Last Updated on January 23, 2015 by Heather Hart, ACSM EP, CSCS
I can assure you that there will be dozens of Spartan Race World Championship recaps posted in the coming week that will detail the brutal race, obstacle for obstacle, with epic pictures and video.
I can also assure you that there will be twice as many (if not more) blog post about course inconsistencies, cheating, bottle necks on the course, who did their burpees “correctly” if at all, “unfair” DNF’s, if those who skipped the water obstacles (though allowed by race rules with penalty) should be considered finishers or should simply be ashamed of themselves, how many people were woefully unprepared, the fact that none of the “mandatory gear” was ever enforced, and all of the typical drama that I forget comes with this race every single year.
This post will be neither of those. (For the most part.)
Truth be told, it won’t be an epic obstacle for obstacle recap because my GoPro decided to not play nicely this weekend, which is likely for the best, because pictures simply can’t do this experience justice.
And it won’t be an accusatory post, towards the race directors nor the participants, though there certainly was a lot of chaos, cheating, and anarchy out on that course. Spartan Race’s motto is “you’ll know at the finish line”, and even though I’ve run countless Spartan Races, it took me until yesterday to finally understand that motto. Because I saw it all. I saw the girl in neon yellow throw and miss the spear toss, not once, but twice, laugh and shrug her shoulders as she looked at me suffering through my burpees, and ran off. I saw the people simply walk right past obstacles and keep going. It pissed me off, sure (and there I go accusing, just like I said I wasn’t going to). But it wasn’t until the very end of the race, when the suffering truly hit, that I realized none of those people matter. It doesn’t matter what place I end up, or if those who cheated ended up with faster times than me, or if someone considered ME a cheater for burpeeing out of the tarzan swing. Because I knew (well, not quite at the finish line, but near) what I did that day.
It was brutal, it sucked, and it was MY race.
So instead, this post will be a wondrous tale of a mountain, a brutally vicious race course, and a girl who wanted nothing more than to to say “screw you guys, I’m going back to bed”, but ended up having a really good time anyway.
We begin Saturday morning at the K-1 gondola base of Killington Mountain. Though I had dressed in FAR more layers than ever before, I still found myself shaking and pissed off as I waited in a painfully long line for race registration. For some reason, it appeared absolutely everyone was in the 2500-3000 zone, while all 8 of the other lanes were wide open…kind of like a Wal-Mart the week before Christmas. The wind was whipping and the sky wasn’t just overcast, we were sitting in cloud cover. It was cold (low 40’s without the windchill), damp, and I was miserable. When I finally made my way through the line, I found Geoff waiting for me and declared crankily to the world: “I don’t want to do this!”
There were numerous reasons for my hesitation. Some behind the scenes race drama that I allowed to get to me, as it has hurt a lot of my race family. The fact that the race I had once adored had turned into something so huge and fabricated I didn’t even recognize it anymore (not that I blame them for their growth, but it is a sad side effect none the less). I hadn’t necessarily trained for a race of this magnitude (surprise, surprise.) Plus, it was freezing, and being my third consecutive year at this race, I knew what kind of special hell I was in for …and I was NOT looking forward to it.
But the long walk from the parking lot combined with the long wait at registration left us with exactly enough time to shed our extra layers, hop in the rushed early New England Spahtens team picture, check our bag, and hop in the corral. We made it over the wall and into the back of the crowded corral within seconds of the 8:30 am start time. There was no turning back. It was time to S(hut)TFU and S(partan)TFU.
Darrell, a Spahten friend of ours and first time Beast racer, had asked if he could tag along with Geoff and I. His goal time was around the same pace we were hoping to run, so we were glad to have his company. For Geoff and Darrell’s sake, and hell, my own sake I suppose, I vowed to ditch the attitude right then and there. This day wasn’t about the drama or the rumors or the corporations or the labels. It was a day to push myself physically and mentally, and while Killington Mountain and (sadistic) course designer Norm Koch had the power to test me physically, it was MY attitude that would make or break my day mentally.
And I was going to have a good day, dammit.
The first three or four miles of this course were hilarious. An initial brutal climb was to be expected, sure, but the “watered down” obstacles didn’t fool me from the start. A short, easy sandbag carry? A bucket brigade easier than Amesbury? A barbed wire crawl that you could complete on your hands and knees? While many first timers around me wondered what all the fuss was about the Vermont Beast, because this stuff was “easy”, I knew what Norm was doing: trying to slyly exhaust us before the real race started. The word “mindf*ck” was tossed around between us Beast veterans a few times. I knew what they were trying to do to us and I LOVED it.
I felt so fantastic for those first three miles. I ran light on my feet, climbed like a mountain goat, but most importantly of all – I was WARM. Success, so far. Geoff asked me if I was happy that I started, and I said yes, absolutely. I was having FUN. He loves when I say “sorry honey, you WERE right after all!”
But despite having fun, I have absolutely no recollection of the order of obstacles, or even all of the obstacles. General idea, sure, but for the most part, don’t count on this review to be 100% accurate. Or even 75% accurate. Thankfully, there are people out there who make amazing videos like this, so we can relive an entire day in 8 minutes or less:
We climbed to the very, absolute, top of the mountain. The wind was brutal, the fog thick, and the air chilling. There was a large cargo net that felt like it was on top of the world, with fun music blasting, adding to the “we really do some ridiculously fun stuff” factor.
Around a corner we came to the top of the gondolas and found a ton of spectators were waiting in the cold. This was a first for me – I’ve never seen spectators so high up on a course. It was an interesting vibe; exciting to have the cheering, but almost artificial feeling. The top of the mountain has always felt like a sacred part of the race for me, I’ve come to look forward to its quite, eerie, vast emptiness.
Dear Spartan Race (I know you’re reading…) : It’s cool having the spectators up there, but PLEASE wrangle them and keep them out of the way. I had one cut me off trying to give her brother/boyfriend/I am not sure an energy bar DURING the tractor pull. Many blocked the road from the tractor pull to the memorization board, and TONS of them intermingled with racers while we were trying to memorize our codes. Having someone’s mom yell “DON’T FORGET BOBBY, FOXTROT 851-7542!!!” while I’m trying to remember “OSCAR 137-8613” is incredibly distracting.
Or maybe that was all one of Norm’s planned mental obstacles, who knows.
Anyway, up there we did the aforementioned tractor pull, followed by a spear throw. HIGHLIGHT OF MY DAY! As I mentioned, it was cold, and the wind was brutal.
I stood in line behind Geoff who held his spear up for what felt like an eternity, waiting for the wind to die down. I yelled something to the effect of “THROW IT ALREADY! We’re on the top of the mountain, the wind isn’t going to quit and I’m FREEZING!” to which both Geoff and Darrell threw their spears …and both missed. Oops. So I pick up the next spear. I’ve NEVER made this obstacle, and was CERTAIN I wasn’t going to make it under these conditions, so without even giving it a thought, I tossed it towards the hay bale.
Utter disbelief from me was quickly followed by some sort of ridiculous dance because after all, there were spectators cheering me on. I know I just said the summit should be a sacred place, but it was pretty cool to have an audience for my first successful spear toss.
Back down the mountain we went. At mile 4 ish, maybe 5, who really knows at this point, we hit the traverse wall. It was dry, success.
Then came my most dreaded part of the day: the first water obstacle. A 200 yard swim with a Tarzan swing that has a notoriously huge failure rate, something like 90%. I have a notoriously huge failure rate with being cold and wet. But before we were allowed to even get near the water, we were corralled and told by a Spartan Staff member that the water was 60 degrees, the air even colder. This swim would be dangerous for even a good swimmer, so if you had any hesitations, you should put on a PFD, or even better yet, skip this one. The penalty for skipping would be 60 burpees.
I took the 60 burpees without shame nor hesitation.
After the burpees, we walked around to the opposite side of the shoreline, where we were instructed to put both feet in the water, and walk to the complete other end of the pond. If your feet came out of the water at any time, you had to do more burpees. I hugged the shoreline like it was my JOB, while still keeping both feet in the water. As a result, I managed to only get wet up to mid thigh, while many other people were up to their necks just a few feet away.
For the record: Under Armor Cold Gear tights dried fast and kept me really warm.
Anyway, up and down the mountain we went. (There was ALWAYS more “up”.)Sometimes on the face of a ski slope, other times on single track trails; some allowed running, some were ankle biting extremely technical. For as much as we climbed in elevation, I was (happily) surprised at how much we were able to run this year. There was an incredibly heavy atlas carry (a volunteer confirmed 80 lbs for the women, 120 for men). A painfully heavy tire drag, though I think that might have been significantly later in the race, I’m not really sure. Walls of all sizes and angles.
At some point, we lost Darrell. I felt bad, but I knew that this race was about survival, and I needed to move as fast as I could in order to stay warm.
Soon, we came out of the woods to bucket brigade number two. I smiled and laughed. NOW the race was really starting. A lot of people around me seemed startled. Shouts of “but we did this already!” were abound as we faced a super steep, long bucket carry. Those, my friends, were merely a warm up.
The bucket carry sucked as much as to be expected. It hurt. I had to stop and put my bucket down numerous times. But every time I did, I looked up and smiled. I smiled as I reflected over how lucky I was to be out there doing such an insane physical task with like minded people. And I smiled because I knew the sandbag carry was going to be twice as hard.
After the bucket carry was over, we climbed a most brutal, steep, yet short in the grand scheme of this race, mountain face. When we finally took a left into the woods, I thought we were done climbing for a while. But instead, we took a sharp right and were faced with the most gut wrenching climb of the day. To say it was a sufferfest would be an understatement, though I hate to use the term “death march” because thankfully, no one actually died. They just probably felt like it.
It was somberly silent as people trudged up the steep, never ending slope. I have never seen more grown adults crying in the middle of the race as I did during this portion of the climb. I, on the other hand, somehow managed to stay pretty content. Maybe it was because I was surprisingly and happily warm. Maybe it was because I was completely distracted with how badly I had to pee, but couldn’t find a good place to pull over and do so.
Maybe because I had come to the realization that this might be my last dance with this course.
But one foot in front of the other, I carried on until the top. I honestly don’t remember what happened at the top, other than Geoff and I coming to the agreement that this was not a race. Not at all. This was an event to test people’s mental fortitude. There was no way to RACE an event like this, especially when you were back in the throes of the “open” heat. Miles and miles of impassable single track trail and bottlenecks. And miles and miles of climbing. It felt less and less like an Obstacle Course Race and more and more like I was on some sadistic training course for an Everest summit. I was indeed enjoying myself, in a sick, sadistic way, but this was not what I had expected.
At some point we came across the Platinum Rig, a new obstacle courtesy of our Canadian friends, that Geoff was able to dominate:
(I talk A LOT when I race. Sorry for the excessive commentary)
Me, not so much. But I had fun trying.
Down the mountain again, time to finally tackle the sandbag carry. Pictures cannot do this obstacle justice.
The sandbag, same weight for men and women, had to be somewhere in the 60+lb range. I was able to muster up 20 steps at a time before I had to take a break for most of this obstacle. With the exception of the portion that was so steep and slippery, it seemed all most people could do was toss the bag a foot or two ahead of them, and hang on to the side of the mountain with their hands and knees for dear life. I don’t know why I found this obstacle so funny. Perhaps it was the thought that there has to be something SERIOUSLY wrong with our society that we not only willingly subject ourselves to such tasks, but pay good money to do so. (I laughed even harder when I found out later in the day that the elite men had to carry TWO sandbags up this trail. )
Just past the sandbag carry was mile maker 11.
Things that came in the next 2 miles (a.k.a. “how to destroy your upper body in 2 miles or less):
-Tyrolean traverse (I burpeed out, stayed dry, not ashamed.)
-Repeating our memorization code
-Rope climb (I fell, 30 burpees)
-Spear throw #2 (I missed, 30 burpees)
-Barbed wire crawl..a low, gnarly one, far more standard than the crawl at the beginning of the race.
-10 (12?) foot wall (Geoff got an insane foot cramp, so we held up here for a while)
-Barbed wire crawl part 2.
It was here at the barbed wire crawl that I started to experience the true “SUCK”. My nutrition had been SPOT ON the entire race, and though exhausted, I was content. I was happy. But the barbed wire crawl, while not the longest one I’ve ever encountered at a Spartan Race, was a soul sucker for me. It was dry, an aspect that I appreciated as it was cold out. However, the dry crawl meant every single rock, root, and stick felt like a punch in the back/hips/burning quadraceps. I didn’t realize how incredibly tired I was until the mere act of rolling became a near impossible chore. I was dizzy, I was cold, and I felt the tears well up. I’ve never looked so longingly at the end of a barbed wire crawl and felt that it was just too damn far away. As if the universe knew how bad I was hurting at that point, the very last roll under the very last row of barbed wire elicited the most painful rock jabs yet.
And on the other side of the barbed wire crawl? A submersion wall. I had made it nearly 13 miles into the race staying relatively dry, but now there was no way around it. I got in the water, I went under the wall. I was thankful I didn’t have to put my face in the water (thank you, Spartan race for that one).
One more mile (or so) to go. We were pummeled with more upper body obstacles (my shoulders and chest HATED me by this point):
– upper body pipe traverse . Burpees for me, Geoff made it.
– Herculean Hoist -shockingly lighter and easier than past races. Success.
– That bridge/climb contraption. I have no idea what the challenge is supposed to be here other than maybe a mental struggle for those afraid of heights? No problems here.
-Monkey bars. Success for both of us.
Back into the woods we went. You could HEAR the finish line. I knew we were close. But I also knew this was not just a Spartan Race, it was THE world championships. We’d HAVE to climb that mountain again.
And I was right. A short climb, but a gnarly, steep, downed tree covered climb none the less. What made it most bearable was the fact that without a doubt, the summit of this climb marked the start of the descent straight towards the finish line. Maybe a quarter mile total up, and then it would be all over.
As we approached the finish line, I completely un-jokingly asked Geoff, who had been cramping miserably, if he could even jump over the fire.
Eight hours and forty eight minutes later. We made it. And not a moment too soon.
Conclusion: I had a good day. My nutrition was spot on (Clif shot blocks, Clif bars, Hammer endurolytes, and those baby food fruit puree squeeze pouches). My time wasn’t fast, but it was consistent and steady, and finished right in the middle of the pack of those who actually crossed the finish line within the cutoff time. I stayed warm. And most of all, I had FUN.
I can truly say I had fun on this course.
That said, I’m going to have to think long and hard about ever doing this race again. For so, so many reasons; some that I can’t begin to put into words, and some that others will put into words for me. What concerns me the most about this race and its increasing difficulty is the increasing number of people on the course who have absolutely no idea what they are up against. I saw, no exaggeration, hundreds of people without hydration packs, without nutrition, looking absolutely miserable and moving far slower than they should have been. The number of unprepared people on the course slow down the entire race field, and contribute to an overall safety hazard. I certainly don’t want to sound elitest; I truly DO want to see people of all types out there on the World Championship course tackling this Beast. But, and a huge *but*, I want to see those people prepared. This isn’t just another “get people off of the couch” Spartan Race, it is the World Championships, THE most difficult course they offer, by leaps and bounds. And I think Spartan Race has a certain amount of responsibility to ensure the people on the course have the physical ability to be on that course, and to remain safe. An idea I’ve heard tossed around the past 48 hours is perhaps a qualification to run the Beast. Not a time standard, but instead a proof of a recent previous course completion, such as another Beast or one of the more difficult Super courses.
Bottom line: this race simply isn’t what it used to be…for me. But I’ve taken from it what I needed to.
I’ve come to Killington three times now. I’ve conquered Killington three times now (even with the 2012 Ultra Beast DNF, I still feel like I came out on top.) Each year the race gets substantially harder, and further away from what it was I came here looking for in the first place. I would absolutely, 100% recommend this race to any adventure seeker looking for a solid a$$ kicking. And I will forever be grateful for what this mountain and this course has taught me, but I think for the time being…
…my work here may be done.
(But don’t quote me on that).
Heather Hart is an ACSM certified Exercise Physiologist, NSCA Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS), UESCA certified Ultrarunning Coach, RRCA certified Running Coach, co-founder of Hart Strength and Endurance Coaching, and creator of this site, Relentless Forward Commotion. She is a mom of two teen boys, and has been running and racing distances of 5K to 100+ miles for over a decade. Heather has been writing and encouraging others to find a love for fitness and movement since 2009.