What you’re about to embark upon is an account of my journey towards the 2018 Killington Ultra, formerly known as the Ultra Beast (I’ll use the words interchangeably). This is an event that I had trained years to complete – at first failing multiple times, then striving to merely survive, and then to thrive in. After failing the event in 2013 and again in 2014, 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 4 of my Ultrabeast adventure for you to really get the perspective of now how I did all of this, but why. Part 1 begins in 2013, up until part 4 in 2016. If you’d like to only read about this year’s event, simply skip parts 1-4 below.
Six years of my life have led up to this chapter.
This is my story.
I slowly open my eyes to the blurry sight of fog blanketing the window outside my hotel room. Out of my window lie the view of the mountain that I had spent the entire day getting to know in ways that very few people have had the privilege to know. I smile at the sight, realizing how OCR and ultrarunning has afforded me the opportunities that many have dreamed of over the years. I have seen the sun rise over the rolling vista of the Appalachian Mountains, devoid of the cacophony of noise ever present in the concrete jungle we’re so comfortably tethered to. I’ve had the ocean breeze of the Caribbean beaches massage my mind as I ran alongside its crystal clear waters with only the symphony of the crashing waves to cheer me on. Looking up through the wilderness in Vermont I’ve seen the clouds of the Milky Way galaxy stretch across the sky – a sight almost impossible to witness in this age of 24/7 manufactured daylight. These things were attainable through a price that few are willing to pay, but the reward is absolutely addictive. Our level of comfort acceptance over the years had brought these once commonly-attainable experiences into mere dream sequences to the masses. This was a mindset I had decided I will never be among, and I smiled as I took in the morning sight of Killington, a place that I will now fondly think back to as one of the many amazing experiences earned by paying what so few are willing to pay.
I wasn’t as sore as I had thought I would be that morning, which was a very good sign! My fingers methodically traced the border of my newly attained medal as I had breakfast with my temporary roommates. We reveled in our accomplishments that we had all achieved throughout the day as we eventually parted ways. Our goodbyes were cheerful and optimistic, for that we knew that we’d see each other at whatever other big adventure we’d inevitably convene at in the future.
As much as I enjoyed my time in Vermont, I was eager to return home to my family. It had finally gotten cooler in Florida when I returned, which was a nicer-than-expected transition back to the hot and humid weather I’ve trained in. The week and a half of mandatory rest was actually pretty tough to follow through with the heat index finally being below 100, but it made eventually hitting the pavement all the more fun! Although finishing Killington this year and Tahoe the year before was a great accomplishment in my mind, it was now in the past. As the babe once said, your homeruns of the past will not win your games of today… and holy moly; I had some crazy games lined up for 2018!
At work, I was ‘that guy’. You know, the guy who’s the office fitness psycho. No longer were my accomplishments some crazy thing that turned heads, but only led to the question “what’s next”? I felt that the UltraBeast had become very normalized for me, and I didn’t know if that was a good or bad thing. I didn’t even do a write-up about my experiences in the 2017 Ultra simply because there was nothing new or remarkable in it. Most of my time at the 2017 ultra was spent alone with my head down getting the work done. I was worried that I had lost that great enthusiasm and fear-induced excitement that surrounded this race that had defined and refined me. I thought of this as I looked at my medal that I brought into work that day, only to have that thought interrupted by a knock outside my desk.
“I see you finished. Good work! So, when’s your next adventure?”
I pointed to the wall calendar. “World’s Toughest Mudder. Going for 50 miles and then I’m running the Rock N’ Roll half marathon immediately after”. He raised an eyebrow. “Wasn’t that the event you failed at before? You sure you can do it this time?” He said, justifiably concerned.
I wasn’t sure. That was the beauty of it! The difference this time was that I had stopped doubting myself, and the only way to find out if I have what it takes is to go out there and fix what I had failed back in 2014. I felt that others concern for me wasn’t that I could fail – but more that I failed to adhere to the common trend that I see holding everybody back… being afraid to fail.
So I erased the whiteboard at my desk and drew a new countdown, as I usually did when a milestone loomed ahead.
So here we are. WTM2017.
There were two things that I learned prior to coming into this event.
1) Failure to prepare is preparing to fail, and
2) Your word is everything
2014 was a harsh lesson in gear that resulted in me dropping at mile 35 due to the infamous dust storm freezefest that ruined us all. Determined not to repeat that mistake again, I splurged on a full wetsuit and I brought plenty of gear with me this time with no concern about paying for baggage fees this time. I also promised a friend that I’d run the Rock N’ Roll half marathon with him if we both accomplished 50 miles together (he had also failed in a previous year). I originally banked on a friend letting me use her BOGO entry to the Rock N’ Roll 13.1, but that plan had fallen through which led me to being two days prior without a race entry.
The cost to purchase an entry to the race the day before? $260.
Me and my big mouth...
Scott showed me a screenshot of my promise, and I figured that people had lost much more money in Vegas over stupider things, so I bit the bullet and signed up. Race day had come and our preparation had really paid off! 50 miles and 200 obstacles were crushed in around 20 hours, and so we set off early to the strip to start what would become our slowest half marathon ever! Getting that orange 50 mile bib and running a victory 13.1 felt absolutely amazing! The slow walk back to our hotel however was quite miserable. Nevertheless, the last of my lingering failures had finally been rectified! I felt as if I had once and for all paid off all my debts and a new sense of adventure for the unknown had taken hold in my mind.
This then begs the question… what’s next?
Fast forward to next year.
Yeah, holy shit right?!
Instead of going into a lot of detail here, you can learn a whole lot more by my story about this event here. I know… it’s kind of like going through a Wikipedia wormhole, but I highly recommend reading through the story. What I got out of this event was absolutely life-changing, and it brought back that feeling of excitement and love that I had thought I lost.
This event taught me so much. Above all, It taught me that there are two moments in our lives when we are born:
1) When we physically enter this world.
2) When we learn why.
All throughout the death race I thought to myself how amazing this event will train me for the ultra, be it a 60lb sandbag carry up bloodroot for endless hours, the 12 hours of low crawls or the 3000 burpees. This time I had a decent sized group to train with, and a dedicated one at at! After being refined from the Death Race, I resumed training for the Ultra with an equally refined purpose that I remember feeling all those years ago. The mornings of Saturdays or Sundays were typically spent by grinding out three hours on the stair stepper and bike, followed by an appropriately epic Chipotle feast for lunch afterwards. April through June had a similar, but less intense version of this, but the months leading up to the Ultra were no joke.
Everybody in our group had our own little story. One was coming back out to Killington for redemption. The other was trying it out for the very first time. Others were doing just the beast and another decided at the last couple weeks to try their very first OCR out in Killington! September had slowly arrived and my once dulled excitement was overcome by the renewed enthusiasm that I had felt five years ago when I first signed up for this silly new event called the “Ultra Beast”. We fed off of our enthusiasm and passion, reveling in the opportunity to simply be out there no matter the outcome!
I’m reminded of the rowdy group we had back in 2015; each of us had our own big story coming into this event. Unlike last year, I wasn’t heading up there alone. All five of us got the same flight and the same car ride together and it was finally time to not test our training, but to celebrate it.
My phone buzzes beside me at 4:30am, but I’m more awakened by my startled cat that used me as a pillow that night. After wiping my fur-ridden face off and stumbling out of bed, it dawns on me that I’m not getting up for work. Suddenly my heart leaps in excitement as I realized that by lunchtime that day I’ll be in Killington! Our group of five met at the airport for a 7am for our direct flight out to Manchester, each of us resonating an aura of excitement underscored by grogginess. With this being my fifth time doing the Killington ultra, I could see varying degrees of excitement and wonder in my team that were displayed out to me like a historical timeline of my past feelings – from the hunger of redemption to the nervous wonder of what awaited.
After making a supply stop at Walmart, we headed out to Killington while stopping along the way at any tourist trap that caught our eyes. After all, we had the entire Thursday to ourselves, save for the dinner plans we had with one of the death race instructors that night!
Our room at the Killington grand was absolutely stunning! Having known how in-demand the lodge was, I had reserved a balcony view of the mountain as far back as February to make sure our view was top notch! Sabrina, my Georgia Death Race partner in crime, met up with us later that night as well.
Friday was a busy, busy day. There was gear prep, packet pickup, endless socializing, gondola rides and some helpful obstacle practice in the festival area where we tried out Olympus, twister, spear throw and the rig. The spear throw had me very worried, however. Despite having a backyard spear throw that was more difficult than the one at the venue, I missed my first couple practice throws. Even though I landed all of the spears afterwards that the thought lingered in my mind that I won’t be going into this obstacle with a couple practice throws. This was an obstacle that was supposed to be guaranteed win… a burpee pass, if you will. The concern faded away slightly after clearing my mind at the top of K1, but I knew it would sit in the back of my mind until I approach the obstacle the next day.
The excitement of the day faded into the calm of the night. We spent some time at the hot tub to relax ourselves into what would nevertheless be a restless night, as these nights always inevitably tend to be. Sleep was intermittent but it wasn’t that bad since we got plenty of rest the night before. As usual, most of us awoke before our alarms went off. We nibbled on whatever food we could cram down as we hastily put our gear on, while those that were doing the Sunday beast tried to sleep through our noise. With me being meticulous about my gear and preparing the night before, I had some time to kill while the others got ready. Sipping a cup of coffee, I sat on the balcony watching the distant festival area in the mountains glow against the dark backdrop of the sky. Faint music could be heard thumping off in the distance as the dark sky slowly gave way to the blue/pink tint of the morning sunrise. After snapping a quick pregame selfie, Sabrina, Rob, Baris and I were ready to go!
Morning of the race
Ready to get this started!
The venue music got louder as the four of us drove past numerous folks running towards the festival area, drop bin and purple wristband in hand. The nervous excitement present in everyone was palpable, intensifying more as we neared the 6am elite starting time. I finally met up with my longtime friend Matt Dolitsky in the corral as we impatiently waited for the opening announcements to begin. “You will be running the ultra loop on BOTH laps” stated the announcer. “Total lap distance is around 15.5 miles”. The crowd’s reaction ranged from applause to nervous exchanges that conveyed one simple message….
Shit is about to get real.
After an agonizing 15-minute delay we were finally released into the welcoming jaws of the mountain, waking anybody up that was still sleeping to a thunderous “AROO” that echoed through the landscape. I started off slow, as I usually do. Others quickly jogged up the already steep slope while I kept a swift walk similar to the pace I kept on the stair steppers. During the short bouts of level terrain that permitted us to run, Matt nudged my shoulder and pointed to the distant mountains “This is what I live for up here. This is why I moved up here”. I could see why. The morning sky was a canvas of cloudy hues of orange, pink and blue that seemed like a gift of sympathy to make up for the scorching hot day that awaited us.
The morning sunrise!
Photo credit Melinda Harris
The first few obstacles weren’t anything to write home about. Mere hurdles dotted the terrain to break up the crowd that led up into the real first obstacle – the monkey bars. Normally this obstacle is a non-issue for most athletes, however the morning dew slathered the bars of the obstacle, making it a slippery mess. Elites were seen off on the side doing burpees as I nervously approached the bars, looking for a lane that has already been frequently used for dryer bars. Thankfully I got through with little issue, although the bars did get much wetter as I got closer to the bell, which made sense. I turned around me to see Matt stopped on the bars and struggling at first, but he came to and slammed the bell with one final leap. Matt gave me a look of concern that I waited ten seconds for him, which we both knew wouldn’t trend for long.
The first small peak of the course had been conquered so far! What awaited us after the slip wall and an aid station was a runnable downhill section that began to separate myself from Matt, only for that gap to be closed as I stopped to pee out the morning coffee. The course eventually led to the bottom of the resort area, right in front of the lodge I was staying at. Standing before us was a line of people leading up to the Z wall, which was a small challenge made easier by inspecting the footholds first before maneuvering across. Shortly after that was an obstacle I had never done before, the tire flip. Splayed out in an open hard-packed gravel parking lot, each tire had a small line of people on it. The novelty of the obstacle completely clouded my mind. Foolishly I did not look for the tire that was over any kind if pit in the ground and I struggled multiple times to get my fingers underneath. I saw Matt doing burpees already and not wanting to drain my energy too early I simply got up and ran over to join him. Had I not been so impatient I would have noticed the few tires that had pockets of loose gravel underneath that made flipping them much, much easier. A volunteer took my headband to display to the camera that was fixated on us doing burpees. Midway through burpees, Matt nudges my shoulder “Keep your hands over your head when you jump!” he whispers. Shit! How long was I doing burpees wrong? Was my form bad on all of them? I cranked out a few extra burpees just to make sure everything was alright for the camera but the fear still lingered in the back of my mind. Nevertheless, Matt and I ran out to the next obstacle that was the highlight of the day for both competitors and especially spectators – the Tarzan swing!
Without hesitation I ran to put my life jacket on and jumped into the water, giving my body no time to slowly acclimate to the cold. The weeks of cold showers leading up to this event paid off as the cold water felt incredibly nice! Backstroking to the rope ladder I carefully scoped out the lane with ropes that were evenly placed and not too different from one another. The months of constantly tuning my grip strength paid off as I easily went from rope to rope, smacking the bell with ease! I watched Matt’s attempt as I backstroked back to shore, only to see him plummet midway through the obstacle. He and I knew that there was no other option but for us to part ways at this point. Waving him goodbye, I wasted no time getting out of the water and running into the woods for the next gradual incline through the woods, taking only a second to glance back at the balcony of my room where the Team Regiment flags were strewn across.
The dew-laden scent of evergreens soothed my senses as I remembered the fateful event five years ago that happened in this exact same spot. I distinctly remembered Norm shining the headlamp on my frozen face as my chip got cut off my shivering body. Smiling in memory of this I always felt empowered in this spot of the course. It marked one of the most important moments of my entire life that sculpted the person I am today and taught me to never let failure define me, instead to make it refine me. Locking the memory away once more, I took the time going uphill here to grab a snack from my pack to quiet my grumbling stomach. The crowd was beginning to thin out by this point, many of whom were still back doing Tarzan swing burpees. Also, it’s amazing how many death race alumni were out on course! People who I hardly remembered from the event suddenly reminisced with me the perils of the 60 hour suckfest and how much easier we have it now. Indeed it was true, and the perspective shift granted by that event transformed into what Joe DeSena described in his books as “obstacle immunity”. What we faced today was mere raindrops to the storm we faced just two months prior!
The quiet of the thick woods began to give way to a distant clanking of a bell, a prelude to the tyrolean traverse obstacle that greeted us in the clearing ahead. Getting through this was actually a little harder than expected, and the rope I was on was especially loose which transformed the last half of the traverse an agonizing upward slope. My pack occasionally tapped the ground underneath me, sending panic into my heart that 30 burpees may await me, but the volunteer said that it wasn’t an issue since it didn’t give me any advantage in the obstacle… thank goodness! Moving on, the ground was dug up into rolling trenches of mud that ended in a dunk wall. By this point getting wet again felt amazing! The heat of the day was already drenching everybody in sweat, so it felt nice to be caked in cold mud for a little while! The muddy, level ground once again surrendered to an uphill throughway between the woods and service roads which led everyone to what would become the most talked about, infamous part of the entire course… the Ultra loop.
“Come on down, guys! I designed the part of this course myself! It’s nice and runnable all the way down!” shouted an overly-cheerful fella in the middle of a fork in the trail. One part had a bunch of signs saying “Ultra” with an arrow ominously pointing forward, while the other direction mercifully led right into the woods to the right. After giving the guy a high-five, I ran quickly down the course which led into an open area at Bear Mountain, all the while realizing that I’m going to have to go back up the same distance I just easily went down. At the bottom was a hybrid obstacle that had us carry an atlas ball to a sled drag. Once I pulled the sled to me and walked it back out, I had to pick up the atlas ball again and place it back in the beginning of the obstacle for the next person. The obstacle itself wasn’t that bad, and the level ground finally gave me a minute to take my shoes off and pull the insole of my shoe back to normal (that’s the problem with the speedcross 4’s… they grip the terrain TOO well). After crossing a very necessary timing mat the inevitable uphill trek began… only this time it wasn’t on an open trail but through the thick boulder-ridden woods that beckoned us upwards with the randomly placed white ribbons dotting a tree here and there. There was no guided, beaten path. It was basically the race director saying “figure this out on your own” as we agonizingly inched upwards. A couple slow people was all it took to hold the entire line up, with few people daring to move around the masses on much more dangerous and exhausting terrain. Oh by the way, this portion of the course was much, much worse than the death march!
After what seemed like an eternity the thick woods opened up to some more generous single-track terrain. Eventually I saw a sign that indicated our merging back on to the rest of the beast course. By this time some faster runners were zipping by us, adorned with the bright green armband indicating their elite beast status of the day. “How was that ultra loop?” asked some of the athletes out of morbid curiosity. I spoke the very first thing that entered my mind without filter, “I’d rather fuck a cactus”. On the back of my mind I wished I had packed a cactus in my drop bin, because that loop would be eagerly waiting for me on lap two! Nevertheless, it was foolish to think that far ahead. That kind of thought is what causes people to voluntarily withdraw at the halfway point. This is what I loved about the Ultra, your success was demanded by you not thinking about how far you’ve gone or how much further you have to go. Living in the moment and focusing solely on your next step forwards was the only way to mentally cope with an event of this magnitude.
The course continued upwards until it was interrupted with the relatively easy Bender obstacle and an aid station. I was ecstatic about that aid station, since my camelback had literally run dry the moment I got sight of the table splayed with precious water jugs! Seeing that the course continued upwards and that I had already taken my pack off to fill up, I grabbed another clif bar and munched on that as I labored onwards.
The upward climb eventually gave way to a short runnable portion of the course. “You know it’s a crazy course when running normally feels like you’re taking a break!” joked the guy next to me. It’s funny because it’s true! The short run loosened my legs up and the ever-present feeling of a looming cramp ebbed away with every stride. The slight downhill run eventually opened up to a magnificent vista of the entire venue below, displaying the lodge, festival area and the distant mountainscape. This was much like a religious experience, since seeing the view made people say “oh my God”, and when they did a 180 to look at the next part of the course, many repeated that phrase only with a sense of dread. The next part of the course was such a steep and rocky incline that a massive cargo net was splayed across the ground for people to cling to. A few runners were sitting on the outskirts of the net clinging on to their cramp-ridden legs, fumbling through their packs for any salt or mustard packets. After handing a salt pill to one of the cramp casualties, I climbed up to the peak that had the stairway to Sparta obstacle followed by another much-needed aid station (compliments to the course designers for the aid station locations, by the way).
Running whenever I could, I kept myself focused on the next person in front of me to pass. Bad idea. After a short while a group of us noticed that there weren’t any course markings on the service road we were on, which curiously seemed to wrap around the mountain and back to where we came from. Thankfully we had only diverted course for about a quarter mile, but the lesson was still learned – pay attention to the damn course markings! After correcting my mistake, I trekked onwards down a very steep slope that was starting to resemble a rocky slip-n-slide as it snaked down towards the festival area. Some of the more daring participants decided to slide down the entire thing on their butts, but my memory of somebody breaking their tailbone doing the same stunt kept me from indulging in on the fun. In my way at the bottom of the trek was the first sandbag carry, which wasn’t bad since I kept the sandbag draped over my shoulders and never stopped moving. After finishing and dropping the sandbag in the bin with a loud THUD, a sea of spectators lined the edge of the course leading to Twister.
This is where attending the open house paid off. Normally I go through the obstacle sideways and very slowly. However, for the first time at the open house I experimented with going through the obstacle backwards, and holy crap that was so much easier! Sure enough I breezed through the creaking metal segments, even taking the time to broadly pimp slap my bell and the one next to it! After passing a crowd of people in the burpee corral, the next aid station volunteers were urging us to refill our packs and indulge in the clif blocks in the adjacent tent. This was like one of those moments in a video game where you approach a room with a save point and a plethora of gear – you know some serious stuff was about to go down! Sure enough, the signature portion of the course loomed ahead and dauntingly upwards… the death march!
Many people dreaded this portion of the course. Instead, this was my absolute favorite part that always resulted in me getting 10-20 places ahead. The endless training sessions consisting of stair steppers, lunges and bike rides prepared me for this, and it really paid off! People’s heads hanged low as I passed them with quick, short steps. Many of the folks with ultra armbands knew better than to stop, but a few of them sat among the masses of beast runners that stopped along the laborious upward grind. Some of the runners recognized me from the ultra guide article and offered me some much-needed moments of gratitude, to which I always replied with the signature response of “Thank me by getting that medal today!” The climb was topped off with the eight foot wall obstacle, signaling the last real vertical movement of the lap before the course began its gradual slope downwards. In and out of the woods I went, running whenever possible until the herc hoist obstacle signaled the beginning of an array of other relatively simple obstacles. Shortly after the hoist were some small hurdle walls, a simple uphill barb wire crawl (keep in mind that was nothing after the death race), an inverted wall and a sled pull. The course was clearly approaching its last mile or two. but Spartan loves to bunch up a bunch of obstacles at the end just to remove any sense of accomplishment you may experience until you actually cross that finish line!
Sure enough, another cluster of obstacles got in the way of a steady and very steep downhill slide/crawl. The sandbag carry was much heavier on the second station than the first, and this is where I saw my friend Mohammed that was volunteering (we would run the beast together the next day). After fixing my shoe’s insoles and joking around I grabbed my sandbag, draped it over the shoulders, kept my head low and went on without stopping. Slowly but surely I finished the carry, handing the bag off to another runner. I looked forward to hitting this obstacle again on lap 2 just so I can see my friend again. I knew that he would find a way to bring me back from the brink that I will inevitably exist in. “See you on lap two, buddy!” is all I had time to say to Mo as I ran down towards the rope climb and atlas carry, keeping in the back of my mind that the true test lies just around the corner – the bucket carry.
This was misery incarnate. I knew that if I went too slow I’d end up gassing myself even more so I propped the bucket on the waist strap of my camelback as best as I could and moved with a purpose. People all around me were sprawled out along the route, leaning against their bucket of misery as if forming some kind of bond with it as a coping mechanism. Whenever I had to stop, I simply took a knee and placed the bucket on my knee to avoid having to lift the bucket all the way off the around. With these kinds of obstacles, every scrap of energy counts! The grueling uphill grind finally peaked and turned into a dangerous downhill section where the bucket obstructed vision of my footing. Sweat dripped on to my bucket as the heat bore down on me, demanding I hurry down the mountain so I can get to the aid station and splash some water on myself. Finally the obstacle was at an end, signaled by the biggest relief that every other racer can relate to as I placed that abominable bucket down! All that remained was a small fake-out run through the woods and down to the festival area where a cheering crowd huddled around the rig, spear throw and Olympus obstacles. The rig was a breeze since I was able to skip the rope handles and go ring-to-ring! First obstacle down. Easy peasy.
The bar section of the rig
The ring section of the rig
No matter how well I train, the spear throw always remains a concern in the back of my mind. I approached the target with the most level ground and the least-destroyed target cautiously. After taking a deep breath I concentrated and threw the spear and watched it seeminly fly in slow motion as it landed dead center in the target! Hell yes! Olympus was the last real obstacle of the lap which was somewhat easy to move through via the holes only. A little twinge of a cramp tried to form in my gut at the last section of the obstacle however, which I knew would evolve into a bigger problem if I don’t address it soon. As soon as I smacked the bell a purple arrow with the words “ULTRA” corralled me through a fenced off route that led to the drop bins surrounded by spectators that happily extended their hands out for a righteous high five. Lap one was complete!
“Does anybody have the time?” I yelled as I rapidly took off my pack and picked up my purple bib. “11:40!”
Sweet! I’m making REALLY good time!
I ran straight to my drop bin, picked it up and placed it on a table and immediately went to work. I cracked open a can of coke and took chugs of it in between taking massive bites of a candy bar, all the while putting new gels, blocks, waffles and other nutrition in my pack. I didn’t bother replacing my 3L water bladder since there were water jugs on the table so I saved some time by just filling my existing pack up. I shook my head as I took a second to look around and saw people moving slow, sitting down and chatting it up with everybody else. I couldn’t send the signals to my body that it was time to recover by sitting down or moving slow, I had to keep moving! Double checking that my headlamp worked, I got a few squats and stretches in while I lathered sunscreen and placed my purple bib over my regiment jersey that signaled my start of the second lap. After taking a quick ten seconds to enjoy the messages that people wrote on my drop bin, I set off to the exit. “What time is it?” I asked the volunteer while running. “11:44!”
All of that in just four minutes. A new record for me!
The course diverted to the side of the starting corral while the 11:45 wave started going through their starting AROOs. I glanced over to those about to start their beast lap as my uphill jog slowed into a brisk walk. “GO ULTRA” they cheered as their wave began with great energy and enthusiasm, easily passing me as I conserved as much energy as possible with every efficient step. Occasionally I’d get a kind pat on the back or the usual “You’re insane bro!”, to each of which I’d smile and thank them. “It’s not as hard as you think!” would be my usual rebuttal. In all honestly, it was true. I kept to my focus of the here-and-now, visualizing myself as a mere driver of the body I was occupying. The pain didn’t bother me in the sense that a driver didn’t feel the strain of the engine or the grinding of gears. I used this start of the course to answer my grumbling stomach’s demand for more calories, hopping over obstacles with my pack in front of me and a clif bar halfway lodged into my mouth. Unfortunately there weren’t any photographers to capture that voracious moment of efficiency!
The monkey bars this go-around were significantly easier thanks to the afternoon sun drying everything off. “Ultra coming through!” boomed the crowd of people lining up at the obstacle, signaling me to cut the line and go straight to the obstacle. This first class treatment was always the best part of lap two, as if given to me by sympathy for the suffering I had opted for. The first small peak was once again done, leading down towards the Z-wall and tire flip. No matter the obstacle, I made sure I took a good 20 seconds to inspect it and assess the situation (VERY important on the Z-wall since they aren’t always the same). After slowly, carefully yet effortlessly going through the Z-wall I was prepared to run straight to the burpee corral for the tire flip, knowing full well that my arms weren’t nearly as fresh as they were six hours ago. Right as I started removing my pack I noticed one of the tires with a small trench underneath that must have been carved via water runoff. I ran to it just to give a minimal attempt, not wanting to ruin my chances at the Tarzan swing ahead. With my fingers actually underneath the tire, I was able to lift it up and flip it with such ease that I could feel my face redden with embarrassment for having failed the obstacle the last time. As I just said… take a quick 20 seconds to assess your obstacle!
With that out of the way, the Tarzan swing was up next. I was looking forward to this obstacle so much, not for the difficulty but for the fact that I can finally cool my core temperature off in the lake! With my legs constantly riding the fence line of function and cramp-ridden ruin, I plopped into the water and completely let my legs go limp. Others shrieked in cold pain, sharply contrasted by me floating on my back and sighing in relief as the water revived me. “Ultra coming through!” shouted one of the racers that spotted my purple bib. Profusely thanking everyone in line that I swam past, I got up on the ladder and started to swing. Right away I could tell that my arms were toasted from the first lap. One armed swings turned into double handed careful traverses as my forearms began to go numb with cold exhaustion. The last rope remained but all I could do is fumble through it, surrendering to gravity instead this time as I plummeted into the water. “Small losses!” I said to the crowd behind me that was cheering me on. I kept a smile on my face while still taking advantage of the nice cool water that I could feel bringing me out of mild heat exhaustion, backstroking and leaning my head back on the PFD.
I started my burpees on a nearby hill outside of the lake next to some other folks sharing in the same misery, doing sets of five and then taking a sip out of my pack regardless of whether or not I was thirsty. At around 26 burpees I’m approached by a volunteer, “You have to do your burpees in the corral over there and you have to start back at zero”. Wait, what? Son of a bitch…
As I trudged over there I started hearing a faint noise… no, not a noise. A faint song! I looked around like an excited child on Christmas morning for the source of this serenade. Right in front of the burpee pit was Jeff holding up a Bluetooth speaker blaring a 10 hour loop of the epic sax guy song!
If you haven’t clicked on the above video yet, just stop what you’re doing and go ahead and blast that sweet music for a hot minute or five! That song had become basically the theme song for our group, and to hear it at a low point like this was so revitalizing! The fact that I had just done 26 burpees for nothing was a complete non-issue while I cranked out sets of five while taking breaks to hip-thrust to the catchy tunes. Despite doing burpees I felt like the tank had been filled to 100%, and those around me seemed to get a kick out of it as well as they joined in on the hip thrusting fun! Nevertheless, I had to focus on burpee form. You see, volunteers would have you in the corral area to do burpees because there was a camera making sure that you were doing your full 30 and that your chest was fully touching the ground and your hands were raised over your head. I remembered back to the only burpees I did on lap 1 with Dolitsky, and how he whispered to me to keep my hands over my head. “Shit”, I thought to myself. “How many did I mess up before?!” “Was it over ten that I wasn’t doing right before I noticed?” The eerie thought of a burpee DQ suddenly became a paranoid reality. To be doubly sure that I wasn’t in any kind of trouble I cranked out an extra five burpees just in case it was possible to make up for any previous ones that weren’t in perfect form. Being in the elite heat, this paranoia was completely justified!
After giving Jeff a high five and a hug for serenading me with that epic sax music, I rushed onwards to the iconic place that I had DNF’ed five years ago. It never fails to have me re-live that memory, no matter how many times I see the place. Just months ago I visited it the day before the Death Race just to clear my head (it worked!), and it felt the same again this time around. Feeling humbled and renewed, my inward thoughts were gleefully interrupted by others humming out the epic sax song.
“It’s so catchy, right?!”
My response? Epic sax hip thrusts!
Their laughter confirmed the sentiment of us all as our humming contagiously spread around to the other runners, making the muddy trek through the woods even more epic! I realized at the time that shared moments like this with complete strangers is one of the reasons why I keep coming back. It was one of the many factors that renewed that sense of wonder and excitement that I felt those years ago. The rest of the course was the same as before, only hotter with the afternoon sun bearing down on us all. The tyrolean traverse was easier since I took the time to pick a tighter rope and the dunk wall felt just as amazing as before, albeit a lot muddier. I felt like my time on the second lap was going faster since people were constantly letting me pass them on the trails and obstacles, but I had the feeling that it was going to slow down dramatically as my body would eventually succumb to the natural effects of being punished on the mountain all day long. The boisterous crowd of the beast lap eventually broke away as the second ultra loop reared its ugly presence. Gone was the enthusiastic course marshal and the crowds of other runners around me. I heard their jovial voices drift off into the rest of the normal beast loop as only one or two other ultra folks were scattered about the course ahead of me. The lap two loneliness had begun, or so I thought. One by one, I caught up with other ultra runners. Once I caught up to one, we both picked up the pace to catch the person ahead of us. This snowballed until five people made up our impromptu team as we glided through the atlas and sled combo obstacle one last time.
After fixing the soles of my shoes once more we droned on towards the inevitable climb that had no doubt occupied everyone’s mind. Fortunately for us however there were no slow runners up ahead clogging the single-track lane that was stomped into the ground from the last lap and we were able to keep a steady pace. I kept with my 2nd gear pace while the other group members would speed past me at first, only to have me pass them again when they slowed down. We had some awesome discussions ranging from the death race to other insane events that other people had done, which really put this event into the right perspective of it not being that bad! I could tell the others were very experienced in ultrarunning since we kept our conversations aggressively positive and locked into the present moment. To act on this, I made sure to mention about about this climb was the Christmas trees enveloping us in the cool shade that we desperately needed before the course eventually merged back into civilization and the regular beast runners again added some color variety to the once purple-only clusters of ultra. The second ultra march was actually pretty easy compared to the first, in hindsight.
This was about the time on the course where both the beast runners and especially the ultra runners were really starting to feel the pain of the course. I made it a priority to keep other people’s spirits high as I passed them. Their words of encouragement were reciprocated in kind, and I’d see the stress of the course momentarily lift from their faces. This in turn had the same effect on me. That’s what I love about this sport, the community is always so supportive of each other because that’s sometimes the only way we can get through these kinds of tumultuous challenges! A simple pat on the shoulder to the person sitting on the ground, or the occasional high five is all that it took to regenerate some people’s dilapidated bodies.
The course continued upwards past bender, through that much-appreciated short downhill run. The cargo climb was a little tricky this time but the line of people were more than happy to let all the purple bibs go past them. After profusely thanking every person there and hopping over the stairway to Sparta the downhill slip-n-slide brought everyone down to the easy sandbag carry. My stomach felt inverted by this point since I had held off on eating every hour since I was running dangerously low on my nutrition (I eat A LOT during ultras if you haven’t figured that out by now). After cruising through the sandbag carry and twister, I ran to fill my bag and gorge myself on the shot blocks next to the aid station… only to discover that they had taken that station down!
There was no way that I could keep a steady fast march up the death march on an empty stomach, so I swallowed a couple salt pills and took out my last three stinger waffles to chow down on going up. I figured that since this was the last uphill climb, I may as well get all of my eating done now and run on fumes and adrenaline towards the end. The festival music drowned out my inner concerns, pushing onwards and accepting the situation was the only way to continue on. Slowly the climb became more and more steep, and the pockets of people that had stopped to take a break had quadrupled since the last lap.
Fortunately for me, some people in those groups were taking long breaks to eat! I must have looked like death to them, because almost every person who had a bag of food in their hands offered me some of their goodies. I’m never one to pass up a free meal, so I quickly grabbed whatever they offered me and kept walking, profusely thanking them as I kept moving past them. My cuisine up the death march included gummy worms, peanut butter crackers, half a banana, some chips, a couple shot blocks and some sour patch kids – my compliments to all of you who hooked me up along the way! Anybody wearing a purple bib that was sitting down on the death march got special attention from me (in a positive manner, at least). I’d offer anything from encouragement to salt tabs along with my hand in helping them get back up, remembering back to my first faulty attempt at the march all those years ago and how bad it got when I sat down.
The eight foot wall signaled the end of the ascent that curved around to the top of K1. The hard part of the course was now over! All that was left at the peak was to fill my pack one more time, take in the gorgeous view and start making the tumultuous slog down the steep rocky mountainside. Every time I tried to increase my runs (where I could run) I could always feel the onset of a cramp coming, so like most ultras I kept myself at the fenceline of a cramp. The herc hoist was slightly harder on the second go-around with the rope being wetter and my arms being just about spent, and that ever-encroaching cramp started to grow as I propped myself up against the fence of the obstacle. Just when I felt like I was going to cramp out, the bag had gently plopped on the ground. “This isn’t good”, I thought to myself. “I can’t start breaking yet!”
I thought I was in the clear until I started the barbed wire crawl. After putting my pack in front of me and getting low my hips started to tighten up in bouts of knotted agony. I’d stretch them out whenever there was a break in the crawl and continue to move until it happened again. Inch after inch my legs and lower abs grinded against my pain receptors, begging to go into that serene recovery mode that awaited me past the finish line. I forced my mind into that state where I felt like the driver merely driving the car, separating my pain from my own reality as a line of drool slicked across my chin. Gradually the sight of the orange barbed wire came into view, signaling the end of the uphill crawl. I rolled past others sharing a similar moment of agony, choosing to take my five seconds of rest after finishing the crawl.
After stretching it out and swallowing another pair of salt tabs I brushed myself off and did the inverted wall and sled drag with minimal cramping. I could tell that the last mile or so was going to be tough, despite eating all that I ate on the death march my body clearly needed more calories as my stomach groaned again. I fumbled through my pack and found one last gel packet folded underneath some of my trash and took little bits of it as I focused on not tripping down the steep decline leading to the sandbag carry. “NEIL! There he is!” shouted Muhammed, still manning his volunteer station. He’s still there! Immediately I forced my pain away after finding the perfect excuse to win. Without hesitation I gave him a weary fist bump and carefully sought out a sandbag and began to shake the sand inside of it to weigh the same on each side. My triceps immediately seized up as I cleaned the bag up to my shoulders and jerked it over my head to then place over my shoulders. This could NOT fall off of me for the entire carry, no matter what!
I kept my head low and focused on my footing. I passed by a couple of people discussing the time, which I wish I hadn’t overheard. “Looks like we’ll be done a little after six. No headlamps for us!” shouted one of the ladies. Although I was happy to not need my headlamp, I also wanted a twelve hour finish. Sure, the course was monumentally harder than the 2017 course, and finishing in under 13 hours is an insane accomplishment but…
I suddenly look up and see the bin for me to finally dump my sandbag in, and I notice Mo seeing me deep in whatever thoughts I had clouding my mind. “Slap me really hard in the face, right now” I demanded, wanting to force my mind out of whatever wasn’t the present moment. I felt my mind immediately pull back into the here-and-now as his hand slammed across my cheek, confirming his effectiveness with a loud bellowing cheer. “I got some shit I need to do, I’ll see you at the finish line buddy!” I yelled at him as I ran onward, underscoring a tone of gratitude in my voice. The rope climb and atlas carry were done quickly, still with the side of my face tender from the generous slapping I badly needed. The last truly difficult obstacle lied ahead… the bucket carry.
There was no easy way to do it, other than simply grabbing a bucket and moving. I knew it was going to suck much worse than the first time so I kept my focus on simply moving the next foot forward. My heart thumped in the sides of my skull as every labored step found whatever energy reserves weren’t spent yet. “Just this one obstacle and it’ll be smooth sailing from here” I said to other carriers, regardless of what bib they wore. The climb got worse and worse, and my splits of movement did so too. The final stretch turned into short 15 foot movements followed by the bucket resting on my knee. I sucked in the last bit of water in my camelback as I heard a bunch of people shouting in unison “LOOK OUT BELOW”. Tumbling down the hill was a bucket that had fallen out of someone’s arms, gaining dangerous momentum with a trajectory straight towards the people placing their buckets down at the bottom! Right at the last minute the cover of the bucket split open on a rock, and the contents spewed out, harmlessly showering the people below with the pebbles. Almost as soon as that bucket burst open and stopped, another bucket started tumbling down the mountain in the same direction! Fortunately this bucket found a small ditch and veered off the side of the course harmlessly. There was only one true unfortunate person in this situation – the one who dropped their bucket. The rules state that you must go back and retrieve your bucket and return to wherever you dropped it from, in this case it was at the way top of the course. In other words, those two poor souls that lost their bucket had to do the entire bucket carry all over again!
“At least that’s not me” I said to myself while firmly gripping my bucket to avoid a similar fate. My trek finally turned downhill and I kept my ears open for any falling buckets behind me, making sure that when I rest my bucket down I’m doing it facing the top of the mountain. Finally the agonizing carry came to an end with the most satisfying THUD of my bucket landing in the pit where it rightfully belonged. After shaking out my arms and legs I sprinted through the small trail that led around the bottom of the course and opening up into the festival area. Allan Ajoy was cheering people on and shouted my name when he saw me, with his ultra buckle already around his neck. I remembered back to my tear-filled moment at the finish line in 2015 where Allan found me doing my last burpees as I gave him the biggest bear hug imaginable. “Good freaking work man! What was your finish time?” “11:20!” He responded with the proudest grin that told me that his past injuries didn’t hinder his run in any way. After giving him another hug and a high five I kept sprinting towards the last cluster of obstacles.
The rig was a complete breeze, and my confidence going into the spear throw was stronger than the last time as the line parted for everyone to let the ultra give it a shot. I went through my spear throw checklist methodically:
1) Wrap the rope three times on the back of the spear
2) Balance the spear on my throwing hand
3) Move my hand one hand length back
4) Align my spear to the center line of the target, with my center lined up to the left edge of the target
5) Throw it like a dart
The spear landed dead center with a nice clean slicing noise followed by the cheers of those behind me. All that remained that was a challenge was Olympus! I carefully studied the obstacle, making sure it wasn’t damaged as I kicked the mud off my shoes as best as I could. With the sight of the glowing fire jump just ahead it was hard to keep my mind in the present moment as the festival music drowned out my thoughts while my hands started gripping the holes of the boards. One by one I moved my hands to the next hole on the board, while those doing burpees close by stopping to cheer me on. My hands began to tighten up and cramp as the bell got tantalizingly closer and the crowd’s volume got louder. Not wanting to take any chances I got extra close to the bell and slapped it with a satisfying CLANG!
My mind was buzzing with excitement while the pain that enveloped my body surrendered to the moment and let me sprint to the cargo a-frame unburdened. Every step up the frame seemingly brought back individual memories – my shocking DNF of 2013, my even more deafening defeat of 2014, giving a fist bump to my friends after a 3 hour training session, my vindicating win of 2015, my moments at the death race, my son hugging me goodbye as I went to go train, the friends who all stood there with me to drown out the negative ones… I sat atop the frame and took a second to soak it all in. The noise in my head subsided and focused on the cool afternoon air, the smell of the evergreen trees and the fire ahead. I looked behind at the massive incline up K1, and below to the lodge, and then out into the woods. In this exact moment I felt truly home and alive. I’m sure many of you get that question of “who do you even DO any of this?”, well, if you’re one of those that ask that… there it is.
Final sprint to the finish line
The final obstacle stood burning in front of me seemingly in slow motion, the flames undulating and flicking warmth into my face as I leapt over it and on towards the finish line, ending 12 hours and 7 minutes of blissful torture that I will never forget! I profusely thanked every volunteer at the finish corral while jogging over to the results tent to get my chip time verified. The back of my mind was riddled with those burpees that I did on autopilot, furthermore made into a paranoid reality when I noticed the screen in the results tent listing off pages of names that had their results DQ’ed with various reasons such as “chest failing to touch ground during burpees” or “arms not over head during burpees”. I nervously approached the staff behind the computer and gave him my bib number. He looked at the screen for what felt like an eternity, occasionally looking back up at me as if he was some kind of customs agent admitting me back into the country. “Alright, looks good!” he finally said with a smile. He marked my hand with an X, directing me over to the nearby tent to pick up my medal and shirt. Although not as ceremonious as receiving it right at the finish line, I couldn’t help but feel a little choked up finally holding that medal in my hands!
I spent the next 20 minutes in the drop bin area talking to others who had just finished. One of the folks I had seen on the death march had just come through as well and I recognized him from another event. It turns out that I had recognized him from the TV series “The Selection”! Others came to me to thank me for the guide I had written, to which I commonly say “Thank me by earning that medal!” The look of pure bliss on everyone’s face meant so much to me, and how hard we had all worked to earn what adorned our necks. Jeff had found me by this point and I looked over at the Twister obstacle and I knew what I had to do. You see, this was the 6:30pm cut-off for the ultra, and this was around the time when people would be getting cut. It was great to congregate among the folks who got a medal, but I knew that somewhere over by that obstacle would be somebody experiencing that first crushing DNF that I had once felt. Jeff held my bin and we walked away from the masses of people over to the quiet and seemingly abandoned area, noticing an occasional headlamp trickle down the mountain and bypass the nearby sandbag carry. For the next 30 minutes I walked up to each person coming down from the mountain to give them a handshake and a hug and to just talk to them, asking where they’re from and how they’re feeling and if they needed anything. To my surprise and joy most of the people there weren’t defeated or overly saddened by their DNFs. In fact, about every person responded to “Are you coming back for redemption?” with a “hell yes I am”! This gave me so much hope! Even in the defeat of the moment these people wouldn’t let it define them. Instead they chose to have it refine them! To truly win at this event you need to emerge a better version of yourself, and every person I saw regardless of finisher status were winners this day. I wish there were spectator crowds in this area of the course akin to how it was earlier that day. They would have seen an amazing example of the human spirit. It wasn’t about the chunk of medal that dangled around my neck that was mass-produced in China for pennies on the dollar, but instead it was about the monumental obstacles that so many people had overcome in life and on course that brought them to that very moment. Indeed, this was only the beginning for many, and although I had become seasoned on this course for half a decade now I had felt that fire burning inside me once more - rekindled with a new purpose.
The Death Race still needed to be conquered in 2019, and my new goal for Killington had been decided that night - place top 3 in my age group!
Ultra + Beast in one weekend!