If you missed Part 1, click here. (Pre-race jitters and observations)
If you missed Part 2, click here. (The fun obstacles and wooded hikes)
And now, folks, Part 3 of my quest to become a Super Spartan at Wintergreen, the race that is already being described by some elite runners as “harder than the 13-mile Spartan Beast.” (The Beast is supposed to be one level HARDER than the Super Spartan.)
So let’s talk more specifically about the terrain. About a Spartan race at a ski resort. This is Part 3:
After several miles, I was finding a groove with the uphill hikes interspersed with fun obstacles. There were still a few encouraging spectators and volunteers peppered throughout the course. A few walls to scale (6′, then 7′, then way later, an 8′) and a couple vertical cargo nets to clear. (My advice on how to scale a freestanding cargo net? Climb close to the tree to which it’s tethered, where the rope is still taut. Or pray no one jumps on after you and launches you off the side.)
And then it hit me.
This was Wintergreen. A mountain ideal for skiing. It was getting later, the woods were getting darker, and the course was winding deeper through the woods and steeper up the black diamonds.
Here’s a shot of our race course, and for reference, the yellow line is the ski lift,
and the red line is every bit of that mountain that WE CONQUERED.
The only time I’d been to Wintergreen before, I was skiing with my college roommate. It was my first time to Wintergreen and my first time skiing. We spent 12 hours on the slopes. Up and down, up and down, up and down, all day. I felt complete after my first pass down the mountain, but always the good sport, continued skiing down it for the rest of the day with my roommate and well into the night. I vowed never to come back, and never to ski again.
But I did this weekend. With getting to the race super early and staying late afterward to eat, shop, and catch the shuttle, I logged a similar number of hours on the mountain for this high-intensity adventure race, sans the ski lift. There were so many times I’d look up longingly at the beautiful silhouette of the ski lift, immobile, saving its precious energy for ski season – 3 months away. I’d wistfully think of that day of skiing, when even though I was cold, tired, and inexperienced as a skiier, at least I knew I had a ride back up the mountain every time.
Whitney and I lost count of how many times we hiked up that mountain after about 8. There were times that we thought we saw the top of the mountain, but it would be an optical illusion, just another brief landing point before another steep jut up the mountain veering out of our sight. At one point, we passed a medical Gator(ish) truck handing out salt water. I got in line to take some (can you even drink salt water?? I thought that was for gargling…?), but the medics promised that there was a water station “just up the hill,” and they told this to hoards of us, so we all would bypass their makeshift station.
That became the running joke for the next hour or so among our crowd. Except that no one was running. Or laughing. Hill? You meant this mountain, right? The top? Where’s the top? THIS IS NOT A HILL. IT IS A SKI SLOPE. We can’t see the top. Where is the water?! They’re probably lying. We were all delirious. Has it been an hour since they said that??
I split my first and only GU packet with Whitney at about the 3rd or 4th mile marker. Soon after, we were starving. Ravenous to the point where I considered the ramifications of eating grass or the tops of wild purple flowers. I contemplated ripping open a flattened Pepsi can just to lick any residual sugar inside. I stepped on GU packet wrappers and Sport Bean wrappers to see if anything was left inside. We found two Powerade bottles with a sip left in them in the woods and seriously debated finishing them off. (We didn’t).
Where was the food?! The GU, the Powerade, or Gatorade? Where were the sponsors like at normal races? Three times along the course, we saw tents sponsored by SuperCandy, and there were neon wrappers everywhere, but the runners in earlier wave times must have scarfed them down, and there were none left for the mid-afternoon waves of participants. At the last water station along the course, volunteers were using a set of keys to tear open the very last water jug.
In all, there were three water stations of tepid water, of which we were allowed “one cup, one refill.” Whoops. I had taken four cups at the first station before I ever heard that rule announced. Whitney asked volunteers for a sugar packet, anything to tide her over until the end, where we’d pay any price for our dinner because we were famished. (The best burger and hot dog I’ve ever eaten. In fact, I enjoyed a second burger for breakfast before church the next day.)
Spoiler alert: Yes, I lived to make it to church the next day.
Any time we went uphill, it was a steep hike, but the downhills varied in nature. Sometimes, we’d have to go straight back down the other side of the same slope we had just ascended. By late afternoon, the grass was so trodden, muddy, and slippery that I was afraid I would slide and roll all the way back down the mountain in the mud. I much preferred the uphill, even if it was seemingly neverending — I do really well running and hiking uphill. I think with all the running I’ve been doing, my body is more conditioned to embrace the hills. My fastest half marathon was in Charlottesville on an extremely hilly course. Other times, though, our course would wind down through the woods to get back down. The trail through the woods was really just a bunch of rocky slopes with Spartan tape hanging from the trees. The jagged rocks were completely covered in mud and moss, slippery to the touch. The natural terrain of the slopes offered small creeks to ford, similar to some of the manmade obstacles we’d already done. The trees were sparse and thin. Sometimes there would be three of us hanging on to the same broomstick-thin tree trunk.
“We’re all friends,” one man clad in a Superman tech shirt assured me, when I accidentally grabbed his fisthold on a thin branch. We could never tell if the trees or rocks were actually grounded by anything — logs moved underfoot, rocks slid, and there was no reprieve. (Reprieve, by definition, means end of punishment. How fitting.) I wonder how many snakes we unknowingly dislodged while weaving our bodies over and under those rotting logs. Whitney shimmied down the rocks, making it seem nearly effortless.
I was not so graceful, and once, due to bad, bad karma on my part, I bit it. Later, I clipped my kneecap while trying to maneuver over two consecutive logs, to the point where it hurt to stand on that leg. There were no flat points, no stopping, only forward momentum and sliding.
When I iceskate, I don’t know how to stop, so I usually just slam into the wall. Similarly, I’d aim for a tree trunk and pray it would catch me as I lunged to it after letting go of the last tree trunk, or root, or rotten log that I had been holding. Down and down. Until finally, we’d reach a clearing, and a race-marker — an arrow pointing to the left. So we’d look to the left only to find that we had to climb right back up to the top of the mountain we’d just finishing carefully scaling.
It was hard not to cry. So we laughed. I felt the same way when I got home that night and stood at the bottom of my staircase.
Each time we’d go down the mountain, I wondered how I would adequately describe the descent. If you’re picturing a nice hike along a winding stream right now, THIS IS NOT THAT. There were no switchbacks, no stopping points. Grown men were literally laying on the side of some of the uphills, embracing the ground – probably in fear of rolling back down. No food or water, just wet shoes and socks and raw blisters. Every time I saw an abandoned bib, it was like a small gravesite.
We debated whether mountain goats could find traction on this terrain. And we still had miles and miles to go, and hadn’t approached some of the more legendary obstacles. We were getting tired, and in suspense.
Which is where I’ll leave you now, my good friend. 🙂