Spartan Ultra Beast: Vermont 2015
Originally posted by Stephen on September 23, 2015
It was completely dark outside but a lone flood light was shining brightly against the gloomy purple sky. The ground was freshly wet from a whole night’s worth of rain and the thick fog obscured the fact that there was a fire-breathing behemoth of a mountain staring down at us all. Racers began placing their drop bins under a nearby tent, while others hovered around the starting area, waiting for this year’s Vermont Ultra Beast to kick off. Some new, some veterans, some back to take up battle where they fell last year. The slight wind was stabbing enough to make me glad I was wearing a jacket. I sat down in the shade, out of the light, tucked up against a barricade. I knew that once we started I would not be sitting for a while, so I decided for me it was better to rest my legs while I still could.
All the emotions were there. Excitement. Fear. Determination. Doubt. I had been slowly rebuilding my body for several weeks leading up to this moment, with hiccups along the way. I knew I was mentally tough enough to finish, but my greatest worry was that my body would not be able to keep up. Now that my feet were fully healed and I was back to training, I had been experiencing what I believed to be “Popping-Hip Syndrome” , where the IT band snaps back and forth across my hip joints, a result of weak, atrophied stability muscles in my hips and glutes. This would build up into deep radiating pains during extended periods of use. I had some pain killers with me to combat it, just in case.
I took my place in the starting line, waiting to step off the ledge into that figurative pit of fire. I know that once I am in the flames, there’s no turning back. It’s do or die. Go until I cannot go any further. No ejection seat. No “undo” button. Just me vs. myself, either emerging in a blaze of glory or left charred with the lessons that I can take from the experience. Just as we were released, I whipped off my jacket and revealed the illustrious suit of armor I had forged. It was very personal and held much significance. Golden lions decorated the chest and shoulders. They were there to chase away my doubts and remind me of the strength within. Confidence was personified. With that, in a quiet dignity I trudged forward and disappeared into the flames.
Mile one was a generous warm-up. Relatively flat, I made my way towards the mountain along with my Spartan brothers and sisters. A few walls, hurdles, and a memory test, led us to the base of the K1 slope, rising over 3,000 feet, seemingly straight up and vanishing into the clouds. It appeared to be a giant wall from a distance… something to attack one step at a time. Up I went, feeling the burn right away. Each step begging the question, “Wait, why are you doing this?” Quickly, I stabbed those thoughts away with a thrust of my spear. Many steps later, it spoke again, “What are you trying to prove?” I clobbered that one into the side of the mountain with my shield. I was not giving ANY room to doubts. Each baneful whisper was stifled quicker than the last until eventually they went silent.
A mile later and a few thousand feet higher, I reached the peak and used the provided ropes to top out. My legs were screaming. What a relief it was to walk on a level surface. I offered myself a quick glance behind me to take in a brief reward for that monstrous effort. The fog was still very thick and did not allow for much visibility. No matter. I knew I’d be back up there again before the day was over, so I carried on. The Spear Throw up at the top was shut down, hay bales strewn all about. I assume it was due to the storm that came through the previous night. From there, I began heading back down. I decided I would absolutely take advantage of all flat or downhill sections to run. While I have never been a strong downhill runner, I did what I could, erring on the side of caution. If there was one thing that could have improved my pace dramatically, it would be that. With the slickness of the ground from the rain, it just did not feel safe to me, nor worth the risk of taking a bad fall and be unable to finish, so for the most part, I resorted to a downhill shuffle.
On the way down we were met with a Sandbag Carry loop as well as a Tire Drag before reaching the bottom at mile 4. Here, we faced what was called the Sandbag From Hell. Ultra Beast veterans from last year would remember this section where we were made to carry two 60 pound sandbags up and around the steep loop. However, it was only one sandbag this year and rumored to be around 75 pounds for the men. After enduring the misery from the previous year, this felt rather easy in comparison. I made good time here and soon found myself at a fork in the trail, where I scaled an 8 foot wall scribbled in green with the word #BEAST to take on the remainder of the course.
For this event I was armed with a GPS watch, courtesy of my friend, Odette. This was the first time in a UB event that I was able to track my time and mileage. In the past, I never cared for it and sort of reveled in facing the course blindly. There is something interesting about that approach, but this time I found that it was very helpful to not only have the awareness of time, but also to have indication of when to fuel myself. Even though I was not always hungry, I was fairly consistent at taking two items from my pack, as convenient, within every hour of competition. I have to say that I have never felt better nutritionally-prepared, for a race like this. From experience, I have learned which foods are easy for me to chew and swallow on the move. You don’t want something that takes forever to chew when you are breathing heavily from your mouth. I felt some low points that were quickly remedied with some calories, but I never bonked hard during this event. I’m quite happy about that.
The sun was finally starting to burn through the fog and provided the few extra degrees of warmth that I was waiting for. From here, I began a gradual weaving up through the wooded trails, still batting at the proverbial flames. I knew another big climb was on its way, but not before a Barbed Wire Crawl and Bucket Carry, as expected, up a steep hillside. The spilling of gravel out of the bucket at the end of the loop is always a welcome sound. Not long after, the next climb had arrived and I began the upward march, head down, legs burning, but mind elsewhere. “Everyone else is hurting too.” I guess that made it a little easier. Up and up and up. Then up some more. At the top, I scaled another wall and prepared for the next downhill assault. This is the kind of downhill that hurts. The kind where it’s so steep that after a while you starting wishing you were going uphill instead. Maybe it’s just me! At about Mile 8 we encountered an obstacle-dense section, starting off with a series of about 10 walls of varying height, some chest-high log hurdles, a log carry up and down a high slope. It then finished up with a free-standing Tarzan Swing obstacle with 6 hanging ropes to traverse. There was a high failure rate here, and I almost lost my grip for a second as I spun out of control, but avoided the dreaded burpees and continued on my way.
Next on the menu was just what we were all hoping for… more climbing. This time, it was up the back end up Bear Mountain, in the cover of trees. The sapling hand-holds were a welcome tool for advancing up the technical terrain. It was a long and grueling climb. Eventually, the trail took a downward trajectory and snaked through the woods, over logs, through sloshy mud pools and a chilly, but refreshing pond crossing. The last several miles of loop 1 trended upwards and presented some more heavy carries, barbed-wire crawls, the resolution of the Memory Test and rounded off with a Spear Throw, which I was happy to land. With the thrill of being halfway done and having suffered no penalty burpees, I rushed the final yards along the outskirts of the festival. Supporters were there to congratulate and support the Ultra Beast competitors, high-fiving us as we trickled in to the transition area.
I reached my bin at 5 hours and 23 minutes. I immediately opened it up and went straight for the Core Power that I knew was waiting for me. I had it in the freezer the night before thinking it would have thawed out by then, but it was still sort of slushy – kind of good that way actually. Next, I dug into my half a PB&J sandwich, refilled my hydration pack with Gatorade, exchanged all my empty wrappers with new fuel and re-upped on a shot of Beet Elite. I even popped a couple of pain pills for the hip, more as a precaution than a necessity. Not as quickly as I wanted, but I was back on my feet and out of there in 17 minutes. Back into the fire.
Could I match my previous time? Was a sub 11-hour finish possible for me? I knew it was a VERY far stretch, but I really did appreciate being able to even have that conversation with myself thanks to the GPS watch. I continued to run as long as the trail was runnable before me. K1 was quickly coming into view and with it came the sinking feeling in my stomach. During this lap, I was also running alongside other racers, from the Beast and Sprint courses. It did not matter that they were slower up the mountain because at that point, I was right there with them. This moment was the hardest part of my race. I had no intentions of quitting. In fact, the voices of doubt never made a peep again. But I still had to answer to the hard climbs ahead. My steps were slower and my breaks more frequent, but I grinded through it, enjoying brief views of my progress as I looked back. My hip seemed to be cooperating, as I didn’t notice too much of the snapping sensation that had me worried. Finally reaching the top of K1 relieved me of a huge burden. To me, it was all downhill from there, though not completely literal.
Sixteen miles into the race, I began my next downhill segment – a controlled free-fall at times. The sun had been exposed for a few hours and some sections of the course were much drier than before. This gave me some increased confidence on the descents. I opened up a bit more and tried to see if I could make up for lost time on the brutal climbs. Three miles and a few heavy carries later, I was back at the Bucket Carry obstacle. As an added challenge to Ultra-Beast competitors, the length of the loop was extended two-fold up the already punishingly steep slope. Make that quarter mile carry a whopping half mile! Needless to say, lugging something like 80 pounds of rock up this mountain was a cruel task. As one who rarely needs to set down the bucket on a typical race, I was forced to stop and rest at least 12 times. This really threw a wrench into my spokes. I knew up there on the side of the hill, with the bucket resting on my extended knee, that any chance of a sub 11-hour finish was out the window. With my lower back starting to cringe, I was never happier to hear that sound of pouring gravel back into the pile.
This was a rough way to be set up for the next summit. It was another slow drag. However, I saw many who were worse off than me. I feel that my calorie intake was keeping my head in the game, while I saw many others shuffling about like the undead. No drive. No gas in the tank. It was the second half of lap two where, I really started to catch and pass a lot of racers, and not because I was pushing particularly hard at that point. I had no fear of missing cut-offs. I knew I was very safe, but I didn’t want to just cruise to a comfortable finish. Looking at my watch, I did the math and realized that a sub 12-hour time was still within reach. That was my original goal coming into the event. That dangling carrot became a huge motivation for me. I began popping energy gels every half hour to support my quickening pace.
The pressure was building inside. I knew exactly where I could unleash it, but I still had to ascend Bear Mountain first. I climbed it quicker than before, with purpose, growing stronger and stronger with each passing mile. No time for wandering thoughts. No time for much chit-chat. Being brief with other racers who were fans felt a bit rude to me, but I was on a mission. The time was coming to unleash the lion and I could feel it. I wanted to see that 11 after my name so badly. Not a 12. I want the 11, damn it! I reached the turning point where I knew I had several miles of runnable downhill stretch. “Here it is.” I let loose like I was just freshly released on a flat sprint course. My stride tripled as I went barreling through the forest trails at a super aggressive pace. Not only was I chasing a number, I was chasing daylight. To finish before the sunset would be a dream come true.
I continued to move up the ranks, through the last carry, two barbed-wire crawls and a slew of remaining obstacles. During the last crawl, I must have rolled my wrist on to the ground and hit a setting on the GPS watch. It was no longer displaying my course time and I couldn’t figure out how to clear it. The passing of time was hard to gauge at this point and so I did not know how much time I had left to reach my goal. After rolling about 150 revolutions under the barbed wire, I stood up and nearly kept rolling right off my feet. Regaining my equilibrium, I picked up the intensity once again. “Come on, 11!” Over a couple more log hurdles and into the final obstacle, the Spear Throw – my favorite! I knew if I made this I was golden and would also have completed a burpee free Ultra-Beast. I took some time to focus and threw a few practice throws into the dirt. “Visualize. Be one with the spear.” I pulled back, released straight and it grazed through the bottom edge. “Gahh!” I scurried to the burpee pit and knocked out a quick 15, 5, 5, 5. Immediately back to my feet, I floored it towards the finish and drop-kicked this UB in the face. Finish time was 11:49:11… and it was still light out! I pulled off such a strong sustained finish that I was stunned. I did not just survive the UB. I thrived during it, emerging from the flames intact, glowing brightly in hues of gold. “Wow, I am capable of THAT?! Even after all that hard work today?!” Near the end of this race, I saw a glimpse of what I am truly made of and I’m sure there is still much left to discover… and so I will continue to jump into the fire until I am no longer curious.
For those who read my blogs, thank you for following along in the journey, and thank you for the continuous support. I live for racing and telling this story. It has evolved to my life’s work. To have a supportive audience is an amazing thing. Special thanks to my loving wife who is always there making it all run smoothly behind the scenes. Thank you to my sponsors who help me to train and perform as best as I can. Please check them out and consider them for your own needs: Core Power, Athletics8, BeetElite, Born2Run, Reel Creations. Congratulations to everyone who finished the race, and great effort to those who did not. Either way, I hope to see you all there again next year. Next up for me will be the Ultra Beast in Tahoe, less than 2 weeks away. Happy training…
Here’s what brought with me on course and in my transition bin… just in case this might be a helpful reference for future Ultra Beasters. I thought a visual representation might be interesting. The stuff is somewhat arranged into two mirrored groups, one set for each lap. I was on course almost 3 HOURS LESS than I planned for, so that explains some of the excess. I also planned a bit extra just in case and also to allow myself some options depending on what I felt like eating. The nutrition plan was to consume 2 of these items within every hour of competition (between 200-300 calories). Most of these items were chosen for being easy to chew on the go. However, I found that because of the colder temperatures during this event, the waffles were much less chewy than they normally are, making them slightly difficult to eat while racing.
-Beet Elite Neo Shot x2
-Nuun Electrolyte Tablets
-Small Waterproof Container
-Chia Seed / Fruit Squeeze Packets x 3
-Honey Stinger Gel x 3
-Honey Stinger Energy Chews x 2
-Honey Stinger Waffles x 3
-Bison / Turkey Bars x2
-Half a PB&J (not pictured)
-Banana (not pictured)
-Core Power x2 (one during transition / one after finish)
-Reapply Trail Toes
-Change of socks
-Add Headlamp to pack
-Add Glow Sticks to pack
-Replace used up fuel as necessary
-Beet Elite Neo Shot x 2
-Nuun Electrolyte Tablets
-Tylenol and Aleive
-Chia Seed / Fruit Squeeze Packets x 4
-Honey Stinger Gel x 3
-Honey Stinger Energy Chews x 2
-Honey Stinger Waffles x 4
-Bison / Turkey Bars x 2
-Pro Bar x 1