rope, I heaved the bags up along the pulley system until they reached the top. It was honestly not a bother. The hand-warmers returned to my clutches, though their heat seemed to be fading. Over an 8-foot wall I went, shimmying across some boulder to resume the uphill grind. Another mile or so later, I was made to carry a log up and along the outer rim of a snowboard half-pipe. The task seemed harder than usual, I assumed from the effects of the altitude. I set it down a few times on the way up. “How’s Brandon doing?” I asked Odette who was spectating up near the top of the loop. “Good, but he’s hurting a little bit,” she replied. I learned I was probably 8 minutes behind my secret rabbit. Brandon has actually been my roommate and training partner for the past year or more and is an endurance athlete that I highly respect. It was his first time on an Ultra Beast course and I was curious to see how well I could place against him. I was already closer than expected. Eager to get that damn log off my back, I made haste down the other side and cast it back into the wood pile.
The next stretch was pretty epic. I could see several peaks up ahead in the near distance. Which one would we be climbing to? Some of them looked pretty far up there. I traced the outside of the mountain and as I got higher, the winds began to pick up. They howled and scratched at my exposed flesh. Higher and higher I went and soon I found myself hiking inside of a cloud. I rounded off the top of the summit and all around me was a boundless wall of gray haze. There was not really a view to speak of within this bubble. If I was not in the middle of a race, I would have still loved to spend some quality time up there to take it in, but time, I could not afford. I had to keep moving and the fierce wind was a terrible companion. Wrapping around the back side of this peak, I began what I knew would be a long and meandering descent back to the start. Arms outstretched, I glided down the trail. A Sandbag Carry soon followed, up another section of the mountain, which once again was intensified by the thin air. Once that was finished, my thoughts turned forward. I began grieving in advance for what I knew was waiting a few miles down the road.
I could catch glimpses of it through the trees as I descended the switchbacks. It struck fear in me. I eventually came into full view of the pond swim for the first time. There was a lone buoy out in the middle of the water that had to be rounded before returning to dry land. An amphibious medic overlooked the scene from his kayak. As an elite racer, this swim was mandatory. I strapped into a life vest and forged into the frigid water. The shock of the cold flushed the air out of me. I turned on my back and butterflied in reverse to keep my chest high and feet kicking along the surface. Relax. Breathe, slow and controlled. I was very conscious about keeping my head and hat dry. Every so often I would turn around to make sure my trajectory was correct. The swim was something like 70 yards and seemed to take forever. By the time I reach the end, my limbs were very numb. Slowly, I pulled my chilled body from the water. This was the make or break moment. This is where the real swim for survival began. I threw down my life vest and immediately began to jog. Along the way, I pulled out a rain jacket from a dry ziplock bag and covered myself. I knew I would need it to shield me from the upcoming wind.
After a quick Farmer’s Carry obstacle, I continued up onto a ridge where there was major exposure to high winds. Up there was a cruel gauntlet of obstacles that kept you in a severely compromised state for a long while. First up was a Plate Drag, where you pull a weighted metal sled by a rope and then drug it back to the start. This was followed by a figure “S” of barbed wire crawls, separated into 6 segments by wall climbs. In the middle of them was a Dunk Wall which forced you to get wet AGAIN. After rolling and scooting under the wire as quickly as I could, I dove into the water pit and emerged from the opposite side of the wall. Things just got even more serious. I had to keep moving. Under the remaining sections of barbed wire I rolled, my body beginning to cry out from trauma. I stood up and prepared for the Rope Climb that was up next, blowing into my hands to try and revive the feeling. Each pull up the rope was accompanied by moans and groans. I could not keep silent. CLANG! Down I slid and immediately got back to moving. If I was complacent to walk, I knew it would spell the end. There was a short trek to the next obstacle.
The winds were whipping at my jacket and stabbing me throughout. I reached the A-Frame Cargo Net and scaled up it in a frenzy. Time seemed to be in slow motion and everything became muffled as I continued running. I couldn’t believe how desperate I felt at that moment. All I knew to do was keep going. “If you’re going through hell, keep going”. Yes, that’s it… keep going. There were still a few more obstacles left up on this ridge and I was running out of time.
I heaved up the Atlas stone with another bellow and carried it to the end of the lane. Five burpees later I cried out again when I returned it. Neighboring the Atlas Carry was the Tyrolean Traverse, where I needed to travel across a suspended rope to ring a bell. My grip was just barely enough. I latched my legs along the rope and began crawling upside down underneath it. Flinging my legs back and forth along the top, I propelled myself until my head hit the bell. Brandon had missed this obstacle and was finishing up his burpees. He was shivering pretty badly and I was very concerned that he might have to drop. I remember saying something to Odette at this point but it was slurred pretty badly. One obstacle remained up on the ridgeline and it was the spear throw. How could I even stand a chance at this with the high winds and no feeling in my hands? I blew about 10 deep breaths into them before picking up my spear. After my usual ritual, I chucked it towards the target and by some miracle, it stuck! Thank God! Time to get the fuck off this mountain.
As I made my way down in search of slightly warmer and friendlier weather, I was stopped by none other than Joe DeSena and a camera crew on their way to the ridge where I just came from. He asked me to answer 3 questions into the lens. “What is your name?” I tried to say it clearly, but I kept slurring it. I guess it was good enough. “What time is it?” I looked at my GPS watch and could see that I had been on course for almost 4 hours, but I could not do the math at that moment. I said, “I-I don’t know, my G-G-GPS doesn’t show the tiiime.” I really just wanted to keep moving and not stand there shivering. “How old are you?” That one took me way too long to recall. “Uhhh… *silence*… thiiiirty four.” It lagged out of my mouth like molasses. I was allowed to continue, not even understanding what that whole confrontation was all about until much later. I didn’t know the reason for the camera, but could only assume the questions were a test to make sure I was intelligible enough to remain on course.
My core temperature began to rise on the descent, as there was not much there to slow me down. Brandon, who is a pretty skilled downhill runner, cruised ahead and put a lot of distance on me. Switchback trails broken up by a wall here and there eventually led me to the Bucket Brigade at the last mile before the transition to lap two. Instead of gravel, we filled our buckets with wet dirt. It felt much heavier, but it might have been the altitude again. I had to set the weight down many, many times up the long climb. Shooting for 60 steps per carry, I was still faster than most. My back was starting to hurt by the time I made the downhill turn and it was frustrating to have to keep setting the bucket down. Finally through it, I finished out the last mile, successfully crossing the Traverse Wall but failing the Multi-Rig with some lingering numbness in my hands. My first set of 30 burpees was performed and I was directed towards the Gear Drop area to prepare for round two. I remember thinking to myself, “How nice would it be to be finished right now?” Those were dangerous thoughts. I couldn’t dwell on them for very long. Shoving them away, I joined Brandon in the transition station.
I was relieved to sit down and relax for a moment. I refueled with the usual half a PB&J sandwich, a Core Power, Beet Elite and restocked my pack with fuel. Attempting to get in and out quicker than I usually do, I forgot to take a pain killer. I was about to start the second lap, when I decided it was worth it to run back to the bin and take one. My hip was not bothering me yet, but I didn’t want to give it a chance to. With that, I was soon back on the course, seeing sections of it for the first time in daylight. Vertical Cargo Net – Check. Uneven Monkey Bars – Check. Now on to the start of that familiar 7 mile climb. I opened another pack of hand-warmers to keep my cold hands company during the next few hours.
My legs were toast, heavy and sore. I recall feeling all but defeated as I began the march. Nearby racers who were headed out on the Sprint course offered their respect and moral support for my quest. I deposited those positive vibes into my bank for later. The whole time I was out there, I couldn’t stop thinking about the aftermath of that swim. That really messed me up! Could I really survive that again? I would have to get there first, to find out. I exchanged leads with Brandon a couple of times on the way up and we actually hiked together briefly as we neared the highest sections of the mountain. I don’t know why, but it was really special to hike alongside him for the few minutes that it lasted.
Knowing the course was helpful, especially during the climb. What seemed never-ending before was now charted territory. Sensing that I was gaining ground, the Ultra Beast kicked up its howling winds. It was magnified this time around. I would guess that the wind was gusting at up to 40 mph or more. It would knock me sideways, jacket and hat flapping violently as it rifled across my body. The wind chill was harsh but I moved forward in defiance. I looked down at my hands and noticed that they were swollen and purple. “What the…?!” My left hand had swelled to the point where the timing chip on my wrist was restricting the circulation. I would clench my fists repeatedly to encourage the blood flow, but the reaction time of my hands was especially slow. All I could do was keep moving. That all-consuming cloud wall was still locked on to the peak. As I topped out, I felt like being on the surface of some hostile planet. I stumbled along the summit in a zig-zag, trying to escape the cold battering.
Off the other side, I hurried along the switchbacks. I was relieved to be heading downward, but I knew where downward would lead me next: the swim. The same grief and worry that was plaguing me before was back in full effect – maybe even worse now that I knew just what to expect. “Would they really allow us to get back in the water a second time? On a day like this, where the sun can’t get through to us? Maybe they’ll afford a burpee option to the Elite racers this time around.” The thoughts swirled around in my head as I descended. I could make out parts of the pond below, through the trees once again. I was specifically looking to see whether anyone was in the water. I couldn’t make anyone out. “I shouldn’t put my body through that again. The second time can only be worse after being so depleted. If they tell me I have to get in the water, maybe I should just drop out.” I wrestled internally and the tension was building.
When I finally arrived at the bank of the pond, I asked the official the million dollar question. “Do Elites have to get in the water again?” When she said “Yep”, I was beside myself. I’m not usually one to lash out, but the fear inside of me took over and I gave everyone around a piece of my mind. I didn’t think it was right, or safe to be forced into the swim again, not that it was up to them. I REALLY didn’t want the effects of this water crossing to take me out of the race. God, no!! There are times in life when you are faced with something that you are dreading and all the worrying in the world will not change a thing. Once I decided that I was not dropping out, the worry shut off and I just did what needed doing. It’s like a switch was suddenly turned in my brain from “FLIGHT” to “FIGHT”. Angered and determined, I strapped on my life vest and entered the pond for the second time.
The numbness began setting in before I finished. I kicked and paddled, slowly gaining inches at a time. My body was being lulled into a tranquil coma. As I climbed the wooden stairway, I had a hard time placing my limbs where they needed to go on the steps. Slowly but surely, I rose to my feet and removed the vest. Then the strife began. Move, move, move! I trudged along the course and headed towards the nightmare up on the ridge. The winds were there, just where I’d left them before: banshees waiting to tear me to shreds. I pulled the sled. I rolled and crawled under the wires. Lots of them. I dove under the wall again and the pain of cold air on a frozen body was relearned. It was a dark, dark moment as I ran towards the next obstacles – maybe the darkest that I’ve known. It took every fiber within me to continue running through the bullshit. I would think about this very tale that I’m telling you right now. I didn’t want it to end in failure. That was no way to end this story. I wanted to prove that we can overcome much more than we are willing to believe. Not just for myself, but for those reading this. I was either going to leave this mountain on my own two feet or in a body bag. I clung to that hope as I finished the remaining tasks in the shrieking wind. My spear flew true into the heart of the Ultra Beast and graced me with safe passage down the mountain. “You are mine!”
I finished out the course on auto-pilot. Despite the adversity with the conditions, my pace had remained solid over the 31 miles and the stretch goal I had set for myself was reached. I had hoped to beat the 11 hour mark and with delight I lumbered across the mat just before my rabbit, Brandon at 10:51:23. I collapsed on the ground in exhaustion and waited for my rapid breathing to slow, before gingerly revealing an ear to ear smile. I had accomplished what I came to do. I laid there for a while next to do the slain giant and stared off into the silvery sky, reflecting on the incredible journey that I had just experienced. I loosened the grip on my spear and it rolled out from my hand. What a battle that was. It was almost too incredible to have been real. But it WAS real. The Painted Warrior was not just some fictional character in my story. It was me… and I really did those things.
First off, I want to thank Spartan Race for hosting such an epic event. I know that many fell victim to the brutal conditions and I was nearly there as well. The results of this UB should leave you feeling emboldened, either because you survived the course or because you will rise up even stronger the next time around. Special thanks to Odette Wiebold, Meg Ramirez, and James Appleton for their support during my race. Aeni’s shoes are a lot to fill, but you all really came through tremendously. Thanks to Brandon Welling for the friendship and the chance to compete alongside you. It was a blast and I hope to see you at more Ultra Beasts in the future. Thank you to all those who gave a kind word out on the course and those who showed up to see me off and cross the finish – Chris, Joseph, and Andi to name a few. Of course, a huge thank you to my sponsors Core Power, Athletics8, BeetElite, Born2Run and Reel Creations for having my back. Next for us, will be the inaugural Spartan Race in Seattle where I will be back in paint. I hope to see some of you there.