Spartan Ultra Beast World Championship: Ben Nephew
I ran three Spartan Races last year, ending with a 4th place at the World Championships in Killington, VT. While I thoroughly enjoyed the races, I still prefer FKT’s and traditional trail races most of the time. With my schedule this fall I wasn’t able to get to the two shorter races I did last year before deciding at the last minute to return to Killington. I couldn’t do the Beast Championship on Saturday due to a conference, but I could get up there for the Ultra Beast on Sunday, which I had thought would suit my ultrarunning background. Last year the Beast was won by Cody Moat in 2:45, which really involved about 2 hours of very hard running and 45 minutes of obstacles. In terms of running, I’ve been training more for longer races, so I probably would have been better off in the 7 hour Ultra Beast last year. I had a good run at the Wapack Trail Race and managed to reclaim the FKT for the Presidential Traverse in the month leading up to the race this year which indicated that I was in decent mountain shape. That was the thinking. Then I heard that Hobie Call won the Beast in 3:35, which meant that the Ultra Beast was going to be over 8 hours at least. With a forecast that looked like it would be a day of cold rain, I almost bailed before the start. Although this sounds strange, I do these things for fun, and running around all day while hypothermic is not my idea of fun. I wasn’t sure about 8 hours of obstacles in any conditions.
I showed up at the start, getting all sorts of looks with only shorts, a waistpack, and my Orocs. I just don’t see the point of wearing something that is going to hold cold water on you, unless it’s a wetsuit. We were soon off up the mountain, and a few runners sprinted away, but it was a generally mellow start. I slowly worked my way up, and by the time we got to the steep climbing, I moved into the lead and was hiking away from the field. That first climb was about 1600’ up a very steep ski trail that was rough on the lower legs. Not surprisingly, the first downhill was an even steeper bushwack through scrub forest separating the ski trails. The fact that it had been broken by the Beast runners the day before made it better and worse. There was somewhat of a path, but more like a vertical muddy slip and slide with trees, rocks, stumps, roots, streams, and branches to dodge. I was literally smiling at my choice of inov-8 Orocs for the race, they were perfect for that kind of terrain. They did make me a bit over confident, though, and I started to descend at a rate where if things went wrong, I would be in serious trouble. I was literally skiing down sections of mud that were a 30% grade. My water bottle was saving my ass on the few falls I did take, although on one 20’ slide I was forced to roll over to grab something to finally stop myself. That descent made my desperate run down the end of the Crawford path during my Presidential Traverse FKT look like a stroll in the park, and the race was just starting.
There was another steep climb and muddy descent after that first trip, and then we came to the first major obstacle, the 60lb sandbag carry. I could see I had a decent lead, with several runners close together in a chase pack. The Orocs once again did great; I didn’t slip at all on the greasy climb up the ski slope. Usually these type of carries are 100-300’ climbs, but this one, with a sandbag that weighs about half my weight, went 500’ up the mountain. My luck ran out on the trip back down, where I fell 3 times. Falling with a 60lb bag of sand on your shoulder does funny things to your spine, and they are not good. I could tell this was going to be a long day. Again, right after that carry, they sent us up the mountain to the five mile point where the Ultra Beast separated from the Beast course. This is where the mile markers ended, and we entered a Twilight Zone of minimally marked foggy trails.
The next section consisted of some nice singletrack broken up by bushwacks until we reached the start of a very long ski trail that wound its way down the mountain. It was a fast downhill, but I held back a bit to save my quads for the rest of the day. I was pleasantly surprised to find so much good running. Grassy ski trails are usually very uneven and annoying to run on, but this trail was relatively smooth with short grass. As the trail approached the base we had to negotiate two barbed wire sections. The first one was moderately long, but I was able to roll through it quickly. Too quickly, as I was so dizzy when I got up I almost ran sideways into the trees! The second section over a wood bridge was more awkward, requiring me to roll over railroad ties under very low wire. At the bottom of the descent, they sent us right back up through the trees for another 1k climb. Apparently I missed some sort of markings after the top, as I followed a sign that point down to the base lodge where our drop bags were. They acted surprised to see me, but I’m wondering if this was some sort of game. After doing my 30 burpees for missing the spear throw, I had to do 30 more to get into my drop bag, which they said was early. I have a pretty good sense of distance after 20 years of trail running, and I was pretty sure we were around the 13 mile point and were supposed to have access to our bags. Spartan staff were yelling various things, possibly in an attempt to discourage or intimidate me, but my only concern was with covering ground.
After picking up a bottle of Gatorade, I then started to get to obstacles that should have been easy, but not at Killington this year. I saw that Junyong Pak was catching me on the double leg hop, and then we got to a set of monkey bars that I had no chance on with my short arm span and lack of hand strength. Pak cruised through it, passed me, and took off. He climbed well on the next 500’ hill and I couldn’t see him as we cruised down more easy ski trails. When I went to get my bag of S-Caps out of my pack, I realized that they must have been crushed in an earlier fall, and pond water had gotten into the bag. I made one attempt to salvage the cocaine-like remnants. I was concerned about ingesting the water in the bag, so that was it for my emergency electrolytes; not good. I managed to get close to Pak on the following bushwack climb, but he was moving too well for me to pass, especially through the flatter sections.
At 16.5 miles we had access to our bags again, and I started the uphill log carry about 30 seconds behind Pak. I caught him on the climb and we ended up together by the time we dropped the logs off at the bottom. We talked a bit about our time with the Greater Boston Track Club on the climb that followed, but I was feeling better at this point and started to pull away. Not knowing how much of the course we still had to run, I was concerned at this point due the loss of the S-caps and a strange issue with my second bottle where I somehow managed to rip the nipple off, possibly in a fall or obstacle, leading to the loss of some calories and fluid. I also had a strange problem with my third bottle, where the turn to open top became jammed with mud and I had to unscrew the bottle to drink, causing me to spill a few more calories. The plan at this point was to push moderately hard up the mountain to the point where we returned to the Beast course, and then see how I felt.
I felt better as the climb progressed, and was extremely relieved to get back to the Beast course at 21 miles. I was continuously passing Beast runners as I made my way down yet another scary fun descent through the trees that led to many of the major obstacles. One of the first was the longest barbed wire section of the day, and it must have been 200 meters long with very low wire. I had to take my belt off to get through. There was the atlas carry, a required obstacle that consists of a huge piece of concrete that you have to carry back and forth without dropping. My hands could barely manage that. There were 3 winching obstacles throughout the day, and all of them were so heavy that my feet were off the ground and I was holding myself down with a rope across my thighs as I hoisted the rock or bucket of concrete.
We then made our way to the start area where I made good progress through the various walls and rope climbs, including one that really tested my fear of heights. Most of the water obstacles followed, and I was surprised I was able to do the first rope climb out of the pond. The traverse wall after that was much harder than what I remember last year with very small holds, and the 30-40 mph wind gusts were not helping. By the time I did my burpees after failing a ridiculous obstacle called the tarzan swing, I realized that my level of exhaustion and my core temperature were concerning. I could not stop shivering, and my teeth were chattering to hard I thought they were going to shatter. I hoped that I could warm up on the next trail section. This didn’t happen at first, and I seemed to be getting worse. I thought seriously about dropping out.
Things got worse when we got to the bucket carry, which involved filling a 20 gallon bucket with no handle with stones and carrying it up and down a steep, muddy slope without dropping the bucket. My hands could not take this, and I was concerned my race was done. I had to stop and rest an incredible numbers of times over a short distance, but I finally made it back down where I had to lift the bucket up to my shoulders to empty it. I was as empty as the bucket by the time I left.
I knew the required tyrolean traverse was coming up, and I wasn’t sure what I was going to do. My initial plan was to traverse under the rope, which I had done last year. I had taped my legs with duct tape to prevent the rope from ripping my skin off, but the tape had fallen off. Many runners traverse on top of the rope, but I had never tried this and I didn’t think I could take much more cold water if I fell; I was still just barely warm enough to keep moving. I had to take three attempts, do 90 burpees, and then was penalized 15 minutes for failing the obstacle. As I was doing my burpees, I watched Pak pass, as well as Olof, the third place runner. I think the burpees were enough of a time penalty. While my arms almost gave out on the last few burpees, I was at least finally starting to feel warmer.
I headed out for the final three miles still trying to catch Pak and Olof, knowing that it was almost pointless given the time penalty. By that point, no obstacles were easy, especially a set of two cargo nets made of webbing. I just about fell 15’ of the top of the second one when it flung me over the other side, and the one row of hay bales at the bottom would not have been in my landing zone. I passed Olof with about a mile to go, and all three of us were on the final 40lb sandbag carry at the same time. I finished second about 3 minutes behind Pak, but ended up in third due to the penalty. This year’s course was definitely harder than last year, due mostly to obstacles that took more time, and the insane amount of climbing. At the end of the day, the Ultra course was 30 miles with about 11.5k of vertical, most of that being near vertical. Given the nature of GPS data, that elevation data is probably conservative; it’s likely 12-13k. In 30 miles, we climbed as much as the Peak 52 mile ultra, which is the hardest 50 miler I’ve ever done.
Although I’m frustrated with how the obstacles went, it was an awesome course that presented both an intense challenge and a thrilling adventure. Where else can you do a trail marathon, well, 50k, with that much climbing on that kind of terrain? Congratulations to Pak and Olof who ran tough all day long. It’s great that Killington allows the use of their impressive property for the Spartan Races, and I’m always amazed at the work that the Spartan crew puts into the course. I’d like to especially thank Jim Courville at Spartan Race for encouraging me to run the race and making sure I got registered, I think. Thanks to Inov-8 for my Oroc 340’s, which made it possible for me to enjoy many of the most challenging sections of the race. I did that for fun, right?