I have been running Tough Mudder events for years, so when a friend asked me to run a Spartan Race I didn’t think much of it. I thought the name “Ultra Beast” sounded badass, and I was game for that! “By the way – how far is this race?” Oh shit – a full marathon! Never done one of those before – eh, I’ll make it – no problem.
Shortly thereafter, I googled the 2013 UB and read the horror stories about the people who didn’t finish, or worse, the people who did finish but who took 10+ hours.
The 2013 “Beast” (1/2 of an Ultra Beast) was almost 20K ft of elevation change, with 120-140# sandbag ½ mile hill climbs, etc. WHOA! Time to get myself focused and start training harder than I ever have in my life! LET’S DO THIS! As it turns out, the 2014 course would be longer and steeper than in previous years.
The attrition rate was about 90%, being part of the <10% to receive an Spartan Ultra Beast finishers medal was more of a mental challenge than a physical one.
Luckily, the mental toughness needed to finish is forged in the physical training it takes to prepare. Completing this would become a pivotal crucible in my life, testing my mettle to its limits and forging me into a stronger person.
The Ultra Beast is the major leagues, and getting across the finish starts months in advance. You need a structured training plan, to train harder than ever, and have a good race day strategy. I trained a lot for this race. Most of my peers thought I over-trained – wrong! I over-prepared, if anything. There is a difference – you can learn about it here. I had a full regiment that consisted of SEALFIT OPWODS 3-4x a week, one of which was a distance workout, and significant mileage on Saturday/Sunday. My mileage goals for the weekends over the 4 months were as follows:
Month 1: 15 miles per weekend
Month 2: 20 miles per weekend
Month 3: 30 miles per weekend
Month 4: 40 miles per weekend
I was able to accomplish these mileage goals by splitting the mileage up between Saturday and Sunday, and by running and rucking (20-25#). Ultra marathoners laugh at 40 miles in a weekend, but for me, that was nearly inconceivable. Running alone can beat up the knees, and the event was almost entirely steep hills, so large portions were rucking anyway. 90%+ of my miles were on aggressive trails with tons of elevation – when the decision came to more miles or more elevation, I chose elevation every time.
I bought a 50# GORUCK sandbag and carried it everywhere (lots of weighted steps ups!). I also bought a rope, hung it in a tree and practiced climbing regularly.
These components would be the cornerstone of my success.
As the final stage of my training strategy, I completed three “Capstone WODs” that would challenge me to my core. Capstone WODs were done toward the end of the training regimen and each consisted of: 6+ hours straight hours, 20+ miles, a swim, and many thousands of reps of PT (focus on burpees and pullups).
You can read one of my Capstone WODs here. The last Capstone WOD was an actual Spartan event, a mountain course Super, which eventually led to me getting my Trifecta in 2014.
I trained in my race day gear as often as possible.
Shoes: Inov-8 Bare-Grip 200 Running Shoe
– HIGHLY recommended. These have tremendous grip and didn’t rip my toenails off or give me blisters.
Under Armor heat gear ½ calf socks.
Pair of shorts with compression underwear built in. I recommend wearing compression shorts at least; they keep the mud out better and reduces chaffing.
Punisher UA compression shirt. Gotta look badass for the Ultra Beast right?
Gear: CamelBak M.U.L.E. Hydration Pack with 3L bladder– jam packed with Clif bars, goo packs, chews, water, Gatorade, and nuts and seeds.
This pack is solid and I have worn it for a number of OCR events, never let me down.
Don’t forget to clean the zippers after the event!
Garmin Forerunner 310XT Waterproof Running GPS watch (died at mile 22! – very displeased). Note: I have since discovered that the watch can receive a charge from a battery pack without losing track of a workout – would have been nice to know that before the Ultra Beast!
Green wrist band given at the beginning of the course differentiating the “Ultra” competitors.
Since my GPS watch died on me, I couldn’t collect all the stats. I did find someone who ran the Beast and had all the data I was looking for, however. The Ultra Beast is approximately 2 laps of the Beast course. Knowing that, and using the Beast data, I can extrapolate very accurate stats for the full Ultra Beast. Follow this link for reference Beast stats.
Ultra Beast Stats:
~31.5 miles (~50Km)
~30K feet of elevation change
I did about 270-300 burpees
Completed in ~13:52:00
This course did not disappoint – it was harder than any course I have ever run (and we had to run 2 laps)! I was very surprised at how rugged some sections of the course were. I was expecting the course to be ski slopes and obstacles, but there were many miles through rough backwoods trails. The main obstacle, of course, was the mountain itself. Let’s do some math: ~30K ft of elevation change equates to over 5.5 miles of climbing and descending! I was used to extremely rugged off trail running and elevation from my training, though many people struggled through these sections.
Due to how much time the Beast was taking people on Saturday, the race coordinators cut out 1 of the 3 mountain summits from the second lap of the course. This left us with 5 summits total. The 3rd (and 5th) summit was by far the worst, but not just because it was last and I was exhausted! The 1st and 2nd (4th) summits were segmented – climb a steep section to a plateau, then repeat. You could only see 100ft up the hill so it wasn’t intimidating; the hill split itself into micro-goals for you. In contrast the 3rd (5th) summit had visibility all the way from the base straight to the summit – there were no plateaus. When you stood at the bottom, looking up, it was soul crushing – we passed a lot of people on this hill.
The obstacles were many, but most were not significantly harder than the “normal” Spartan race version. Spear throws were the same distance, monkey bars were monkey bars, heavy carries were a bit longer but not by much, the barbed wire crawl was probably three hundred yards – it never ended! All told, there were two standout obstacles on the course: the double sandbag carry up the hill, and the swim/rope ladder/rope swing/swim section. The sandbags were 60-70# a piece and two of them were unwieldy and difficult to handle. I would estimate this knocked out 25% of the field of ultra-racers. It looked like a scene from a war movie; there were bodies strewn about, and people looked dazed and bewildered. I believe this was a result of mental weakness more than physical failure. My technique was to carry one bag about 50ft, then drop it and go back for the second bag. Carrying both at once would have smoked me fast. The second standout obstacle, the water, was so cold the second I got in I had full body cramping. I was glad that I wore the life vest! By the time I swam 100ft to the rope swings, I could barely use my hands. Obstacle failed! Then I got to swim some more (and do burpees for failing)! You have to have a short memory and keep charging forward.
The time cut offs are what knocked out ~65% of the field of racers. They didn’t seem aggressive before we started, but a few hours into the race, we realized the cut offs might be the end of us all. First lap had to be done by 3PM, then and subsequent cut offs were 7, 7:30, 8 and 9PM. This aspect of the event plays a big role in my story.
A few months before the Ultra Beast, I was on the SEALFIT forums looking for a swim buddy in my area. I found a new friend who was into obstacle course racing as much as I was! Unfortunately due to our schedules, we rarely had the chance to meet up and train. Come race day, this led to a large disparity in our fitness levels. With my GPS watch on, and a knowledge of the cut off times and distances, I knew approximately what pace we needed to keep through each section of the course. We were not even close to that pace through the first ¼ of the race, and I kept pushing and pushing my friend. I pushed him so hard in fact that at mile 11, he bonked. We were way behind pace, and it killed me to continue solo – he was the whole reason I signed up in the first place! Unfortunately, he was done, and I was still feeling fresh and ready to attack the course. We parted ways and I took off at a very aggressive pace, looking to make up time and get back on pace.
Racing this course alone was miserable, and I befriended every stranger I came across. I had mentally set preset triggers that I determined prior to the race start. Every time I saw a camera I would smile, every time I saw someone suffering I would make a joke and cheer them up, every time someone needed food or water I would offer them some, etc. I would eat and drink every 30 minutes and whenever I was hungry or thirsty (200-300 calories an hour). At every water station, I would drink as much water as I could before feeling full, and if they allowed I would fill up my bladder. I brought enough food and water for 3 people (per lap). I was employing the triggers and was keeping my spirits up! I saw mostly misery on the faces of my fellow racers. Bounding by like a little kid playing, whistling and smiling, making jokes and laughing, I got quite a lot of glaring looks. But a positive attitude leads to positive results, and I passed every miserable person I saw!
Around mile 14 or 15, I entered the seemingly never ending barbed wire crawl. I recognized a stranger I had met earlier: “Wisconsin”. We got to chatting a bit, and it turned out his teammate twisted his knee a few miles back and had to bow out. We decided to run together for a bit as long as we were going at about the same pace. We both picked our paces up and helped each other though the obstacles. Our combined efforts boosted both of our individual performances, as well as our mood. Embracing the suck is easier when you are doing it together! After another few miles we picked up another hardcore teammate: “New Jersey”. New Jersey had completed the World’s Toughest Murder the year prior and assured us that the Spartan Ultra was, unquestionably, significantly more difficult. That was reassuring! He had done ultra-length races before and we learned quite a bit from him. Shortly thereafter, we picked up our final teammate: “Ohio”. This guy was a monster – he seemed to be impossibly large and musclebound to be on an ultra-marathon course. It’s a good thing he joined the team too, he was upfront pushing our pace the whole time (and we barely made the time cut offs!). On the 5th hill, I almost gave up – resigned merely to survive and not to thrive, but when I was dragging ass at the back of the pack, he came back to run with me to keep the group together. I contributed to the group too! I had enough food and water for everyone, which came in handy a number of times, as well as the headlamp that lit the way for us once the sun went down. I also had the GPS watch so I was reading out our cadence, time to target, times to each, distance, etc. Whenever the group got quiet, I got a conversation or chant going to keep our minds off the misery. When I inevitably missed all 4 of my spear throws (I can’t hit that hay bail for my life!) and my teammates hit their targets, they split my burpees up amongst everyone and shared the pain. There are 100 other examples of tremendous teamwork, just from that one half of that one event. I got lucky – I never would have finished without them. I still keep in touch with those guys whenever I am setting up my event schedule. I’d want them on my team whenever I can get them. I hooked up with my original teammate after the race, and he told me how he was down and out, until – wait for it – he found some teammates and they helped each other finish the Beast length course!
When Wisconsin and I hit the end of the first lap at 2:45PM, we knew we were way behind schedule. We were allowed to leave a bin of gear at the end of the first lap and my plan was to change my clothes, refill my pack, eat some pasta (real food instead of clip bars!), and take a 10 minute break. Well, there was no time for that BS. I took a piss, grabbed a Gatorade, refilled my pack, and off we went. The start of the second lap was the part of the course they altered, and it was just a flat dirt road.
The last 2 hours of this race were some of the most exciting hours of my life. All 4 of us were together by 6PM when the sun went down, and we were keeping quite an aggressive pace, but my watch had died, so I couldn’t tell you what it was. We heard rumors from the volunteers at the water stations that they were cutting people off at the next water station, so we had better move our asses! We picked up the pace. At about 6:30 we arrived for round 2 of the sandbag carry – only 1 bag this time (thankfully), but we had been on the course so long I was sure it would be slow going. It took nearly an hour the first time through, but we only had 30 minutes to get to the other side. We hard charged for 30 straight minutes and hit the water station while a volunteer was counting down “20, 19, 18…” Wow! Holy shit that was close! “Wait… where is Wisconsin? He is still on the sandbag! Wisconsin, RUN!!!!!” He arrived at the water station in a full sprint with less than 5 seconds to the cut off! We were told we had 20 minutes to make it 2 miles through the roughest trail section on the course in the pitch black darkness – bring it on! At this point we were partly delirious and partly fired up to the point of being unstoppable. After more than 12 hours on the course, we picked the pace up yet again. We got into the woods, and Ohio’s headlamp broke. No problem, mine was bright enough for us both. Sharing my light ended up being difficult and dangerous, and I fell numerous times, slicing open my left hand. Guess what? “I ain’t got time to bleed!” HA! We charged on.
We emerged from the woods to find that we were allowed to skip the next obstacle (water obstacle) due to hazard. That picked up our spirits; we didn’t have time for it anyways! With 2 minutes remaining to the 7:30 cutoff, only one thing stood in our way. We had to recite the code we memorized more than 6 hours earlier. Gut check time – what was my code again? Get it wrong and it’s 30 burpees, which might take more time than we had. Less than 2 minutes to the cut off! I reached deep in my mind – what did I learn from SEALFIT? Trust your gut. I reached deep into my gut instead, and I went with the first thing that came to me. Perfect score for the team! “How far until the next cut off!?” we asked. The volunteers replied “You should start running… now!” We did our best to keep the pace up but we were running out of steam. NO – we can’t get this far and not make it – we picked up the pace again. As we arrived at the never-ending barbed wire crawl, the volunteers let us know that we would not be crawling again – which means we basically completed the course as long as we kept pace! We started hooting and hollering – “Spartans, prepare for glory!” The other racers scowled at us or looked so shell-shocked that it seemed they didn’t even hear us. “AROO, AROO, AROO!!!” we continued. The next hour of the course was absolutely grueling, but we knew we had made it – we just had to keep pushing to the finish line!
We crossed the finish line at just under 14 hours and I thought for sure that we came in dead last place. I couldn’t care less! We made it – with only 8 minutes to the final cut off! Tears were streaming down my face; this wasn’t like anything I had ever experienced before. I just pushed passed my limits…WAY passed, but I couldn’t have done it alone. The other guys I ran with were the only reason I got through and finished. After taking some pictures I started to really feel like crap. We traded lots of congratulatory “bro-hugs”, traded contact info and headed our separate ways. The adrenaline dump was over and all the pain it was masking started to emerge. I threw the back seat of the car down and laid right in the trunk. At this point sitting was too much for me to handle. When I got back to the room, I ate 1.5 pounds of chicken pesto pasta, half a pie of Domino’s pizza, 1L of water and 1L of Gatorade, took an unbelievably painful shower, then crashed. I expected to sleep like the dead, but I was up every few hours, restless and uncomfortable with dreams (nightmares?) reliving the course.
This was a huge turning point in my life. I know that sounds like an exaggerative thing to say, but after completing this course, I knew – I was truly capable of anything I put my mind to. I have since refused to accept anything less than excellence, in all aspects of my life. I got my Trifecta and a podium finish at a race a few weeks later (for the first time in my life!). After the Ultra Beast, all other OCR races are looking a little less interesting.
My next adventure is something that I think will push me even further, a GORUCK HCL. You can see my training plan for that by following this link. After that, it’s a SEALFIT 20X, and eventually a Kokoro camp. After that? Who knows! I strongly encourage anyone looking for a true test of their mettle to do an Ultra Beast – it might just change your life! I invite you to join me on my journey to reach ever higher levels at www.mettleforger.com, where I keep a training log and blog about training, events, nutrition, and how to forge your mettle!
About the Author
Kirk Deligiannis is an athlete who is always looking for a test of his mettle. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Google+ @mettleforger!