The Spartan Ultrabeast 2015

What you’re about to embark upon is an account of my journey towards the 2015 Ultrabeast – an event that I’ve trained three years towards attempting to complete, and consequently spent the same amount of time writing this story.  Each chapter was written shortly after it happened, kind of like a journal entry.  Before continuing, I highly recommend reading part 1 and part 2 of my Ultrabeast experience before reading any further.

This will be a long read, and I understand if you don’t want to keep going but I have to get this out there.

Three years of my life have led up to this. This is my story. 

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

People asked me why I kept coming out there, only to have failed.  It’s a good question.  Any rational, common person would let that question pass through their head at least once.  I even wrote an article on how not to fail, and I still failed.  The above quote spoken by Theodore Roosevelt is the closest thing I can say that can match my thoughts on an answer to such a question.  Unlike the year before, I didn’t want to come back home through the back door and not talk about what had happened.  I was content with the hand that I was dealt, and I knew that I wasn’t going to give up on myself.  Yes, a part of me did feel crushed but it also felt very human, if that makes any sense.  World’s Toughest Mudder was only a couple of months away, so I kept my head held up high and looked towards that event.  The Ultra Beast was done, for now.  There was no point in dwelling on such a small piece to a much larger picture.

 

A knock on the outside of my desk interrupts me.  “How did you do out there?” spoke a supportive, kind voice.  This was a stark contrast from that negative, condescending and insecure person that visited me a year prior.  This person got it.  He didn’t perceive other people’s accomplishments as a personal blow to his ego, nor did he revel in the shortcomings of others.  “I didn’t finish again this year” I said with a smile that was held up by an array of conflicting emotions.  “Seriously?  I thought this was your year!” he said with a crushed demeanor that mirrored mine.  The same words were spoken to me by my mentor Matthew “Ironbeast” Dolitsky.  To be held at such a high standard by such amazing people alone is an incredible feeling of love and support.  How could I stop now?  World’s Toughest Mudder was my next biggest event, so I waited until I was fully recovered and got right back into the grind.

“I’ll be back out there in 2015”, I told my coworker.  “As well as every year after that”.  I wasn’t going to go so far only to give up.  I wanted to get something out of it...  Something more than the pale green armband that any participant gets to bring home to mark their presence in Killington.

 

My goal for this event was to complete 10 laps, totaling a little more than 50 miles.  The venue and landscape of the course was Martian to say the least.  Unique and challenging obstacles dotted the barren landscape that I would call home for the next 24 hours.  This event was different than Vermont.  This event was a relaxed party with friends coupled with a bit of pain – at least that was the case for the daytime. 

  Yup.  I ran it in my underwear during the day.

Yup.  I ran it in my underwear during the day.

Once nighttime set, a terrible and frigid dust storm tore through the course and ripped some people’s tents out of the ground in the pit area.  My gear was not adequate for this, as I gradually learned when my half-wetsuit did nothing to fend off the freezing wind and eventual hypothermia that wracked and ruined my core.  So present was the cold that I had burnt myself from the cup of soup that I couldn’t hold tight due to my uncontrollable, shivering hands.  The camp ran out of warm water, and I also ran out of dry clothes.  I knew that I had to take a break during the mandatory medical check we had to go to after every lap.  “What’s eight plus seven?” said the EMT at the tent.  I stared at her with a lethargic, incoherent blur of an expression that commanded my stay in the medical tent next to a heater.  I eventually came to my senses and got out of the medical tent and in to my own tent to see my friends Haidar and Martin practically spooning in the tent to keep warm.  Having completed 7 laps while being only 13 hours in to the event, I was way ahead of schedule for reaching my ten laps.  I figured it’d be a great time to attempt a quick nap to warm up and let my clothes dry. 

Bad idea.

A short nap turned into a full on sleep session for the three of us, and we all fell short of our goals that night.  Still, seven laps in the conditions we were in was nothing to scoff at, but that’s not what I came out there for.  Once again, I had failed to reach my goals.  Nevertheless, the incredible time spent with some incredible friends made this trip a very memorable and positive experience!  Besides, there was no way I could have been in a sour mood in front of such great friends.  My next event was an ultramarathon, just weeks away.  So like the aftermath of Vermont, I got right back up again and started training hard.


My next big event was the MoaT ultramarathon.  Driving out to this event was funny, as my GPS told me the route was 50+ miles long.  It dawned on me that I’m going to be running the same distance in a few hours.  Not only was this my first event covering more than 54 miles, but I also promised to complete this event while carrying a 30lb rucksack on me throughout the entire event.  Oh, and this course was entirely off-road through a muddy course riddled with bobcats, snakes and alligators.  To those not aware, think of Florida as the Australia of the United States – everything in this state wants to kill you including the wildlife and its crazy people.  Having failed the Ultra Beast and technically WTM, I had to complete this event for the simple sake of having one single unconditional victory in my 2014 race lineup.  I needed this.  Badly.

  Jason (right) and I (left).  The only two who made it to the end.

Jason (right) and I (left).  The only two who made it to the end.

As it turns out, twelve others signed up for this event agreeing to ruck the entire ultramarathon.  However, only five actually showed up to take on this immense challenge.  The course was segmented into four laps of half marathons, which we started at 1am.  Our group initiated our first lap slowly, carefully and together under the cover of night.  Once the first lap was completed the rest of the ‘normal’ runners were gathered at the venue to begin their first lap.  We began to separate by this point, each choosing to follow our own individual pace as the much faster, non-rucking ultramarathon runners zipped past us.  Lap two concluded with all five of us still in the race, but that was not the case for much longer.  Lap three proved to be too much for three out of the five of us, leaving regiment elite and UB2015 aspirant Jason Vasquez and myself as the only two ultramarathon ruck-runners daring to complete the forth lap.  The majority of the regular runners had finished the race and left by this point, leaving only a few of us out on the course all to ourselves while the sun dipped back down into the horizon as the stars once again occupied the sky.  I remembered this lap quite well.  There was nobody to talk to, save for the sporadic water station attendants that were starting to tear down their stations with the day’s end.  The only sounds present were the croaking of the nearby alligators, the shuffling of my labored footsteps and the pounding of my heartbeat in my ears.  No music could have supplemented the inward thoughts that guided me forward; as I thought I was the only remaining rucker on the course by this point. 

I turned the last corner and saw the lighted finish line in the far distance with what appeared to be a barbed wire pit preceding the finish line.  “Funny…” I thought, “I guess they decided to put that there to mess with me since I’m probably the last one out here”.  As I haphazardly shambled my way to the finish line I unhooked my ruck to drag it through the barbed wire, only to discover that there was in fact no barbed wire there at all – it was a hallucination.  The only real thing by that point was the immense feeling of accomplishment brought on by taking those final, yet unceremonious steps across the finish line that was also felt by Jason two hours later.

So, this is what true victory feels like…

I like that feeling.  I can’t imagine how euphoric it will be when I feel it at the Ultra Beast one day.

 

The Battle Frog Extreme is an event where you run the 15k loop of the obstacle course, followed by as many 5k loops as you can run before 3 or 4pm.  I had one goal for this event.  I was to place no less than two places behind my mentor Matthew ‘Ironbeast’ Dolitsky, who has completed two UltraBeasts, two WTMs, and THREE death races.  To be even close to that level of athleticism would be an indicator that I’m going in the right direction.  This event started off bad right away, as food poisoning began to take its grip on me early that morning.  Whatever, I was still going to race this thing.

  The starting line at BFX.

The starting line at BFX.

The race started with me in the front of the pack.  This felt good, but I had this ever-looming concern that it was not going to last for long, given the caliber of athletes running beside me.  Either way, the pack of five leading this race (me included) started our 15k lap cautiously and with restraint but most importantly we were together.  Dolitsky was included in this group, so despite my insides betraying me I felt pretty good to be at that point so far.  The miles and obstacles continued to pummel us until the five of us turned into three, with Dolitsky being one of the two who slowed their pace down.  I figured he’d end up speeding up to me later, so I did my best to maintain my pace and focus on keeping my stomach contents from spewing out both ends.  The 15k loop concluded with the leading three of us about a minute apart from each other, where the battle for second place was a constant leapfrog in the 5k laps afterwards.  These 5k loops would continue to be a never-ending battle for second place.  Every time I would stop to dry heave or do something even more disgusting (use your imagination), I’d get passed and brought back to third place – but not by Dolitsky!  Hours passed, and after hundreds of obstacles and 30+ miles of running I landed second place overall!  Dolitsky ended up placing 5th overall, and I could hardly contain my disbelief and elation (and contents of my stomach, just making sure you’re reminded of this).  I’ll never forget his kind words spoken to me as I was crawling through the last obstacle before my grand finish.  “I’m proud of you Neil, this is your year to shine!” he said as an irreversible smile beamed across my face. 

  The top 3 of BFX

The top 3 of BFX

The results of this event told me that whatever I was doing was working (except for whatever I ate).  I just have to keep training, and power through whatever obstacles come my way.  If I can surpass this amazing athlete, what other opportunities have I let slip beneath the cracks due to a simple lack of confidence? 

It appears that if you want something you’ve never had, you’re going to have to do things that you’ve never done.

 

 What I saw when I got to my desk every morning

What I saw when I got to my desk every morning

June has arrived, and it turns out that we’ve got a few people from Orlando that want to complete this event this year.  All of them are unsurprisingly Regiment Elites.  The four of us (soon to perhaps be six) have mostly hashed out the details of our flight and hotel, and all that remains is our vigorous training.  Last year I was on my own for the most part.  This year is different.  This year I’m in it together with my fellow teammates.  We’ve dedicated various weekends in the coming months to be consisted of hours upon hours of using the stair climbers, bikes and inclined treadmills at our local gym that have eclipsed our sparse meet-ups in the prior year.  These days will be long and hard and will no doubt be a drain on our personal lives, but I accept this.  I love being consumed by this.  Every action I perform from the exercises I do to the meals I eat evokes the question “will this help me finish the ultrabeast?”  I’ve never wanted something so bad before, and the sting and venom of past failures coursing through my mind drives me even more towards the soothing antidote of success only obtained by crossing that finish line. 

  Behold:  The miniature human that I helped create

Behold:  The miniature human that I helped create

 

 

 

 

Perhaps the most significant reason for marking this particular time of the year is a recent discovery made by my wife and I.  After almost a year of failed attempts, we’re finally going to be parents!  Come late January I will be a father!  When I’m up on the mountain I now run with the conviction of not only my own self-respect but for the future inspiration witnessed to my son or daughter.  My child will not be raised by a coward who runs from challenges but by a motivated, strong and true father.  If 2015 is my year to complete the UB, it will be marked by my 30th birthday and now this amazing life-changing discovery!  If my kid reads this in the future, I hope he/she knows that the insane amount of effort I put into this event will pale in comparison to the effort I want to put into being a father that he/she can look up to. 

 


 

I thought I was good. 

Over the last two weeks, a stress injury crept its way over my left Achilles tendon.  Riding my bike, rucking and stair climbers didn’t stress the injury but running sure as hell did.  Three days later I did a 3 mile stress test run on paved road, which felt fine.  So I signed up for this event and eagerly let loose at the starting line.  About three miles into the run I felt the pain grow and continue to shoot up my leg until running was no longer a possibility.  Grudgingly I stopped and walked the remaining 10 miles, giving up my guaranteed 1st place lead as my leg felt like a hot poker had been jabbed into it.  I hobbled to the finish line with a panic swelling in my heart.  I knew I had to cancel my trip to the Wintergreen Super, but how will this affect me in Vermont?

I kept my green ultrabeast armband with me through the race, only to lose it somewhere in the festival area.  Is this a bad foreshadowing of my chances in Vermont being ruined?  Or is it my past failures being discarded?  The days after the event were damning.  Walking was a trial in itself, and the doctor prescribed heavy anti-inflammatories in hopes of a speedy recovery.  Days later it still hasn’t improved very much.  Here is hoping that this injury will not be the end of my 2015 story…

  My finisher pic.  Note the Ultra Beast arm band nestled on to my rucksack.

My finisher pic.  Note the Ultra Beast arm band nestled on to my rucksack.

If it does try to take a part in my run, I don’t care if I even need surgery after this event.  I want to come home with that medal.  You can’t always get a perfect scenario, and I guess this is my test.  Training has ended three weeks earlier than expected.  Now my ‘training’ will consist of pure physical rehabilitation and recovery.  It wasn’t what I wanted, but that’s what I’m working with.  I hope this doesn’t screw me in a month.  My confidence has gone from gleeful to a depressed fear that looms over me.  I’ve got my good days and bad days, but I’ve got to keep my mind right.  My mentor Matthew ‘Ironbeast’ Dolitsky called me out on it, too.  He ran the Canadian Death race on a similar injury and he did just fine.  His words help a little, but every twinge of pain created with every step pushes back on those words.  For now there is physical therapy, stretches and bike riding. 

Here goes nothing…



After all of the ups and downs brought with the countdowns, apprehension, training, injuries and everything else, it was time.  I did not know how I was going to perform, but the only way to figure that out was to put myself out into the arena and prepare myself for one hell of a journey.  I met up with my fellow Regiment Elites Kendall and Andrew at the airport as we set out on the same flight up to Hartford and rode together through a scenic drive up to Killington.  We trained endlessly for this event, so it made sense that we spend the final days of this incredible challenge together as well.  I couldn’t have asked to be around a more positive and encouraging group of people to be around!  We arrived at the Killington Grand Lodge where we met up with teammate Heidi Williams (who is an incredible athlete, I’ll have you know) and settled in to our awesome room right next to the venue.

  The stunning view right outside the lodge.  You could walk right over to the starting line from here.

The stunning view right outside the lodge.  You could walk right over to the starting line from here.

  The Regiment Elites.  Left to right:  Heidi Williams, Andrew Pragel, Myself, Kendall Cooper

The Regiment Elites.  Left to right:  Heidi Williams, Andrew Pragel, Myself, Kendall Cooper

  Our Florida group finally meeting up and enjoying a nice pre-race carb load.

Our Florida group finally meeting up and enjoying a nice pre-race carb load.

Every year some of my best memories are created here.  Meeting up with my local and out of state friends is always a treat, and meeting new folks never gets old.  Everybody in Killington in the days leading up to the event has a shared mix of emotions on display – excitement, dread, fear, apprehension and cheerfulness.  It’s hard to keep all of those things balanced, but somehow we all manage to walk the razor thin line of control leading up to race day.
 

  The awesome loot I passed around to everybody!

The awesome loot I passed around to everybody!

One of the ways I would help keep control over myself is to meet new people.  Like the year before, I posted a challenge in the Ultra Beast training group on Facebook to find me at the venue with the Regiment flag in hand.  If somebody did, they would score themselves a cool Spartan Wristband and other cool little pieces of Spartan paraphernalia.  This year was great!  I started with 35 wristbands and I only came home with two.  Needless to say, the reception among my fellow Spartans was well received.  Every person had an incredible story of how they got here, how my UB guide helped them and more.  I needed that pick-me-up, and I loved meeting every one of them who ran to me to score some sweet Spartan loot! 

One more day remained.  I sit with my friends Andrew and Kendall in the gondola as it slowly takes us to the top of the mountain.  It’s relatively quiet, save for the undulating mechanical churning of the cable above us and the creaking of the gondola’s gentle sway against the gusts of mountain wind.  A wave of emotions sweeps over me, as years of ups and downs brought me to where I am.  Last year I remembered feeling the same way on the gondola ride up to the mountain, but I was alone last year.  When I was alone, those emotions were more fearful than this year.  This year was different.  As I look down at the beaten trail of the already-ran beast course, I smile.  Not because of the realization that I’m finally at the venue, but because I feel like I’m where I need to be.  A cascade of emotions previously turned off had finally broken through the gates and washed over me in a comforting sense of humanity.  For a rare moment, I feel human.  This hardly ever happens on my own, but being here is rare enough to evoke such an event.  The comfort of that is inflated tenfold with the constant positivity of my friends.

I’ve reaffirmed my previous observations about myself.  As a defense mechanism of a tumultuous past of irrational anger and negativity, I have turned the switch off of almost all emotional extremes.  Sometimes I feel like that switch was broken off when it was flipped and cannot be brought back to a normal state.  If that’s the case, I feel as if I can sometimes ‘cheat’ the system by going to these extreme endurance events. What’s great about this clever workaround is that when the switch is metaphorically switched back on, those feelings that come rushing over me are all healthy, positive ones.  As I sit in the ride up to the mountain I realize that many people see a therapist to achieve this kind of mental tune-up, but I’ve found my therapy in racing.  This revelation is only possible by the support of my family and the friends.   I smile, even when the full magnitude of what I’m about to face in 24 hours has completely set in.  There is where I need to be.  This is where I belong.  

  We had to do it.  Kendall, Andrew and I placed our team flag atop K-1.

We had to do it.  Kendall, Andrew and I placed our team flag atop K-1.

  I haven't yet decided what we all look like.  Terrible bank robbers, superheroes, or ninjas?

I haven't yet decided what we all look like.  Terrible bank robbers, superheroes, or ninjas?

The rest of the day was spent doing final checks of our gear, applying KT tape and triple-checking everything else.  Only one more sleep remained before the Ultra Beast, and it was a tumultuous one.  The blur between dream and reality was further skewed as I would continually wake up through the night to use the restroom and check the bedside clock.  I groggily looked over to the window and saw streaks of rain hitting it every time I woke up.  Eventually I got out of bed and made one final countdown post in the morning before setting off with our group of Team Regiment badasses.  It was go time.  This is what I trained for.  This is what we trained for, and I couldn’t be any more focused.  I was ready to do this.

It had rained a lot throughout the night.  I had the feeling that course designer Norm Koch did some kind of sadistic rain dance/animal sacrifice to make this happen.  The cool wind buffeted whatever exposed areas we had on us and the humid sting of autumn’s first cold stirred whatever senses were still dormant in everyone.  We approached the starting line which was flooded with 200+ nervous racers, all of whom were no doubt echoing the same feelings that I was feeling at that moment.  Once we hopped over the starting corral wall to enter the pit, it was settled.  My chips were on the table and there was no going back now.  With some quick announcements from Norm and one last group hug among friends, we all set off to the familiar “AROO, AROO, AROO… GOOooo” that every Spartan eagerly awaits at every race.

  At 6:00am sharp, we took the first steps into a day that would change our lives.  Photo Credit Daniel Petrulis

At 6:00am sharp, we took the first steps into a day that would change our lives.  Photo Credit Daniel Petrulis

Immediately my concern was with my injury.  I knew that I could go at a slow run for about a mile before the pain would set in, so I ran as best as I could for the time being.  So far so good!  Everyone knew that we couldn’t spend much time together in the first lap.  Every man for himself was the strategy we had to employ for this kind of race.  The only person that I was racing against was that timid, weak person that I once was in the years past.  After running through some flat ground bottleneck-breaking obstacles such as the inverse wall, log hurdles and over-under-through, the first (and most daunting) climb began.  This was the same route that was dubbed the ‘death march’ in last year’s Ultra Beast.  Nevertheless, I forced away any thought of how long the climb will be, or the struggle it brings to anyone who dare attempt the climb.  The only thing I let go through my mind was the focus on keeping my form right, and that this climb is just like the 60 minute stair-climber session that I vigorously subjected myself to for the last year.  Sweat began to drip off of my nose every time I looked down at the trail, and my compression gear felt like a sticky wool blanket in the thinner humid air that greeted us at the top of the mountain.   Not once did I have to stop and lower my heart rate on that climb, which was a major improvement from last year.  My lower heart rate acted as a nod of approval that my training paid off, but the climb was still incredibly rough.  This climb turned out to be a blessing in disguise, for that it vigorously stretched out the tendons in my leg so much that I felt no residual pain whatsoever from my injury.  It was such a dramatic fix that I didn’t even remember that I was once injured for the duration of this entire lap!  The months of depression and pain were ironically cured by the tumultuous trek up this mountain.  Where it crushed other’s souls, it uplifted mine.

  Poor hay bales.  They never stood a chance against the spears.

Poor hay bales.  They never stood a chance against the spears.

At the top, we were comically greeted with a completely destroyed spear throw exercise.  We were told to keep running past it and proceed to the next obstacle – the pancake sandbag carry.  The bags were weighted down from the evening rain and the steep downhill trail was akin to that rocky backyard slip-n-slide that every kid used to attempt to slide on before being cheese-grated by the rocks.  After carefully walking (read: slipping) through the route, I dropped off my sandbag and ran off into the ominous wooded trail that beckoned  us with the sparsely placed white Spartan ribbons as the only guide indicating we were heading in the right direction. 


The woods were a brutal example of what a night of rain did to the course.  I swear I heard the evil cackling from Norm echoing through the mountains during every wet, muddy descent.  It was nearly impossible to briskly trot down the trail as any misstep would result in a snagged foot or gnarly fall on to the slippery rocks that protruded from the earth.  The only saving grace was the thin tree branches that laced the outside of the trail.  I would hold on to those for dear life as I ‘gracefully’ descended the trails in the most controlled fall that I could maintain.  

  One of the more forgiving downhill portions of the course.  Photo courtesy of Shawn Johnson

One of the more forgiving downhill portions of the course.  Photo courtesy of Shawn Johnson

Once the woods yielded itself to a clearing we were greeted by the uphill tire drag.  The tires were slightly heavier than the ones last year, but with proper form I was able to complete this obstacle with relative ease.  As quick as the tree canopy gave way to the foggy open field, I was plunged back into the woods to carefully avoid slipping down another waterfall of mud, root and stone.  The morning mist began to subside during this trek as I descended back down to a familiar location that filled everyone with dread in 2014 – the sandbag carry.  Fortunately, this year wasn’t nearly as bad as the last.  Although the bags were heavier (75lbs for men, 50lbs for women), the route was slightly shorter than last year, and we were told that one bag needed to be carried up the ski slope.  Regardless, an uphill carry is never an easy task.  Still thinking back to my training, I picked the longest sandbag to drape along my shoulders to simulate the heavy rucksack I would wear on the stair stepper.  “This is just like training”, I would constantly say to myself.  This wasn’t anything new to me.  In fact, this was better than training because the reward I gave myself for going all the way uphill without stopping was a five second break to look back at the amazing view that the Vermont mountains granted me.  Along the way Kenneth ‘Hulk’ Terrell found me and gave me some words of encouragement.  “This is your year buddy, give it all you got”.  He knew what I’ve gone through to make it here, and it felt great to see him on the course.  Best leg day ever, right?  

  The sandbag carry

The sandbag carry

Shortly after I threw the sandbag off of my shoulder we were given the great course divide we see at every Spartan Race.  One shorter wall to the left was labeled “Sprint” while the taller one pointed to the ominous woods labeled “Beast”.  Into the woods we went.  More rugged trails riddled with roots, rocks and slippery mud challenged everyone’s ankle stability until the next clearing opened up with a tall wall jump that led into the first rig obstacle.  Although less complex than last year’s rig, this one started off with a few tarzan swing ropes that transitioned into a series of rings.  I found and cheered on my friends Alan Ajoy and Kenneth “Hulk” Terrell until it was my turn to take a crack at the rig.  Remembering my training, I gripped the rope as hard as possible and transitioned my weight off the structure and into the rope in a methodical, controlled swing.  Carrying the swing momentum through the obstacle wasn’t easy, but I managed to make it to the rings.  Feeling my already-torn calices burn, I saw my friend Rich King volunteering and enforcing the obstacle.  Well damn, I couldn’t fail now… not in front of him.  With all of the strength I could muster I forgot about the pain and kept swinging to each ring in the most controlled fashion that my burning forearms could conjure up.  After a few more swings I managed to kick the bell and still have the energy for a fist bump with Rich.  It was then that I remembered back to my training and the concept of mind over matter.  As they say - If you don’t mind it, it won’t matter.  The pain in my hand was out of my mind by this point, so it didn’t matter.  My confidence in the course grew as I passed by a line of people doing burpees.  The Hercules hoist was a mere hundred yards away.  With my hands still hurting I held on to the rope as hard as I could and pulled down on the weighted bag at the end of the pulley with all of my might.  Saving energy to guide the bag down, I slowly raised the giant sandbag to the top and made it back down as gently as it was brought up.  With no burpees tallied so far, I was feeling pretty good!  With that, it was time to take another run (controlled fall) through the woods.

So far, so awesome.  Whenever I would start to feel alone in my own thoughts, there would always be a complete stranger asking me if I was the guy who posted the UB guide.  I guess I was easy to notice this year with the long hair!  Their words of gratitude were outstanding to say the least.  Some would remind me the years of work I put into being there, others would say they got to where they are now because of my articles.  Talk about a humbling and gratifying experience!  I told each person to thank me by bringing home a medal.  This happened all throughout the day, and it never failed to lift my spirits!

  The good ol' barbed wire crawl.  Heidi tied me a wicked man-bun.

The good ol' barbed wire crawl.  Heidi tied me a wicked man-bun.

Along the way through the woods I encountered the first cargo net climb.  As many athletes suggested, I took the portion of the net closest to the support structures.  This worked flawlessly.  It was like somebody was constantly holding on to the net and stabilizing it for me.  After wards the volunteers at the obstacle handed us gummy bears.  True to my paranoia for Spartan’s talent of messing with people, I wouldn’t have been surprised if they were sugar free bowel-buster candies.  Thankfully, they were just good ol’ gummy bears.  After a big wall we were soon subjected to the first barbed wire crawl.  It wasn’t too low of a crawl and I was able to roll through it with minimal snagging, thanks to me holding my camelback close to me as I rolled.  The only thing that commanded a careful roll through the obstacle were the rocks that jutted up from the ground.  You only made that mistake once.

  My best description of this bucket carry was to imagine that you're on fire.  Then somebody hands you a bucket full of rocks.

My best description of this bucket carry was to imagine that you're on fire.  Then somebody hands you a bucket full of rocks.

You know how when you’re in a video game and you come across a room stockpiled with an overly generous amount of gear and/or power-ups?  It always means one thing… something is about to go down.  This was the feeling I felt when the next water station appeared before me.  They allowed us to fill our packs and they even had portopotties at this one.  In case you weren’t aware, this is the Spartan equivalent of an impending boss fight.  Sure enough after an easy balance beam there was the obstacle that every beast runner from the previous day lamented – the bucket brigade.  Last year’s brigade was pretty tough, however this one was twice the elevation grade and about twice the distance.  After packing my bucket up to the line with those pebbles o’ pain, I went up the hill as best as I could.  I had brought with me a weave belt to hook my glowsticks and gloves on, and I discovered its other use as a support strap at this point.  Even with this small form of relief, my arms were burning in unison with my labored heart rate.  If it wasn’t my arms quivering and shaking, it was my heart pumping that hot, thick blood through my body.  Every 20-30 feet I would have to set the bucket down, paying no heed to the dust plume hitting my face as I let the bucket slam into the ground.  After what felt like an eternity, I managed to bring the bucket through the punishing terrain.  Any Spartan reading this can relate to the immense relief that I felt when I finally got to dump that gravel out of the bucket!

After gleefully tossing my empty bucket back into the pile, I carefully navigated the woods once more where we encountered another climbing wall.  It was at this point where I was forced to down one of the four salt tab packets in my pack.  The motion of lifting my legs up and over the wall brought forth a torrent of cramps that crippled me for a brief moment.  It wasn’t enough to completely bring me to the ground in pain, but I wasn’t going to let it become that severe.  After swallowing three salt tabs, I continued on to the farmer’s carry consisting of two tree trunk logs with chain handles.  The volunteers were constantly shouting at us that if they touch the ground at all, that’s 30 burpees.  Knowing that my arms would give out first before my legs, I practically sprinted with the logs in hand.  It worked – no burpees!

  Andrew Pragel, Regiment Elite.  In all of his glory.

Andrew Pragel, Regiment Elite.  In all of his glory.

The course once again descended into the woods with another treacherous balance of rocks, roots and mud as slippery as snail snot.  After a long stint of careful downhill walking, the sound of clanking cowbells clang in the distance.  The runners beside me let out a sigh of apprehension as that could indicate one of two things – a rig or a rope climb.  I turned a corner to discover the latter before me.  It was at this point where I saw my friend Andrew doing burpees with a frustrated but determined look on his face.  “My legs cramped up on the rope” he said, still in disbelief that he actually failed this climb that was shorter in comparison to more traditional rope climbs.  He and I both had the same look on our faces that said “I’m so going to give you crap for this after the race!”  I remembered my cramping legs from earlier and I dug deep.  I jumped up the rope as high as I could go and I j-hooked the rope with my muddy shoes.  Slowly but surely I was able to reach the low hanging bell and landed softly without any pain.  I gave a quick and assuring fist bump to Andrew, “we got this, keep going man”.  I could hardly contain the excitement behind those simple words.  We had come so far to experience this, and we’re finally doing it!  We were making good time as it is, but the unknown still shook me to my core.  I had to stop myself from thinking those thoughts.  It doesn’t matter how much time was spent to bring myself here.  It doesn’t matter what the course still has waiting for me.  The only thing I need to focus on is keeping my form right and living in the now.  Onward I went as the clanking of the bells slowly faded away behind me. 

I specifically remember this next part.  It’s funny how such intense moments in your life evoke such strong memories.  These woods I am in… I knew these woods!  Running through this writhing and curving mountainside trail reignited memories from two years ago.  I was running towards Bear Mountain!  It was here that I snapped my ankle two years ago.  It was here where a series of catastrophic and defining events led me down this confusing yet necessary path to become who I am in this very moment.  I grinned as the forest opened up to the familiar clearing.  Two years ago this was our area to do the spear throw, uphill log carry and access our drop bins.  The landscape of this year had an endless array of cramp-inducing walls (took another 3 salt tabs here), hurdles and other assortments of barriers that I had to hop over.

  The first log carry.  Photo courtesy of Spartan Race Instagram

The first log carry.  Photo courtesy of Spartan Race Instagram

The log carry that I remember so well from 2013 was there.  Up the ski slope I went, log on my shoulder.  I let myself think of the past for a brief moment.  I needed it.  I needed to remember the false sense of security I still clung to at this place two years ago, and how I should not doom myself to do it again despite being way ahead of my expected pace.  With great reverence to the course I finished my log carry and ran over to the next obstacle – a rig.  This time there was a 9 foot wall climb followed by six hanging ropes and another wall you had to swing over towards.  After taking a minute to compose myself, I jumped to the rope and held on for dear life.  To my shock, I jumped a little too hard and transitioned to the tarzan swing a little too fast.  My punishment fully sank in at the exact moment that my feet slammed into the hay below me.  Damn.  These were my first burpees.  I cranked out my 30 burpees as fast as I could, as if doing them quickly will rectify my embarrassing failure at an obstacle that I specifically trained for in the months leading up to this event.  As I finished the burpees and continued on into what would be another treacherous uphill climb through the rocky forest I took a second to turn back at the area that marked such a memorable moment in my life.  I saw Andrew doing his burpees at the tarzan swing and for a brief moment I wanted to run back there to do some of his burpees.  As noble a gesture as it would be, I knew he would have refused my help.  We agreed that no matter the urge, we must move as fast as we could to make it to the end.  I uttered “you got this buddy” and turned back into the gaping maw of the mountain.

  The welcoming jaws of the mountain.  Ready for its next victim.

The welcoming jaws of the mountain.  Ready for its next victim.

  Taken mere moments after we got our timing chips pulled in 2014

Taken mere moments after we got our timing chips pulled in 2014

It was at this point where I felt a small twinge of hunger rolling through my insides.  Not wanting to repeat the dire mistake of last year, I forced myself to down as many calories as possible during the grueling ascent.  Eating was a challenge.  Trying to eat was like trying to chew and swallow sawdust and tar by this point.  I must have guzzled down half of my camelback while attempting to force down my peanut butter packet and clif bar.  My slow lunchtime ascent came to an end when a familiar clearing and water station greeted me.  This was that ‘final boss’ water station that I encountered earlier.  Thankfully, this station now led the other way towards an atlas carry.  With the bucket brigade still in sight as a grim reminder that we’ll be doing it again I joked around.  “I don’t know about you guys, but I’d love to hit those buckets again, am I right?”  I got fewer smiles from those running beside me than I thought.  So much for that!  The atlas carry led back into the woods where a second cargo net greeted everyone.  After the cargo net I saw the most amazing sight – an open trail that I could actually run on!  I started off with a strong sprint through the trail, passing others by the dozens.  Despite my speed, I deliberately held back.  I didn’t want to reignite my injury this early into the race.  If there was a time to truly go all out, that would be the second time around.  Nevertheless I bolted through the woods until I saw David Moore hunched over, looking back at me.  To those who haven’t read last year’s story, David is a good friend of mine.  We stuck together all through our second lap of the 2014 Ultra Beast and although we had to swallow the incredibly painful pill of failure, the pain of our defeat was mitigated by having each other to accept it with. 

For the week leading up to this event, David had a terrible stomach virus and lost all nutritional benefit that he had hoped to garner before this event.  I was happy to see him still standing at this point, but he didn’t look so good.  His face ashen and ghostly as we exchanged small talk, assuring ourselves that we’re pretty far along in this race and that our chances of finishing are pretty high right now.  “We cannot get complacent; remember what happened in the last couple of years.” I said as much determination as I could muster to cover up my nervous excitement.  We both knew that we had to go our separate ways by this point.  There would be no sharing of this lap, or the next.  We had to run our own race.  I wished him luck and ran ahead, cherishing the fact that he is still in the race and still has a chance. 

  Maria's 2014 DNF pic

Maria's 2014 DNF pic

 

Shortly after that I ran into another friend of mine, Maria.  Like me, she had failed in 2014 and learned an incredible lesson with it.  I was thrilled to see her out there!  We hardly needed to speak at all when we saw each other.   We both knew each other’s story, and we both knew that we had a good chance of actually finishing this year.  I gave her a quick hug and we both said something to the effect of this being our year.  I remembered her post about her 2014 experience, and the photo of her just moments after getting her timing chip pulled.  Seeing her out on the course reminded me of that story and I could see that memory written all over her when I saw her.  Like my encounter with David, I had to keep going at my own pace, despite the temptation to finish the race alongside her.  I wished her luck, knowing that that photo was on her mind.  This was the year that she’ll get to post a better photo, I’m sure!

 

 

 

The swim was next.  This was in the same spot as the tyrolean traverse from the last Ultra Beast.  Due to liability and insurance costs we couldn’t get too deep into the water this year, but it was deep enough to induce cramping to anybody previously teetering on the edge of a cramp-ridden collapse.  Shortly after the swim I downed my last packet of salt tabs, hoping that they will last long enough for me to make it to the drop bin.  The next obstacle was the second log carry.  This route was twice as long, but much easier to traverse.  I breezed through this one, thanking the fact that every Wednesday for the last year was spent carrying a log through my neighborhood.  An uphill barbed wire low crawl was next.  This barbed wire was high enough to almost bear crawl through, but the cramping of my legs limited my range of motion through it all.  I made my way through the crawl a little slower than those around me to make sure my cramps didn’t turn into something worse, but I still made it through nevertheless. 

  The z-traverse wall

The z-traverse wall

  The 'rope climb'

The 'rope climb'

More words of encouragement and gratitude by my fellow runners lifted my spirits up even more while the distant noise of cowbells signaled the second rope climb ahead of us.  Fortunately for my tall self, this rope climb was more of a high jump.   I picked the centermost rope, pulled down on it and merely jumped as high as I could and hit the bell.  The spectators laughed at my bewildered expression that silently boasted “was that really an obstacle?!”  The next obstacle however was definitely one that lived up to the Spartan standard.  The z-traverse wall presented itself before me.  Before I got up to the obstacle I deliberately ran along the less muddy outskirts of the trail, scraping off any moist dirt on my shoes while shaking some blood flow back into my hands.  After carefully inspecting the foot blocks of the wall, I made sure I selected the side of the wall that included the hardest part first.  Carefully remembering to keep ¾ limbs on the wall at all times, I meticulously made my way along the wall and redeemed my last two years of failure with a glorious slap of the bell that played the glorious song of zero burpees!  After that was a relatively easy atlas carry in which the ball was replaced with a log, but then came the low crawl from hell.

This was by far the longest low crawl that I have ever done.  The only saving grace of this was the slight downhill gradient that made rolling through the wires slightly easier but no less nauseating and painful as I rolled over the errant rocks that dotted the terrain.  On the bright side I had the pleasure of meeting some awesome athletes in this area!  Speedo-bowtie guy, I know you’re reading this, and I’ll have you know that you’re a badass.  Continue to do, uh… bowtie stuff!  As a side note, had Spartan staff thrown tear gas canisters in this low crawl, they would have no effect on us whatsoever.   Why?  Think about it, you’re rolling around and constantly jostling your innards that have so far only digested gels, protein bars and shot blocks.  There wasn’t any more than a 30 second break in between the most earth-shattering farts that either my fellow athletes or I let loose along this crawl.  This brought some necessary levity to the whole thing while we laughed off our suffering… which caused more flatulence.  Yeah, so moving along now...

  The low crawl the day before.  The nightly rain had made the Sunday low crawl a rocky, sloppy mess.  Also the farts.  You can't forget about the farts...

The low crawl the day before.  The nightly rain had made the Sunday low crawl a rocky, sloppy mess.  Also the farts.  You can't forget about the farts...

By this point the music of the festival area rang in the distance, bringing us ever closer to the end of our first lap.  After a quick and careful downhill run, I was greeted by a volunteer asking for my memory wall code (Victor-023-7101) that we remembered at mile one during the wee hours of the morning.  After a celebratory high five, I ran over some hurdles and approached the spear throw.  I was excited to take on this obstacle, knowing that this throw was much closer than the distance I set in my backyard spear throw.  Had the target been three hay bales or a dinner plate it wouldn’t have mattered.  I hurled the spear directly into the dead center of my target with ease.  I bellowed out a loud victory cheer, knowing that I just survived my first lap with only 30 burpees!  I smiled even more as I ran to the drop bin area right next to the starting corral and overheard the announcer saying that this wave was for the 11:45 heat.  11:45!  I had made it in less than six hours!  I had NINE hours to finish this next lap!  I could hardly keep my jaw from falling to the ground.  Had I really just done that?  In distraction of that thought, I let my emotional guard down and a brief torrent of joy swept over me as I walked to my drop bin.  Not yet, Neil.  It’s not time to let it out just yet.  Stay focused and get your shit together.  My inner dialogue held back the lump in my throat and kept the celebratory tears from forming as I squatted down to open my drop bin.  That was a close one… I had to keep that dialogue silent.  If I Let it grow unchecked it will consume me.

  Setting up our drop bins the day before

Setting up our drop bins the day before

I met some familiar faces at the bin area that brought a big smile to my face as I quickly swapped out my camelback and replaced my discarded wrappers with new nutrition.  I felt like a race car in the pits by this point, swapping parts and tuning myself up as fast as humanly possible.  Norm Koch was there, so I took a second to give him a taunting hug.  “Not only am I going to survive your easy little course today, but I will thrive in this, buddy”, I said through an ear-to-ear grin that attempted to match his signature malicious grin.  Yeah.  That’s it.  I had this event in the bag, but I wasn’t going to settle at that.  My goal was no longer to redeem myself of two years of failure.  No… my goal was to smash through the barrier of mere survival and I was going to finish this event hours before the majority of people out there.  No… even more.  I was going to finish this before sundown. 

At that point I remembered the SpartanUP podcast, episode 007.  In it was a man named Tony the Fridge.  His words rang in my head that there is no such thing as your personal best.  Those words helped me escape from the consequences of complacency and motivated me to never settle, no matter what.  Suffer not, the survival of our demons… no matter their form.  My ‘personal best’ was an illusion, and I saw through the veil at what really laid ahead – my true potential.

Into the jaws of killington I ran, with a new goal.  With a new purpose.

  Mike, in all of his glory.  I met him at the low crawl and started lap 2 with him.  

Mike, in all of his glory.  I met him at the low crawl and started lap 2 with him.  

Lap two started with David Moore right behind me.  He was still in!  The brief thought of taking it easy and sticking with him during lap two crossed my mind, but I knew he wouldn’t let it happen.  I increased the gap between us, encouraging him to keep up with me so that we can share our stories.  During the first lap, I met an amazing athlete in the low crawl by the name of Mike Maurer.   ike greeted me by explaining how he was thrilled to have finally met me along the course, and that my guides helped him get to where he was.  I was just as happy to have found him again during the second lap and we shared our life stories as we went through the hurdles, climbs and inverse walls that ushered our way up to the death march.  His uphill pace was a little faster than mine, so true to the nature of the course I let him continue on, not to hinder him by my slower climb.  His kind words kept my head held up high through the entire death march.  I wished him well and away he went, vanishing beyond one of the many false peaks that taunted us during the climb.

The death march finally relented as I reached the peak of K-1 for the second and final time.  Having not stopped to rest at all during my ascent, I rewarded myself by taking a quick five seconds to turn back and marvel at the beautiful scenery, and it was absolutely stunning to behold.  I briefly closed my eyes and let the mountain air blow around me, as if it were tugging me onwards towards the course, encouraging me to continue on. 

  The view from the top of the death march.  Totally worth it.

The view from the top of the death march.  Totally worth it.

  Pancake sandbag carry.  I was upset, they didn't serve pancakes at this obstacle at all...

Pancake sandbag carry.  I was upset, they didn't serve pancakes at this obstacle at all...

Heeding to the direction of the wind I continued down the mountain towards the pancake sandbag carry.  This time around felt less challenging.  The afternoon sun had begun to peer through the dissipating clouds as it warmed the land, drying the previously slippery mud into a terrain that could be trekked down a lot faster this time.  After going through the steep rocky wooded terrain once more, I had the pleasure of speaking with even more people that I didn’t even know who recognized me on the course.  Whenever my mind would begin to wander and permit those conflicting voices from entering my mind, somebody was always there to pull me out of that dark place.  It never failed!  For that, I am forever grateful towards the kindness and appreciation that these complete ‘strangers’ shared with me.  You guys rock.

The tire drag was a little harder due to the dry ground, but it wasn’t impossible.  The heavy sandbag carry was next, and I took my time choosing my bag.  I looked for the longest bag in the pile to drape over my shoulders to better simulate a rucksack, and it paid off.  I always suggest to people to take a good ten seconds to assess your situation, because it could mean the difference between burpees or breezing through.  My second time up the sandbag mountain felt much easier than the last, I even ran a little!  After dropping my sandbag off, I knew that the course was about to get very lonely after the two hurdle walls diverted the sprint from the Ultra Beast runners (the beast waves had concluded early in the morning).  With a quick pep talk to the struggling sprint runners at the water station, I bid them farewell as I hopped the wall leading into the ominous stretch of woods that hungered for more Ultra Beast victims.

  The wall separating the sprint from the beast/UB runners.  Photo courtesy of The Painted Warrior.

The wall separating the sprint from the beast/UB runners.  Photo courtesy of The Painted Warrior.

The race from here on out was a lonely one, at first.  The beast runners from earlier waves were too far ahead, and the sprinters had bypassed to the end.  This turned out to be a major mental obstacle for me.  With nobody around to keep my mind occupied in conversation, the only thing I could do is constantly battle myself to shut off that internal dialogue of emotions that ceaselessly tried to claw its way into my consciousness.  Even though I had already run a lap of the beast and I knew what to expect, there was always the chance that the course would be modified, or something specific to Ultra Beast runners would be implemented.  I could not get complacent, nor could I become pessimistic.  No more of these thoughts, I must remain completely neutral in my mind… stripped down to my core essence only to be shared with the mountain.

  The first rig obstacle.  Photo courtesy of Shawn Johnson

The first rig obstacle.  Photo courtesy of Shawn Johnson

I was distracted from my mental battle when the rig obstacle greeted me.  The only other presence of UB runners was a lone runner painfully grinding out burpees with one volunteer counting them out.  The other three volunteers at the obstacle station had their eyes silently set towards me.  No pressure, right?  I took a second to compose myself, ever vigilant to the watchful eye of the three staring me down.  I cautiously gripped the first rope and began my swing.  With good momentum I transitioned over to the rings and a confident smile formed across my face, as if defying the stoic volunteers’ wishes.  My training had really paid off.  Even this far into the race I was still able to grip things without too much strain, and my torn calices felt fine by this point.  Still dangling from two rings, I stopped with only one ring ahead of me and turned to the silent volunteers.  “So, gentlemen.  Hands, or feet?” I confidently joked.  Still no reply.  “Feet it is!”  The bell clanked and wrapped around the frame it was hanging from, and the quiet volunteers finally relented with a warm nod of approval.  The hoist came shortly after and I managed to bring it up and down without incident, passing another two people doing their slow, exhausting burpees.  I gave them a curt nod.  “Keep it up guys.  You can, and you will.”

  No matter how tired you are, always pose for a good pic!

No matter how tired you are, always pose for a good pic!

The drier ground made the trek through the woods a lot easier this time.  The cargo net was a nice break from the constant leg-burning descents and the barbed wire crawl served only as a reminder that the soul-crushing bucket brigade was coming soon.  The hardest part was coming up.  The mountain had let me escape its gaping maw only for me to climb up its side with a bucket packed with gravel.  Only this time, my worst fears had come true.  Those who adorned the green Ultra Beast armband had to take the bucket up an additional stretch of the mountain.  This is why I didn’t let myself become complacent on the course.  I knew that there was still the option for me to have time added to my already grueling second lap with these treacherous additions to the course.  I wasn’t entirely surprised, though.  I expected something like this to happen for a while.  Once again I could have sworn I heard the distant maniacal laughter of Norm through the mountains as I put my gloves on and hefted the bucket up to my core as the gray rock dust peppered my face with every labored step.  Like the last time through this area, I knew that my arms were going to give out first.  So I pumped my legs as fast as I could, bolting up the mountain until either my arms or heart could not handle it anymore.  Needless to say, this carry was brutal.  Every 20-30 yards I had to set the bucket down and practice some combat breathing to lower my heart rate.  Very few words were exchanged with the other athletes resting atop their buckets on this route.  To be honest, we didn’t need to say anything.  The exhaustion and apprehension of future obstacles were written on our faces and projected onto the large canvas of the mountain that relentlessly punished us.  Eventually I got to enjoy the pleasure of dumping out my rocks as I looked up to see my friend David Moore as he approached the obstacle right as I was leaving it.  He didn’t look good...  With a pale and listless demeanor he explained that his stomach felt like a furnace, but the defiance and determination in his voice was still there.  I wished him luck as I bolted towards the welcoming jaws of the mountain once more.

  Behold:  My saving grace.  

Behold:  My saving grace.  

The climbing wall and farmers carry that briefly took me out of the enveloping canopy of the woods provided some nice relief to the constant hip and knee impacts of striking the uneven ground.  The obstacles actually felt a little easier by this point as I cruised through them a lot faster than before.  The first rope climb appeared before me once more, and I simply jumped as high on to the rope as I could and managed to kick the bell in one swift motion.  I sure do love being tall at these obstacles, but not so much with the low crawls!  I kept myself focused by talking to whoever I came across, even if it meant slowing down for a couple seconds, so long as I could speed back up.  I noticed a man doing burpees at the rope climb and asked him if he was good on supplies.  Honestly this served me more than it did for others.  I know how much it sucks to do burpees, and it’s always nice to have somebody to talk to.  Whatever it takes to keep my mind from losing grip on reality by this point…

The advantage/disadvantage of having the Ultra Beast setup as two beast laps is that you know what’s happening next.  In this case it was the array of wall climbs that punished anybody daring to set foot around Bear Mountain.  I took some salt tabs in advance to make sure my legs don’t fail me on the wall climbs, and it seemed to work.  The enthusiastic volunteers at the walls cheered me on, saying that it’s only 4pm.  That’s five hours to complete the four remaining miles of the course!  And yet, I still felt that panic stab my heart.  What if they modify more obstacles?  What if I injure myself like I did in years past?  What if I don’t finish before sundown?  What if-

Stop.

I cleared my mind of this doubt as I approached the log carry.  My mind was getting weaker, I could tell.  I kept dwelling on how far I’ve gone, and what awaits me.  I suppose I should be grateful that I never got to the point where I was doubting my reason for being out there.  I forgot to realize that the beauty of this event isn’t in the past or the future, but in the overwhelming command to live in the present.  I lifted my log up and exhaled as a strange calm swept over me (despite the fact that I’m hefting a freakin’ log up a mountain).  I didn’t stop at all during this obstacle.  I focused on my form, and keeping one foot in front of the other.  Somehow I managed to turn an uphill log carry into a meditation session.  I felt no pain or struggle, nor did I feel trapped inside my thoughts.  I felt as if I was sitting in the control center of a gigantic machine called Neil Murphy, and that I was merely piloting it towards its destination.  I didn’t feel the undulating gears and moments of inertia that enveloped the biomechanical structure that was my body, but yet I still felt incredibly… connected.  I don’t expect anybody reading this to fully understand what I’m getting at here, because I’m having trouble wrapping my head around it myself.

  The Tarzan Swing.  Longer than last year, but not over the water.  Photo Credit Daniel Petrulis

The Tarzan Swing.  Longer than last year, but not over the water.  Photo Credit Daniel Petrulis

I ran over to the water station to down a gel and refill my back pocket with another gel as I noticed two runners merely touching the upcoming tarzan swing and doing their burpees.  The temptation to follow suit lasted as long as it took for the smile to form on my face as I approached this obstacle that previously forced me to do burpees.  I wasn’t going to submit so easily.  I was going to give this everything I got.  I hopped the massive wall and meticulously transitioned to the ropes.  Swinging in a controlled fashion I ignored the pain in my arms and kept swinging.  Whenever I would grab the next rope, somebody nearby would stop what they were doing to watch.  Those doing burpees stopped for a brief moment to watch, then another, and another.  I got all the way across and let out a victorious cheer that overshadowed the proverbial laughter that course designer Norm must have let loose upon constructing this evil obstacle.  Giving my 100% for mere moments was much easier than spending 2-3 minutes doing burpees, plus the time lost in the slow exhaustive running afterwards.

The final stretch was coming.  Four miles remained as I once again ran into the wooded opening that led further into the belly of the mountain.  As I entered I met Todd Eckstein, a Facebook friend from Florida that I spoke with a lot before the Ultrabeast.  I finally got to meet him!  We hit it off right away.  We spoke of our experiences so far and how great it was to be out there.  Best of all is that we were pacing at the same speed, so it was likely that we were going to finish together!  He and I kept our minds off the struggle of climbing through the woods as we talked about our life stories, training and more.  The mental pick-me-up was augmented more as other random athletes passing or being passed thanked me for the articles I wrote.  “Thank me by finishing the race”, I would always say – and I meant it.  The climb through the mountain evolved into a clearing which led to the cargo net, which meant that my favorite part was coming - the run!  

  Entrance into the woods right after the Tarzan swing.

Entrance into the woods right after the Tarzan swing.

As soon as the trail evened out to a smooth downhill run I let myself loose.  The injury that nagged me for months was non-existent, so I had full permission to let it all out.  I felt like Forrest Gump when his leg braces broke off as I ran faster and faster past at least a dozen people.  The cool wind hitting my face pulled my hair back, so I obliged to the wind’s suggestion by removing my hair tie and letting it loose.  The cold, calculated and emotionless demeanor couldn’t keep pace with me as I zoomed past more and more people as my smile must have grown from one ear to the other by this point.  I couldn’t restrict that feeling of elation that welled up inside of me, that sheer feeling of being completely and utterly free.  That’s it.  That’s the feeling that I have been feeling this entire time but I hadn’t discovered it until this very moment.  I was free.  Laughing like a maniac by this point, I screamed at the top of my lungs “I’M FREE!” as the people in earshot ahead of me stepped aside to let me pass.    I could hear the distant applause of spectators and volunteers ahead as the swim forced my run into a halt.  Other people were wading through the water up to their knees, but I wasn’t going to do that.  I jumped right into the water, fully submerging myself and taking in every cool and refreshing drop that enveloped me.  Swimming felt great, I even felt like doing a couple of laps to let Todd catch up to me! 

  The water.  Just enough to chill you down and get you uncomfortable.

The water.  Just enough to chill you down and get you uncomfortable.

I got out of the water refreshed and ready to kill the last two miles that stood between me and my medal.  The log carry was next, but I didn’t discount the possibility of the next series of obstacles having a special ultrabeast addition to them.  Fortunately my concern was all for naught as the log carry was the same as the first lap.  I downed another salt tab and gu as my legs cramped up through the uphill low crawl.  Todd had caught up with me by this point and others crawling with me recognized me from my articles.  Their words of encouragement were absolutely astounding!  They all knew from my stories that three years led up to the moment I was about to experience in the next hour, and they made sure to remind me of it.  Just that reminder from complete strangers almost brought some tears to my eyes.  Every labored crawl through the wire was one inch closer to this goal, so the pain grinding through my body only validated my efforts thus far.

  The uphill low crawl

The uphill low crawl

Knowing that my body would start to shut down soon, I downed another packet of salt tabs and chewed down some more calories.  The only thing that I was worried about by this point was the traverse wall.  After a quick jaunt through the woods the second rope climb was ahead.  There I was greeted by a enthusiastic bark.  A bark?  Who the hell brings their dog to-

Oh!

  Roxy the Aussie made sure I was completely covered in slobber.

Roxy the Aussie made sure I was completely covered in slobber.

It was Desiree and her dog Roxy!  I was trying to find them all day long and to finally see them so close to the finish was amazing!  I jumped up the rope and hit the bell with no effort whatsoever and I trotted over to the wall, all the while being circled by Roxy wanting to play with me.  Todd stood behind me to tell me where to move my hands around the wall as I desperately grabbed for each wooden block.  My body was succumbing to the falling temperatures quickly.  My fingers became numb and my grip strength was waning fast, I had to move through this quick.  I got around the outside of the wall and reached my foot as far as I could to the next block, all the while holding on to both blocks with my quivering hands as hard as possible.  Finishing the UltraBeast with only 30 burpees to my name would be an amazing feat, but as soon as that thought crossed my mind my hands gave out and I fell to the ground.  I nodded in frustrated acceptance and walked behind Todd as he attempted the wall, only to follow suit.  The best part of these burpees however was knowing that the worst was now over, and it also helped that Roxy was still running circles around me, as if my burpees told her it was playtime.  I forget the conversation I had with Desiree as we all did our burpees.  I’m pretty sure it was incoherent babble by that point as my mind was constantly teetering on collapse.  I could hear the music in the festival area by now, taunting me as the bass from whatever distant song thumped in unison with my labored heart.  I was so close…

I choose the largest log for the atlas carry, knowing that I wouldn’t have to use my arms again.  After downing a big gulp of water I took my pack off and began my downhill roll through the longest low crawl I have ever seen at any Spartan race, again.  Everybody else by this point spoke in the same incoherent delirium as we acknowledged each other’s accomplishments with high fives and brief words of encouragement through this low crawl.  After what seemed like an eternity I rolled out of the final line of wire and then immediately downed my last salt pack.  Being so close to the finish line would be an easy excuse for my muscles to give out by this point, and I didn’t want to crawl through the finish line, though I was fully prepared and willing to do if that’s what it took.

Todd and I hobbled as fast as we could through the narrow expanse of downhill trails that led to the log hurdles and one very last obstacle, the spear throw.  Though the glow of the fire jump tickled my peripheral vision, I did not dare distract myself with the sight of that finish line.  It wasn’t over yet.  I had to stick this spear throw first.  With careful concentration I lobbed the spear perfectly straight into the dead center of the target!  Though before I could shout for joy the spear lazily slumped out of the hay and fell to the ground with a dull clatter.  I guess that’s what happens when the target you’re throwing spears into had been torn apart for the last 13 hours, right?  Just as I turned to the burpee station I noticed that Todd missed his throw as well.  One last sucker punch by the race before we could claim our destiny, I suppose?   Completely on the razors edge of mental collapse we stumbled over to do our last set of burpees.  Only thirty burpees separated us from the finish.  Every single burpee we do is one step closer to our goal.  Every burpee completed means I’m closer to the moment I have waited three years to experience.  It was right there, just behind the fire jump! 

But… something else stood in front of that fire jump. 

With my eyes already watering up I noticed the blurred outline of a person standing before me.   “GO NEIL!  YOU GOT THIS!” said the figure fanatically shouting before me.  My eyes gradually came into focus and Alan Ajoy came into view with he and his friends' Ultra Beast medals already around their necks!  I knew that he and his friends were rooting for me for the past couple of years, and his words of encouragement through those troubling times were sometimes the only thing I could lean on for support, and there he stood right in front of me!  I didn’t want to show him how emotional I had become by this point, so I turned away from him and continued to push out my burpees as best as I could, making sure I delivered to the spectators an example of what perfect burpees look like.  Todd and I each had a spectator (or volunteer?  I didn’t notice) counting out our burpees, which was nice since we probably lacked the mental capacity to count by this point anyways.  I specifically remember burpee number 19, 22, 27 and 28 being difficult.  Every one of those burpees came with my friends cheering me on despite my legs buckling underneath me.  I was fading as fast as the sun was melting into the horizon.  Once I hit my 30, I waited for Todd.  While I waited Alan came up to me and gave me a hug, and that’s when I let it happen.

The lump in my throat could no longer hold as the floodgates of stifled emotion finally broke through after being loosely held intact for the last 13 hours.  Three years had led to this moment, and I had finally given myself permission through a simple hug from Alan to let it all out.   I cried it out for a good fifteen seconds as every encouraging and congratulatory word he spoke struck me to my core.  I thought back to the hours spent every day training for this very moment… the sacrifices made by not only myself but by my wife to accommodate my vigorous schedule had almost brought me to my knees, but I wasn’t going to crawl to this finish line.  I was going to finish strong.  With my last ounce of strength I stayed on my feet and looked over to the finish line.  “Get your medal Neil!” said Alan with a slap to my back.  It felt like everything was in slow motion by this point.  Head defiantly held up high, I nodded and bolted over the fire jump, the embers parting around me as I saw the sight that was long overdue – the finish line. 

With tears etching trails down my dusty face I flung my arms up as high as I could reach as the final beep of my timing chip chimed in unison with the cheering crowd.    I saw the big white words “FINISH” fly overhead as a final confirmation that this was real.  This actually just happened!

I did it. 

At last I felt free.
At last, my dream had finally been realized.
At last I had become part of an exclusive and rare tribe of athletes. 
At last… I had become an Ultra Beast.


 

  Finish time 13:05:10

Finish time 13:05:10

 

Like the years before, I couldn’t just walk to my hotel conveniently located next to the venue.  I had to wait for my friends.  One by one I saw Maria, Heidi, Kendall, Mike and Andrew have their moment at the finish line.  Seeing all of them make it through felt just as great as it was crossing that line hours ago.  I spoke with countless other athletes around the venue, many of whom knew me but not the other way around.  It was great seeing every one of them.  Even more so were the encounters I shared with those who did not finish.  Sharing my story with them after hearing theirs was like looking into the past.  I saw the contorted kaleidoscope of conflicting emotions in each of them, but every one of them showed that burning drive in them to come out to Killington next year for redemption!

  We all did it!  Somehow my hair still looked awesome, too!

We all did it!  Somehow my hair still looked awesome, too!

As for me, my journey will not end in Killington.  Instead, completing this was a way of giving myself permission to challenge myself even more by signing up for even more challenging events.  Like my decision to thrive after the first lap, I cannot dwell on my personal bests or to rest on my laurels.  I will return next year to face the unknown once again.  This entire journey taught me a lot about accomplishing goals that very few people can begin to imagine.  The ceaseless obsession with finishing this event made me stronger, faster and more motivated in many other facets of my life.  In short, it transformed me.  The old me was left behind in the wreckage of the course that I took years to dominate.  The efforts I put into this long journey will soon be eclipsed by the efforts I will put into being a father, come January.  That’s a promise.



Kiddo, if you’re fumbling through dad’s old blog posts in the future, this one’s for you.


 

 

 

Want to get another perspective on the 2015 Ultra Beast?  Obstacle Racing Media posted an article about Lauren Cisneros' experience here.