Breaking through doubts: Ottawa Spartan Beast 2013

There are many people in this world who will doubt you. You absolutely cannot be one of them.~ Urban Samurai

This was by far the toughest race I have yet attempted. Let me give you some visual reasons for the difficulty:

uphillThat's meOttawa Elevation

My home is roughly 1000 meters lower in elevation than where the race started, with very few hills. Even without obstacles, this would have been a tough course for me.

The race started out with a run directly up a ski slope, which very quickly turned into an energy-sapping and demoralizing trudge. There were a couple relatively easy obstacles on top, then back down a slope that was just a touch too steep to run down controllably, and just a touch too flat to crab-walk down consistently, so I ended up doing a mix of the two as terrain required. We hit the cargo nets, the Hercules hoist, and the first water station, and back up the mountain.

I would be lying if I said I didn’t feel like an embarrassment on that second climb. I had to pull aside to catch my breath more often than I ever have before, stepping back in when there was a gap in the line of other competitors passing me.

trudge 2

We made it to the top of the hill, did a farmer carry with Jerry cans of water (Tip: If the obstacle can drip cold water on you on a hot day, carry it so that it will drip on you.), then headed back down the hill. The next obstacle was one of the cooler ones, the dip walk station. walk across the dip bars with your hands.

dip walk

I was told my first attempt was an illegal technique, so they had me go again and I surprised myself by completing it. Next was the steepest up and down barbed wire crawl I have ever witnessed.

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At the bottom of the crawl was a chest-height wall that I went over easily, and a rolling balance beam that I failed quickly.

At this point I had not yet realized that the thinner air was having an effect on me, I just knew that my aerobic capacity wasn’t even a third of what it should have been. I was not able to do more than 3-5 burpes at a time. When I got to the next obstacle, the monkey bars, I did not even have the strength to jump high enough to grab hold.

The course volunteer saw me struggling and told me I could go at 15 burpees rather than the usual 30. When I was on number 14, he waived me off and sent me on my way. The next obstacle was a concrete block-weighted deadlift, 15 reps, which I handled easily, but the setback on those two obstacles was enough to reintroduce thoughts into my head that have been dormant for a long time. That I’m not really strong enough to do the things that I have signed up for. That I don’t DESERVE to be here. That everyone who told me that I would always be a screwup was right. Even worse, the location where this happened overlooked the parking lot where I had left the car, so a DNF meant a straight shot home.

I decided that even though I no longer thought I had what it takes to finish, I wanted to see the rest of the course and that I would oblige the sweeper crew to pull me from the course rather than stop on my own. Back up the hill.

I was logical enough to bring a 3L camelback of Gatorade and some of the energy gummies along with me, and I ended up looking after people who had carried nothing as we passed each other along the steep trails that followed.

Most of the obstacles that followed were simple, carry this over there and back, but complicated by tough terrain. In several cases it morphed into a weighted bear crawl or crab walk type exercise.

Then, several hours into the endeavor, something magical happened. We came to the tractor pull, which is MY event. It is one of the few things that my bloodline of stubby-legged little farmers is really good at. This one was a little different, as we pulled the block a certain distance, did 20 overhead press with a telegraph pole, and pulled it the rest of the way. At the overhead press station, the course volunteer told us that we were roughly 2/3 done with the course. That raised all of our spirits a lot, like we all just realized that we were less than 2/3 dead, and the course was wearing out faster than we were. The next obstacle was a farmer carry with weighted ammo boxes (another strong event for me) and the rope climb, which I had never before completed on race day. I nailed it.

Something shifted at the moment I rang the bell at the top of the rope. Before that point I had been afraid of a lot of things. Failure. Letting down the people that I promised I would bring home the Trifecta medal. Disgracing the team uniform that I wore. From that point forward, I feared nothing. Not even the fact that I just rope-burned the heck out of my hands on the way down.

Memories of the rest of the race are a bit of a jumble, but a few things stand out:

I went over to do my burpees after the spear throw, I noticed the young man next to me not quite able to start his. Sort of like the people you see stop at an obstacle that they know is going to hurt, unable to muster the courage to charge into the pain.

“Hey, how many are you on?”

“Zero.”

“Want to crank them out together?”

1,2,3, recover. 4, 5, 6, recover. Ten sets of three and we were both on our way.

The last uphill stretch was by far the worst. Possibly that fatigue was setting in, possibly just that it had gotten hot. The leader of a group that was passing me noticed the rest of his team flagging, and his response solidified concepts I have been taught, but didn’t really understand.

From the top of the mountain, he called out to the team, “Why did the hipster burn his tongue?”

“Because he drank coffee before it was cool!”

Dumb viewed from the outside perhaps, but it did make us smile and we did pick up our pace. Dumb jokes continued. How many to change a light bulb. Ninjas. Chuck Norris.

The Premium Rig was an interesting obstacle that I would like to say I smashed, but I did not. A series of random objects that you must navigate monkey-bar style, and the first was a rectangular steel bar that I couldn’t get a grip on.

The sandbag carry involved going under a wooden bridge that you had to bend at the waist to fit under, and there was a sunken log to stumble over under the water. I fell flat on my face, but managed to keep the sandbag balanced on my shoulder and above water.

The last obstacle was the standard slip ramp and gladiator pit, but with a twist. Most that I have seen have just been covered with slick mud. This was draped with plastic sheeting and lubricated with soap to make a slick surface. Technique was still the same, keep your butt down and you will be fine.

Rather than a ramp down and a run toward the gladiators, there was a rope climb down that delivered you directly in front of them. The last bit of run in tends to cause them to take it easy on me because I look like I have nothing left. Because they didn’t have the chance to make that judgement, I finally got them to seriously hit me.

Ottawa finish line

This may be my favorite photo from the race. A beaten-half-to-death Spartan warrior with a Spartan halo.

I had made up 3 of the burpees that had been forgiven when I stopped to help the man at the spear throw. I did the remaining 13 behind the car before leaving. Always earned, never given.

After beast photo

The greatest victory I had at this race was one that I have difficulty putting in words. I have never wanted to be remembered as the racer that is the Uber badass, can smash any obstacle before him, etc. Don’t get me wrong, that would be nice, but not what I want to be remembered as. I just want to be the guy that people remember helping them get through, helping them find the power within them. I don’t want to be the fireworks display that everyone cheers at, but the spark that can ignite those around me to burn more brightly.

Two people that I had helped along the course made it a point to find me after, say thank you and wish me a safe trip home. On that point I can say I did my team proud.

Lastly, I got a view of myself from the non-OCR world. I didn’t get a chance to take a shower or wash off my bib number before heading home. I pull up to the border checkpoint with a huge, sweat-smeared sharpie-marker number on my head and hand the nice man my passport.

“What happened to your face?”

I explained the race and that we mark our numbers on our foreheads. We go through the normal border security questions.

“So what does this race entail?”

“It’s a half-marathon distance obstacle course, and along the way we went up and down Mont St. Marie four times.”

He stared at me for a moment, I think trying to determine if I was serious. “Do you have enough left in you to drive home?”

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Hidden Treasure: Waterfall Trails 10k, 2013

I really did not expect much from this race. So much so that I almost skipped it entirely to deal with the office. I had signed up for it when I was trying to fit a race into every month and had not yet realized the range of travel and OCR options that I have. I expected it to be like all of the other trail runs I have seen, polite trails, easy terrain, no real challenge. What I got was something entirely different.

This is one of the smaller events put on by a local race organizer, so the bibs in use were leftovers from other races, the Galloping Gobbler, the Gingerbread Pursuit, etc. My bib turned out to be from the Huff, the 50K I will take on in a few months. For some reason I found that oddly fitting.

I showed up for the race, got my bib, and started chatting with the other runners. One woman noticed my Cornfed jersey, identified herself as a Chicago Spartan, and we got started talking about how the CFS were doing in the Death Race, which was held the same weekend.

We lined up at the starting line, and heard a little of the course information as it was spoken by a very soft-voiced announcer. Honestly all I remember from this was that part of the course was on equestrian trails and we should be careful not to step in the horse manure, that the second half of the 10K was particularly nasty after recent rain, and anyone who wished to stop at the 5K mark could do so. This got me even more fired up for the 10K.

We started off on paved roads, and the first mile confirmed my expectations of an easy flat trail run. Then we turned off the pavement and entered the nature preserve itself.

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By the time we got to the stairs, I knew I had found something I have been looking for for quite some time. A place to train on rough terrain, which is in short supply in the flat lands of Indiana.

Something else that I had never seen in this part of the country: the course passed just above this waterfall.

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This sign was enough to ensure that I returned to this place. The “very difficult” trail was not part of the 10K course, but I knew I would come back to check it out.

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We came back out of the preserve where we had entered and followed the roads back to the starting point, where the 5K runners finished and the rest of us crossed the dam to the equestrian trails on the far side.

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These stairs are the crossing of the dam. I vaulted the handrail on the way back just to make it a little closer to an OCR.

The trails were indeed steeper, muddier and nastier on the far side. Meaning perfect Spartan/GRT training ground.

We hit one point where the signs marking the course were in conflict, and I followed the runner in front of me. If you are going the wrong way, its best not to go alone. It turns out that this cut a little more than a mile off our distance, and several runners who were GPS tracking reported that they had also taken the 5-mile route instead of the full 10K.

Overall it was a good time, about as challenging as a 10K can be without man-made obstacles. And most importantly it showed me the tools to build myself into a stronger athlete that I have needed for so long.