Spartan Shape-Up, Day 417:
Sleepy-faced, after a 6 hour drive the night before and a too-late bedtime, I stood in a warm shower, trying to convince my brain to wake up. Today, I'd be toeing the start line of the Tri-State Super Spartan in Vernon, NJ. I'd been nervous leading up to the race, thanks to the rumors of the course (and it's difficulty) that were tearing up FaceBook, but Race Morning had brought an experienced calm. This part, at least, I know how to do; wake up in the shower, wiggle into the familiar pink and black spandex, tie up the Inov-8's, chomp down banana. It's what lay beyond that starting line that had me a bit keyed up, but for now, I could get lost in the routine of race morning.
A 40 minute drive into the wilds of New Jersey (the hotel manager told us we were driving out to "The Sticks" by NJ standards...), brought us to Mountain Creek ski area. Almost without thinking, I was in the Spartan groove... find number, sign waiver, hit up registration, secure timing chip, sharpie on numbers. My traveling entourage of Stacey and Emily was lessened by one, as Emily parted from us to join her team for the day (shout out to Team Limitless!). Stacey and I wandered into the festival grounds, and within minutes, I felt right at home again, with no time for nerves. I ran into some of my favorite Spartan Chicks, Jess and Shaina, from the NE Spahtens (they're from Mass...), and swapped rumors of the course with Lavonah. Now, it was just a countdown until our 10am start time....
The "I am a Spartan!" Aroo's completed, and our wave (with Spartan Icon, Chris Davis in attendance!) took off up the hill. I say "took off".... but, even for the crazy in shape people leading the pack, it was a short-lived burst of enthusiasm. A steady trot led Stacey and I part way up the hill, where we then dropped to a walk to begin one of countless steep hikes that day. That first hill was just under 1 mile of steep incline, where most of the time, we couldn't see the end. This was how you become a Spartan, I reminded myself - you push forth with vigor, despite the challenges that may lay before you.
(After this point, Race Brain sets in, so my apologies if I'm slightly challenged on the order of things... but here's a few highlights as they came to me. )
I must start the recount of this race by saying that I was overwhelmed with the various forms of teamwork that were on display throughout the course, between Spartans that had never met. People swapped short words of encouragement as they passed others on the course, extra fuel and water was shared as needed, helping hands were always volunteered (and never needed to be asked for) at every obstacle, and the Spartan Nation was representing it's unity more than I've ever seen at any other race. Maybe it was the difficulty level of this course (ultimately 11.2 miles and a 3000 ft elevation gain over three mountains) that brought Sparta to its tight-knit roots... but whatever it was, it was amazing to watch and an honor to be a part of.
Stacey and I "warmed up" our legs in the first part of the course, which I remember as just a lot of hills. It was a blur of steep inclines, slightly less inclines that then turned corners to lead to more inclines, followed by .... oh yeah, another big mother effin' uphill trek. Nonetheless, our resolve was solid, our bodies still relatively fresh and our sights set on finding that finish line.
Upon reaching the top of the mountain (The First Time?), we came across one of my favorite obstacles for the day - a swim. The task was simple: get in pond, swim under two sets of canoes, climb out the floating dock on the other side. Let me tell you, BlogLand, full body submersion in cool water, after a grueling uphill battle causing you to be drenched in sweat, was perfectly timed and extremely welcome. I got to the dock and noted the unfortunate height of it, for someone with lacking upper body strength like me... but like many other times that day, as I found myself flopping around like a beached whale trying to squirm myself onto the dock, Sparta answered and helping hands pushed me up and out of the water.
That push out of the water was where Stacey and I met Awesome Spartan #1 (who's name I never caught! Ack!), who was running the race with his 51 year old mother, Christine. Christine, if you're reading this, you're my hero and you better say hello. The one thing I love about these races is that you really have time to meet people on the course, while you're sharing some mud and sweat; Christine and her son (maybe... 28?) were running their FIRST Spartan Race, here in NJ (what a way to start! Yikes!), but trekking through it like pros. We had the privilege of seeing a lot of Christine and her son throughout our race, sharing encouraging words and tips as we went, and were psyched that we could be a part of introducing them to Spartan Nation. I'll be looking for you both at future races!
As the race gave way to some single-track trail running, Stacey and I had the opportunity to meet the largest team of the day (77 strong!), team Braveheart. Stacey and I were trotting along through the woods when from in front of us - off in the distant woods some where - we heart a whistle and a call of "BRAVE!"... suddenly, from behind us, the rhythmic footfalls of a tiny army started coming up, with answers of "HEART!"... "Brave!" "Heart!" echoed through the forest, as red and black painted Spartans ran by. BlogLand, I had to take this time to nod to team Braveheart, as I was really impressed with their teamwork. This was a wonderful bunch of Spartans, passing my slower moving legs with pats on the back, "great job!" and "keep going, Ladies!" This happened not once... but EVERY. SINGLE. TIME. the chants of team Braveheart could be heard echoing around us. An enthusiastic Aroo! to all of you.... even if it was occasionally a little creepy to hear your chants off in the distance. hehe
At about this point in the race, the exuberance had worn off and Stacey and I were working. Our minds had settled into keeping our feet moving in a left-right-left-right jog/trot whenever the incline wasn't bad, and a steady one foot in front of the other when the mountain was ferocious. We had started coming to the "real" obstacles... the over-under-through walls, crawl under nets, and all the rest we had zoomed through to this point must've just been the idea of a Spartan warm-up, because things had started to get serious. Oh, and did I mention, we went up and down a BIG MOUNTAIN many, many times?
Turning a corner, we hit a momentarily demoralizing moment. The track of Spartans going down hill on the right... and like a line of working ants, struggling back up the hill on the left. From the top of the hill, where we began, you couldn't see what might await you at the bottom, or how far down you might have to go.... to clearly, just have to come back up again. It is moments like this, after approximately 5 ish miles of this crusade, that you feel the difficulty of the race mentally, more than anything else. Why was I doing this? My legs were tired, WHY did I need to push on? It was hot! I don't wanna!... but thankfully, my faithful buddy for the day, Stacey, had pushed through a similar mental hiccup earlier, and was back to trudging forward with determination - and a childlike anticipation of the Cliff Jump that we were rumored to have to do. The entire race, she was looking forward to it. "It must be down this hill!" she turned to me, all smiles. The people trudging up the hill next to us DID look pretty clean.... my curiosity got the better of me, and fueled by a deep breath and a renewed mindset, down the hill I went.
I have to say, BlogLand, Spartan Race is probably the only time ever that downhills are almost as difficult as the uphills. After 5+ miles of treacherous uphills and wall climbing and whatever else, your legs are a little tired. So, when you go downhill, particularly later in the race, and especially as the hills get steeper, your quads get a little angry when you ask them to help out your knees. What happens? You start looking a little bit like a bow-legged crab as you sit back a bit, taking the pressure off your knees and using more of your leg muscles to navigate down the (often rocky!) slopes.
At the bottom of the hill, I heard Stacey squeal with joy a bit, as we were diverted onto a flat, paved (!!!) path into the water park that seemed to pop up out of no where. Wading through a knee-high pool of cool water was a welcome relief for our fatigued legs as we assessed what lay before us: The Cliff Jump. We had conquered about half of the course at this point, landing us around mile 5-6 when we happened upon this surprise. What many people viewed as the one downside - the long line bottleneck at this obstacle - Stacey and I took as a nice 15-20 minute forced recovery break. Making sure to keep our legs moving, so as to avoid stiffening from standing, we inched forward in the line, discussing with the other Spartans technique, how to overcome fear of heights, what to do with your gear and how great this course was so far (little did we know.).
Suddenly, it was our turn. Just as planned, and like a ninja, Stacey didn't hesitate and stepped off the ledge. In seconds, I saw her crazy smiling face pop up from the water below. She looked like she had had so much fun. I chucked our hydration packs to her and, following her lead, stepped off the ledge without a pause. Here's where it got interesting for me, BlogLand... you see, it didn't seem that far down when I threw our packs down. So, I stepped off without thinking. Then I was falling (wee!)... and falling (wee...?)... and suddenly my brain realized I was STILL FALLING (AHH!!!!). I am probably the only Spartan who started screaming mid-way down the fall. Yeah. I'm cool like that.
That plunge into the brisk mountain water was MORE than welcome on my body, and my buddy and I trucked out of that water with renewed vigor and post-jump adrenaline surging through our body. We stopped shortly to fuel up on some Clif Blox and Honey Stingers (and water!!), before pushing on to the obstacle-laden second half of the course.
The first one we came across was new to me, and attributed to Spartan Race Phenom, Hobie Call. We were instructed to put the "Hobie Band" around our ankles and navigate this short over/under, but (of course) uphill course. The Hobie Band, friends, is a big heavy elastic band. Ever tried to walk with your ankles banded together? Further, please try and do it without laughing like crazy at the ridiculousness of the sight of 25 other burly spartans doing it. Oh my. My quads and hamstrings screamed at Hobie, hoping somewhere, his were aching too.
All the usual other friends were in attendance - the tall walls, the tallER walls (seriously, when did this happen?), the cargo net in the woods, Hercules Hoist, the pet rock drag.... familiar faces at a Spartan Race, which we met head on with little difficulty.
... but then I saw my arch nemesis, looming in the distance, just ahead beyond those trees..... The Monkey Bars.
BlogLand, if you've been following my progress, you know that my T-Rex arms are a sore spot for me, and in my 7 Spartan Finish Lines, never ONCE have I conquered the Monkey Bars. Each time, I find myself face down in the mud next to them, burpeeing out expletives and growling at them, each time I jump up.
This time was going to be different. I had decided it at the start line. If I was to conquer NOTHING else on this course, I would at least get the monkey bars. Standing on the rung, prepping myself to start, I wrung my hands back and forth on the first one, psyching myself up. I could do this. I'd been practicing. Climbing. Working on grip strength. These monkey bars were dry, we hadn't done a lot of upper body stuff yet (even though it was mile 8ish)... if I was ever going to do it... it was now. I took a few false starts (you know where you swing out and think you're going to let go and move... but you don't...), thanks to the nerves, but managed to take that leap of faith and get swinging. The first half went smoothly, much to my happiness, then I lost some momentum, my swinging was off. I didn't think I'd make the reach with the swing I had... I was hesitating. I gritted my teeth and let out a primal growl (they help. I swear.), and Stacey and the Volunteer started shouting encouragement to me. Just 4 more rungs! I would not go down like this. I found myself matching my hands on one rung, then regaining momentum to get my hand forward to the next one, then matching again...while it wasn't the preferable, most graceful way to accomplish the task, before I knew it, I was putting my feet on the bar at the other side. A crazy rush of accomplishment poured over me, as I heard the applause from everyone around. I admit. I jumped up and down like a triumphant 6 year old. I screamed, YESS!!! in triumph. I'd done it.
That, BlogLand, is a major reason that I do these races. I defeated another personal challenge that day. 7 finish lines and I'd never been able to do it. But I've been training. Getting better. Working on it. Gaining skills.... and today... today, I defeated The Monkey Bars. Watch out, Rope Climb.... You're next.
The next biggest highlight of the day was running into one of my absolute favorite Spartans, while coming down the hill to the sandbag carry. I'd spotted Sam on course earlier (hard to miss in bright yellow!) while in line for the cliff jump, but only was able to wave. I felt a big smile hit my face as Stacey and I were trudging down the hill to tackle our next obstacle, and I heard Sam shout my name and come happily bounding up the hill to say hello. He encouraged me on as I finished up my sandbag carry, and passed out some Gatorade from the aid station to Stacey and I upon the completion of our subsequent tire flips. We were probably around 2/3 of the way into the crazy mountainous course and Sam was *still* sporting his signature big grin, contagious enthusiasm and positive outlook on whatever might lay ahead. I admit, while we didn't continue racing side-by-side with Sam, Stacey and I referred to him the rest of the race as the Little Ray of Sunshine. The skies were grey with impending rain, at this point, and every once and a while - seemingly when things were getting steep, or the hills rocky - Sam (in his yellow shirt!) would pop up over a rise and his amazing Spartan Spirit would propel you on from a distance; much like a ray of sunshine breaking through the clouds.
I also had the overwhelming privilege to meet Sam's friend, Jen. Jen doesn't know it, but she almost made me cry on course; practically one of the first things she said to me was "I read your blog." WOW. It is a humbling experience to meet a (former!) stranger, and have them tell you that they follow your experiences, as you pour them out to a little blog. (Hi Jen!) Like I said, BlogLand, Spartan Nation and it's community was in full-force in New Jersey.
After the tiny break for water and a few sport beans, Stacey and I pressed on, setting our sights on yet another seemingly never-ending hill. It was at this point that I have to echo Stacey's sentiments on this: A well-fueled Spartan is a happy Spartan. Around this time in the course, I saw many, many racers dropping to crippling quad spasms or excruciating calf cramps. I shared some extra fuel and water with one on top of the hill, as a matter of fact. But, seriously, readers... these races are no joke. On what planet did it seem like a Good Plan to take on an 11 mile race up and down a ski area, with a huge number of additional obstacles, carrying nothing but your running shorts and sneakers!?!!? No hydration other than an indeterminate number of water stations? No Fuel at all? Geesh. While I do have sympathy for evil cramp sufferers (I've been there!), I don't have a whole lot of sympathy if you came in totally unprepared. This isn't your average backyard "Mud Run" folks... this is, in fact, a physical test... One you're definitely not going to pass if you aren't prepared.
Rounding the top of what we naively assumed must be the 'last' hill, we came to a flat spot... from which we could gaze on our next challenge. You guessed it, a Hill. But not just any hill... a Spartan Hill. THIS hill was made entirely of loose rocks and boulders, slightly secured with some sort of netting, at something like a 45 degree incline, that forced you to bear crawl to the top... The top that you could not even see from the bottom.
Oh my. 9+ miles into the course, and this felt like hitting a brick wall, face first. Stacey and I STFU however, and started climbing the tiers of rock, one at a time. That's the way to tackle challenges, and races like this: 1 foot at a time. Just keep moving forward, no matter how slowly, and sooner or later, you'll find the finish line. Just. Keep. Moving.
Sweat poured off my brow onto the rocks that shifted under my hands, while my feet searched for footholds in the rock that wouldn't result in a re-twist of my ankle. The course designers were testing our resolve here, for sure. We were exhausted, hitting this point in the course, and this was a long, long obstacle. You'd pass another two tiers (usually adorned with at least 2-3 racers panting on a "break", or massaging a seizing muscle with a pain grimace on their face) and look up, hoping to see the end... but you would see nothing except more incline and more rocks to crawl over. Press on. Mind over matter. It couldn't go on forever. (... could it?!)
Finally finding the end of the rock climb in one last spurt of energy, I turned around to see our conquest. It was beautiful (who knew NJ had views like that?!). This tiny victory was sweet. Perhaps it was the heat and exhaustion getting to me, but it seemed like an apt metaphor for Life in general at that time. Sometimes, you just need to keep pressing forward, no matter how arduous the climb, because you never know when you'll get to see that great view at the top.
Our bodies still moving, we trotted on, through a few more obstacles and arrived at the second most memorable obstacle of the day: The Tyrolean Traverse. Again, stuck at a bottle neck of racers waiting to take this one, Stacey and I were grateful for the break. While taking a moment to breathe and assess the situation, we listed to Spartan Staffer, "Tweak" (yep. That's how he introduced himself. For reals.), tell us how he build this obstacle and a few tips for getting through it. His perky smiles and easy going demeanor had me feeling pretty confident; Tweak seemed to think this would be no big deal, so why should I? It's all about attitude here.
... and then I got closer to the obstacle. The Tyrolean Traverse, for those that are unaware, is basically a rope strung between two supports, spanning a distance... in this case, a body of icky water. The idea was to clamor on the rope (either on top of it, Commando Crawl style, or dangling from it, Monkey style) out to the bell, ring it, then drop in the water. Otherwise, 30 burpees. I had resolved early in this course that I would at least ATTEMPT any unfamiliar obstacles and it was now time to put my money where my mouth was. Again, I was astonished at the effortless way that Spartan Nation became an unspoken team, 6 or so at a time holding down the rope so that the next Spartan could more easily climb on, and rotating through efficiently as they went (interestingly, a similar unspoken rotation was found at the vertical cargo in the woods, where Spartans that had finished just dropped into place to anchor the bottom of the net for the next climber).
When it came to my turn, I was too tired to really get anxious. I didn't know how to do this, but worse case scenario, I'd fall into the water.... which I would ultimately need to do anyway. I grabbed thr rope and hooked a leg over. BlogLand, I did manage to move myself out that rope a little ways, but alas, my T-rex arms/grip strength bit me in the ass, again. At mile 10, my hands and arms just didn't have a lot of grip left... resulting in my early drop into the swamp water - and the resolution to go home and figure out (for next time...) how to scurry across the top of the rope like a ninja, using less upper body.
After a real muddy single-track trail following the traverse, Stacey and I knew we were in the home stretch, as our path opened out into a grassy down hill packed with obstacles. Down the epic slip 'n slide (when will I learn to close my mouth at the bottom?!), up and over the slippery wall, through a little more mud, and we were trotting with exuberance down the hill. We could hear the din of the festival crowd and muffled words of the emcee in the distance. We were close now.
We hobbled ( I say hobbled, because that's accurate... Stacey's IT band was bugging her and my ankle was feeling fatigued, though not painful) down the last hill into the main spectator viewing area. I caught a smile and a greeting from Storm Chaser Kym, from the sidelines, just before I missed my spear throw. Enthused to see flat ground, I happily walked over to the penalty area to bust out all my 30 burpees. At the same time, I was joined by a marine, who also needed to do 30 burpees.
Let me tell you, BlogLand, you know how I love a good competition. I was tired, energy fading and I needed something to get me through 30 burpees... I decided that keeping pace with this marine would be the way to do it. This marine and I did a fast set of 15, with no stopping, to start. I think he realized partway through thatI was pacing him, and he picked up the pace. Not to be outdone, I panted and threw myself down into the ground and hurdled my body up to complete the burpees in time with him, on sheer will alone. 15 burpees at that pace drained me and I definitely had to stop to breathe... he nodded a bit of recognition at me and then went down to finish his second 15 in one more, efficient, push up including, set. I, on the other hand, did my second set of 15 in tiny sets of 3, panting and swearing. LOL.
The traverse wall came up next and I was ready. I've been rock climbing, surely I could do this now, too! Sadly, I think fatigue had gotten to my brain a bit and somehow I managed to maneuver myself into a position - 2/3 of the way through - where I couldn't figure out where to reach my hand next and still balance. NuVision, thankfully, was on site and managed to get a few pictures of my valiant attempt (come on, badass wall-traverse picture!!). Another 30 burpees and I was on to the rope climb.
Stacey and I ran into another Chick in the mud at the rope climb; we took turns holding the rope and trying to get up it... but sadly, the stars didn't align and none of us managed to get up it. 30 more burpees.
Lastly, we hurdled ourselves into the rocky barbed wire crawl. Somewhere in the back of my mind I had noticed that the wind had picked up a bit, and I thought I felt a drop of rain, but I'd quickly dismissed that and focused on not getting barbed wire in my eye. I quickly switched to a more efficient rolling technique, to lesson the pain that was growing in my knees and elbows. I think I was having traumatic flashbacks to the Tuxedo, NY Sprint's gravel crawl that STILL has scars on my elbows! I rolled, knowing the end was near, and starting taking more notice of the weather growing around me.
Flipping on to my back to negotiate another section, I suddenly saw Stacey standing outside the wire, yelling to me that they were about to close the obstacle because of the looming storm. "About to" is what I heard and a weird switch clicked over in my brain. I was almost to the end. I rolled for what I was worth and crawled when I had to at break neck speed, ignoring the tearing pain in my elbows. I was forced to abandon ship on the barbed wire, but with (literally) about 10 feet until the end. A lingering NuVision photographer snapped a few quick pics of Stacey and I with the black storm cloud and leaves being whipped by the wind in the background, and we were off to chase down that finish line before it was too late.
We sprinted over the fire jump and headed, unblinking, for the Gladiators. This, I'm happy to report, was the first time that they actually took some shots at me (thank you!), as the sky suddenly opened up and rain began pouring down.
As we ducked our heads into our medals, tents were being popped down, and announcements were echoing around the festival area that everyone - spectators, vendors, everyone - was being moved into the lobby of the main lodge to wait out the imminent thunderstorm (apparently, there was a serious tornado watch and reports of hail, not too far away!).
Stacey and I walked proudly and unphased through the downpour (we were already wet...), smug with our conquering of a race we were both a bit nervous about. As spectators ran by us for cover, we hosed off the mud and rinsed out our shoes. What's a thunderstorm, when you've just beaten a mountain, your inner fears, doubts, all of your physical limits and the odds?
Although, thank you, Nature, for the most Epic, Dramatic Finish line I've chased down yet.
After downing a few of the free BodyArmor recovery drinks (YUM. Gotta find these!), we were ready to go find some food. A foot long philly steak and cheese from subway, complete with a salty bag of chips - though not my usual diet - was the most amazing thing I'd ever eaten leading up to that moment. I was SO. HANGRY. (yes. Hangry. Hungry + Angry. I was getting to the point where I might start taking bites out of my car-mates!)
While I was walking a little stiffly that afternoon, particularly after sitting in the car for our 6 hour drive home, I find myself relatively unscathed. My bruises are minimal and my muscles are okay (with the exception of some slightly sore upper body ones). WIN. I apparently was better prepared than I thought.
This race was just EPIC, BlogLand, in a way that I can't even capture in words. The course design was stellar, if difficult, the Spartans were strong and helpful, and the majority of the racers were still smiling and having the time of their lives - even though they were sweating, hurting and still climbing uphill.
For many of us, myself included, now is the time to set my focus on The Beast in 12 (short!) days. I must admit, finishing this Super, and still feeling good, was a huge relief with The Beast not too far out. This super was lovingly labeled a mini-beast and came pretty close to the Beast in length, though maybe not obstacle density. Regardless, I feel prepared. (or as prepared as I'm going to be!).
This Tri-State NJ super pushed me to find new limits to my capabilities, as well as challenged my mental resolve. Somewhere, amid the hot, uphill climb, I was tired and sore and I wanted to stop. Looking around, I found myself in the company of hundreds more that were tired, sore and wanting to stop...... but still putting one foot in front of the other and moving forward.
Spartans never give up. Maybe that's the greatest lesson I learn over and over from these races. Keep putting one foot in front of the other. Try. Attempt. Learn from your misses. Study for next time. Strive to be better. Aim for the best You possible. KNOW that you can get there, if you decide to.
11 miles. 3000 ft elevation gain. 3 mountains. 6 hour drive each way.....
... and the knowledge that today, I did the thing I thought I could not do.
Bring on The Beast!