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!

Spartan Race Ultra and Trifecta Weekend Kimberley BC

Spartan Race is famous for heart pumping ascents and joint-snapping down-hill scrambles, but this time they may have pushed it a little too far at their new venue in Kimberley BC.

 

Excitement was in the air on the first day of the Spartan Race Trifecta weekend in Kimberley BC. The first race of the weekend was on Friday night, the Sprint. Although I wasn’t racing the Sprint, my husband and I went to watch our fellow Spartans, partake in the camaraderie, and cheer on friends. After watching the elite men and women take over an hour to finish the Sprint, I knew that the Ultra was going to take all day – what I didn’t know at that time was how rough it was going to be.

There was plenty of rumble room in the starting corral for the Ultra the next morning – 124 people in total started the race across all three heats – elite, age group, and open.

The start of the course shot into the woods for a brief scramble up and downhill before returning to the festival area to show off a thru-wall, the A-frame cargo, and the Hercules Hoist. After waving a final goodbye to the spectators, the course made its way uphill and out of site. Shortly into the climb was the Rig – which was entirely made of rings at varying heights, this proved to be quite difficult for many.

 

Most of the Kimberley BC Beast and Ultra Beast was either a steep incline or a steep decline that made obstacle placement difficult. Some obstacles did not even make an appearance at this race. Including Twister (due to a deal with platinum rig in Canada), mud mounds, or any type of water obstacle for that matter, and Bender.

After the Rig was the first climb to the top of the mountain and along that climb was a 6ft wall and sandbag carry and inverted wall. At the top of the mountain was the rope climb and then our legs were given a chance to get loose on the first and most runnable downhill in the entire course. This section was probably my favorite because it was a gradual mountain biking downhill with banked turns that allowed us to get our feet moving with some real pace.

The second hill was brutal; at some points, it was hands and feet climbing and it had me seriously questioning whether or not I would be able to complete the second lap of the Ultra. There was a lot of groaning and swearing to happen at this point in the race and it got worse as we summited and realized that log carry was at the base of the hill and that the descent was so steep and full of cut-off low-lying bushes that made it practically impossible to run down. This was beyond frustrating for someone who loves downhill running as much as I do. After quickly completing the log carry, we found ourselves running even further down the mountain. At the bottom, we reached the Tyrolean Traverse and a water station and then immediately headed back up a scramble section of hill to a filler obstacle, the Log Drag.

There were another descent and a flattish running section before the Beasts’ and the Ultras’ courses split. Ultras continued to run until we encountered an uphill barbed wire crawl at the base of ascent #3. This ascent was truly a soul-crusher (especially on lap 2) and the worst part was, there was no water station at the top. We reached the top and immediately turned back down the hill until we hit the second log carry and met back up with the Beast’s course for yet another ascent and final summit of the mountain. At the top was a long over-due water station, 8ft wall, and a volunteer excitedly yelling, “You’re only a mile from the real summit!” …

Luckily that mile turned out to be relatively flat running along the ridgeline and not just another mile long ascent.

At the official summit was Stairway to Sparta and another water station before the long and well deserved downhill to the finish… I mean… halfway point.

After Z-walls and Olympus, we reached a new obstacle, “Wrecked.” This obstacle was built with the idea that racers would throw a sand bag 8ft in the air over a wooden board and the bag would slide back to the racers via a slanted wall BUT the obstacle was unapproved by the Higher-Ups in the world of Spartan Corporate and Jonny Waite changed the obstacle on race day. Instead, racers completed “Wrecked” by doing a “Clean and Press” 5 times.

Next up was the 7ft wall, Tractor Pull, Plate Drag and then Monkey Bars. Right after Monkey Bar,s the course crested the hill to the festival area and we rolled down through barbed wire. Hopefully, you weren’t too dizzy after the barbed wire because Spear Throw was immediately after you stood up and every one was there to watch! Bucket Carry was next, but it was a pretty short little hill, and then we made the final descent to the Slip Wall and Fire Jump. Ultras however did not go over Slip Wall; instead we branched to the left to hit the transition station before going back out on course for the second lap.

Spartan Race structures their Ultra to be complete mind games by making the course two laps of one hellish Beast course. In the transition tent, I seriously debated not going for a second lap because the first lap’s climbs were absolutely terrible. But, after sitting in transition for awhile and listening to other people’s stories about how they dropped out, and how I might have a good chance at the podium for this race, I made my way back out on to the course.

The second lap was completely mental. There were few people out on the course at this time because the Beast heats stopped going off mid-morning, (I started lap two at 1:45pm) the midday heat was intense, and all I could think about was making the cut-off points. I ran most of this lap alone –I could barely see the person in front of me or behind me type of alone, until I reached the last cutoff point and found my two wonderful teammates sitting there! The rest of the race turned in to a hike with friends. We took our time, enjoyed the course, met some people, and eventually finished at about 9:30pm.

Kimberley Ultra runners gained 13,000ft of vertical climbing over 31 miles. The first place male took over 8 hours to finish it, and the first place female took over 13 hours to finish it.

Although I would run this course again next year, I think that there are some aspects of this venue that need revision. Being that this is the first year Spartan hosted at Kimberley, there were some hiccups. The course was lacking in running sections and challenging obstacles, there were no Trifecta weekend medals for those that did three races, and the Sprint experienced unprepared water stations in the heat of the day.

I look forward to seeing how Kimberley will change for next year, and I cannot wait to run this mountain again!

Kimberley Spartan Race Trifecta Weekend Review

Spartan Race Kimberely (13)

Spartan Race returns to the Canadian Rockies.

KIMBERLEY, BRITISH COLUMBIA

6 months ago (or thereabouts) Race Director Johnny Waite was scouting the location for this race on a snowmobile. Back then, temperatures could have been as low as -31ºF. Now, it’s mid-July and in this part of Canada, it can be almost as hot as Southern California.

Kimberely mountain

This a place of uncompromising toughness; a landscape in which only nature’s toughest endure – the grizzly bear, the moose, even the goddamn wolverine. It’s under those conditions that Spartan Race Canada delivered one of the toughest events ever.

The Sprint, for example, was an intense 9 kilometer trip up and straight back down the mountain in scorching temperatures. The Spartan Super, at 16 kilometers, had more elevation gain than most of the mountains in the Canadian Rockies. The Beast and Ultrabeast were among the hardest courses based on distance and climbing ever devised for a Spartan Race. I have stats to prove that claim but forget all that. Instead, let’s just say that 4 hours into the race I used a volunteer’s phone to send this text to my wife.

Text Kimberley

Let me break it down for you in terms you might appreciate. This was Spartan Beast that was so steep that I will unashamedly admit to finding and using someone’s lost ski poles to help me climb the hill. This was a race weekend where I watched a fellow elite heat racer give up on racing and begin desperately foraging for berries on the hillside for energy mid-race. “Oh boy, that was hard” doesn’t even begin to describe it.

Spartan Race Kimberely (18)

The standard set of obstacles were in play on each day of the event and if you’re interested you will find maps and lists here. If you are familiar with Spartan Races, you will instantly know what to expect – obstacles like the Tyrolean traverse, the sandbag carry, and the bucket carry etc. Spartan Race Canada tried something new this year, and attempted to include an innovative wreck bag push obstacle. That idea was unfortunately reduced to 5 wreck bag clean and jerks by Spartan Race Corporate. It was still cool, but it is a real shame that Spartan Race Canada doesn’t have full autonomy over what to include.

One of my favorite obstacles on the Beast was the sled pull, and this one was set up on a slight incline making it extra difficult (still got it though). The Platinum rig was all decked out with various levels of rings that required careful planning and that 90 degree single arm lock to complete (yup, failed that one). I also succumbed to the Z wall, as a foothold block was really out of reach for my stubby legs and a leg cramp made it ugly (you know one of those ones around the corner?) It’s a frustrating one to fail but such is life.

Spartan Race Kimberely (14)

The climbing was brutal.

For the Beast, we ascended ski run after ski run before heading back down to the main fire road to connect to the next climb. One final climb put us up onto the top of Vimy Ridge, and apparently, the views of the valley were spectacular, but my legs were so beaten down that sightseeing was the last thing on my mind. The course eventually began to drop into the resort area with the final quad busting descent through the desert-like dust of the North Star ski run. Apart from a thrilling mountain bike switchback trail (which was probably the highlight of the race for me), there were few sections of the race where it was possible to actually run – instead, it was mainly hiking. Obstacles were spaced pretty evenly and there were 9 well-stocked water stations along the way. Despite that fact scuffles and misunderstandings over water allowances marred the day for some on Saturday’s Beast and Ultrabeast.

Mud and water were conspicuous by their absence – a technical challenge posed by the limitations of the location was given as the reason for this. On that subject, (not that we often drink water on course) if you intend to run the Spartan weekend at Kimberley, a hydration pack should be strongly considered.

It is possible you should also take fuel with you unless you are really good at picking saskatoon berries quickly! You should expect high temperatures, and you should definitely expect to run low on water or to need some hydration between stations. Many people I saw out there were very unprepared for fuel and water.  You can see more about the effect of temperature and exercise here with additional guidance here and here to determine how much water you will need. Google it and ask someone who knows what they are talking about. Test and repeat before race day.

Spartan Race Kimberely (2)

Back to my race… As I crested the top of the ridge, I took a reading from my watch. I had gained 1980 meters or 6496 feet over the 15 kilometers I had covered so far. Yeah, it was steep. Eventually, I saw myself slip back further and further into the middle and then the back of the elite pack, slowing to a hobble and finally a walk. This didn’t suit me well, and my pride was dented pretty hard when my legs couldn’t keep up with my ego. I was failing at something I usually did OK at. The finale of the race was a downhill barbed wire crawl, the spear throw, bucket carry, slip wall and finally the fire jump.

I was done.

It was a strange feeling for me to walk into the finishing area feeling like I hadn’t enjoyed myself. I almost feel ashamed of myself for thinking that, but most of the time was spent wanting the whole thing to be over. My own pride and lack of preparation were my own problems for sure and I can’t blame everything on “problems with the course.” Many people came more prepared than I was and had a far better experience out there, however, I felt a little better about it when I realized that it wasn’t just me who had a rough day on the mountain. It was steep. Very steep. So steep in fact that it became difficult to enjoy for quite a few people. The scale of the task ahead of people was massive. Racers who finished all three events for the weekend had covered a total distance of 46 kilometers and accumulated a total elevation gain of 4200 m or 13780 feet! A massive congratulations to everyone who made it!

Kimberely Spartan Glenn

But there were enough people who had problems that Spartan Race Canada took note.

Spartan Race Kimberely (6)

“This is why I’ll never run Spartan again” – Some random

“This is why people say, “never again” and actually mean it”.

– another anon

Or even simply, “Eff Johnny”

– quite a few people actually.

Spartan Race Kimberely (17)

Spartan Race Kimberely (19)

Despite this vocal group of people, 94% of people who started the beast course actually finished, while 45% of those who started the Ultrabeast finished. This is just about right for the difficulty level Spartan are aiming for, but the question for me remains on will be how many finishers and non finishers will return for more next year?

How many will feel like they don’t want to go through this again? How do we ensure volunteers don’t end up making up their own rules about water allowance and obstacle safety? For the open heat and first time racers, do the memories of the suffering fade and get replaced with the desire to conquer the event next year? If things do change, do we then feel more shortchanged if the event isn’t as hard next year? And what was that log drag obstacle about exactly?

Spartan Race Kimberely (15)

Johnny reached out to me to discuss these things, so we went Live on the Facebook feed for Obstacle Racing Media.

Spartan Race Kimberely (8)

As it turns out Johnny approached the issues people had with the race in a very contrite and considered way, answering questions for almost an hour. He took full responsibility for the problems with the course design, and promising changes – but at the same time took steps towards reshaping expectations about what a championship weekend would look like.

What’s clear is that Spartan Race Canada (and Johnny Waite himself) has things to learn in this new venue and he seems eager to go about applying the feedback provided by the participants to form a better race for everyone. I don’t think we as consumers should form a committee to decide how a race should set up.

In fact, we need to apply a little bit of the STFU principle and find ourselves in all the suffering, etc. We (I myself) HAVE to be more prepared in order to enjoy these tougher ones. A Beast at an alpine ski resort should be difficult for everyone – both professional athlete and first-time participant should expect to be tested and we should be prepared to leave it all out there on the course – otherwise what accomplishment is there?

Spartan Race Kimberely (20)

Despite that Spartan Race Canada can improve with constructive feedback, I’m full of ideas (mainly ideas I have stolen from other smarter people). My recommendations for Spartan Race Canada and participants in the event are detailed below.

Spartan Race Kimberely (16)

Glenn’s ideas on how to make a truly incredible OCR experience:

(and stolen ideas that I have claimed full credit for).

  1. We’re getting better at obstacles and some of these are getting stale. Focus on making more unique and novel experiences – push Spartan Race Corporate to get those innovative new obstacles approved. I still have a blueprint for a pegboard traverse… that would make a sick obstacle.
  2. Bring back some mud – look to the past races for elements that gave joy and entertainment to participants and spectators – as we discussed, mud and dirt is still part of the experience.
  3. Water obstacles add dynamic elements to an otherwise ordinary race. Water obstacles (even without mud) add that much needed cooling element for summer races. We need a dunk wall. A wade pool. A water slip wall. I found myself almost wishing for an arctic enema ice pool on Saturday.
  4. Photography. Part of our identity as Spartan Racers is tied up in that image of us, muddied but determined. Quality, timely photography makes us feel awesome about ourselves and proves our accomplishments. This was much improved at Kimberley over Red Deer!
  5. Create sections that are exhilarating to complete – obstacle couplets, multiple walls, balance beams, narrow singletrack, weaving through tight tree sections, creating simple level changes, swinging obstacles, direction changes, climbing, rope descents and natural obstacles all stand up well in any race.
  6. Continue to support volunteers with things they need to perform the tasks set for them. Specifically offer shelter from the elements, written instructions and explicit rules regarding water provision and obstacle safety.
  7. You probably don’t need to film burpees for anyone outside of the top 15 runners.

Spartan Race Kimberely (3)

In conclusion, it’s fairly obvious that a race doesn’t just have to be harder to be better. A truly incredible and epic race involves a strategy of variety and laying the groundwork for racers to experience adventure, competition and memorable moments in a balance worth coming back for. If Spartan Race Canada can adjust that balance next year, I think it will be a classic.

For this race, in particular, I should add that we should celebrate our volunteers who spent many hours in the heat and sun to ensure we could participate safely in this event.

I also want to congratulate the effort put in by our top athletes who showed tremendous courage, effort and stamina to battle extremely hard on one of the toughest Spartan Race weekends ever. Our Elite racing group sometimes don’t get acknowledged enough for the hours and hours of hard work they put in to compete in places like this. You should all be very proud of yourselves.

Spartan Race Kimberely (1)

Finally, for this one I think we can all celebrate crossing that finish line, or hell, even stepping up towards it. Until next year.

Spartan Race Kimberely (11)

Photo credit: Spartan Race Canada.

Looking at the Stats: Comparing the Spartan Killington Results

You finished your Spartan race. Congratulations! You checked your finishing time, and you posted your awesome fire jump picture on Facebook. As you start planning for your next race, you wonder: How did I do compared to everybody else?  Should I sign up for an Elite or Competitive wave next time? Does that twenty-year-old kid have an advantage over me? Is there a significant difference in performance between age groups? How fast do I need to be on a single lap Beast to complete an Ultra Beast?

To answer these and some more questions for myself, I decided to take a deeper look at the finishing results of the Spartan Vermont Beast, Ultra Beast, and Sprint weekend in September 2017 as published on the Spartan website. Read on, and learn how the data tells you if you’re ready for your next Spartan challenge. You will see that the cold facts show that your age and gender have little influence on your results. And as we zoom in on the small group of die-hard multiple-laps runners, you will be astounded by some real badassery.

Before we get going: this post is kinda geeky. I could not resist to occasionally add some statistical gibberish into the text. Don’t get intimidated and feel free to skip those passages. You won’t miss anything…

Overall Stats

Let’s start by looking at some overall numbers. A total of 8011 racers finished on the slopes of the beautiful mountains of Killington, Vermont. Below is a break down by type of race and gender.

Spartan-Vermont-2017-Overall-Stats

The first side note to make here is that these numbers represent only participants who actually finished their race. Information about the total number of racers who started is not publicly available. As we will see later, it is likely that the number of DNF Beast and Sprint racers is small. However, this number is significant for the Ultra Beast.

Unconfirmed information (aka rumor from Facebook) is that slightly over 1,000 racers started the Ultra Beast in Killington this year, which results in an estimated completion ratio of around 49%. Compared to previous years, where ratios in the 20-30% range have been reported, this is a high number. Is this because the course was easier or were the runners better prepared? It’s not easy to give a definite answer.  One clue is that the course this year may have been up to two miles shorter than in 2016, which at a pace of ~30 min/mile, results in a full hour more to go. An hour that many racers would not have had–as we will see later.

With 5459 male and 2552 female runners, the number of men is roughly twice as large. That said, if we look at the percentage M/F per race category, there is some significant variation. There’s a nice 50/50-ish distribution for the Open Sprint, while the women are clearly under-represented in the Ultra Beast. Ladies: I’ll show later on that on average the men hardly perform better than the women, so if you are considering joining an Ultra–go for it!

In fact, the table below shows the average finishing time per race group. Even though it would seem that the men have a natural advantage, it is clear from these stats that overall the difference between the two sexes is small. Taking the biggest group, i.e. the Open Beast on both days, which represents more than half of all participants this weekend, with an average time of 8h37 the women finished around 37 min after the men, which is only 7% slower. Just saying.

F M
Sat Beast Comp 07h40m47s 06h59m17s
Sat Beast Elite 06h14m42s 05h19m46s
Sat Beast Open 08h33m45s 07h57m54s
Sat UB Comp 13h49m12s 12h36m36s
Sat UB Elite 12h38m32s 12h15m11s
Sat UB Open 13h19m47s 12h56m29s
Sun Beast Comp 07h37m15s 06h44m25s
Sun Beast Open 08h48m54s 08h06m17s
Sun Sprint Comp 02h25m55s 02h09m03s
Sun Sprint Elite 01h55m34s 01h35m29s
Sun Sprint Open 03h12m60s 02h52m48s

 

Saturday and Sunday Beast

Let’s break down the race results for the Beast on both days. In the figures below you’ll see a scatter plot of finishing time versus age, for male and female runners separately. Each dot represents one runner, and the colors of the dot differs depending on whether the runner was in the Elite, Competitive or Open waves.

Some interesting conclusions can be drawn from these figures. To start, we can see from these graphs that the relationship between age and finishing time is very weak. To highlight this, a straight line is added to the scatter plots that best describes the trend (in statistical mumble jumble: this is the linear regression model representing the data, with the shaded area representing the 95% confidence interval of that regression). For most waves there is a slight connection between age and finishing time, but the magnitude of this is in the order of minutes. In other words, you’re never too old to do a Spartan race, and even runners of fifty-and-over can be fierce competition for the young folks in their twenties. The oldest male runner was 67 and the oldest female runner 66! Particularly noteworthy also is that the data shows that the elite women seem to get faster as they get older.

These lines are obviously highlighting the average trends. When we only look at the top performers in the male elite wave on Saturday the picture looks different. Here the faster runners are in their late twenties, and the finishing time of the fastest runner for each age group after that steadily increases.

Spartan-Vermont-2017-Sat-Beast-Scatter

Spartan-Vermont-2017-Sun-Beast-Scatter

Also remarkable from these point clouds is the significant overlap of the Elite, Open and Open wave runners. The histograms below, which count the number of runners finishing within successive intervals, visualize this.

The far majority of all runners finished in a time between six and ten hours. The group of runners that completed in under five hours is predominantly in the Elite waves. On the other hand, these plots confirm the significant overlap between the distribution of the Elite, Competitive and Open Waves finishing times.

What should be the conclusion from this? It’s hard to tell based on this analysis alone. Is it possible that a runner in a Competitive wave ran faster than he or she would have done in an Open wave? Perhaps, but if you’re on a budget and not aiming for a podium place or place in the world ranking, don’t waste your money. This analysis shows that running in an Open wave does not give you a significant disadvantage.

The last observation is that the histograms are pretty symmetrical, and have the shape of a ‘Bell’. This means that roughly as many runners are faster than the average time as the number that are slower (more statistical blah blah: the distributions are approximately normal, having a median value that is similar to the average value). If the DNF count due to runners not meeting the time cut-off would be high, the distribution would look more skewed to the right. There have been Spartans who started in one of the last waves and did not make it to the cut-off in time, but for the majority there was sufficient time to make it to the finish. Stated otherwise: the Beast participants were well prepared for their challenge. This says something about this group of athletes, as we all know the Killington Beast is no joke.

Spartan-Vermont-2017-Beast-hist

Saturday Ultra Beast

We’ll move on to the Ultra Beast and start by plotting the same point clouds for the Elite, Competitive and Open wave racers.

Spartan-Vermont-2017-UBeast-Scatter

The first striking observation is that the clouds for the three categories are overlapping almost entirely. As expected, the fastest runners are in the Elite waves both for the male and female runners. The separation of the best performing Ultra Beasters and the rest of the gang is down right impressive, with over four hours of difference between the fastest runners and the average.

The spread in Elite times is significantly larger compared to the Open wave racers as well. The most logical explanation for this is that the Elites start earlier than the Open wave runners, but all are facing the same cut-off times, meaning that the Elite runners simply have more time to complete the race.

These graphs show again that on average the men tend to get a bit slower as they get older, while the women seem to get faster (geeking out: For the men the regression model shows a slight positive correlation between age and finishing time. For the women, this correlation is negative. However, the 95% confidence interval of the linear fit for the women is large due to relative small number of racers. Therefore it is entirely possible that correlation as depicted is an artifact of the data and that the real correlation is positive).

Looking at the histogram of finishing time for both sexes, shown below, we clearly see the effect of the time cut-offs. The distributions are highly skewed with a sudden drop-off in the number of racers after roughly fourteen hours. Knowing that the DNF percentage is around 50%, we can hypothesize that the distribution below represents the left half of the total population. This means that if there was no time cut-off, the Ultra Beast distribution would have a distribution with its maximum at around fourteen hours and the majority of finishers between ten and eighteen hours. This comes to five to nine hours per lap. That’s a large spread.

The Spartans with an average single lap time of five to seven hours got their buckle. I did not calculate the ratio between the first and second lap time, but my best guess is that most Ultra Beasters need about 20-40% more time for their second lap. My recommendation, based on the data I analyzed: if you want to set yourself up for success and finish the Ultra Beast within fourteen hours, make sure you can do a single lap in Vermont in about six hours and sign up in the Elite wave to give yourself some extra time. Among all waves there were 747 racers out of the 5867 Beast racers on both days who completed within six hours. This means that completing within six hours equates to finishing in the top 13%.

I already mentioned the impact of a mile shorter course compared to last year on the DNF percentage. From this histogram it can be concluded that if everybody had one hour more to run, the DNF percentage would drop significantly. This would be equivalent at putting a virtual time cut-off one hour earlier, meaning that the cut-off we see at the fourteen hour mark would shift to around thirteen hours. This would reduce the number of finishers by roughly 175-225, dropping the DNF percentage to 27.5-32.5%, which get us close to last year’s percentage.

Spartan-Vermont-2017-UBeast-hist

One last observation about this histogram. The distributions for the male and female runners are highly similar in shape.  If there had been more women, it is likely that the two distributions would completely overlap, which is another way of saying that the advantage of the men over the women would be negligible (this is assuming that the percentage of men and women who finished is the same, which is reasonable but difficult to prove without stats on the number of UB’ers that started the race). Let this be another encouragement for the women Spartans to sign up for the Ultra challenge.

Sunday Sprint

The scatter plots for the Sprint look distinctively different from those from the Beast. The dots are more spread out and more ‘rectangular’, which indicates that in all age groups racers participated with varying levels of fitness. The overlap of the Elite and Competitive wave on the Open wave is also noticeably smaller.

This is also clear from the larger separation between the trend lines, which show that in the age group of 30-40 the Elites are almost twice as fast as the Open wave runners. This suggests that the overall level of fitness and preparedness between the Open and Elite wave runners is different than with the Beast. This is intuitively understood, knowing that the Sprint is the entry-level Spartan race.

Spartan-Vermont-2017-Sun-Sprint-Scatter

The histograms of the finishing time of the Sprint show a pretty remarkable picture. In the case of the Beast we saw a ‘Bell’ shape like distribution. The Sprint distribution is more triangular in shape, peaking around two and half hours. What to conclude from this?

The width and shape of the distributions confirm indeed that the level of fitness of the Sprint participants varies much more than that of the Beast runners. The finishing times are up five times (!) as long as the fastest Spartans. The peak of the distributions (the so-called modal finishing time in statistics) is also lower than the average finishing times (see the table in the section ‘Overall stats’ above).

Did you run the Killington Sprint this year and do you want to know how you did? The most common finishing time was around two and a half hours. If you did better than this, well done! Consider signing up for a Super.

Spartan-Vermont-2017-Sun-Sprint-hist

The Real Beasts: Double Lap Runners

I will end my analysis with the stats of the small group of participants for whom one race was not challenging enough. Out of the 8011 medals that were handed out on both days, 247 went to Spartans who did a double lap. There were 84 racers who ran the Beast on both days, and 124 who ran a Beast on Saturday and a Sprint on Sunday. Out of the 486 Ultra Beast finishers there were 37 who went for another lap on Sunday, 6 doing the Sprint and 31 going for the ordeal of another Beast, which essentially meant they completed three laps of the Beast that weekend. To complete the line-up, there were exactly two who ran two Sprint on Sunday. To visually depict the performance of these Spartans, I plotted their Sunday time against their Saturday time, resulting in the scatter plots below. The red dot at (11h05, 6h20) is mine, by the way…

Spartan-Vermont-2017-double-laps

The diagonal lines are added to the plot to help comparing the results: if you add up the Saturday and Sunday time, then all points that have the same total time would end up on a diagonal. There is a lot that can be seen from these plots, and I leave it up to you to draw your own conclusions from these results. But one thing I will say is this. While for all 247 double lap Spartans it can be said their performance is outstanding compared to the averages in the Beast and Sprint waves, the top performers show exceptional accomplishments. I mean, if you can complete a Beast and Sprint in around four hours, two laps of the Beast in less than ten hours, or an Ultra Beast and Beast in 14h33 you are a real machine. Aroo!

Spartan Sun Peaks 2017: A Brutal Beast

Some are dubbing the 2017 Spartan (Ultra) Beast that was held in Sun Peaks on September 23rd, 2017 as the Toughest in the World.  All I can tell you is, I somehow finished that dang Beast! I’m not sure how so many did it TWICE!  I’ll be honest right from the beginning, me & my best friend Troy whom I was helping pace came in absolutely dead last, if you go look at the results for the open heat we are the very last two names on the results sheets, and I’m totally okay with that because this race was the culmination of our very first initiation into the Trifecta Tribe & we left anything we had left in us up there on those peaks!

The Numbers:

The below photo was taken from an Instagram post by the Course Designer Johnny Waite (IG=participant_ribbon)

Spartan-Beast-Sun-Peaks-2017-01-Stats

During the race, we would pretty much summit all three peaks that the resort has access to.  Below are the approximate ascension gains that we made on each peak taken from my Garmin stats.
1st Mountain: Sundance ~470m/1542ft
2nd Mountain: Mt. Morrisey ~390m/1280ft
3rd Mountain: Mt. Todd ~868m/2848ft

The final distance of the race is a bit of a toss-up. It was posted at 24km/14.9mi & I’ve seen people posting their results anywhere from 26-29km/16.15-18mi.

For the Ultra Beast, it took the Elites a minimum of 8:25:01 for 1st place to complete & last place came in at 13:36:46.
As for the Beast, it took the Elites a minimum of 3:33:23 for 1st place to complete & last place came in at 11:44:29.

Spartan-Beast-Sun-Peaks-2017-02-Mtn-Map

The Experience:

I arrived in Sun Peaks on Wednesday.  I went a few days early as I was planning on working/volunteering to help set up the course.  During that time I was able to catch glimpses of what was to come.  The course maps that I had brushed passed showed early warning signs that we would summit all three of the main mountains within the Sun Peaks resort & that filled me with a little bit of anticipation.  I hadn’t really trained for the sheer elevation gain that was about to come, but I had at least recently done a few hikes, the last one being a 23.36km/14.5mi with 948m/3110ft of elevation gain so it was good practice.  The race itself left me both physically & mentally exhausted.

Spartan-Beast-Sun-Peaks-2017-03-Course-Map

The Obstacles:

Aside from a few subtleties in how obstacles were laid out, most of the 31 obstacles were pretty much the regular staples.  Doing the Stairway to Sparta at the top of Sundance @1730m/5676ft was pretty cool & it has an absolutely beautiful view.  This was my first time coming across the Tyrolean Traverse & I somehow held on & pulled myself across it & decided to headbutt the cowbell which left its mark. =)

Spartan-Beast-Sun-Peaks-2017-04-Death-March-2.0

Even though this wasn’t on the list, right after the Tyrolean was what many are now calling Death March Part 2 referring to the massive mountain climb done in Killington.  We had to climb up one of the ski runs called Challenger, according to sources, the run has a 474m/1555ft ascent within 1km/.62mi which was accomplished by many by crawling on hands & knees due to it being so steep.  I was told the Creek Crawl was rather beautiful, but due to the sheer time of day & lack of sunlight, I passed it by along with a few others.

You’ve been cut:

After we had completed the death march, we slowly switchback climbed up to the peak of Mt. Todd and I could see a few people standing up there waving people up.  It was nearly 6:30 pm when we reached the summit & we were greeted by Johnny Waite who told me we were done & that we had missed the deadline by about 10mins.  Naturally, I was crushed, but I quickly came to grips with it as I knew there was nothing more that I could do and that I had done well pacing Troy through those mountains.

I walked back down a bit to catch up to Troy & let him know that his silent prayers of no longer having to keep going had been answered & that we would be driven down.  I could see the confusion on his face & explained that we missed the final cut off and that all racers needed to be off the mountain by 7:30 pm.  Then I saw the anguish on his face knowing that he wasn’t going to be given the chance to earn his Trifecta that day with so much put into the effort.

We walked up & we asked Johnny if there was any way we could still finish.  He told us there were at least 2 hours left, asked us what time we had started & once we answered 8:30 am he told us we were done.  At that time another racer came up the hill & I let her know what I was told.  I could tell she was a bit more upset by the news & she went over to Johnny to plead her case.  She too was gunning for her first Trifecta.  Johnny asked her what time she had started & she answered 11:30.  Johnny walked over to the edge of the hill to survey how many others were coming.  We let him know there was probably a dozen or so behind us.  He then looked at Troy & I and told us that if we could keep up her pace & beat him down to the Z-Walls in his truck that we still had a chance.

I could see Troy was physically & mentally done, he was toying with the idea of taking that ride down the mountain.  Troy was recently on disability and has since started up a youth foundation that at its core is about how everyone can change their life if they just believed better was possible, he knew he had to go on so he could use this whole experience as a life-changing beacon for others.

A second chance:

Once Troy had raised up enough gusto and made up his mind to finish the race it was total go time! We had about 5km/3.1m left until we were finished & it was all downhill from there after getting past the 8-foot wall.  Troy’s feet were in pain & having his toes smashed into the front of his shoes going downhill wasn’t helping.  I could hear him yelping over & over as he tried to quicken his pace to make sure we made the cutoff.

We completed the plate drag & came up to another drop, this one was pretty steep but we could see the Z-Walls & no sign of Johnny!  Once we made it passed the Z-Walls we knew we were on borrowed time.  We completed the Atlas Carry & were told to bypass the Creek Crawl due to the lack of light.  That’s when the volunteers’ radio went off.  It was Johnny asking if we had made it there, we had, just in time it would seem.

From there we trudged down a service road & a few trucks passed us, I was sure one of them was the sweepers but they all kept passing us by, each time my heart would speed up just a bit more.  We were then brought back into the trails, the one place a truck couldn’t get into, we were safe for now, or so I had thought.  We heard Johnny call out to a racer just behind us & he told them to head back to the last water station, I knew he wasn’t far behind.  A few more minutes in the trails and I heard Johnny’s voice again calling to Troy.  I was a bit out front trying to pace Troy as fast as I could.  I figured our number was up.

A Miracle For The Finishers:

I walked back & we had a quick conversation with Johnny.  He asked us if we were both a part of Vancity OCR, we let him know that we were & he then said the sweetest words my ears had ever heard.  He told us that he was going to walk us down & that we were going to finish the race with him.  OMG!

I was filled with such elation & marvel knowing at that moment we were going to finish!  Johnny walked us past a few of the obstacles & a small portion of the course that went back up into the woods for a bit & Troy & I actually picked up our pace even more and ran down into the festival area.  I completed the Herc Hoist with what felt like no force at all and climbed up & over the Slip Wall.  I somehow lost Troy in the and the mayhem that was at the end of that race & jumped the fire to receive my very well earned Beast Medal.  Troy showed up about 3 minutes behind me; he came over that wall & finished his race too.

All in a Day’s Work:

This weekend was one for the books I’ll tell ya that! First Beast & first Trifecta DONE.  Would I go back knowing that even the Sprint last year at Sun Peaks was 9.6km/5.5mi instead of the 7.3k & this year the beast was the hardest ever? Hell yeah!

Thank you Spartan, you showed me what I might actually be capable of doing & more this weekend.  Lookout endurance races, I just may be coming for you!

Spartan-Beast-Sun-Peaks-2017-05-Finished

Photo Credits: Johnny Waite, www.SunPeaksResort.com, Ryan Fick & John Tai

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