The Lost Soul Ultramarathon

LSU titleLethbridge, Alberta, Canada – Saturday, September 10th 2017

At obstacle racing media, we cover more than just OCR. There is a lot to learn for our sport by participating in other sports. The crossover between OCR and endurance running is fairly clear. Training for an ultra prepares you for the rigors of the Spartan Race Ultrabeast or the Worlds Toughest Mudder series and vice versa. Ultra distance events also allow you to tap into a great local community of runners. Consider this cross pollination.

As an introduction to my first ultra distance event, there seemed no clearer place to start than my own town – Lethbridge. Except was not a clear day: visibility was about a mile or less – and trying to see the other side of the valley was like looking through a glass of skimmed milk.

Smoky LSU

The driest, hottest summer in years had turned most of British Columbia into a tinder box and since mid August, vast forest fires have been pouring blue tinted smoke and white ash onto the prairies. By the time I arrived at the start line on Saturday it was clearing, but I did spare a thought for the 100K and 100-mile runners who had battled through air quality indexes at +10 for most of Friday.

The history

The Lethbridge Lost Soul Ultra Marathon (LSU) is organized through a running club and runners store in Lethbridge – Runners Soul. Now in its 18th year, the LSU it has been billed as “The toughest race on the prairies.” Not to put anyone off; it’s also been subtitled as “also the nicest [race on the prairies!]” 

There’s a long waiting list for this race, and when entries go on sale in January, it sells out in a matter of hours. I was about to find out why. 

The setup

The entry fee is CA$160 regardless of distance, which is an excellent value given the quality of this event. Three distances are available to choose from; the 54 kilometer, the 100 kilometer and the 100 miler. The race is capped at relatively low numbers to maintain a great experience for all.

The course is separated into 6 legs, ranging in distance from 6 kms to 16 kms. A complete lap of the course is 54 kilometers – which is what I did. For reference, my GPS logged 53.06 kilometers or 32.9 miles with 1,441 meters or 4727 feet of elevation gain and loss during my race.

LSU aeiral

Now, you’d expect the prairies to be flat, but I know better. This is not a flat course, and this race climbs the walls of that river valley from bottom to top at least 13 times. The relatively short descents and climbs on the first two legs are extremely steep, but never dangerous.

Underfoot the surface is mostly dusty single-track, which isn’t a particularly challenging surface to run on – apart from some sections with loose sand, deep gravel or powdery dust. Grip and breathability were really great in my Merrell All Out Charge. I felt like they were a good choice for the mix of conditions.

Shoes for LSU

 

Lisa Houle (4) LSU

The first half of the course accumulates most of the elevation gain and loss, covering the eroded spurs of glacial till that form the valley walls, while the second half hugs the grassy banks of the Oldman River. 

Do not assume that Canada would have cooler temperatures – cactus thrive alongside rattlesnake in the river valley. Dante himself could have found inspiration here for his inferno. It can snow this time of year in Alberta, and one week later at the time of this publication, it is a balmy 12°C, but by 11 am on Saturday, the mercury had risen to 37°C (98.6°F). During the 100k/100m events on Friday afternoon, the temperatures were pushing 40°C (104°F). If it’s a warm day, be prepared for the extended rigors and heat of the ‘North Loop’. Train in the heat.

River LSU

The power of experience

The guidance strategies and course markings on the LSU must have been finely tuned over the years because I never once felt lost. Pink flags were liberally placed for high visibility. 

LSU Snake

I guess that when you get good enough at the big stuff, you can start having fun with the details. The race was full of amusing or unique things to look at, like tiny rocks painted as Minions, the odd fake snake, or rocks painted with motivational statements. 

Lisa Houle (1) Rock LSU

The hills all had different nicknames, from the rather obvious ‘First Hill’ to ‘The Final Insult.’ Very funny.

Oh, and in the woods of the north loop, there was this…

Tracy Romelle Facebook Clown

By later in the day on Friday, someone dealt with it before he could float anyone else…

Clown LSU

This wink of knowing, dark humor kept me entertained and helped me keep perspective during the painful final hours of the race. 

Those aid stations tho.

Food LSU

There were three aid stations on the course, each of which can be visited twice on each loop and one unmanned aid station halfway along the longest loop. A bag drop can be made for two of them (HQ and the northernmost station at Pavan Park). I’m not kidding when I say that the aid stations here are probably among the best you’ll ever experience. Where else can you get a grilled salmon sandwich along with a frozen lemonade? The choice of treats and drinks was diverse. Now I might be gushing because I was high on endorphins, so take this with a pinch of electrolytes but this was out of this world. An oasis, that as you’ll read later, I found very difficult to leave.

Pavan Aid Station

Food

Volunteers

The volunteers at the LSU were THE BEST (again excuse my endorphins). I don’t know if this is a regular thing at ultras, but at every aid station, I felt revered and respected like some kind of holy cow. Whether it was an encouraging applause, the sound of cow-bells announcing your arrival, or a knowing look from someone who has almost certainly been ‘there’ (and by there I mean the deepest ‘pain cave’) before. I’ve never felt so supported on-course. People knew my number and my name. They interacted with me on a personal level. They seemed to either be runners or know runners. They were so engaged and ‘on task’ that there was no need to really ask any questions or do anything other than check in at the station, with any assistance you needed being delivered before you even asked. OCR needs this kind of volunteer.

Volunteers

My Race

Lost Soul Glenn (3)

I had a fairly smooth race until the halfway mark. This was home ground for me, so I was well prepared for the elevation gain and the distance. I knew these trails and was making good time, until the heat arrived.

Staying hydrated in +35 degrees was a huge challenge, and I began to look longingly at the cool river running to my right. I wasn’t going to give up but the distance seemed to dilate and grow as the temperatures and exposure took their toll on my mind. I’m pretty sure I had forgotten my salt pills. Yeah… they weren’t there.

I took my shirt off and packed it for a while, exchanging it for my wide-brimmed hat to shield my head from the sun. I began to divert my attention away from how difficult it was and focused on keeping my running form balanced and maintaining the right heart rate, regardless of pace. I kept my mind busy – I was going to make it to Pavan aid station.

Yet, in the back of my mind, I knew things weren’t going that well. I was overheating fast, and I had a very primal thought that I was going to get into trouble soon. My watch was set to remind me to take my nutrition, but now the task of eating and running was becoming burdensome. 

The North loop eventually spat me back out, and I made it to the Pavan Park aid station – almost delirious from the heat. I got my pack filled with more electrolytes and I ate a big handful of dill pickle potato chips from my drop bag – the sodium felt like it would be enough. It wouldn’t be. I didn’t think to ask for salt pills, this was a learning experience for me.

The mood at the aid station was celebratory, easy, accommodating. It really felt like an oasis there. I felt myself relax for a moment, only to snap out of the momentary stupor to realize I was far from done. It took more effort than I expected to leave that place behind and get back on the trail. 

I grabbed a frozen lemonade which I gulped down too quickly (hello brain freeze), and set off into the heat once again. I was cooler now, and feeling cautiously optimistic, knowing that I only had about 13 kilometers to go.

I ran well for about 15 minutes before my pace began to falter again and soon I was unable to drink enough water without feeling sick. Heat exhaustion. Not enough electrolytes. It felt like I was drinking plenty, but in reality, I was taking in only small sips and becoming more and more dehydrated.

Lost Soul Glenn (4)

“Hi, I’m dying”

At that time, I got a message from my wife Deanna – she knew that my pace had died, as did everyone else; my family and close friends were watching my progress the whole time in real time via a Strava Live beacon. There was nowhere to hide what was happening, and messages of support soon flooded onto the screen of my smartwatch. I wasn’t going alone on this – not at all.

Moments like this put you through a kaleidoscope of emotions.  One thought began to persist – “this is what I signed up for.” I had become lost in an environment that was wild, inhospitable, and indifferent to my goal. I had become that ‘Lost Soul.’ It was time to pick up whatever energy I had left and make it back to the finish.

Time for redemption.

Completing two of the final climbs was accomplished by crawling on my hands and knees and once I was back on the flats, the trail brought me back to the first aid station among a set of baseball fields. There I was immediately set upon by 3 volunteers who quickly recognized the symptoms of heat exhaustion. I told them I was going to try and finish, so they stuffed my hat and buff with ice, the buff loosely wrapped around my neck to cool me down. I drank ginger ale, which seemed to help too.

The final trail run along one of my most frequented training trails was better – but the ice under my hat and around my neck was melting fast so I picked up the pace. Again, congratulations started to buzz through onto my wrist – my family had seen that I had passed 50 kilometers. It was a huge boost to know I had come this far. One final challenge remained.

I made it to the final climb at the base of Fort Whoop-Up and took this last photo. 

Final hill

I’ve run up this hill dozens of times. I’ve carried buckets up and down it. I’ve ran up in the snow and in the heat. I know exactly how long it is, and that it has a second ‘summit’. Its not a big deal, maybe 300 feet from bottom to top, but after 53 kilometers it felt as tall as Everest. The sound of cow bells at the finish line nearby kept me crawling, dehydrated and unsteady, shouting at myself to keep going all the way to the top. I crawled my way to the top of that hill before hobbling my way to the finish. I don’t care how small it looks in the photo or that people routinely do ultras that are much harder than this. To me it felt like the final character building moment in what had been a humbling day. It had taken me 6 hours and 48 minutes.

Crossing the line

Lost Soul Glenn (5)

Lost Soul Glenn (6)

Nice and Tough

Make no mistake – this is the toughest race I have ever done. I expected that. What I didn’t expect to hear was that the 100 miler had just a 33% finish rate and only about 66% of runners had finished the 50K. I felt grateful to have finished, but also understood that the line between finishing and not finishing didn’t have to become a badge of honor. No matter when you called it, it was a huge accomplishment for all. 

Lost Souls Ultra Finish

Prizes

Top category finishers received an etched rock as a trophy. All runners received a personalized tile, a North Face running jersey, breakfast the next day, and a chance to win prizes in a raffle. I’m really struggling to find a fault here with the whole deal…. um… it was too hot?

Conclusion

Views

LSU is that race that everyone wants to do because it feels authentic. It’s got that locally sourced, locally grown feel that contrasts with the escalating commercialization of athletics. Capping the race at smaller numbers mean it feels exclusive, yet so inclusive of each person on course. LSU could expand the number of entrants, but then that magic could be lost or watered down. The event isn’t pretentious or showy, and Runner’s Soul appeared to transcend self marketing or promotion pushing. It’s a race that shows restraint and maturity in that regard. On a personal level, it taught me some very important lessons about my own approach to training and managing my race during extreme conditions. 

The Lost Soul Ultra is one of those rare challenges worth waiting for. Make no mistake, this is an event where a person must journey through heaven and hell to make himself whole again. Despite the smoke, the heat and the brimstone I will be back next year.

Photo credit: Ralph Arnold photographics. Facebook contributors – used by permission.

Michigan Spartan Sprint

Michigan Sprint

The Michigan International Speedway played host to the Spartan Race over the weekend of September 9th and 10th, offering a Super distance on Saturday and a Sprint on Sunday. I participated in the Sunday Sprint, which is the distance that will be covered in this race review. Spartan seamlessly used the flat terrain around the stadium as well as integrating the stadium itself into the 5.6 mile Sprint, bridging the gap between a stadium race and a mud run.

Parking Problems

40-degree temperatures greeted the first groups of racers to arrive at the speedway as volunteers dressed in winter coats directed traffic to the lots surrounding the event. The standard $10 was the universal price for parking as no upgraded VIP parking was offered. There was a 10-minute walk to the registration area. This provided racers time to get moving, build up a little body heat and shake out some last minute nerves.

Post-race was a different story. You’re tired and wet and just want to find your car and get out of there! That walk was longer than desired. For some, it was a good chance to catch their breath and walk out some sore muscles. Once registration was complete, there was another short hike required as racers were led under the stadium and track via an underground tunnel to the festival area and start/finish line. Spartan added no surprises during this event, making the course map accurate.

Obstacles

Racers on the infield of the track and additional athletes were then led immediately outside of the stadium. They were greeted with a series of walls to hop over on the way out which started the process of thinning out the crowd. A tunnel under the track provided our opportunity to explore the surrounding racetrack grounds as athletes were led over a series of hurdles set along the grass path. This grass trail continued around to the back side of the track where the O-U-T and vertical cargo net were located. This further thinned out the crowd.

A short distance away we re-entered the stadium through an open gate where a series of obstacles were set up in the infield. This obstacle position provided excellent viewing for family and friends. It was here that Twister, the A frame cargo climb, tire flip, and spear throw were located. If you wanted a bad ass picture of yourself on the Twister or flipping the 200-400 pound tire, this was the race to be at. Spectators were only a few feet away, watching your epic triumph or failure.

Quarter-Mile Challenge

After proceeding past this gauntlet of obstacles, Spartan led racers to a flat section of pavement where each runner was timed passing through two timing mats for their ¼ mile challenge. The top 3 male and female athletes received awards for the fastest times. It was a fun addition to the race.

Spartan began their bucket brigade on the grass trail leading around the back of the stadium. After that, there were a few rolling hills of sand/mud mixture, finished with a cold dip under the dunk wall. Being that Spartan is excellent at combining complicated obstacles with natural obstacles, this was a perfect area to place the slip wall for all soaked runners to climb.

This same sand/mud mixture was also where a long ass barbed wire crawl was situated. This wasn’t your standard crawl as tires and large cones were placed inside the barbed wire to make the transition through much more difficult. Mud and sand-covered racers were then led into a loop around the far side of the grounds where the 7-foot wall and the multi-rig (rings only) were located.

Strength Required

The plate drag and pull was the last obstacle in this loop. After which each athlete reentered the stadium for the hardest obstacle of the day. Welcome to the sandbag carry. Starting on the ground floor, Spartan placed their long and narrow sandbags near a set of steps for a fun trip to the top of the stadium. Every flight was a challenge and an accomplishment.

The decline down the steps was difficult as your legs were taxed and the weight of the sandbag could easily throw a runner off balance. In true Spartan form, after the intense climb up the tower and bleachers, the race had each athlete drop off their sandbag and climb again without the additional weight. If you didn’t hate running stairs before this race, you were bound to after!

The Herc hoist was the last obstacle before Spartan led us back to the racetrack infield through another tunnel. Spartan set up its grand finale of obstacles in front of the crowds for everyone to see. This truly was a spectator’s course. The rope climb tested everyone’s grip strength, after being taxed from the previous hoist.

I laugh as I emphasize grip strength because the evil (or genius) minds of the Spartan team gave us Olympus as the next challenge. The back to back grip and arm strength obstacles gave the crowd a good perspective into the requirements for a strong Spartan finish and a well-earned fire jump.

Aftermath

If you had any juice left in the tank, this was the time to utilize it. Otherwise, you faced the 30 burpee penalty while staring at the finish line, which was only an inverted wall climb and fire jump away.

Upon completion of this grueling course, Spartan offered their normal post-race treats and drinks. Showers and bathroom accommodations were located in the racetrack infield for racers to clean up before their long trek back to their cars.

Outside of the sandbag carry from hell, this course was filled with the standard Spartan familiarity. Z wall and Atlas Stone were not used during the Sprint but were used the previous day on the Super. The distance was slightly longer than most sprints, but Spartan used the stadium and terrain incredibly well and their obstacle setup was specifically and thoughtfully designed to test you and provide great viewing for spectators.

As a racing fan, it was really cool to see some of the stadiums that you don’t typically get to see, and it was thrilling to actually be on the Speedway track. There were plenty of hotels and places to eat near the event.

My final word on this race is that it’s a great one to get to if you live in the Midwest, but I don’t think I’d travel very far to run it. Aroo!

Photos courtesy of Spartan Race

Rea Kolbl – The Ascent (Pro Recap)

WEST VIRGINIA RACE (AND A SHORT US CHAMPIONSHIP SERIES) RECAP

By Rea Kolbl

Rea-Kolbl-crosses-first-in-West-Virginia

For many racers, the season started in Seattle. But for me, due to excitement from joining the Pro Team and not being able to wait for the Championship series to begin, it started a few months before in December where I went to all the west coast Spartan Races I could get to by car.

I managed to win most of them which gave me a false sense of confidence that I could win them all; it gave my fans the confidence that I could beat them all. And with that came the expectation that the Seattle race was mine to win. But this couldn’t be further from what actually happened; I barely caught the top five, more of a disappointment to me than I was willing to admit. And although I’m known to race with a smile, I spent a good chunk of that weekend in tears, and Bun barely managed to convince me that it’s okay not to win all the races. That it’s okay just to be happy for others, and that this is not the end of my racing career.

New Mindset

So eventually, I came to terms with that too; I realized that my worst mistake was trying to beat the others, and in the process, I lost to myself. So I made a promise to myself that for the rest of the series, I will run my own race, cheer on the others, and be happy on the course and after the race, no matter the outcome. And so the climb began, both literally, and figuratively. Over the next three races, my performance steadily improved, and I did manage to hit the podium twice, being quite happy the first time it happened in Palmerton (I cried there again, but this time they were tears of joy; although the volunteers at the finish line were quite puzzled whether or not they should call a medic for help).

Rea-Kolbl-Carrying-the-sandbag-at-West-Virginia-Beast

So I went from the 5th place in points back in contention for the three podium spots. But the rankings were so close! Alyssa (Hawley), Nicole (Mericle), and I were separated by a point, and I was in the middle. With the West Virginia race being the tiebreaker, this meant that our relative positions at that race would also determine our rankings for the whole series. And that mattered, a lot. I knew just how high the stakes were, and I’d say about 80% of the nights leading to the race consisted of dreams where I was running the race. So by the time I showed up to the venue, I was ready. I don’t think I’ve ever been so determined to give a race everything I’ve got, and I think that made all the difference.

West Virginia Beast

The West Virginia Beast started as usual, with Nicole breaking out of the start line and setting the pace. But I was surprised at how quickly I caught her. Then the hills started, my favorite, and I knew that I would be first to the summit.

By the way, if you raced, I hope you took a moment to look around on top of the Stairway to Sparta; that view was quite unlike any other. We could see for miles!! And with the morning clouds hovering around the surrounding valleys, it was hard not to be taken in by just how beautiful the landscape was that we were racing in. 

But then the down hills began, and the whole time I was waiting for Lindsay (Webster) to catch up. It was such a surprise that I was still in the lead, coming back down to the venue. I lost my lead missing the spear, which gave Nicole about a 30-second lead. Normally, I would be really bummed having to do burpees, but this was the first race where I accounted for that possibility. And when my 30 (32 actually, just to be safe) burpees were over, I was ready to run. To run even harder than I did before, and to do everything I could to catch Nicole. In a sense, chasing is so much easier than leading, at least for me. And once we were on top of that last hill, Nicole and I were neck to neck. Then the descent started.

Racing Nicole

I knew Nicole was faster than me on the obstacles, so I had one chance to take the lead I would need to come out of that final gauntlet in first. So I sprinted faster than I ever sprinted on trails before. And the whole time I was hoping that Lindsay and Nicole were not going to catch me. It felt like one of those nature shows where a gazelle is chased by a pride of lions. Then the Twister. And I still had the lead. Herc hoist; and I was still in first. Olympus and no one had passed me. Then came the multi rig, my arch nemesis, also again right by the finish line.

During the series, I lost a place just yards from the finish line in three out of four races. In Seattle I slipped to 5th doing burpees, in Monterey Alyssa flew by me as I was hanging awkwardly on a rope at the rig, and in Asheville my slow and steady through Twister was a little too slow and too steady, costing me the win as Lindsay took the gauntlet by storm. All of that was going through my head as I was starting the rig. There were no ropes this time, just rings, bar, and back to rings. But that bar was pretty up high, and the first time I reached for it I missed it, and I started spinning instead of swinging, struggling to hold on.

Rea-Kolbl-on-the-Rig

As I was stuck on that ring and Nicole was catching up (I probably had about a 30 second lead coming into the gauntlet), all of the races where I lost places right there, yards before the finish line, replayed in my head. And there was just no way I was going to let that happen again. So I finished. I caught the bar, crossed the rest of the rig, and rang the bell. Still in first. I couldn’t believe it… I was clear of the obstacles, yards from the finish line, and still in first. Which also meant second in the US Championship Series. I made it.

Words of Gratitude

It seems like I lost in Seattle because I won so many races before; and I won in West Virginia because I lost everywhere else. My weaknesses made me strong when it mattered the most. Thanks to all my sponsors who helped me come out of this in one piece. Thanks to Reebok for making sure I was running in OCR shoes this season, with proper gear all around. Thanks to Brave Soldier for their support after each race, and for choosing me to help represent their brand. Thanks to King’s Camps and Fitness for letting me train in their gym – there’s no way I would be able to hold on to that rig if it wasn’t for all of Mike’s workouts at his open gym. He also taught me the J-hook! No more legless rope climbs guys!! Thanks to Dr. Eva Chiu from Bayside Chiropractic for keeping my back in one piece, which is quite a task given how much of a beating it takes on a daily basis. And most importantly, huge thanks to Bunsak, whose support made my dark days brighter and my good days even more amazing.

Now bring it on, Tahoe!

 

Photo Credit: Spartan Race

 

Want to train like Rea? Check out one of her favorite workouts on ORM’s Train Like a Pro series.

 

Motivational Mudders: America’s Toughest Mudder Midwest

Competition Vs. Camaraderie?

To be honest, I didn’t know what to initially think of the Toughest Mudder series. Besides World’s Toughest Mudder once a year, Tough Mudder always emphasized teamwork and camaraderie over course time. Finding your personal best and having fun were two of its distinguishing characteristics from other races and I didn’t know how this new series would effect Tough Mudder’s culture. I was worried that the inspiration and motivation I drew from these events would be overshadowed by competition.

But there I was, pulling into the final race of the 2017 Toughest Mudder Series. The stage was set. Five races down, one to go. Coming into this race, I sought out inspiration and motivation from my fellow competitors. I wanted to find something more than just competition at these races. I could only hope that the Tough Mudder culture and the spirit would be upheld.

Starting the Day at Toughest Midwest

As I arrived at the festival area, it was filled with welcoming hugs, hellos, and nervous energy as people prepared for eight hours of racing at the Rockford International Airport. Toughest Mudder Midwest had the highest registration and it was obvious as the energy was immediately palpable. I noticed a mix of first time and repeat Toughest competitors. There were even a few people who attended all six Toughest Mudder events including Jim “Da Goat” Campbell, Melissa “Sharkbait” Dugan, Sara Knight, and Mark James.

Mark James, Sara Knight, Melissa Dugan, and Jim Campbell.

Whether athletes were out there for a podium spot, earn WTM contender status (25 miles) or experience an event unlike any other, everyone was equally excited and nervous for what the night would bring.

As we prepared for the race, it was noticeably warmer at the start line. With a chance of thunderstorms looming in the distance, we weren’t sure how long these near ideal conditions would last. Every endurance event brings an element of the unknown and I was all too aware that conditions can quickly change. While elevation gain would not be a factor in this race, I knew Tough Mudder would have a few surprises for us along the way

Countdown to Midnight

As the countdown to midnight began, we were shuttled away from the pit area, giving many competitors a chance to warm up to the start gate. Surrounded by tall fields of grass, we were isolated in our own little world. Sean Corvelle inspired us like only he knows how to, with a riveting speech about achieving our personal best and overcoming our obstacles on the course and in life. His spirit is behind every one of these events as he reflects on the inspiration he draws from the community. Just like that, the tone was set and we were ready for what the night would bring.

Sean Corvelle at the Starting Line

The countdown ensued and just like that, we were off.

The elevation profile pointed to every sign that this would be a fast course and it lived up to the expectation. In TMHQ’s attempt to slow us down, we quickly encountered a river crossing known as the Kishwaukee Krusade. With no way around it, the river crossing was the only obstacle open from the very start. As the obstacles began to slowly open, it was clear that without epic hills of LA or Whistler, the double mud mile of Atlanta, or the cold from the UK or Philadelphia, that this was going to be a fast course. It held true throughout the race.

Obstacles

The flat fast course was mitigated by the obstacles, which slowly opened until 02:00 am. It was clear that TMHQ wanted to keep us wet, with multiple water obstacles scattered throughout the course. “Operation” had a shockingly (pun intended) long penalty, enticing competitors to at least attempt it. Arctic Enema was placed right before Funky Monkey, making it cold and wet for the grip-strength intensive obstacle. Everest 2.0 and the Grappler both had ropes that competitors could use, but the slippery slopes of the quarter pipe still left them difficult to complete.

Competitors

The race provided plenty of room for competition. Ryan Atkins dominated in his usual fashion and Allison Tai stayed well ahead of the competition throughout. The competition between second and fifth place was heated throughout the race as athletes continued to change places throughout the night. Amidst the competition, I was searching for inspiration to keep me going throughout the race. These races are difficult, period. No matter who you are, whether you are going for 50 miles or 10, everyone is out there trying to find their “personal best”. It is the very thing that Sean Corvelle preaches at the starting line, yet is something that is often hard to reach. I looked to my fellow competitors for inspiration and luckily found it throughout the night. Amidst the dark of night, competitors brought the light.

Men’s and Women’s Top Five.

Inspirational Athletes

Dan Kosick was one such athlete. With his sights set on 25 miles and contender status at WTM, he fell just short at the Toughest Mudder Northeast. Even though he knew he didn’t make it, he completed the final lap just minutes past the 08:30 am cut-off time. As I saw him finish, the look of defeat covered his face as he crossed the finish line. I was proud of what he accomplished, but it was clear he wasn’t satisfied. That defeat turned into motivation as he returned for another shot at 25 miles at Toughest Midwest. Throughout the race, his no-quit attitude resonated in his voice as he continued his relentless forward progress. This time, the course would not stop him. He overcame disappointment at Philly to complete 25 miles in less than 8 hours to earn contender status at WTM.

Jesi Stracham, a wheelchair bound athlete, took on the course with a team of friends throughout the night. I saw the definition of teamwork portrayed throughout the night with her group. She proved that Tough Mudder is more than physical ability as her spirit and determination propelled her and her team to complete 15 grueling miles of the Toughest course.

Yancy Culp (often referred to as Yancy Camp), a legend within the OCR community, is another example of using racing as fuel to overcome life’s challenges. After battling cancer over the last year, he credited obstacle course racing as giving him a purpose to stay healthy throughout the chemotherapy process. He didn’t let cancer stop him from crewing at World’s Toughest Mudder in 2016 and even though he didn’t compete, it served as one of the most defining events of his athletic career. He knew he wanted an event to circle on the calendar for 2017 and chose to tackle Toughest Mudder Midwest. It was during the race that he found the joy of running and competing again. He wasn’t out there to win, but rather enjoy the process of racing and living life to the fullest. While he said the Tough Mudder community inspired him throughout the race, he is an inspiration to all of us.

Billy Richards was another inspirational individual as he carried the American Flag throughout the entire event. Every time I saw him and the flag on the course, it gave me chills. It is one of many ways Billy shows his patriotism. After serving as a United States Marine from 1999 to 2003, Billy decided to honor our military and law enforcement by carrying the American Flag in every race he does. So far, the flag has traveled with him to over 150 races, including four 100 mile ultra marathons (more information on his endeavors can be found at the link under the photo).

For more information click here.

Inspired By The Midwest

If I took anything from Toughest Midwest, it is that this is an awesome community, filled with amazing people. I came to the Midwest looking for inspiration and I found it.  While this race is a competition, it is much more than that, filled with incredible stories of everyone who accepts the challenge of completing 8 hours through the night. The final race in the Toughest Mudder series was a memorable one and only time will only tell what next year’s Toughest series brings. One thing is for sure; the finale at World’s Toughest Mudder is destined to be the best one yet. I’ll see you in the desert one last time!

 

Photos Courtesy of Melissa Dugan and Tough Mudder

A Salute to Service – Spartan West Point (2017 Honor Series)

An-honored-veteran-at-West-Point

West Point

Duty, Honor, Country. The motto of West Point Military Academy are words to remember and words that were ever-present at the West Point Spartan Sprint.

At the handful of Spartan Races I’ve been to, honoring the military was always part of the event in some way. Aside from having, in my opinion, one of the coolest medals in OCR, the Spartan Honor Series took that to the next step. Not only were several current members of the military present and/or racing, but many veterans were able to come out as well.

Spartan-West-Point-Sprint-2017-map

COURSE

The race was located at the Lake Frederick Recreation Area, which is a 25-minute drive from the West Point Academy, but still owned by the military. The course was just over four miles and included over 1,000 feet of ascent. The terrain featured plenty of uphill climbs and downhill runs through semi-technical wooded trails and a few gravel paths.

West-Point-racers-carry-an-honored-Veteran

 

Obstacles weren’t any different from normal Spartan races. There weren’t any military-themed obstacles. It would be awesome to see Spartan incorporate some sort of military tribute in an obstacle or two for 2018, but to keep races consistent, I can see why they may not.

One surprise was seeing Olympus within the first mile. Generally, it’s in the last half of a course. Because of this, I did notice some small lines later in the day. As a note, I ran the Elite Male wave and didn’t necessarily have to wait, but did have to start before another person finished. At the Sprint in Palmerton, the lane was fully clear when I began.

Olympus-and-A-Frame-in-the-first-mile-at-West-Point-Sprint

FINISH HIM!

As is becoming the norm, many of the obstacles were saved for the end of the race. The first half featured seven total obstacles, with the second half having fifteen. The last half-mile had eight of those fifteen!

I’ve noticed a lot of Spartan races lately have a sort of, “gauntlet” at the end of the race. I mainly notice them at races with a time trial, which makes sense. The time trial requires a lot of obstacles in a short distance. Logistically, it’s easier not to move those obstacles for the next day.

Atlas-carry-right-before-rings-at-West-Point

 

There was no time trial the night before West Point. Yet, the course designer saw fit to have the Bucket Carry followed immediately by Twister, with the Rope Climb just around the corner. After a quick Rolling Mud, racers then hit Atlas Lift, Multi-Rig (all rings), Spear Throw, and Herc Hoist, all within a few hundred yards of each other. And before the finish, a pretty long barbed wire crawl that included a slight turn, slip wall and, of course, fire jump.

COMPLAINTS

The main complaint I saw from other racers was the parking situation. Personally, I had no issues since I ran in the first heat. I arrived at the parking lot, which was 20 minutes from the race venue, at 6:00 am. Got right in, and walked right onto a bus. I hung out a bit after the race and went to catch a bus back around 11:00 am. Again, no wait. That was not the case for some later racers.

On my ride back to the parking lot in the late morning, I noticed quite the traffic jam going the opposite direction. In that traffic jam were shuttles going to the venue. As we pulled back into the lot, I could see a long line of people waiting to board shuttles to get to the race. Later, on social media, pictures showed long afternoon lines waiting to board buses back to the parking lot. Some racers said they waited over 2 hours just to get on a bus.

This was my first Spartan, and second OCR race ever, where parking was off-site. As much as an inconvenience as it may be, I’m not sure how much control Spartan has over traffic. It is definitely something they can look into, though, if they decide to go back in 2018.

Team-Oscar-Mike-at-West-Point-Spartan

WHAT SPARTAN DOES BEST

I’ve now done a total of four Spartan races. Every single one has challenged me both in the course layout and obstacle order. There are always plenty of water stations and post-race snacks. The Honor Series medals are absolutely fantastic and a must, if you’re into that sort of thing. The finisher shirts, however, were your standard Sprint finisher shirts. It would be cool to see an Honor Series finisher shirt, but the venue shirt made up for it!

Spartan is really good at getting people race photos. The pictures were up Monday, less than 48 hours after the race finished. As I’ve mentioned before, a helpful hint to finding all of your pictures is to use Chronotrack. The Chronotrack checkpoints are each at photo spots. Find what time you crossed that checkpoint, then search the photos for that time frame. That’s an easy way to get each of your pictures from the various stations.

Honor-Series-Medals-at-West-Point

SHOULD SPARTAN GO BACK?

I absolutely hope Spartan goes back to West Point next year. I usually only go to races within an hour, or so, but it was easily worth the 2+ hour drive. Lake Frederick makes for both great terrain and even some scenic views during the race. If Spartan can improve the parking situation, they really have a keeper.

What did you think of the West Point Sprint? Leave a comment below!

 

Photo Credit: Spartan Race

Spartan Race Sprint at West Point 2017 – Showing Grit Where Military Heroes Are Made

Being a 3-year OCR veteran, I find myself part of multiple teams.  The New England Spahtens is the team nearest and dearest to my heart and is like family to me.  But there are instances when some of us in NES run with another team, RWB, Red White and Blue, which serves to enrich veterans lives by making social and physical activities available to veterans to mingle with civilians to help the veterans integrate back into society.

My father-in-law is a Vietnam veteran, so the opportunity to run this Spartan race in his honor with others from RWB and at our nation’s premier Army Military Academy, West Point, was truly a privilege.

Pre-Race Impressions

We got an early start since our wave time was 9:15.  We knew the shuttle would be 20-30 min overall and planned on an extra hour to account for check in, bag drop, and taking in the sights as well as warming up and a team picture at 8:45.  I even had the opportunity to say hello to and shake the hand of the author of our pain and torture, “Woody,” who has taken over from Norm Koch as Spartan’s race director.

Arriving in the shuttle parking lot at approximately 7:15, the line was slow but not long.  There were available buses waiting and boarded right away.  This was not the case a short while later according to other team members who had later start times.  And when we left the venue, our wait in the shuttle line was 30-40 minutes.  To our surprise, arriving back at the parking lot later, we saw at least a half dozen empty buses sitting in the lot not doing anything.  Spartan knew they had over 8k people signed up to race and maybe that was too many.

Check in at that time of the morning was fairly smooth with 10-15 minutes of waiting, with a similar experience and less waiting at the bag check area where our bags were hung on fencing, perhaps not as efficient as the shelving they have at some venues. Signage directing us to the start line was obvious and Spartan did a good job piquing the interest of spectators by placing a couple of obstacles, Olympus and A-Frame Cargo, obstacles 4 and 5, right across from the start line.

An Honored Warrior

After the team picture, while waiting to get in the starting corral, we witnessed what had to be one of the most touching moments of the day when a WW2 veteran was hoisted in a chair mounted to a huge litter and carried by 6 younger Marine veterans.  They continued to carry him through the entire 4-mile course with the exception of the steeper climbs through the woods.  It was truly an honor to witness living history!

WW2-Vet-Waving

 

Off And Running

After a start line send-off from Dustin Doroughs, an OCR emcee veteran and one of the best in the business, who got our hearts pumping and spirits roaring, we took off.

After a short 1/4 mile run we met with the first and second obstacles which were the standard Overwalls and then Over, Under, and Through walls, followed 1/4 mile later with Hurdles or as we like to call them, short Irish tables.

The course so far had been dry as there had been no rain, and the rest of the course remained largely that way aside from a couple of small damp dirt areas.  We then came upon the Olympus and A-Frame Cargo obstacles in short order, and I found that the instructional videos Spartan has online for Olympus really helped as I completed that obstacle for the first time without help.  Those chains hurt though!

But the backup we were to experience at some obstacles throughout the race began with the A-Frame Cargo. It was just sheer numbers and the different abilities of everyone that contributed to the delay.

A-Frame-Crowd

The First Obstacles

 It was nearly a flat mile later that we arrived at the first heavy carry of the day and the first serious elevation gain with the sandbag carry.  While the men’s weight felt lighter than I’m used to, making me take two, I began to regret that decision halfway through the carry loop because the one bag kept falling off my shoulders.  But I soldiered on and after the sandbags, we met with yet another 6 ft wall, something Spartan seems to rely heavily on making them seem predictable.

Monkey bars came next, and it was nice to see multiple elevation changes in the bars adding a great challenging element making you focus even more.   A stone’s throw after was the inverted wall followed by a 7 ft wall a half mile later.  Placement of that wall was questionable since it was parallel with the elevation of the hillside causing the wall to be at an angle and not level which posed a potentially undue safety issue.  Most people seemed to adapt nonetheless, even an RWB teammate for whom this was his first OCR and gladly accepted our help getting him over it.

The Bucket Brigade, or as it’s called in the Spartan vernacular Sucket Carry, was next and what was surprising was that it was completely flat with no elevation gain at all.  However, it was the LONGEST bucket carry I’ve ever experienced at an estimated 1/3 of a mile.

Bucket-Carry-Long-Shot

Bucket-Carry-Loading

Now that your arms, shoulders, and back were shot, what came next was Spartan’s new signature obstacle, the Twister, a horizontal cylinder with a helix of handles attached that turns every time you grab the next handle.  It has frustrated MANY people in its debut season this year, and this was to be the third time I faced it but the first time I completed it.

 

Monkey-Bars-2

Obstacles at West Point

Obstacles came more rapid fire now that the finish was near.  The Vertical Cargo Net was next, and this was another one where overcrowding became an issue with a wait to do the obstacle and the fact that so many people were on it at the same time that there was a noticeable but slight sway once on top.  It was not too concerning, but not being an engineer, I began to wonder how close we were to the limits of the sturdy and well-anchored construction of the obstacle.  Rope climb was next with dry ropes which I descended too quickly and got a small rope burn on my thumb.

Then came the Rolling Mud.  It was disappointing because much of the water in each of the three pits had drained into the ground below.  More had been carried by runners as runoff on the mounds after each pit making the descent into each successive pit very steep and slippery.  Even more disappointing was the traditional dunk wall at the end of this obstacle where the water level was 6 + inches about the water’s surface.  Most disappointing was the lack of the traditional photographer on the other side of the dunk wall.

Next up was the Atlas Carry.  Aside from the challenge of picking up and carrying the heavy concrete ball, you also had to make sure the ball didn’t roll away downhill as the obstacle was on a slope and not level ground.

The Multi Rig followed though it was only rings, an obstacle that I have mastered and completed easily.  While there was a crowd of people at the beginning of it, most were simply observing and devising a strategy or technique of doing it.  There were several lanes available to those of us who simply wanted to walk up to it and do it.

After this was the dreaded spear throw.  I’m 50/50 on this one, and while my throw was level and strong, it went well past the target about 6″ to the right.  Otherwise, I would’ve nailed it.  It was my only obstacle of the day where I honorably joined several fellow Spartans in the Burpee Zone.

The Herc Hoist was next and was one of the last 4 obstacles of the course and one of the ones where spectators had set up lawn chairs to watch the action.  Then came one of the longest and most deceiving barbed wire crawls I’ve ever done.  Aside from being easier because it was on grass, the path appeared to end up ahead, but then took a cruel turn to the left and ended up being twice as long as everyone thought.  A slip wall followed this and then the traditional and much-anticipated fire jump with the finish immediately after.

Off the Course

The medals were special to this series and the neck strap was the part that said West Point on it.  The finisher shirt was standard, but they had a sweet venue shirt which was a full on tech moisture-wicking shirt with graphics specific to West Point.  We bought those before we even started as they sold out quickly.

West-Point-Finisher-Medals

There was a fun looking kids course that smartly ran alongside the last section of the adult course, a couple of restored military vehicles, a couple of food vendors and hardly any other vendors aside from the Border Patrol tents and Military recruiting tents.  The showers were not cold and the changing tents were dark and sauna like.  Getting our bag at bag check too a little longer than dropping it off, but not too unreasonable.

The Downside

The worst part of the day was waiting in line for the shuttle for 45+ minutes.  We felt lucky later after hearing other teammates reporting waiting an hour and a half.  That’s just inexcusable.  It was also disappointing at the almost complete lack of military personnel presence anywhere at the venue aside from a couple of MP’s.  It would’ve been nice to see some cadets manning the obstacles or handing out medals at the finish line.

Overall, we had a great time and enjoyed the challenge of the race for what it was.  If Spartan has a race at West Point next year, we will be back!