September 17, 2016, I participated in the Vermont Spartan Beast race at the Killington Ski Resort in Vermont.
Not only was it a physical and mental challenge, it was a lot of fun as well! The obstacles, uphill hikes, rocky descents, and the camaraderie of everyone encouraging each other is an experience I won’t soon forget.
Unless you were in the elite or competitive heats, everyone was there to help each other get through the battle with the mountain. And a battle it was.
The seemingly endless climbs up black diamond slopes, followed by unrecognizable terrain through wooded areas, and then throw in some cold water (sub 50°F) swimming and rope swinging, we have ourselves a fun day!
Nevertheless, this event was more than just a hangout or a social event. I was out to challenge myself and see what I can learn about my weaknesses.
I’ve heard this course was difficult, arguably the most difficult Spartan Beast in the world. Although I didn’t get to train as much as I’d liked due to my healing rib injury, I felt it’d be a good time to take this one.
My start heat started at 12:15 pm and unfortunately, I didn’t make the cut to when they stopped the racers from continuing at Mile 10.
Due to the lack of daylight, anyone who didn’t approach Mile 10 by 6:30 pm was redirected out of the race and did not finish. This is the most obvious lesson for me that I need to improve my fitness to improve my time.
But there were 5 other vital areas as well that I’ve learned from this experience. 5 lessons that if I had known before would’ve saved me a lot of time and effort.
Even if you’re not planning to do a Spartan Race, I hope this 5 lessons will help you in your athletic endeavors as well!
5 Vital Lessons
Before I get into the actual lessons themselves, I want to give a friendly reminder.
There are myriads of lessons that each of us can take away from doing a Spartan Beast. A lot of these would be unique just to us because we all have varying strengths and weaknesses.
These are the lessons that I found valuable to me personally as they highly my weaknesses and what I found to have the biggest impact on my time.
At the same time, through conversations with other participants of this hellfest, a lot of them voiced similar concerns and areas for improvement in their personal run times.
So I hope these will help you in your Spartan Race also, or whatever other endurance event you decide to take on in the future.
Now, onto the first and most obvious thing anyone should do in an endurance event.
Fuel and Electrolytes
I didn’t completely not think about this going into the race. I knew that getting sufficient calories and electrolytes throughout a race like this is paramount.
Unless you’re one of the few that’s completely fat-adapted, in a full-blown ketogenic state, then fuel and electrolytes are NOT optional, but mandatory in this event.
Needless to say, I didn’t bring enough fuel or electrolytes with me on this race at all. The first sign of that was the cramping in the calves. Those inclines completely trashed my calves with all those toe push-offs.
Once I was out of the salt packets I bought, I was helpless in preventing the cramps. I had sprayed on copious amounts of magnesium oil the morning of the race so I doubt it was that. And I had 2 whole avocados the night before, which gave me plenty of potassium.
The lack of fuel hit me pretty hard when I started struggling mentally in the race. I was hitting that infamous wall and had no motivation to keep going.
Especially with the continuous calf cramps and at that point the non-stop quad and hamstring cramps, the last thing I was thinking about at that point was to climb more of the endless inclines.
By the way, what do you do when both your quads and hammies cramp at the same time? I’m not talking about small little spasms, but next level-ungodly-muscle-wave-contractions type of cramps.
Sit and cry.
No just kidding. For me personally, I can tolerate quad cramps more than hamstring cramps. So I went straight away to stretching and massaging my hammies every time I felt a cramp coming on.
So this was an extremely hard lesson learned: bring more fuel and electrolytes than you think you’ll need.
Thankfully, someone was nice enough to give me one of their GU gummies. I’m not a big fan of anything super sweet but those strawberry flavored energy gummies were the best tasting gummies I’ve ever had.
I felt a bit of an energy boost from that and it definitely helped me through a part of the race.
After having some time to research and think about this, I’d much rather prefer a more natural and food-like source of fuel and electrolytes rather than energy gels.
Of course, those gels and gummies work well because they’re designed for this very purpose, fueling our bodies when we need it. But if we’re going to be doing more of these races (that means not a one time scratch-off-the-bucket-list deal), then using a food source for fuel and electrolytes is a much healthier option.
After doing some digging on foods and their micronutrients, calorie content, and feasibility to be used in a race, I found the perfect food source for this very purpose.
This food will have to be calorically dense enough, have the appropriate micronutrient profile, and can be carried in an obstacle race like this without getting in the way.
I was also looking for something healthy, something I wouldn’t mind eating on a regular basis even when I’m not racing, but still gets the job done here.
Sunflower seed kernels.
When it comes to electrolytes, sodium is the name of the game since that’s the mineral that gets depleted first.
But sunflower seeds also have the other 3 major micronutrients in sweat: calcium, magnesium and potassium.
I personally prefer the seeds unsalted, so I can add in my own salt and know how much sodium I’m getting.
When it comes to calories, I’m aiming for roughly 200 calories per hour. I’ll have to experiment with it but it should be good enough to keep me going but not too much to cause stomach issues during the run. Sunflower seeds are dense enough where about 5 tablespoons or so should do it.
For me, that’s a couple mouthfuls and that’s it. I can pack that in a small ziplock.
Mix in some salt and I’m good to go.
One last reason why I prefer sunflower seeds? It makes the salt intake MUCH easier. Sure beats the pants off of mustard packs and pure salt packs.
So there you go. Fuel and electrolytes combined into a single healthy food source. I’ll let you guys know how this works out for me.
Speaking of electrolytes, hydration wasn’t a problem for me at all. At least in terms of getting enough water.
My “problem” was that I didn’t need to carry as much water as I did.
This is not a bragging point or anything. There are water stations spread throughout the course and a few of them are designated for you to fill up your hydration gear.
But I was drinking a bit too much water in my opinion.
For, having the water pack I had gave me an excuse to drink every time I even thought about being thirsty. I was abiding by the old adage that by the time we feel thirsty, we’re already dehydrated.
But that’s simply not true.
According to Tim Noakes, a South African exercise scientists well-versed in endurance exercise and nutrition, hyponatremia, or overhydration during exercise is a serious problem among endurance athletes.
So serious in fact, that it can cause brain swelling and eventual death if overdone¹.
Not only is electrolytes loss through sweating, but overhydration dilutes the concentration of minerals, especially sodium in our bodies, to the point that we’re even lower in electrolytes than before hydrating!
In addition, I see the top 3 finishers of the Elite Heat (the fastest people to run this course) cross the finish line with no hydration gear at all whatsoever. They purely relied on the water stations throughout the course.
Couple that with the fact that the extra weight of the hydration pack adds up over the miles, I was really starting to take the side of not wearing it.
With all those things in mind now, I’m going to try a hydration belt for my next long race, something like this.
Instead of putting my phone in there (I don’t care to carry my phone in a Spartan Race), I’d have my packs of sunflower seeds and some salts. Possibly a gel or two just as a backup.
Most importantly, it weights a lot less than a full-on hydration pack, and I still can refill the bottles if I need to at the water stations.
I’ll be trying this belt for next year’s Spartan Super in Pennsylvania definitely keep you guys updated on how it goes!
Train The Grip
As much as I expected this race to be a quad-trashing, hammie-busting, calf-destroying sufferfest, I knew there will be obstacles involving grip strength.
And of course they’re placed just at the right times.
Like doing a tarzan swing after swimming 250 yards in a sub 50ºF lake. Much like the rope climb to the monkey bars in the Pennsylvania Spartan Super, I failed this obstacle in water splashing fashion.
The same can be said for the wall traverse, which I believe is more because of my lack of technique than grip strength. But having a stronger grip would definitely have helped me there.
Failing these 2 obstacles amassed me a total of 60 burpees. It’s 30 less than the Pennsylvania Super, but I’d much rather go burpee-less.
As much as my grip strength needs training, so does the technique of gripping.
For the ropes, anything like rope climb and rope swings and the like is much more taxing than a bar. Unlike a bar, no part of the hand can be placed on “top” of the rope.
Our body weight is supported purely by our grip, which is coming mainly from our tendons in our fingers, hands and forearms.
Seeing how I don’t have a rope climb set up available to train with, I’ll have to do with a towel or a thick rope hung over the pullup bar.
Doing dead hangs on these helps a lot in the way of developing all the grip strength associated with rope climbing and swinging.
The finger strength developed from this should definitely transition well for my attempts at the traverse wall, which I have yet to complete (this really irks me since my sister can do it with the right technique with much weaker grip strength).
But not to forget bar grip strength, regular pullups and other bar exercises are still a must.
Not only do they help with the monkey bars and rings in the multi-rig obstacle, the 8 foot walls requires a good bit of grip to get through.
I seen people who could only get their fingers up to the top of the wall fail numerous times because they couldn’t hold onto their grip. Once they got help and got their hand over the top, they pulled themselves up easily.
Just one more reason to forgo the hydration pack huh?
Another cue for me to train my grip? The post race hand cramps that set in about and hour or 2 afterwards.
Literally EVERY finger cramped when I even thought about closing my hands.
Yes, both hands, happening at the same time, in a restaurant that I had just sat down at to have a nice dinner.
I think you can imagine the funny looks I got from others seeing me trying to grip the spoon to eat my soup, and my attempts to grip the fork after that.
The worst part about that is once my hands started cramping and fingers start clenching up, I had to use the one hand to open up the other to stretch them out, which cramps the one hand even more.
This led to a back and forth stretching of the fingers to keep the cramps from getting worse. I finally had the meal boxed for later and left the restaurant.
So train the grip! Especially if it’s going to be cold, train it in cold weather, submerge your hands in cold water, wrap ice packs around them, and train them then. It’ll make a big difference on race day.
This was my first time to Mount Killington, and holy moly, the hills on this mountain are serious.
No I see how the title “The Beast of The East” is so well-deserved. And I thought the hills at Blue Mountain were steep…
These inclines and declines are on a different level, and they go for much, much longer.
On top of that, the peak is much higher than Blue Mountain, so the slopes seem even more endless due to the miles and miles of continuous uphill and downhill.
As you might’ve guessed, those hills did me in.
This will sound like an excuse, but the closest mountain to where I live is Blue Mountain, and that’s a 2.5 hour drive away. I’ve
been training on this local hill close to me for about a month before the race when my rib was about 90-95% healed.
That hill is actually ideal for me because it transitions from a very slight incline to quite steep, although it’s not no where near as long as the hills on Mt. Killington.
So I could technically do a lot of hill repeats, which is what I plan to do now that my rib feel 100% healthy and my legs aren’t as trashed at the time of this writing.
Considering the inclines were what contributed to my calf cramps and the declines to my quad cramps, practicing both uphill running and hiking and downhill running steep slopes should prepare my body for the real mountains during the race.
While we’re on this point, it’s important to note that the cramps I got during this race was mostly a combination of lack of electrolytes and lack of fitness/not used to the type of work involved.
That’s why I’m gonna be training my tail off before the next Spartan Super next year. If the reason for my cramps is because I’m trying to push myself to do something I’ve never done in training, no amount of salt of minerals can relieve those symptoms.
I believe improving in this area will be the biggest factor in improving my time. Being able to stay on the course nonstop, running down all the hills, consistently moving up any incline (either running or hiking), should cut my time down by a lot.
Since we’re talking about downhill running, here’s the last vital lesson I learned from this experience.
First off, my Salomon Speedcross 3s were great for this race. They gave me the traction I needed to tackle the slopes, and the mud guard help keep mud off my feet even though I was ankle deep in some parts.
I didn’t lose any toenails from the crushing downhill runs, not did were my feet injured from this in any way. But I did get some blisters from the friction.
The bottom and sides of my feet were on fire the day after with blisters. The added soreness in my soles didn’t help either, which shows I need irregular terrain training in addition to the hills to toughen the soles of my feet.
Downhill running tends to jam the toes into the front of the shoes too. I was really starting to feel it in my toes on the later declines.
I’m confident in my downhill running technique so I’m pretty sure I’m not adding unnecessary pain to my feet with wrong technique. I never overstride, and keep my body perpendicular to the ground.
Unless the hills are super steep, I rarely land on my heels and I “roll” from back-mid-foot to the balls of my feet. And I keep a fast cadence and shuffle step when I need to.
But I know if I want to continue the same pace going down the last hill as I do the first, I need something to help ease the blisters. At least that’s something that I have more control over than the toe jamming.
Luckily, I found Body Glide for Our Feet.
This is the foot version of the infamous Body Glide used by numerous athletes for lubrication in commonly chafe and rubbing areas.
I’ll be using this for my next Spartan Super next year and compare that to how my feet felt from this time. Although I didn’t have blister problems from this years past Super, my skin was a bit irritated. So any improvements in that area should forecast the effectiveness of this product.
It’s A Wrap
These were the biggest takeaways for me when it comes to the 2016 Vermont Spartan Beast. I’ll be sure to work on these 5 points for the months ahead and see how much progress I make for my next Super.
Do you have any tips or tricks that you use for your Spartan Races? Maybe things you personally like to share? I love to hear from you!