Let me be clear by having you first see that enlarged article heading in boldface type. I did not finish the Ultrabeast in 2013, nor did I finish it in 2014. After years of training and revising my diet, training and mindset, I finally completed the Ultra Beast in 2015 and again in 2016. For historical purposes in 2013 I sustained an injury at mile 13 due to a combination of arrogance and momentary lapse of concentration for a fraction of a second that led from being caught up to the wave before me (an hour and a half behind 1st place in fact), to being forced to walk the rest of the course in hopes of scraping by the last cutoff. I won’t go over that story again, as you’ve probably already read it here. 2014 was a lesson in nutrition and an unfortunate brush with illness the night before that through further discussion will sound like a pitiful excuse.
It sucks, but these things happen. Looking back, failing these events were the best things that has ever happened to me. I accepted those failures and kept my head held high and smashed my goal in 2015 to not only survive but thrive through the Ultra Beast by finishing before the sun even went down. The purpose of this article is to hopefully pass along some lessons learned from other athletes as well as myself that can better your confidence, performance and preparedness for this year’s Spartan Ultrabeast, at whatever venue you fancy.
Like a grave admission of personal weakness at some AA meeting… My name is Neil Murphy, and I DNF’d the Ultrabeast. Twice.
Here is what you can learn from me.
Let’s start off with the position you’re in right now. You’re undoubtedly mulling through people’s reviews, looking at youtube videos and rummaging through any guide you can possibly find (like this one!). So right about now, the unknown is destroying you mentally. You’ve made posts boasting your registration of this event (don’t worry, we all have) to all of your friends on whatever social media outlet you fancy, and it feels great! You’re worked up for this. You want this. You want people to know you want this. It builds accountability, which you need right now. There is nothing wrong with this, except for one thing. It means nothing until you actually show up. Don’t be ‘that guy’ who gets cold feet because you have a nervous tummy ache the week before the event, or whatever hyperinflation of your personal problems that warrants an excuse post to the same people that you boasted your registration ‘accomplishment’ to just months prior. Nobody will remember that person who posted that they won’t be able to make it. They won't even pay attention to the people who say "aw man, I wish I was there!" Remember that fear and excitement evokes the same biological response, and that you’re just experiencing the latter. I've never gone into an event without some minor thing going wrong. You'll never 100% be ready. If you're sure that it's fear you're feeling, remember what Joe DeSena says – “If you’re afraid of something, run towards it”. Be brave, alright? Being brave isn't about being un-afraid and doing something. It's about being scared shitless and doing it anyways. Show up, enjoy it, and stop putting this event up on a pedestal. You paid for the whole seat, so you’d best get comfortable. Because you’re in for a long, long ride.
So shut up, and show up. Okay? Great. Let's move on.
Negativity is a cancer. It does not behave fairly, and it does not follow any rules. Give it permission to enter your mind and it will continue to grow and spread until it fully consumes you and ultimately those around you. You are going to be hurting in some way out on the course no matter what. Hurt is okay; it validates your efforts and makes the reward even more vindicating. But you know what? Everybody else is hurting, too. Do not feel sorry for yourself. Focus on the positives. If you find yourself starting to slip away, stop focusing on yourself and divert your attention to somebody else. Ask them how they’re doing, or give praise to the amazing scenery you’re surrounded in - just find a damn excuse to win.
When I found my mind starting to slip I would always crack stupid jokes with the passersby. I would marvel at the beautiful evergreen mountain forests that were nonexistent in my hometown of Orlando. Always expect and prepare for the worst of outcomes, too. That mountain peak you’re approaching looks nice, but chances are it’s a false peak that will give you vision of the next false peak. If you find that you’re at the top you’ll feel much better since your expectations have been exceeded. Some people have trouble with this advice because it sounds slightly negative, but it isn’t. Mentally prepare yourself for the worst to happen, but do not dwell and brood over it. You must be comfortable with being uncomfortable. If this is hard to grasp, you’re not alone. The only time I heard people mention the negatives of their situation was during the first mile going up the first mountain climb. Guess what? I never saw those people again after that. ALL of them DNF'd. Imagine that. Always remember to smile.
Lastly, do not think about the things to come. Focus only on what your current task is. In 2014, over 80% of those who quit the event quit once they finished the first lap of the Ultrabeast (it was 2 laps of the beast course that year). The thought of having to go out there all over again consumed them when all they had to do was focus on the next obstacle, or that next steep incline and they would have gone much further. I know we’re beating a dead horse here with all the cheesy motivational fitness quotes, but if you want to take away one single phrase from this entire thing it’s this – where the mind goes, the body will follow.
More on the mentality of the event later. Let's talk about your training and diet.
Mindful_subconscious from reddit asked for some more details regarding training for an event like this. You should start your ultrabeast-specific training no later than six months prior to this event. Yep, you heard that right. Your priority muscle group should lie in your leg strength, then your back/shoulder/grip strength. Most people lose their lead by going up and down the sharp elevation grades too slow. So what kind of exercises can help condition your legs to take on this kind of abuse? Let's talk about the months prior to the event, and then the weeks prior.
- Lunges were an integral part of my team’s training in the months leading up to this event. We were able to do a quarter mile of lunges in under 7.5 minutes, but in my opinion that goal should have been hit at least 4 months prior to the event, not the two months that we had set.
- Another big exercise that will get mentioned later in this article will be tire drags. Loop a chain or bungee cord through a tire and attach it to your rucksack/weight belt and do your runs with the tire dragging behind you. The lower-calf leg soreness that you’ll feel from this exercise is nearly identical to what we felt after doing the ultrabeast, and I wish we had discovered this workout much sooner.
- Another good workout that we discovered were parking garage runs at my local university. We would run up and down the slight elevation grade of the garage, and after every two garages, we would hit all four stair sections of the third.
- If you live in some areas of high elevation, then you’re lucky. Run those trails as much as possible, and as early as possible. Of all of these possible exercises, nothing compares to good ol’ distance running. Condition yourself to run for at least 3 hours comfortably.
- Stair climbers are your best friend. The 2015 death march was exactly the equivalent of one of the 60 minute stair climber sessions that I would do three times a month. So all I equated it to during the ultra was that "this is just like the stair climber but with a good view."
- Grip strength is a big one. Many of the obstacles can take only 10-30 seconds to complete if your grip is squared away. Just a short duration of suffering is much easier to endure than 30 burpees and the painful slow-down you must face if you fail an obstacle. A doorway grip bar is a no-brainer for this.
As for the upper body portion of your training, much of this can be accomplished through rope climbing, monkey bars and other similar obstacles you can find at your local gym, backyard or crossfit box. One thing that I’m doing now at my desk job is that I’m constantly squeezing a grip strength spring while sitting on a fitness ball, which constantly engages my core. There is no excuse for not training.
Kirk Deligiannis has some sound advice:
The #1 advice I give to everyone is to take the amount of time you think you should train for this, and double it. All training is elevation training, in your race gear. Eat your race food. Saturday's and Sundays should be at least 30 miles on brutal trails, plus PT. The race doesn't start until mile 24 or so, that's when you still have almost 1/2 the elevation of the event left, no time to do it, and you are totally smoked already. If your training is strong, lots of race day mistakes are forgiven. Also, when you do a 20K+ ft elevation change trail ruck marathon (should be part of your training plan) you find every blister, every food mistake, etc. You can learn more about his experience and expertise in his AAR.
As for the spear throw, here is a quick video on making a backyard setup:
Let's talk about the weeks leading up to the event, and what your training and diet should consist of.
4 weeks before the event - This is your last week where hardcore training (4+ hour sessions) would be recommended. Don't start pigging out yet, and do whatever you can to avoid the big injuries like torn muscles, sprained ankles, etc. If you drink a lot of alcohol, try to avoid drinking more than 2-3 drinks this week. If you haven't had a physical in a while, now would be a good time. If you drink coffee every day, go two days on and one day off. More on this later.
3 weeks before the event - Train hard, and train smart. You can still do a mile of lunges or that run through the campus stadium and parking garage, just avoid injury at all costs, even if it means having to slow down just a little bit. Cut the booze down to one drink per week, and stick with the two days on, one day off plan on caffeine. If you've got an OCR event this week, be extra careful. Do not go for a PR from here on out.
2 weeks before the event - Start to taper slightly. Your diet should still be free of junk food, but you can bump up your caloric intake by 1.25x-1.5x. If you do a mile of lunges, bump it down to 3/4 mile of lunges. If you run 10 miles, run 6 instead. Stay clear of dangerous exercises that pose the risk of injury. Coffee should be 1 day on, 1 day off now. No more booze this week, too. Flush that crap out of your system.
1 week before the event - Horray, food! 2x caloric intake for this entire week! Keep in mind that your glycogen reserves will be depleted in mere hours at the event, so have some good nutrition handy (more on that later). Completely cut out coffee, too. Why? Your body's resistance to the drink should have dwindled down by now, and by drinking a strong cup (or two, or five) of this potent brew on the morning of the ultrabeast will help you go to the bathroom one last time before the event, and your body's pain response will be suppressed. Not to mention your alertness will be increased, which is nice when you're constantly looking out for things you can sprain your ankle on. CARB LOAD THIS WEEK. Do not simply carb load the night before. This is a week-long process. As for training, do not train 3 days prior. If you do a mile of lunges usually, do 1/4 mile. Simply maintain your workout but do not go hard at all. Burpees and lunges are nice and safe exercises that you could do.
Now, let's talk about the actual course you're going to be on.
Now that the mental pep talk is out of the way, let’s get to the actual course. Now, some venues are less hilly than others (Dallas, Slovenia and Jersey for example), but for the most part you're going to be doing this at a ski area. Sorry, but only about 3-5 of the advertised 30+ miles you will be able to run in, if you're lucky. Of those miles, you may be going slightly downhill. You better go as fast as humanly possible during those stretches. If you use those easy trails to take it easy you will not finish. Simply not quitting will not result in a medal, you have to perform. The running portions are typically downhill bunny slopes with some basketball sized rocks dotting the trail to keep you alert with your footing. If you’re doing it right, your greatly enhanced gait will boost your run time up by anywhere between a minute to two minutes per mile from your flat road average. Sure, I can make the excuse that I don’t have any hills in Florida to train on but we all know that excuses will only cheat you out of your goals. Think of you and your goals as a relationship. You can’t cheat and expect things to still work out.
Competitor wrote an amazing snippet on uphill running, which we need to discuss:
- Stand Tall: Folding over at the hips and dropping your head to look at your feet compresses the air flow from your diaphragm and lungs to your nose and mouth. Try to maintain as flat a back as possible by staying in an upright position. Stand tall, and look down with your eyes, not your head.
- Quick Feet: Shortening your stride and taking quick steps help maintain efficiency on climbs. Short strides also help keep you in a more upright position.
- Drive Those Arms: Power and momentum comes from a strong arm swing, so pump away to help propel your lower body.
- Walk: There is no shame in walking up a steep trail. Walking, in fact, is sometimes the faster and more efficient way to get up a hill.
- Walk With Purpose: If you change your stride from a run to a walk, make each step powerful and purposeful, and continue to try to maintain an upright body position.
There are four ways you can take on the hills:
Keep Running (Albeit Slowly)
Pros: Maintain momentum, physically and mentally
Cons: Can be slower than power hiking; keeps heart rate high, which adds to overall fatigue; it’s tough
Power Walking, Arms Swinging
Pros: Maintains optimal airflow for hard-breathing effort; slows heart rate to save energy; gives arm and upper body a break
Cons: Upper body doesn’t get a break; takes more effort than walking with hands on hips or knees
Power Walking, Hands on Hips
Pros: Maintains optimal airflow for hard-breathing effort; slows heart rate to save energy; gives arms and upper body a break.
Cons: No upper body momentum
Power Walking, Hands on Knees
Pros: Ability to push knees with each step adds power; Slows heart rate to save energy; gives arms a break; provides a stretch in the lower back.
Cons: Bent-over position compresses airflow; hunching can make back ache.
(Chances are, you're going to be using the last two of the four methods listed.)
Four-time Death Race finisher and Regiment Elite Matthew "Ironbeast" Dolitsky gives a tip o' the hat to the above saying in his emphasis on training:
"Solid marathon training should be a priority. People DNF or get injured because they don't train enough for this event. People should be 90% focused on training and 10% on gear. If people don't take this race serious enough to train heavily for it, they will DNF. It has to be a combination of endurance training and strength training."
You’re trudging up the mountain with your quads burning on every labored step. Your heart is frantically pumping ever-thickening blood to your muscles as fast as it possibly can. You start to see a yellow/red blur on your peripheral vision that’s similar to the afterimage of a camera flash. Startled, you stop moving for a second to assess your situation. By then it is too late. Your legs turn into jello and you collapse. The colors begin to creep in from your peripheral vision to your entire field of view. Head in a fog, you open your eyes again and you’re in a stretcher. Congratulations, you just ran out of fuel.
Eating and hydrating is a serious issue. You need to be consuming at least 150-300 calories per hour. I didn't take this seriously in 2014 (I couldn't, being sick and all) and I felt like death. Bring small but calorie laden foods in your pack such as chia seeds, nuts, clif bars, and even a Ziploc bag of something easy to eat. If you’re bad at timing these things, bring a stopwatch to remind you every hour to eat. Even the competitors did this. Hobie Call for example would stop what he was doing (no matter what) and eat something at an interval time, even if somebody was about to pass him. Bring food that you can chew easily. I tried peanut butter in 2015 and it felt like I was trying to swallow chewing gum and sawdust. I'll post a picture of the drop bin layout later in this article when we're talking about gear if you'd like to see my food loadout. Also, eat when you’re going uphill. You’re going at a walking pace anyways so you can effectively fidget around with your stuff without sacrificing much time. In fact, most of the time I simply asked the person behind me if he/she could grab something from my pack and I would offer to do the same for them as well. As for hydration, I brought a 3L camelback with four nuun tablets (electrolyte tabs) inside and a spare one for the dropbox (more on the gear later). You should never feel thirsty, and you should be making quick pee breaks in which your urine is light yellow or clear. Don’t worry about modesty, either. By mile 5 nobody will care if you’re peeing just a foot off the course, even for the ladies. While we’re on the subject, big kudos to the crafty woman in 2013 who braced a tree to stabilize herself while she peed in the woods. It’s not weird, it’s efficient...
No matter what, you do NOT stop. If you stop, your body will immediately go into recovery mode and begin to shut down on you. Always. Keep. Moving.
Let me say it again – keep freakin’ moving.
At my first UB I saw one poor lady ignore this rule at the dropbox area and she could not get back up from all of the cramps that wracked and ruined her body. In fact, she started shivering from the cold and began to vomit by the time I was in and out of the area. The temperature that year was a rainy 50 degrees in the morning, and ended with 38 degrees by the time the sun was melting away in the horizon. Unless you’re an eskimo you will succumb to the ill effects of hypothermia if you stop moving. However in 2014 the heat was more of an issue as the highs went into a sunny 75 degrees. 2015 was perfect. The weather was at 55 degrees and it felt as if I was in 2nd gear throughout the entire race. I did not stop at any steep incline and it paid off with a nice shiny finisher medal before sunset.
UB veteran and Regiment Elite David Moore puts it plain and simple:
“Know going in that you're in for a loooooooong day. The UB isn't just a marathon, it's a marathon inside of a marathon. The UB is just as difficult mentally as it is physically, if not more. When you see another 1000 foot climb, nine hours in, freezing cold and filled to your eyes with ClifBars, your body will want to quit, or at least take an extended break. If you stop, you die.”
Just in case we aren’t on the same page yet… Always move.
Remember to keep moving? Well you need to move as fast as you, and nobody else, can possibly move. If you’re in a group and you want to wait up for your slowest person you’d better hope that slow person can crank out at least 7:15/mi on the running portions of the course or you will not finish. My buddies in FL attempted the buddy system in 2012 and not a single one of them finished. If your friend has to stop as they climb the mountain, just meet them at the finish line and run your own race. It’s nothing personal, so just go at your fastest pace. You can be with your buddies at the finish line. I know it's nice to have a buddy (stranger or friend) to talk to along the way, but if you compromise your pace to be a social butterfly, you will not finish.
David speaks on this once more:
“Stop only when you have to. If you need to stop, give yourself an allotted time and then keep moving forward. For me, I counted to 10 and started moving again. Even if it was only 50 feet. Pick out a marker on the course, get to it and take another 10 second break. Pick another spot up the hill and take another one. Don't waste any time. That five minute break may seem like it's not big of a deal over a 12+ hour race, but people have missed the cutoff by that or less. A 2 minute break every hour, over 12 hours+, is almost half an hour. If you know you're gonna be close to the cutoff, you need those 24 minutes.”
If you're doing Vermont, welcome to the birthplace of the original Beast. You're in Joe's backyard. If it's anywhere else, you'll be a guinea pig for new obstacles. Tahoe featured the ape hanger and thigh master, for example. I’m sure you’ve done a low crawl before, but the ones they have you doing here are done one rocky, muddy terrain riddled with cold puddles of mud. For instance, the 2013 UB course had a low crawl on a dry wooden bridge (complete with rocks and nails) and another one up a ski slope. To make that ski slope low crawl even more fun we had to carry a 50-60 pound log up that hill and through the low crawl. 2015 had three low crawls including an uphill one. Fortunately that one wasn't with a log in hand.
Other obstacles included a set of monkey bars that comprised of a loose metal pipe wrapped around a wobbly chain that led to the next wobbly pipe either above or below your level, followed by a perpendicular pipe you’d have to change position on later.
Fast forward to 2014, and that concept got upgraded to what was called the platinum rig:
Video credit: www.relentlessforwardcommotion.com
The bane of all obstacles in 2014 was the dreaded sandbag carry. Ultrabeasters had to carry TWO sixty pound sand bags up an incredibly steep ski slope. This alone took people more than an hour to complete. It was here where many people shifted their thoughts from “I’m totally going to make this” to “Well... Maybe next year”.
Video Credit: dlangeraap
You may have rope climbs that will not have knots. Those that do have knots were strategically placed in the middle of freezing water. Another challenge is mental. You will be remembering a combination of letters and numbers. I remembered it just fine, but as suggested by UB veteran Dave Hamilton you can bring a sharpee. However one year they were telling us that if you’re caught writing this down anywhere you’ll be doing 30 burpees on the spot, AND when you’re called for your number 10 hours later! But then a year later we saw one of the elites on NBC writing down her number on her arm on national television and nothing was done about it... Use this technique at your own risk.
The tyrolean traverse is another staple of this event. Go over the rope with one leg bobbing down as a counter balance. It takes a little more time, but it’s a lot more efficient than getting tired on the rope, falling and then doing 30 burpees. If you get tired using this technique, you can lay on top of the rope and expend no energy at all, as opposed to killing your arm strength by dangling below the rope.
2015 was a little more tame on the obstacles, however the bucket brigade was an absolute nightmare. For a more complete breakdown of last year's obstacles, 3-seconds.com has an incredibly useful breakdown of the event here:
Fast forward to today, and it looks like Spartan's goal of standardizing obstacles will mean less location-specific obstacles. However don't be surprised if you see one or two still at a venue.
Ah yes, the drop box. This is another crucial point in the race. A lot of people mess up here, so listen up and listen well.
This is a place to resupply as fast as possible and to get back out on the course. You will encounter this zone at roughly the halfway point of the race after you complete your first lap. This is by psychological design. You're running two beast laps, so by this point they want you to feel terrified that you have to go back out there to do it all over again. Stop thinking about it and just move. What are you going to do... DNF and wait another year because the thought of another six hours of pain (that you signed up for) was too scary? You really want to spend the next 364 days and 18 hours letting that mull around your head? Quitting only feels good the moment that you quit. Regret is a terrible pain to endure when compared to the temporary pain of discipline.
You should not spend more than five minutes at this station, and you should remain standing through the whole time. While rummaging through my bin I would occasionally do a squat to keep my legs active. You’ll hear those who sit down, trust me. You’ll hear them in the form of agonized yelps of cramp-ridden pain when they try to move again. Remember the mention of the shivering, vomiting lady back in 2013? That happened here.
Let me run down each item in my box with a short description as to why I brought it:
- Dry Bag (Tahoe) - Hoolllllyyyy crap. Let me tell you about the dry bag. Wearing wet clothes is worse than wearing nothing at all, and when it's below freezing outside this is priority #1. Before going into the dunk wall I took a few minutes to remove my outer layers and place them and my pack into a big dry bag. Taking a few moments to do this saved my ass. Having DRY clothes to put on afterwards was the only thing that separated me from taking my next step afterwards and DNF'ing. If you're going into cold water when it's below 45 degrees outside, you MUST keep your stuff dry. I added an Amazon link to buy one now. Doing this now can save you about ten bucks than getting one at a nearby REI.
- Spare Bladder/pack - This made life so much easier. All I did was remove my used hydration pack and swapped it with a pack I prepared the night before complete with nuun tablets. This saved me so much time! If you've got a complete camelbak, even better! Just take your current one off and put a brand new one on that's already pre-loaded. This saves precious minutes off your idle time. MAKE SURE you've got the lap-specific items in it, though! Such as...
- Headlamp/Glowsticks - These are mandatory. It'll be dark on the start of the first lap, but not for long. You only need your headlamp with you for the second lap unless Spartan specifically says otherwise. Do NOT forget these! Tape them to the edge of the bin to make them stand out if you must. If you forget to take these with you, you'd better hope you finish before sundown or the headlamp checkpoint or you're going to DNF. They are very serious about this.
- Nutrition - I brought an exact copy of my pack plus more (in case I miscalculated). I'd run through them all but you can see them in the picture above. I took a minute to eat something a little more wholesome at the bin, and you should too. Some people brought a sandwich, some even brought soup. No matter what, don't let it take up all of your five minutes. If it's a big food item, bring it with you and eat it while going uphill. I saw people eating an entire Jimmy Johns sub on their uphill section of the second lap for example. If you can make it work, good on ya.
- Medicine - For me it was my prescription anti-inflammatory, body glide, anti-diarrhea pills and cosamine joint pills. I took one of each at the drop bin and I felt like a million bucks! Even if it were the placebo effect, I'm okay with this. Bring a bottle of water to help you swallow your pills with. Trying to swallow a pill while sucking down the narrow camelbak hose sucks.
- Towel - Just in case you want to dry or clean something off really fast. This helped me more when the race was over, however. I was pretty cold and this towel hit the spot.
- Wipes - Alcohol and baby wipes, to be specific. One for if you cut yourself, the other for if you shat yourself.
- Spare shoes/socks - Your shoes could tear, or you may get blisters. Bring 'em just in case. I never had to change my shoes, but I'd hate to not have them if I needed 'em. It's kind of like having a plunger. Always have one before you need one.
- Blister tape/body glide - For if you have to remove your shoes. I applied a new coat of body glide on my shoulders, thighs and family jewels at the drop bins.
- Extra shirt - In case the temperature drops during the day or you mangle up your current shirt.
- Something special - For me, it was the funny Shia "JUST DO IT" thing to give me a laugh at the bin. Another thing I brought was a cigar for me to enjoy when I finish. Have something in there that reminds you that dedication is following through with something long after the feeling you had when you started has left you. Others brought family photos, some brought whiskey and a mural of Harambe. Make it special. Thanks to Bowtie in 2015 for the shots of fireball!
- Salt tabs - In 2014 I confidently did not bring salt tabs. I didn’t cramp at all in 2013 so I deemed them unnecessary and paid the price for that dearly. I brought packets of 3 count salt tabs with me in 2015 and I swear by them now. Whenever I felt a cramp starting, I would stop and down a packet of these and it worked so incredibly well.
Michael Oldroyd has some info on this:
"After walking off after one lap in 2012, I returned to finish the course last year in just under 14 hours. I'd hardly consider myself any kind of authority on endurance racing but I will suggest one thing I believe may have been key for me... salt tabs. There's a ton of information online both pro and con. I took one every 90 minutes or so during the 2013 UB and I will again this year."
So that was in my dropbox. Here is a little insight from Jim Goundry, who ran the beast the day before and then the ultrabeast the day after:
I finished the UB last year in just over 11 hours and the Beast the day before. I wore running shorts, compression T and arm protection (see picture), I was a little chilly toward the end but nothing terrible. Shoes were Saucony Peregrine 3s.
I wore a 3L CamelBak, not sure I ever filled it all the way though (there were a few aid stations per lap), Nuun electrolyte tabs and nutrition which consisted of GUs and BonkBreaker Bars (I've switched to ProBar Chews instead of GUs though).
In my bin I had a load of stuff but really only need the water refill, refill on Nuun, resupply of nutrition and a couple handfuls of trail mix which I ate quickly. Big fan of trail mix just find it harder to eat and move. I think I reapplied anti-chafe cream too.
Update: There was a post in the UB Facebook group page asking what people wished they brought. So I thought you'd enjoy some of the responses:
Extra PB&J sandwich in my second pack
Extra pair of socks (mentioned by 5 people)
Zip ties (for pack repair)
Thermos of warm broth
So with different people suggesting different things, we’re brought to our next urgent subject…
Much like your first drug-addled trip to Burning Man, you’ll be tempted to try new and exciting things. Don’t. If you’ve never wrapped your ankles in athletic tape before, don’t. If you’ve never broken in those new pairs of trail running shoes, you’re going to regret it more than the things you’ve done at your company Christmas parties. Try your gear months before, not weeks before. I learned this concept the hard way. In anticipation of my body to become weaker as the hours rolled in the 2013 VT UB, I decided I’d try pepto bismol tablets to keep my digestive system in control. I should have stuck to my tried-and-tested immodium. I, a then 28 year old grown man… violently shat myself on mile 14. I’m talking about that scene in Bad Grandpa where they’re in the restaurant and… yeah. I’m not above admitting some embarrassing things, but this is some next level stuff right here folks.
So here is your takeaway, never try anything new, and never trust a fart… now on to some more non-shit-related things.
So we've covered the drop bin, let's discuss the coveted gear list that everybody will probably be asking about every day in the months prior in the Facebook group! Before I mention anything, do NOT wear any cotton! If cotton is touching your body, you will feel pain. Let’s begin with the clothing that I wore. Again, this is just what I went with. If you’ve done all of your extreme endurance events wearing flannel My Little Pony pajama pants, then you need to wear your flannel My Little Pony pajama pants. Nobody is here to judge. Even if you’re a brony. Just don't talk to us about clopping, please.
- Pants – in 2013 I wore thick tactical stryke pants. I kid you not. These pants protected me from the errant twigs and branches that would otherwise cut and scrape people’s legs. The numerous pockets made access to food and other things a cinch. It was light enough and I could let it scrape and slide against the ground without consequence. That was 2013. I wore the same in 2014 and I regretted it. Why? The steeper terrain, that’s why. Most of the time spent up the steeper elevation grades inherent in ’14 were spent holding the crotch of those pants up as it constantly tried to stretch against my legs, hindering my movement. I wished I had worn tight compression pants that year, accepting that they were going to get ripped up a little. Then again, there always is the option for those MLP pajama bottoms…
Now that I've got the benefit of hindsight - go for the compression pants. Lesson well learned, and rewards well gained. In UB events now I wear Perl Izumi compression pants and I couldn't have been happier. If you need pockets, go for compression pants that have a back pocket. As for Tahoe in 2016, I went for the warmer gear. I wore two layers with a wetsuit over it all. Just read the weather forecast and be smart.
- Shirt – Again, read into the weather forecast with this one. I wore a long sleeve, loose undershirt with one of those black “I’m training for a Spartan race” short sleeve shirts over it when it was cold in 2013. Remember, staying active will keep you warm! 2014 was just a long sleeved underarmor shirt, which turned out just fine in the 70 degree weather. 2015 I wore the same thing and had no issues whatsoever. Bring shirts for 30, 50 and 70 degree weather. Tahoe 2016 was on the extreme cold end of the spectrum, so I had an undershirt, wetsuit and sheddable shell with a windbreaker tied around my waist just in case.
- Socks – Regular running socks sucked. I wore Injiji toe socks in 2015 and it was spot on! Just lather some trailtoes or vaseline in there before you put them on and you'll be golden. I didn't have to remove my socks at the drop bin and the worst I felt was a few hotspots at the end of the race, but zero blisters. Speaking of hotspots... DO NOT WEAR COTTON SOCKS. Look below. I did a 2 hour incline exercise on the treadmill. One of my socks were cotton while the other was not.
The bad foot. Cotton socks.
- Shoes – A topic of heavy discussion! If you have trail running shoes, use them. If you don’t, then buy them and spend months breaking them in. Do not use road running shoes for this event unless they have heavy traction. How you tie your shoes are important as well, as Illumiseen illustrates in their really good video. The terrain will require shoes that can bite into the ground and not slip. In 2013 I used salomon trail running shoes that were a little too heavy, causing my ankle to roll if I landed on it wrong. The next year I’m went for the TrailRoc 290s. Really, if your shoes can grip terrain well and won’t give you blisters you can go ahead and use those. The 290s gave me some blisters so I went back to the 2013 salomon trail shoes in 2015 and the arch support was fantastic so long as I paid heed to my ankle stability. It’s what I’m used to, so it’s what I’m using. Use what you’re comfortable with so long as those shoes can bite into the ground. Tahoe was a little more forgiving with regards to slippery terrain, so you can opt for less traction on the drier, rocky terrain.
- Head – Aside from your fashionable Spartan bib number headband, I also wore a beanie on the cold years. This turned out to be an unexpected blessing as many branches scraped the side of my head to no effect. The beanie pressed against my ears, which made it incredibly easy to hear my heart rate thumping against the sides of my head to indicate I need to practice some combat breathing techniques to regulate myself some more. It also made it easy for familiar friends to identify me if need be. If you’re the one to listen to music during long events, then a beanie will help keep those earbuds from falling out. Plus you look cool, so you’ve got that going for you. 2014 and 2015 was run without the beanie simply because it was too hot out, and 2016 (Tahoe) involved a full face cover since there was that whole snowstorm thing going on.
- Gloves – Only use gloves for the bucket brigade and for any other carries. Do NOT use gloves on rope climbs, monkey bars or anything you're going to need to grip firmly to unless you've already torn open your hands. A little physics lesson - having gloves means that you not only need to grip hard on the rope to stay under your static coefficient of friction, but you also have another static force you need to maintain from your skin to the glove material as well. If one slips, so does the other. If you have the super-grip gloves, you may be able to get away with the Hercules hoist with gloves, but that's about it.
- Back – You will have to have a hydration pack, no matter what. Get one with plenty of pockets and straps to store your headlamp, snacks and other nick-knacks. If you're going to wear the bulky pants with pockets in them, then you don't need as many pockets in your pack. Simple enough! The larger the bladder, the better. I'd recommend going with the 3L pack, but you can get by with a 2L pack provided that there are plenty of water stations to refill at. Remove your pack and hold on to it when you’re going through barbed wire low crawls so you don’t rip it apart. When swimming, blow into your camelback bladder and enjoy the extra flotation. Lastly, try to avoid getting mud on your zippers. Douse the zippers in water if you need to open it up to avoid getting things stuck.
You can wear what you want, but your body will undoubtedly undergo some stress. The areas that hurt me the most were my ankle (obviously), knees and select areas of chafing that I neglected to hit with the bodyglide. Watch your footing at all times. Grass will deceptively hide breaks in the terrain or loosely cover some slippery rocks. In Tahoe, loose gravel threatened the same consequence. If you do not consciously keep your ankles gimbaled in the right direction at all times you open yourself up for the catastrophic series of sprains that I got on my left foot for example. The knees weren’t really too bad and the advil helped alleviate the minor aches just fine, and the pain of that went away just days after the event was over. Chafing will definitely happen if you do not hit the right areas with bodyglide. Spots that got sore included the inner thighs, nipples, shoulders (from the camelback straps) and surprisingly enough my quads. As for the men, you might want to hit your family jewels with some bodyglide, too. It gets wet and sandy down there and 15 hours in that environment may get a little painful if you don't take care of things.
Let me stress this again. Watch your footing. It's what cost me my finisher's medal one year.
The terrain is something you must respect at all times. Barring flatter venues like Dallas and Slovenia, you will either encounter up-slopes so steep that you can only walk up them or down-slopes so steep that you have to stop yourself from tumbling down in an uncontrollable fall similar to what Chris Farley did in Tommy Boy. Some of those uphill/downhill combinations are in the form of wide open ski slopes, while others are in the form of thick evergreen woods alongside the mountain with only a green/white plastic banner tied on the occasional branch to guide your way through the gnarled and very slippery muddy trail. Tahoe is a whole different beast (heh). Where it lacked in dense forested inclines it made up for in cold and elevation. There were more flat areas to run, but the elevation was quick to tire out anyone who doesn't live at 9,000 feet. One of the things that helped a lot in the woods was using the tree branches to help pull myself up, or guide myself down the mountain in a controlled fall. No matter what though you need to always mind your footing! Matthew “Ironbeast” Dolitsky and a few others would do a slight jog down the mountain but in a skiing zigzag motion. Outside of the steep elevation grades you will have the occasional swimming and relatively flat ground to run on. If your quads are burning, you’re doing it right!
Apparently the word "swimming" triggered a panic in some folks. Do not worry! The picture to the left shows a couple lines of rope in the water. See those rope lines? That's the distance you swim. Still worried? They give you life vests. You'll do just fine... Enjoy the free bath! Besides, that was 2014. They only had a waist-deep wade through the water last year in 2015, so the swim got removed for liability reasons. (Fun bit o' knowledge - it costs about $5,000-$8,000 per certified lifeguard to have them out there all day. That coupled with the ridiculous insurance costs that Spartan must pay kind of makes sense as to why they removed the swim). 2016 brought the swims back, but if it's too cold they will close them off.
If you’re anything like me, your last couple weeks will be very unnerving and exciting at the same time. I could not keep this event out of my head, and it was good and bad at the same time. I can’t really accurately describe that part, sorry. Chances are you'll hit up a restaurant with your friends for a last supper. Do not eat anything that can screw up your stomach! In 2014 I ate too much garlic and oily Italian food coupled with some spicy food snacks throughout the day. The result? I got sick that night and couldn't eat anything until 6 hours in to the race the next day, which cost me my lead in the second lap. It sucks, but I consider it a worthless excuse because I could have prevented that. Have some regular food that doesn't have too much oil, spice or anything that can trigger a stomach problem. Try your best to get to bed as early as possible. Save the late night parties for after you conquer this thing.
Aside from food, you may want to methodically lay out all of your clothing and gear (not your drop bin, that should be stowed away at the venue by now) out by the bed for you to access first thing in the morning. You're going to be nervous in the morning as it is, so do not exacerbate the situation by frantically looking around for your stuff at the last minute. Another good thing to do is to trim your toenails and fingernails the night before. The slightest protruding toenail will turn into an agonizing torture when it's bumping against the same thing for 14+ hours, I promise.
Also, it is normal to have a restless sleep. The cold scared the crap out of me in Tahoe 2016, and I found myself waking up every hour just thinking about it. You'll make up for any lost sleep the day after, I promise. Besides, that coffee you drink in the morning will wake you up just fine.
Instead of picking pieces of each person's input and spreading them around this article, I'll include various lessons learned from various athletes here. The location after their name indicates the race they learned their lessons from, if you were wondering -
Brandon Barros (Vermont) - "Definitely go in over prepared for nutrition and weather. Tahoe I had an exceptional amount of nutrition to carry on course but I also spent the two weeks prior cleansing and prepping. I constantly checked the weather and had prepared for hot or cold weather. Also while on course (to each is own) I paced myself cautiously on the first lap avoiding any other injuries than the ones I already had. The second lap was a push myself out of comfort and to get under 12. Always approach a UB with not just one plan but maybe 3 plans minimum. Anything can happen out there. Your drop bag should be organized and filled with candy, high sodium food, salt tabs and anything you feel necessary to keep you going. The second lap usually gets dark on us and becomes 80% mental."
Sonny Fricia (Tahoe/Vermont) - "Too many people ran out of food. No idea why... but they did"
Jeff Medrano (Tahoe) - "Ziplock bags to keep your shirt dry during the swim. A bottle of mustard instead of packs. This will allow you to share with those who are not in the know about this miracle condiment. Also, take cold showers. That made the swimenjoyable for me. There was no shock factor getting in the cold water"
Matthew Melcher (Tahoe) - "Personally, I think training in awful conditions helped me through the UB. I didn't do any swimming training, but in August I did the ascent of the Presidential Traverse in NH up to Mt. Washington. ~10,000ft vertical climbing but above the tree line was 40 degrees, raining hard and wind gusts 40-70mph. I can see how people unprepared die up there."
Caleb Becky Miner (Vermont) - "So, I did the beast with no camel pack and no electrolytes. Note to self... never do that again. Thanks to all the spartans who helped me along the way!"
Steven Grannary (Sun Peaks) - "Training in uncomfortable situations is a definite bonus. Trained hills in the dark at 32F and extra food. Always come prepared for all four seasons."
Christopher Kravitz Peltier (Tahoe) - "Ski mountaineering and alpine skiing in the winter provide traning conditions unmatched by any of these races. I swam competitively when I was younger, so water was an advantage. The cold weather training (often below 0) really helps with understanding gear/clothing under all conditions. Nutrition using the Hammer products (Endurolyte extreme, Gel, and Perpetuem made as a gel) has worked well for the long haul"
Mike Maurer (Vermont) - "I use Tailwind as my caloric backbone, plus the electrolytes in it help prevent cramping. I used a 50k trainer for my cardio. Not because there is a ton of running, but it forced me to train and adapt to being completely spent & exhausted. For the midwest flat lands, I needed to include more tire drags into my training to help with the climbs"
John Hayley (Vermont) - "I come from both sides. DNF and finisher. The main difference is that when I DNF'd I paced myself. By the time the second loop came around I had to hurry to catch up on lost time. Spoiler alert...that did not work. So this year my main objective was to hammer that first loop as hard/fast as I could and just gut out the second loop. That worked like a charm. I had banked so much time, that I was able to treat the second half like a victory lap. It allowed me time to stop and help fellow racers, especially some of the beast people that were obviously over their heads."
Vincente Forero (Tahoe) - "Pack a god damn dry bag, light wind breaker, light running gloves and ear covers"
Jeffrey Hella Jef (Tahoe) - "UB Tahoe was weather. I should have dress for the weather. I had enough food, was super hydrated (had to piss every 3 miles). About 2 weeks out I was on all natural diet, full serving of veggie juice each day. I started taking mass gainer to carb up from all the endurance training didn't gain more than a pound or two top. I started at 180lb 6 months out ended up at 157lb race day. I live on at sea level highest peak we have is at 4000ft, Start my run at 500 try to do it twice once a month, along with heavy crossfit and running 5 days a week."
Brannon Espy (Tahoe) - "Get a dry bag for the swim for sure... Better insulation for early lap... Hot hands from bin saved me the second lap... I still have numbness in my fingers... It was able to climb the second lap... Nuun tabs on my water helped as well as the mustard and didn't even get a hint of a cramp... Liked the thinner power gel over the GU as t was easier to swallow moving faster and breathing in the cold"
Kert Elkins (Vermont) - "If you work at a desk all day, get a stand up desk. Commit to never sitting down. I did this about 8 months out, and I think it helped out big time. You can run all the miles you want, but you also have to be conditioned to be on your feet for 8+ hours. I work Mon-Thurs 10 hours a day. The first 2 weeks is rough, if you aren't used to being on your feet. But I committed to standing. So much so, that I got rid of my chair so that I would never sit down. Again, I think this was a big help to me."
Joshua Cherwinski (Vermont) - "Get used to being uncomfortable for an hour at a time. Do 500 unbroken burpees, row a half marathon. Swim 2 miles. Do something like this once a week. I did very little running but alot of the things above."
I've been waiting so long to add this part to the guide. Everything you've put yourself through will lead to this moment. The sacrifices that you and your family took to accommodate for your training will be justified at this final moment. For me, it was a moment three years in the making. To others, it means dedication to loved ones both present and parted. My advice is to keep your emotions in check throughout the entire race, and permit yourself to let it all out here and only here. Finishing this event was one of the most defining moments of my life, up there with being married and even the birth of my son. I'm sure it will feel the same when you finish as well. If you do not finish, please do not let it defeat you. Come back and try again, and again until you finally conquer this bitch of a race. Your kind words spoken to me throughout the Ultra Beast in the last four years gave me the strength and motivation to continue on in both my training and in keeping this guide up to date, and I am forever grateful to you all. During the hard parts of the race I always remembered what each and every one of you said to me, and it gave me the resolve to press on.
I owe all of this to you, and the only repayment I will accept is for you to finish this race as well.
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I will constantly be updating this section of the article (you'll hear it first on the front page) with helpful Ultrabeast information as the months come by, so keep your eyes peeled!
Update1: here is a gps map of the 2013 course. Green is the ultrabeast section, red is the beast.
UPDATE2: I've been asked a lot of questions along the line of "how does this event compare to [insert event here]?" It's near impossible to compare. The UB is just....different. The closest comparison I can think of is doing a GORUCK event but on a ski slope and with more running. Doug Sahr once compared it to running the Virginia super 3-4 times in a row.
UPDATE3: The Painted Warrior has given permission to use some of his pictures, so those have been added to the article to better illustrate what we're talking about here. Please show your support by visiting his blog! Here are a list of the obstacles that were on the course in 2013:
List of Ultrabeast obstacles:
3. Wheetabix wall #1
4. 5ft wall #1
5. 6ft wall #1
6. Memory Chart (begin)
7. Tire Drag
8. Sandbag Carry #1
9. 6ft wall #2
10. Inverted Wall
11. Balance Beam
12. 5ft wall #1
13. Chain climb
15. Spear throw #1
16. Log Flip
17. Barbwire #1
18. Low crawl
19. Hobie Hop
20. Commando Chain Climb
21. Stairway to Heaven 12 ft wall
22. Rope Climb Hill
23. Vertical Cargo
24. Barbwire #2
25. Hay Hurdle
26. Log carry
27. 7ft wall #1
28. Hurc Hoist #1
29. 8ft wall #1
30. 6ft wall #3
31. 7ft wall # 2
32. Hurc hoist #2
33. Monkey bars
34. Tractor pull
35. Inverted wall
36. 8ft wall #2
37. Rolling mud
38. Barbwire #3 (300 ft)
39. Spearman #2
40. Wheetabix wall #2
41. Rope climb #1
42. Conex cross latis
43. Water rope climb #2
44. Traverse Wall
45. Tarzan Swing
46. Memory Test (end)
47. Vertical Cargo
48. Chariot of Fire (Saturday only?)
49. Atlas carry
50. Barbwire #3
51. Log hop
52. Tyrolean Traverse
53. 8ft wall #3
54. Inverted wall #2
55. Sandbag carry #2
56. Barb crawl/Slip wall
57. Fire jump
Peaks and Mountains climbed:
5. Rams Head? (unsure)
Weather: Cloudy with 70% chance of rain through the day. H 63F, L 36F
UPDATE4: Lifehacker posted a pretty good guide on hill running and training. All of it applies to this event. Give it a read here.
UPDATE5: Here is a list of obstacles at UB2014:
- Under Over Under
- Sandbag Carry 1
- Bucket Brigade 1
- Traverse Walls
- Tarzan Swing + Swim
- Atlas Carry
- Barbed Wire 1
- Log Carry
- Log Hop
- 7 Wall
- Vertical Cargo
- Big Cargo
- Tractor Pull
- Memorization Sign
- Spear Throw 1
- Inverted Wall
- Bucket Brigade 2
- Tire Drag
- Sandbag Carry 2 (double for men)
- Platinum Rig
- Tyrolean Traverse
- Memory Test
- Rope Climb
- Spear Throw 2
- 8 Wall
- Barbed Wire 2
- Rolling Mud
- Dunk Wall
- Pole Traverse
- Hercules Hoist 1
- Monkey Bars
- BIN DROP/LUNCH/REFUEL
- Bucket Brigade 3
- Traverse Walls
- Tarzan Swing + Swim
- Atlas Carry
- Barbed Wire 3
- Log Carry
- Log Hop
- 7 Wall
- Vertical Cargo
- Big Cargo
- Tractor Pull
- Memorization Sign
- Spear Throw 3
- Inverted Wall
- Bucket Brigade 4
- Tire Drag
- Sandbag Carry 3
- Platinum Rig
- Tyrolean Traverse
- Memory Test
- Rope Climb
- Spear Throw 4
- 8 Wall
- Barbed Wire 4
- Rolling Mud
- Dunk Wall
- Pole Traverse
- Cargo Net
- 4’ Walls
- Spear Throw
- Monkey Bars
- Herc Hoist
- Atlas Log Carry
- Barbed Wire Crawl
- Hercules Hoist 2
- Monkey Bars
- Fire Jump
Kenneth "Hulk" Terrell has three pieces of advice:
1. Training for the event should absolutely include work on stairmill to prep for the climb. Teaches good pacing, proper step distance (not wearing out legs with super long or short strides) and can fit in practice at long climbs (I trained with a 20lb vest or 40lb pack for up to 90 min at a time to prep last year).
2. I love Clif bars, but ended up not being able to use them last year as they are very dense and dry and hard to eat while moving. I went with gels, trail mix, packets of Justin Almond Butter and refueled with 2 pbj sammies at the bin drop (which I ate while moving on to the next obstacles).
3. In addition to baby wipes, a ziploc bag is mandatory unless you want to stuff dirty wipes into your bag after wiping your ass (can’t leave them on mountain).