There’s a certain kind of kinship that people who have run a Spartan Race feel toward each other. All of us who complete one of these races and earn that coveted medal are connected in a way, friends and strangers alike. We have all faced the same challenges, overcome the same obstacles and ascended and descended the same treacherous hills.
And then there is the Spartan World Championships…a “Beast” unto itself.
Those of us who survive what I will henceforth call The Mountain have an unspoken bond. We know the pain and suffering that can come from hours upon hours climbing steep, rocky inclines and winding through single track trails. We understand deep in our souls that things can change from comfortable to deeply not-at-all comfortable in an instant during that race. And above all, we know that The Mountain is bigger than us, is smarter than us, and, let’s face it, much prettier than us. But it can also be devastating if it chooses.
And those who finish the race know that, above all, The Mountain has lessons that can benefit us all – especially those who desire to face it in the future. These are the lessons I learned from The Mountain – and they are lessons only The Mountain can teach.
The Mountain Wants You To Look Down And Keep Walking
When asked about past races, I’ve often replied, “oh yeah, that was a hilly race!”
The Mountain puts all those races to shame. Take out those hills from past races and replace them with full mountain climbs, and we have ourselves the Spartan World Championships in Tahoe. And those climbs liked to keep on climbing. Time after time, I’d look up after reaching the top of a steep climb only to see an even steeper one just ahead of me.
The Mountain laughs at us when we do that.
If you find yourself facing The Mountain, best keep your head down and focus on taking one step at a time. You’ll have far more peace of mind that way.
That said, sometimes we can’t help it. We just HAVE to look up. If you must do that, heed this advice: look to your right. Look to your left. Get lost in the overwhelmingly stunning views, because they’re all around you. Let yourself take a moment to admire the beauty around you, because sometimes it can make all that pain worth it.
But whatever you do, don’t look forward. It’s just hills on hills on hills up there.
It’s Impossible To Truly Prepare for The Mountain
“So are you ready?”
People asked me that over and over again before the Spartan World Championships. And although I had trained relentlessly for months, practiced running and hiking at elevation, and bought a fancy backpack and filled it with items recommended by race veterans, my answer was always, “Who knows?”
And I was right to answer that way. As ready as I thought I felt, the truth is, it’s impossible to truly be ready. It’s impossible to know if my elevation training would make any difference. It’s impossible to gauge how long it would take me to complete this race. It’s impossible to know if the month’s worth of cold showers I took in advance of the race would even remotely prepare me for the cold water up there (spoiler alert: NOPE!). And it’s impossible to know if my gear would help protect me against the elements I would face. The Mountain made sure of all of that.
Ultimately, my elevation training did work…or perhaps I was distracted enough by the climbs and the cold and the obstacles for elevation to be the least of my worries. As for the gear, here’s where The Mountain’s sick sense of humor really came out. I felt super prepared for when the weather turned cold with a windbreaker, a long sleeved shirt, a hat and gloves.
The Mountain thought it was cute.
Ultimately, the only thing that saved me once I got wet after falling off the Ape Hanger was cheap hand warmers.
Yes, only The Mountain can drive the point home that you can spend all the money in the world on protective gear to bring with you, but only the cheapest item in your pack will truly save you from hypothermia.
You’re Not Done Until The Mountain Says You’re Done
You’ve been training for months. You’ve been going on long runs and hitting the trails. And you’ve been tracking your pace the entire time. You feel good, you feel strong…you feel fast.
That’s great. Now throw all that information out the window.
The Mountain will decide how long it will take for you to complete the race.
For the first half of my race, I felt great. I was tracking my pace for every mile I completed and using that to forecast my final time. In the beginning, I was on track to complete the race in four to five hours. I felt awesome! And then as those hills got steeper, my pace got slower. As the wind kicked up at the summit, there went some more time. And once I got wet and the sun set over the peak of The Mountain, I pretty much stopped tracking my pace entirely. My entire focus shifted to merely finishing. All of a sudden, The Mountain handed someone who runs a half marathon in under two and a half hours a seven and a half hour finishing time.
So yeah, I finished. And that felt pretty awesome. But it was completely on The Mountain’s time, and I respect that.
There Are No Bathrooms On The Mountain
Unless you’re a superstar elite, conquering The Mountain takes time. Lots and lots of time. For me, it took the equivalent of a typical full-time work shift. Now think about your day at work – how often do you get up and go to the bathroom?
The Mountain does not have a fully stocked restroom available for you. You are lucky if you see a Port-a-Potty or two on your long journey. But if we’re being real here, more than likely you are going to have to find a nice, secluded spot somewhere around the race course to do your business. And you’re going to need to do that, because nobody wants to do a long bucket carry with a heavy bucket squishing up against your overfull bladder.
So you will need to be at peace with being at one with the mountain. For the gentlemen, that’s likely a pretty simple task. For us ladies, it may mean sitting your bare behind on a rock and willing things to happen so you can carry on with your race. And for all of us, it’s time to allow ourselves to be okay with doing all of this around some strangers with whom you are now bonded in this moment of which you will never speak again.
The Mountain Is Only In A Good Mood If It’s In The Sun
You early Saturday starters had it made in the shade. Or the sun, as it were.
The Mountain is a wholly agreeable and pleasant creature when it has some sun on its face. If The Mountain is in the sun, the temperatures are pleasant and all those hills and climbs don’t feel quite so bad. In the first half of my 12:15-start race, I was marveling about how nice it was. I was able to soak in the beauty of the scenery and feel as comfortable as one could feel in a 14+ mile obstacle race in the mountains.
But once I reached the summit and started descending shortly before sunset, The Mountain turned on me. The sun completely left the face of The Mountain for the entire rest of the race. Temperatures dropped and the wind kicked up shortly after I hit the Ape Hanger water. In short, The Mountain got surly. I could no longer use any bandwidth to admire the view – it was all about survival at that point.
Even race officials understood the severity of The Mountain’s mood and mercifully closed the swim before we got there. On hindsight, it was a little unfortunate that I didn’t get to do the dreaded swim, but at the time I was grateful as all get-out. I was already soaking wet anyway and hanging by a nearly hypothermic thread from that Ape Hanger submerging.
So what is the moral of this story? If you want to enjoy The Mountain and everything it has to offer, get that early start time!
The Mountain Will Take You To Some Pretty Weird Places
About six hours into what would ultimately be a seven hour and thirty-six second race, a strange thing happened to me. We were (finally) starting one of the final downhill ascents. I was cold, exhausted and aching all over. All of a sudden, the only thing moving me forward was to say – out loud – everything I for which I was grateful. It was all little stuff…
I’m grateful my Airbnb is right next to the venue.
I’m grateful I get to take a hot shower.
I’m grateful I’m not flying home tomorrow.
I’m grateful I have a relaxing weekend coming up.
Whatever I could possibly think of to be grateful for, I was saying for everyone around me to hear. I have no idea where it came from but I needed to do it.
Perhaps it’s because The Mountain knows that despite its ability to take you to your lowest and darkest places, it has the grace and beauty to show you how strong you are inside. And it shows you this in the most unconventional of ways. Why? C’mon now, you should know better than to ask The Mountain to explain itself.
The Mountain Will Steal Your Camera
Sure, you can bring a disposable camera with you on The Mountain. But The Mountain is always looking for opportunities to snatch it from you. It’s sneaky like that. I really hope someone does find that camera and enjoys the photos!