This weeks Featured Athlete, and super nice guy Josh also competed in and finished the Ultra Beast – and offered to put his experience in words for us. I was hardly going to say no 🙂
I actually ran with Josh briefly – he caught me at the bucket carry, and looked great, and we passed each other a couple of times before I watched him do the tyrolean traverse (while I was burpeeing) – then he was gone until the final sandbag carry – he looked strong and was moving fast!
The first intelligent question that came to mind as I stood amongst the four or five hundred people ready to attempt the 2013 Spartan Ultra Beast: “What am I doing here?” I still don’t have a good answer. I survived the Ultra Beast last year and earned a season pass, and I suppose that drove me to return. It really is hard to comprehend the forces that drive us to attempt an event that is certain to make us suffer a full day of pain and discomfort for a glow-in-the-dark trinket worth one dollar.
It was pitch black, we were milling about in the festival area. Andy Weinberg of Death Race was on the mic talking ragtime about how overnight flooding had forced them to add two miles to the course, and that our drop bins had been moved to random locations on the mountain. As a past Death Racer, I ignored him. People were jumping up and down and getting themselves amped up. I tried to do the opposite. Going out fast would be disastrous. Last year the course had been around 28 miles and had taken me nearly ten and a half hours. Junyong was beside me. We had both scouted what portions of the course we could on Saturday and had both adjusted our nutrition plans after hearing so many racers complain of cramping. He floated up to the front and I stayed where I was. My experience last year told me that only a few people, perhaps four or five, would be able to actually “run” the whole course. Many others would burn themselves out trying.
After the standard Spartan motivational repetitions, we headed out en masse onto the Beast course. We would do the first 5 miles of it now, head into the woods for an undetermined number of miles and then rejoin the Beast course where we left off and complete the 9+ miles that remained. Thanks to the rain, we all had wet feet within two minutes of the start. A couple standard obstacles went by and we started the first of a seemingly endless number of climbs. I stopped for a moment high above the valley and looked back on the slowly moving line of headlamps creeping up the mountain like a ponderous caterpillar. It was still very dark.
A few weeks back I hiked the Presidential Traverse in the White Mountains. It was a very challenging climb and we stopped at one point on the trail in complete darkness, turned off our headlamps and stood quietly. We were above the alpine line so there were few trees or animals. For a few minutes we were in the most complete silence of my life. It was surreal. Moments like these are indelible.
The true indicator that this race was going to be different came at the first sandbag carry. To this point I had gone 4 miles in 2 hours and was doing math in my head about the paces needed to beat cutoffs and simply finish. When I put the 60lb bag on my shoulders and headed up again, the math got even less hopeful. In my opinion, that sandbag carry was the way they should all be. It was very, very difficult and twice as long as any other I’d done prior. On the way down, I slipped on a severe decline and the sandbag flew off my shoulders and rolled about 40 feet, nearly taking out a few racers, including Matt Davis, on their way up. It was dangerous. Just like the race.
We climbed back to the top after that. I think we hit another obstacle wall up there. There were a silly number of walls everywhere. Most of them small ones. Reminded me of Ruckus, not in a good way. We then embarked into uncharted territory (and the infamous forest-green course markers) with our first steps onto the Ultra Beast course. We had to navigate a twisty balance board walk across two by sixes, lot of folks fell off this one. There were a series of gnarly up and down bushwhacking trails, one of which ripped off my timing chip and gave me a deep, arrow shaped wound on my palm.
Then came the long grassy slope. It was awesome. It was a three mile winding path, covered almost entirely by soft grass and moss, and gently sloped downhill towards Bear Mountain. I maintained a sub 7 minute pace on that stretch. It was broken up by a barbed wire crawl, but this portion of the race greatly improved my race math. I ran much of it with a two other guys, names unknown, and we passed dozens of folks.
We came out of it to a (surprise) 4 foot wall manned by Alex McCabe. He told us Junyong Pak was leading and an hour ahead. Sounded about right. We headed into the woods for quite some time on “trails” that had been thick bramble and woods before Todd came through and tied green ribbons to random trees. At the end of those, we had the pleasure of reliving the brutal final ascent from last year’s Beast. Yeah, you remember that one, complete with the rope climb at the top. At this point a volunteer incorrectly instructed us to run down the main ski slope to the base of Bear Mountain where our bins had been dropped. Turns out there was a path we were to take off to the right. We were all sad to have missed it because that descent was by far the worst of the day. It was crazy. The slope was covered with low, thorny bushes and burrs, many of which disguised ankle breaking holes and rocks. We all made it down, but SLOWLY.
We ran over to a spear throw, and on the way my wife Amy caught me and kissed me, great photo. (Thanks Anthony Matesi!) I shanked the spear throw (though I later stuck the second one dead center). I blame the kiss. First burpees of the day. Then we had a pond crossing, a set of small walls (Grr) manned by Matt Bollock and a log flip. The log flip was adjacent to our bins and we were at approximately 12.5 miles at that point. One would therefore assume that it was time to access the bins. Wrong. Oh, sure you could get to them by doing a burpee penalty, but most of us decided to keep on going and access them when we could do so without penalty. That turned out to be an error for many.
I bypassed the bins and headed up a trail, over another stupid short wall, and into the woods. We were in the woods for a couple of miles and there was another really nice decline to run on. We came out to a set of obstacles by the road and a ski lift. If you were up there, you probably saw the 12 foot ladder wall erected there as you drove by. The Hobie Hop over a bridge (I was scolded by Jennifer for lack of hopping at one point), an awesome set of commando monkey bars (pipes hanging from chains and different heights and orientations), and the ladder wall. Great course design at this stop. From there it was another challenging set of ascents and descents. I can’t overstate the impact these continual climbs had. They were intense and relentless. The miles in this race were the hardest I’ve done anywhere. They taxed all of us in ways we are still feeling, believe me. After a while I looked down at my GPS watch and realized we had passed the 16 mile mark and still no bins. Furthermore, we were far away from the base in the woods. The folks I trudged along with at that point were out of liquids. I was very happy I’d opted for my 100oz Camelback.
Unbeknownst to us, there was quite a battle going on at the front of the race. Pak had been running with a 2:25 marathoner who brought no water along and who told his family he expected to finish in 4 hours. He accessed his bin with the penalty burpees and disappeared. Ben Nephew and Olof Dallner exchanged the lead many times in these miles, apparently. Ben is a very well-known trail and ultra runner and was running all the hills. Olof described to me how his sizable lead disappeared as Ben ran past him on a steep ascent. Crazy. My son, Callan, stopped Ben and Pak dead in their tracks demanding high fives at the spear throw. Sorry, lads. We had a climb so steep there were ropes to assist, and after that there was a Hercules Hoist, and then we finally ran down to the bins. 18 MILES IN!!
When I got to the bins there were a few dozen people there. Most of them had burpeed in. I told people that it was a long way back here and that they should get moving. It had taken me a few hours to get back. I was getting a bit of sugar belly at this point from the Gatorade and didn’t eat much at my bin. I refilled my Camelback, drank, snacked a little, kissed my family, and moved on.
Eventual winner, Junyong Pak’s GPS log
Just outside the bins we had to select logs and carry them up the mountain, navigating a barbed wire crawl (with the log) along the way. That was challenging. I was feeling a bit tired at that point. We followed that with a very long steep ascent that went on for a couple miles and brought us back to the Beast course. I think we rejoined right at the second (for us) Hercules Hoist and monkey bars. I confirmed with a volunteer that we were to follow the Beast course henceforth and that there just over 9 miles left. By my math, that meant a 30 mile course. The remaining miles were so much easier in terms of elevation and grade that I ran much of it. Not easy, mind you, easier. It was a pretty fun course and it was cool running this part with more people around. I’d been running alone or with just a few people for hours and hours. The Ultra Beasters spread out very quickly. There were a couple barbed wire crawls in here, one of which was the longest ever. Fun.
I got down to the water obstacles looking forward to cooling off. The rope climb out of the water was fine, as was the traverse wall, but the Tarzan Traverse got me. Last year I made this easily, but the ropes were wet and mine were missing knots! In the drink. I came out of the water and saw Sandy (hi Sandy!) and it wasn’t until I got to the memorization challenge that I remembered that I owed burpees for falling off the ropes. I assume there was a designated place to do them, but I missed it. Two things here: one, we had gotten our codes to memorize 20 miles ago (I remembered mine as I turned it into a song), two the burpees I did for Tarzan wrecked me!! I had been taking electrolyte/salt tabs all day and had avoided cramps, but after those very ugly burpees my legs were trashed. They froze up hard and I felt like I was walking on chopsticks. There was a little gulley on the course and I did the Frankenstein walk through there. I must have looked pretty bad.
Thankfully, the cramps passed fairly quickly, though I did have to settle for a fast walk all the way to the Tyrolean Traverse. These were by far the coldest miles of the race for me. Not being able to run really hurt. As for the traverse, practice makes such a difference on that one. It really enables you to survive even when you are burnt! The race actually hinged on this obstacle, as I learned later. Ben Nephew was actually in the lead when he reached it. He fell off all three times, did his 90 burpees AND was assessed the 15 minute penalty. Pak and Olof both completed the traverse. Pak overtook Ben shortly after and kept the lead. The 15 minute penalty moved Ben from 2nd to 3rd at the finish line. The end was in sight now.
A few miles of trail running that felt a lot longer than it was brought me to the last sandbag carry. Honestly this one felt superfluous to me. It was on a very easy grade with the standard pancake sandbags and felt like it was just a way to make the race a bit longer. I ran pretty fast from there over the last few obstacles to the finish, feeling strong. It was awesome having so many friends and family there yelling my name. The gladiators held back the batons and offered me fist bumps instead, an honor they bestowed on all Ultras and Death Racers who finished. I don’t know why, but I thought that was pretty cool. I saw Marcie and Bobby at the finish. They gave me my glow-in-the-dark medal. Thanks! I saw Carrie Adams from Spartan there and she gave me a great hug. She is a very special person who got me into the Ultra last year. From there I walked back to the fire jump and stood with Pak and Yvette, Olof and Caitlin, and my family and warmed up while we all cheered for the amazing people who crossed that finish line. This race was the single hardest course I’ve done. It took me 11 hours and 55 minutes, and only 43% of entrants finished. The Death Race and World’s Toughest Mudder were harder, but only because they are longer. It was a treacherous, difficult, maddeningly long fight through those woods. I’m not sure I’ll feel very compelled to return a third time. When the preregistration link came out today I rolled my eyes and closed it.
A couple of things to chew on before I go. Firstly, I do recommend this race. Highly. But that comes with some caveats. Firstly, this is not a race you can show up and do. I was averaging 50-60 miles a week in the months prior to the event. The leg strength that came with those miles was essential, in my opinion. The local Tough Mudders are fabulous training for this race as they are all on mountains and they don’t care if you run extra laps. Beyond the miles, you have to practice the hard obstacles any way you can. Often. Don’t assume that you’ll even be able to do burpees after 20 miles. They almost got me! You must plan your nutrition and hydration very well.
I had a problem with several aspects of this race. 1. 30 is not 26.2. I’ve been around the block a few times now. I actually guessed it would be 30. That’s what I planned for, and good thing I did. Advertise it as “More Than 26.2.” 2. If you tell us we can access our bins at the approximate half-way point, then we should be able to do that. Without a penalty. Having the bins 5 mountain miles further than we expected is a Death Race style mind game that is not appropriate for a straight race. People like me aren’t going to do burpees to get to our bins. We are going to keep going until we are supposed to get to them. The miles without water cost some racers badly. 3. If your 23 mile cut off actually comes at 27+ miles, then maintaining the cutoff time is unfair. You designed the course. You knew the length would keep people out there much longer this year. I personally have a big problem with people being pulled off the course before the stated course closure time of 9pm. 4. Prize money. The most absurd part of this race was the $1,000 prize. How can this be justified? The course was more than twice as long and difficult than the Beast course, and yet had 1/15th the prize?? I assume this meant to encourage people to enter the championship event, but the distribution of money was announced very late, and the division of the cash minimizes the incredible achievement of winning Spartan’s most difficult race. That’s right, the Ultra Beast is their MOST difficult event. It should get a real prize. Less than the championship race is fine, but why not $10k?
All that aside, the course itself was fantastic and I appreciated how much effort went into the Ultra Beast only portion, especially the cool and unusual obstacles. Norm Koch, Dan Luzzi, and Todd Sedlak really outdid themselves in a big way. Very impressive. I was very thankful for all the Spahtens I saw out on the course. You really helped me push on. As always, huge thanks go to the volunteers and staff as well. Enjoy those season passes!
- Many more Ultra Beast photos by Anthony Matesi