In 2018, after I had done my first Spartan Beast, I decided to set my sights on completing an Ultra distance event. Since my background is in distance running, I thought this challenge was perfect for me. When I looked over the options for venues, of course I had to choose Killington, Vermont. This venue is “the” Ultra when it comes to Spartan races. It’s near the birthplace of Spartan races and is their toughest course in the US. My motto is always, “Go big or go home”, so why not?!?!
I signed up and got busy putting a training plan in order. I technically started training for the race in January, 2019. I knew that I wanted to treat this race just like I have my previous 100 mile races. It would take many hours on my feet and lots of climbing too! Killington is at a ski resort and has 15,000+ feet of elevation gain! I wold not take this lightly.
I started building up mileage slowly and continued working on grip strength and obstacle proficiency, as well as started rock climbing when our local climbing gym opened up in the summer of ‘19. I knew that this would make a huge difference for me. I committed to rock climbing a minimum of twice per week.
Just a small sampling of my workouts is as follows:
One day per week of practicing the bucket carry, sandbag carry, burpees, spear throw, with running intervals.
One day per week of a MetCon-type workout that always included burpees, pull ups, push ups, power movements, etc.
Regular strength training workouts 3x per week.
Rock climbing/bouldering 2x per week.
Runs that included hill repeats, speed work, easy run, and a long run with hill repeats included.
Foam rolling, stretching, yoga, etc. for recovery.
I ran several obstacle course races throughout the early part of 2019 in order to help prepare (and just because I love them). They included the Spartan Alabama Super and Sprint, Spartan Lake Lanier Sprint, Bonefrog Talladega, The Barbarian Challenge (I ran two loops of this course), and the Spartan West Virginia Beast (North American Championships, which I qualified for earlier in the year). I knew that all of these would help me reach my goal of completing the Ultra! I did really well at all of them, placing in the top 10 in my age group at all of them, and top 3 at Alabama, Lake Lanier and the Barbarian Challenge. I really started feeling comfortable out there on the courses and really enjoyed them all.
Fast forward to September, 2019. Race day is coming! We arrived in Vermont on Thursday before the race and enjoyed ourselves with some good food and even some hiking on both Thursday evening and Friday morning. We went to the race venue on Friday afternoon to check in and pick up my race bib, but their system was down, so we left. I didn’t want to go through the open house and take a chance on hurting myself, although I did go over and throw a few spears for fun. We left to eat dinner, then went back up to check in later when their computers were back up and running. I did not take my transition bin the night before, as I wanted to really go through everything that night and make sure that I had everything that I needed. I also saw a post that made me think twice about leaving my goods out there all night with the bears around! No thank you!
What did I pack in my transition bin? I’m glad you asked!
Spare trail shoes and socks. This was only for emergency cases, for instance, if I had a blowout with my shoes. I had no intention of changing shoes and socks during the race.
A small bottle of Diet Coke. I knew that after a few hours of being out there, just a swig of Diet Coke would make me feel new again.
A tortilla roll up with turkey and cheese. This is one of my go-to foods during my ultra runs. I wrap it in aluminum foil so that I can grab it and eat it on the run.
A can of Pringles. The saltiness is amazing during a long distance event!
Sweets: tootsie rolls, peanut M&Ms. I didn’t even open the M&Ms, but I took one tootsie roll with me when I left the transition area to head out for lap 2.
Honey Stinger Waffles. I ate one on the first lap and replaced it with another for the 2nd lap.
Skratch Chews. I love these and use them at all of my races and longer training runs.
Skratch hydration mix.
Extra batteries for my headlamp. I had the headlamp in my pack since it would still be a bit dark when we started at 6:15 AM.
A gallon of water to refill my pack.
We got to the venue at around 5 AM and I took my bin to the transaction area. We checked my bag for afterward with my extra clothes, cell phone, etc. I don’t even run obstacles courses with my phone. My husband usually keeps my bag with him, but he had already decided to volunteer for the day since I would be out there for so long. Little did I know how long that would be!! HAHA! We went into the ski lodge there to get out of the wind and cold for a while, then headed out around 5:45 for me to warm up. I usually just do some dynamic warm ups, including some things to warm my shoulders up in case there were obstacles early on. I lined up and we headed out around 6:21 AM.
The obstacle that I dreaded the most was the swim. You should know that I am NOT a swimmer. And I mean that I don’t swim at all! I love the water and am not afraid of it, as I do stand up paddle boarding, etc. with no issues at all. One of my clients had helped me get more comfortable in the water by going in the pool with me and making sure that I at least could manage some basic strokes and not feel like I was drowning. There was a swim at the West Virginia race and I did fine with it. But, this swim is different. It includes the Tarzan swing obstacle. You swim out, climb a rope ladder attached to the bridge, traverse across some hanging ropes, then drop back into the water and swim out. Sounds simple, right? Not quite. We hit this wonderful obstacle just past mile 2. Did I mention that it was cold out? The water temperature was actually warmer than the air temperature, which means that when we got out of the water, we froze for a while until our bodies were able to heat back up again. I swam out, then tread water waiting for a ladder to be available, climbed up, made it across two ropes, then fell. It felt like I fell from 50 feet, water went up my nose, and I came up gasping for air. I felt myself slipping into what felt like a full-fledged panic attack. I talked myself across the penalty swim to the shore, where I could barely walk straight my legs were shaking so badly. I wanted to quit. I had no desire to go any further. And I definitely had no desire to do this stupid swim again on the second lap! Once again, I had a stern talking to myself and kept going.
The first lap of the course has the addition of the “ultra loop”, which is an extra 4 mile section that only the Ultra runners get the opportunity to do. It was beautiful and BRUTAL! There was an extra sandbag carry, and lots and lots of climbing. I was so glad that we only had to do this section one time. This meant that when we hit the transition area that we were over halfway done! I sat down and replenished my pack with the things that I would need to get through the second half, including another Honey Stinger waffle, some more Skratch chews, my tortilla with turkey and cheese and a handful of Pringles. I topped off my water as well. While I was doing this, I saw multiple people packing up their bins and leaving. I wanted to leave too, but I didn’t. The time cutoffs required that you leave the transition area by 2:30 PM. I left there are 1:45 and felt like I was going to be ok. Just keep moving forward is something that I repeated to myself multiple times.
Lap 2 meant that we also got to experience the Death March for a second time. Woo hoo! (insert sarcasm here.) This climb is 1.25 miles long with about 1,700 feet of elevation gain. It’s crazy. The gondolas go overhead while we’re out there, allowing spectators to watch us enjoy the whole experience. When we got to the top of the climb on the second lap, the winds were hitting about 40 mph, and it was sleeting! Crazy stuff, for sure. We just put our heads down and kept moving. The amazing thing to me was that they were able to set up obstacles all over that mountain. They were at the bottom, at the top and everywhere in between! I can’t imagine the amount of work that does into planning and setting up a course like this. Props to the Spartan crews! Because we had started having rain off and on early in the race, the obstacles were now wet, making them even harder to complete. I’ve gotten pretty good with the monkey bars, but I failed them on the second lap because they were wet. The same went for Twister, Olympus, and Beater. Not only were they wet, but on the second lap, you are so much more fatigued, that even easier obstacles aren’t so easy. Quite honestly, this is the only area where I think I could have done better with training. During my long runs, I wish that I would have added in some exercises or obstacles every few miles to simulate race conditions. Other than that, I feel like I did a really good job with my training.
Things started slowing down little by little and my time cushion got a little smaller as we went. Then, the sun started to go down. Originally, I had planned on finishing somewhere between 10-11 hours. Boy, was I naive! I seriously thought I would be done before it got dark out. Thankfully, I kept my headlamp in my pack all day, so I had it when it got dark. The problem came when we caught up with the open wavers that were doing the Beast distance. It got crowded, and on the single track trails, it was almost impossible to pass people. I felt my time slipping away from me, and for the first time, I started getting nervous about finishing on time. I tried to pass people when I could, but it was so hard to do when long conga lines of people were picking their way through these technical trails, worried about falling and getting hurt. By the time we hit the next time cutoff, I had lost a little time, but was still going to be ok. By the next one, which came after a crazy long climb, which again, was moving very slowly, I had lost most of my time cushion. When we got to the last obstacle cutoff time, we were told that we had 5 minutes to get through the sandbag, which was the next obstacle coming up. I went into panic mode! I knew that this sandbag carry was long and steep and would take a while. I ran. I ran as hard as I could to get to that sandbag carry. I moved as fast as I could through everything that was left of the course, scared to death that I was going to miss my chance at a finish, after working so hard all day. Well, I did it. I finished right before they closed down the finish line! And I mean that I cut it about as close as I possibly could! Only one other person finished behind me before they cut people off. I wanted to break down and cry, but somehow held it together. What I thought was going to take 10-11 hours, took me 14.5 hours! Yes, I’m serious! I apologized to my husband for taking so long. He had been out there all day long, volunteering most of the day, then waiting for me for the rest of the time. I felt terrible. But, I would have felt worse had I quit one of the 100’s of times that I wanted to quit throughout the race.
This race was the hardest thing that I have ever done. I was mentally and physically exhausted when I finished, and I couldn’t believe that I had actually done it. I knew going into it that it would be hard. That’s why I chose it. I wanted the challenge. But, I severely underestimated the difficulty. I am thankful that I trained as much as I did and I am thankful that I was able to pull myself out of the darkness so many times over the course of the race. These events are so much more than physical strength. They require mental toughness and the ability to handle extreme suffering. You don’t sign up for these things without knowing that there will be suffering involved. You just don’t know exactly how much suffering there will be until you get out there and experience it yourself. Want a challenge? Go ahead and sign up. The course is beautiful. The volunteers were amazing as well, especially the ones that spent the entire day out there, encouraging us and pushing us along. Killington will make you dig deep and learn something about yourself in the process. Just be prepared to talk yourself out of the darkness, likely multiple times! I have not seen official numbers, but I have heard that the finish rate was somewhere between 30-45%. No matter where that number officially is, it’s a low % for race finishers! I am proud that I stuck it out.
Will I do another Spartan Ultra? At this point, I don’t really have any desire to, but that could always change. I plan to stick to the Super and Beast distances for the most part. I enjoy the races that are longer than the Sprint, but still allow me to feel strong on the obstacles, even toward the end of the course. I have four more races planned for 2019, then will start thinking about my 2020 race calendar. I am going to bask in the glow of this finish for a while though.