Why I’m glad I did the 2014 Spartan Vermont Beast

Spartan Beast - Barbed Wire 2

My original title for this post was ‘The 2014 Vermont Beast: Nasty, Brutish and Long”. I’m glad I’ve had some time to reflect, and revise. The ‘nasty, brutish and long’ description is still  apt: ~16.5 miles (14.5 trail plus another ~2 within obstacles), ~16,000 – 17,000 total elevation change, and  it took me just under 9 1/2 hours (during which time I had periods of borderline hypothermia from being in 50 degree water and then going out into a cloudy/misty day in the low 60s with gusting winds). It was NOT fun. But I am really glad that I did it, for the following reasons:

1. Almost any other race looks easy now.

Marathon? Heck, worst case I’m running for 5 hours – that’s a lot better than 9 1/2 !

Triathlon? Puh-lease – you get to wear a wetsuit in cold water?  Soft!

Any other OCR (like Tough Mudder)? Well, let’s put it this way: I ran this race with a friend who’d done 3 Tough Mudders, and she said this was 10x harder.

Spartan races are, from what I’ve been able to tell, the most physically grueling of all the OCR races, the Beast is the third hardest Spartan race, Vermont is apparently the hardest Beast, and the 2014 VT Spartan Beast was reportedly the hardest yet. So, yeah, other than a longer Spartan Race (the Ultra or Death Race) or maybe the Tour de France, I now feel like I could pretty much face any other physical challenge thrown my way. I’m not claiming that I would necessarily do well, just that I have the ability to endure almost anything (I thought the same after giving birth to twins, but the Vermont Beast was harder than that).

2. The amount of money I was able to raise for the Childrens Oncology Group Foundation.

My Mud to Gold fundraising campaign ended up significantly exceeding its target. Altogether (including checks and a few hundred I raised on the Charity Bets platform when I had people bet on my performance on the Spartan Sprint) I raised over $3,800. Almost half of that came in immediately before and after the Beast. There must be some weird lesson here about people wanting to donate when they see their friend/relative doing something insanely stupid. But I won’t question it – I am just thrilled to have been able to make a difference – both for my friend’s son Luke who had brain cancer (but is now recovered) and other children who are just beginning their struggle.

3. I never have to do it again.

I am putting this in writing, because I have heard of a number of people who, a month or two out from the Vermont Beast, decided to do it again. I saw some of them last Saturday, and they were all shaking their heads and saying they would never do it again, and this time they really meant it. So I am putting this in writing, in public: I am never doing this race again. It sucked. I honestly enjoyed almost none of it – and that’s a first for me with a Spartan Race.

So, what was it like?

Well, first of all – it was cold. For a mud run. Every other mud run I’ve done it was 80+ degrees, so getting wet and muddy was actually refreshing. But when we started at 9am, it was in the 40s (according to the thermometer on my Jeep) misty, overcast, and there was a strong gusty wind. If I’d just been hiking, or running, I would’ve been fine – I could have layered, and running would’ve kept me warm. But because we were going to get wet, repeatedly – I had to wear stuff that could dry quickly, and not too much of that. Here’s me (on the right) with my buddy Sarah before the race started – trying to put my game face on but feeling COLD.

before race

While I did warm up for periods during the race (going up the mountain the first time, before the first water obstacle), the top of the mountain was freezing, and towards the end of the race (around mile 11 I think) where we had to do the tyrolean traverse where I ended up swimming in 50 degree water, then not long after had to do a super long uphill muddy barbed wire crawl, then go through several pools of muddy water that went thigh-high, then had to do an even LONGER uphill barbed wire crawl through mud, I started shaking uncontrollably from the cold (that picture at the top of this post is taken during that period – I have an amazing ability to smile when I feel like crying). I know some people said the trick was to put a dry shirt in a ziplock and change into that – but given the multiple times you got wet during the race, and the fact that you never knew when you were going to get wet again, I am not sure how just one dry shirt would’ve helped. Hands down – the cold was the dealbreaker for me with this race. It was incredibly hard, but being wet and cold is the reason I wouldn’t do the Vermont Beast again. I should even note for full disclosure that I skipped the first water obstacle, which involved swimming a fair distance in a 50 degree river, then climbing a ladder and swinging from ropes. It was at the beginning of the race, and I knew that given my low tolerance for cold, that doing that obstacle might prevent me from finishing the race. So I did my 60 burpee penalty – and I did them all with proper form – and had NO regrets. I know some people say you should attempt every obstacle, but I think when you are dealing with a race this long and challenging you have to know yourself and figure out what makes sense for you. One friend did the river swim, had a muscle seizure from the cold and almost drowned. Not worth it. I also feel like I still got the water experience from that first obstacle, since I still had to wade around river bank – getting soaked almost up to my waist for probably about 20 minutes  – before taking off back up the mountain.

The other thing about this race that just broke me was what I can only describe as ‘Mind F&*cks’. Here’s how I felt that this course posed a serious psychological challenge:

  • Inconsistent mile markings – every other Spartan Race I’ve done has had consistent mile markers for each mile, which helped give a sense of progress, even if you didn’t know precisely how long the race would be (in every Spartan Race they never give you a precise distance, just an estimate). In this Beast, there were several mile stretches without a mile marker, and then someone would come along with a GPS and helpfully indicate that we were probably around, say, mile 8 but that according to their GPS we’d already gone 9.5 (it turns out this additional mileage was because of the super long obstacles).
  • Being lulled into a false sense of security by some easy early obstacles – The beginning of the race had a lot of trail running (which I love), and then also some obstacles that actually weren’t that bad (including the easiest barbed wire crawl I’ve ever experienced in a Spartan race, and a bucket o’ gravel carry on what must’ve been the bunny slope – it was not steep at all). At that point I thought ‘hmm, maybe they won’t kill us with the obstacles because the distance is so long’. But OH NO – that was the FIRST bucket o’ gravel carry. The second one was longer and much steeper. For that second one I had to stop every 10-15 steps because my heart was racing so badly. In general, the longer the race went on (and the more generally fatigued I got) the harder the obstacles got as well. And that’s not just my perception – based on stats I’ve seen on the race, these later obstacles were just really tough.Spartan Beast VT 2014 Bucket zone
  • Repeated obstacle categories  – with this being my fourth Spartan Race, I’ve gotten used to a lot of the obstacles and tend to tick them off in my head (Barbed wire crawl, done, Check; Rope climb, done, Check). I can anticipate and manage based on the ones I know are going to give me trouble (like the spear throw – always a humiliating experience and a guaranteed 30 burpees). But in this race, multiple obstacles were repeated (TWO sandbag carries, TWO bucket carries, TWO spear throws) which made me feel like Sysiphus – just when I felt like I was making some progress towards finishing the race, I would find myself back down at the bottom, facing another brutal challenge.

Between all of these things – somewhere around mile 11 or so I just felt broken. The second bucket carry (50lbs, 0.2 miles, 80 ft ascent) and then second sandbag carry (carrying 50lbs for 0.4 miles up and down an incredibly steep hill – 270 ft gain) did me in. Everything after that was a blur of just trying to finish (and still having another 3.5 miles during which we went up and down the mountain at least two more times and had some of the obstacles I find the hardest – namely monkey bar-type obstacles. Doing it with a friend definitely helped – I am so glad I had company and we were able to encourage each other. Just knowing someone else was looking out for me was a huge help.

Having a sense of humor also helped. Some of the high points of the race were the amusing moments that occurred, like when a young woman running next to me exclaimed “Yeah, this race really isn’t for old people” only to find that she was surrounded by three other women (including yours truly) who were 45 or older. Or, during a particularly steep muddy descent when most of us were doing a mix of crab walk /slide and one guy loudly boasted that he might not be the best at climbing up the mountain but he could win a trophy for the best job of sliding down it on his ass. Or, my personal favorite: when I had just successfully finished a particularly brutal tire pull obstacle and was having a low blood sugar moment and found myself staring at a young hunky guy who was holding a sandwich. After a second he gave me a suave smile and said ‘hey’. I couldn’t bear to tell him that I only had eyes for his sandwich…

The other highlights for me were just the things that I felt I did well in the race. Here are the things I’m proud of:

  • Nailing all the walls, especially the inverted wall, and doing all except the tallest one with zero help
  • Sailing over the cargo nets
  • Generally strong performance going uphill (all that time logged on the stair master and running hilly courses did pay off)
  • Braving the cold water for the tyrolean traverse
  • Keeping up my burpee form – after over 200 of them (all of the monkey-bar like obstacles and spear throwing obstacles just didn’t pan out for me, and I was so cold and fatigued at the rope climb that I made it probably 8 feet from the bell and just froze).

Bottom line, I knew I hadn’t trained enough for this race. I knew that to really prep for the Beast I needed to be doing Spartan WODs 2-3x a week, plus serious hill running, plus strength training to prevent/address injuries, and getting tons of sleep. I did do some of this, but life intervened, and I definitely did not train as much as I should have. It was by far my worst performance in a Spartan Race – I came in right in the middle of my age group (44th out of 89), while in past Spartan races I’ve tended to come in the top 10 or 20 for my age group.

But I am OK with this performance. I finished. I am uninjured. I completed a Spartan Trifecta right before my 46th birthday. I raised almost $4,000 to fight children’s cancer. And I’ve learned some important lessons about myself and the kinds of races that are a better fit for me and my lifestyle (things that require general fitness but not hours of training per day). Now it’s time to rest up, heal and think about what races I want to do next year…

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