2013 Wintergreen Spartan Super Race Report
August 24, 2013 – The Wintergreen Spartan Race has finally arrived! I have been training for almost 9 months, and I am ready to take on the 8 miles or so of obstacles. I have even written “50/50” on my hand with a black Sharpie to remind myself that Richard Engel gives me a 50 percent chance of finishing the course. Having been to Wintergreen numerous times, I know that I am in for a lot of elevation change on the course, but I picture myself running up and down the ski slopes, with a little bit of hard surface running mixed in. Boy was I wrong…but let me start from the beginning.
The way the Spartan Race works is that the elites start first in the early morning, then the “open” waves start every ten minutes or so thereafter with groups of about 250 people. The earlier you choose to begin determines the price, and I had selected an afternoon wave to keep the costs down. Thus, Leigh Anne and I drove to Wintergreen on the morning of the race since its only about two hours from our house in Chesterfield.
Unless you wanted to pay for a VIP parking pass, you were forced to park at the bottom of the mountain and then ride to the top on the buses that were provided by the race. I will give Spartan Race credit for its organizational skills, whereas they has dozens of buses, and as soon as we got on ours we were off and heading up the mountain. The road to the top of the mountain is not bad by mountain standards, and the views are impressive in certain spots. I was interested to listen to the conversations going on around me from people who had never been to Wintergreen, and many seemed to be in shock that the race was being held on a mountain. One lady claimed that the race website promised “rolling hills,” and was seriously regretting her decision to sign up. I was still comfortable with my decision at that point.
Once we got to the top of the mountain and checked in, I still had about an hour to kill before my wave started. We decided to look around a bit, and that is when I first saw the course map. The Spartan Race likes to keep its courses secret until the last minute, so this was my first opportunity to see what was waiting for me.
My first thought was, “Oh crap, we are supposed to run The Highlands!” If you have ever skied Wintergreen, you know that The Highlands is their expert area, which is depicted on the right side of the map above. Having skied that area numerous times, I knew first-hand how long and steep it is, whereas it is all black diamond and double black diamond. At that point, a little bit of self doubt began to creep in.
One of the neatest aspects of the race was the fact that one of the ski lifts was operating, and the spectators could ride it over the home stretch of the course to watch the racers making the final ascent to the finish line. Leigh Anne and I decided to ride it to kill time. That’s when the enormity of the task facing me truly began to sink in.
We saw dozens of people making their way up the intermediate slope towards the finish line, but not a single person was running. In fact, most were barely even walking. I laughed when I saw the first few, thinking that they must have just bitten off more than they could chew. It then dawned on me that EVERYONE was moving slowly, and all of them had looks on their faces that seemed to be a mix of exhaustion, anger and defeat. I distinctly remember my wife telling me not to laugh because that was going to be me very soon. And with that, we completed the ski lift survey and headed over to the starting corral.
The beginning of the race was fairly uneventful, and I headed up Eagle’s Swoop, which is an intermediate slope. There were some “over under through” obstacles and then a few muddy trenches, but nothing awful. The course then headed down Tyro, which is another intermediate slope. I was moving at a pretty good pace down the mountain, but running down a ski slope can get pretty treacherous. There are rocks everywhere, and you really have to pay attention so you don’t roll (or break) your ankle. Once I got to the bottom of Tyro I was about 1 mile in and feeling pretty good, but that’s when the terrain began to get serious.
The course had us going back up the mountain, but not up the ski slope. Instead we headed up a narrow muddy “trail” that was only wide enough for one person. The grade was steep and people began to slow to a walk. After awhile, many began to stop to rest. I told myself that I was not going to stop, and it was about that time that the “just keep swimming” quote from finding Nemo popped into my head. I felt like it was in my head for the next hour or so, but it took my mind off of the lactic acid filling my legs. I finally exited the woods near the top of the mountain, and then it was back to stumbling down another ski slope. Back up through the woods, then down another slope, rinse and repeat.
Near the end of the “easy” side of the mountain I encountered the first tough obstacle, which was the sand bag carry. In short, you are given a 60 pound sand bag and told to carry it several hundred yards up the ski slope and bring it back down. Thankfully, the bag is soft, so it was easy on the shoulders. The real pain is in the legs going up the mountain with the added weight, but I made it through without too much difficulty. At that point my legs were beginning to get tired, but I was still in pretty good spirits.
Around the 4 mile mark, the course looped back through the middle of the resort and I saw Leigh Anne for the first time near the monkey bar obstacle at the bottom of the ski lift. She wisely advised me to take off my gloves before attempting it since a lot of other people were falling. Bare hands proved to be the way to go, and I avoided the 30 burpee penalty that the others had incurred for falling. I also remember Leigh Anne commenting on how good I was doing to be halfway done in an hour, and she mentioned that I had caught up to some people who started 30 minutes ahead of me. Unfortunately, however, the course was about to get a bit more serious.
From the monkey bars, the course went to the lowest point of The Highlands expert ski area via a stream through the woods. Each step was treacherous, and it would have been easy to brake an ankle by slipping on a wet moldy rock. After what seemed like forever, we were at the bottom and the course headed back to the ski slope. Before we could start back up, there was a giant log to flip end over end several times.
What came next was a soul crushing, burning hike up roughly 1 mile of a black diamond ski slope, which had an elevation gain of about 1000 feet. This “death march” – as I referred to it – can be seen on the far right of the map above, and the slope was littered with people falling out on either side. Dark thoughts crept in, and it was about that time that I made a deal with myself to block out the negative. I would hike up until lactic acid filled my legs, and then I would stop and turn around to admire the view into the valley below. I looked at the 50/50 on my hand more than a few times during the “death march,” and finally made it to the top of the mountain about 50 minutes or so after I left the bottom.
They say what goes up must come down, so back down I went, which is easier than it sounds when your legs want to give out with every step. Once I got mid-way back down the expert slope, the sadistic course designer had yet another fun obstacle waiting – the log carry. Instead of a sand bag, we each had to carry a log down several hundred yards of the expert slope and then back up. It was quite rough on the legs, and I was forced to put my log down a few times. At least I didn’t drop my log like one poor soul whose log went rolling down the mountain, causing people to scatter.
After completing the log carry and seeing Leigh Anne once again, there was one more ascent to the top of the expert area and then back down. I knew that the finish line was approaching, but the course was not done with me yet. Before we could head up the intermediate slope towards the finish, we had to complete the “tractor pull.” This was where you dragged a large stone that is attached to a chain up and down the mountain. I wrapped the chain around my hand (being thankful for my gloves) and did my best tractor impersonation.
Once I completed the tractor pull I was nearing total exhaustion, but I was now at the final climb where I had seen all of the walking dead earlier from the luxury of the ski lift. I became one of the undead and made my way to one of the final obstacles – the rope climb. My arms were not as tired as my legs, but scaling 8 foot wooden walls does takes its toll after awhile. The only obstacle that I had failed to that point was the spear throw, and I was determined to climb the rope, ring the bell and avoid the 30 penalty burpees.
There was 4 feet of muddy water under the rope climb for safety purposes (when people inevitably fall), and I waded into the water to an open rope. Incidentally, I noticed a lot of people going straight to the penalty burpee area without even attempting the rope climb. Thankfully, there are knots in the rope every 4 or 5 feet, so I was able to grab a knot, pull myself up and then stand on the knot below to rest my arms. After I reached the top and rang the bell, I resisted the temptation to simply drop into the muddy water below, not believing it to deep enough to keep me from breaking a leg or blowing out a knee.
Once I scampered out of the water beneath the rope climb, it was a short run up the remainder of the ski slope to the obstacles just before the finish. Those were not so bad, and the finish line was downhill through the volunteers who try to hit you American Gladiator style. I did not have enough energy left to try to avoid them, so I just covered my sensitive parts and let them do their worst.
I crossed the finish line in 3 hours 52 minutes and 38 seconds, got my medal and promptly collapsed. Even though the first half of the course only took a little over an hour, the second half took more than 2.5 hours, thanks mostly to the “death march.” After sitting in the grass for a few minutes, Leigh Anne and I headed to the beer line, but I got dizzy and had to sit in the gravel to collect myself once again. I was able to down the beer once it was purchased, and then it was off to the communal “showers” and then the bus to the bottom of the mountain.
On the way back home, we stopped at the Blue Mountain Brewery and I was feeling a bit better by that point. I can’t remember what I ate, but I do recall my re-hydration plan!
We got home around 8 that evening, and Leigh Anne and I shared the day’s experience with our neighbors, Alan and Linda Posey. Alan committed to the 2014 Wintergreen Spartan Race, and my goal was to get Richard to commit too – especially while the price for the 2014 race was low.
At that point, the Spartan Race was the toughest physical and mental challenge that I had completed, but it was tough describe to people who had not seen it firsthand. Leigh Anne had seen a large portion of the course, but I don’t think that even she could understand how technical and challenging some of the off-slope portion of the course was. I did describe it to Richard and Alan, but they would have to wait until the 2014 race to see whether my descriptions were accurate, or whether they were exaggerations. All I knew is that I couldn’t wait for them to decide for themselves.