Spartan up!

Spartan up!

spartan-bucket

(Audio: link)

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Link SpartanUp.mp3

A first timer takes on the Beast.

The funniest line of the day was when I was flying down an open field descent passing people in big clumps.  I yelled “Come on people you’re being passed by a 54 year old guy!”

A lady looks at me sideways and responds “Yeah, but not a normal one.”

I took that as a compliment.

The great herds of hikers I passed were mostly pretty cranky about it.  I don’t get it.  If you’re out there you might as well enjoy yourself.  I suppose if you’re at the end of your rope and some hairy, half-naked old guy flies by yelling “Weeeeeee!” it might piss you off.

It wasn’t easy, but it wasn’t the hardest thing I’ve ever done.  I was a bit out of my element but I raced the Spartan Beast as best I could and did relatively well.  I met my primary goal of not dying and my secondary goal of not injuring myself.  I did get nicked up and was a bit sore.  It will be a couple weeks before all the bruises, scrapes and scratches heal.  But nothing broken or sprained.

I ran this event as a bit of a lark because they reached out to me and offered an entry.  My daughter Teresa wanted to come along and do the sprint so I signed her up too and I was glad for the company.  We made the drive up to Killington, VT Saturday morning.  I raced on Saturday and she raced Sunday morning so it was another nice endurance adventure weekend for us.

Having been offered a complimentary entry I figured I’d get my money’s worth and run one of the events with a higher difficulty level.  When you look at the advertised events it starts with the Sprint, moves up to the Super and then up to the Beast.  The Sprint is advertised as 5k distance, the Super is a 10K and the Beast is around a ½ marathon.  There’s a special shirt / 3-part medal if you do all three.

There are also longer events like running the ‘Ultra-Beast’ which is the Beast twice and the Agoge which is a special multi-day event.

Not knowing much about Spartan races I signed up for the Beast event which is listed as 13 miles and 30 obstacles.  I mean, it’s only a ½ marathon, right?  How long could it take? How hard could it be?

I have my best adventures when I don’t pay attention too much.

I’m in decent shape this summer and could jog any given ½ marathon in under 2 hours so I figured I’d do this in under 4 hours, right?

Two weekends previously I ran the very difficult Wapack Trail race which was 18 miles of technical single track over 4 mountains, twice in just about 4 hours.  At the end of July I ran a hot trail marathon in around 5 hours and that’s twice as far as this Beast, right?  You see my logic here.

I looked at the Spartan training plans and they were, frankly, terrifying with hundreds of burpees, squats and pullups.  It was like something out of a gladiator movie.  Or that old “Monty Python sketch about Ken the Boxer” I watched a few videos of races and it looked reasonably engaging but some of the athletes were clearly not in the best of shape.

I asked Coach to give me some Spartan specific training but, honestly, he thought it was stupid idea.  He basically gave me the same training he always does, maybe with a bit more yoga and core work.  I can honestly say I think I did more burpees on the course then I had done in all my training.

To summarize, I went into this Spartan Beast race having no idea what I was getting into and without training for it.  Guess what?  I did really well.

That’s right.  I excelled.  I came in 10th in my age group out of 106 old guys. I was 220th out of 2296 males and I was 252 out of 3,213 overall.  And I think that’s just the finishers.  They pulled a large number of people off the course due to injury and time limits.

How is this possible?  How did my tired, old marathoner butt out perform all these millennial cross-fitters?

It’s simple.  I actually trained for the race.  They didn’t.

It turned out the obstacles were 1% of the course.  99% of it was technical, mountain, trail running.  Well it was technical, mountain, trail running for me.  It was a miserable death march for all those well-chiseled, millennial cross-fitters who spent their training flipping tires and doing hundreds of pullups.

I can honestly say, with a large dose of irony, that I was probably the only one who trained well and course specifically in the whole crowd.  I was able to fake the obstacles and play to my strengths.  I just rolled off Wapack and the Indy Trail marathon.  I WAS trained for this race.

I think another advantage I had was a certain familiarity with long races and suffering.  I can go pretty deep into the suffer locker when I need to and still compete.  I got the impression that these folks weren’t as familiar with the sweet suffering of a multi-hour endurance event.

Don’t get me wrong.  If I had to compete in the global tire-flipping, box-jumping games I wouldn’t last 60 seconds.  I just happened to luck into a course that was basically a long mountain race.

Still, it took me 6 ½ hours to get through the course.  Mostly because of the 3-4 near vertical ascents of the mountain we did.  It was slow going.  Especially in the last couple hours when I was out of fuel.

What I discovered, (as I was getting ready in the parking lot), was that the average open participant takes 7-9 hours.  Really?  I had no intention of staying out there that long.  I told Teresa 4-6 hours max.  I mean it’s only 13 miles.

The organizers told all of the waves starting after noon to carry headlamps and glow sticks but I thought that was just more ridiculous Spartan hyperbole.  It turns out it wasn’t.  When I was leaving the venue that night you could see the long line of headlamps trooping along the slopes on the mountain.

Those technical descents would be really difficult in the dark.  Glad I wasn’t out there.  There was some controversy because they let people start the Beast up until 2:00 PM, knowing the average cross fitter takes 7-9 hours.  Then they pulled them all off the course at 9:00.  Those people were a bit miffed at having paid a couple hundred bucks and traveled to Vermont only to get forcibly DNF’ed.

This was the ‘Open’ division.  There is also a ‘Competitive’ and an ‘Elite’ division.  I toyed with entering as competitive, but then I got over myself and went with open.  The advantage of the competitive division is less traffic on the course and people generally know what they’re doing.  The advantage to the open division is that they are far less strict about how you approach the obstacles.  The volunteers really didn’t care if we did obstacles correctly or did all the penalty burpees for not completing the obstacles.  I think I could have run around the obstacles and no one would have stopped me.

It was a nice, warm sunny day when Teresa and I rolled into the venue.  We had to pay $10 for parking (on both days).  There were shuttle buses to the starting area.

I got kitted up before we went on the bus.  Looking at the weather I decided to go shirtless.  I had the same Hoka road shoes that I used in my other trail races. I had my water back pack – I had considered trying to ‘live off the land’ but there didn’t look to be much support on the course and I didn’t want to run out of water.  I had three old Gu’s that I threw in the pack for fuel.

I didn’t want to carry a bunch of stuff because of the obstacles.  Any extra stuff would have to be dragged through the course.  Instead of a hat I made a hippy-helmet out of an old bandana with a chilli pepper motif.  I didn’t wear a watch or sunglasses.  I put my wedding ring in a zippered pocket in my pack – I have lost a little weight and it’s not so tight anymore and I didn’t want it coming off in an obstacle. .

They made you wear a headband with your number on it and a timing chip on your wrist.  I put on a pair of Zensah calf sleeves as well. Everyone I saw had either calf sleeves or tall calf socks.  I figured they knew something.  I threw a pair of running gloves in the pack in case my hands needed protection.  I went with my tried and true Brooks baggie shorts with the liner and the man-thong tech undies. I greased up the pointy bits.  That was it.  We were off.

Teresa helpfully painted a large Spartan logo on my belly, because, hey, when in Rome.  I joined the queue-up for the 12:15 open Beast wave. There looked to be around 100 or so competitors in my wave.  The first thing they do is make your climb over a 4 foot wall to get into the corral. That’s a nice touch. Then an announcer whips the crowd into a frenzy.

I was chatting with some folks who came in from Ohio, a husband and wife and their friend.  I related how it was my first Spartan race and I hadn’t trained much but was a runner.  They said “You’ll be fine, just don’t go out too fast.” But their eye’s seemed to say “you have no idea how much trouble you’re in.”

With much hoopla were sent en masse on our way.  The first obstacles were 4 foot high beams that you had to vault.  I stopped to help a woman who could get over them.  In retrospect, she probably didn’t’ finish.

One of the early obstacles was to crawl under barbed wire.  There were two of these on the course.  I found these hard because it tore up my knees to army crawl through the dirt.  I had to take my pack off and push it ahead of me, which was a pain and got it all dirt covered.  Many people roll like logs under the barbed wire.  This seemed to work for them but they kept kicking me in the head in the process as I was moving pretty slow.

My strategy on the obstacles was to get as much help as I could, take my time and not get injured.

Another signature obstacle early in the race is the Bucket Carry.  You get handed a plastic 5 gallon bucket.  You have to fill it up with gravel and carry it up, around and down the hill.  It turns out all my yoga and core was good for these carrying things – or maybe it’s all the years I’ve spent running through airports with bags – but I found this really easy and you can see me smiling in the photos.  I’m having a blast.

There were a constant series of walls you have to climb over of different heights.  I managed the shorter ones, but with my ability to do 3 pullups I had to get help getting over the tall ones.  In the open division getting help is encouraged. Teamwork is part of the Spartan value system.  Good thing too, because without help I would not have made it through many of those obstacles.

It was a warm day.   The course was dry from lack of rain.  I was glad to have the water pack because I was working hard and sweating.

They did manage to engineer in some mud pits in the second half of the race, including one that you had to go completely underwater to get under an obstacle, but these were quite manageable.

The big water obstacle was an actual open water swim about half way around the course.  I say ½ way because it was about 6 miles in but time-wise this was probably 1/3 of the way through.  Like many ultra-type events they back loaded much of the difficulty and the back half of the course took much longer.  It’s a mental game. They like to throw hard stuff at you when you’re tired and think you’re almost done.

I knew the race played this way from reading Joe’s book.  One manifestation was to have an obstacle right after every hard climb.  Another was to have nonsensical mile markers along the course. The actual distance was somewhere between 14 – 15 miles.  If you were watching for mile markers you were playing a fools game because they were purposefully random to mess with you.

The water obstacle was a lake near the start line around 6 miles in.  You hit this after running (well I ran) down the mountain and you’re well warmed up by then.  It’s preceded by a tall climbing obstacle.  These climbing obstacles were all super easy, unless you were afraid of heights.  I joked that we had playground equipment in the 70’s when I was a kid that was worse.

When you got to the shore line they stuffed you into one of those big orange life jackets.  Which, prevents people from drowning, but also prevents those of us with a background in triathlon from swimming.  The water was advertised as 50 degrees Fahrenheit.  More hyperbole.  I would guess it was around 65 or 70 but cold enough that when people go from running down the mountain into the water they immediately cramp up to holy hell.

I started cramping too, but knew what was up and just tried to relax my legs.  I wasn’t getting any propulsion from my kicking anyhow with the shoes on.  The best strategy seemed to be to float on your back and use your arms to avoid the leg cramps and the lean on giant life jacket.

When you got to the middle there was a bridge with rope ladders hanging from it.  This was called the Tarzan bridge.  You were supposed to climb the rope ladder and swing across dangling rope hand holds to the other side.  Swimming in cold water and climbing the rope ladder was no problem but I just don’t have the hand grip strength to swing from ropes and plummeted back into the water after my second grip.

This is where I ended up doing my first 30 burpee penalty.  I ended up doing 90 on-course penalty burpees.  Twice for these dangly obstacles and once for being a total spaz in the spear throw.

I did all the burpees I was assigned. I didn’t do them well, but I did them.  Mine were more like the down-dogs I had trained for than the clean Spartan burpee.  Another advantage of being in the open division.  Then they made us swim/wade another ¼ mile to get back on the trail and the really hard climbing that was to come.

One obstacle I am tremendously proud of is the rope climb.  This is just what it sounds like.  You climb a rope 20 feet and ring a bell.  The last time I had done this was in 8th grade.  And as a chubby kid with no upper body strength I was awful at it.  But this time I wanted to do it. I set my goal to at least try every obstacle and give it my best.

For some reason I had out run the pack and was alone at the rope climb.  I chose a rope.  I stood and slowed my breathing.  I took a deep breath and centered my hands to my heart with my eyes closed.  Then I climbed that rope and rang that bell like a champ.  I may have screamed “F-You, rope” in some sort of mindless exorcism of eight grade demons.

After the water obstacle the majority of the competitors seemed to be spent. They were all walking.  Every time I came to a flat spot in the trail there would be 20-30 people lounging around resting.  Not me.  When the trail opened up I was psyched to have running room and took off at a trot.  Why walk?  You’re going to get there faster running and you use a different muscle set.

I had been choking down a Gu every hour or so when I felt my energy flagging.  And they helped.  I also brought some Endurolytes with me in a sealed plastic canister but they got all broken up from the jostling but they were gone about 3 hours in.

Due to my lack of proper preparation and poor expectation setting I brought enough supplies for a 4 hour race and ended up going 6 ½ hours.  I was hitting the wall in those last couple hours.  Nothing I haven’t felt before.  Even in my current lean state I’ve got plenty of fat to fall back on.  Not really much I could do except keep moving forward.

Then it got hard.  About 3 ½ to 4 hours into the race we headed up the final climb.  Up until this point we had climbed parts of the mountain 2-3 times already.  It alternated from trooping up the ski slope to scrambling up some gnarly single path technical in the woods between the slopes.  And when I say gnarly I mean it.  Very steep, loose dirt, roots, rocks and trees.  In places you could use your hands to pull yourself up.  They even had ropes in particularly steep spots.

What made these technical sections hard was you could only go as fast as the person in front of you and there were few opportunities to pass.  Technically it’s known as “the theory of constraints” – which is a fancy way of saying everyone moves as fast as the slowest person.  You’d have to pick your spots and try to jump by people.  Otherwise it was a conga line of slow moving feet.  It made it hard to choose a good line and get a rhythm going.

The one potential upside was all the young cross fitter booty in cross fitter booty shorts I had to eyeball from six inches away all day long.  That wasn’t awful.  They may not know how to trail run but they look good in their clothes.

Going down was the same gnarly single path but you could build up momentum and get by people easier.  A couple times I tucked in behind the ultra-runners who seemed to have some sort of implied passing right and just followed them.  Once I figured it out I was just brazenly running the left fringe of the trail blowing by people by the score.

I’d yell “Ding! Ding!” or “Out of control old guy!” (that got a couple chuckles) or “Coming through!” but overall they had no sense of humor and yelled at me unless I said “on your left!” I’m not used to people being so cranky at a trail race.  But these weren’t trail runners.  And this is the big reason I placed relatively high.  They walked.  I ran.  And I have to tell you it was fun bouncing through the woods, swinging from trees and passing people.

Some of the open field descents were too steep to run.  You had to do that shuffle hop movement where you’re basically out of control and just touching the ground to slow down every once in a while.

This was dicey because the pack was thick and everyone else, especially later in the race was not handling the descents with much dignity.  Apparently they were having knee and quad burnout because they were fighting the downhills.  They were stopping a lot, walking backwards or sideways and even scooching down on their bums.  I had to avoid all this.

There were a couple steep sections where people would kick rocks loose and then those rocks would roll down the hill at velocity like 2-3 pound missiles.  Everyone would scream “Rock”.  You’d hear “Rock!” and then “Owe! That really hurt!”

I made it through all the hard stuff without falling except once in the woods where I went elbow deep into a mud hole where a spring came out of the mountainside.

Then as I was careening down one of the last descents in the open slope I caught a toe.  I was in open ground so I tried to tuck and roll and it worked I popped back up on my feet.  But, in the process I slammed my shin and my elbow on some rocks.  The shin really hurt.  There wasn’t much I could do about it.  I pulled up my calf sleeves so I wouldn’t have to look at the wound, gritted my teeth and kept running – hoping I didn’t do too much damage.

Then there was the last climb.  By this point we were well into the race.  I was well out of fuel and running on fumes.  It was a super steep 2 mile hike straight up the gondola path to the top of the mountain.  This was a death march for everybody.  It was just a long conga line 3-4 across slogging up the slope.  I will admit to stopping and resting a number of times on this ascent.

When we final clambered out into open ground at the very top of the mountain it was in the clouds and windy.  The spectators up there had coats on and were shivering.  The temperature dropped and being mostly naked you would think I’d be cold, but I was well into suffer mode and the cold air woke me up a bit.  Now I knew we were done climbing and the finish was down at the bottom of the mountain somewhere.

Of course there was an obstacle at the top of the mountain that had to do with carrying logs like suitcases which was no problem.  I caught my breath and took off down the fire road.  I leaned on my training again, cleaned up my form and ran.  I used my core and it felt awesome to be moving again after all that slow hiking.

Coach kept telling me not to worry about the race, that the Kardashians could do it.  Could the Kardashians do it?  Yeah, if they had enough time.

Overall on the course I saw a number of people that really didn’t look like they should be doing a race this hard.  I think the positive is that assuming you started early enough you could take as much time as you wanted.  You could take all day and work as a team and in that sense anybody could do it.

I did see people getting taken off the course for injuries.  Mostly knees and ankles.  I think some of them may have been faking an injury to get of the damn mountain!

For all the out of shape types there was definitely the lean, cross fit archetype as well.  Lots of compact, fit looking people with six pack abs.  That’s the Spartan community. This race was the culmination of a long journey for many of them, from the sprint, to the super and now their ultimate conquest of the beast.  I met people from all over the country. I passed one guy who had flown in from Australia.

I was wondering if I would see anyone with phones or earbuds on the course.  I know the Millennials love their phones but the obstacles make having wires a bad idea.  I didn’t see any wires. I did see a couple wireless headphones, but the one surprising thing I came across was speakers.  At least 4 people I passed had speakers strapped to their packs and were blasting music.  I don’t know how they managed the water obstacles with those.

Mostly it was millennial hip-hop music that I am too old to appreciate and I remember some Blink182 late in the race but I passed a dude up one of the scrambles and he was blasting some Lynyrd Skynrd.  I obligingly yelled “Whatdayall wanna hear?. Free bird!”  He said it was random and the next song might be Christian music.  We all agreed this climb would be an excellent place to convert people – the kind of place that made you want to ask God for help.

So yeah, that’s a new one on me.  Speakers strapped to your backpack in a race.

To finish up the narrative I got to the bottom of the mountain, ready to be done with it.  But they put 5 obstacles in the last ¼ mile just to mess with you.    spazzed out on the spear throw and had to do 30 burpees which left me totally drained for the subsequent log carry.  I managed the Atlas ball carry.  I had no hope of the last dangly rope thing and did another 30 burpees (these took a while because I was running on fumes).  Then over the last A-frame climby thing and a final leap across the fire and I was done.

spartan-fireThe picture I had of myself leaping over the fire in my head was much more flattering than the actual picture.  I look like a hobo fleeing a structure fire.  When we were watching the finish earlier some fit young dude literally did a flip over the fire.  That is styling.  Not me.  I’m the dirty hobo.

Was it hard? Yeah. Was it the hardest thing I’ve ever done? No way.

People who have worn their Garmins on the course clock it at 14.83 miles.  They also clock 6,700 feet of elevation gain.  That’s more than a mile.  That’s more than Wapack.  That’s more than the Grand Canyon.  So, if you want to run this version of the Spartan race go get your lederhosen and start mountain training.

The man who won the elite version of my race on Saturday was a 26 year old who did it in 3:32.  The woman was a 29 year old who did it in 4:34.

In my open division the winner came in at 4:15 the very last runner took 17 hours to cover the course.  That’s a long day.  The average looks to be in the 8-9 hour range.

Just so everyone knows I want credit for the memorization obstacle.  The way that works is that you have to memorize a number early in the race and they are supposed to ask you for it later in the race.  Both Teresa and I had to memorize the number, and I took great pride in knowing that my familiarity with memorization techniques would give me the clear advantage.  But no one ever askes either of us for our numbers!  For the record Quebec-949-5373.

We slept in an old hotel in White River Junction and grabbed some barbeque and a craft brew.  I earned it.  I had a bit of a hard time sleeping because I had so many open scrapes and wounds every time I rolled over my whole body lit up like tearing a Band-Aid off.

Teresa tackled the sprint the next day and due to robust genetics she placed 1st in her age group, proving all Millennials aren’t soft.  I was getting around fine.  My quads were a bit sore but nothing like after a hard road marathon.  I could tell I went deep into the glycogen stores because I had the odd struggle with finding the right nouns.

As the week has progressed the scrapes are healing.  The nastiest is a rope burn on the back of my ankle from one of the traversing obstacles.  I was oddly body sore all over like I had been rolled up in a blanket and beaten with sticks.  Nothing hurt badly, but everything hurt a little.

I’m content with 6 ½ hour finish.  Will I go back?  Maybe for the shorter races to get the other 2 pieces of the medal and complete the ‘trifecta’.  After all I started with the hard one.

Teresa and I had a nice adventure.  I got a firsthand look at the Spartan races.  I don’t know about all the courses but this one, this beast in Killington, ran a bit like an ultra, maybe a 30k in effort level.  If you’re looking for something interesting go ahead and try a Spartan.

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