Spartan Ultra Beast

You probably remember my post about mud runs. Over the past few years, I've developed a comfort zone of obstacle races - I found a level of intensity I feel confident with. I'm doing a Beast or two a year, a couple of Tough Mudders, that's it. Each one is about 12 miles, takes 3-4 hours to complete. I might get a bit tired afterwards, but it's become routine at this point.

And that is not a good thing.

You don't want to remain in your comfort zone at all times. You need to push yourself. This has been my philosophy for a while, and I came to the realization that this is exactly the time when I need to put it to a test. So I signed up for the Spartan Ultra Beast in Hawai'i.

The Ultra Beast is the same as the regular Beast... just twice, back to back. I had done that particular Beast in 2016, and I felt good about it. It didn't have the steep, rolling hills of Temecula, and its primary obstacle - navigating through creeks and muddy trails - is something I'm okay with. So I signed up.

I trained regularly, but nowhere near as much as I had for the marathons I ran 10 years ago. And keep in mind that the Ultra Beast is full marathon length - 26 miles, but with over 60 obstacles, and challenging terrain. So when I started, I was fully aware that I was a bit underprepared, but I figured I can just walk whenever I need to.

I love Hawai'i. One of my favorite places of the world that I've seen. The race started at 6:45am at the East Coast of O'ahu, and seeing the sunrise was something special. Just being here gave me a big morale boost.

However, from my past experience, I knew that an even bigger morale boost is having somebody run with you, and I wasn't able to hook up with the one acquaintance I knew who ran on that day. So I looked for a running partner in the start corral. I met Shane, another solo runner, and decided to tag along, but he was clearly a much better runner, so we soon decided to go our separate ways again.

You have until 1pm to finish the first lap, and I arrived at 12:15pm. It definitely took me longer than other Beasts - it was hotter than usual (it rained when I ran Hawaii last year), and there were a lot more carry obstacles: Bucket carry, log carry, sandbag carry, Atlas carry, tire carry, tree stump carry. I hate those. Really, the obstacles at Spartan races are getting worse. It genuinely pissed me off, especially considering that the Tough Mudder race comes up with innovative new obstacles every year.

Occasionally cloudy, but generally much hotter than last year

I took a 15-minute break and then went on to start the second lap. I was worn out at this point and just walked for a while. I met Sonny, who walked at my pace, and tagged along. He had several Ultra Beasts under his belt already and was in good shape, so it was good to see that I wasn't the only one walking the course at this point.

In fact, I noticed that most people around me seemed pretty groggy. Every third person was muttering something about cramps. "How are you feeling?" asked me another guy as he limped by. I was able to utter "Like shit". He was ecstatic. "Oh yeah, me too! Isn't that great?"

My plan was to walk for a bit and run every so often. The next cut-off was at mile 16 at 4pm, so I didn't want to walk too much. But instead, I noticed that I started walking slower and slower. Most people were walking at this point, but they were still faster.

Maybe I needed a real break. I just lay flat on the ground at mile 15 for a couple of minutes. Sonny was patiently waiting, and I figured the break would at least give me enough energy to keep on walking. But after a few minutes, I got back up and walked... and had to lie back down again after 5 more minutes.

At this point, I realized this wasn't going anywhere.

The course, starting with the red Sprint, through the blue Super, to the treacherous green Beast section.

Since the course is used for the Sprint (4 miles), Super (8 miles), and Beast (13 miles), it has some very distinct sections. The first part is the Sprint section - it's walking on trails over rolling hills. The Super part is similar, although it has a couple of steeper sections towards the end. And then there's the infamous Beast part - this part is almost entirely going up and down on muddy trails in a forest, frequently so slippery that you have to hold on to trees and lift yourself up or down.

And here I am, well in the Sprint section, lying down on the ground for the second time because I'm too tired to walk. Not run. Walk. I can't even negotiate a grassy trail anymore without taking a little afternoon nap.

That's when I made the decision that I had to quit. The Beast section was ahead of me, and I was simply in no condition to conquer it. I asked Sonny to go ahead without me and spent a few more minutes on the ground. I'd go to the next water station and ask the volunteers to radio HQ for a ride back. "Good luck. I'll look for you at the finish line", were his parting words. "Yeah. Not gonna happen."

I slowly made my way to the water station, stopping every five minutes to lie down. Many people passed me, several were concerned and asked me if I'm okay, a few joined me because they were all tired, some urged me to move on.

On the way to the water station, I was busy rewriting all the social media posts I had planned in my head. I was still in an area with good reception, so I texted my wife and family and gave them a quick update. They urged me to power through, but they had no idea how I was feeling so I dismissed it. Also, I didn't have a headlamp - I wasn't aware that they're mandatory after sunset, and given my current pace, I figured I'd barely even make it to the final cutoff at 9pm.

As I walked, I tried to look at all the good things. It was a great way to test my limits. I'm glad I didn't chicken out, and it was good to see just how much I can do. The Ultra Beast is pretty harsh in that you get nothing if you drop out. Even if you finished the first lap (which is a full Beast), you don't get a medal or a shirt for that. But I didn't care. I was glad I got to do a race in this beautiful environment. I looked back at the pictures from the first lap. I wish I had taken more instead of telling myself I'd get that shot in the second lap.

After walking, resting, and walking some more, I finally made it to the water station. That was mile 16, which had a 4pm cutoff. At this point, it was 2:30pm or so, so I went from 30 minutes before cutoff to 90 minutes before cutoff.

I walked to the station and looked at which volunteer had the walkie-talkie so I could ask for a ride. I grabbed a cup to get some water and went to the volunteer.

Then, a voice. "Hey, aren't you Michael? You're Jane's brother-in-law, right?".

My prosopagnosia left me helpless, but luckily the runner introduced herself again. "Remember me? I'm Alli!"

Oh, yeah. She's a member of my sister's Crossfit crew, and she is hardcore. She ran the Ultra Beast last year, and we came to her rental a day later to hang out for an hour. That's how we knew each other.

We start talking, but I'm quickly letting her know what's up.

"I'm actually about to ask for a ride back. I can't go anymore. I'm too tired."
"You can't quit! You kept telling Jane that she can't quit. So neither can you."

And that was it.

That was all it took.

I joined her, and we marched on. I just kept walking. No more lying down. In fact, when we got to the Beast part, I was flying through it. Getting through rough terrain using arms and legs is something I'm actually decent at, so I could go ahead and then sit down for a minutes while I waited for Alli to catch up.

I'll be honest - I wasn't doing everything good and proper. I skipped many obstacles, especially the carrying ones, which is my personal Kryptonite. Alli did every single obstacle and threw down exactly 30 burpees whenever she failed, which gave me plenty of time to catch my breath.

I didn't care though. At this point, I was just determined to finish. One day I'll be in better shape, and I'll do it without any shortcuts.

And I made it, some time after 7pm. Well before the cutoff. Nobody even cared about headlamps yet.

I can explain some things away. I think I didn't eat enough, for one. I had some hunger pangs at a couple stages, and I should have proactively eaten more fuel. I had some Clif Bloks shortly before I got to the infamous mile 16, so that may have given me some energy which kicked in right as I got there.

But ultimately, the wall was all in my head. I was 100% sure that I couldn't finish. I thought about it for a while, I considered the facts, and it seemed like a well-researched evaluation, not a spur-of-the-moment decision.

Without Alli, I would have never gotten the boost I needed to get over that slump. You need someone else to help you across. I was less than a minute away from throwing the towel, and I was absolutely convinced that it was the only right choice. But I actually had so much more in me still.

My watch ran out of battery halfway through, but extrapolating the data, I must have burned over 10,000 calories then.

So go ahead. Do something crazy. Something that you're not sure you can do. There's only one way to find out. The comfort zone is a nice place, but there's so much more beyond it that would be shame to miss out on.


matyas said…
Congrats on finishing this race! That's one serious ordeal; hearing all those stories of people who were at their limits is just nuts. And how you found the strength to finish is pretty inspiring! Well done & well deserved.