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 Iceland Ultra Beast Gear Prep

I have been tapped by Obstacle Racing Media to give you my ultimate gear prep list for The Spartan UltraBeast World Championship. It will be taking place this year in Iceland, I was there last year and am excited to be making my 2nd trip. I also just finished the World’s Toughest Mudder which took place in near freezing temps in Atlanta. I also have raced all 4 years of WTM in Vegas, along with several other Spartan Ultra Beasts.
Here’s a summary of what I wore last year in Iceland, and what changes I’m making for 2018.  At the start of the race the wind was whipping, it was quite cold, but not terrible, and the sun was out.  I started with the following gear:
Zensah compression socks in Altra MT King 1.5 shoes.  I wore compression leggings underneath windbreaker pants on bottom.  On top, I wore short sleeve Tesla fleece lined compression top under a Zensah long sleeve compression top and a Patagonia Windbreaker jacket with reinforced seams.  On my head, I wore a fleece lined winter hat and a buff around my neck and the hood of my jacket up.  On my hands, I wore 1mm Blegg Mitts.  It was mandatory to run with a foot care kit and a mylar blanket. I also wanted to carry fuel and hydration so I wore a low profile backpack with that in and I also threw in extra gloves.
Lap 1 was a 5k road run through the city of Hvergerdi and then right into the 6 mile-ish actual obstacle course part of the race.  During that first lap, we got hit with a heavy rain that lasted maybe 6 hours! During this time the sun went down and we were starting out 20 hours of darkness.  Everything we had on that was able to absorb water got saturated.  After each lap we were able to pit inside a turf soccer dome which was heated so our extra gear was in a lighted area, dry, and warm.  I carried too much out on lap one and ended up needing to change everything from head to toe at a certain point.  The rain washed away any light snow that was on the ground and made the little thermal rivers we had to cross many times wider.  For example the first couple laps the rivers may have been a foot or two wide and we were able to hop skip and jump on rocks and only get minimally muddy, but as the rain kept falling we were trudging across mid-shin deep water and mud as we approached and crossed these thermal rivers that were now more than 20 feet wide.  The air temperatures were well over 30 degrees and maybe even low 40s, but due to being wet it was tough to keep our body temps up.  After the rain stopped the temperature began to drop.  All that water began to freeze and it literally became Ice-Land.  Because studded shoes, yak traks, and anything else to improve traction was outlawed for the event the new icy conditions became super challenging.  As the hours ticked away the temperature continued to drop and in the wee hours, snow began to fall and cover the ice.  It looked very pretty, but this made the ice even more slippery as now you lost visibility on where to step to avoid slipping and falling down.  As the sun rose the temps didn’t rise significantly enough to decrease the difficulty of the course.

Feet:

Looking back I have a much better idea of what to pack this year.  Studs are still outlawed so I’m just going to go with Altra Mt Kings and Altra Superiors. I had neoprene waterproof socks last year and wore them for a couple laps, but didn’t feel like they helped as water got into them from the tops and couldn’t drain.  So I ended up running in bags of water and my feet stayed wet.  I’m packing them again, but I’ll decide on putting them on after I do a lap or two. Otherwise, I’ll wear my Darn Tough crew length socks and also pack some knee high Zensah compressions too. I didn’t use gaiters last year.  I never thought during the race that I should have packed some, but this year I’ll bring some in case I decide that I want them.

Lower Body

On my legs, I will start in full-length leggings with windbreaker pants over them, but plan to wear my 3mm XCEL Long John wetsuit as the temperature drops I snagged this last minute from Wetsuitwearhouse.com.  I wore this suit at WTM 2018 and it was the most flexible wetsuit I’ve ever worn.  This suit was super flexible and was able to run for 12 hours in it with very little restriction.  I really liked the protection factor on this suit as well.  A huge overlooked challenge by all in 2017 was the fact that you were constantly falling down.  I would describe it as a boxing match and every time you fall your whole body contracts to attempt to catch your balance and brace for impact and then as you hit the ground it’s like a body blow.  The first time you might giggle and then after a few more you might feel a little tipsy, but after hours of falling down each time you hit the ground, you won’t be able to just pop up as you just want to lay there and stare up at the sky.  I’m also going to pack some McDavid Knee and Elbow pads to throw on as the night progresses so that my joints are just a little more protected.

Upper Body

I’m planning long sleeve compression and a NorthFace windbreaker with reinforced seems to start in.  I’ll also pack a fleece top to add as a layer as the night goes on in case I need an additional layer.  I’ll have a couple extra long sleeve compression tops to change into something dry if need be.  I’m also going to bring a 1mm neoprene top and a 2mm neoprene vest as an emergency core layer.

Hands:

I learned last year that if you keep your arms warm than you can literally run with no gloves and your hands will still be warm and sweating.  I will have Blegg Mitts and Neoprene gloves to wear under them though.  In Atlanta 2 weeks ago I used the neoprene gloves under the Blegg Mitts and they worked well.  When I was running my hands stayed comfortable, but when you are touching frozen surfaces, or at Iceland where you’ll be doing 100s of Burpees, your hands will get really cold really quick.  Pro Tip: If you have hand warmers you will get a greater benefit from them by putting them in your sleeve against the underside of your wrist as it warms the blood going into your hand than just holding them.  Dry gloves are far warmer than wet ones, so have a strategy to keep your gloves from getting soaked like I did in case of a crazy rain.  Last year I brought these super insulated fleece lined gloves that got soaked at the beginning of the rain and were rendered useless.

Head/Neck:

Find a waterproof or resistant winter hat.  Also, grab a buff to cover your face during the crazy wind so the snow doesn’t hurt your face and can warm the air as you breathe it in.  I also brought snowboarding googles which were great in the windy snow but sucked in the pouring rain.  Bring vaseline to smear on your cheeks, lips, and nostrils to protect against windburn.

Carrying Method:

Athletes either ran with Ultra Vests, or Hydration or SPI belts to carry fuel and hydration.  Because it’s super cold you won’t need to drink a ton of water, but if you overdress you will over sweat and you will need more fluids.  Have a plan to get warm/hot fluids/foods into you between each lap to keep your core temp up, but don’t take too long in the pit!! The soccer dome had plenty of boiling water to make hot chocolate or soup with throughout the night.

Other Gear:

Multiple Headlamps.  I like the Black Diamond Storm and have 2 of them for Iceland as well as multiple other backup lights and a small hand flashlight as an emergency if my headlamp dies while I’m out there.  Also, pack extra batteries!! Rock Tape in case you need a mid-race tape job.  Dry towel to dry off when in to change your clothes.  Bring some big garbage bags to put all your gear in post-race to get it all back to your hotel.  Lastly, you obviously need to pack a clown mask to wear in the deep dark hours to keep the spirits up.
Get to Iceland, enjoy the culture, get some pictures of the Northern Lights and be ready for a whole lotta headlamp running.

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.

Leadville’s Silver Rush 50 Mile Race Across the Sky

Leadville’s Silver Rush is a gritty 50 miler serving up the ultra-dream in the thin air of the Colorado Rockies. Nestled between 10k-12k feet (that’s two miles high!), this photogenic Race Across the Sky gains over 7,700 feet as it zig-zags through the town’s old mining district.  And as a special bonus this year, racers were treated to afternoon thunderstorms straight out of the Old Testament.  If you haven’t read the Bible, that’s the part where people got their minds right the hard way.  More on that later…  

As the story goes, when Ken Chlouber floated the idea to host the first 100-mile race in Leadville, one of the locals told him “you’re crazy. You’ll kill someone…”  Chlouber responded, “well, we’ll be famous, won’t we?”  I wasn’t worried about dying, but the city’s thin air did conjure images of suffocating and altitude sickness.  So, I decided to test Leadville’s waters with their “short” Silver Rush 50 miler.

After all, I live at sea level.  Most people, myself included, only know 10k feet as the point on a plane ride where the flight attendants get to unbuckle their seatbelts and start walking about the cabin.

The 6:00 AM Start

When Ken Chlouber fired the starting gun on race morning (yes, it’s an actual gun), I was calm.  To be more precise, I was yawning.  The day before, I’d done the mountain bike race over the same course and it had been brutal.  Thanks to two crashes, I’d crossed the finish line bleeding like a stuck pig and was absolutely exhausted.

After two hours of sleep, here I was for round two: on foot.  I wasn’t fresh, but I could move.  And I was relieved to not worry about crashing anymore.  As the gun fired, I ingrained Chlouber’s words from the day before as my mantra: “Going slow isn’t a character flaw, quitting is.”

 

Walking Towards the Light Ended up Being Prophetic

After a few rolling hills, we started the cold morning with an 8-mile climb to the first of four 12k peaks.  To my surprise, doing this part without the bike was much easier!  Thanks to my 50-mile pace targets, I was able to chat with a few runners while enjoying the mountain sunrise and got to run alongside a volunteer from the day before that I’d forgot to thank.

He was one of the coolest people, and it was amazing to be able to tell him how much his being positive had meant in the last parts of the mountain bike race. The first few hours should have been a tough slog, but they were genuinely happy.

I was taking in all of the mining sites and hilltop vistas that I hadn’t noticed the day before.  My pace was slow, but I was moving and felt like I could keep after it all day.

 Nerding out at 12k FeetThe Historic Mines we Ran Through

Summit Number 2 of the Day

Racing the Clouds to the Halfway Point

The morning temps quickly climbed into the 70s, and as an Alaskan that felt oppressive – especially above the treeline.  Somewhere after the halfway point, a light rain started and it felt heaven-sent. I was thoroughly enjoying the cooldown from mother nature, but then the wind kicked up and turned the water sideways.  Oh well, it was just rain.  A few minutes later, claps of thunder started.  No worries, I was back below the tree-line…  Then it started to hail.  I tried to sugar coat the hail by telling myself “at least it’s not lightening,” but my ability to find the positive was being severely taxed.

Afternoon Mountain Weather

An hour earlier, I had been overheating under the blazing sun.  Now, I was soaking wet, cold, and being pelted by bb-sized hail all over my body.  Sure, I could have waited out the storm behind a tree without incident…  but those cutoffs were looming.

I’ve missed race cutoffs before, that sucks.  The hail wasn’t comfortable, but missing a cutoff would be worse so I plowed forward.  I may have hiked the hills with all the grace of a three-legged donkey, but I was climbing through the storm.  And climbing isn’t quitting.

 

When the weather finally relented, I reached for an applesauce packet to start making up the calories I’d missed during the thunderstorm…  Only there was one problem.  My fingers had stopped working!  Eating would just have to wait until a runnable spot appeared so I could get my hands working again.

Feeling Small

As strange as this might sound, mile 30’ish is where I fell in love with Leadville. I was two miles above sea level, racing in the clouds and finding out just how much heart was really in my body. Physically, things were sucking… bad. But all of this was happening against high mountain backdrops that could make the cover of National Geographic.  And the people I was struggling alongside to beat the cutoffs were inspiring.  I can’t speak to what it’s like in the front of the pack, but seeing racers push with everything they have in spite of having little chance to beat the cut-offs their racing reminds you how awesome people can be.

In most write-ups, this would the part in the story where the author overcomes the trials and pushes through to a triumphant finish.  In this story, the journey ended around mile 40 just after I’d crested the final 12k summit.  I was part of a small but determined group that had been racing from cut-off to cut-off for hours, but several of us fell just short at the final cut-off 12 hours in.  The race crew rounded us up right at hour 12 (they actually sent 4-wheelers down the trail after folks) and delivered us en masse to the finish.

But not before I convinced a safety guy to snag a “finish” picture of me and another racer who’d been pulled.

Photo Credit – Cool Rescue Staff that took this Pic and Gave me a Ride

After 21 hours of running and biking, climbing over 15,000 feet and traveling almost 90 miles through America’s highest incorporated city my weekend was over.  I’d crashed, broken my glasses, bled, triumphed and lost all in the span of 48 hours. It was a blast!

Days after the race, I wondered if I’d let coach Nickademus down, or if it was partly his fault for not firing me as a client when I proposed the lofty goal of doing both races back-to-back. I’d never done a mountain bike race or a 50 miler, so a cogent argument could be made that I was punching out of my weight class.  Regardless of whether it was a dumb idea or awesome (I still think it was awesome), I left with an ear-to-ear smile and a genuine passion to head back next year for a repeat.  The people, the race’s story, the mountains… just everything about this place is special.

For a five minute video of the two races set to mariachi music, click here (Spoiler Alert: you’ll see me crash).

Alaska’s Winter Wilderness Ultra – The Little Su

There’s an Ultra event held every February that bills itself as a Race Across Frozen Alaska, and it’s the real deal.  Race temps stay below freezing (by a lot), it’s all wilderness through snow and ice, and the starting line is x4 Iditarod Champion Martin Buser’s kennel.  As a skinny economist with bad eyesight and zero wilderness intelligence, I decided to face a laundry list of weaknesses by making this Little Su 50K my first attempt at Ultra running.  Last Saturday, it went down.

Minutes from the 11:00 a.m. Start

It’s possible there are safer options for a first 50k, but safe has always just felt like another word for dull. After 4 years of OCR, rope climbs and bucket carries feel slightly less exhilarating nowadays… but I still really love trail running and getting lost into the unpaved nowhere.  So just after the temps rose above 0F last Saturday morning, I lined up with 76 bikers, 4 skiers and 25 runners in my home state to try a different sort of running experience (sans obstacles) over 31.4 miles of arctic fun.

the Little Su is Underway

My goal was to run the entire thing, but anything faster than 11 minute miles in snowy conditions would put that at risk. Snow is slow, and it sends a heart rate to the stratosphere if it’s treated like pavement (imagine beach running over squishy sand). When I saw my first mile clocked in at 9:50, I checked my ego, hit the brakes hard and watched the field pass. I wondered how many of the faster runners would gas out at mile 20. Not many (if any) did, they were just in much better shape.

Early in the Run

Around mile 4, I saw a glorified bunny hill and decided to let gravity placate my racing ego with a brief sprint.  Seconds later, I felt like a world-class idiot after my foot sank into a deep snow pocket and rolled my ankle at full speed. It was a potential setback that the SealFit coaches would have ridiculed as a quinjury (i.e. pain quitters use to justify quitting, even though they can continue).  The nagging pain from there on out was a fun reminder that technical running isn’t just for rocky trails.

A mile or so later, I came to a 50’ish foot section of funky brown ice and crossed to the other side without much thought. It looked sort of thin, but the lakes had been frozen for weeks and nothing cracked underfoot. Then I heard a guy yell at me from behind “Hey!!!” as he pointed over to the trail I was supposed to be on. Drat.  After some cathartic expletives, I doubled back across the weird ice to rejoin the right trail.  Shortly after I got home, I looked this section up and realized the funky colored ice was actually the Little Susitna River… Oops.

Roughly 40 minutes later, the snow density changed to something less fast and my pace slowed to stabilize the heart rate. For the next 20+ miles, I saw just a handful of racers. At this point, running became almost meditative and felt like a mushy communion with nature. The remaining hours were spent taking in the Alaskan winter experience… Snowmachines zooming by, low flying planes passing overhead, and picturesque views in every direction with zero wildlife. To all the dutiful bears honoring their proud tradition of hibernation: thank you!

Typical Trail Section Plowed by Snowmachines

Mile 17 Checkpoint w/ PingPong Ball Drop to Prove you were there

After being on the course four 4+ hours, silly songs like “Let it Go” from the movie Frozen and every Christmas Carol I’d ever heard started going through my head. I’d been alone in the wilderness for so long that I started talking to myself. Somewhere the dialogue stopped being just in my head and I caught myself carrying on the conversation out loud. I choose to believe this had more to do with being lost in the Ultra moment than temporarily losing my mind, but either explanation seems plausible.  It’s weird how quickly a person can get lost in their own head without obstacles to distract them every 1/4 of a mile.

The day had its expected opportunities to Embrace the Suck. I constantly worried about my 3L of water freezing (it didn’t), and the Gu’s started making me gag 4 hours in. The potential quinjuries multiplied: my ankle hurt progressively, an IT Band acted up, an Achilles felt like it had partially torn, and a PT tendon went achy for a brief spell. None of these were legit injuries, but my mind wanted in on the day’s challenge to see if it could ruin an otherwise beautiful experience by being a drama queen.

Winter Sunsets last Over an Hour

Around the marathon point, the long sunset was starting as I met a skier 5’ish hours into the race. A few miles later, Iditarod champ Martin Buser zipped by on a snowmachine saying “you’re almost there!!!” as he sped away.

Martin Buser Patrolling the Course  – Photo by Andy Romang

Soon after Buser’s encouraging words, my 6½ hour day of living the dream by running 31.4 miles through frozen Alaska ended under a warm (10F) sunset.  The last time I finished something this far out of my skill set, my Uncle Don was waiting at the beach to greet me as I finished the swim from Alcatraz in to San Francisco. Thanks to the incredibly gracious event photographer, I was able to get one final post-race photo with Uncle Don (who passed 12/20/17) at the finish line.

Sunset Finish – minus the gear – Photo by Andy Romang

Running for 6.5 hours in the snow at these temps was a way different experience than completing the Sun Peaks Ultra Beast in Canada or any other event I’ve done that celebrates our ability to suffer. Bridging the gap from OCR to Ultra distances was a lot harder and more technical than I thought it would be. But thanks to my coach Nickademus de La Rosa (formerly Hollon) sharing his otherworldly endurance knowledge, it’s something I was finally able to manage without a red lantern (last place) or DNF to show for the effort.

Everything about this was fun. The race staff and participants were just nice across the board, and the event’s host was one of the more gracious people you’ll ever meet. After doing one, I get the draw to these events and can’t wait to do more…  Just as soon as my freshly diagnosed Grade II ankle sprain heals…  Apparently some of the pain wasn’t just in my head.

As I was driving away under the sunset, superhuman people were still out there running and skiing the full 100 mile version of the course.  Props to them for stamina and grit, but the full 100 is a goal for another day… maybe.

The Course Just after Sunset – Photo by Andy Romang

 

Photo Credit: Daniel Delfino (thanks GoPro!), Andy Romang, Martin Delfino