Going into this weekend’s Spartan Super at Wintergreen resort in VA I had high hopes and few expectations. Having never done a race remotely similar to this I really did not know what I was getting into. As I toed the line I knew it would be hard, I knew the competition would be tough, and I knew I would suffer. That was the extent of my knowledge about Spartan Race. Over the next 2 hours I would get beat down, mentally, physically and emotionally, and get a complete education on the sport of Obstacle Course Racing from some of the sports best athletes. If you are not interested in reading the whole long story, and yes it will be long, I will start with a few quick takes from the weekend.
As a first time racer I have never been met with more encouragement and advice from my competitors. Coming from a mountain runner, this was a TRUE mountain race. Plus obstacles. Being a good runner can only take you so far in Spartan Race. I have seen in Spartan Race ads where they claim that you need look no further to find the most challenging event on the planet. While I believe, having competed in many challenging endurance events that this is an impossible claim to make because there are too many factors that go into it, I will admit that Physically and mentally the challenge to keep moving during the Bucket Brigade, matched any low moment I have had in any ultra, mountain race, track race or adventure race that I have ever competed in.
Now for the story:
I arrived at Wintergreen Resort late Friday evening. The drive was sunny and warm but by the time I was halfway up the mountain fog was already clinging to the mountain. The plan was to get in a shakeout run, find a good place to camp near the racer parking, about 15 minutes from the resort, sleep in my car and get up ready to run in the morning. I was just finishing up my run in sight of the finishing area for the next day’s race when a guy came up to me. I could tell immediately that like me he was a trail runner. He asked if I had seen any of the course and I let him know what little of it I had happened upon during my run. We introduced and after a short jog found out that both of us were attempting our first Spartan the next day. We talked a bit of trail running and before I knew it I had a place to stay at a Condo 400 meters from the start! Not worried about parking and a shuttle in the morning!
After a quick dinner we both went to bed early and woke up equally early, and ready to go. Fog was not clinging to the mountain side but rather engulfing it as if swallowing it whole. We met up with my friend and personal good luck charm Jordan Whitlock and got ready to go. The 7:30 start got delayed and after standing around until 8:15 an official finally said he would announce the start time to a few top athletes before allowing the entire Elite Field to enter the corral.
To my complete surprise my name was the first to be announced. I felt awkward hopping over the Spartan wall and into the starting corral completely by myself. I was relieved to hear names being called out quickly behind me and was joined at the line by the Spartan Pro racers. After that it was a few quick intros, the national anthem and a pump up speech and then we were off. After a short downhill we were met immediately by our first climb up a Ski slope.
Strategy became tricky immediately as I found myself out front. I was hoping to key off of a few of the guys and see how they tackled obstacles but I also knew that the first half of the race was mostly running with few obstructions. I decided I wouldn’t exceed my normal climbing pace on a training day and if that put me out front then I would deal with it. I also hoped that it might drag Matt Novakovich out with me and hopefully I could key off him while separating from Hunter McIntyre who I knew would destroy me in the Bucket Brigade later on if he was anywhere close. This was the one obstacle I was really worried about.
The first several miles were simple over under obstacles with plenty of climbing and descending. I ran comfortably and went through the obstacles easy without trying to do anything fast and fancy on the wet surfaces. I built a small lead before making a short wrong turn. I ran with Matt after that and felt more comfortable.
We hit the Pancake carry together, which was good because I initially was trying to climb over the walls with the 40lb bag on my shoulder before he let me know you could set the bag on the wall as long as your hand didn’t leave it. We were talking but at the top of the hill his pace quickened as he noticed Hunter closing on us. I stayed with him despite a fall, where luckily my bag never touched the ground. Then it was a short climb followed by descent through the woods. The descent was technical and I gained a slight lead again, although I hyper extended my knee which worried me slightly.
I was the first to reach the tractor pull and was slightly surprised to see Hunter right behind me. He must have descended faster than matt. I grabbed the chain and started to awkwardly drag the cement block up the ski slope. I was QUICKLY passed by both hunter and matt. For a few seconds I desperately pulled harder on my chain before I finally observed their technique. Both were holding the chain with both hands extended behind them. I grabbed the chain the same way and with a slight forward lean found all the stress transferred to my quads. This was home for me. I power-hiked easily just trying to stay even with them and not waste any energy. I dropped the weight about 20 seconds behind the duo and set of running, resisting the urge to sprint back up to them.
We had descended for a while and I figured we had some climbing ahead of us. Over the next mile and two obstacles, an over under in the water, and the atlas carry, I caught back up. We hit another steep ski slope and Matt and I drew slightly ahead of hunter. I kept an even easy climbing pace edging slightly ahead of Matt, I glanced at Hunter power hiking only a few seconds back. The dude could hike! Matt and I hit the monkey bars together with Hunter right on us. I started steady afraid of slipping on the wet bars. Matt started swinging like he was going to jump and skip the high bars but I think the wet metal deterred him and he began hitting every bar. Hunter swung past and into the lead with Matt and I dropping off the bars just behind him. We ran the short distance to the next obstacle three wide. This was where things went south for me.
The Hercules was the first real mans obstacle and I was immediately in trouble. To my left Matt and Hunter were hauling on their ropes halfway done in no time. I joked that the bag was heavier than I was but as I looked at Matt I knew he wasn’t that much bigger than me and he was beasting it. Just as they were finishing I found a bit of technique and my bag started cruising towards the top. I was in too much of a hurry though and with only a foot to go my hands slipped on the wet rope and the bag fell to the ground. 30 burpees for me. I knocked them out quick and headed down the mountain next to another smaller athlete who introduced himself as James. I descended a little quicker than he did and reached the dreaded bucket brigade in third. I knew I would lose time here and figured my chances of catching Matt and Hunter were not much better than zero but I hoped to still hang on to a podium spot.
I grabbed my bucket and ran to the furthest right corner of the rock pile. I didn’t want to carry that freaking bucket one step further than I had to. Right off the bat my hands, flat on the bottom of the bucket started slipping. I curled my fingers beneath the small lip and they found purchase but with all the weight on my fingertips my forearms were burning in seconds. I put the bucket down. So did James and we both got passed. I looked over and saw Hunter and Matt on their way down. I was surprised to see Matt sticking close to Hunter still although I could tell he was pushing harder. The next ten minutes were a brutal blur of pain. By the time I reached the top of the slope I had been passed by 7 people and was in 9th place.
Each person grunted encouragement as they passed and I returned it when I was physically able. David Magida passed me as I lay on the ground finding the determination to get back down the hill. By the time I was halfway down he had already moved all the way to third and was finishing the challenge. I was moving 2o feet at a time and setting my bucket down, forearms mashed to jello. Finally near the bottom of the slope I found that if I wrapped both arms slightly over and to the front of the bucket, I could grip the lip with one hand and grip the first hand with the second. The weight transferred to my biceps and the bucket seemed to drop half its weight. I cruised the rest of the way to the bottom and dumped out my rocks. The spear throw was immediately following the bucket brigade and I walked over shaking out my arms. I picked my spear gripping it as best I could in my shaking hand and threw. I didn’t put enough wrist into the throw and it tilted back slightly but miraculously stuck, hanging by some unseen thread. I glanced at the race official and he gave me the thumbs up. I sprinted off down the hill before my spear could fall forcing me into 30 more burpees.
Over the next mile the course tumbled down the mountainside through a creek bed, strewn with rocks, logs, and since it was raining plenty of muddy water. My knee was getting tender so I didn’t push this section although I slowly reeled in the pack ahead of me. Just as we left the woods I passed James and moved into 9th. Then it was a log flip and we headed straight up the ski slope. 100 meters in I suddenly started getting hope back. The trail was STEEP, one that I may not have been able to run a couple of years ago, yet here I was running up the mountain. Everyone else had adopted a strong power hike and as I moved up the mountain I moved up in the field as well. 8th,7th,6th,5th! Nearing the top I caught sight of 4th, and David Magida’s red shoes in 3rd!
All the sudden the podium was back in play. I reached the top, scaled a wall and headed down the mountain yet again as the 2 ahead of me disappeared into the fog, which like the course showed no signs of letting up. Seconds into the descent the trail pitched downward and I was out of control. I stayed on my feet until the ground ahead looked grassy and then I slid. My foot caught on something and then I was rolling, I regained my feet scratched and bruised but still moving. I slowed knowing that the course climbed to the finish and thinking I would make my move then. I reached the tire pull just in time to see 4th heading into the woods below me. I grabbed my robe and hauled. I slid down the hill. I tried again and still could not move the tire. I moved to the next one just as 6th came sliding in next to me. He tried to show me how to pull with my legs braced on the pole that the rope was fastened to but I couldn’t budge the tire far enough to even get there. After trying for too long I races down to the trail to do my burpees. This set was TOUGH. My knee had apparently swollen and although I didn’t feel it while running I couldn’t draw it to my chest and my burpees became an awkward flop to the ground followed by a push up to one leg and then a hop. I got passed two more times during the burpees and I was back in 8th.
As I left the tire pull I put my head down and charged. I entered the woods on the service road and saw almost flat trail ahead of me when out of the corner of my eye I saw tape to my right. My heart sunk as I saw the course climb up a steep loose dirt slope and into the woods. The next section was a real climb! An off trail scramble through boulders and plenty of briars. I pushed hard and expected to see competitors ahead of me, coming back like they did on the last climb, but the woods were empty. I pushed harder. I exited the woods and into a small clearing with an 8 foot fall. I scaled it and sat on the top for a second looking down the mountain and still seeing no one. Then I descended. Another steep ski slope, another slide and roll and then I was at the log carry. I eyed some very light looking logs before being directed to a section of big round pine stumps with black E’s on them.
So much for running this section. Still, this was home. Growing up we heated a sizable house in the Northeast most corner of NY on nothing but wood, and if there was one heavy object I was efficient at carrying it was a log. I lifted the sticky hunk of wood and positioned it on center of my shoulders where both arms could reach over my head and steady it. I am sure it was an awkward looking position but it was efficient and left little work to be done by the arms. I set off down the slope at a job looking to my right for my competitors who would be climbing the other side of the slope. I saw no one. I reached the bottom and my job became a hike. I was pushing HARD at this point. No more saving my legs. I reached the top completely wasted but having never set my log down. I knew Ryan Kent was close behind me but I was sure I had put a little cushion in here and felt slightly redeemed after the bucket brigade.
I walked as I took in water and then started jogging, I hit the traverse wall and keeping my body close in just like I would if I was climbing I made it through without a slip, by the time I hit the barbed wire crawl I was almost recovered from the log carry. I started crawling and was getting nowhere but once I found a good rhythm of pushing through the open spots and rolling through the tight spots I cruised through the rest and hit the rope climb.
I flew halfway up and then my forearms started giving out. I couldn’t draw my right leg up to grip the rope and I dropped into the water. 30 more awkward burpees and I crossed the line bloody, muddy and tired in 8th place. It wasn’t what I was looking for but I couldn’t help but be somewhat satisfied in my effort. With no real specific training I had still hung in there and competed. I learned that Matt had edged Hunter in a hard-fought battle and that David had held on for third. Luke finished not long later after cramping up on the barbed wire crawl. We hung around the finish discussed what went right and wrong and planned our training for our next attack on a Spartan race. It won’t be long, and we will both be ready this time!
Pictures are from Reebok/Spartan Race.