After months of anticipating this race, it was finally here, The Spartan Race Ultra Beast. My father tagged along with me for this trip so we woke up at 4am on Friday morning, Sept 21st. We arrived in Boston around 10am and wasted an hour trying to get our rental car situation sorted out, and then it was a nice 3 hour drive up to the wonderful land of Sparta, I mean Vermont. We took a detour and stopped off in Pittsfield, VT before heading to our final destination, Killington, VT. I felt it was necessary to give my pops a tour of where it all went down this summer when I participated in the Spartan Death Race. Both of us were starving so our first stop was of course the Original General Store. After filling up we headed out, I pointed out a few key spots and we continued down Route 100 until we reached Killington.
Olof was the first to arrive at the house and we met him at a grocery store we stocked up on supplies at before we went to the house. When we arrived it was only us, so we toured the house, scouted out the rooms and settled down in the basement. Soon after Junyong Pak, Shelly, and countless others began to arrive. Right away Pak got out the spears and started teaching us the proper technique for spear throwing. Within a few tries we were all throwing far better than before Pak’s quick lesson. He also set up a tyrolean traverse between the trees and a post on the house and taught all the methods to getting across this obstacle. I can’t even begin to tell you how awesome it was to receive lessons from the World’s Toughest Mudder.
Then I heard another car pull up while I was in the kitchen and I went outside to see who it was. Finally, the one person I was waiting for more than anyone else, Morgan. My Death Race savior, had finally, arrived. As usual, she was in extremely high spirits, and had more energy than a five year old all jacked up on Mountain Dew. We exchanged bear hugging each other off the ground and I was introduced to her client she trains, Pat. We all went inside and they got settled in. We were going to be having a pasta party in a few hours so between setting up for that, playing with the spear throws and saying our hellos to everyone that arrived we all had a lot of catching up to do. It’s amazing how a year ago most of these people were strangers, and even until that moment I still had only known many of the people via the social internetz (mainly Facebook), and yet somehow it felt like a family reunion. One big, Spartan Family reunion. Later we went over to the race site to pick up our registration packets and even there you couldn’t avoid running into a bunch of people you were unexplainably happy to see.
It was difficult to sleep that night, but eventually we all made our way off to bed, it felt as though I only slept a few minutes. We had to wake up around 6am to get ready so we could be at the race site by 7:05am. The race was scheduled to begin at 8am…it didn’t actually start until almost 8:15am however. When we arrived at the race site you could feel the energy in the air. The mountain was covered in a dense fog, we would be running through the clouds if it stayed around long enough. As we pulled up I spotted some friends from Chicago Spartans, Candie, Stefanie, Paul, and Maureen. I also spotted another familiar face, Brakken, he won the Indiana Spartan Sprint and I was rooting for him to place high at the Beast. Walking up to the race site put a stunned face on all of us, just moments before we arrived a SUV flipped turning into the site. We later found out they couldn’t see the ditch when they turned causing the vehicle to roll, thankfully everyone within was okay, they still went and did their race.
At the starting line you could just feel all the excitement building, we all were ready to tackle the Ultra Beast. We staked our place at the front of the heat, Morgan, Pat, and myself were there, along with Matt B. Davis, host of my favorite podcast, and Margaret from Dirt in Your Skirt. There was Junyong Pak, Hobie Call and Olof. I remember spotting Andi Hardy, Ella Anne Kociuba, and I even had a chance to introduce Andy Weinberg, one of the founders of Spartan Race, to my father just before the race. With so many top athletes here for this race you knew it was going to be an incredibly competitive race. Not only was this the first ever marathon distance obstacle race, but it was also the Spartan Race World Championships. Just under a year ago I competed at the 2011 Spartan Race World Championships in Texas, since then they have relocated the end-all be-all event to the homeland, where Spartan first began, in Vermont. It was after that race last year that I decided to compete at the Spartan Death Race a year earlier than originally planned. So many excited feelings were brewing. Before the rules were sounded off by race director, Michael Morris, I gave Morgan one last HUGE hug for good luck. Then it was time to listen to all the rules: stay on trail, watch for markings, if you miss an obstacle you must do 30 burpees with push-ups, and so-on. Ultra Beast racers were provided green armbands, these would signal other racers doing the beast to move to the side for us on obstacles; free season passes were on the line after all. To get the pass you had to finish by the 7pm cut-off time. For me that was my primary goal, my secondary goal was to see how well I would rank in my first BIG distance race.
Cameras were in our faces, the sound of the shutters going off, my heart was beating, and then they dropped the sport-safe smoke grenades. I blew past the ancient pillars, keeping my standard start pace, not balls to the wall but enough to get out in front a bit. Within seconds we were at the first set of mud pits. They were the perfect size to clear with a leap, and then it was time to begin multiple ascents up the mountain. I looked back and didn’t see anyone I started with in sight. Part of me wanted to hang back, the other said push forward. After turning into the woods I met up with Margaret for a bit, we shared some words about the race, strategy, what our expectations were, and how some people were turning the juice on too soon. Every few minutes I looked back. As we moved up the mountain, zigging and zagging, and climbing, and running, it was so serene and fitting to see all the fog rolling off the mountain tops. This was the Ultra Beast, everything about it felt perfect. Almost too perfect.
Just before one of the downhills came up I reconnected with Morgan and Pat. Once that downward descent began I took off like a rocket. When it comes to the downhills, that’s where I have a natural advantage. For whatever reason, I’ve always found that my legs can handle the downhill, more than most. The way I have described it is that I basically let my body go numb, essentially letting gravity take over control; I only turn my control on to keep myself from tumbling over or losing it and biting the ground, hard. I did roll my ankle a few times out there but this specific time I just glided down that mountain side. As much as I was wanting to go fast I didn’t want to leave them behind. I kept moving forward. At some point we came out of a wooded section of the course and the fog was extremely dense. It seemed like we should just keep going straight but I remember seeing an arrow to my left in the distance pointing downhill. It seemed like the trail going straight made sense, but I couldn’t shake the notion that it didn’t make sense for them to have the course intersect itself. Just a few strides away though I remember seeing more Spartan Race markings, I figured, along with a few others, that we must be on the right path. It has to be, it’s marked, I thought.
Morgan, Pat and I kept breaking off from each other, but I slowed down a few times and we’d catch back up for a bit. I remember I had taken off for a while and that’s when some of the strongman obstacles came into play, dragging the stone block with a chain is the first I remember. We were probably about 3 or so miles into the course and we still didn’t seem to be anywhere near the festival section of the race. Wasn’t there supposed to be a 3 or 4 mile drop out point, I questioned myself. I shook off the doubt and trudged on. That tractor pull was one of the easiest I had ever done I remember proclaiming to another racer, he agreed. When I got to the bottom of this twisting and turning descent we were told to turn and I could see the tyrolean traverse in the distance, but before that we had to drag a sandbag that was in a small pallet-like box attached to a set of wooden skis.
We had to drag those wonderful things across gravel, it was fairly heavy and I was in awe at the women around me who were keeping pace with the same weight in theirs as I had in mine. Once I dropped the sled it was off to the traverse. Luckily, I had practiced a few times the night before thanks to Pak’s nifty little rig that I assisted him with setting up. It paid off, even though I could feel my sternum was already bruising up from this and the practice. Just before ringing the bell I swung underneath after losing my balance from performing the on-top technique. I only had two arm lengths to travel before it let out the wonderful, ding. The sick and twisted part of this all, there was no reward for successfully finishing the traverse, you still had to swim across the 38 degree water for a long enough distance that my body began to cramp almost instantaneously. When I emerged I had to crawl under a semi truck trailer and took off toward another set off rolling hills and mud pits, and then it was back into the forest for one of the most gnarly ascents I’ve ever faced.
About halfway up this section of the mountain, which was a full out hike at this point and if you didn’t know how to hike efficiently this couse was going to destroy you, I was passed by none other than Alec Blenis, a top contender at every Spartan Race. This took me by surprise, I knew I was hauling ass, but I had no idea I was doing that well. We had to be at least five miles into the course at this point. When we emerged from the dense, bushwhacking, mountain climbing, hiking section of the course we were greeted by a pleasant surprise, a rope climb. The rope hung there from the top of a Ski-lift carousel with a bunch of hay bails circling the bottom. A quick climb to the top and a ring of the bell and I was back on the course. I took off quickly but was stopped almost immediately just a few hundred feet away from the rope climbing obstacle. What the hell is going on, I thought? There were 4 or 5 other guys stopped, including Alec and a Spartan Race employee. We were informed that we went way off course. We would have to hold here and wait until the race director, Michael Morris, arrived to tell us our options for how to proceed from here. This was terrible news, there was so much on the line for some of the racers. For Alec, his points rankings was just shattered, for others the race would be over entirely, for myself my shot at placing top 10 or even 20 was completely out the door. I still had a larger goal that I held onto, and that was simply finishing what I started. After the Death Race this year, it’s become increasingly important to me to finish anything and everything I sign up for. This race included. While we waited for Michael, more and more people who clearly took the same wrong path as us joined the party. Even Morgan and Pat joined us not to long after we initially stopped. What a disaster, you had easily 20-30 people here by time Michael showed up in the pickup truck.
There was only one question that we mattered to us more than anything, now what?
To be continued…Part 2
Photo Credit: Nuvision Action Image