Friday, September 25, 2015

Killington Spartan Beast 2015

September 19, 2015

They say that when you are in the midst of a difficult trial, there is a moment of truth in which you overcome your fears and succeed in achieving your goal (or don’t). The Killington Spartan Beast was the trial, but my moment of truth for it actually came several weeks ahead of the race.

I started doing Obstacle Course Races in 2014 with the Boston Spartan Sprint. At the time I felt completely out of shape and unprepared, but I desperately needed motivation to get myself out of my funk, so I took on the challenge. After seven weeks of exercise doing an accelerated couch-to-5k program, I did the race. It took me a long time, but I finished, and realized that Obstacle Course Racing was something I could do again, and use it to keep my motivation to exercise up. I started off 2015 with the Bonefrog Challenge in May, which was a much more difficult race. I managed to finish that race as well, but again, I took a very long time. In June was Tough Mudder, which was much the same story. But the ultimate prize was the Spartan Beast at Killington in September. Everything I had heard about this race was intimidating, and unlike the Bonefrog and Tough Mudder, none of my friends would be participating, so I would have to go it alone. If I did a Spartan Sprint, Super, and Beast in the same calendar year, I would earn the coveted Spartan “Trifecta”. I had considered a slower ramp up of difficulty by doing a Sprint in 2014, a Sprint and a Super in 2015, and the entire Trifecta in 2016. With none of my friends even doing the Super in 2015, I wavered on doing it, but I bit the bullet and did it alone in late June, and it wasn’t so bad. And with the Super under my belt, I decided that I had to go for it and do the Beast as well, so I signed up.  

And then, as things always happen, Murphy’s Law intervened with a vengeance. Barely days after I signed up for the Beast and began a strict training regimen, my 6-year-old daughter was hospitalized for a week with salmonella. The important thing is that she is fine now, but my first month of training was completely shot. Then work started getting extremely busy, and on top of that my mother-in-law got sick with multiple hospitalizations (she's on the mend now)...and my training regimen collapsed into nothing. Instead of ramping up my training as I needed to, I had stopped exercising entirely. In the meantime I did the Battlefrog in July and the Spartan Sprint in August, but the races themselves were the extent of my training. The entire year, with all of its OCRs, was supposed to be training for the Beast, but it seemed that the gods were out to stop me. Work was also supposed to get extremely busy right about the time of the Beast, so things would be even more stressful than usual. To say I was discouraged was an understatement.

Then, about three weeks before the race, I came to the realization that I didn’t have to do the Beast. I could always defer it to 2016, and pay the transfer fee (which, considering the circumstances, didn’t seem that bad). So I came to the conclusion that I had taken on too much, and I made the decision to postpone the Beast indefinitely. Immediately, I felt a huge sense of relief, and I could feel the stress begin to melt away.  

But within a day, I felt like a total failure. I had given up before I started and that crushed me. Due to my lack of conditioning, I felt that I would be in deep trouble if I did the race, but I also knew that would regret not making the attempt.

So I committed to it.

As time got closer to the Beast, the nervousness was palpable on the NE Spahtens Facebook page. People were debating (and panicking) about packing the right gear, the right foods, and about not being prepared, and so on. By now I had done enough races that I felt confident that given enough time, one way or another I could complete the Beast. The obstacles didn’t scare me, the mountain scared me only a little, but the time limit did scare me. I am terrifically slow, even more so on hills. In the previous six races I had done, people would constantly pass by me for most of the race, and then towards the end I would start passing people sitting down on the side of the trail, out of steam. But the Beast was different thing entirely, and there was a real risk of DNF (did not finish) due to my slow speed. The race was billed as 12+ miles, but realistically was more likely to be ~16 miles, on the very steep Mount Killington, VT.

But fortunately the NE Spahtens got a team start time of 8:00am (being a part of the largest team has its perks).  With the course open until 10:00pm, I felt I would have the time I needed, provided nothing catastrophic happened. Even so, Killington Beast veterans continually reminded me to keep moving throughout the race and not stop for anything.
Course Map

I had gotten a room in a quaint old hotel in White River Junction, VT, and on the day of the race, I got up at 4:30am and drove in the dark to Killington, arriving at about 6:30am, just as the sun was rising over the mountains. 
The door to my room in the "quaint old hotel"
Registration was easy as usual, and I checked and double-checked my gear before dropping off my bag at the bag check. I took a final pit stop in the bathroom, where a lot of people were dealing with frayed nerves, and then left back towards the team tent. I did some stretching, stayed for the team photo, and before long it was time to head towards the Start line.

Pre-race Team photo.  Courtesy NE Spahtens

Time: 0:00
Distance: 0.0 miles
Elevation: 2,280 ft
The motivational speech at the Start Line

There was the standard speech to start the race, and we were off. My pre-race jitters evaporated by now, and the weather was beautiful. The first mile or so of the course was relatively flat, with some of the standard easy obstacles to warm us up, Log Hurdles, O-U-T (over-under-through) walls, Hay Bales, and an Inverted Wall. Next was the Memorization Code--we had to memorize a code that they would ask us later in the race. (Note: Just like the Spartan Super...they never did ask us the code later on)  I found my code (Juliett 199-2601) and moved on quickly.  And then the next mile was straight up the mountain to Killington Peak, 1,500 feet up.
Up the Mountain. Photo courtesy NE Spahtens

I went at my own pace, practiced controlling my breathing and used the rest step, and although the climb was extremely long, it wasn’t all that bad. There were a few points along the way where roads crossed the trail, and I saw what would become a recurring theme: at every convenient stopping point, people took a seat and rested, enjoying the view and eating like they were having a picnic. It had been drilled into me by all Beast vets that I needed to keep moving, so I never stopped. I just snacked on the move and kept going.  
Cliff Climb

The last part of the summit climb they had a rope assist, aka the Cliff Climb. At the summit I stopped long enough to take a picture, and then it was on to the Spear Throw.
First Summit

Time: 1:27:01
Distance: 2.06 miles
Elevation: 4,172 ft

The Spear Throw target was very small, and of course I missed and did my 30 burpees. Then I started back down, and quickly ran into the 40 lb. pancake Sandbag Carry. They had already run out of sandbags, so I had to wait for a few minutes for a sandbag to become available. The carry had a steep downhill but gentle uphill component, so it wasn’t too bad: 0.28 miles and 125 feet elevation gain in 10:30.
Down the ski run. Photo courtesy NE Spahtens

After this was the long descent back down towards the base of the mountain. This included going steeply down several wooded trails and a wide open section. In the middle of this was the Tire Drag, where we had to sit and pull on a rope to drag a tire up the slope of the ski run, and then carry it back down to its starting position. I did this pretty easily. 
Tire Drag. Photo courtesy NE Spahtens
Down the mountain some more to the Sandbag Carry.  This was a lot more difficult than the pancake carry--0.34 miles and 146 of elevation gain in 17:49. The bag was probably twice as heavy as the pancake, but I was able to drape it across my shoulders and trudge up the mountain--this time the uphill was extremely steep and the downhill slightly less so. To keep myself going, I had a list of names in my head of people I was doing the race for, and repeated them over and over to keep myself focused. 
Sandbag Carry. Photo courtesy NE Spahtens
After the carry was the first water station, where they told us they were not refilling camelbaks. This surprised me, but it was a sign of things to come later in the race. I took my cup of water, downed it, and continued.

Time: 2:53:18
Distance: 4.63 miles
Elevation: 2,541 ft

Right away was a set of walls, through a short trail in the woods to another clearing where they had a Rig setup.  I tried it, held onto the vertical ropes, prepared to swing to the rings, and then my right shoulder dislocated and I couldn’t recover. (Not to over-dramatize it, but both my shoulders are hyper-mobile and I can dislocate them & pop them back in at will. The problem is that whenever I hang from my arms, both shoulders want to come out of their sockets, so I have to fight to keep them in place almost as much as I have to hang on with my hands. In any event, when my right shoulder popped out I knew I wasn’t going any farther on the Rig)
The Rig. Photo courtesy NE Spahtens

I went over to the designated area and 30 more burpees. At this point I took the opportunity to tend to my feet. On the steep downhills, my toes had taken a beating by being repeatedly squashed into the front of my shoes, and my big toes were developing hot spots. I took off my shoes and put on some athletic tape.

Immediately following the Rig was the Hercules Hoist. I didn’t see anyone doing burpees for this, so I figured that the weight must not be that bad. In previous races my hands always got rope burn from this obstacle, so this time I came prepared with leather gloves. This turned out to be a big mistake. As soon as I started pulling on the rope, it slid through my gloves as if I had covered them in grease. I simply could not get a grip on the rope.  After struggling for far too long, some of the other racers helped me complete the hoist, and thoroughly embarrassed, I continued on.

Time: 3:25:05
Distance: 5.25 miles
Elevation: 2,738 ft

Next in the woods was a Vertical Cargo net that was not that high, but very unstable. I made it over that and onto another trail, where there was a long Barbed Wire Crawl.

Time: 3:50:52
Distance: 6.00 miles
Elevation: 2,388 ft
Bucket Brigade. Photo courtesy NE Spahtens

Next was a Log Balance Beam, and then the Bucket Brigade. There was a very long wait for this one as they had run out of buckets. At nearly every obstacle in the race, at all the water stations, and many parts of the trails (especially where they entered into woods from open ground), there were bottlenecks. As I waited in line for the Bucket Brigade, I had plenty of time to become more and more apprehensive. People had stopped to rest all over the place, and the mountain looked terrifically steep. I finally got a bucket, filled it up, and started up the mountain. Far earlier than I wanted to, I had to stop and rest. I went down on one knee and rested the bucket on my thigh. I kept checking my heart rate monitor, and my heart rate had spiked to 180 (which is the max for a 40-year-old like me).  I let it settle down a bit, and then I got up and went up a little farther, until my heart rate hit 180 again, and then I rested again, repeating this process until I reached the top. Like all of the carries in this and every other OCR I’ve ever done, I followed my personal rule of “rest as necessary, but never let the Bucket/Sandbag/Log touch the ground during the carry.”  I never thought about quitting or skipping the obstacle, but at the time I was thinking “I don’t know how I’m going to do this one…”  Ten times I rested before reaching the highest point. All along the path, people were sitting on their buckets, or letting them slam into the ground whenever they stopped to rest, frequently dumping some of the gravel out. On the way back down, it was not my heart that was the problem, but rather my hands. I went until they started to to shake, threatening to make me drop the bucket, and I stopped to rest with the bucket on my knee until my hands stopped twitching. I only needed five rests on the way down. 0.43 miles, 155 feet of elevation gain in 34:09.

Following the Bucket Brigade was some very steep trails uphill through the woods to summit another peak (a sub-peak of Bear Mountain).
Second Summit

Time: 5:56:12
Distance: 7.87 miles
Elevation: 3,665 ft

We did a Farmer’s Log Carry, and then a long, long trail down the mountain.  At about this time my right knee started giving me some problems. Towards the end of the Tough Mudder in June, my right knee started hurting pretty bad, but by that time I was almost done with the race. Here, I was only about halfway through...I took some ibuprofen and kept going.

Near the bottom we ran into a Rope Climb--which was very short compared to other rope climbs I’ve faced, and I was able to manage this easily. Continuing down, we neared a lodge where there was a long series of shorter Walls followed by several “Thru” Walls, and then more Log Hurdles.

Time: 7:36:35
Distance: 10.19 miles
Elevation: 2,096 ft

Next was a Log Carry, 0.26 miles over 152 feet of elevation gain in 13:04.  

Immediately following the Log Carry was a water station, and thus began the long wait.  The station was out of water, and so one volunteer was filling camelbaks from a garden hose with low water pressure, while the line just grew and grew and grew. The racers had been led to believe that they would be able to refill their packs at all the water stations, and many were completely out of water by this point, having been turned away from other stations with only a half-cup of water and unable to refill their packs. As a result there were a lot of very disgruntled racers here. Many discussed skipping the water station and going on, but with 5-6 miles of race left to go, to skip it might risk getting dehydrated. For my part I stayed quiet and waited for the line to move. I had been on the course for over 8 hours, with an unknown distance ahead of me, and I began to worry that the delay would not allow me to finish in time. The delay had caused all of us to cool off, and many racers were also concerned that they would get cramps. My heart rate slowed to its lowest rate here for the entire course. Finally, after a 40 minute wait, just as I got to the front of the line, a water truck arrived to speed things up, and I was on my way again.

Time: 8:25:06
Distance: 10.75 miles
Elevation: 2,072 ft

Immediately after the backup was another Rig setup--you had to climb over a wall, do the rig, then climb over another wall and back down. I was angry at the long delay, and knowing that with my shoulders and general lack of upper body strength I had essentially no chance of success, I just walked by this obstacle without any regrets. Over Hay Bales and back into the woods to start a steep 500 foot climb.

It was about this point that I realized that barring an accident of some sort, I was going to finish. I don’t know if it was that realization, or that I had hit a second wind, or if it was just the ibuprofen working, but I felt strong and was able to pick up the pace a bit. For almost the entirety of the course people had been passing me, but now I started to pass people, and more and more I was passing people resting on the side of the path who had passed me earlier in the race. In general many more racers were resting, and more often, than earlier in the course.

At Mile 12 we hit another water station (this one well-supplied), and then the Atlas Carry--you had to carry a large stone sphere a short distance, do 5 burpees, and then carry the stone back to the starting position. More trails and a second Vertical Cargo net, this one with a sizable backup, and then down to the base of the mountain by the lake where we had to do the Waist Deep Trudge. We were supposed to wade out to a rope, touch it, and then cross the water to the exit point. Most racers were trying to stay out of the water as much as possible, going only knee to waist deep, gingerly stepping from rock to rock. I got impatient with this and just plowed through the water about chest deep and ended up passing dozens of people. My GPS battery died just before I got into the water.

Time: 10:12:25
Distance: 13.7 miles
Elevation: 2,200 ft

Back into the woods for more trails, which were not that technical. I kept telling myself that the race wasn’t over, and there would certainly be some surprises left to try to crush our spirits. Coming out of the woods and into the clear, ahead there was a steep ski run.  On the left and closest side of the run was another Log Carry. Either it was my second wind talking, or this one wasn’t as bad, but I managed to do this entire carry without stopping to rest. By now the crescent moon was bright over the crest of the mountain.

On the right side of the ski run, leading up the mountain was a long Barbed Wire Crawl uphill in the gathering darkness. Where possible I usually use the rolling technique to go through barbed wire, but it wasn’t feasible this time, so I was forced to alternate between high and low crawls. After this it was another long slog uphill until a road crossed the ski run, and then we turned right to follow the road.  By the time the trail turned to go back downhill into the woods, the woods were very dark, so it was time to turn on the headlamps. Fortunately a lot of people had them, so it was easy to see where you were going. We emerged into a clearing with another easy Rope Climb, this one with a lot of spectators watching.  I was surprised to see so many people just bypass it. I don’t know if people thought it was too dark to do obstacles anymore, or if they had just had enough, but they just walked on by.  The climb wasn’t high, so I did it pretty easily and kept going. Next were the Z-Walls.  I’m getting better at this one, but I was pretty tired, so fortunately someone kindly spotted me through it, and I completed it with only a little help.  Again, maybe half the racers were bypassing it.

The course turned downhill for the home stretch. In the distance I could see the fire burning, with some spotlights on the finish line, and music blaring.  Spectators were lining the edge of the path cheering everyone on, but were only visible as shapes in the darkness.

The next obstacle was an Atlas Log Carry, and as I did that I watched even more people just walk on by the obstacle, and this was followed by an interminable downhill Barbed Wire Crawl that served to get everyone muddy. I was able to roll downhill through this one. On the far side were a few more Log Hurdles, and then the last Spear Throw.  The Fire Jump and Finish Line were clearly in sight just beyond. Apparently it was very tempting to move on and get on to the finish, as it was difficult to see the spears and targets unless you had a headlamp.  A lot of racers were just skipping it, or just attempting the throw and then skipping their burpees. I failed my throw and started my burpees.  Appropriately enough, See You Again by Wiz Khalifa started playing at the finish line.  I was almost done, and I thought about the long day without my family, and wanting to tell them all about it when I saw them again. Normally this late in a race I’m wiped out and my “burpees” are a formless joke, but I did the last few in good form.  It was on to the Fire Jump. In the darkness the fire looked awesome, with two little “bonfires” at either end and a low wall in the middle to jump over. I waited my turn, then jumped the fire and ran the rest of the way through the Finish Line.  
Over the Fire

Time: 11:42:27
Distance: ~15.95 miles

On the far side a volunteer congratulated me and put the medal over my head--I can’t emphasize enough what a mental boost that gives you. Normally when I hear spectators cheering the racers, I never think they’re cheering me, rather I imagine they’re cheering on all the other racers, and I’m just in the way. Whenever I am resting during a race, for example during a bucket carry, and other racers say things like “You got this, you can do it” I always feel embarrassed and want to say, “I’m fine, just keep going and don’t pay attention to me.” But at the end, when someone puts a medal over your head and congratulates you, it’s great. This is in strict contrast to some races I’ve done where a volunteer is holding dozens of medals in their hands and just casually hands you one as you go by.

Having done the Beast, I realize that despite the hype I had nothing to fear in doing it. I felt fine afterwards, and although I had a hotel room an hour away, I felt easily strong enough to drive the three hours straight home. (I had already paid for the hotel room so I just went there) The race was long, and there were parts that were hard, but by the end I almost felt let down.  Perhaps I am not pushing myself hard enough. My racing strategy tends to be that since I don’t know how long the race will be or what I will face ahead, I need to conserve my strength. As a result, I always finish with some gas left in the tank, but my strategy always seems justified when I see people far fitter than I resting, injured, or broken on the side of the path in the late stages of the race--people who blasted by me earlier. Before the race I heard dozens of stories about how Killington would be brutal, and that it would break you mentally and physically. I don’t want to diminish anyone else’s accomplishment or experience, but I really don’t think the race was that bad. Overall it was a great experience and I look forward to the challenge again next year.
My GPS map. The red is what my GPS recorded, the blue is my estimate of the rest of the course.
Before the race I thought that if I finished the Beast, I never would have to do it again. But now that I’ve done it, I see no reason why I shouldn’t. As of now, anyway, I plan on being back next year.

Other Races in this series

1 comment:

Kerri said...

This was great to read the detailed account of all that you endured! You have a nice way of describing the mental challenges as well as the physical challenges. I was apprehensive about you doing this race for (my own) fear of you getting hurt. After all is done, I am so glad that you did it for the peace of mind and sense of accomplishment that you must feel. Thank you for sharing the experience. Reading it inspired some personal motivation within me. I love you and I'm proud of you for accomplishing your goals!