So, my training season has been vastly different from that of the majority of my close friends. While I’ve been counting down the days until the Border Wars Half Iron and the Beach 2 Battleship Full, by buddies have been enjoying Spartan Races, Battlefrogs, Warrior Dash Races, and similar OCR/Mud Run style events. I have to admit that I’m a bit jealous of missing out on these fun races while I grind out 4 hour bike rides and 2 hour runs.
I was supposed to do Team Death Race in Vermont mid-September, but when my work schedule got messed up and a couple of my teammates had to cancel due to life getting in the way, our team got dissolved. I was really looking forward to that race (at least up until all Hell broke loose with the Peak and Spartan crowds…and then I figured my heart wouldn’t be in it anyways) — in past years it culminated in running the Ultra Beast – 26+ miles of hard terrain in the mountains of Killington, with difficult obstacles abounding. I’ve wanted to do this race from its inception, and I figured doing TDR beforehand would be the icing on the cake.
After I knew TDR wasn’t going to happen, I essentially stopped doing any further training for that in favor of putting all my time into triathlon training. Fast forward to 3 weeks before The Spartan World Championships and Ultra Beast weekend, when I discovered that a colleague was willing to work the Friday and Saturday of that weekend for me…I knew TDR was a wash, but the Ultra Beast? Heck, why not? I signed up that day and then spent the next 2 ½ weeks doing more upper body work and spending a lot of time on the stair climber and finding some hills for incline repeats. I knew I wasn’t fully prepared for this Hellish race, but hey…I love a challenge and now I get to race with my love and my friends!
Rick, Paul, and I flew out on Friday before the race, arriving in Boston late morning. We quickly got our things and picked up some final supplies at Target before swinging back to the airport to pick up Damien who arrived on a flight from Florida. The four of us drove to Vermont with all of our luggage stuffed into the cargo area of the rental SUV and between Paul and Damien in the back seat. The trees were starting to change colors, making for a magnificent drive into what would soon be a battle zone on the mountain. We dropped Damien off at the house he was staying in for the weekend with several fabulous people, and picked up our 4th roommate Kevin who drove out with the carpool from Illinois/Indiana.
It was a short drive to our hotel – the Jackson Gore Inn in Ludlow. I booked it last minute as all of the rooms in Killington were full. We pulled into the property – and WOW. This place was unbelievably beautiful! Four star accommodations all around, and though I felt completely out of place (I’m more of a Super 8 kind of girl – no frills, just a bed and roof over my head) it was nice to relax in peace and comfort. I think in the back of my mind, I knew that I had better enjoy the moment while it lasted.
Friday night, we drove back to Killington Resort to meet up with my awesome friend Solo – if you don’t know her, you should. She’s amazeballs. Really. (Check her out here) Then we found Dave and the 6 of us checked out some of the course that would be the Beast the following day. I was supposed to meet up with Rob Barger at the VIP athlete dinner, who set me up with Panasonic to be a wear tester for their new action sports camera, the A500. Rob got ahold of me and informed me that he was stuck in traffic and would be late, so the group of us decided to go to the bar in the resort for a beer to await his arrival. Solo and I caught up on conversation while Rick entertained some people who were in for the weekend to spectate the event. Paul and Dave chatted with Isaiah Vidal (a Spartan pro racer), and then Vidal and Solo went for a brief walk before she returned to tell me she found the location of the VIP dinner. The two of us headed that way and walked right in, coming face to face with some of the most talented OCR athletes in the world. We chatted with several awesome people – Margaret Schlacter, Miguel Medina, Ilir Elezaj, Rose Wetzel, and Jacob Bosecker to name a few. Then, over the loudspeaker, I hear my name being called…”Is Andé Wegner in here?” I was like, “Crap, what did I do wrong?” But the man asking for me was Ian – Joe DeSena’s brother in law and the liaison for Panasonic. We introduced ourselves to each other, and I sent a message to Rick to grab the guys and meet me in the banquet hall to grab some food. The lot of us ate quickly and then I headed back to the folks over at the Panasonic table to get things ready for me to be fit to the camera. Rob arrived as I was finishing up with the instructional part of the device. He and I exchanged hugs (Rob is yet another amazing individual) and caught up with each other as he and I finished getting set up with the camera. Rob would be wearing it on Saturday, and I would be the tester for Sunday; I was excited about using it!
Soon thereafter, we said our goodbyes to our friends and headed back to the hotel. Kevin was running the Beast the next morning, and we other three were going to spectate and cheer on our teammates for a bit.
Sleep came quickly, but the alarm came even quicker. Kevin gathered his race gear, and the four of us headed to the venue, arriving at 6 am. Cars were already in lines waiting for parking…and speaking of parking, what a cluster! Cars everywhere in random fashion…but that’s small potatoes. We got Kevin checked in to race, passed out some new green jerseys to folks who ordered the special edition beast-wear, got a team pic, and then headed to the start line to watch the elite men take off. I’ve been to many a Spartan Race in my life, but the air about this one was vastly different from the others – helicopters with wide lens cameras circling overhead, media folks scurrying everywhere to catch the perfect shot or get a good cameo of the pro Spartans. It was cool and all…but I was more interested in watching my friends kick some butt on the course.
The elite men went off, followed by the elite women. Then the confirmed open heats started – my team of Ultrabeasters cheered on our teammates as they headed on to the course. We hung around for another 45 minutes or so, and then I gathered the crew to head to breakfast.
And there’s only one place to get an awesome breakfast that close to Killington. And it’s in Pittsfield…home of the Death Race.
Rick, Paul, Dave and I led the second car of friends (Cliff, Josh, Todd, and Damien’s father) to the Pittsfield General Store for some food. The eight of us noshed on from-scratch yummies and chatted with some of the other diners – among them a CEO of a California company who was in the area for the weekend for a fitness challenge. He was intrigued with our team and what we do, so we gave him some training advice and a team bracelet. I ran into Peter Borden of Death Race fame and gave him a hug and some words. And then Mark Webb walked through the door – again, if you don’t know this guy, you should…he is an astounding human being and the world would be a better place if there were more people like him in it. I jumped from my chair to give him a hug, and I met his girlfriend for the first time. We spoke briefly about his race plans (and I hope to join him for the marathon in Dallas that they are planning on doing!) before I rounded up my team to head off to our next destination – the top of Tweed Mountain Road.
Tweed was the staging area for Team Death Race. Part of my reason for having breakfast at the General Store was to catch a glimpse of some of my friends who were in the midst of the race that can only be described as a 60 hour test of pure will. We parked at the top of the hill….nothing. Cars and tents showed that there were signs of life, but not a soul was around. I looked around and thought to myself, “Where would I be right now if I were a Death Racer?”
And then I looked up to the top of the mountain. Bingo – that’s where I would be. So I told the guys to hold fast while I trotted off to find signs of life. Not even ¼ mile into the trail, I ran into a woman hiking up from a lower section. “Are you hiking or are you crew?” I asked her – knowing that, if she were merely a person out for a morning stroll, she would have no idea what I was talking about. Fortunately she responded that she was a crewmember for one of the teams, and she confirmed their location at the top of the mountain. I jogged back to the guys and motioned for them to follow me, and up we went! I felt at home on that trail, like I was back with my buddies at Summer Death Race 2013. A part of me will always live on that mountain, I guess.
I was excited to show the guys a piece of Death Race – other than Rick, none of them had ever seen it before. We arrived at the peak (which is where “Shrek’s Cabin” is located) to find some racers attempting to climb trees to tie a piece of paracord at the top, while others were doing squats with an entire raw egg held in their mouths, and then having to recite verses that were given to them earlier. I heard my name called from across the clearing and looked over to find my friend Valerie, who was taking a short food break before her team had their turn at the tree climb. The two of us chatted a bit about their strategy for getting up the tree when I motioned for Paul to come over. “This is your guy,” I said. “He’s an amazing climber. He’ll be able to get you guys a plan to get you all up that tree safely.”
And he did. Paul shared his knowledge from years of experience working for the electric company and worked with the racers to ensure that everyone was safe during the climb. I felt proud to know that he was helping out to such an extent, and he continued to work with several of the racers as I talked with some of my other Death Race buddies – Ben and Josh most notably. We then hung out with the director of the race Johnny Waite for a bit. My friends that hiked up with me seemed a little in awe of the entire situation, and that made me smile. We all got a group photo with Johnny, I said my goodbyes to my racing friends, and we hiked back down to our cars. It was good to be in my happy place for a bit – yes, my happy place involves physical and mental torture. So sue me.
Some last minute shopping, a quick swing back to the race venue to pick up our race packets and find Kevin (who crushed the Beast course in about 7 hours going at “easy” pace), some dinner, and then back to our hotel room to pack our drop bins and prep our clothes for the morning. Kevin gave us the lowdown of what the course was like and which obstacles we would encounter. I felt like I should have been nervous, but I wasn’t. I was excited! I knew I was in for an adventure with some of the most awesome people on the planet, so what more could I want?
Sleep came quickly again, but I woke up around 3 am and started going over the race plan in my head – how I was to approach every obstacle, the minimum pace our team would need to hold to make all of the time hacks, how often I was going to eat and what to eat at which particular time – I’m a race nerd when it all comes down to it. The alarm sounded at 4:30 am, but I was already out of bed and in the bathroom getting ready by then. I never do anything special for races like wear warpaint or costumes, but this was a different kind of race. I added some green chalk to my hair and applied green eyeshadow and liner. I figure if I’m going to spend 14 hours on a mountain in various levels of pain, I might as well try to look good.
Race clothes on, bins and bags in hand, and to the car we went. We arrived at the race locale right at 5 am when the bag check area opened. In the dark, we navigated to the bag tent and tagged our things. I put my bin in an easily locatable spot so when I made my trip in I could find it without hassle. Between that and my easily recognizable sticker decorations, I would have to have been blind to miss it.
Rick, Paul, Kevin, and I found Dave and the 5 of us hung in our car for a bit until the sun came up, when we went into the lodge to find the other Corn Feds who would be racing the Ultra Beast — Cliff, Todd, Mark, Kevin B., and Rich. The lot of us pumped each other up as we made final adjustments to our hydro packs. Soon enough it was time to head to the start of the race, but not before getting a group photo in front of the Giant Spartan Helmet in the festival area.
The elite mens wave left first, followed by the elite women as it always does at every Spartan race. Our wave was the last open heat of the morning, set to start at 6:45 am. This gave our team a bit of a disadvantage as the cutoffs were the same for all of the heats, but I didn’t care. This was about the adventure! I tested out the Panasonic A500 camera as we all leapt over the start corral wall, and Solo found us for a group photo right before the race.
Smoke bombs launched, Go sound yelled, and off we went for the race of our lives. Our pack of 6 – Rick, Paul, Dave, Todd, Cliff, and I, trotted down the mountainside before making a left turn and running about 100 yards on flat ground. And then the fun started – another left turn and back up the mountain we went. We climbed for quite a while before coming to the first set of obstacles – the Over/Under walls. No one had any problems with that so we continued upwards before cutting left through a small patch of forest and then heading up more. Rick had been battling a respiratory infection so he was having some trouble catching his breath. We all had a pact that we made prior to race weekend that if someone fell behind, to press on without them in order to make the time hacks. None of us were really good at following our own advice though – when someone fell behind, we would all wait to let them catch up. After every mountain climb we’d regroup. After every obstacle we’d make a head count before proceeding forward – Over/Under/Through, the Pancake Sandbag Carry, the Bucket Brigade – all simple enough. There were some really fun and steep downhills amidst some of the initial obstacles, as well as some singletrack through trees that kept the run interesting, and I enjoyed pacing behind Cliff and Todd for those parts.
Todd was actually the dark horse in the early phases of the race – he led the pack at an impressive pace and kept all of us well on par for a good course time. At the end of the bucket carry, as I stood waiting for the rest of the team to finish, I attempted to tighten my Geigerrig hydration pack…and I apparently didn’t know my own strength. I snapped the plastic clasp holding my left shoulder strap together! Not even 3 miles into a 31 mile race and I’m already dealing with equipment malfunction, but no matter. I quickly threw off my pack, took the broken strap and lashed it though the front of my shoulder strap. Bowline knot, done. The boy scouts would have been proud.
Onwards and upwards to the next obstacle – the Traverse Wall. None of us had any shame in helping each other across this obstacle to avoid penalty burpees. The next obstacle was one that is dreaded by many and failed by most: the cold water swim to the rope ladder hanging from a bridge, followed by the Tarzan Swing. The failure rate here is approximately 90%. Failure to attempt this obstacle resulted in 60 penalty burpees. Failure to complete one part of the obstacle after attempting got you 30 burpees. Some in our group opted for the 60 count, while the rest of us headed for the water. Most of the racers around me had grabbed a life vest to aid them with the swim. I’m a strong swimmer though, and PFDs hinder my ability to get a good rhythm. So, into the water I went – did I mention the water temp was 54 degrees? I got into a great side stroke swim and passed the majority of the people with their life vests on. Getting up the rope ladder and hitting the first bell was easy-peasy. Having to get onto the other side of the ladder to grab the first rope of the Tarzan swing was another story…the rope ladders were freely hanging and thus very unstable, and the cold water made for poor hand grip. I managed to get around to the other side and gripped that first rope, but I knew the second I tried to hang from it that I was going to fall. Instead of risking a bad fall from swinging and missing, I sheepishly climbed down the ladder and swam to the other end of the pond to start my penalty burpees. Cliff was the only one of us who was able to complete both parts of that obstacle which was impressive! The rest of us did our burpees on part of the gravel driveway (thank you to the Course Designer Norm Koch for adding insult to injury…or should I say injury to insult lol).
Next task – get back into the water and walk/swim across the shoreline, which was about 125 yards give or take. By this time we had caught up to Mark (who was attempting to become one of the few who finished the Beast on Saturday and the Ultrabeast on Sunday), and while most of the racers tried to stay close to shore, my team all began swimming again. Heck, we were already wet, and swimming is faster than trying to navigate your way across rocks. We passed a lot of people that way. We gathered our team and began running again, this time through a long stretch of singletrack trail that slowly climbed upwards and then back down to the Atlas carry. Women have a 60 pound stone to lift and move from one flag to another about 40 feet away, drop it and do 5 burpees, then return the stone to the original position. The men have to do the same with a 100 pound stone. Again, this was fairly easy for our group and we moved on quickly. We began to climb another hill and up to the first barbed wire low crawl. I usually like to do a log roll through this obstacle, but in this case, the uphill grade made that difficult. Fortunately, the wire was high enough off of the ground to simply crawl on hands and knees for the majority of the obstacle. Simple enough.
Up the mountain again and then to the right for a bit, and not too long after that was the log carry, which is just as it sounds – grab a log and carry it uphill and then back down. They supposedly had two piles for men and women, and I was directed to the second pile. I chuckled to myself as I compared logs – they were all about the same size, likely due to racers not returning their log to the right location. No matter, I’m a big chick and can carry the added weight. I grabbed my log and hoofed it uphill. The incline was fairly steep but not so much that I needed to stop and rest. It didn’t take me long to get up and down again, and I hung out at the bottom for the rest of the gang to finish their task. I could tell at this point that Rick was starting to suffer a bit – he was coughing more and seemed visibly fatigued. I grew concerned knowing that we were just about 6 miles into what was going to be a very long day, but I brushed it off when he got to the bottom, dropped his log and trotted off with me. He’s a trooper.
Another short run, and then we arrived at the next obstacle – the log hop and balance beam. This was a series of vertical logs set about 4 feet apart that needed to be walked or run across without falling, followed by a horizontal log acting as a balance beam over water, followed by another set of vertical logs. Todd, Cliff, and I all took turns helping each other to balance across the steps in order to avoid penalties, while Dave, Rick, and Paul did the same for each other. As we trotted off I saw a number of people in the penalty box doing their burpees for falling. I thanked God for having awesome teammates. On to the next obstacle – the 7 foot wall. Generally this is an easy feat for our group, but the mountains and the elevation had a lot of us flatlanders winded by this point. Rick landed wrong on the other side of the wall and tweaked his ankle, and he looked visibly pained and somewhat defeated. I knew at this point that he wasn’t going to be able to continue at the pace we needed to hold. We gathered everyone up and started heading up the mountain again, but the pace continued to slow as we all hung together. I fell back and asked Rick about his thoughts on the situation, and his response was that he knew he was done. I offered to stay but he urged me to press on ahead. Paul decided to stay with Rick – he is a great guy and a wonderful teammate and brother for all that he sacrifices for others. I kissed Rick goodbye, hugged Paulie, and motioned for Todd, Cliff, Mark, and Dave to continue on. We had a mountain to climb.
And climb we did. Up about 1500 feet and back into the woods to the vertical cargo net. The four of us helped a few ladies who were struggling with balance, and then we all climbed up and over. Then – you guessed it, more mountain to climb. The views were spectacular and I spent a few seconds taking it all in. After all, I don’t get to see the Green Mountains from the top of one of the peaks very often! And besides, when you’re racing a big endurance race such as this, the little things like that keep you smiling and motivated.
The trail wound up and down a bit before climbing again to the A-Frame cargo net. Despite my innate fear of heights, this is one of my favorite obstacles. It’s helped me to overcome a lot of that fear over the years. Again, this is usually an easy obstacle by comparison, but at about 9 miles into the race and who knows how many thousands of feet of mountain climbing, it took a bit more effort than usual to surpass. Regardless, the 5 of us regrouped on the other side and headed up the pass about ½ mile to the next task – the Tractor Pull.
Now, those who have raced with me know that my favorite obstacles are those that require picking up heavy crap and either dragging it or carrying it. These obstacles are where I dominate over most other women, simply because of the laws of physics: I’m bigger and stronger by comparison. Through trial and error I’ve found the easiest way for me to drag the block of concrete attached to a chain – take the chain across the front of my hips and hold it there, and let my body do the rest. It saves the arms from fatigue, which is nice since Spartan is generally known for stacking obstacles that tax the upper body.
Tractor pull done, still more climbing to go. We reached the peak of the mountain to find the memorization part of the race – the last two digits of your bub number corresponded to a code that needed to be recited later on in the race. Mine was Quebec 949-5373…yep, I still remember it. A lot of people brought sharpie markers to write their code on their hand or arm so recite later. I also wrote mine down but chose my wristband instead of my skin so it wouldn’t rub off. It was a short jaunt from there to the first Spear Throw – another of those obstacles where the failure rate was high. We also encountered a new facet of this task: the spear was attached to a rope to prevent it from flying off the mountain top. This meant that you had to make sure the rope wasn’t tangled up and that it was in the right position so it wouldn’t catch on the barricade or your shoulder. I started messing with the rope when Mark kindly came over to help me out. With the rope untangled, I lined up my shot and made my throw – and it stuck! Mark and I hit the spear target but the rest of the guys missed, so we shared the 60 burpee total penalty between the 5 of us. Twelve a piece sure beats thirty.
From there it was a LOT of downhill. Some of it was steep enough that it required sliding on your butt or on all fours to keep from face planting (10,000 people tearing up the terrain the day before led to rather slippery conditions in areas). Even though the terrain was a bit gnarly, it was a good time to refuel with gels and real food and talk amongst ourselves. I tend to babble about a bunch of crap when I’m in the middle of an endurance race. Some of it is because I enjoy teaching others, and a lot of it is because talking keeps my mind off of the exhaustion or the discomfort. We spoke about when to eat and what to eat during racing, techniques for downhill running, how to best approach certain obstacles. There was a lot of smiling and laughing going on and I loved it.
At the base of the mountain was the next set of obstacles – the Inverted Wall, and the second Bucket Brigade. At the wall, we all helped each other over again – the key was conservation of energy and time efficiency and this was the best way to do it. It’s every man for himself at the Bucket Brigade, but the 5 of us had little trouble with the task.
So, I bet you can’t guess what came after that? If you said another mountain climb, you’d be correct. This climb was continuous though, aptly named the Death March. It climbed for a mile, with grades well over 25% in a lot of locations. It was during this time that Mark got his second wind and did what he did best – became a robot and trudged up that mountain like it was nothing. Cliff and I were steady with the climb. Todd and Dave started to slow a bit, but they held strong by using Cliff and me as bench marks. The two of us would march up the mountain for a set distance and then wait, and they would then climb to us before taking a break. We kept this routine going for the entire climb, which seemed to keep everyone motivated. Along the way we passed several people camped out and resting. Some of them looked defeated, others happy as clams. I reminded myself that the journey is the reward as I put one foot in front of the other.
During this climb we noted that the overhead gondolas that were transporting spectators to and from the peak had stopped. I wondered why but didn’t put too much thought into it. It wasn’t until that night that I had learned that a racer went into cardiac arrest after reaching the mountain top, and the gondolas were stopped to get that person in one of the cars to be transported to the base. That mountain climb claimed a lot of souls that day, but we were not going to be among them, at least I hoped. I was tired from climbing but I wasn’t about to slow down. It must have taken us 30 minutes or more to make that climb. I was surprised to see Mark waiting for us at the peak, and it was awesome that he waited for all of us to regroup again.
We made that climb, only to be directed down the mountain again. The 5 of us took up a slow jog in order to keep everyone together. I led the pace for this part, and as we jetted in and out of trails and reached a clearing, I heard Cliff call up to me for help. He came across a woman who had slipped on part of the wooded trail and hit her knee on a rock. I doubled back to them and saw she was limping pretty badly. Cliff had quickly bandaged her knee with a wrap he had handy and did a bang up job at that (no pun intended). I expected to see some chewed up skin and a decent amount of blood when I removed the bandage, but it was way worse than that – she had a full thickness skin laceration, and I was staring at her patellar tendon through the wound.
Now, I’m relatively well-known for being the field medic in endurance racing. I’ve tended to more wounds and nasty feet than I care to admit (hell, that’s how I came to know one of my good friends Daren de Heras, who I love dearly). But this time, I had no medical supplies on me other than a couple of band-aids; the rest of my gear was in my drop bin. It was Cliff who was playing medic this time around! I thought to myself that there was no way this woman was going to make it another 20-some-odd miles on this course, and as we walked down to the next task – the Tire Drag – I told her just that. She burst into tears as she limped alongside me. “I’m so disappointed in myself, I’m in first place!” she said.
And then it hit me. She was running the Beast race, only one lap and was over 13 miles into a 16.5 mile course. I had forgotten that there would be Beast waves starting after our Ultra Beast wave left.
She and I sat next to each other at the womens tires and started our drag (which was and uphill drag, mind you), and I asked her what her pain level was. She responded that she was about a 5 out of 10. The volunteers were asking me if they needed to get a Gator up to cart her down to the medical tent, but I asked them to hold off for a bit. I finished my pull and dragged the tire back to its starting point, then watched as she did the same. She grimaced but remained strong in the face of adversity. In a way, I saw a little bit of myself in her – too stubborn to quit. By this time Dave, Mark, and Todd finished their tire drag – I asked them to start walking onwards, and that Cliff and I would catch up.
I said to the girl, “Look, you have a bad injury. I cannot advise you medically to go on in your condition. The fact is that you have about 3 or so miles to go on nasty terrain. Your knee may not make it.”
Before she could say anything, I continued speaking as Cliff started opening up his medical supplies from his pack. “But, if I were you, I’d take this antiseptic wipe, this gauze pad, this wrap and this roll of tape and get yourself a makeshift bandage going. I’d get across that finish line and then go straight to the medical tent. Ain’t no race worth losing a leg from sepsis, so get moving and then get fixed.”
She smiled at us through tears and thanked us. I know we lost about 20 minutes or so of time in working with her, but I know I can speak for Cliff when I say neither of us would have changed that. We are Guardians before we are racers, no matter how we cut it. We fist bumped each other and took off to catch the guys. I never got that girl’s name and I don’t know if she finished or what her place was, but I hope, whoever she is, that she’s ok.
The trail sent Cliff and I down the mountain again through slick mud and rock with exposed roots. Easy to catch your foot and fall if you weren’t paying attention. It took the two of us about 10 minutes to catch the rest of the team, and the 5 of us drove on together. I could tell that Dave and Todd were starting to tire more at this point. Mark was holding steady at his pace but I watched my Garmin as our average mile pace kept climbing. We needed to remain below a 30 minute mile to stay on pace – at that time we hovered around a 28 minute mile. Given that I knew the second lap of this course was going to be significantly slower, I told the guys that we needed to move out. We came to a clearing and made our way to the most dreaded obstacle this course had to offer: the Sandbag Carry.
Part of what made this task so difficult was that the course took you up a 30% or steeper grade hill for about ¼ mile before turning back to the start. But what made it exceptionally gruesome was that the men had to carry two sandbags totaling 120 pounds. Keeping in mind that the average fit obstacle course racer weighs between 150 and 180 pounds, and you’ve got quite the heavy ratio of body weight to carry weight. Norm was more lenient on the women, relegating us to just 1 sandbag (60 pounds). There have been times that I have taken heavier logs or lifted men’s weights at the Atlas or Herc hoist, simply because I can and I wanted to. This was not one of those times.
A friend of mine described the scenery at this obstacle perfectly: it was like something from out of the movie Saving Private Ryan. Bodies were lying everywhere along the course, groaning in agony from the weight. Some tried dragging the sandbags, but the rocky and steep, uneven terrain made that nearly impossible. Others tied the two sandbags together and slung it over their necks like a yoke, carrying all 120 pounds at once – these men would walk a few steps and then sink under the weight. The smart ones were shuttling the bags; in other words, they would carry one bag partway up the mountain, drop it, and then run back down to grab the other sandbag and repeat the process all the way up. It added more distance but it lessened the load to the body, which seemed to work for a lot of the guys.
As I made my way over to pick up my sandbag and start up the mountain, I caught sight of our friends Joe, Sandra, and Damien in the spectator section. We exchanged some Corn Fed yells and some smiles before I started up the incline. I picked up my measly 60 pound bag and balanced it over my shoulders and neck, then started up, doing my standard protocol of counting out a set number of steps before taking a break. I chose 30 for this task because it was realistic for this challenge. Being the only woman on my team, I felt horrible for my brothers-in-arms who had to suffer with two bags. During my breaks I would turn around to spot my teammates, who were getting further and further behind with double the weight. I felt empathy for every man I passed up that mountain!! About half way up I found Haidar, a well-known Spartan athlete who embodies the spirit of “if you believe it, you can achieve it” attitude. He’s a Type 1 diabetic and has an insulin pump attached to him. He looked exhausted, and after explaining to me about how his blood sugar spiked to well over 500 earlier in the course, causing him to become faint, I could understand why he looked that way. I applauded his efforts to keep moving forward despite the metabolic setback.
It didn’t take me too long to navigate this course, perhaps 12 minutes give or take. I dumped my sandbag back in the pile and jogged over to the water station to refill my hydropack and get some water in me. As I approached the station, one of the volunteers asked me if I was doing the Ultra or the Beast. When I responded Ultra, he told me that I was in the top 10 of women at that moment.
I relayed that info to Damien and Sandra when they came over to talk as I waited for the guys. I started grinding gears in my brain – crunching numbers, averaging paces, working out theoretical situations in my head. What do I do? I asked Damien and Sandra – do I press on to try to keep pace? I know that we all had a creed to push forward if we felt good, but I always hate leaving my team. They both agreed that I should move if I wanted to stay in a top 10 position. I grabbed another cup of water and gulped that down, taking one more look at that hell of an obstacle that I just did…and I see Cliff trotting towards me.
I told Cliff the news of my ranking. His response? “Well we better get movin’ girl!” I laughed while he grabbed some water, and I asked Damien and Sandra to relay to Dave, Mark, and Todd that we were moving forward. Then, off we went. Cliff and I were in this for the long haul now.
The two of us wound through more forested trail and open field, chatting it up while moving at a pretty good clip. My legs felt great and we both made up a significant amount of time, even catching and passing a few other racers along the way. As we headed up another steep slope in the woods and came to the clearing at the peak, another infamous obstacle awaited – The Platinum Rig. The Rig is a patented design, made of steel construction and incorporating a variety of upper body torture. This Rig started off with a set of monkey rings to traverse, followed by a set of large square monkey bars. This immediately went into two trapeze swings (is your upper body tired reading this yet?) before having to grab a vertical climbing rope and hanging there in order to transition to the final set of monkey rings that were hung lower, so you had to use your feet to get through them. Oh…and did I mention you can’t touch the ground during any of this? (By the way…remember my mentioning of my friend Solo? Check her out here demonstrating this obstacle.
So, as mentioned before, Cliffy and I spared no pride in helping each other through this obstacle to avoid burpees. He’d steady me so I could complete, and then I’d go back and do the same for him. It took little time for us to clear this obstacle and move on. Back downhill and on to the Tyrolean Traverse – for those unfamiliar to OCR, this is a horizontal piece of climbing rope in which racers have to make their way across to ring a bell in order to complete the obstacle. Some people use their hands and feet to walk their way underneath the rope, but I elect to balance myself on top of the rope and pull myself across as it leads to less fatigue to the shoulders and hands. Cliff and I accomplished this handily, ringing the bell and dropping into the cold water again. I actually stood in the water for a few extra seconds to put the chill on my legs and feet. It felt soooooo good.
More running up and down the trail through the woods. In the three miles that he and I spent together after the sandbag carry, we made up almost 60 seconds per mile. Both of us seemed to feel good heading back into the next set of obstacles. The first was the recitation of that number we had memorized a couple hours before (or, I should say wrote on my wristband a couple hours before!). After that was the rope climb. How nice of Norm to put this obstacle near the end of the loop, when your upper body is taxed! Cliff went first and easily made it up. I had a little trouble getting started with my climb as these ropes were a bit shorter, making it more difficult in getting my feet locked into it. But Cliff helped to steady me and and made my way slowly upwards. Unfortunately, about a foot or so from the top, my legs slipped from their grip, causing my hamstring to hyperextend and cramp. I lost my hand grip and came crashing down into the water…I stuck a great landing on my feet, but the water was more shallow than usual so as I absorbed the impact of the fall by collapsing my legs into a crouch, I hit my jaw on my knee! It was loud enough that Cliff heard it, and I was definitely seeing stars for a few seconds. Oh well, burpees for me! Cliff shared burpees with me to help out.
Next up: the second Spearman throw. This one was rope-free, so no worrying about anything tangling up. I made aim and stuck the spear again – two for two! Cliff missed his throw, and I shared burpees with him. Quid pro quo.
Back uphill a bit and on to the second barbed wire crawl (which was a bit more rocky and harder on the knees), followed by the dunk wall. Cliff and I were still all smiles at this point, laughing and joking about anything and everything that came to mind. We were on pace to finish this thing and having the time of our lives! Next up – a long horizontal bar that needed to be climbed across without use of the legs. Again, teamwork came into play as we shouldered each other across this obstacle.
A bit more running along fairly flat ground was next (still holding good pace) before coming to the monkey bars. Spartan upped the ante and converted their previously parallel bars into a series of ups and downs, making it a bit more difficult in true Spartan fashion. Not an issue for our teamwork though! With this obstacle done, we had one final climb to make before making a complete 180 degree turn back towards the finish. It was during this climb that another racer pointed out to me that I had a massive tear in the butt of my spandex pants, pretty much dead center. Lovely. Good thing I had a change of clothes waiting for me at the drop bin station just a short ways away!
As Cliff and I ran down the mountain towards the fire jump, we were diverted to the left in order to get to our gear at the bin tent. The both of us were feeling pretty good considering the 16 miles of gnarly terrain we just traversed in 7 hours. With another lap to go, we had little time to waste in changing clothes and restocking food. As we jogged into the relief area, I spotted Kevin finishing with his supplies, as well as Paul J. After a quick exchange of hellos, those two were off, leaving Cliff and I to our bins. I quickly changed socks and shoes (I hadn’t realized just how soaked my feet were until I felt the awesomeness of dry gear!), downed some jerky and some pretzels, took a 5 hour energy and restocked my pack with GU and Chia Bars (if you don’t use Chia, I highly recommend it – awesome energy!) Cliff finished up with his things about the same time I did. In and out in less than 10 minutes and on to lap 2!
Instead of having to climb the mountain again like we did in the beginning of the race, we were redirected to the right and back towards the Bucket Brigade.
At this point of the story, I need to make a confession, as it’s something I’ve been hiding for almost 2 decades…there are a lot of people who know that I suffered from a heart condition when I was a teenager, called Supraventricular Tachycardia (SVT). In a nutshell, this syndrome causes massive rapid and irregular heartbeats, leading to weakness and fainting. I had corrective surgery for this at the age of 18, which was supposed to cure the condition. However, what most people don’t know is that I still occasionally battle milder bouts of SVT – they weaken me but generally not to the point of fainting. At the start of the Bucket Brigade, I felt my heart start to palpitate. I wasn’t fazed by it as I’ve raced through this problem before with no issue and I carried my bucket just as well as I did the first time. But when the palpitations continued longer than I expected them to, I started to worry a bit. I finished this obstacle before Cliff did, so I yelled back to him that I was going to walk ahead slowly so he could catch up. I headed towards the Traverse Wall at a snail’s pace, and the irregular heartbeat subsided. Good, crisis averted.
At the Traverse Wall I met up with another racer who was staring down the wall. “Hey buddy, I got you if you get me,” I said to him. He gladly accepted my help in keeping him on the wall, and after he rang the bell he told me that was the first time he’d cleared that obstacle in his life. He thanked me and by this time, Cliff had caught up, so I told that guy that my brother would help me out. After clearing that, we both jogged back to the water to reattempt the swim and rope ladder/Tarzan swing. It was there that we learned we had made the first cutoff time handily – it was 2:30 pm and we needed to be past the Tarzan Swing by 3:30. In the interest of time, the two of us decided it would be faster just to complete 60 burpees rather than attempt another go at the double obstacle. However when we got to the start of the swim, we were told that we not only had to attempt the obstacle, but we were required to wear a life vest this time. Yuck! But no matter, Cliff tossed me a vest and the two of us set off with the new plan to just complete the rope ladder and swim out to do 30 burpees for missing the Tarzan Swing. The water was just as cold as before but felt good on my legs and feet, which were starting to get sore from all the pounding. Climbing the ladder was more difficult this second time due to muscle fatigue and numb hands, but we both got it done. The swim out was uneventful – but we did see Paul J’s wife Denise on the bridge snapping pics as we swam out! We did our penalty burpees and headed back into the pond for the water walk – we passed fellow teammate Jennifer, who was in the midst of her Beast race. She cheered us on and I said hi back but was in such a state of mental simplicity (in other words, I’d turned into a bit of a robot) that I wasn’t a very good conversationalist.
Cliff and I caught Paul J. just before the Atlas Carry, and the three of us pretty much stuck together from that point forward. After getting through the barb wire crawl and heading back up the mountain, my heart started doing funky stuff again. I continued to push but the problem was slowing me down significantly. Cliff of course noticed me starting to lag behind, as well as the worried look on my face. It was then that I told him the secret that I have carried with me for years (and that I’m now revealing publicly). I said to him it was going to slow me, but I wasn’t stopping. I told the guys that they were welcome to press on ahead, but both Cliff and Paul J. opted to stay with me – good people and true warriors in not leaving anyone behind. It brought me to realize that I left Rick and Paul in Rick’s time of need, and for the rest of my time on that damned course, I silently apologized to Rick for doing so. Agreement or not, I missed my better half and my brother.
The three of us caught Kevin about ½ mile later, resting and taking some food. He joined our ranks, and we grew to a foursome again. Unfortunately, my body was starting to shut down – the heart issue led to nausea, rendering me unable to keep any food or fuel down other than the electrolyte drink I had in my pack. I’d try to choke down part of a bar or a gel, but would spit it back out. The lack of energy intake forced me to a walk at best and a crawl at some points of the course. The four of us trudged on, together, and as I looked at my watch around mile 24 of this 31 mile race, I knew that making the next cutoff (the Inverted Wall) was going to be close. We needed to be at that obstacle by 7 pm, and as I looked at my watch and saw the face tick past 6:30 when we reached the top of the mountain to the Spear Man throw, I told the guys that we had to move.
I hit my third straight spear of the day, but Cliff, Paul J, and Kevin all missed. Instead of helping them do burpees, I decided it was in the best interests of time if I started walking down the mountain knowing that they would catch up to me. They agreed and sent me forward. As I half walked/half slid on my butt down this now even more slippery and treacherous slope. I did some soul-searching. I came to this race hoping to finish the course, but knowing that the odds of that happening were growing ever-more impossible, my new goal was to make them pull me from the course. I was choking back vomit, light-headed, and physically exhausted, but there was no way in Hell that I was going to quit of my own accord.
The guys caught up with me about ¾ of the way down that stretch of mountain, and I revealed to the boys that we had less than 15 minutes to reach the next cutoff point, which was about a half mile away. I felt my legs getting heavier by the minute, my gut was doing backflips, my heart was pounding out of my chest. Cliff decided that the best way to keep everyone in the game was to have them run ahead of me, get over the Inverted Wall before the cutoff, get through their bucket carry and then have Cliff carry my bucket for me as I caught up to them. I didn’t argue that theory, so the boys trotted off ahead. Dusk was settling in on the mountain, and as I reentered a patch of woods, I needed to turn on my headlamp to light the treacherous, muddy path. My mind and my will was the only thing propelling me forward by this point, as every step sent more waves of nausea through me. I was tired, I wanted to puke, and I hurt…but knowing that was not going to change, I did the one thing I knew I could do to keep me engaged: I smiled. It really is amazing how that one simple act can bring you back to center.
I came out of the woods and spotted the Inverted Wall, and looked down at my watch – 6:58 pm. I had zero ability to run, so I plodded up to the obstacle with blinders on. Just. Get. Over. I was deaf to the volunteer who was yelling for my attention until he was practically in front of my face.
“It’s 7 pm. You missed he cutoff,” he said flatly.
I looked at him and smiled. “My watch says 6:59,” I joked back to him. We shared some friendly banter of how Norm made the call to start cutoffs and how my watch was GPS-synched, and thus a more accurate estimate of time than Norm’s watch was. It was a fruitless argument and I knew that, but I figure it was my way of not leaving the course quietly.
I was the first person to be cut from that obstacle, 25.5 miles and a little over 12 hours into the race. Bittersweet, I guess – Rick called for me and I turned back to him where he hugged me warmly and said how proud he was of me. I was beyond happy to see him and numb at the same time. Joe came up to me to offer words of solace, and I asked him to chase down Cliff to let him know I had gotten cut. I didn’t have the leg strength to get up to the Bucket Brigade quickly enough, and I couldn’t stand the thought of having Cliff needlessly carrying a second bucket of gravel. Rick took my pack and helped lead me back to the gear drop so I could get my things and change out of my race clothes. During that walk, he told me that the guys had less than 30 minutes to complete the Bucket Brigade, climb the Death March, and run back down to make the next cutoff at the Sandbag Carry – an all-but-impossible feat. I know that they knew that, too – but they’re fortitude to continue forward and make the volunteers pull them from the course made me proud to call them teammates and brothers-in-arms.
As I collected my things and made off to the changing tent, the adrenaline wore off, and reality set back in hard. The nausea I had been quelling came back full force. I broke into a cold sweat and began shivering. What would normally take me 5 minutes to change out of clothes and into fresh garb took me almost four times that long. At this point, all I wanted to do was lay down, but we had a drive to make first. Rick met me outside of the tent and carried my things for me to the car. He located Paul and we headed for the hotel. I wasn’t in the car for 5 minutes when I whispered to Rick to pull over – I opened the door and collapsed to my knees, heaving in the attempt to vomit. My insides wanted to leave my body and were trying to vacate through my mouth as expeditiously as possible. I sat crouched on the side of the road while the guys tried to help by talking to me. After a few minutes I crawled back into the front seat and motioned for Rick to drive again. This routine of drive/screech to a halt/fall out of car/vomit any possible thing that could be ejected would happen two more times before we finally reached the hotel.
I left all of my gear in the car, seeking only a place to lie down. Still nauseous, I chose to lie down on the cool tile floor of the bathroom, just in case my guts decided to rebel more. My body was aching and I was still uncontrollably shaking. The room was spinning – I was going into shock, but I was still lucid enough to realize that was happening. I asked Rick to call the airlines and ask to delay our flight a day as there was no way I was fit for flying. He brought me a glass of water and a blanket, and I burrito-ed myself into that and sipped a bit from the glass before returning to a horizontal position on the floor as it was the only thing that was keeping the vertigo at bay. I heard him talking to a representative from Southwest as I prayed to God to make the room stop spinning…
I woke up about 2 hours later…I had passed out on the bathroom floor. The sleep had obviously done some good as I was no longer shaking and the vertigo had subsided. I heard the guys talking in the next room, and the smell of pizza wafted around my nose. While I was out they went to town to pick up some food – but since the small Vermont town we were staying in rolls up their sidewalks at 9 pm, the only sustainable food available was what they found at the town gas station.
I un-mummified myself from the blanket and worked my way to my feet. The smell of the pizza was revolting but I knew I needed to eat something, so I stumbled into the next room where Rick and Paul greeted me with smiles and a bit of laughter at my appearance and plight. I laughed with them…what a helluva day. The food was exactly what I needed – I kept down two slices and felt a million times better within minutes. I looked at the guys and briefly recounted some of the events of the day. Despite the DNF, despite the misery I endured after the race…despite it all, it was an amazingly fun time. There’s something about a DNF that brings a refreshing sense of perspective to life. Again, it wasn’t as if I had actually trained for this race. Yet, up until those last few miles, I truly believed it was possible.
The Ultra Beast claimed the souls of over 75% of its participants. Some of those were broken so badly that they likely will never return to make another attempt at the race.
And then there’s me. I’ll be back…and next time I will have trained for it.
For those wanting to see the Garmin data for this race, go here.
I’m also working on a video compilation and hope to have that link here once it’s finished…check back soon!