Killington Ultra Beast 2017 – Mental Sabotage

It was happening again. 365 days and six hours removed from a DNF at mile 27 of the 2016 Killington Ultra Beast, I’m 17 miles into the 2017 race, hiking up some ski slope in Vermont, quads locked up, body not responding, thinking about quitting. I can’t believe this is happening.

This year was going to be different. After failing last year I’d stepped my way back into ultra. There was a 50k in December, 41 miles at Black Toe in January, and the New Jersey Ultra Beast in April. I ran solid races at the Ohio Beast/Sprint in May, did five laps at the Warrior Dash in less than four hours in July, and set a new post-high school PR in the 5k on my way to a top 25 finish in a 6k just last weekend. Those accomplishments meant nothing. I’m falling apart again.

Spartan-Killington-Hurdles

Photo Courtesy of Sara Heilwagen

Going through my head are countless hours of training, including over 2000 miles of running in the last year, a new record for me. Am I really going to do this all over again? I’m thinking about the people who support me in this ridiculous habit that I currently hate. How am I going to face the people at work who have endured me talking about this for a year? And my running group, who sent words of encouragement earlier that morning. How do I tell my family and my kids that I’ve failed again? My wife is down there in the festival area waiting on me, how do I explain to her what’s going on inside my head? Most importantly, how am I going to look at myself in the mirror?

Spartan-Killington-Family

Photo Courtesy of Cheryl Harland

I see Danielle, whom I now consider my friend, coming up behind me. Danielle Rieck is famous in our circles for being the first person to attain a perfect Spartan Delta; a triple trifecta of obstacle racing and endurance events that very few have accomplished. She lost toes in the process. I hung with Danielle in New Jersey because I wanted to finish and Danielle knows how to finish things. She sees that I’m coming apart at the seams, and does her best to distract me from the pain. She asks about my kids a lot, and we talk about her nephew. It’s too late though, I’m too far gone. We get to the first barb wire crawl, the shorter one, and I’m so slow that she has no choice but to go on. I don’t blame her, I’m a lost cause.

Spartan-Killington-BarbWire

Photo Courtesy of Spartan Race

At this point, I am lower than I’ve ever been in a race. I can feel that lump in my throat growing. If there was a place to quit, I would have quit, but you’re in the middle of the woods, high on a Vermont mountain, and the only way out is to follow the crowd to the top and walk back down. So I keep walking, head down, looking at the ground. People are passing me left and right. I’m all alone. The alarm on my watch goes off, reminding me to take on nutrition so I suck down some caffeinated Tailwind and take some Carbopro VO2 max pills and BC powder, put on my earbuds, and kept climbing.

I make it to the top and do the Herc hoist and inverted wall, not really knowing why. Everybody else was doing it. Then start on the dreaded two-mile downhill that ends at the lake. With locked up quads, downhills are just awful, so I keep walking. Somewhere in the next mile, something happened. Maybe it was the caffeine or sugar from the Tailwind, the BC powder, the Beastie Boys, or something else, but at some point, I remember feeling the urge to run. So I ran.

I notice that I’m not getting passed anymore, and I don’t feel so alone. I’m part of the race again. We do the plate drag, which doesn’t seem near as hard as expected, and keep running downhill. We complete the Z-wall, and as we jump into the swim, we’re doing the math. Eight hours to finish the next ten miles. Totally doable. There is absolutely no way we’re not going to finish.

Spartan-Killington-Swim

Photo Courtesy of Sara Heilwagen

The next ten miles are a blur. I’m not going to say they were easy because they weren’t. I, and the people I met along the way, covered some tough terrain, going up, back down again, and then straight up the death march. Coming down off the peak after the death march, most of us went down backwards or slid on our butts. The last bucket carry was arduous. Legs, arms, abs, everything was cramping. But we all kept going because we knew that we’d finish.

Spartan-Killington-Bucket

Photo Courtesy of Sara Heilwagen

I surprised even myself by completing the final rig and saw my wife in the crowd smiling. After hitting the final spear throw, I found Danielle in the burpee pit. She was as surprised to see me as I was to be there, and had experienced her own emotional toils in the last ten miles. We did our last burpees together at Olympus and crossed the finish line together for the second time this year. I always expect this wave of emotions at the end, but my emotional gas tank was completely drained. There was nothing left. 30+ miles will do that to you.

My finisher’s belt buckle goes on the wall in my garage with the three dozen other medals I have. Each medal serves as a key to a memory. When I look at the buckle that says Killington, Vermont, I’m going to remember the physical and emotional roller coaster of September 16, 2017. I’m going to remember the people that I met and all their positive words to me on the course. Most of all, I’m going to remember what I learned. I learned that no matter the physical preparation, the most important preparation is mental. I learned that your mind is what gets you through the peaks and valleys.

Spartan-Killington-Medal

Photo Courtesy of Brad Heilwagen

If you’re planning to take on the Killington Ultra Beast, know this: you will want to quit. Also know that there is a place inside yourself where you can find the will to finish, and once you unlock that place, you’re unstoppable. If that doesn’t work, try the Beastie Boys.

Spartan-Killington-Sabotage

Photo Courtesy of the Beastie Boys

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Brad Heilwagen

Brad Heilwagen is that guy that you might recognize from some race last year but you can't remember where.That's ok, I wouldn't remember me either.
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