“It is inevitable that some defeat will enter even the most victorious life.
The human spirit is never finished when it is defeated…
it is finished when it surrenders.”
On Friday Sept. 21st, I embarked on a journey that I knew would change my life. I was on my way to the Spartan Ultra Beast– the first event of it’s kind– and about to “be a part of obstacle racing history.” I was well aware the course would be extreme and expected to be pushed to (and even past) the point of breaking. There had been numerous setbacks related to injury and family crisis that interfered with my training, but I was determined to give it my absolute best effort regardless. I had put in the work, now it was time to see if it was enough. I had promised myself that anytime the course seemed too much, I would simply remind myself why I was there and just how far I had come.
I went into the race feeling like an underdog. I’m not an impressive athlete. I don’t have tremendous strength or speed. In fact, I’m not even remotely coordinated. What I do have in my favor is the ability to endure suffering and grind on through it– a trait that served me better than I could have hoped in this race.
Right from the start I felt like I was struggling. It was cold (consider this a gross understatement) and- as expected- the water on the course was FREEZING. There were several early obstacles that involved getting wet, including one that required swimming across a pond. Needless to say, by the time I reached that obstacle I was too frozen to feel any part of my body let alone grip and swing on ropes. It was more swimming and burpees for me.
To make matters worse, the entire first loop I battled painful muscle spasms in my quads, calves, and toes. In fact, my left quad was spasming so badly I couldn’t bend my knee at all. As a result, I was fighting my body through almost every obstacle and did more burpees (FULL BURPEES!!!!) than I could count… many of them one legged thanks to my ever uncooperative left leg. As you can imagine, this was completely disheartening. Given how badly I was struggling, and the fact that the spasms continued regardless of anything I ate or drank, it was hard for me to imagine completing that first loop let alone taking on a second. I tried to think of anything other than pain I was experiencing. I thought about Team X-T.R.E.M.E., about all the people in this world who would give anything to walk or run, about all the women I was running for, and all the years I spent in an abusive relationship. This pain was only temporary, and it was nothing compared to the pain of quitting.
Adam had been running with me and could tell I was hurting. I told him I just needed to keep moving and walk it off. He hung back with me, helped me over the walls, and gave me advice on completing the obstacles I had trouble with. I was IMMENSELY grateful for his help and company. Any concerns I had previously about running together (as friends- for the first time after not really having contact for over a month) had completely evaporated.
So too did any negative thoughts of my ability to complete obstacles when I hauled the men’s sandbag up and down a steep hill and made it up my first successful rope climb (before unceremoniously falling from the top straight down onto a bale of hay… much to the horror of the on looking racers nearby). I’m proud to say that I did manage to ring that bell before I fell off AND I did it full military style without the aid of the knots! I also managed to remember Papa 433-7137 (my assigned memorization task) after reciting it in my head for a good section of the course.
For as much as I sucked at many of the obstacles (I think my worst performance, by far, was the spear throw… unless you were supposed aim for your neighbor’s target), I found I excelled at the barbed wire crawl- which conveniently was the most prevalent obstacle on the course! I think my tiny size really worked to my advantage as I was able to roll under even the lowest wire with no issue whatsoever. It was probably the only time I was light years ahead of Adam (on the first loop at least… I totally could have whooped him, but instead helped him get through on the second loop, even carrying his heavier pack for the last 4-5 miles when he was really hurting… I definitely owed him and was glad I was able to repay him for getting me through the first half. He said he wouldn’t have even attempted the second lap if I hadn’t dragged him with me; I’m glad he hasn’t held it against me!). I did also have him beat on the traverse wall, which was obviously owed to my superior climbing skills. Of course, he said it was only because mywall “was leaning”…
When we FINALLY finished the first loop- which I heard on good authority was 15 ish miles and included a glorious ascent in the last few (with an equally steep and treacherous descent!)– we were informed by the race official that they instituted a 7:30 pm time cut off at the tyrolean traverse roughly 10 miles into the second lap. It was already after 3:30 pm, and we knew we had little hope of making it in time. Instead of feeling discouraged, I enjoyed the opportunity to demolish the peanut m&m’s I had stashed in my gear bin (I actually did share several with other racers and was even called a “goddess” which is the farthest thing from what I felt like… lol) I only took just enough time to inhale some calories, change out of my damp shirt into a dry one, and (after a quick mental debate) slip on my rain jacket. I fellow racer questioned me looking slightly confused. I explained that the jacket is completely unbreathable and always makes me too warm when I run in it. I figured if anything was going to keep me toasty, this was it. In retrospect, it was one of the best decisions of my life.
As if someone had waved a magic wand, every problem that had plagued me on that first loop disappeared. My spasms were barely noticeable and really only bothered me during burpees. With my rain jacket on, I was no longer fighting the cold, and I was riding the high of my second wind. Since we knew we were unlikely to make the time cutoff, and Adam was visibly hurting, we decided to slow our pace and simply do the second loop for fun instead of trying to run for time. Aside from the torture of the terrain and obstacles, the Beast course was one of the most breathtakingly scenic races I’ve ever done. The views from the top of the mountain spanned for miles and encompassed some vibrant fall foliage. If that wasn’t enough to make you grateful for being there, the weather was sunny and beautiful to boot! If we had been there for any other purpose it might have been the perfect fall day. Instead, it served as consolation for the pain we were suffering- but was greatly enjoyed none the less!
Slowing our pace down was an excellent opportunity to not only enjoy the majestic views, but also to chat with fellow racers and make some new friends. We spent some time with a Death Race finisher named Pete whose gift for conversation was greatly appreciated- as was his insight on the Death Race. He carried merrily along his way, clearly enjoying the whole experience and talking to anyone who crossed his path. A short while later we ran back into Carmen, who had been near us for much of the first loop. She was running with an ultra runner and death racer named Tammy, and it turned out that Tammy did not have a usable headlamp. The officials agreed to let her continue on the course as long as she was with a group, so we all decided to stick together the rest of the way and an awesome team was forged. 🙂
I had an absolute blast spending time with these ladies! Carmen had worked for Spartan Races for the previous year and had even helped build the course. Her interactions with the volunteers and staff were entertaining to say the least. Her and Tammy’s company was sincerely appreciated. The fact that we had each other for camaraderie made walking in the dark for hours on end with only our headlamps for light not only bearable, but completely enjoyable- even in the pouring rain!
We chatted, helped each other through obstacles, got excited and then disappointed each and every time we saw a light in the distance and then watched it disappear. We soldiered onward while patiently waiting for someone to pull us from the course. We were well past the time cutoff, wandering in the dark, soaked, frozen, and starving (at some point cliff bloks, almonds, and peanut butter sandwiches just don’t cut it anymore). We knew getting pulled was inevitable, but we hoped to make it to the traverse before it happened.
I couldn’t help but laugh when (well past the cut off) a volunteer asked Carmen if she made it through an obstacle, and she yelled “F$$K YOU’RE BURPEES!” and kept walking. At that point we were already delirious and highly amused by the entire situation. The idea of even completing obstacles was laughable given we were already technically disqualified anyway… that being said, I still did them (with the exception of the tractor pull because I didn’t want to be left by myself when my team stormed past it! lol In truth I think they only actually skipped maybe two)
When we did finally reach the traverse it was a jumble of mixed emotions. First and foremost, we were ELATED to see headlights and then the truck. We had not seen another person on that mountain in hours, and if it wasn’t for the white markers showing us we were on track it, would have been easy to believe we were lost in the middle of nowhere one wrong move away from a dire situation. At the same time there was some disappoint that we were being pulled before the course cut off at 10 pm AND that the course had been significantly longer than the length of a marathon. The official who picked us up said we were close to 26 miles in and that the race organizers had not expected many racers to finish.
By the time we arrived back at the start almost everything had been shut down other than the finish line. I collected my gear bin and then thought it might be worth seeing if we could at least get t-shirts. We took the Ultra Beast Shirts not realizing they said finisher on the back (we didn’t keep them once we noticed) and gladly accepted the regular Beast medal instead of the Ultra one. Regardless of whether I covered a marathon worth of obstacles, I didn’t finish the entire course within the allotted time. I didn’t earn it. Normally, if you sign up for a marathon and only finish half you get nothing- just a DNF. Therefore, I was grateful to get a medal at all and have something to show for all the effort other than just head to toe bruises. 😉
When people ask me how I did at the race, I tell them I accomplished the goal I set for myself- to cover a marathon(ish) worth of obstacle racing and that I was pulled from the course around mile 26. I have no shame about it. Why should I? I was on that mountain for 12 + hrs, and that course was BRUTAL. I hauled ass through mud, obstacles, up hill, down hill, across ponds, in the dark, in the cold, and in the rain AND I DIDN’T QUIT! I started the second loop knowing I would get pulled, but wanted to at least see how far I could make it. When the officials at mile 6 told us we weren’t going to make the time cutoff and could stop, we told them we would rather continue for the hour we had left. We continued full knowing the hell that was in store for us. We would have continued until 10 pm if they hadn’t shut the course down.
Ultimately, I would have stayed on that course as long as I needed to in order to finish given the opportunity; but I don’t feel badly that I didn’t. Instead, I feel like what I did was enough. I pushed myself further than I ever have, and I’m pretty satisfied with that.
In fact, I’m kind of impressed with myself because I felt better on that second loop than I did on the first- well enough to even have continued. At one point during our escapades I told Tammy how much better I was doing on lap 2 and how it usually takes me a good 6 miles to get warmed up and find my groove. She said (with total conviction and not at all in a joking manner) that I was built to be an ultra runner- a HUGE compliment coming from a 100 miler.
Maybe she’s right. Maybe there’s an ultra in my future… and this time possibly even with an official finish. In fact, I may just have one picked out. 😉 In the meantime it’s back to regular workouts.
- DNF: Ultra Aftermath. (maspahtens.wordpress.com)
- Ultra Beast: A few final thoughts before the Ultra. (maspahtens.wordpress.com)
- Big, Fat DNF at the Leadville Silver Rush 50 (whenitsallsaidandrun.com)
- Surviving The Tough Mudder (nutritionize.net)
- Making [Tough] Decisions: Tough Mudder or Spartan Beast (twigstrong.wordpress.com)
- Ultra Beast on My Mind (runningthriver.wordpress.com)