Surviving My First Spartan Ultra Beast Race

Next month will be my "Spartanversary", the one year mark since I first dipped my trail running toes into the unknown scariness of the ocr world. 

Digressing briefly....OCR Stands for Obstacle Course 'Obstacle course racing (OCR) is a sport in which a competitor, traveling on foot, must overcome various physical challenges that are in the form of obstacles. Mud and trail runs are combined and the races are designed to result in mental and physical collapse." Wikipedia 

For those of you unfamiliar with the Spartan brand, they offer various race distances:  the Sprint (3-5 miles+20-23 obstacles), Super (8-10 miles +24-29 obstacles ), the Beast (12-14 miles +30-35 obstacles) and the Ultra Beast (26+ miles + 50+ obstacles).  All of the Spartan races take place on dirty, muddy, difficult and usually mountainous technical terrain. 

Strava elevation profile of Spartan Breckenridge Ultrabeast

How the heck does and avid marathon and ultra-marathon runner end up deciding to dip her dusty ultra running trail shoes in the obstacle race pond you ask? Here's the Cliff's notes version.  After running the San Diego Ultra Series in 2016 (50k, 50mile, 100k & 100 mile trail races), I decided to finish off the year at the North Face 50 Mile Championship race in San Francisco.  While I had a decent race there, I ended up falling twice on the course which resulted in a bit of an injury in the following weeks.  Unable to get what I felt was a "decent workout" during this period of non-running injury, I decided to check out the local obstacle racing gym my running partners had been going to and raving about.  They promised I'd get a great workout without having to run much, so after a few weeks of (snore) swimming laps, yoga and cross training (snore), I was down to try anything which promised I might break a sweat and be challenged.

 

Jessica Textoris & Luis de la Vega introduced me to the sport at MROC gym in Oceanside.

After visiting MROC obstacle gym and doing their Saturday OCR workouts for a few weeks (a totally humbling anaerobic but-kicker btw), I decided I'd throw my skirt into the ring of this crazy sport and signed up for the Warrior Dash 5k, a great starter level event. 

Without digressing any further, lets just say that I've been in love with the sport ever since and have competed in other ocr races such as the Battlefrog and Terrain Races and then finally got the courage to toe the elite line of my first Spartan Race last September.

Terrain Race Irvine 2017

Battlefrog 10k

After a decent season of racing the sprint, super and beast distance races, I got coerced by these same training partners into attempting this crazy Ultra Beast distance.  We have all trained and raced together for a year now.  When it was time to sign up, I completely chickened out and I opted for the safer Beast distance (12-14 miles), still unable to fathom surviving the Beast course with enough energy to do it twice. As the race approached, training partner Derek was the only one of us who had actually registered for the Ultra Beast and was a man on a mission to get the coveted buckle and bragging rights first.  Anyone who knows me, knows I love a good challenge and the thought of not accomplishing this goal along with my training partners was enough to get me to take the leap, put on my big girl run buns and transfer my entry from Beast to Ultra Beast for the Spartan Breckenridge event. 

Upon arriving in Breckenridge Thursday, the reality of the physical challenge I was about to undergo started to set in along with a splitting altitude headache as our shuttle took us from Denver International Airport the two hour drive up to Breckenridge.  The beautiful town of Breckenridge sits at 9600 feet above sea level and the peak of the mountains rise to 12,998 feet.  After having to catch my breath climbing the flight of stairs to our hotel room, I realized this was definitely going to be a shock to my San Diego sea level respiratory system and doubt started to set in that I'd actually be able to finish the race.   

After a near sleepless panting night waking to the same pounding headache, Christy and I decided to hit up the local "O2 lounge" (oxygen bar) for some relief (Thanks Janet for the recommend).  What is an oxygen bar?  Kind of like a coffee shop, where you go in, order the service (15, 30, 45 minutes) and aroma-therapeutic scent of your choice (I went with "Energy", Christy opted for "Happy".)  After 30 minutes of relaxing and breathing normally with the oxygen in our nostrils, we left headache-free with the hopes of acclimating quicker and getting a good nights sleep later. 

Race morning alarm went off at 4:30 am, not that it needed to as I was already awake.....all night again!  Nothing worse than panting and trying to breathe while simply laying in bed the night before a big high altitude challenge.  Derek and I quickly assembled our hydration packs and nutrition/ gear needs and headed down to the chilly start line.  With the ultra beast distance, you are able to drop off a tub the day before that you have access to upon completion of your first lap in the Ultra Beast transition zone, similar to a crew-accessible aid station in an ultra race.  Our start time was 6:30 am an it was in the 40s....brrrr.  Knowing once the sun rose, the temperatures would climb in the low 80s that day, I opted for Sport Buns, Compression Socks, RunLove Long Sleeve and Neoprene gloves.  My plan was to change into my Keep it Chill cooling tank in the transition area before heading out on lap 2. 

Before we knew it they were playing the National Anthem and we were hurling ourselves over the wall to get to the start line.

Pondering what I'm about to put myself through and so nervous and chilly at the start line!  Let's do this!

As the Spartan race cry went off "AROO! AROO! AROO!....GOOOOOOO!", we bolted out and up the hill.....for about 20 strides (who were we kidding...it's a looong race), then settled into a decent power hike up the first climb.  We knew the 2nd obstacle was a water crossing and were hoping to warm up before having to take the plunge there.  Our heart rates were both spiking and we had no choice but to let the others go and hope our conservative plan would work out in the long haul.  I kept repeating in my head..."It's a long race, let them go" as I watched several girls take off in front of me.  Within minutes we were at the lake crossing, "here we go" I shouted as I stepped into the alpine waters trying to eye the shallowest route by watching where the water was hitting the athletes in front of me. The freezing water took what little breath I had away as I scuttled myself across as quickly as possible. The center of the lake got chest high so it became a bit of a challenge to keep my pack and upper body dry, but I channeled my inner pointe ballerina and moved across on the tippiest of my tippy toes while hoisting up my shirt to keep it dry.  In spartan races, you always want to try to keep your hands dry as you never know which grip obstacle may be next.  Wet slippery hands can be futile in succeeding most rigs and grip strength obstacles.  Grateful to be on land again, I took off carefully up the next climb while waiting to have the feeling back in my legs.  This was the last point I would be remotely cold in the day.  My Garmin HRM was reading my heart rate was in the low 90s (Derek's was reading high 160s), so I realized I would not be able to rely on it's accuracy as a pacing tool (the wrist HRM doesn't work for my skinny wrist).  Derek was quick to point out that it sounded like I was red-lining, so I backed off a bit and plodded along in my fastest controlled power hike. 

We were climbing up and through the first few obstacles over-under-through walls, 6 foot wall and 7 foot wall and then through the monkey bars obstacle.  Luckily with the dry air up in Breckenridge, the obstacles were less slippery than with other races.  As we continued to climb we approached the 8 foot wall which looked higher than usual because of the way it was positioned on the incline.  There were a few girls struggling with the height (there were no posts or steps) and I was lucky to catch the tip of my fingers at the top of the wall and pull myself over (This is the one obstacle where it pays to be tall).  I definitely felt the lack of oxygen at this elevation after tackling the walls.  Then it was on to the Tyrolean traverse, atlas carry, plate drag and z-walls and yes, we were still climbing up the mountain.  I carefully watched my time so that I could stay on my nutrition and hopefully keep a steady stream of energy flowing and power hiked the climbs and ran the flats and downhills.  The air was so thin and I could hear myself breathing a lot heavier than usual and I was worried about the possibility of having to do penalty burpees up this high.  (Thirty burpees at 12,000 feet is no joke).  I knew the spear throw was coming up so I tried to visualize making it as I started to descend down the mountain and went through the first heavy carry, the log carry.  Next, as I approached the spear throw, the volunteer working the obstacle congratulated me on being first girl.  "No Way" I argued, "there are a bunch in front of me".  He insisted that I was indeed in first place, so I must have passed all the other girls on some of the previous obstacles.  Now the pressure was really on to make this (my nemesis) spearman throw.  I carefully picked a spear that was already stuck in the hay successfully and after a moment of preparation....nailed it!  I did a brief celebratory dance, high fived the volunteer and whooped my way off and down the hill toward the heavy carries I knew would be in my near future. 

Heavy carries are one of the Spartan Obstacles that can really suck the life out of you.  First, we had the log carry, then the single (long black type) sandbag carry which wasn't bad at all, followed by the vertical cargo net and then a "Bonus" sandbag carry for the Ultra Beast course.  These sandbags were square-shaped homemade version which are awkward to carry and just feel extra heavy.  The bonus Ultra Beast sandbag carry was long!  It seemed like it was at least a half mile long... first you carry it uphill and then you carry it back down.  I struggled to keep the sandbag evenly on my back and ignore the pain of it digging into my neck as I climbed and when I turned to descent with it, I spotted the 2nd and 3rd place girls on their way up.  Now I had to work even harder if I wanted to maintain my position.  I tried to jog a bit as I finished the obstacle and then really opened up on the short downhill toward the bucket brigade heavy carry. 

In the other Spartan races I've done, you have to pick up a bucket and you hand-fill it with the rocks there and then carry it.  In Breckenridge, there were no rocks, we had to fill our buckets with dirt instead which was a lot more dense and significantly heavier.  This heavy carry was also an uphill and then downhill stretch.  I tried to move as quickly as possible while stopping to take brief rest breaks to catch my breath.  As I made the descent I saw the 2nd and 3rd place girls starting the climb again, still hot on my heels.  I dumped my bucket and took off as fast as my legs would let me go for the next downhill stretch toward the gauntlet of grip strength obstacles that were close to the bottom of the mountain.  Rope Climb, Herc Hoist, Hay Wall all went well and then it was on to the Olympus obstacle.  I've never failed this obstacle before, but have been destroying my knees lately by dragging them across the slanted wood.  Maybe it was the elevation/altitude, but I swear the Olympus felt steeper for this race.  Much to my dismay, I actually slipped off right as I was reaching for the last grip.  Womp-womp.....30 burpees coming right up.  I quickly went to the penalty burpee zone and cranked them out in sets of 10 to allow time to catch my breath.  Next up was the multi rig and some very higher-than-usual hurdles.  As I was hurling myself over the hurdles, I heard my other training partner Luis approach.  (He was racing the Elite Beast heat which started later... and now lapping me).  We exchanged some positive words of encouragement as our course split, he was headed to the finish line stretch and I was headed to the Ultra Beast transition zone.  I had a pity party moment with thoughts of him being almost done while I was just getting ready to head back out and do the whole course a 2nd time.  

I hauled bootie downhill to the transition zone where I quickly stripped off my pack and longsleeve shirt and threw on the green ultra beast singlet they make you wear for the 2nd lap.  I quickly mixed up some CarboPro C5 and refilled my hydration pack and replenished my Gu gels and I was off.  (Every second in transition counted at this point & I wanted to increase my lead as much as possible)   "Second verse.....same as the first" I shouted as I headed back to the start line wall.  There was an open wave just going off so it was a bit of a struggle to get over the start line wall and through the crowds headed back up the mountain.  I turned this struggle into a game of trying to spot other Ultra Beast green jerseys and pass them. 

The water crossing on lap 2 felt amazing...a much needed mid-race ice bath!

I tried not to dwell and the big climb and difficult obstacles I knew lied ahead and instead focused on passing as many people as possible as I power hiked my way back to the water crossing.  This water crossing obstacle felt amazing the second time though and the ice bath effect was exactly what my legs needed to get prepared for round two.  I was getting excited at this point still feeling relatively strong and hopeful that a podium finish was now legitimately within reach if I could keep my stuff together.  It was fun having all the extra company for round 2 of the course.  The open racers were super encouraging and kind when it came to making way for me to get through the obstacles first.  I have to say the obstacles do get a lot harder the 2nd time though.  The walls get higher and the carries get heavier!  I continued to power hike the climbs as fast as I could and power through the obstacles.  As I approached the Tryolean Traverse again, I was bummed to see there were lines of people waiting to go on the obstacle.  I ran up to the front and asked if I could please race through as I was doing the Ultra Beast.  The kind athletes graciously let me take the front of the line and then they all cheered me through the obstacle.  It was tough to pull myself across a 2nd time now about 4 hours into the race and I was starting to feel fatigue in my upper body.  Thoughts of missing the spear the 2nd round started to creep into my mind and I did my best to erase them and visualize a successful throw.  I kept thinking if I have to do burpees up this high, it will kill my race.  Luckily (yes it was all luck), I made the spear again YASS!!! Then, I high-tailed it out of there and down toward round two of the heavy carries....log, sandbag...ultra beast sandbag and then the debilitating bucket from hell.  That 2nd heavy-arse-dirt-filled-bucket-from hell almost broke me.  I made myself power through it without rest breaks and actually jogged the way back downhill with it because I knew 2nd place female was not too far behind and I was running scared.  After finishing my bucket carry I booked it down to the gauntlet of grip-strength obstacles again.  Unfortunately I selected a really bad herc hoist the second time around...there was something wrong with the pulley because it just wouldn't budge.  I asked the volunteer if I could switch bags and was denied.  I fought with that stupid herc for about 5 minutes and after hanging suspended all 130 pounds of me from the hoist without it even budging an inch.  I gave up and headed to the penalty burpee area where I exhaustively cranked out 30 more high altitude burpees.  I was certain the 2nd and 3rd place girls would pass me at this point.  30 burpees and a hay wall obstacle later, I found myself staring down the olympus obstacle again.  At this point, my knees were already a bloody mess from the first go-round, but I attempted to do it without dragging them this time.  After the herc hoist struggle and burpees, I just didn't have the grip strength left and fell off AGAIN.  Completely bummed at this point and certain that if the girls hadn't passed me yet, they would now as I tried to do 30 more burpees.  The slowest set of burpees ever.  I got through them in sets of 10 again...much much slower and powered my way though the multi rig and off downhill over the high hurdles.  This time I made a right turn toward the finish gauntlet instead of circling back to the transition area.  Thank God the last few miles were downhill.  I was running as fast as my tired body would let me go and then it was just a slip-wall, barbed wire roll, a short twister obstacle (thank God) and fire jump from victory. 

When I crossed the finish line, I still wasn't certain how many (if any) other ultra beast girls had passed me while I was doing those 60 burpees.  I asked the finish line staff if I was first female ultra beast and they said yes!    Turns out I finished in 5:57, 1st Female and 7th Overall. Woohoo!  Happy Tears!

Smiling through tears of happiness and exhaustion!

My lucky socks delivered again!

Overall, I couldn't be happier with the outcome.  I owe my race to making those two spear throws, solid training of course, nailing my nutrition & hydration and pacing myself carefully.  My first lap was 3 hours exactly and my 2nd lap which was longer with more obstacles (and burpees) was 2:57.

Sharing the podium with 2 other Ultrabeast strong women - Jael Thompson Morgan & Rachel Watters!

The coveted Ultra Beast Buckle and 2 new shiny gold plaques! 

Training partners Derek King, Jessica Textoris, Cindy Lynch & Luis De La Vega

See you in Tahoe for Spartan World Championships! Be sure to swing by the Runderlust booth and checkout our new styles!


2 comments

  • Cindy,

    Thank you for the awesome article! Coming from a running background, what exercises did you do to train for the grip obstacles and for the bucket carry?

    Joshua
  • Cindy,

    That was an amazing read! I’m so encouraged by your race and can’t wait to put it all to the test during my first ultra beast in a few weeks in Tahoe! Let’s see if I can get some luck from those lucky socks! ;)

    Lucas Mijares

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