2014 Wintergreen Spartan Super Race Report
98/872 AG 550/6483 Overall
August 23, 2014 – Its been 364 days since I took on Wintergreen Mountain by myself in the 2013 Spartan Super. I went into that race totally naïve as to what I was facing and came out the other side beaten, battered and totally spent. I had expected 8 miles or so of mostly running, and was unprepared for the constant up and down trek through the woods and streams around the ski slopes. Based upon the comments after that race, however, the vast majority of the other participants were similarly unprepared. I was given a 50/50 chance of completing that race by Richard Engel, who seemed to have a difficult time accepting my post-race description of the course. In 2014, I was ready for round 2, and Richard was going to find out firsthand just how fiendish the Spartan Race folks could be at course design.
Rounding out “Team 50/50” with Richard and I was my neighbor Alan Posey, who had taken on the Tough Mudder with me in June. The three of us agreed that we would not necessarily be running the Spartan Race together, as our group did for the Tough Mudder. We would all start together, but whether we all finished together would remain to be seen.
In 2013, Leigh Anne and I drove to Wintergreen on the morning of the race, but in 2014, our group rented a house through VRBO.com for Friday and Saturday night. This would allow us to have a non-rushed Saturday morning, and we could then enjoy the local breweries after the race without having to drive back to Richmond. As luck would have it, I had a deposition on Friday afternoon in Brookneal, so I headed to Wintergreen once I finished and was checked in ahead of everyone else. Somehow, this nominated me as the chef for the night, so I had a giant pot of spaghetti ready when everyone arrived.
Before cooking, I did walk from the rental house up to the top of the mountain to look at the course setup. The crew was still working vigorously, but I did get to look at the course map. The course appeared to be slightly under 8 miles this time, but I was glad to see that they still had the “death march” up the black diamond ski slope. In 2013, the sides of the “death march” were littered with lifeless people, and I was glad that Richard would get to experience that fun firsthand since I had talked it up so much.
In addition to Richard and Alan running with me, Jackson and Jillian were able to participate in the kids’ version of the Spartan Race. They were both very excited, and particularly about the fact that they would get medals. Both kids did awesome (so I heard), and claimed that they wanted to do the full course next time.
The night before the race the heavens opened up and it rained…a lot. At one point, it was raining so hard that I was having water drip on me in bed. I swore that the roof was leaking, but I later learned that Leigh Anne had cracked the bedroom window. Regardless, I knew that we were going to be in for wet, muddy and slippery conditions the next day.
Upon waking, it was still raining and there was heavy fog. The rain slowly began to subside as our start time neared, but the fog was there to stay. In fact, when we got checked in and looked down the mountain at the course, it seemed as though barely 50 yards were visible. I wondered how the television crews were going to make out since visibility was so limited.
Sadly, the kids’ race was set to begin a few minutes after our start time, so I would have to miss their first Spartan Race experience. Alan, Richard and I made our way to the starting corral around 10:30, and then after a motivational speech from the starter we were off.
As in 2013, the first few miles of the race took place on the Eagle’s Swoop side of the mountain, which is a mixture of intermediate and expert trails. The initial ascent of the day was the top half of Eagle’s Swoop, and is designed to get your legs burning quickly. Richard and I made it to the top together, but Alan was somewhere behind us running his own pace. We then made a descent down a very slippery black diamond slope, complete with muddy trenches.
Once we reached the bottom of the black diamond, Richard was finally able to begin seeing the parts of the course that I had described for him over the past year. The trek back up the mountain wound through the woods on what can only be described as a “goat trail.” Most places on the trail were too narrow for more than one person, and it was difficult to find good footing, especially due to the heavy rains.
The course wound up and down for awhile, and Richard and I kept running together. The first few obstacles were relatively minor, but we soon came to the Atlas Carry. The Atlas Carry consists of a 60-70 pound round boulder, which you are forced to carry about 20 yards. You then drop the boulder, do 5 burpees and then carry it back. What makes this obstacle difficult is that it is tough to get a good grip on the stone while walking, and you certainly don’t want to drop it on your foot. Richard and I made it through the Atlas Carry unscathed, and within an hour and a half or so, we were through the first half of the course. In 2013, the second half of the course took almost twice as long as the first half. 2014 wouldn’t be any different.
As we crossed back into the main area of the resort, the course took us back up the mountain towards the monkey bar obstacle. I removed my wet and muddy gloves in order to have a better grip, and I made it across without falling. Richard was not so lucky, and was forced to do 30 penalty burpees. I thought about moving on without him, but decided to wait for him to finish his burpees. Quite frankly, part of me wanted to tackle the Spartan Race with a friend, but the other part of me also wanted to see if Richard’s first encounter with the course would hurt him as much as my first encounter hurt me. I also hadn’t forgotten how he ran backwards during the end of our run at the beach the year before to taunt me. Thus, a little friendly payback was in order.
After the monkey bars and then the Hercules Hoist at the top of the mountain, Richard and I headed down the slope to one of the most insidious obstacles of the day – the Bucket Brigade. This was the first obstacle of the race that was really intended to break people, and it consisted of carrying a five gallon bucket full of driveway gravel a quarter mile up and down an intermediate slope. The misery was compounded by the fact that the buckets had no handles, and it was illegal to carry it on your shoulder. Thus, you were forced to carry the bucket in front of you with your hands beneath it, which also made it difficult to walk.
The sides of the path were littered with people sitting and resting on their buckets, and I was forced to stop 3 or 4 times myself. Still, I made sure that I held out a little longer than Richard on every effort no matter how bad I was hurting, and soon I was good 30-50 yards ahead of him. I finally made it back to the rock pit and dumped my bucket, and then waited for Richard to catch up. It was at that point that Richard’s mood began to get a bit darker, and it would grow darker still as the course difficulty ramped up.
Immediately downhill from the Bucket Brigade we ran into our families, and I stole a banana from Leigh Anne, which would be my only nutrition during the race. The Spartan Race is a “self-supported” endeavor, so there was only water on the course, no food. Leigh Anne asked Richard how he was doing, and being fresh off of the Bucket Brigade obstacle, his remark was a very terse, “How do you think I’m doing?” After gathering ourselves for a moment and saying our goodbyes, it was off to the lowest part of the course on the expert side of the mountain.
From obstacles 15 to 16 on the course map above, we were headed downhill through a creek with very slippery rocks. The going was incredibly slow, since one bad step could result in a broken ankle. When we finally emerged from the creek we were at the bottom of The Highlands Express lift, but had to flip a 6-7 foot log over several times before we could proceed up the mountain.
And then it was time for the “death march” up the black diamond side of the mountain. Once again, the sides of the expert trail were covered with people sitting down to rest, but Richard and I were determined to stay on our feet the entire way. The slow trek up the steep incline burned the hamstrings and calves, but I told myself that I wouldn’t stop to rest until after Richard indicated that he needed to stop. I was successful in my mental game of “chicken,” with Richard asking to stop about 3 or 4 times on the way to the summit. Due to the fog, we couldn’t actually see the summit until we were almost there, and we heard many of the other racers wondering out loud how much farther the top could be. All in all, it probably took us 30 minutes of near-constant trudging to cover the full length of the slope, and it was eerie to see nothing but fog above and below us during the trek.
Upon reaching the top, we were faced with two treacherous descents, which were even more dangerous than normal due to the wet conditions. Climbing up a slick ski slope is one thing, coming back down on shot legs is another matter altogether. Thankfully, Richard came up with a solution, which consisted of sitting on our feet and sliding down the wet grass on the slope. The solution was not without risk or pain, but was preferable to stumbling down at full speed and waiting to do a face plant down the mountain.
At the bottom of the second descent we were confronted by the log carry, which further sank Richard’s spirits. We were forced to carry logs approximately a quarter mile down and back up the expert slope, which further taxed our already shot legs. Thankfully, no out of control logs went blazing past me down the slope this time! I began to get a little bit ahead of Richard on the obstacle, but waited for him at the top near the log drop off. The lack of nutrition was really beginning to get to both of us at that point, and I could tell that Richard was ready to be done.
From the end of the log carry, all we had to do was make it up one more intermediate slope and we’d be done. In true Spartan Race style, however, the course would maximize our effort over the remaining distance. First up was the barbed wire crawl. In 2013, the barbed wire crawl was tough, but they really upped the ante in 2014. The 2014 version was about 50% longer and on a steeper part of the course. Richard and I went in together, but I was soon ahead of him via my rolling technique. Since we were so close to the end of the course, I decided just to push ahead and find him when we were both done.
I continued rolling instead of crawling, but I had to stop a few times from getting dizzy. I also had to crawl around people a few times to pass. The ski slope was littered with rocks, so bumps and bruises were unavoidable. The top of the barbed wired crawl was extra muddy for some reason, and it became difficult to make forward progress due to lack of traction. After what seemed to be an eternity, however, I came to the end of the obstacle and got back on my feet.
The rope climb was waiting for me, and the Spartan Race organizers love to put one of the toughest obstacles near the end for when you are completely exhausted. I managed to make it up and back down without falling, and then it was a short climb to the finish. One small pyramid wall and some flaming logs were all that remained, and then it was across the finish line.
Even though I was exhausted from the effort, I felt much better than the year before, and didn’t feel the need to collapse on the ground. Richard finished about 10 minutes later, and apparently threw in the towel on the rope climb and just did the 30 penalty burpees in lieu of attempting the climb. When he finished, he collapsed (as I had done the year before) and indicated that it was his first and last Spartan Race.
After getting cleaned up, Richard and I walked down the course to try to find Alan and to encourage him to the finish. Unfortunately, he had gotten really dizzy at the top of the “death march,” and took a DNF. Sadly, he had made it through the toughest portion of the course and only had about 1 mile to go. The lack of nutrition on the course caught up to him, and was really a surprise to us all. There were gels at the water stops in 2013, but none in 2014.
That evening, there was some minor drama involving a hornet, and then we hit up one of the local breweries for some much needed sustenance and beer. It began dumping rain again, but the rain had been fairly light during the race.
Overall, it was much better experience in 2014 since I did not have to race alone. I felt as though my level of conditioning had improved substantially since the 2013 race, and my biking probably strengthened my legs for the climbing. I think Richard finally realized that I was not exaggerating the toughness of the course, and I was able to get a little payback on him for his 50/50 comment. He can still run circles around me, but I was the king of the mountain that day.
Now, with the Spartan Race over, it was time to focus on the Richmond Rox Olympic distance triathlon, which was only 1 month away. That was going to be my “A” race for the year, and I had a lot of recovering to do before I’d be ready to race again. Complications from the exertions of the Spartan Race would sideline me (and Richard) for a couple of weeks, but this isn’t the right type of blog for those kinds of details.