The 2016 Lake Tahoe UltraBeast
What you’re about to embark upon is an account of my journey towards the 2016 Tahoe Ultrabeast. This is an event that I had trained years to complete. After failing multiple times, I had finally achieved victory in 2015. However, that was not going to be the end. I was going to continue to challenge myself in an event that has now defined the way I live my life. Each bolded chapter subject was written shortly after it happened, kind of like a journal entry. Before continuing, I highly recommend reading parts 1 through 3 of my Ultrabeast adventure for you to really get the perspective of now how I did all of this, but why.
Let’s stop for a second here.
I’m going to get really, really personal with you. In fact, this is the first time that ANYBODY outside of my very, very inner circle will be hearing this. Now, I know you’re here for a race AAR, so if you want to skip this part just scroll way down and there’s no hurt feelings. However, I feel like I need to share a revelation that I had discovered over the years that I’m finally ready to tell the world. At first, I felt a little ashamed or that my innermost personal feelings on why I race would seem a little non-relatable to the masses. You see, the disclosure I gave at the beginning of my 2013 story had a history that extended further back than that. My old negative attitude at the world reached such a maddening level that the itch I felt could not be scratched anymore. The reasoning behind this stems way back into my childhood. If you'd like to read that whole little snippet, just expand below to see the solution to this whole question of why I race. Otherwise we'll continue to the event itself.
As a kid, I looked up to nobody else more than my older brother. He was strong, full of life and incredibly smart. When he joined the scouts, I had to join. When he’d play a sport, I had to follow. When he collected baseball cards (it was the 90s), I started a collection of my own. I remember the highlight of my day in elementary school was waiting for him to get on the bus together (he was four grades above me). He looked after me, stood up for me and inspired me to be like him one day. As I entered high school he was just starting college, and of course I had to go to the college he was going to eventually. This is when things started getting bad. Although I had a strong mentor to look up to, he did not. Toxic people surrounded his life, giving him an easy way out towards instant gratification and shunned him if he dared pursue to be greater than average. They were the textbook definition of losers. Not wanting to feel rejected, he stuck around those kinds of people, even as they started using drugs. Like 80% of everybody who gets admitted to rehab, his drug addiction began with the use and eventual abuse of prescription opioids. If anybody is familiar with this trend, then you won’t be surprised to hear that that wasn’t enough for him. I watched my hero’s ambitions, responsibilities and overall life gradually decay while he dove deeper into this horrific life of abandonment and addiction. Pills turned into heroin, and when you come off of heroin, you need to get back up. That’s where the cocaine came into play. This vicious cycle of abuse continued through four failed (court-ordered) admissions into rehab over the course of six years. Year after year went by as this figure that I admired and once aspired to become lie, steal and abandon all of those who loved him, including myself. A huge hole had been blown out of my gut, shredding my innocence and faith in my fellow man with it. Every phone call that my family got for those six years shot adrenaline-fueled panic into our hearts for fear of it being that final call from the coroner’s lab, asking for us to identify his body. My family dealt with the stress in different ways. As for me, what little vestige of my sanity remained urged me to take the nuclear option when it came to coping with the psychological torture that every day brought. I knew that my anger ‘itch’ that I described before could no longer be itched to satisfaction, and it was becoming a real problem.
At the time, I had no other option. I grabbed a hold of that metaphorical emotional lever and I turned it completely off, breaking the handle once it was turned so it could never be turned back on. Sure, the numbness destroyed the good emotions, but the bad ones weren’t there anymore. I could continue my life as productively as possible without being held back by these emotions that were now reduced to mere drops out of an old firehose. I found a competitive aggression outlet in gaming when it was necessary, and I managed to keep up a really good GPA at the college that my brother had dropped out of. A major lifeline was thrown my way when I met my wife in college as well. It took me a long time, but I was able to let out a few drops of emotion when I was around her. For the first time, I was able to share my tears with another person aside from myself when I thought of my brother’s horrific addiction and what it had done to my life. With her around, the numbness would subside a little, but not all the way thanks to me breaking off that mental lever in the years prior. Towards the end of college my brother finally hit rock bottom, compelling him to go into rehab on his own volition and not by a judge. It was a long process, but he eventually got his life back in order. The fact that he didn’t die in those six years still amazes me to this day. He’s been clean for over five years now and I feel that through forgiveness, I have finally gotten my brother back. The long-term damage however did not subside easily.
The hole blasted in my heart was slowly mended back together, but the scars were still there, always numb to the touch. Once I started my career in 2010 I had stepped on a scale one day at work out of curiosity. I weighed 168 in college, I remembered. I knew that I had let myself go a little, but seeing the numbers 211 pop up on the scale just about brought me to my knees in disgust. I did this to myself. Not out of rage or fear, but from my apathy. I felt like I betrayed myself and those who still cared for me. I didn’t want to become that husband that gets out of shape while his wife pretends that he’s still ‘hot’ like he was in college, only for us to spend our retired years too out of shape to do the things we love. 10% of your life is what happens in it. 90% of your life is how you react to it. I understood this now. I didn’t want to return to my old self… I wanted to reforge myself into something better. I’m not making this up, but this is the same day that I came home and came across an ad for Warrior Dash on Facebook.
I’ve discovered that when I’m racing, I’m able to turn the lever back where it belongs. And you know what? Only the good feelings come out of that firehose now. This is why I do this. OCR has saved my life.
I thought that I owed you guys this explanation before moving forward, and I hope that this transparency can help us reach a better level of understanding and connection. Through this amazing sport I have gained another family, and for that I am forever grateful.
A light mist sprinkled the landscape in the blissful morning after the Killington Ultra Beast. Everybody in our room had slept like a rock. Sure, everybody in our group was sore, but it may as well have been a slight itch when compared to the enormous feeling of elation we all had shared. ALL of us had accomplished our goals! Little did I know, it was about to get even better.
My phone rings abruptly.
Unknown number. Great… should I even bother to answer? It’s probably a telemarketer.
I answer anyways. “Hello, is this Neil Murphy?” a voice asks cheerfully. “Yup, that’s me” I say with a doubtful undertone, still suspecting a lame sales pitch to distract me from my excellent morning. “My name is [redacted] from HR. We are pleased to inform you that you were the most qualified candidate for the merit promotion that you applied for back in August. Are you still interested in the position you applied for?” No. Freaking. Way. With a quick affirmative I sealed the deal on a 20% increase in salary for the same amount of work that I’ve been doing. With a son coming just months from now, this couldn’t have happened at a better time! I couldn’t believe how amazing this week had been. Everybody that I was cheering for had also redeemed themselves of the horrific 2014 race, I was going to be a father soon and now I just won in my professional life. If ever a moment to quantify the results of “work hard, play hard”, this was it I suppose. The fruits of my labor had finally come to pass, and it was pure elation and bliss. “I’ll forward your acceptance to your supervisor. You can’t shout it on top of a mountain just yet; we still need to inform the other candidates.”
Too bad. I was on a mountain and I shouted it out anyways.
Back in Orlando, you could have guessed that I won the lottery or something. Everybody who knew anything about me was congratulating me on finishing this race. The biggest observation is that the people who gave me the “I told you not to spend all that time and effort for nothing” speech in the prior years were quiet as a mouse this time. As it obviously turns out, the sedentary people who never go outside their comfort zones don’t make for the most credible sources of advice when it comes to my athletic aspirations. Nonconformity is an affront to those in the ‘mainstream’. I was met with so much disapproval of peers and would-be mentors in the past. I realized that my acquaintances didn’t fear the consequences of my failure; they feared my failure to conform. It’s amazing how you only notice this when you go on a path that many avoid. So why do I do even do this? Why don’t I stop now since I had accomplished the goal I had set for myself years ago?
When I finished college I went straight into the workforce in pursuit of my own stuff and a job to pay for it all. My parents and relatives approved. My bosses gave raises (as stated above) and my friends all related to me. These common commitments, comforts and approval would gently wind around me like a string of threads. When I stayed the ‘normal’ course, I wouldn’t feel them collectively binding me but instead comforting me like a warm quilt. Only after wandering outside the norm would I feel those strings tug back on me, clamoring to hold me down into a life in which I had been complicit. David Miller in “AWOL on the Appalachian Trail” (amazing book by the way) said it perfectly:
“Working a nine-to-five job took more energy than I had expected, leaving less time to pursue diverse interests. I grew to detest the statement “I am a…” with the sentence completed by an occupational title. Self-help books emphasize ‘defining priorities’ and ‘staying focused’, euphemisms for specialization and stifling spontaneity. Our vision becomes so narrow that risk is trying a new brand of cereal, and adventure is watching a new sitcom. Over time I have elevated my opinion of nonconformity nearly to the level of an obligation. We should have a bias toward doing activities that we don’t normally do to keep loose the moorings of society.”
That is why I am who I am. I am not special, you can do this too.
My first day back at work was an easy day. Normally people have a lot of catch-up to do after coming back from leave, but I had planned ahead. I decided to bring my medal with me this day. I didn’t wear it around my neck – I didn’t need to rouse the naysayers any more than they had already been perturbed, but instead stashed it away in my pocket. I found myself resting my hands in my pockets all throughout the day, just to reaffirm that this dream I had was finally realized. It was hard to pay attention with the memories of the event playing through my head every time I felt a twinge of pain from moving or feeling the outlines and indentations of the medal during the day. One of my coworkers spotted me walking slower than usual in the halls and made mention of it. I told him the abbreviated version of my adventures, concluding my story by showing him the medal. After admiring the medal and shaking his head in disbelief, he kept walking. “I could never do that”, he dismissively chuckled as he walked away. “I would have thought the same for myself five years ago”. I affirmed him. With a warm smile he told me that it was quite an accomplishment, and that I should be very proud of myself. Although it was considerate of him to say that, pride was not my goal. Sure, it’s an accomplishment, but the feeling that eclipsed all thought was that I was fortunate to experience what I had experienced.
The day went on and others came to me asking how the weekend went. The same story was told and the same doubtful reaction was told to me over and over again. The only memorable question asked that I can recall was “so… what’s next”?
That’s a good question. I had my eyes set on the death race, but that was going to be retooled into the Agoge next year. Perhaps I could do that? All I knew was that no matter my choice, I had to still breach the boundaries of my comfort zone. I had a newborn arriving in mere months, so at the least I was going to do an event on par with Killington while still managing my new responsibilities as a father. The thought of that “dad bod” people were crazed about made me want to vomit, so I wanted to prove to other new parents that you don’t have to give up your dreams and aspirations just because you’ve got another member on your team.
I missed the mountains of Vermont increasingly over the first couple of weeks I was back at home. At first it was a longing to be back out there, and then the feeling matured to a combination of fondness, loss and nostalgia. My mind is saturated with the memories of the smell of crisp firs, long wooded trails and exposed summits showing a limitless horizon of mountains. These unsummoned memories return to me while sitting at my desk, driving or any other commonplace moment of the day. That itch of anger that used to control me had turned into something positive – an itch to accomplish more.
A couple of minor OCR events preceded this event, but this was one of the big ones. I couldn’t get enough of this event! This was going to be my last big event before my son enters this world, so I wanted to make it a good one. Like last year, I had made the bold declaration that I was going to run the entire ultramarathon with a weighted rucksack. That’s 52.4 miles through trails in Florida consisting of gator-ridden swampland, grassy open fields and fine sugar sand that brought even the fastest runners to a labored cramp-ridden trudge. We had a larger group this time that had agreed to take on this immense challenge. Seven of us had agreed to start the night before the official event started so we could get as much time on the course as possible without the blistering hot sun beaming down on us. Such is the joy of December in Florida…
The course was very ominous at night. We would occasionally hear the grunts of wild boar in the brush, and if you shined your headlamp into any body of water, you would see the yellow eyes of HUNDREDS of alligators gleaming in the water. The gators were a huge concern since they are most active (and hungry) at night. With parts of the trail just 5 feet from the brush that separated us from the water it was entirely possible that these ambush predators would decide to select us for a midnight snack. Every time we heard thrashing in the water our hearts would jump to our throats. Fortunately the wildlife kept to itself throughout the night as we completed our first half marathon loop. By the end of the second half-marathon loop the sun had started to illuminate the sky and the sound of the loudspeakers announcing the start of the ‘normal’ waves had broken the silent night and ushered in the already hot morning.
It was around this time that sleep deprivation had taken its toll. Having woken up in the early morning in the day prior, I noticed my mind drifting more than it should. Talking was a labor in itself, let alone keeping my head up. It was around this time that our first ultra ruck-runner had dropped. Shortly after that a second one called it quits after completing two laps (rucking a marathon is still a huge accomplishment). As the conversations got weirder, so did our symptoms of exhaustion. Simple steps turned into milestones as our bodies punished our persistence through hallucinations and never ending hunger that felt like a knife into the gut. Nevertheless, our simple words of “I’m gonna do it” was all we needed to carry onwards. You can’t build a reputation on what you’re going to do, and this was one hell of a reputation to uphold.
The last lap was mostly a blur. Only three of us decided to attempt the fourth and final lap. I distinctly remember looking at the ground and seeing tiny lizards scurrying by, constantly causing me to adjust my footing to not step on them… until I stepped on one. The black blur of a ‘lizard’ kept moving on top of my shoe as if nothing happened. Realizing I had been hallucinating the whole time, I looked up to the darkening sky and noticed the geometric perspective of my peripheral vision seemed to zoom out while the center of my vision zoomed in. I knew that I was on a timer before the mental side of me would finally give in to all of the signals being sent by the rest of my body. Sure, the mind was strong, but if the body you’re piloting fails there isn’t much you can do. Nevertheless I managed to get to the finish line, earning my buckle and a reprieve from the seemingly endless torture that had preceded that moment for 20 hours. With what little energy I had left, I chugged a red bull and got home just in time to shower, don a tuxedo and attend the neighborhood Christmas party, albeit with a non-alcohol induced stagger that became a delightful conversation piece! This event proved one thing – that I still had the mental fortitude to push through the pain, no matter what.
I jump from unconsciousness to consciousness in a split second. What just happened? Why is my wife freaking out at 3 in the morning? A million possibilities for this late night interruption race through my head and yet the only one I completely left from my thoughts was brought to my attention, shouted from the bathroom.
“Uh, Neil I think my water broke”.
Wait, what? How could that be? We’re weeks away from the due date and the first pregnancy is usually weeks late, right? We haven’t fully prepped the house, let alone come up with a name for our son! As fate dictated, the little guy had decided that he spent way too much time cooped up and it was time to make his debut into this world. We waited until the contractions became more frequent and consistent, which meant us playing video games and taking naps at the house for a good 5-6 hours while still holding on to the possibility that it was just some happenstance occurrence of pregnancy that we weren’t aware of.
Sure enough, today was the day that it was meant to happen. We arrive at the hospital 6 hours already into labor, only to go until hour 27 before little Alexander (Xander for short) graced the world with his presence. Immediately upon holding him for the first time I knew that every obstacle I face in life would be for him. However far away any finish line lie would be a tribute to him as well as an assurance that ordinary people can accomplish extraordinary things so long as their minds never relent and stay true to their purpose. If I give up my dreams just because I’ve got less time in the day to attend to them, I risk setting an example of complacency and compromise to both my family and myself. Doing so would only force my son into being my ‘second chance’, or a surrogate for all of my failed ambitions… and he deserves better than that. I’m sure every new parent has an encyclopedia of words to describe their ascension to parenthood, but words alone cannot describe what I am feeling now. My obsession with numbers takes a backseat during this day. Although 5 people are born every second, let not the frequency of an event dilute its significance. I am not a religious person in any way, but it does not inhibit my ability to recognize the full glory of a day that I will forever cherish in my memories.
Ah yes, the good ol’ BFX. In case you haven’t been versed in this lovely (and sadly discontinued) event, the Battle Frog Extreme is a race where you run the 15k loop of the obstacle course, followed by as many 5k loops as you can run before 3 or 4pm. Thanks to some folks giving away their entry, I was able to squeeze into the race at 11pm the night before the actual event.
I threw a bunch of stuff into a dufflebag and headed out the next morning with the intention of making this event a fun run, for once! Sure, I could have gone all out and attempted the podium, but the class of runners at this event intimidated me to the point where I simply forgot that I am in fact in that same category of runner. Nevertheless, I stuck to my plan of just having fun that day and not worrying about anything else. Running alongside my UB-Buddy Kendall, David Moore and Daniel Cramer was a treat in itself, let alone allowing myself an easy pace as I gently glided through each obstacle as the morning gave way into the afternoon. I noticed the herd drastically thinning out after the 3rd lap, as my ‘easy’ pace had in fact sped up. (To add to it all, I ran each lap with the Team Regiment flag). Finishing laps weren’t a big deal. I’d casually sit down at the drop bin area and pound a beer or chat it up with my friends, giving no concern for the passage of time that eventually ushered in the final lap. Sure, I was sore, but I had reached a point where this was the norm for me. Most of the BFX runners had ended their journey early and left to go home by the time I had finished. After pounding a celebratory beer I checked the final standings out of curiosity, as if I accidently ran the elite wave at the Spartan world championships and I wanted to see just how behind I was as a joke. “Looks like you got 6th place, congrats!” cheered the volunteer as she handed me my stars to pin on to my medal strap.
Only FIVE other runners were ahead of me? But... I didn’t even TRY at this thing! There must have been 300 people running BFX, and yet I placed 6th overall?! This brought forth some conflicting feelings. On one side I was much stronger than I gave myself credit to, sure. But what if I actually tried to win at this event? I learned a big lesson that day. Always put forth 100% of effort, you’d be surprised how far you go. Another ill feeling sunk in as well. Had I become complacent after finishing the great Ultra Beast? Had I stopped trying just because I thought that I was more than capable of just surviving?
Without the prospect of Killington 2016 in favor of attending my friend Tripp’s wedding, was I right to assume that Tahoe would be a ‘lesser’ event not worthy of my concern? These are dangerous thoughts indeed…
The events leading up to September were pretty crazy, had I been Neil from 2014. I completed the Masters of all terrain full marathon in June with a weighted rucksack and got 1st place simply by virtue of being one of the very few runners that decided to take a second half-marathon lap in the dead heat of the Florida June afternoon. I had experienced victory after victory, deprived of any major competition in these last few months. Sure, I’m much stronger now and it’s nice to win… but I need a rabbit to chase. The five athletes that I vowed to one day beat have been whittled down to just two and I’m beating personal bests almost monthly now. Nevertheless, an ever-present fear looms over me.
September has arrived, and like the years before, the nervous excitement has swept into my psyche despite my efforts to suppress it. I find myself watching videos of the UB events of the past, grasping my fond memories of the course as I am once again waking up from dreams of being in the mountains. I was afraid at first that my dismissal of this event’s difficulty made me overconfident. Yes… I was afraid that I was not afraid. My training has been less intense compared to last year, or so I’m led to believe. It hurts that I cannot be out there in Killington this year, opting to be the best man for my friend (and fellow Regiment Elite) Tripp’s wedding. I’m sure that periodically throughout the wedding I will find myself checking on updates of the event, cheering my friends on as I know the exact feelings they are going through.
A million thoughts are buzzing through my brain in a caffeine fueled noise, only to subside when I’m training. The constant labor of running endless miles puts my mind in a surreal state of meditation that commands me to live in the moment, as if I’m the pilot of a machine merely pulling levers and pushing buttons to move that machine forward like I had experienced at the log carry last year. Will the bitter cold of this course block me from this meditation that was my salvation in Killington? What about the terrain? I’m more adapted to the steep muddy mountains than the vast expanse of the rocky, more level terrain of Tahoe. Then there’s the thin air at 8000+ feet… What about-
This train of doubtful thoughts runs its course through my mind daily. Yes, I am human, but I am more than that. I am an Ultra Beast, damnit! The answer to these questions will come as soon as I take that first step on the starting line in Tahoe.
I can, and I will.
An alarm wakes me up at 5am. I slowly reach for the snooze button out of habit, thinking it was time to get to work. It took half a second to fully realize that I wasn’t auto-piloting through my regular morning routine, but embarking on what has become a yearly pilgrimage. The weeks leading up to this day had been riddled with a sinusoidal wave of confidence and fear. I found myself meticulously checking for Vermont Ultra Beast updates during Tripp’s wedding during downtime, only to discover that ALL FIVE of our elites concluded their attempt at the mountain with a DNF. I felt guilty. I should have been out there, bleeding with my fellow teammates, instead I was getting drunk and fat in a night of joyous festivities.
My thoughts of the weeks prior ended as I arrived at Daniel’s apartment, redirecting itself into the weekend that awaited us both. I found myself obsessively checking the weather forecast as it got worse and worse. Race day forecast was sub-freezing in the morning with little to no clouds in the sky until around 11am, where a freakish cold front would blanket the mountain in a snowstorm. Our flights into Reno were uneventful, but the real enjoyment began once we connected with our race buddies at the airport. The drive out there was an astounding contrast from the drab, flat, sub-tropical landscape I had been accustomed to in Florida. As was the case in years prior, my nervousness and apprehension temporarily faded away as we reached the serene landscape of our destination, giving way to excitement and an eagerness to get things started.
With the UltraBeast on Sunday and it being Thursday, we had some time to explore and prepare around Lake Tahoe. After a few trips to REI and local hardware stores, our group was ready to begin what would be a unique mission of personal growth that can only be understood by those who were in the moment. As these big events usually entail, much of our day was spent connecting with longtime social media friends and past race buddies while spectating the course construction (Friday) and the beast runners (Saturday). The course was of little concern to me, save for two factors; temperature and elevation. Never had I had to embark upon a race (nevertheless an ultramarathon) with temperatures below freezing, nor at an elevation higher than 4,000 feet. These two factors would continually creep into my mind despite the many ice-breaking activities that I forcefully occupied my days with.
My attempts at sleep in the nights leading up to Sunday were tumultuous, to say the least. I’d constantly be awoken by the need to either pee or settle my mind as it carelessly wandered back into concerns of what I would be facing on top of the peaks in Squaw Valley. Instead of repeating my thoughts here, let me summarize it in a Facebook post that I made in the Team Regiment group page:
Had I not broadcasted my intent to conquer another UltraBeast, I seriously would have downgraded my registration to the Beast. Nevertheless my tethered responsibility to that virtual crowd of spectators closed that door behind me and burned all bridges of retreat. I had nowhere to go but into the gaping, frozen maw of the mountain. Spartan the fuck up, right?
After I had accepted my fate, my Saturday night sleep was surprisingly tranquil, as if my body knew what was in store and clamored for any comforts it could garner before being thrown out into the torturous course that awaited us all. The alarm gently brought me to consciousness as 2 hours, 23 minutes and 10 seconds remained until I was due to set foot at the starting line. (By the way, I’m that guy who kept posting the countdown posts in all of those group pages).
It was no surprise that my morning was spent struggling to shovel in any calories my stomach could accept. Half of a chocolate muffin and a honey stinger waffle was all I could eat despite the ever present need to fuel up. Memories of the 2014 UltraBeast haunted me briefly, fading away with the other memory that I’d eventually get hungry enough on the course for my body to overcome my stubborn stomach and allow endless calories to flow in. In the hotel room I’d nibble a few bites of food as I’d put layer after layer on, donning a wetsuit in preparation for the dreaded lake swim that was on everyone’s mind. After a short ride to the venue and a short (but very cold) walk to the starting line Heidi and I met up with our friends as we nervously huddled together for warmth. The excitement was palpable, amplified by a very drunk Hunter McIntyre running through the starting line to pump everybody up. Before we could begin, there were a couple of announcements that were made. For one, that dreaded lake swim was cancelled! We later found out that if the temperature of the water and the air (factoring in wind chill) were 80 degrees apart, they were going to cancel the swim. Another abbreviation they announced was the removal of the UltraBeast-specific 2 mile loop on the much windier side of the peak due to hazardous conditions such as wind gusts toppling the obstacles over. It was made clear that Spartan’s concerns for our safety paralleled ours (for once). After the obligatory high fives with our fellow racers (including Bubbles the swole clown!) we set out through the frosty starting line with a booming “AROO”, which had to have awoken every person sleeping at the venue hotel at 6am.
The first half mile of running was on paved concrete paths and parking lots, which brought no sense of security to anybody who had scoped out the course in the days prior. Shortly after that our terrain drastically changed with the OUT obstacle and then a waist-deep watery mud pit to immediately get our already-cold bodies wet. Level ground surrendered to the rocky incline of the first mountain, barely illuminated by the errant headlamps that some runners brought. The morning sun finally bathed us in its glow as we ascended the first peak, bringing the thin cold mountain air out of the freezing range and into the sweat-inducing heat that would cook the inside of my wetsuit that was already strangling my every attempt at basic movements. I unzipped my outer layers and let a breeze in, making sure I don’t sweat too bad. My hunger finally got the best of my stomach and I was able to down a lovely vial of turbo fuel, honey and coconut water and whatever else Heidi concocted for me in the night prior. Whatever was in it sated my hunger as the first real challenging obstacle presented itself – the monkey bars. My first impression of it was rather grim as I caught sight of a guy laying on the ground sprawling in pain, grasping his shoulder. Before I could feel sorry for what looked like a 30-minute DNF, I saw him furiously yank on his arm until it gave way to a hollow sounding pop. It what was only a scene you’d witness at Spartan Race! He cheered wildly as he jumped back up and continued running as if nothing happened, showing complete dismissal of the volunteer’s medical concerns for him. Laughing at the badassery I just witnessed, I cruised through the monkey bars and began the downhill portion of the run alongside Daniel. It was around this time when I started to feel a little… strange. On a portion of the course that I’d normally start running at a sub-7 pace down the mountain, it felt as if an essence of my body was lagging behind me, tethered only by the inertia of my sharp turns I would feel my head spin as I’d feel while completely intoxicated. This was the first time I truly felt the ill effects of altitude fog up my sea-level mind. It was clear that my ambitions of finishing the first lap in the top 20 were never going to happen if I couldn’t go all-out on the descents. Instead I slowly trotted down, trying to resist the overwhelming urge to close my eyes and take a quick nap on the side of the trail. I’ve never felt the ill effects of elevation until that very moment, and it sure as hell put me in my place.
The first mountain peak descent snaked its way down into the venue where the inverted wall and new thigh master obstacles awaited us. Still fresh in the arms despite having done the monkey bars and numerous wall climbs, both of these obstacles were no problem at all. I felt as if this was by design, just to merely prep us for the next peak. The first mountain peak was the appetizer, now it was time to take on the main course.
The ascent up the mountain was a slow one, unfortunately. My elevation-addled mind couldn’t push myself more than a brisk stair-stepper pace up the mountain, but it still reserved the time to look up every once in a while to take in the absolutely beautiful scenery. Daniel and I continued our slow climb up to the spear throw, occasionally opening each other’s packs to fetch nutrition for each other. Despite having a spear throw in my own backyard, I always approached this obstacle with the fear of failure. Looking to my side I noticed Heidi cranking out her burpees with a noticeable frustration. After wrapping the rope around the spear three times and holding it one hand length behind the balance point, I cautiously arced the spear in a perfect trajectory into the bullseye of the target, connecting with that satisfying thip sound. It’s a good feeling to know that the spear throw is a free obstacle for me now! With no physical exertion I can now take a quick 20 seconds to throw a spear and move on to the rest of the course, but only at the expense of having thrown at least 1,000 practice throws in my backyard over the last year.
Daniel, Heidi and I were now side by side as we ascended to the highest point of the course. The ‘three amigos’ as we came to address ourselves approached an array of challenging obstacles at the windy peak which still displayed the 1960 winter Olympic rings, reminding us of the long history of great athletic perils that people have faced on this mountain. The first obstacle was the newly crafted traverse wall similar to the tip of the spear obstacle we’ve seen at Battlefrog (r.i.p.) events in the past. The only difference was that there were different means of negotiating the obstacle with your hands in the form of rock climbing grips, holes and chains. After opting for the holes I easily clanked the bell with my forehead just to have fun with it all. Up next was a sled drag, followed by the atlas carry. Both obstacles were significantly harder at high elevation, by the way! The dirt-choked wind buffeted everybody while the next two obstacles ominously presented themselves ahead. A ridiculously long barbed wire low crawl on the rocky gravel ground stood in the way of the new ape hanger obstacle. Periodically my rolling through the barbed wire was paused for me to shield my face from the sharp sandy wind gusts that kept sawing its way through the course. I decided to remove my gloves for the ape hanger, immediately feeling the cold sting of the air numbing my hands and crippling my grip strength. Nevertheless, I hustled my way up to the obstacle and navigated through the first half of the dangling bars utilizing my wide arm length, skipping a bar in between before the icy sting of the cold bars shunted my grip strength down to just one bar at a time. After hitting the bell I mustered up a swinging momentum with the final vestiges of my faltering grip to attempt to land outside of the frigid pit of water that laid below me, falling into just ankle deep water I realized it could have been worse after noticing the poor soul next to me landing and stumbling down into the pit up to their neck in freezing water.
My forced slower-than-usual pace had paid off by this point. I had not felt the dizziness and extreme urge to sleep away my dull headache as I had felt before, which was a good thing considering that two of the most dreadful carries lied ahead. The first of these carries was the log carry. My renewed strength paid off at this one. I never let my log touch the ground, only resting it on my raised knee once on the uphill carry. This was a much needed confidence boost, which you can see in the picture below!
A part of me still didn’t believe that they actually closed off the swim, but my doubts were cast aside by this point as the lake was gleefully devoid of any swimmers. However that part of the course still had a grave hardship that we all had to endure – the dreaded sandbag carry. This was especially brutal for the elite runners (me being one of them) since we had to carry not one but two sandbags. With no special wristband or bib to show that we were elite runners, some people shamefully lied at this obstacle. The volunteers simply stated that only elites had to carry two, while competitive and open runners had the mercy of carrying only one burdensome sack o’ sand. I must have counted about ten elites that I saw at the starting line only carrying one bag, each of whom easily passed me on the ascent, angering me more and more with every passing ‘elite’ I counted. I held my tongue, though. They were the ones that had to hold their medal (if they even got it) knowing that they didn’t truly earn it under the banner of elite that they so proudly registered under in the months prior. “Run your own race” I kept repeating in my mind. The next obstacle was a simple log flip that I was lucky enough to have the strength to flip effectively, as others were forced to burpee out of this seemingly simple challenge. Don’t skip back/shoulder day at the gym, folks!
The rest of the course from here on out was a steady descent. Having a better understanding of just how much I could safely exert myself I was able to sustain a decent jog down the mountain, although nowhere near as fast as I could sprint down the steady declines of Killington. Beautiful trails snaked downwards as sparse obstacles presented themselves. Stairway to Sparta was a simple challenge thanks to being tall, which led the way into the absolutely gorgeous western states trail. The serene beauty of the trail was sharply taken from me as it gave way into the dreaded bucket carry. I had hiked up the mountain two days earlier, and just walking up the soft mulch terrain without a bucket was a labor in itself. I grudgingly filled my bucket to the holes and hefted the immense burden up the half mile route. I had removed my layers down to just two by this point while setting the bucket down whenever my heart commanded me to relent to its 180+ bpm demands. As soon as the thump-thump of my labored heart left my ears I would slowly continue onwards, still managing to pass a great deal of folks. Ridiculous bucket carries always have a nice little payoff – dumping that awful bucket back into the pile. I’ve got to say that this particular carry garnered the best payoff of them all!
An aid station provided the icing on the bucket carry cake as it ushered us all into the final descent trail, leading everybody back into the festival area for the spectators to witness our end-of-lap suffering. After trotting down to the valley (while feeling the onset of a shin splint) a simple balance beam led into the Hercules hoist, which actually took a lot out of me. However I felt more physically taxed at just seeing what was after that… the dreaded dunk wall.
This freezing torture wall was the bane of everybody’s existence. Thankfully I brought a dry bag with me, stuffing my gloves, outer two layers, headgear and gear pack into. I cannot stress the usefulness of doing this. What equated to losing a minute off my finish time translated into me not DNFing minutes later. I went under the dunk wall and immediately felt the cold seize up my body. Taking in an involuntary gasp of air I floundered out of the water, staving off full-body cramps as much as I could by immediately running up to the slip wall and running at full speed afterwards. The bridge was the next obstacle ahead, which was high enough to not be shielded by the surrounding buildings protective wind barrier.
It was around this time when the sunny clear skies began to give way to the foul weather. As the first lap was now complete I ran straight to my drop bin to put dry clothes on. The wind began to violently pick up by this point. Little was I aware that had I been 10-15 minutes slower, I could have avoided the dunk wall altogether. Why? Well… here is what the wind did to that obstacle:
The wind that blew down that obstacle was now bombarding my shivering body like a thousand icy knives, forcing me into a shivering mimicry of a jackhammer. The only comforting thing about the drop bins was that three amigos (Heidi, Daniel and I) were all still together, speaking encouraging positive words enthusiastically as if they would be the only way to warm up. By this point I realized that the hourglass had now been turned down. It was only a matter of time before the cold would consume me and I could not continue should I remain in the drop bin area too long. Knowing that there were no more water obstacles on the course, I started removing layers to get my wetsuit off. As I unzipped the back of my wetsuit to start removing my base layer team jersey, a sharp gust of wind pummeled me, presaging the insane weather that awaited us all at the peak. As the cold enveloped my entire body the mere thought of the minute or two of being shirtless was too much to bear, so I opted to zip up the wetsuit that impeded my motion, preferring a mere moment of warmth at the expense of having the next 4-6 hours of the second lap being cocooned in my neoprene straight jacket. Little did I know was that this decision would have a significant positive impact on my second lap. After eating half a sandwich and guzzling down some concoction of workout recovery drink I donned new dry layers of clothes with an additional windbreaker tied at my waist, should the shedable shell falter against the approaching snowstorm. I took one last look around the transition area, only to see my Killington 2015 friend Todd sitting down, listlessly staring at the ground while shivering uncontrollably. My heart sank, knowing that there was little chance of him continuing on in the state he was in by this point. “You’ve gotta move your ass, don’t sit still or you’ll just get colder” was the only words of encouragement I could muster while fighting off becoming a meat popsicle myself. It pained me to see him like this, especially since we shared the final five miles of the killington course together.
Another gust of frigid wind punched me in the gut as if mother nature was tugging me away from the transition area and towards my second lap. After telling Todd that he can help himself to anything in my bin, I forced myself into hitting the second lap running. The brisk run through the starting area was a nice contrast from the first lap. The spectators had woken up and lined the fences around the starting area. “Go Ultra!” rang the crowd as I felt the signature creaking feeling consume my right leg. A shin splint had begun to form earlier, now amplified by the momentary rest I had granted it. The physical pain had become a non-issue by this point, though. The thing about running an ultra is that the race is physical only up to 15-ish miles. Everything beyond that is purely mental. I spent years of my life learning this the hard way, so I had accepted the pain and continued onwards into the first mountain peak. The water trenches immediately soaked my lower body again. It was nice being dry for a short moment, I guess. The climb up to the top of the first peak had its memorable ‘lap 2 loneliness’ I remembered from previous ultrabeasts. Save for the errant sprint wave runners, most of this section of the course was spent on my own. Having opted out of any music, I labored onwards to the tune of my own thoughts metronomed by my labored heartbeat. The demons that I spoke of in my previous killington stories were definitely trying to claw their way into my mind by this point, amplified by the foggy din of pain brought on by being at 8000+ feet of elevation. I remember in particular the steep incline leading to the monkey bars being the worst. Now being a father, I had a new voice in my head that incessantly nagged me to the tune of “you’ve abandoned your family to do this to yourself”. I wanted to take a moment to bury my face into my hands and sit down for a moment to let things settle when I noticed a blurred teary silhouette of Heidi come into focus. Immediately those toxic thoughts were lifted when I realized that I had not abandoned by family to do this. I had reunited with another family by doing this, while putting on a positive example for my other family back home. A forced smile turned into a natural one as Heidi and I gave each other a high five and shared some encouraging words as she gave me another vial of that weird turbo/honey/coconut concoction that brought be back into fighting shape. Finding that balance in my various families allows the best parts of each family trickle over to the other one, making me a better person overall. This had to be understood the hard way.
We blasted through the monkey bars, ushering in a brisk downhill jaunt down the mountain. Remembering the altitude exhaustion from the first lap, I went down the first peak with a little more caution in my stride… but I couldn’t help notice something in the corner of my eyes. I thought it was a hallucination at first. Small specks of white would periodically show up in my field of view, listlessly falling around me. It was only when I saw the white-on-black contrast of what I was seeing land on my gloves that I knew that it was no hallucination. It was now starting to snow.
I saw some familiar faces at this point, which raised my spirits a great deal. I ran into Ilene as she was wrapping up her sprint lap, and then I saw bubbles the clown running down the mountain into the festival area. Where his journey was ending, mine was only about to begin. I rushed through the thigh master and inverted wall, taking a moment to look up at the next peak that I was soon to attack. The peak was barely visible as a thick cloud of white had now enveloped it, ominously inviting me to get a closer look at what it had in store. The sprint runners diverted at this point, leaving the remainder of the treacherous course for the ultra runners to endure. Lap two loneliness was now going to become even more real. I could only see a couple of runners by this point, but we all shared the same conviction and determination to take on what visibly awaited us at the gaping white maw of the mountain.
It felt like every anguished step upwards by this point brought on heavier sheets of snow, and it appeared that that was no exaggeration. Fat flakes of snow began to pile on whatever parts of me were most dormant. The sound of my feet on the ground shifted from a gravel-like crackle to a powdery crunch as more and more powder started to pile up. For the most part I was warm due to the fact that I did not stop to rest, forcing my heartbeat into the body-warming redzone. It appeared to be working since I kept passing others that were clinging on to their space blankets and whatever scraps of warmth they could rig together. I thought back to my time in the transition area, and how screwed I would have been if I had removed that wetsuit that now embraced me in warmth. I found myself sucking on just air from my camelback, discovering that the tubing had frozen over. After bending the tubing and cracking the ice inside I was able to get the water flowing again, making sure to constantly take small sips from my pack just to keep the system from freezing again. The cargo net came into view, sadistically nestled near the bucket brigade to remind everyone of what we had to face during our treacherous descent later in the afternoon. For now the only way forward was up, further into the worsening snowstorm that now occasionally buffeted sheets of thick snow sideways. I let my mind creep out of the here-and-now state and drift into what lie ahead. “The spear throw must be soon”, I muttered to myself while focusing on not slipping off the side of the trail into whatever lies underneath the growing blanket of snow. At least I could nail that obstacle and focus on other things. The volunteers during lap 1 had told us that the peak had been closed off due to foul weather, and that people would be diverted at the Olympic rings straight to the log carry. Never before had I heard of a course being partially closed, which told me one thing… this was some serious shit that we were in.
Eventually the outline of an aid station broke the white curtain where a brave volunteer stood shivering but still filling up water for everyone. “We’ve got to divert you guys”, said the shivering volunteer. “You’re not cut from the race, but for safety reasons we have to get people off the mountain”. This hardly came as a surprise considering that the winds had already blown over obstacles and rendered any vehicle/first aid traffic impossible. Instead of proceeding to the spear throw, I was pointed the other way towards the stairway to Sparta obstacle nearby. A part of me felt denied the true and full experience of the Ultra Beast, only to realize that the weather conditions more than made up for this 2 mile abbreviation. That thought was echoed as I attempted to climb up the stairway obstacle only to have my feet slip down the icy wall. The person next to me was not so fortunate, slipping off from higher up and falling on his back, knocking the wind out of him and stunning him for a moment. The volunteer donning a dryrobe quickly came to his aid, announcing the closure of the obstacle (for obvious reasons). “This is some serious shit” said a runner next to me, as if reading my earlier thoughts out loud. I guess it really was. We’ve never had such a dramatic course closure happen in a Spartan race before, and here we were in the thick of it all.
The next section of the trail curved into the scenic western states portion, where just hours before lacked the complete whiteout that we were now experiencing. Running was just about non-existent by this point. Our ragtag group of nearby runners instead opted to walking in a closely-knit line that carefully snaked its way down the mountain. “One small slip to the left and you’re falling off the mountain” said the woman behind me with a nervous chill in her voice. She was right. I took a moment to look off to my side and noticed that were I to fall, it would be perilous for both myself and anybody attempting to slip down and help me. I kept to my cautious routine of keeping my hydration tubing clear while breathing in through my facemask and out through my nose, occasionally keeping warm by peeing into my wetsuit. (Look, I know you could have gone without knowing that, but I gotta’ lay it out there and straight up tell you how much of a relief that was. I’m not even sorry).
The trail eventually led our convoy of racers down into a familiar clearing which taunted me just hours before… the bucket brigade. A small glimmer of hope shined within me earlier, hoping that the bucket brigade would be closed from the weather, only to be dashed as I saw the long line snaking its way up the half mile loop up the mountain. Running to the buckets I saw my friend Kenneth ‘Hulk’ Terrell, where I opened my back and shared some Honey Stinger waffles with him. Eating them was a chore now since they were frozen to the point where it was like eating chips of plastic.
The volunteer then approached us. “There is no rule on how much you have to fill your buckets, just walk the route. You can put two pieces of mulch in your bucket for all we care”. Sweet! Piece of cake, I’ll just-
“However, those doing the ultrabeast… Fill it up to an amount you feel that earns your medal”!
Well, shit. Kenneth spared no time and filled his bucket to the top. Heidi soon met up with me as we started to fill our buckets with wet gravel, mulch, dirt and snow. Having been exhausted to my wits end I filled my bucket up to almost two inches below the holes. “The stuff in the bucket is soaking wet anyways, so it’s still heavy”, I silently justified to myself as I hefted the bucket on to my waist, supported by the windbreaker still tied around me. Sure enough, the bucket was pretty heavy despite the visible discrepancy. I let that justification sit on the back of my head, opting instead to focus on taking every careful step up the mountain to avoid slipping and falling. I managed to pass a lot of people carrying an empty bucket, reminding me of the integrity violation rampant at the sandbag carry. Sure, it wasn’t against the rules in this case… but a completely empty bucket? I then looked down at my bucket, and I suddenly felt sick to my stomach. I’m no better than them, I realized. It’s either all or nothing. As I started the downhill portion of the bucket carry I passed Kenneth, who was still going uphill with a bucket filled with real, honest weight. “EARN our medal, guys!” screamed the guy at the top of his lungs. By then I felt like complete shit. I couldn’t even look him in the eyes as we crossed paths, instead pretending to struggle (I actually was, but not to the degree I expressed) on my bucket and closing my eyes in fake anguish. I actually felt physically ill as I dumped my bucket and handed it off to the next runner who was being told the same exception to the rules that I had been told. I had the energy to run, but I chose to stagger over to the nearby aid station while anguishing over taking the easy way out. “You’re almost there man, stay strong and keep that finish line on your mind” said somebody gulping down a half-frozen cup of water. He must have noticed how I looked and confused my disgust for exhaustion. With a silent nod I slow-jogged down the trail that ushered everybody into the festival area where the coveted finish line lay obstructed by just a few more obstacles. This would have normally brought me joy just like the year before, but it was obvious by this point that my upcoming victory would be empty and fraudulent in my mind. Sure, I didn’t break any rules laid out by the race staff, but the integrity behind Kenneth’s words rang inside my head. I was reminded of a Facebook post that he made just the day before when he saw his long-time idol and ultramarathon running legend Dean Karnazes running in the Beast course:
I couldn't stop thinking about that post, and then comparing it to the post I had made in my team’s group page just nights earlier. What if somebody was looking up to me and realized I had cut corners? I constantly tout the phrase “champions are built when nobody is looking”, allowing those words to ring in my head felt like getting punched in the gut. I deserved to feel this way, after all. I stopped for a moment and stood still, letting the runners behind me to breeze by me. I looked back at the trail, and I knew that I had to make up for it in some way. I had decided that I was going to go back to the bucket carry and do it all over again, but with the right weight this time. I had a significant re-tracing of my steps ahead of me, but I didn’t care. “You alright?” asked a concerned passerby. “Yeah, I just left something at the bucket brigade”, without telling her that it was really my dignity that I had lost. “Just talk to lost and found after the race is over; they just closed off the obstacle and the entry to this trail”.
Son of a…
I shamefully started back down the trail, jogging without regard for my safety. What’s the point if I hurt myself now? I’d deserve it. Just when I thought I got my head out of the bad place that it was in, I saw other runners completely bypassing the hurdle obstacles. “You can choose to complete the obstacle or not, it doesn’t matter” said the volunteers enforcing the obstacle. Sure enough, about half of the runners chose the easy route. Not wanting to damn myself even more I hurled myself over each obstacle with reckless abandon. Just as the trail opened its way to the road to the festival area I stopped again. Kenneth was behind me, and I had to tell him what was on my mind. After all, his exemplary integrity is what shackled me to this guilt-ridden ball and chain. I must have stood there for at least 15 minutes waiting for him. Heidi passed me by and I explained to her what I was going to do. I told her that I wanted Kenneth to decide what punishment I was going to do to make up for this integrity violation, even if it meant 100 burpees. Despite how awesome it would be to finish alongside my fellow teammates, I had to get this off my back. Shortly after he arrived and I explained the situation to him. He was pleasantly surprised and happy to hear me come clean, telling me that in the old days of Spartan Race, if you came back with your bucket not filled to the line you had to do 30 burpees. “Do them at the finish line, let’s just get down to the festival area”, he said with an encouraging and uplifting tone. Having done zero burpees throughout the entire course so far, I was happy to tack on those 30 if it meant finishing this thing with a genuine sense of pride. 30 burpees it is, I accept this punishment. After cruising through the balance beam and the Hercules hoist, the dunk wall was understandably closed, leading over to the more literal slip wall that was now covered in snow. Hearing the music thumping in the distance lifted me up even more now that I had cleared my conscience. I get to finish this with an integrity that so many others threw away on the mountain, and all that awaited me was the rope climb and the rig (and of course my 30 burpees).
The rope climb wasn’t as bad of a challenge as I had anticipated, but I had spent the majority of my grip strength getting up the rope with my bare hands exposed to the cold. What little strength I could muster in my arms brought me to the last and final obstacle... the rig! My numb hands gripped the first ring as hard as possible, and one swing led to the next, only for the third or fourth ring proving to be too much for my exhausted forearms to grip as I plunged to the ground. I looked back and saw Hulk doing his rope climb burpees, as well as Heidi getting started on her 30 rig burpees. After we did our rig burpees together, Heidi had her victorious run to the finish line. Seeing her in that moment lifted me up even more as I proudly stood just 20 feet from what would soon become my moment. It wasn’t time yet. I had one last thing that had to be done.
I patiently and proudly waited for Kenneth to finish his rope climb burpees before cheering him on at the rig. He fell off at around the same spot I did, which wasn’t too much of a surprise considering that he had run this entire event while suffering from an umbilical hernia. He did his rig burpees while I did my integrity burpees side by side, first doing ten and then four more sets of five. Now it was time. Now I allowed myself to EARN what I had worked so hard to accomplish. After giving him a sincere bro-hug and a meaningful “Thank you so much for this” that was held back by a few tears, we ran our victorious small distance that separated us from the burpee pit to the finish line where we got our much-revered medal (after waiting in line to verify our chronotrack, of course). So many familiar faces were waiting at the finish line, many of whom were well aware of the journey I had taken to get to where I now stood. A tidal wave of joy swept over me to see so many of my friends accomplishing the same incredible feat!
Once again… I had done it! An event which shaped my character over the years through repeated failure had forged my character in Killington and now cemented it as the heavy buckle was handed over to my numb, shivering hands. With it came the dignity, honesty and self-respect that I had momentarily lost and re-gained out on the mountain – a lesson in humanity that will resonate with me for the rest of my life... a lesson that would have never came full circle had it not been for the unwavering character of my OCR family.
Returning home with my head held high and medal draped around my neck I proudly embraced my wife and son, knowing that despite the temporary flaws of my humanity I still pulled through, and that I had succeeded in providing that positive example I had originally set out to provide for the two people that stood before me that I thought of so many times out on the mountain. This event was definitely more mental than it was physical, and I was reminded of a quote that Katie sent me before starting the race that stuck with me throughout my time in the mountain:
“Courage isn’t the absence of fear, but the judgment that something else is more important than fear”