Was it as cold as Iceland?

Fun runners take on first time in Spartan World Ultra Championship in Iceland.

There are quite a few holy grails for anyone who does OCR, what first time gets booked as once a lifetime thing? – World Toughest Mudder, World OCR Championships, One of three Spartan World Championships. 

The Hype.

Every year there is massive hype about the WTM and its brutality, how it destroys and pushes everyone involved. But this year it has been overtaken by Spartan World Ultra Championship in Iceland with the possible 1 million dollar payout. It was an insane amount for the insane challenge, but many in the OCR community believed that we had the very man for the job – Jonathan Albon.
 
In short, the Spartan race put down the ultimate Trifecta with a payout of 1 million dollars – paid to any one person winning all 3 its World Championships. Jonathan Albon was two down and only Iceland to go. SO close, just 100 miles. If you haven’t heard about the story, like The Telegraph calling him the unknown runner
 
Most of us laughed calling multiple World Champion unknown? But in the age of Kardashians and breaking internet with selfies, what did you expect? Obstacle racing is still obscure and an unknown sport for the majority of people. Maybe your Facebook consist of thousands of friends and acquaintances you found through OCR but how many people you met in everyday life where they first time heard about it from you? 
 
A lot of people dismissed the 1 million Spartan as just PR stunt, but it isn’t any different from Tough Mudder giving the 100 mile World Toughest Mudder challenge years before. It moved our beloved sport on to TV and more out there!  Its been long going and besides the hype and spotlight on Jonathan Albon, there was the age-old accountability question what still makes OCR not a real sport like triathlon or park runs.

Accountability and OCR.

Spartans have worked hard on accountability and to show the world that OCR is a real sport, adding referees, filming and analysing burpees for the elites and age groups. It gives the sport a real future to be taken seriously, not just be weekend warriors with a very expensive hobby.
 
In Iceland Ultra this accountability was taken a step further by adding age group and giving it the same standards as elites. What did it mean apart from a lot of people dropping out of the age group? 
 
You get a burpee passport – 6 obstacles have burpee penalties (Olympus, Tyro, Multi-rig, Twister, Spear Throw, Herc Hoist) you get a punch for each complete obstacle and at the end of the lap you hand in the passport and do your burpees in front of the camera. You could get up to 180 burpees per lap if you get unlucky enough. Thankfully, they were halved to 15 burpees per obstacle after midnight.
 
Straightforward, but for every missed burpee you get a minute. It also could mean DQ if the added time to the course time took you over the dreaded 24 hours. I’m still not sure if I did 90 burpees first time around, you make mistakes you learn. Tip of the day – use stones to keep a track where you are.
 
The main thing what made it true 24-hour race is you not only needed to do 4 laps but also needed to be out on course for 15 hours to claim your 24-hour medal. 15 hours was average time what racers spent last year on course, what no doubt will change. Also spending more than an hour in the pit would mean you need to go out complete another lap. Simple, accountable and you get an extra medal. The best and worst thing about pit – it was heated dome, what even had beds if you wanted to have a nap.

Black ice and pits of sadness.

The race itself was brutal. Ryan Atkins said it and I won’t disagree on that. When you are there you understand why Iceland has been chosen, it literally will take your breath away. With each lap it feels like the race is growing, the carries feel longer and heavier, the mountain steeper and the black ice slicker. 
 
If you haven’t experienced breathing in such wind and cold, it takes you by surprise and ruins your best laid out plans. You could have the best training, the best gear but after racing in sunshine all year nothing can prepare the airways and lungs. One of the most common problems for most racers that night. Did I mention the being ping-pong ball between trees on black ice? Or black ice and sandbags? Or sandbags and the knee-deep pit of sadness?
 
As every race is different the expectations are different but without experiencing them we can’t learn. Failing to prepare for the unknown is a lesson, not a failure.  I could go on about the black ice and how cold it was but at the end of the day, I am grateful to be part of all this. 
 
The same can be said for any of the big races, you need to be there to understand it as it doesn’t compare to anything else. The only negative side is that the only Northern Light I saw didn’t look like Northern light at all. It would have been the cherry on top of the painful and suffering cake that was the race. Was it colder than Atlanta? I don’t care, we all ran our own races and for different reasons. 

Carolina Ultra: Twisted Trails and Bundles of Burpees

Introduction/Pre-Race

Ah, South Carolina. Known for its super warm temperatures, surely this is the race to do if you are hoping to complete the ultra in shorts and a sports bra. It will be a beautiful day, filled with lots of sunshine, love, and rainbows.

Or, maybe not.

Now, I’m from South Carolina, so I confess that my knowledge of all things cold isn’t exactly there. But, I overheard several people say they were coming from the north because they were looking forward to a warm race. Although this wasn’t exactly freezing temperatures all day, when it was time to start the race, it was roughly 36 degrees when we got started. All of the people who were anticipating and planning to wear shorts and look cute were a little disappointed.

On the race website, we were told that we had to pick up packets the night before. Problem is, packet pick up was from 2:00-5:30 in the afternoon. A friend of mine asked if I could pick his up, which of course, I was told no (which, makes sense). I didn’t think this was fair to people who…you know, have jobs… but what do I know. Luckily, even though they said packet pick up the day before was mandatory, people were allowed to grab their stuff the morning of the race.

I was lucky enough to get to grab my stuff ahead of time. So, the morning of the race, I got myself situated, grabbed my bucket, and went on my way.

When I got to the start line, everyone was huddled and shivering. You could hear people make comments related to “what the heck, I thought this was supposed to be warm!” And we waited to get started.

And we waited.

And waited.

Now, I did the Ultra Beast in New Jersey last year, and we didn’t start on time either. They at least TOLD us that we weren’t going to start on time. Here, we were repeatedly told that we would get started soon. We ended up waiting for over 20 minutes to get started. Finally, Mr. Kobl came up. I was so thankful when he let us know that we only had to do the dunk one time, and it wasn’t until the very end of the day for us. After some jokes and words of wisdom, we were off.

Spartan’s Course

Carolina Ultra Map

Once we got started, it seemed like we took a solid 3 steps before encountering the first obstacle. Almost immediately were some hay walls; following that was a creek crossing. We pretty much spent the rest of the day in the water. Our toes got really cold, really fast. Closely after was the 4-ft wall and some trail running, and some more creeks. Then it was the 6-foot wall. I saw a lot of women struggling with the 6-foot wall, which was really strange…that is until I realized that there was a layer of ice completely covering the top of the wall. After I went over the wall, SQUISH. We hopped off of the wall and into a big ol’ puddle of mud. Gross.

So…in short…the first mile was pretty much just mud and walls. Sigh.

A little bit of running later, and we get to the rope. To make things interesting, because it was extremely cold, the rope was COMPLETELY covered in ice. Even though I was in the elite division, I have never seen so many people doing burpees at a rope.

After a short run, the next few obstacles were pretty close together. It actually hurt a lot, and the burpee areas were so close that it was easy to get them confused between obstacles. In the second mile, there was the Olympus, Herc hoist, spearman, barbed wire crawl, sandbag, AND bucket within that little space. Out of those obstacles, Olympus, rope, and many other obstacles were covered in ice. Sooo many people were doing burpees. Lots of unhappy faces, and people worried about their fate for the rest of the afternoon.

After we kept running, we ran into Bender. Bender is scary when it’s covered in ice. Lots of people were worried about falling, and several of us little people had a hard time jumping and grabbing the first bar because it was so slick. After some more trail running came the Tyrolean Traverse and a vertical cargo climb. On the first lap, this cargo climb was one of the scariest cargo climbs that I have experienced. It was one that was so loose that while you were climbing, the rope would shift. I did not love it.

One piece that was interesting about this course came up closely afterward. There was an 8-foot wall on course, but it only had one step as opposed to two steps. Some of the shorter women struggled.

Then, the hard part was pretty much over. There was a portion of the race that split from an ultra course to the regular Beast so that the ultra course was a little longer and more challenging. There was not a volunteer standing here, so there were some moments where standard Beasters ran a portion of the ultra by mistake…and I’m sure some ultra runners “accidentally” took the wrong course.

Now, when they gave us a different piece of the course, I was anticipating something a little difficult. It wasn’t anything really unique. The course map claimed to be an obstacle called “Irish Tables” which I had not seen before. My friends told me that this was a high platform and one that was spooky. It wasn’t. I didn’t even realize what it was until the second lap. It was just another hurdle, with a flatter top. This obstacle is also seen in Bonefrog, but Spartan paints theirs a different color. But, it’s basically another hurdle. I was a little shocked, considering they have different heights for men and women. By the time I got to this obstacle, there was a line for men and it was completely clear for me!

Behind that was more trail running, log farmers carries, the armor, a plate drag, a barbed wire crawl, and another sandbag. After some more running, we were greeted with the Stairway to Sparta.

Now, the Stairway to Sparta has become one of my favorite obstacles. Not because it is one of the most exciting obstacles, but Spartan always manages to squeeze this obstacle into the most spectacular places. This was not. This Stairway was placed conveniently in front of a single-track trail, so there wasn’t anything to see. I would like to say that as a resident of Spartanburg I can vouch and say there weren’t many stunning options…but I would at least suggest on top of a hill or something.

The Stairway to Sparta was actually replaced with the Great Wall. Now, I know there are a lot of thoughts on the Great Wall. It’s basically just Stairway 2.0. It is slightly more difficult than the regular stairway..but not by much. During the first lap, there was not a step provided for the women. So, there were more women doing burpees, simply because we couldn’t reach the grips! But, I suppose if it isn’t challenging, nobody would do it!

After this obstacle, it was on to the transition.

Transition

My friend Erika at the transition!

Now, if you’ve done an ultra or an ultra beast, you’ve seen the transition. It’s a square marked off for people to leave drop buckets. Usually, for buckets, people will go to Lowe’s and get a bucket for $5 and decorate it with stickers. I have my bucket very decorated with things, but I also tied a balloon to my bucket in order to make it easier to find. It’s a good idea for people to put their buckets in a safe place with their friends. In the elite division, you can’t take stuff from people outside of the transition area, so if you’re with your friends, you can divide and conquer!

One thing I found unusual about the transition was that there were volunteers and timers there, but nobody really did anything. Another strange thing about the transition was that my friend Crystal and I were 9th and 10th. We were not given lap leader jerseys. Instead, number 11 was. Number 11 is also someone who has a large presence in the Spartan world. Coincidence? I really hope so. It was very disappointing.

After a brief period in the transition area, it was on to the lap again.

Lap 2

The transition area spat us in a VERY muddy area past the hay walls and right in front of the creek. I sunk up halfway between my knee and hip. I’m just thankful I didn’t lose a shoe there also.

When running an ultra beast, the second lap is very different from the first. The first lap starts very early and provides an awesome opportunity for athletes to get a good start. Since it does start so early, it is usually very quiet. It’s almost peaceful until you remember that you have over 25 miles ahead of you. The second lap is at the same time as afternoon open heaters. This can be very exciting–having other people cheer for you, but also, sometimes people don’t always follow the courtesy rules suggested by the race directors. For instance, during the tyrolean traverse this time, I had an open runner come underneath my rope so that she could get a hold on her friend. Really…REALLY?!

The first obstacle we encountered here was the over walls, and then everything else was the same. There were some differences between the course; the main one being the mud! Several areas that we had previously run in were completely swamped. There were several instances where I would go running or trudge, and I would get so stuck in the mud that people would have to pull me out. Again, it is an absolute miracle that I managed to keep my shoes throughout this adventure.

Also during lap two, they had made a few modifications to some of the obstacles. The Great Wall now had a step. It was exciting to complete this in front of the open runners because they all cheered for me! It felt really nice.

On lap two, instead of going to the transition, it was over the very wobbly A-frame, and through the rolling mud. The rolling mud was ORANGE at this point. It was so difficult to wash this orange out of our clothes.

After this was the mud crawl. Basically, a third barbed wire crawl, just you are crawling in really really squishy mud. Normally this is at least a little fun, but there were sooo many large rocks in this mud. I was completely covered in bruises at the end of the day. After this the dunk, and then the slip wall. Now, the dunk wall was nothing really special other than large rocks made it difficult to get out of the water. The slip wall was actually a little different than usual. They covered the slip wall in this black tarp and made the wall more vertical. The tarp made the slip wall more difficult to dry, and although it still wasn’t difficult, for the first time ever, I did not feel safe on a slip wall.

Then was the fire jump, then the end!

Thoughts

Maybe I’m crazy, but I remember Spartan claiming that ultras were not going to be ultra beasts at the beginning of the year. They promised that ultras were not going to be two laps of the beast; rather, it would be one 30-mile loop with its own obstacles and adventure. Wrong.

I was looking forward to a big challenge, but I am glad that I was lucky enough to participate in this event. This was a good ultra beast for people to attend if they were looking to get a good beginner ultra.

Overall, this course was very repetitive. Lots of sandbags, walls, and crawls. There wasn’t much about this race that stood out as unique. However, I will say that I’m very thankful for the race director for allowing us to wait until the second lap to do the dunk wall (we may have completely turned into Spartan-pops)! I am also very thankful that Spartan provided an opportunity for people in the Southeast to participate in an ultra. I am very thankful that I have the opportunity to compete in events like this altogether. I did feel like Spartan made this an ultra at the last moment and did not have their own real plan. I will continue to hope that Spartan works to improve this event in the future!

2018 Abominable Snow Race

Adaptation.

The ability to overcome on the fly using the skills you have developed. Some would argue this is the single biggest quality that successful obstacle course racers possess. Maybe you have mastered the ability to adapt to obstacles presented to you during the warm weather races, or maybe you’re still fine-tuning them.

Well, let me throw a monkey wrench into your comfy regime. How about we add freezing temps into the mix, maybe some ice or snow, or maybe even a mixture of them all with some mud thrown in. You love mud right? The kind where you rinse off from a hose at the end of an event while sipping your finishers beer in 80-degree sunshine? Well, this isn’t the same shit.

Winter OCR is here to stay and it’s getting bigger and tougher than ever before. Winter is no longer the offseason for OCR with events popping up all over the country. I had a chance to race in the third annual Abominable Snow Race held last weekend with a few thousand other racers from all over the country at the majestic Grand Geneva Resort in Lake Geneva Wisconsin and I can tell you Winter OCR is here to stay. Held on the grounds of a ski resort you kind of had an idea of what to expect, but ASR chief Bill Wolfe went out of his way to make this race one people would talk about for a while.

Yeti Nation

With morning temps hovering just above freezing my family and I pulled into the Grand Geneva bright and early for packet pickup and were directed to a parking space in a lot right next to the registration tent. Thank you once again, Bill Wolfe for the VIP treatment!

I found most racers were parked in a lot a short distance away and could either walk or take a quick shuttle bus to the registration tents. Now, there were only two stations were athletes could check in making the process somewhat slow, but ASR did provide warm trailers nearby as a changing area which more than made up for the cold wait.

After getting yourself geared up and ready you entered the resort lodge, bathrooms were to your right and food and drink were upstairs. This was your final chance to warm up before leaving the lodge and entering Yeti Nation. The iconic voice of Coach Pain was the first thing you heard upon leaving the lodge, and as you stepped foot on the snow the cold smacked you right in the face as your gaze fell upon the tallest ski slope Grand Geneva had to offer. Food, merchandise, and drink tents surrounded you along with info tents from local races including Frontline, Dirt Runner, and Highlander Assault.

An Epic Adventure

ASR offered 3 different heat choices along with a little Yeti course for the younger racers. The regular Elite and Open classes were offered along with a special Hero Heat for military and first responders. The Open class course offered 22 obstacles along a 4.5-mile course while the Elite class/Hero Heat offered 25 obstacles over a 5.8-mile distance. The little Yeti course was not timed and wasn’t very difficult, but the kids really seemed to enjoy it and they got the same huge medal as the adults did! The main course itself started and ended right out in front of the main lodge offering great views for those brave enough to stay outside or watch from the warmth of the two-story lodge. ASR started off Elites first with the Hero Heat and Open class following. With Coach Pain pumping up athletes for the start I think we all had a feeling that this was going to be an epic adventure!

 

A Tale of Two Shoes

The very first thing I noticed upon starting was that all racers fell into one of two categories. It was basically the have or have nots and it came down to shoe selection. As we climbed up our first hill made of ice those with metal studded shoes moved right along while those without struggled mightily.

The course conditions remained this way throughout the race and served to thin out the crowd right away as we came to our first obstacle, a wooden wall climb named the Ice Breaker. The trail was wide enough for a vehicle during this short stretch of the race and offered the only real chance to pass as the path narrowed to one lane shortly thereafter, but not before an over/under/through obstacle.

An Inverted wall, which ASR called Cold Snap, was the last obstacle before the trail veered into the woods where the terrain turned into a single lane of muddy slush which was chock-full of rocks and tree roots making footing unbelievably slippery. This section of trail was appropriately named The Abominable Forest and lasted well over a mile. Nestled along one of the few clearings along the way ASR set up their Alaskan Oil Rigs, which ended being a type of ladder climb with the rungs set far apart and at a 45-degree angle made slick with all the tracked mud. After tapping the bell on top of the rig it was again off along the slick path and over more of the rocky hills leading to The Winter Weaver.  It was also during this section of the race where ASR threw in a triple set of hurdles and their slip wall.  These hurdles were cut into a diamond shape with a sharp point at the top making athletes regret stopping on top for very long.

 

Sled-Pull

There were a couple different ways ASR made some of their old obstacles tougher and the sled pull was one of these obstacles. In the past, the sleds were filled with snow or a sandbag and pulled along in a snow-covered circle. Now, the only real difficulty doing that was guiding the sled.

This year, ASR filled the men’s sleds with 3 sandbags and the women’s with 2 and the path this year was solid mud making the pull long and gut-wrenching. This also created a bit of a bottleneck due to racers stopping for breaks along the way. After finally getting rid of that damn sled it was back into the forest for more of the sloppy trail run leading to an uphill low crawl.

This wasn’t your normal low crawl either as the ground was made slick with ice, frozen mud, and decomposing leaves. There was no getting around becoming wet and cold after that crawl! Back on the trail now the switchbacks increased making many racers wonder just what direction they were really going. It was along this route ASR placed a 9-foot wall and their Cliff Hanger.

This was a Z type traverse wall with 2×4 pegs along with one section made up of 3 rope loops suspended from the top. The addition of the ropes was another example of ASR making their old obstacles tougher. This marked the halfway point of the course with more fun to come in the form of the Himalayan Climb up one of the snow covered hills with a cargo net climb on top.

Separating Open From Elite

The ride back down might have left you a bruise or two on your rear end as the snow was packed tight and the descent was steep causing many racers to use their backside as a sled. Athletes now followed the trail back out into the woods in a route designed to make racers loop back up one of the higher ski jump hills. ASR had used a giant Earthmover to make snow mounds to cross as a replacement for the normal mud mounds used during the summer.

Once at the top racers made their way down the back side of the slope stopping at one point to pick up a log for the Lumberjack carry. One final loop back into the woods and returning to the festival area was all that was now required. Sounds easy right?

Well not so much for the Elite and Hero Class as obstacle 18 came into view. A slingshot target was set up and a miss required burpees. However, that was for the Open Class only as Elites and Heroes skipped this obstacle and took off down an extended section of trail.

This extended version started off with a long ass low crawl as bungee cord was stretched across the one lane path for what seemed like miles. Then there was the bucket carry. ASR put their own spin on this by filling the buckets with water during the week and allowing them to freeze making them Ice buckets. An athlete certainly knew after the race if during the bucket carry they happened to bump one into their leg. And the length?? It was a long, long, long ass carry.  Many a strong racer could be seen making multiple stops along the way to regrip. The last extra obstacle along the extended route was a set of rising and descending monkey bars with a bell tap finish.

It was at this point where the extended course and main course joined back up as athletes made one last climb up the ski slope and grabbed an innertube for a fast-paced ride back down to the bottom. Now in the festival area, only two obstacles remained starting off with a set of low walls and ending up with a tip of the spear type wall traverse. Three slanted walls were set up side by side with ropes suspended from the tops of each as your only means of getting from one to the other. From there the finish line and that awesome bling was only a few meters away.

Final Thoughts

I found the 2018 version of the ASR to be not only longer and more challenging, but also much better managed. Things seemed to flow smoother and I left with a feeling of accomplishment. The racers I talked to post-race were in agreement that this year’s event far surpassed the previous year’s race.

The only real complaint I heard was that a few of the course marshals were not specific enough regarding obstacle completion during the Elite heat. But when dealing with volunteers you occasionally get these issues. Our sport is volunteer-dependent so it’s just one of the things you live with. My final thought on this event is if you think OCR is only a summer sport, think again and come on out to ASR next year!