My First Ultra Beast

With September fast approaching, I've been seeing more and more posts coming out about the Killington Ultra Beast— and it's got me thinking back to my first Ultra Beast last summer. While it was not the Killington UB that I completed, I do have some experience with the Vermont course. I ran the Killington Beast twice, back when it was the World Championship course (and I do keep meaning to have a reunion with that mountain at some point, maybe next year?).

I've decided to republish my post detailing my experience completing my first Ultra Beast - partly because I've just relaunched my website, but mainly because I think it can be of benefit to all the first timers out there. With only a few weeks remaining, nothing you read here should really alter your training much— I hope you have that pretty dialed in at this point. But more so, I hope that it will help give you an idea of what to bring, how to prepare yourself mentally, and get rid of as many of the unknowns as possible!

I am going to leave the post unedited for the most part. I thought about making comments throughout, expanding on things I've learned since last summer, but I think the best part of this post is that it's what I learned from my first Ultra Beast. You will learn so much, not only about conquering this distance, but about yourself. I hope this helps you in your journey, whether it be Killington, New Jersey, Hawaii, or any other Ultra Beast!

ultra-beast

Originally written 8/5/2016

As I sit here, back in Massachusetts, a few short days since finishing this race, it almost feels like a dream thinking back on this entire experience.

**I do want to mention that, this was my first ever Ultra Beast, or ultra event of any kind. Previously the longest race or distance I’ve ever completed was Vermont World Championship Beast in 2013 and 2014. None of what I’m saying in this recap should be taken as a “this is what you should do”, but more as just a look into what happened to work for me.

I think a good place to start is give you a background on what my goals were for this race, and where my head was at. I have never done a marathon, I’ve never done an ultra/endurance event. (To be honest, I never ran a distance longer than a mile before 2012). Vermont 2013, my first Beast, took me somewhere over 7 hours to complete, and that is the longest I’ve ever spent pushing myself to that extreme. If I hadn’t been hit with injuries at the end of 2014, that lingered into 2015, I likely would have attempted an Ultra Beast last year. 2014 I completed 4 trifectas. A lot of my races that year were in the mountains - Ottawa Beast/Super, Quebec Super/Sprint, Vermont Beast, Monterey Beast, New Jersey Super, Tuxedo Sprint… the list goes on. I was pretty used to just going out there and suffering, though normally not longer than 4-5 hours. I think the logical next step would have been pushing myself for an Ultra Beast. But then injury happened, my priorities changed, and in 2015, I decided I was going to focus on quality over quantity, and race primarily Sprints (the only non-sprint I did in 2015 was Tahoe Beast). This year I expected to be a lot of the same. As I was deciding my plan for 2016, I knew Sprints would still be my focus, but I’m no longer injured, and I decided it was time to try some new experiences and get outside my comfort zone.

I wrote in my 2016 goals blog post, that I was “looking at Ultra Beasts”. When I wrote that, I don’t know how serious I was. I had entertained the thought, but don’t know that I expected myself to be here, writing this recap, with a Ultra Beast belt buckle in hand. There was a point on that mountain where I thought to myself, “how did I even decide to do this?”. I honestly can’t really remember. I think it started with me entertaining the idea of a UB, and looking into which one I would pick. My options: New Jersey, Montreal, Hawaii, Vermont, Tahoe. At the time, New Jersey was too soon for me to make that decision. Hawaii too far and expensive to get to. I ended up picking Montreal because I knew the mountains would prove to be a challenge, and it was also in the middle of summer (I wanted to not have to deal with the “cold factor” on my first one).

From there, plans just fell together. I ended up staying in a house right on the mountain with my fiancé Jess, and 15 other Spartans that were taking on their own combinations of the Super, Beast, and Ultra Beast that weekend.

Ok, let me back up a minute. Back to my goals. My main goal for this race was to finish. I didn’t care how long. My secondary goal - was to not break down. I was of the mentality that I would rather take an hour or two extra, but feel “good”, than try to go fast and end up with an injury, cramps, or hit a serious wall. I assessed what it was going to take to keep from breaking down, and broke it into three categories:

1. Physical (exterior)- Don’t run down hills (especially big hills, especially first lap), watch my footing (avoid spraining ankles, etc.), and just keep moving forward, no matter how slow.

2. Physical (interior)- This one was the most challenging for me out of the gate, having never done an endurance event like this before. I will explain more in a minute on what I brought with me for nutrition, and how it worked out, but my goals here were: 200-300 calories per hour, mix of food (rather be over prepared than under), stay hydrated, take salt pills.

3. Mental- Realize that I’m in this thing for the long haul. I’m going out in the morning, and probably won’t be back until dark. Don’t rush, don’t think too far ahead, just focus on putting one foot in front of another, all day long.

A week or two out from the race, I consulted with my good friend, and all around endurance junky Luke Bosek (@luke.sky.runner). Once again, he didn’t tell me what I should do, but told me what works for him, in terms of nutrition. The other best piece of advice he gave was this, “It’s not a matter of if you bonk, but when you bonk. In a long race like this, it’s inevitable. You just need to be ready for it, and realize when it happens that you will get to the other side of it”. (That’s not a direct quote - but that’s what I took from it). That was great advice, and would be something that helped me later on in this race.

Fast forward back to race day. Here’s what I packed:

Gear:

Compression Tank Top
Compression Shorts
Athletics8 Elite 2.0 Leg Sleeves
Watch - Polar M400
Shoes - Inov 8 Roc Lite 282 (not my typical shoes, old pair I decided would work best)
Socks - Injinji Run Midweight
Hydration pack - Camelbak Circuit Vest
FitAid hat & sunglasses

In My Pack, Lap One:

Camelbak bladder filled with water
4 Clif Bloks - Strawberry
1 Clif Bloks - Margarita (+500mg sodium)
1 Clif Bar - Blueberry Crisp
1 Natures Valley Bar
2 Munk Packs
~12 Homeostasis Salt Pills (just put a handful in a pill bag)

In My Bin At Halfway Point:

Refills of all the above
Extra water
PB&J on an english muffin
Pepperidge farm gingerbread men cookies
Full set of extra gear (shoes, shirt, socks, etc.)
First Aid (bandaids, cotton balls, rock tape, bandage)
Headlamp & glowsticks
FitAid

The morning of, my stomach was pretty unsettled as I waited for what was to come, so I didn’t have a very large breakfast. The starting line was at the base of the mountain, and it just went straight up. This was foreshadowing of the race to come. I had my game plan, I had my pack, and I was ready as I’d ever be. The race took off, and we started our day of climbing.

This race to me, is broken down by hours. And that’s probably the best way I’ll be able to describe my experience, at least for the first lap.

First Hour:

Climbed straight up, probably 3/4 of the way to the top of mountain. Turned around and came back down. There was one set of walls during this climb. Got to the bottom, climbed over hay stack, climbed back up to probably 3/4 point again. Turned around, came back down. By this time a half hour had already passed. I was obviously not hungry yet, but my plan was to eat 200-300 calories per hour, every hour. That includes the first hour. All of the food I packed was either 100, 200, or 300 calories (give or take). I opened up a Clif Blok, ate half, and put the rest back. 100 calories.

Jess was at first water station volunteering. It was awesome seeing her during the race, and having her give me words of encouragement. We got back to the bottom. There was a “inverted pole ladder wall” kind of thing to get over. We came around and there was the split for Beast (straight back up the hill) or Ultra Beast. Ultra Beast went right, into the woods. This was the only time in the entire race, where it was trails you could really get into a running rhythm, for more than a few minutes at a time. There was another inverted pole kind of contraption, but you needed to go over the first pole, under the second, over the third, etc. This extra Ultra Beast section, with a few obstacles including a carry, was one of the fastest miles of the entire race, at 13:59. (Most averaged 22-25 minutes).

Second Hour:

This is probably the least memorable part of the course for me. We were making our way towards the right side of the mountain (when looking at it from the base). Lots of climbs. Not a lot of obstacles. There was a point where we started going through the woods and was somewhat runnable, and there was tape on our right. I started seeing athletes coming back the other way, with the tape on their left. I figured it must be a turn around somewhere ahead.

There were obstacles scattered along the way, but most of them were just things like army crawls, hurdles, etc. Nothing too challenging, nothing you could really fail. We eventually made our way to the base of the mountain on the right side, where there was Hercules Hoist, and then Rope Climb back to back. Then back up the mountain.

I couldn't believe how long it took to get back to that point in the woods.

Third Hour:

If I had to guess, I'd say it took an hour to get back to the woods going in the direction with the tape on my right. At that point, there were a lot of people going by in the opposite direction, and I was just thinking about how they probably think I'm just ahead of them and it's going to be a quick turn around, only to realize...

I was spot on with my nutrition so far. I was switching up what I ate. Clif Blocks, then a Munk Pack, then Clif Blocks, eventually had the Natures Valley Bar (pretty dry and a lot of chewing, but my body is very familiar). I also started taking the salt pills. I don't have a lot of experience with these. I feel like cramps are one of those things that you either do, or don't get, for the most part. I've cramped twice in my life, both in Vermont. Luke had told me he was going to be taking the 1100mg salt pills, one every hour, and told me to base it on how much I'm sweating. I thought that sounded a bit extreme, but then again like I said this isn't something I'm very familiar with. The first hour I had the Clif Blocks with salt, after that I started taking a pill on the hour.

This is the hour when there started to be more obstacles. A lot of carries. It was funny (but not really), like "OK so all we are doing is climbing up and down this mountain, waiting for an obstacle, and when we get to one, it's just climbing up and down this mountain while carrying extra weight!". There was a sandbag carry, sloshy pipe carry (tough!), atlas carry, and double tire carry. I ended up catching up to Kirk around this time, and we stayed together for 20-30 minutes. Came across monkey bars, tire flips, and eventually made it to the bucket carry around the fourth hour.

Fourth Hour:

This is when I started realizing how challenging this course was. My navigational senses were telling me we had to be close to the end of the lap. We were now towards the left side of the mountain (where the finish line was). We were into the fourth hour. I also thought at this time, "wow, this is around when I'm hoping to be done with my first road marathon this October, and I'm not even finished with one lap of this Ultra Beast!". The problem was, there was a trail that went right by the house we were staying at on the mountain. And I knew that when you're on that trail, headed up, there's still about a mile and a half left. That was nowhere in sight at this point.

The bucket carry was the start of the obstacles in this race, in the fourth hour. The buckets were filled with sand instead of rocks, and it was pretty long and steep. I had done every carry up until this point unbroken, but I had to put my bucket down 3-4 times before reaching the top. I fell on the way down, and had to scoop all the sand back into my bucket.

I finally got to a point where I could see our house, but we were headed down hill, I knew the slackline obstacle was the bottom, but didn't know how much of a loop there was past this. This was the start of the obstacles that had burpee potential. The slackline obstacle is basically a balance beam that you walk to a halfway point, and then a slackline that you walk to hit the bell at the end. I made it to the bell, but was pretty worried about how that was going to be second lap. We went up a small hill, then could see at the bottom of the hill the next obstacle, which was one I've never tried. I forget what they call it, I think something to do with Samurai, but here's a picture:

You started at the far end, bear hugging a log. Then reached for the black pipe, and transferred you body to the pipe. Then that reach to the middle orange pipe was a long reach, and the orange pipe swayed. You had to just transfer your body from one to the next, and make it to the point where you touch the ring towards the top of the last orange pipe. I watched someone else do it, took a deep breath, and made it relatively easily.

Next came a log carry, and finally I was on that trail heading by the house. This gave me a second wind, which was good timing going into the fifth hour.

Fifth hour:

I knew it wasn't long now until the halfway point. There was a bit more land to cover than I expected, and once again the burpee potential obstacles continued. Spear throw (missed it this lap, my first set of burpees), then an obstacle that was kind of like parallel bars, where you are up on both hands with your legs hanging, and you walk forwards with your hands. Last but not least, the Platinum Rig right before the slip wall and the finish line.The Platinum Rig was uphill, and it was a rope, then 4-5 rings, then a horizontal rolling log that you had to basically bear hug, and then a cargo net hanging from the top that you had to use like monkey bars. The cargo net was challenging. There was a lot of sag, and every time you went to move forward, you had to reach high, and barely seemed like you were going anywhere. You needed to get to the end, and there was a line of white tape on the ground that your whole body needed to clear. I was good for this round, but once again, a bit worried about doing it again in the second lap.

Fire jump. Slip Wall. Finish line, wait no, I don't cross the finish line, I'm going left because I'm about to do this shit again!

Ok. Halfway point. 5:24:53, 14.48 miles. Self assessment.

Physical exterior - I'm feeling surprisingly good. I haven't cramped. Nothing that I expected to start breaking down, like my knees or achilles (past injuries), seemed to start showing any signs of doing so. I had some mean blisters on my heels that I taped up. I also realized, I'm probably gonna lose both my big toenails. This isn't something I even thought of, but the pressure of pushing on them walking down hill so much had them extremely tender. "Oh well, nothing I can do at this point."

Physical interior- This is where I was most surprised, and what kept me and these other two variables in check. I was on point with my nutrition plan. I had 300 calories per hour, for all 5 hours. I was filling up my camelbak whenever I was able to, and had taken 4 salt pills, plus one of the Clif Blocks had 500mg of salt (so about 5000mg for first lap).

Mental - I was OK at this point. Hour three into four was toughest mentally so far. I was by myself most of the race up until this point, and this is where it was unclear where/when/if the halfway point would ever come. When I met up with Kirk, started hitting obstacles, and then saw the house we were staying in, all these gave me a mental boost, and I rode that into the bin station.

I tried not to think too much about the fact that I had to do that all over again while I was at the bin station. I did what I had to do. Took my shoes off and taped up my heels. I ate the PB&J and waited for Kirk to catch up to me. I was mostly in good spirits, and just enjoying the time off my feet for a while.

I started taking the wrappers out of my pack, and deciding what I was gonna bring for nutrition the second lap. Towards the end of my first lap, it started to get more challenging to eat stuff, especially anything heavy or chewy. I had a bag in my bin that had the exact nutrition I brought the first lap, plus some extra of each item. I decided to go less on bars, and heavier on Clif Bloks and Munk Packs. I didn't want to get too comfortable, so I decided I better get after it. I tried not to think too far ahead of this first hill.

Second Lap

I made my biggest mistake at the bin station, and realized it at the top of the first hill. I forgot to bring my headlamp and glowsticks. I looked down the mountain, I could barely see the starting line. There's no way I was going back.

This was the biggest mental hurdle for me to get over. For the next 6 hours, my mind was a battleground of thoughts like:

"How many hours do I have before it gets dark"

"I have to speed up to make sure I finish"

"I can't speed up, I'm not gonna finish, they're gonna pull me off"

"Am I seriously gonna suffer for another 3 hours only to be pulled off the course 30 minutes before I finish"

"What am I gonna say when someone tells me to turn my headlamp on"

"Maybe I'll say the last guy told me it's OK since I'm so close"

"What time does the sun set"

"What point do I think I need to be at by sunset to not have to get asked to turn on headlamp"

Cutoff time to finish the race was 10PM. I figured sun sets around 8PM, and now I've just given myself 2 less hours to finish the race. I left the bin station at 2PM. 6 hours for a lap was gonna be a hard feat after my first lap was 5:24. The battle in my head was never ending.

I was able to relax for a few minutes seeing Jess at the first water station again. We were so happy to see each other after 5 hours between laps, and it took my mind of the headlamp just for a moment.

At one point, a guy doing the Beast asked me if I've ever done this before, and if "doing the second lap is better or worse because you know what's coming". In my opinion, it's so much worse. Over the course of a 5 hour+ race, theres no way you can remember every part of the course. You only remember bits and pieces. So when you think, "oh I'm about to get to this spot", and that spot doesn't come for 45 minutes, it taxes you mentally.

I hated getting to the spot in the woods where people were going by you in the other direction, knowing I wasn't going to be back to this spot on the other side for at least an hour. No obstacles were real challenging, the only obstacle in the first few hours was my mind. Somewhere in the 2-3 hour range, my headlamp thoughts were getting to an all time high, and I stopped midway up a hill, and literally talked out loud to myself. Thinking back to what Luke said, I told myself, "This is all in your head. You will get past this. You can't go back in time. You can't control the cutoffs and what's to come towards the end of the race. Keep moving. And just put yourself in the best possible position when we get there". I kept it moving.

Eating became more challenging. I wasn't hungry, but knew that if I didn't eat, it was going to come back to hurt me. I had a Munk Pack or two in the first 2 hours, and then went strictly to Clif Blocks. Other than mental, and obvious fatigue, my body was feeling great all things considered. It had to be the salt. There was actually a point where I was gonna wait an extra 30 minutes to take a pill, and my quad started to cramp a bit, and I took another pill, and it went away instantly. I wasn't going to ruin whatever was working for me, so more salt it was.

Carries became harder. Obstacles became harder. Anything other than just moving my body forwards one foot at a time became harder. The downhills actually became harder than the uphills.

I was pretty sure the first cutoff was 8:30 at the monkey bars. I was there at 7:00. This is where I had met up with Kirk in the last lap. I was starting to get somewhat close to the end. My new thought process had become, "get to the trail next to our house by 8:00, and that has to be close enough to not get pulled". There wasn't a whole lot of trails from that point to the finish line, and hoped that would be reason to let me continue.

As the day went on, you become more and more alone with your thoughts. There became less people around me, sometimes 20-30 minute periods without seeing anyone. Then someone would start talking to me in French. I would wait until they were finished, and then say "English?". I will say - I couldn't believe how supportive every volunteer was at the water stations and obstacles. I know it's almost expected for someone to tell you "good job" and "you got this", but when you're that deep into the pain cave, and into your head, hearing people be encouraging and supportive really made a difference.

I finally made it down to the obstacle loop around 7:30. I definitely got here faster than I did in the first lap. Seeing the monkey bars lit a spark under me, and I pushed it as much as I could without risking burning out right at the end. I made it across the slackline. I got to the Samurai thing, and heard someone ask "what is the success rate with this obstacle?", a volunteer said "it dropped dramatically in athlete's second lap". There were 4-5 people there, all doing burpees. The reach from second to third pole was extremely hard this time, and I barely made it through. These are the types of obstacles that are challenging at the end of a race like this, trying to be athletic and nimble when your body is pretty much only capable of moving forward.

I took a look at my watch, ate one more half pack of Clif Blocks, one more salt pill, and decided I was taking it to the home stretch and wasn't eating anymore. It was also like I wasn't even chewing anymore, I was just moving my mouth up and down to break it down enough to swallow the gummys. My body didn't want to eat anymore.

The best part of the race, the day, the weekend, wasn't crossing the finish line. It was walking up that hill towards the house we were staying at. At 8:00 on the dot. It was waving to all my friends, and to Jess who came running down. It was the point of the race when I told myself "holy shit I'm gonna finish this thing".

I hit my spear, and the Platinum Rig gave me some trouble. It was just getting dark, and somehow I ended up backwards by the end of the cargo net. I started swinging, and released when I got to the backswing and barely cleared the line going backwards. In my head this played out like an extremely heroic, slow-motion move, but in reality was probably pretty tough to watch ;)

I went up and over the slip wall, and this time, I was heading for the finish line. Jess came to me and held my hand while we jogged over the finish line. And she put my Ultra Beast belt buckle medal around my neck.

This was an experience of a lifetime. I don't know that any race I've done so far, has done so much for me mentally. When I'm not placing as high as I'd like, or I have a bad training session, I often forget how far I've come in such a short time, and how new I am to fitness in general. This was the biggest test of fitness I've ever put myself through, and I am so excited and surprised with how well I was able to perform. You totally learn a lot about yourself out there on the mountain, deep into that second lap.

Here are a few stats from the day:

30+ miles
11,000+ feet of elevation gain
12:22:14 Finish Time
30 Burpees
358 attempted UB
132 finished UB
50th place (I came in)
About 1500 calories eaten first lap
About 1000 calories eaten second lap
11,000mg+ of salt

I want to give a shoutout to everyone else that started, attempted, or completed any race at Mont Owl's Head that weekend., as well as all volunteers, staff, and everyone else that contributed to the weekend. The course, although wasn't heavily stacked with obstacles, was an obstacle itself with distance and elevation.

Tyler asked me at the finish line, "you want to join the never again club". At the time, I think my answer was something like "definitely". It's now been almost a week, and another Ultra Beast isn't off the table for me in the future. While this is not going to be my new favorite distance, this is definitely a challenge that if done right, is well worth the pain for the experience.

If you have any questions for me about the race, feel free to send me an email: info@spartanspencer.com.