What you’re about to embark upon an account of my journey towards the 2014 Spartan Ultrabeast. Each chapter subject is written shortly after it occurs. To get a feel of where I’m coming from, I highly recommend reading part 1 of my Ultrabeast adventure before anything else. It may be a long read, but here is the link below.
My eyes slowly opened to the ceiling of the killington grand lodge. I did not sleep well. My night was interrupted by intermittent spikes of pain that still rang through my tattered ankle and knees. It is Monday, September 29th 2013. 357 days remain until Ultrabeast 2014. My flight back home was a cumbersome journey riddled with bouts of sleep and stabbing jolts of pain that pulled me out of my dreams of being back out on the mountain. The next day was spent at the doctor’s office. The x-ray on my foot showed that decades of consistent ankle injuries had left permanent injury to my ligament, meaning that injuries were always easier to incur on that ankle. This compounded with the severe swelling of my ankle meant that an ultrasound was needed to make sure that the swelling wasn’t cutting off the circulation in certain areas of my foot. Thankfully the ultrasound showed that I didn’t have any big issues, but it would take many months for a full recovery. They say your first DNF will define and humble you in ways that your victories cannot come close to accomplishing. I know this to be very true now. I feel every meaning of every word in that sentence… I saw people proudly posting their Ultrabeast medals and giving their victory speeches that brought on a torrent of conflicting emotions in me, but in the end it all underscored the question, “who is hungrier, the wolf at the top of the hill, or the one clawing his way to the top?”
A knock on the outside of my desk interrupts me. “So, did you finish your little adventure in the mountains?” rang a snarky, condescending voice. As many of you can relate, I was ‘that guy’ at work. I was the crazy fitness guy, which in turn would be a threat towards the negative and aggressive personalities that littered the place. You know what I’m talking about – the common workplace bully. He behaved like I was his priority of his day and the crux of his thoughts while I was away. “27 miles in, and I missed it by 240 seconds” I said with an undefeated smile. He hated that smile. Positivity and motivation in the face of his criticism angered and disarmed him. “So, you failed then?” he countered with a smirk that ‘justified’ his decades of sedentary neglect that he has been putting body through. I quoted Thomas Edison as I showed him my bandaged ankle “I didn’t fail, I just found a way that didn’t work.” I said this as I also pointed to a timer app on my phone that counted down the days to the next Ultrabeast. He and I laughed it off as he waddled away from me to go about his morning routine with both of our laughs being our own interpretations of victory. Wanting to get the last word, he said with a made-up authority “You need to shave, looks like you forgot to do that when you were out on your mountain”. My old self would have let my anger sweep over me like a red blanket of thorns, in fact I would have welcomed the relief... but not anymore. People like that have no place in my affairs, and they are not important enough to live rent-free in my head. As it turns out months later, that same person was kicked off the program he was on due to ‘personality conflicts’ with his team. Funny how the universe will always find a way, and my way was leading back to the mountains in Vermont a year from now.
Out of defiance and curiosity, I chose not to shave until I made it back out to the mountains of Killington in 2014. Fun little story - when Arnold Schwarzenegger was a professional bodybuilder, his leg muscles were embarrassingly lacking in comparison to his other muscle groups. So to keep himself motivated he wore very short shorts (hey, it was the 70’s) to own up and show off his deficiencies. As a nod to that I wanted a daily reminder looking back at me in the mirror of who I am, and what my goals are. My beard represented my failure and its valuable lesson and I wanted to parade that daily, just as the governator once did! It also made me look like I'm no longer trying to graduate highschool and somebody who is in fact approaching their 30s, so I had that going for me.
My mentor Matthew “Ironbeast” Dolitsky put on a 24 hour ruck/run/swim challenge event in his home town of Tampa. I couldn’t refuse such an opportunity! For me, every big event in 2014 was merely a training exercise for Killington, no matter the difficulty. 24 hours and 54 miles later, I had a little patch that showed that I’m more than willing to go through the pain. This is the first time I’ve seen an athlete above my level become exhausted in the same event I was in. This was a big deal to me, but you can learn more at my IBC24 review. It felt good to be around a positive and all around good group of people at this thing. I needed that because it seems that those demons I had triumphantly destroyed six months prior had attempted to make tiny comebacks. No matter. There was a time and a place where they will be destroyed once more…
With a team of eight, we covered endless miles at the Ragnar trail relay in Atlanta. All through a 24 hour period we took our turns cruising through trails in the mountains of north Georgia. During my turn to run at night, my ankle rolled multiple times in the woods. It wasn’t as bad as my Killington injury, but it showed me that the permanent damage on my ligament meant that it was incredibly easy to injure the ankle. The mountains brought back and intensified the hunger in me to return to Vermont. Though the event itself wasn’t hard even while doing the entire thing with a weighted ruck, the ease of injury to my ankle reminded me that I’m surely not out of the woods yet. 5 months remained…
The Masters of all Terrain put on a marathon through the woods of the Seminole state forest. In June. In Florida. Not only that, but I decided to do the entire event while wearing a rucksack filled with 14% bodyweight in bricks. My buddies Heidi and Morgan were also doing the same thing, both of whom were also doing the Ultrabeast this year as well. We figured it would be fair training for our time in VT a mere three months from that point. I mention this event in here because it reminded me that physical prowess accounts for about 40% of your ability to complete an endurance event. The other 60% is easily mental for me. I was reminded of this when the ground began to twist and flash in odd colors as I kept moving at mile 23. Heat exhaustion does scary things to the body when you don’t give it any reprieve. Despite my body telling me to stop and drop, I kept moving. It’s amazing what your body can go through if you have the will to do it. I do not see any major events beyond this point that will put me through a test comparable to killington. My focus seems to have changed. I have shunned my teammates these last weeks, fear of failure haunts me. I have taken to running in my neighborhood alone, running my routes compulsively as if the mere act of running kilometers upon kilometers will give me some sudden insight, or some direction… or hope? I don't like feeling this way, so I force myself out of these introverted funks and continue to socialize with my good friends. Sure enough these depressing feelings float away in their presence, and for that I am forever thankful. From this point I must keep up with my training, all the while trying to stay connected with my team. This is my last entry before my attempt at redemption. Oh, and the beard has filled in quite well, I dare say!
Deet deet deet…deeeeeet
I’m climbing steadily up the mountain to the tune of my heartbeat thumping against my temples. My eyes are carefully inspecting the ground I walk on to make sure my footing is okay. I can’t see the faces of those around me. Nobody is talking, but our actions collectively speak in unison to our determination. I look up…
Deet deet deet…deeeeeet
I’m distracted for a moment, what just happened? Suddenly I’m at the dropbox area, and I cannot find my dropbox. Did I forget to make a dropbox?! Frantically I ask others for water and other goods, none of whom are responding to me. It’s suddenly night time when I look up at the sky. Time is going by too fast…
Deet deet deet…deeeeeet
It’s suddenly day time. I’m sitting atop one of the many false peaks of Killington, looking upon the mountain’s splendor with my wife sitting next to me. Had I finished the race? Have I been out here for an entire day? Where is my medal?! I got my medal, didn’t I? I swear I-
Deet deet deet…deeee- *tap*
The time on my phone’s buzzing alarm clock displays 0400. My eyes open suddenly to the rustling of those around me in the Killington Grand Lodge. My dream still fresh in my mind, I do a mental re-check to ensure that this day is actually the day I have spent three years in preparation for. I playfully recite the same starting line countdown that I've been reciting over the last year to the UltraBeast Facebook group, “0 days, 2 hours remaining”. This was it. My day had come! With the last detailed vestiges of my dream fading away I tried to eat what my rumbling, nerve-ridden stomach could keep down. I got sick the day before, effectively negating any nutritional advantage I tried to give myself in the weeks prior. I knew this was going to be an issue later on… Heidi Williams (a fellow regiment elite) and I were the only ones in our hotel that were attempting the UltraBeast this morning. We did one last re-check of our gear, put on our team tattoos and set out for the car to head over to our starting line.
I had walked around certain parts of the spectator-sanctioned course areas the day before. I wish I hadn't done that. It was clear that this year’s course was monumentally harder than the course that denied me of my medal last year. Those demons that I had foolishly thought to have believed defeated had made tiny but nagging attempts at crushing my resolve throughout the year leading up to this moment. Sitting in the passenger seat as the car slowly grinds uphill to the starting line; I silently looked up at the mountain peaks that started to materialize in the light of the rising sun. The sky’s fiery orange hue appropriately marked the intensity of the day that was to come as I walked to the starting corral. Right as I arrived I found Andrew Pragel, my UB training partner of the last six months. He and I vigorously trained with only this event on our minds through endless stair stepping, incline treadmills, lunges and so much more. This was his first attempt at this course, and so the subtle emotions he may or may not have been aware of showing were all too familiar to me – nervousness, excitement, and even fear. You see, fear is what drove us to this event. A true champion will not hide from this emotion, nor does he deny it. As Joe DeSena says, run towards that which you fear. I wasn’t as fearful this year as I was in the last, though. That fear was diluted with the impatience and eagerness brought forth from a year-long break between Ultrabeasts. As we gathered into the starting corral the reality of those words awoke with the rising sun, now bleeding through the line of mountains in the distance as if nature itself was inviting us to challenge it.
The bass of the music thumped in our hearts as Hunter Macintyre walked through the starting area to give us some high fives and words of encouragement while the announcer spoke to us, but I shrugged it off as the more welcome company of my friends Haidar, Deater and Andrew kept me distracted from the flood of nervous excitement that threatened to wash over me. The announcer told us that we had to carry two sandbags for the first lap, and that the second lap had the first three miles cut from it for us. As much of a relief that may have been to most, I saw it for what it truly meant – this wasn’t out of mercy, but it was a balancing act so that the rest of our Ultrabeast experience will be as brutal as possible. I reeled at the thought of carrying two sandbags up that mountain. I saw what that did to people the day before, but that was a task for me to worry about when it was time to grind through it. For now my current task was to put one foot in front of the other as the announcer shouted the signature starting phrases that we all grew to adore at every Spartan Race – “Aroo! Aroo! Aroo! GOOOOOOOOO!”
Immediately we all sprang forward in a wash of headlamps and sloshing camelpaks. The brief downhill jaunt took a literal turn around and the first uphill grind began. All chit chat ceased as soon as this climb began. We didn’t say it, but our actions spoke to the ‘every man for himself’ strategy that we all knew about. Andrew went past me as Deater and Haidar’s slower climb brought them behind me. Others foolishly rocketed ahead on the first climb, many of which I ended up passing later. The first three miles of the course were rather tame. After the first major climb (20% grade for about 1 mile) we had a steady descent which my long leg span granted me a generous sub 7min/mi pace, effectively switching places with those who previously dominated the uphill climb. Remembering the mind-numbing pain of last year’s injury I kept my eyes on the ground in front of me and kept my conversations to a minimum. The first clearing in the woods revealed the Over, Under, Through (OUT) obstacle and shortly thereafter a simple pancake sandbag carry which paled in comparison to the incredibly difficult one to come later in the day. At this slow-moving point I allowed myself to look up and converse with some of my friends while the sandbag bore into my shoulder blades. I had already gained a substantial lead early on in the race, but according to the intel I gathered of the course this was nothing worth celebrating. The nightmare would only get worse as I trudged onward.
Another mile of open running followed the sandbag carry, which led to the first bucket brigade obstacle. Similar to the sandbags, the terrain on this bucket brigade was nowhere near as brutal as the second one we would all have to struggle through later that day. After some short running I found myself in front of the traverse wall. My roommates had finally woken up by this point and were behind the fence cheering us on. Giving them a curt nod I started my way through the traverse wall, foolishly foregoing an inspection of the wall before jumping on it. This mistake equaled 30 penalty burpees as my foot slipped off one of the worn out, slippery blocks that were rounded off due to the thousands of feet that stomped on it before. Others succumbed to the same fate as their feet expected solid cornered blocks, only to pound the ground beside me in the cadence of 30 burpees. Not allowing my morale to be diminished I hot footed it towards the next challenge – the swim. I quickly grabbed a life vest and looped it through my waist strap. This was to prevent the vest from impeding my motion on the ladder climb and tarzan swing – a lesson sorely learned from last year. At this point I shockingly caught up to Andrew. My heart sank into my chest when I noticed him limping into the water behind me. I knew what had happened and he didn’t have to say it. With a tone of impending doom in his voice he told me he had rolled his left ankle pretty bad on the first descent. For six months we had reminisced about my injury in 2013, and how we would do our best to avoid it. To have him injure himself this early into the game must have been a crushing blow to his morale! I did the only thing I could do as I patted him on the back and told him to keep moving. I never saw him again. It turns out that his compounded injuries would become too much for him to handle, resulting in him wisely withdrawing from the course at the mile 13 barbed wire low crawl. The only consolation he can garner from our future training is that I know exactly what he will be going through for the next year, and I know that he will surely return with me in 2015.
The water sucked my breath away as I desperately clamored to the rope ladder and rang the first bell. My grip strength was brought to a pitiful state as my hands slipped right off the tarzan swing on the third rope resulting in yet another blow to my morale. I grudgingly swam to the shore and cranked out my 30 burpees, greeting Haidar and David as we joined each other in our penalty. The cold subsided in my limbs from the burpees (an experience well known last year), but the relief was to be short lived. We were told to get back into the water and wade through to the other edge of the lake, bringing us back into the woods.
I remembered being in that exact same spot one year ago, where Doug told me that I had just one hour left to clear the next area and reach the checkpoint. I have not been here since I was humbled a year ago, my momentary lapse in concentration denying me my medal, and I punished myself for it. But I am here now, and already the pressure has eased. I could not let the past, no matter how recent, occupy my thoughts. Only by moving forward can I redeem myself. Only by moving forward could I shake off the shame of my previous defeat…
The run through the woods led to some familiar signature Spartan obstacles that we’re all pretty familiar with. The atlas carry came first after a brief stop at a water station. Right after that was an uphill muddy low crawl that was spent alongside the painted warrior. I had read his blogs and followed his adventures for quite some time, so it was a major morale boost to know that I was pacing at his level! Caked in sloppy, stinky mud I spit-shined my camelback mouthpiece off and continued through the uphill trail.
It was around this time when I had started to feel the ill effects of being sick the night before. I had extreme difficulty keeping food in me at the hotel, which left me famished for the first two hours of the race. I had no appetite to eat, but I had to get some food in me. A friendly runner opened up my pack and handed me a bag of salted peanuts. This was a point where I realized that my perspective on this year was much more apathetic in comparison to the last. Finishing was my only concern. The scenery, the friendly people and the general excitement of the event came second place to my prime objective. Food tasted like ashes as I sniffed in another allergy-ridden nosebleed, congesting my skull with the numbing fog that my mind would inevitably return to after coming down from whatever stimulus attempted to stir my senses.
The log carry came next, which was no issue to me. Every Wednesday for the last year I would carry a heavy log for a quarter mile around the block of my neighborhood before starting on my run. That exercise greatly paid off as I breezed past people to the end and dropped the log into the pile of others with a loud and hollow thunk. Still trying to ingest the flavorless food in my mouth I approached the log balance exercise. I made it about halfway before realizing that my foolish decision to straddle the middle log made it near impossible to get back up to jump to the next standing log. The penalty for my foolishness was rectified 30 burpees later, though a frustration brewed in my heart that began and continued to grow after this moment. This frustration was kindled when those around me completed no more than ten burpees. They knew they were cheating. Their heads hung low in the knowledge of their actions as they hastily picked themselves back up and up the mountain. I shrugged it off and remembered what the team markings along my face stood for. Their cheating was not for me to languish over. I am the founder of Team Regiment, and that means that I am not going to cling to the foolish temptation of false relief garnered through cheating. Nor will I let the actions of others occupy my head, rent free. I will lead by example, so onwards I went.
The next couple of obstacles dotted the uphill terrain in the form of a 7” wall and a tractor pull. The tractor pull began downhill, which was not something to take lightly. My lack of attention cost me as the concrete block smashed into the heel of my soggy wet feet, immediately ripping open a layer of skin that would continually rip and tear open even more as the day went on. Shortly afterwards I approached the memorization wall and then a cold and windy spear throw at the peak of the mountain. After nailing the spear throw I saw the painted warrior once more. I’m still good. I thought. I’m caught up to some pretty fast athletes. I thanked him for letting me use his pictures in my UB preparation article and he rocketed ahead of me, never to be seen again.
The next mile or so were riddled with roots, rocks and slippery mud that were all laid upon a very steep downhill terrain. This incredibly technical terrain was much more challenging than last year’s trail, which was fun! I took this slow trek down the mountains as a chance to attempt eating one more time. My growling stomach was a dire indication that I was incredibly far behind on my nutrition and that I would surely pay for it in the long run. After running, zig-zagging and sliding down the treacherous terrain the trail opened up into the festival area which was laden with a roaring crowd of spectators.
Their shouts of “GO ULTRA!” made me smile as I vaulted over the inverted wall and began the second bucket brigade. The terrain on this bucket brigade was far more challenging than its predecessor, as I continually had to set my bucket down to let my burning shoulders, forearms and fingers recover for me to only punish them immediately again. As I continued the uphill portion of the bucket brigade I heard Deater shout out my name. I looked up at his grimaced face, wincing in ticks of pain. This was not good, and I knew what he was about to tell me. Sure enough, he had badly injured his knee coming down. He could no longer continue in the race. Deater was an athlete that dominated the UB last year, and I was 10 minutes ahead of him when he dropped. Though that fact brought confidence in me, the sorrow of his departure from the race added to the array of figurative daggers that had wedged their way into my back. Having already seen two of my friends no longer capable of finishing the event brought a greater sense of conviction in me. I had to carry their torch. Somebody from our crazy band of brothers and sisters had to finish this thing… right?
The bucket carry ended and I swiftly continued into what would be the most treacherous, most talked-about climb up the mountain that Ultrabeast and Beast runners alike shuddered about in their memory of it. Before this climb began I started to feel a little twinge of pain on my inner thighs. It started to grow with every labored step, forming itself into a ball of congealed pain that overshadowed by scraped heels and the constant annoyance of having to sniff away persistent nosebleeds. I had to sit down. I tried to stretch my legs as best as I could but it was too late. The pain of the cramp swept over my body as I clung to my useless legs, desperately trying to massage the muscles. The lack of nutrition compounded with my earlier sickness had finally caught up to me. I didn’t have any more salt tabs, so my next method was to guzzle down as much of my nuun tablet infused water as I could – it didn’t work. I was saved by a trio of French runners who didn’t understand a lick of English, but could nevertheless understand the body language of a person doubled over in unrelenting cramps. In broken English, one of them reached into their bag and handed me three salt tabs and what could have been a magnesium or potassium pill. “Cramps? Take”. I nodded in thankful desperation as I gulped down the pills. “Merci, merci” I said with as much emphasis and thoughtfulness that I could possibly conjure up. Sure enough, the cramps faded away in less than a minute. I ended up passing them once I regained my strength and I gave them a nice big hug. If any of you three are reading this article (probably through google translate), thank you so much. You didn’t have to cut into your own stash for some fool who should have known better, but you did anyways. You guys saved me and I am forever grateful for your kindness. I hope to see you again next year!
With a renewed strength I continued up the incredibly steep and incredibly long trek up the mountain. People were tantalizingly riding the gondola up the mountain alongside us, shouting out words of encouragement as they pass by. Some even recognized me and asked me if I could throw an armband their way! (The day before, I told everyone in the UB Facebook group that if they find me with the regiment flag, they will get a free Spartan wristband). With a nice smile on my face I would wave them off as they mechanically rocketed up the mountain in the comfort the plastic seat of their cable car. The peak of the mountain finally came into view as the route turned us around and through a swift downhill trot through another technical set of mud, rocks and roots which constantly kept everyone alert of their footing. A fairly simple tire pull exercise broke the consistent trail running through the beautiful mountain forest, which led on for a short distance before finally opening up to the bane of all runners that day – the sandbag carry.
This was soul-crusher. Those (read: mostly everyone) who encountered this obstacle first thought that they were going to make it to the finish line with time to spare. The same people would then hastily deposit their sandbags at the end of the obstacle with a sense of urgency, for that the guarantee of making it through the ultrabeast now became a fleeting comfort that less than two hundred people will eventually get to enjoy. Each sandbag weighted at least 60 pounds, and I struggled to even heft each one on to my shoulders on my first try. I caught up to David Moore by this point, passing him quickly on my first burst of energy up the mountain before succumbing to fatigue like everybody else. I dropped the sandbags and looked up. I had barely even moved! Struggling more and more, each foot up the mountain felt like a mile. Like everybody else I tried every method conceivable in getting those bags of sand to budge. I tried dragging them, holding them between my legs and even resting them on top of my feet and walking with them. It turns out that the best way to save energy was to drag one bag up, set it down and then go back down for the next one. This was when the elements started to get to me to the point of concern. Beads of sweat made a gentle pit pat sound on to my pants while the sun bore down on us all. My heart rate would tortuously redline after moving five feet up the mountain, forcing me to sit down again and listen to my sweat droplets land in tune with my labored heartrate. I sucked on air through my now empty camelback and realized that the only way I could taste the nice cool water of the next station was to finish this obstacle and power through it. After powering through multiple small heart regulating pass-out sessions I finally made it to the top and began to quickly drag the bags through the slippery grass and down to the bottom of the mountain. With a big smile on my face I took the time to look up, which was rewarded with the sight of my friends Haidar and Grant (he flew in from Mumbai!). They were just getting started on the sandbag obstacle, which meant that their chances of finishing the Ultrabeast on time were almost nonexistent. I didn’t tell them that, but I think they knew. I gave them both a hug and some words of encouragement, which turned their downtrodden expressions into smiles. That was the last time I ever saw them out there… now four of my friends were not going to finish the race.
The water station was conveniently placed immediately after the sandbag carry, which I hastily filled up my camelback with and guzzled down as much water as I could. Food had regained flavor with me by this point and my nose had finally cleared up in one nostril. I noticed that the more I spoke with others, the better I performed. They were suffering the same as I was, and words of encouragement from both sides sure did go a long way! Another climb uphill led up to a new contender in the lineup of Spartan obstacles – the premium rig! This monster of an obstacle was littered with rings, bars, a rope, more bars and finally rope for you to loop your feet through before hitting the bell. My forearms were toasted horrendously from having finished the sandbag carry, so I fell down halfway through the obstacle. David Moore caught up to me by this point and cruised through the rig just as I finished my 30 burpees. We conveniently paced together all the way down to the tyrolean traverse, which struck a special chord in my memory. I approached a very familiar opening to the obstacle, where 364 days, 8 hours and 20 minutes ago I was brought to my knees in my first ever DNF. Forcing my mind to remain focused and to fight back the emotions that welled up from a year ago I quickly picked my rope and traversed over it. I had no problem making it out to the bell, and the water at that side of the lake actually felt very refreshing!
After running past a lot of people through the woods I came to the starting line area of the 2013 Ultrabeast, now fitted with just a rope climb and a spear throw. I hopped into the watery pit and got started on the slippery rope right away. The first two knots of the rope were a breeze, with the next knot becoming a challenge and the final one a real struggle. The tyrolean traverse eradicated my grip strength more than I had anticipated, and my wet shoes clamored to secure the J-hook on the rope underneath me. In a panic I tried for one failed swipe at the bell, then I pulled myself up as high as I could for my all-in – a bell kick. I lunged up to the bell as best as I could, and all my foot felt was air – air that was now the only thing my hands and feet were connected to. I fell down with the rope between my legs, effectively pummeling me in the testicles in rapid succession as I landed on what I distinctly recall were five knots that slammed into me like e-honda from street fighter (you’ve got an active imagination, which means you’re probably laughing your ass off right about now). My stomach lurched as the signature creeping pain of a nut-smashing swept over me. Even worse was the fact that my wet and sandy pants acted as a belt sander, effectively ripping off a layer of skin where the sun don’t shine (I’ll spare you the rest of the details). I did my 30 burpees very slowly, stopping to gag and regain my composure. In hindsight it must have been one of the funniest things for somebody to see (and for you to read) but the pain that brought to me is something I would not wish upon my enemies, if I had any. I limped over to the spear throw, only to miss it! Are you f***ing kidding me? I never miss the spear throw! Defeated, I hurried over to the spear throw burpee zone and cranked out another 30 burpees, all the while holding back the urge to vomit as my stomach continued to cramp with the feeling that I’ve drank battery acid. Those 30 burpees were one of the most defeating experiences I encountered, but moments after it were to become one of my biggest moments of strength.
You see, this area was in eyesight of the hotel I was staying in. My hope for finishing before the cutoffs were diminishing by the minute and my body was completely depleted from the abuse that it was just put through. I wondered what good could possibly come from continuing and potentially injuring my body even more. Yeah – I was thinking about quitting. I brushed some mud off my face, and I felt the smooth lining of my team emblem that was temporarily tattooed across my cheek. I wanted to claw it off of me, for my decision to quit would defy everything that that emblem stood for. I reached into my pack and fumbled around for any source of nutrition, because no matter my choice I would need energy to either move through the next obstacle, or to merely walk back to the hotel. I felt something… different. A Ziploc bag with something in it. I never put anything like that in my pack, what’s going on? I took my pack off and peered into it, and what caught my eye brought me to my knees as the lump in my throat previously spawned from my decision to possibly quit brought on a new identity – hope and strength.
My wife had secretly slipped a note of encouragement into my pack the night before the race, and only now did I discover it. Such simple and brief words etched into the back of a business card brought me to the ground as I could no longer hold back the torrent of emotions that I had always pent up and hid from public view. I sat there, fingers over my eyes and wept for at least 30 seconds. Of all moments that I could have discovered that note, I saw it at the time I needed it the most. I did not care if others saw me in this state, I had to let down my mental defenses for just this one moment. I felt it was needed to fully recharge, and I was right. I got back up on my feet and did not even bother to take a look back at my hotel. The only way was forward, and that’s where I was headed thanks to some simple words on a piece of worn paper.
Another coincidence in fate happened just moments later when my wife (who was running in the sprint that day) just so happened to be doing the low crawl at the same time! I didn’t tell her that I saw her message in fear of breaking down again; I simply did not have the energy to do that again. Instead we smiled and embraced for a short while in the middle of the low crawl (how romantic) and gave each other a kiss after we got out. She could read my body language of absolute fatigue and pain that required no explaining, she could see it plain enough. With one last kiss, she let me continue ahead of her in pursuit of my goal while she conquers her own. Imagine if I had quit just moments before. Not only would I had returned to her as a quitter, but I would have not gotten the mental boost in knowing that she hasn’t quit what would become her hardest physical challenge ever. If she can grind it out on the course for over five hours (this was a big deal to her), then I can suck it up and keep moving!
This was the point where a lot of people started to do some math. Can I make the cutoff if my second lap takes the same amount of time? Will that 3 mile cut in the second lap make up for my current losses? We were all thinking it, and we didn’t need to say it to each other. We all still had a chance, but it was very slim. With a renewed sense of purpose and motivation, the only direction I could look is towards the next obstacle. My body hurt, sure. However, this is what I signed up for.
Shortly after slogging through the rocky barbed wire crawl and dangling across the pole traverse exercise (Patrick, you were great at this part) I had approached my memory exercise. I’m that guy who remembers every locker combination from every year in grade school, the name of every teacher he has ever had, the time and dates of specific events and most importantly a constant countdown in my head until my next major event (as many of you in the UB group page can attest to). “Bib number 12278 code Alpha-800-8307” were my exact words. I didn’t even stop running; I just gave him a high five and moved on to the traditional Spartan obstacles such as the Hercules hoist, wood structure climb and a monkey bar rig. I met David Moore once again at this part, where he was doing burpees. I could see that he was in pain and that his mind was not in his happy place. The thought of him dropping would be devastating to me; I had already lost enough friends out on the course…
I cleared my mind of the what-ifs and focused on the what-nows. A final ascent and descent awaited me where the tantalizing finish line was laid before me. The thought of crossing that line eight hours from now flooded my brain with dopamine, and with a smile that went ear-to-ear I gleefully sprinted to my drop bin area. I saw a LOT of people quitting at this point. This was a tough sight to bear witness to. Some people kept their heads low as they limped off into the festival area, while others hugged it out with their friends and shared a tear or two. I was reminded of the raw emotion that I empathetically saw at last year’s cutoff point as I tore through my drop bin and replenished my gear as quickly as possible.
My gear was insufficient. There, I’ll admit it now. By now every step felt like broken glass was bearing into my heels, sending endless spikes of pain that would only escalate as the hours droned on. I had put on full compression socks for my first half of the race that by now would take too long to remove and replace. I could not afford to let minutes trickle by when a discrepancy of 240 seconds forced me to wait an entire year (that’s 31,557,600 seconds) just to have another chance. My left knee was starting to grind in pain with every uphill step as well. I kept my wet shoes on, swapped my camelback, took two anti-inflammatory pills and restocked my food right as David Moore came into the drop bin area. He didn’t quit! As it turns out, he was actually planning on quitting. I would later discover that him finding me at the drop bins was the only thing that kept him from dropping out of the race at that very moment, how humbling and awesome is that? To be at his pace was a big deal to me, he is an amazing athlete who typically finishes way before me in our races in Florida.
I took one last look at those foolishly sitting down and chatting next to their bins, knowing that I would never see them again. David and I ran into the second lap with our heads held high, ignoring the alarms of pain and fatigue that were burning throughout our nerves. Our second lap course was cut by the first couple of miles, circumventing us away from the first mountain and straight to the first bucket carry obstacle. Unlike my first time through, I had to set the bucket down a couple of times during my second time around. I would carry the bucket in front of me, wait for my biceps to burn out, switch to holding underneath with one wrist being held on to, wait for that forearm to burn out before switching wrists and then I’d set the bucket to the ground. Coughing out gravel dust, I poured my bucket to the trough that I started at and ran to the traverse wall – just what your arms need after doing the bucket carry! That sense of concern faded away from me when the staff told David and I that we could now assist each other on this obstacle. I kid you not. Shrugging in disbelief, that’s exactly what we did. We both needed each other’s help on this one, too.
If you recall the first lap’s recount, the swim and tarzan swing obstacle was next. While the morning water stole my breath breath right out of my lungs, the afternoon water was revitalizing and incredibly refreshing! Knowing that my arms could not hold to the tarzan swing, I simply rang the first bell and plummeted back into the water. The burpees were great in warming me up this time, and I even got to meet my mentor Matthew ‘Ironbeast’ Dolitsky and Carey Degon at that spot! They had finished the team death race earlier in the day and had decided to come out to show their support. At that time I was incredibly happy that I didn’t give up on the first lap, for that I would have been denied this meetup with such dear friends. They took a quick picture of me, understanding the urgency for me to keep moving and smiling:
I passed a lot of people when we got back into the water. I even met up with Heidi Williams at this part, who had previously rocketed past me at the sandbag carry. She is still in, excellent. I thought. That leaves just four from our group left out here. We waved at our entire crew of Killington roomates who were cheering for us as we disappeared into the woods once again. Despite being in the same spot as last year’s DNF once again, I did not even venture a single thought to it this time. With David and Heidi beside me my mind did not have an excuse to plunge back down into those dark thoughts. Only by moving forward can I embody the lessons learned from that fateful event. The maze in the woods opened up to the familiar atlas carry, uphill barbed wire crawl which were done slightly slower than the first time around.
David and I continued to leapfrog each other until we hit the second log carry, where I encountered some serious trouble. My heartrate went straight into redline mode once again with every labored step up the hill. My limbs would start to go numb and a distant fog would envelop the back of my mind as the desire to sit down and sleep overwhelmed me. Concerned and frustrated, I put the log down whenever I would feel this way. The mind has a funny way of wanting to concede before the body does, but this was one of many concerning moments where the opposite was the case. Nevertheless, David shouted out words of encouragement to me whenever he would sit his log down on the ground as well. “C’mon Neil, feats of endurance!” To clarify, that’s the second lap theme for Team Regiment’s Tough Training Trials (T3) to become an elite member of the team. Just months before, David had earned his red R in the T3 and definitely remembered his lessons well. Here I was, the founder of the team being encouraged by my own lessons by one of my fellow teammates. I couldn’t have asked for a more supportive moment at that time. Time after time we had each other’s back, and it was this moment that I knew that that I was going to appreciate our camaraderie (that’s the third lap’s theme in theT3) more than a finishers medal or a humbling DNF could bring that day.
The log hop challenge was easy for me, but a fail for David. I started to run to the 7 foot wall ahead, but I had to help. I ran back to him and did 10 of his burpees. It was at around this time when we saw our friend Alan Ajoy. This was the first time any of us had seen him, which makes five of our guys still in the game! We stayed in close pace for a little while but had eventually lost him at the cargo climbs. Knowing that he was still in the race was a great morale boost. He had a severe issue with his back that rendered him incapable of running more than two miles earlier in the year, and to see him still on the course (let alone passing us) was incredible! I wouldn’t replace these friends for anything in the world.
The tractor pull and memorization sign were the same as before, but the spear throw was another story. I was doing the math in my head, and it wasn’t looking good. Despite going as fast as we could, it wasn’t looking like we were going to make the absolute final cutoff, but in the back of my mind there was still hope. I quietly walked up to David at the spear throw, and it looked like he was having some doubts as well. With the fear of impending doom in our minds, I chose my next words carefully.
“Hey… no matter the outcome, we don’t quit. We do this right and we accept what happens.”
If I was going to DNF a second time, I was going to do it with dignity and not through the mental bargain of an easy way out. If ever a moment to be underscored by our team’s motto of “feel the pain of discipline, or feel the pain of regret” this was it. Our team’s motto will not be sullied in the momentary weakness of our peers but it will be emboldened through our strength, endurance, camaraderie and intellect that were drilled into our minds in the T3.
David nailed the spear throw, but I missed it. That’s 1 for 3 if you’re keeping track. Now it was his turn to save me once again by splitting the burpees with me before beginning our incredibly steep, muddy and rocky descent back into the festival area. Where my heel blisters were relieved in the downhill jaunt, my knee was quick to direct my focus of pain. I could feel that the uphill death march is going to be a problem, but I’d have to deal with it when it’s time. As I approached the inverted wall, a volunteer with a bag full of timing chips approached me. A well of panic seized at my heart – was this it!? Was I that far behind? The sun hadn’t even set yet! Every timing chip in that bag had its own story, no doubt. One could have been a medical drop; another could have been from a person who trained every day of the last two years for his moment, only to have it denied from him in the throes of his mental anguish. I knew that feeling too well and I feared that my timing chip was now going to be another unremarkable and indistinguishable chip in that bag. “I see your glowsticks and headlamp on you, so you’re good to go”. Whew! After getting the confirmation he asked if I wanted to continue racing, I didn’t answer him. I just continued to the inverted wall and over to the bucket carry, ignoring his taunts that were made in the shaking of the timing chip bag. some of you Spartan volunteers are brutal... I like it!
The second time around at this obstacle was a nightmare. I had to set the bucket down numerous times at the mercy of my arms, knees and heart that quaked in pain after every 20 feet of movement. My limbs were cycling in and out of numbness and cold, giving my aching muscles a temporary reprieve from the pain alarms that were desperately being broadcasted throughout my body. David got ahead of me, and Heidi managed to pass me on this obstacle just minutes later as well. Despite my body telling me it was time to call it quits, I couldn’t stop now. I figured that I would pass out first before dying, so that would give medical enough time to get to me and stop the second part from happening, right? Nevertheless, I heard from other people at that point that the cutoffs were being extended by an hour. An hour! I had a chance again!
The uphill death march was the only thing holding us back from the sandbag carry cutoff. Damn. The trail to the death march was crossed by at least ten people walking the other way. It turns out that the mere sight of the treacherous climb was enough to make people quit. They wished me luck, which was needed pretty badly by this point. I turned the final corner to the death march and it was dead silent, save for the distant noise of snapping twigs and rustling leaves from the quitters walking the other way. Heidi was right by me, with David in earshot range ahead. As I began my ascent I took the time to remember those who didn’t make it to this point. Andrew P, Jesus D, Haidar H, Deater, Grant P, all of whom had trained incredibly hard and invested so much of themselves into this event. I had to keep going, not just for myself but to represent my friends as well. My mind’s inward focus of my friends was sharply ripped into the here-and-now with the pain from my heels and knee. I could feel the soggy blood begin to cake and congeal with the dirt trapped in my heels, ripping and tearing at my flesh with every step. The pain was getting worse. Heidi noticed that something wasn’t quite right with me, so she stayed at my side. She had found a long snow pole on the trail, so we both held on to it and used it together with every step. My knee and heels continued to sound off in pain as the sun slowly began to set and darkness began to envelop us. My headlamp’s dim glow on the terrain ahead and the sparse dotting of the headlamps of ever-moving people ahead of us was my only sense of guidance. My knee and heels, wrenching and grinding against my pain receptors, continued their torment. The trek up the mountain was interrupted with a peculiar sight. David was sitting, staring at the ground in complete darkness. It turns out that his headlamp had quit working, meaning that if he was seen on his own on the course he was going to be removed regardless of cutoff! My heart sank at the sight of him helplessly sitting down and weighing his options. After going through everything he had gone through… this is how it would end for him. I couldn’t accept this. I told Heidi to continue ahead of me, and that I was going to go alongside David so that I could share my headlamp with him in the hopes that my light source will be enough to keep us safe. I had accepted that it was extremely unlikely that I would be making the sandbag cutoff, and if I did the tyrolean traverse cutoff was out of the question. Nobody should have to spend their last moments of the race in the dark and alone, and nobody was more deserving of my company than David. The sky had turned completely black by the time we reached the peak of the death march. With my friend following the shadows cast by my footsteps, we cautiously strode single-file through the enveloping forest.
Time went by slowly through the woods. Call it a time of reflection, if you will. The moments where I crossed paths with the spare groups of people were comforting moments. We both knew that our fate was sealed by this point, but we weren’t quitting. One man told me that he wasn’t going home to his family to tell his kids that he was a quitter. Another was holding hands with their spouse, only wanting to spend their final hour of the event in good company. We had all understood our situation, and we were all content with it. Moments later I crossed paths with a man by the name of Jason, who had no gear, no glowsticks and no source of light whatsoever. I couldn’t let somebody end their night in the cold and the dark all on their own, so he joined our ranks and followed the only source of steadily fading light that emanated from my lamp. The woods opened up to us once more to the tire pull obstacle, where the headlights of a pickup truck shone upon the obstacle. Jason decided that this was his time to quit, but David and I would keep going until we were forced to quit. One of the people in the truck saw our situation and handed David a headlamp, which made going through the next section of woods a lot easier for the both of us. We knew that the next thing awaiting us was the fated sandbag carry, which previously brought everybody’s mental state from “I’m making good time!” to “I don’t think I’m going to make it…”
The last stretch of woods was peaceful. I did not feel defeated or crushed, but proud that I had kept pace with some athletes who absolutely crushed the Ultrabeast last year. I spoke that sentiment to my friend as we reminisced of our past events together. It was time to face the music. The sandbag cutoff point was right in front of us. Our fears were confirmed when we couldn’t see a single headlamp up the mountain ahead of us. A volunteer approached us, and with the most sincere tone of respect told us that it was the end of the course. A crowd had amassed in the spectator area nearby and cheered for us as our timing chips were clipped off of our wrists. I tearfully gave my friend a hug,
“I’m proud of you man, I’m happy to have run this with such a good friend. Thank you for everything”
His sniffles confirmed the exact sentiment as we limped towards the spectator area. Waiting for us were Chris Hampton and Shae, as well as my friend Jesus De La Torre who had dropped after the first lap was complete. I couldn’t help but smile at this point. I didn’t feel the shock that was felt last year, but happiness that the outcome of this year was still better than the year before.
Days later, David would summarize this experience perfectly:
“Two years ago when I DNF’ed the Ultra Beast… it was a life-changing experience. It was a feeling of emptiness and failure that I hadn’t really experienced in my sports life. This DNF is entirely different. As so many ultra runners have pointed out, and I’ve come to know firsthand, you just have to embrace the DNF for what it is. A small spot in a much larger picture”
And you know what? He’s right. Less than 200 of 1,200 people made it to the finish line this year, some finished more honorably than others. This DNF is not a defeat in any sense of the word, and it never will be. Last year I was gradually torn apart by it, but this year I have accepted it and set my sights for the next big event in November – World’s Toughest Mudder. As of now, WTM is 39 days, 19 hours, 53 minutes and 17 seconds away, and the next Ultrabeast is 348 days, 14 hours, 52 minutes and 12 seconds from now.
I met up with my roomates at the finish line area shortly after picking up my drop bin and we drove back to our room for what had become the best tasting food we could cram into our stomachs. My wife greeted me at the door with a nice shiny medal around her neck, and she didn’t even care if I had one around myself. She had conquered her most challenging event yet despite her constant doubts that tormented her throughout the year. To me, my own medal came in the form something different, not from a $4 piece of crafted metal ordered in bulk from China. In a coincidental turn of events the next day, I would repeat what my previous dream had ended in – my wife and I looking out at the mountains of Vermont. Only this time I knew exactly where my medal was, sitting right beside me.
Below is a good video showing off the obstacles of this year's event: