ULTRA BEAST – NOT to be entered into lightly!
This was the first time Spartan hosted an Ultra Beast, 26+ miles with 60+ Obstacles, in Scotland and it was in the stunning Pentland Hills, at Nine Mile Burn, just outside of Edinburgh. However, don’t let the beautiful surroundings fool you, as those hills are out to destroy you!
Registration was on the Friday night and everything ran very smoothly and efficiently. There wasn’t very much queuing in terms of picking up your registration pack for the Ultra Beast and dropping of your transition bag was done with ease, all clearly marked. I was all sorted within 15 minutes of getting to the event, which was ideal, as I was wanting an early night with an early start time 6:30am.
Having kept an eye on the weather forecast all week in my efforts to decide what I wanted to race in, I left it to the last moment I turned up at the event. Having raced the previous year in these hills, I knew just how quickly the weather could turn and how exposed racers could be to the winds. Having seen the low hanging clouds cast over the Pentland hills in the morning, I knew it was a job for the leggings and long thermal top. It was going to be wet and cold, and boy was I not wrong there.
AND THE JOURNEY BEGINS…WITHOUT FANFARE
Standing at the start line wondering what I had let myself in for, I was hoping for some encouragement, or to get racers hyped for what lay ahead. Inste, d it was a very intense reminder of penalties and cut off times to make it round the course. This was merely shouted across the participants as there was no PA system in place. Not sure the reasons for this, but this did make for difficult hearing as I stood near the back of the crowd.
Without warning, they counted down was shouted out “3,2,1, Go!” and that was it. The Ultra Beast had begun.
Within 100 meters of the start, the course bottlenecked causing a back log of runners to have to stop and wait, as one by one runners jumped across a small burm. I was disappointed at this. I felt this should have been thought about when creating the course; surely they could see this was going to happen?
As the crowd of runners started to break away from one another and make their way into the hills, we were met with lots of rugged terrain, which was hard going under foot. This was the theme for most of the race, with the ankles taking a fair bit of punishment on the uneven surface. Then there were the endless hills with false summits as you thought you had reached the top it continued to go up, and if going up was bad, coming down was just as hard on the legs with the need to brace as the ground was so slippery under foot. The wrong footing could lead to landing on your bottom within a matter of seconds. Even with trail shoes, I still found myself hitting the ground on several occasions.
There were also several narrow paths throughout which meant, if you got stuck behind a slower runner, it was going to prove difficult to get past them.
ULTRA BEAST TEASING
Then there was the constant Music that could be heard out on the course. You were being pulled in to then be sent back out on the course with no idea when the first lap was to end. I reached the 23km point on the first lap with the buzz of the events village right next to me and thought I had finished the first lap. I was wrong! The course sent racers away and off for another 2km or so before we would see the end of the first lap. All I could think was, “Youré teasing me here!!”
Most of the obstacles on course were the regulars that appear in a Spartan Race, with most being achievable and only a few that would pose issue, leading in gaining those dreaded burpees if you weren’t great with grip strength, memory or a throw. All the obstacles seemed nice and evenly placed around the course with you not feeling like you were running for too long before you were faced with a challenge.
There were your usual strength obstacles the Block Pull, Log Flip, Bucket Brigade, 2 Sandbag Carries, Tyre Carry , Farmer’s Walk, Atlas Carry, Sled Drag, and Herc Hoist. These all just required being able to man up and dig deep for every ounce of strength you had to give. They also had a lot of these one after another leaving your arms feeling pretty drained.
The memory test came early on. I can still remember my code now “Oscar-137-6813.” It has been imprinted in my brain. I found using my hand like a phone keyboard and memorizing the sequence on my palm made recall easier. While running, I simply tapped over and over in my hand the sequence till it was second nature. Sure enough, when the time came to recite it after a fair distance and many obstacles between, I knew no burpees were coming my way and I aced the code!
There were also the water obstacles: the Dunk Wall with water crossing required you to submerge under three planks of wood near to the start of the course. The water here literally took your breath away. It was all about trying to control your breathing and not panic. There were 4 more water crossings further round the course requiring a bit of a swim, with the last swim requiring you again to submerge yourself under 2 walls. The water was not nearly as cold as the first water obstacle, but never the less, being wet was not helping in attempts to get warm.
You then had your more grip orientated obstacles: Olympic Ring Swing, which required you to get across fast, however being this was straight after getting out of ice cold water getting the feeling back in the hands was the difficult part; the Tyrolean Traverse, most choosing to under hang although I did see a few attempt going on top; and Rope Climb, nearer the end of the course but straight after the atlas carry – truly testing if you had the strength left to hit that bell at the top.
In the last 100m of the course, there lay 5 obstacles back to back: Multirig; the Dominator, a peg board placed at an angle that required you to climb up it using the pegs then with a controlled descent (Not sure why, but this wasn’t open on the first lap); and the Twister (killer for the grip strength) was the second last obstacle. By the time I hit Twister, grip strength was all but gone. With the wet weather making the hand bars slippery, gripping became even harder. Speaking to a few folks who had marshalled that obstacle, they said most were receiving the penalty of 30 burpees – I’m sure as Spartan intended.
WHAT OTHER CHALLENGES DID THE ULTRA BEAST HAVE?
There were other obstacles such as balance beam, walls, barbed wire crawls, cargo net climbs, slip walls, z walls and the stairway. Can’t say I personally found them too difficult and they were actually a nice break from the running. Let’s not forget of course the Spear Throw situated near the end of the course and on an exposed area – no protection from the wind should it want to change the direction of your throw. This has never been an obstacle that I could master and always calculate for 30 Burpees at it.
TRANSITION…ON THE COURSE AND IN THE MIND
At the end of my first lap, I felt good; I was round in just under 5 Hours. I was a little tired but still full of high spirits. The thought of doing a second lap had not truly hit me. As I dropped from the wall and made my way to the transition area, I was confused to see the two friends who I had left not long after the start of the course waiting for me all changed. They had been pulled from the race. The realization then hit me that not everyone who had started this race was going to finish. The fact that participants were being pulled off the course due to hypothermia and injury was becoming all too real. I was more fueled than ever that I was not going to be one of them. I WAS GOING TO JUMP THAT FIRE AND CROSS THE FINISHLINE!
This was where true grit and determination was going to kick in. Knowing the full distance of the course and the obstacles that were ahead, I had to just put my head down and keep going. This was now a test of stamina and mental strength.
This second lap was proving to be punishing as the weather worsened further with visibility at the top of the hills becoming less than 50m and warnings from marshals to all runners to run with a group of people. Being fully exposed at the top of the hills to the harshest conditions only to then have hail begin. Nowhere to hide, everyone had to just let the sharp pain of the ice smack off our faces as we trudged on.
35km into the race, I was now cold to the core, not sure if I would ever know what warmth would feel like again. It was becoming difficult to get any heat generated. Running proved challenging with heavy legs and the mere effort to place one foot in front of another was becoming draining.
As I walked up to the Bucket Carry for the second time, emotions took hold of me, and I found myself crouched down over the bucket – tears streaming from my face questioning what I was doing. I was a very different person from the first lap. I was now cold and emotionally drained. The happy smiley person making jokes on the first lap had been replaced by this struggling, sobbing mess. This wasn’t the last time I was to cry on this course.
Having pulled myself together, I got some pace back into the race and pushed through. I watched as runners were cramping up going up the last few hills, till it was the homeward 3km and hills seemed a thing of the past; it was thankfully much flatter and downhill to the finish.
Entering back into the events area knowing I had only 5 more obstacles until I jumped that fire and completed the Ultra Beast overwhelmed me. I had done it; I would complete Scotland’s first Ultra Beast. From nowhere, I pulled every ounce of strength and battled through. I knew I had 30 Burpees still to complete – I just wouldn’t have the grip strength to hold me on the Twister. I didn’t care. I was in the home stretch! I felt the smile I had lost somewhere in the cold, hail covered hills come back to my face as I dragged my body over the last two 8-foot walls and jumped over that fire to claim my victory!
Sheer Joy to Cross the Finishline!
Sadly, no one stood there waiting to hang that Ultra Beast medal round my neck. Instead, the finish was just confusion (though I’m not sure if it was my confusion from mental depletion having just run over 30 miles). I was directed to an area where the timing chip was removed. Then, I was shuffled on to another area to confirm my name, only then for the medal to be handed to me from out of a box. This was demoralizing having just pushed myself to the extreme. We all want the memory of someone hanging that medal round our necks honoring your achievement, and this was stolen.
ON COURSE PIT STOPS
On the first lap, the pit stops were brimming with bananas and water to keep everyone’s energy levels up whilst they ran. Compared to other races I have done, I was a little surprised that this was all that was provided for the runners. Usually, there a few different choices of fuel to select being not everyone favors a banana.
My second lap of the course was a different experience all together. Lucky to have had a food bag out on course, I quickly grabbed some more food here, just as well, as I was let down by the refueling stations here after. One stop was even running short of cups for water with the marshal only having about 20 cups in hand to dish out to the rest of the runners coming up to re-hydrate.
I chatted with the marshal and found out, due to the extreme conditions being faced in the hills, all the buggies were being used to get people down off the hill, thus not being able to provide the nutrition that racers required. I was also told on my first lap that there would be energy drinks at one stop on my return, but when I arrived, this was not the case. I was just glad to have had energy blocks on me. They made the difference.
The marshals were AMAZING throughout the course. I cannot fault them. They were just as wet and cold standing looking after the runners and still had smiles, words of encouragement, high fives, and hugs to give throughout the course. They deserved a medal for the shift they put in. Near the end of the Farmer’s Carry, one of the marshals shared his coffee with me. Cannot have thanked him enough. Getting something warm inside of me gave me just what I needed to complete the course.
ARE YOU READY FOR THE ULTRA BEAST?
This race should not be entered into lightly. Lack of training, unsuitable clothing, and the wrong nutrition will let you down. You need to have unbelievable mental strength to pull yourself across that line. I am strong minded and even I found myself questioning why I had signed up to push my body physically, mentally and emotionally to the breaking point. I never thought I could run a race that could almost break me, but after over 30 miles, 80 obstacles, 2000+ meters elevation gained on course, I found it! This is one race you won’t be short of a challenge. AROO!
Photo Credits: Spartan Race UK