Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Spartan Beast Recap

A Runner's Ramblings: Volume 6; 27th Edition 
372.6 miles raced, 5550 meters swam and 146.3 miles biked in 2011
Race: Spartan Beast
Place: Killington, VT    
Miles from home:  2280 miles
Weather: 80 degrees; sunny; humid

I did not have fun at this race.

For those of you new to the way I speak and write, I am very specific. Just because I did not have fun at the race does not mean that I am not happy I did this race.  In fact, at the ripe old age of 35 I set both 10k and 15k personal bests last month. At neither race did I actually have fun. After the race, happy with my accomplishments, I had fun.  But during the race, struggling against new time goals, running hard and pushing my limits, fun is not exactly the name of the game. So while I did not have fun during the Spartan Beast, I am definitely glad I did it. Even though it almost did me.

To explain, the Spartan Beast is an obstacles course race over a distance of 10-12 miles. If it was just that simple, and you thought like I did that it was, this recap would tend to lean to the boring side a bit. However, it is far from that simple and to underestimate the race, like I did, would be a big mistake.

To my defense, one can underestimate the race somewhat because the actual race is kept a secret until, well, you are on it.  Only when you are running the race (and running is a term one can use quite loosely for a good portion of this event) do you fully grasp what you have in store for you. The description on the website of "...for the most part this is going to be a big 10-12 mile loop around the resort complete with a steep and long bushwhack, a short swim in shallow water, plenty of obstacles, and the usual fire jump and gladiator pit" doesn't come close to doing it justice.

I will get basically my only complaint with the race out of the way at the front - the aid stations needed some sort of electrolyte drink. I know fully that the race website stated that they would not have any such drinks but for a race of this difficulty, they should be provided.  With a temperature in the 80s and the humidity being quite high (both far from comfortable for me but also far from as bad as they could be) the necessity for replenishment was also high, in my opinion. Given the unknown obstacles on the course, the knowledge of whether you could bring your own refreshment and have adequate access to it was not full. However, in spite of all the difficulties of completing this race, the hydration issue remains my only complaint.

Unfortunately, it was the one thing which affected me the most.
Race Day:

There were multiple heats which went off on the morning of the race, mostly to ease congestion on the course. I opted for the competitive heat with delusions of placing very high still not yet washed away from my head by the altitude and obstacles. Even at the respectable start time of 9 AM, the temperature was already 82 degrees. As I mentioned earlier, heat and humidity could have been a lot worse but I knew I was not looking forward to either of them. Bear in mind, until the race started, I still was thinking this would take about 2- 2.5 hours at a nice brisk pace. As such, I would have my last solid workout prior to my Ironman 70.3 distance triathlon a week later. That thought of ease makes me laugh to think about now.

In the minutes before the race began I got to chat with many who I had met the night before at the packet pickup.  Wearing my "Beef. It's What for Dinner" shirt and working with the Vermont Beef Council I was amongst many like-minded athletes who were more than happy to see someone proudly displaying their affinity for healthful food on their chest.  I even had a nice conversation with a guy wearing a "Tri Vegan" shirt with both of us obviously noticing the other's shirt. To his credit "I'm a vegan" never came out of his mouth. You have no idea how rare that is.

As we lined up to start, I was nervous and excited.  I had no idea what to expect but knew it would be a challenge. I am going to try and recap the race and all the obstacles to the best of my knowledge but I am sure I will miss some. There are definitely a few I would sooner forget.

We started off with a fire pit jump which was more for show than anything else. After that we immediately began climbing, a theme which would be repeated often. The second obstacles we encountered was a series of short walls we either had to climb over or scurry under. I was beginning to think that this race was going to be somewhat challenging but should be over fairly soon.  I was wrong.

I had purposefully not worn a watch as I thought there would be no reason for it. With no other race similarly run under my belt to compare any times to, a watch would be somewhat useless. I wish now I had worn it just to see how long it took to get up some of the hills we climbed. With a reported 12,000' of up and down climbing in these 12 miles, I found out very quickly there would be very little running on this day.

Our first climb was probably the steepest and longest. Many times the athletes were forced down to their hands and knees to try and traverse wet, knee-high grass through which only a small path had only been worn down by those who had crushed it in front of you.  Ribbons with the Spartan Race logo were all that guided you on your trek and very often you could not even see the top of the mountain you were climbing. It is to my understanding that the ski slopes we were climbing were of the "black diamond" variety for skiers, which is apparently some of the hardest to go down. Obviously going up wasn't much easier.

At the top of the first hill, we were presented with a big stone attached to a rope and pulley that we needed to hoist to a certain point. Female competitors had a slightly less heavy stone but I have no doubt the vast majority of the women taking on the beast could have handled the larger stone just as well as me and other athletes. Well, at least me (I have next to no upper body strength to besting me is not hard.) I was happy to get the rock to the top rather quickly in spite of the lack of the muscles which would help me do so and began a nice downhill run. A little running later and we were presented with out first aid station. I drank furiously already noticing I was drenched in sweat and not feeling the greatest. I then quickly went up and over the spider rope web and saw nothing but downhill in front of me. As would happen throughout the day, in the obstacles which required pure strength, I would fall behind some much more stronger competitors and then just as quickly pass and distance myself on any sort of running portion, especially downhills.  As we made our way up and over 4 different straw barriers, I found the muddy water pits at the bottom of each to be quite refreshing. That's not something which occurs every day.

As we neared just the three mile mark, I have no doubt a sold hour of effort, if not more, had transpired. After shimming across the flat face of a wall where only a few block were nailed to help us spiderman our way across, we were given the option of quitting here. I wonder if anyone took it and wonder again if that number would have increased if we knew what actually lay ahead. I, thinking that perhaps some of the hardest obstacles (especially the climbing of hills) might be behind us, never gave the quitting option a second thought. That would change later.

After ringing the bell to signify I had cleared the spiderwall, I turned around and began trudging back up hill.  Going through a small water bit and then scaling yet another slatted wall, I could see climbing hills was not something we would be done with at all.  As my calf muscles burned and my achilles tendons ached, I began to become extra cautious and thoughtful of not only the 70.3 triathlon I had the next week but the rest of my racing schedule.  I simply had not made this race my "A" race and the thing with the Spartan Beast is that you best not take it lightly.  As such, I decided I would back off the throttle and simply make it through the race in one piece.

Cresting yet another hill we had a high wall in front of us. Any obstacle that requires the use of upper body strength like this definitely is not in my bag. As I decided to mount the wall by grabbing it and throwing my legs over to pull me over, a massive cramp took over my calf and I jumped back down. This was the first tell-tale sign that I was dehydrated and in need of lots of liquids. Suffice it to say it took much more effort than I would have liked to get over the wall. Afterward, I stood drinking furiously while I rubbed my calf.

Scattered throughout the course were not only tests of strength but ones of balance and smarts.  No runner was going to master this course, as was no bulky muscle-man. It was definitely the athlete who was extremely well-rounded in all disciplines of exercise. I can see the Cross-fit community being great lovers of events like these, and the multitude of shirts from various gyms of that nature testified to that fact. I was quite pleased that on the obstacles such as the zig-zag balance beam, the stump jump and similar events, I was able to flourish.  Later on, when straight-up rope climbs and swinging monkey bars, normally the bane of my existence, were conquered in fashions I never thought I could do, my self-esteem received a big boost.
That was what the Spartan Beast would do.  Build you up, break you down but then push you forward.

When we had to crawl under barbed wire in mud riddled with rocks which cut at your knees and elbows, you had to adapt. One athlete and I found there was just enough room to roll under the wire which saved the nicks and scrapes and allowed you to fly right through. I spent the next few minutes regaining my balance and not trying to throw-up but it was worth it.

Tossing rocks and sand into a paint bucket to carry up and over and then back down a hill required patience to not only fill your own bucket (I likened this to having to chose the switch with which your dad would spank you) but strength and balance to get around the course. When a nice cold water dip became a horrible thing which locked up your quads, you had to realize that even the refreshing portions could have hidden daggers.

The sand bag portion of the course, which required men to carry a 50 lb bag of sand (and I think women were given a 40 lb bag if they so desired) was the place where I almost broke. Nine miles into the course and my legs were very cramped. Climbing through the forest with the sand on my back did not help. I was in complete awe of the numerous men (and a few women) who appeared to me to be skipping through this portion with ease. No sooner did you finish this excruciatingly long hike through the forest, across a field and the back down the forest than you were faced with a box of weights in skis that you had to drag around a dirt lot and through fire. Here, with my quads rippling in convulsions of cramps was where I would have probably taken that dignified exit if it was offered.

However, none was presented and we were told we only had about three miles left.  So after simply lying on the ground for no less than 5 minutes, drinking an entire Gatorade that one saintly volunteer gave to me (I think it was her personal bottle) I found I was able to move again. Move, uphill, of course.

Without a doubt the hardest portions of the course were behind us.  A slog through the forest and a relatively easy 200 yard-ish swim were more or less all that remained.  There was a climb up a rope ladder out of the water and then the need to shimmy down a long rope to shore after the swim as well in front of us.  I have a feeling the vast majority of people did not make the rope shimmy and were subjected to what the punishment for failing at any obstacle was: "burpees".  Once on land, these squatting, leg thrusting jumping jack of sorts were about the last thing you wanted to deal if you failed at an obstacle. If you failed it was probably because you were exhausted.  But 30 such monsters were your penance and as my legs continued to seize and cramp with each thrust I could not wait to be done.

Up another hill, around the bend and to a spear-throwing area athletes had to go. After hitting your target (or not and doing burpees), you had one last slanted wall to climb, followed by another pretty but not difficult fire pit jump. The only thing standing between you and your finish were a few well-muscled guys with pugel sticks to lightly tap you as you went by. That is, if coming down the last wall you don't cramp so bad in your hamstring that you realize no further movement will happen. Raise you hand if you had that happen. *Dane meekly raises his hand*  I thought so.

Just some 50 yards away from the finish and I simply cannot straighten my leg. I feel like such an idiot within sniffing distance of my goal but with a body which will not cooperate to get me there.  When the cramps finally do subside, after way too long on the ground and wonderful attention by nearby EMTs (I wonder how busy they were on this day) I am able to hurdle the fire, take a pugel stick to the stomach and cross the finish.

I expected to take two hours to finish.  Instead, it took me 4:29:39.  I finished 69th overall out of ~180 in the competitive wave.

I did not have fun.  But I am so glad I did it.


mike mckenzie said...

Great article man, ive done 1 spartan sprint, and a few others (rugged, warrior) and i was "this" close to signing up for the Beast but felt i needed more time, I am both happy and sad at the same time for this choice

Mike and Julie said...

Dane! Great site and great posts! I linked to your last post ("How far is this marathon?") on my blog because it really struck a chord with me (in a good way). Keep doing what you're doing.

Mike @

run13point1 said...

Thanks for this! I am doing a Spartan Beast in October. I've never done anything like it before, not even the Sprint! Go big or go home, right? Any tips??

Andrea Marriott said...

I am a female and I'm signed up to do a Beast in October and I'm officially scared to death now!!