Thursday, August 15, 2013

Monterey Spartan Beast Race Report: Beast Mode Malfunction!

Part of me wanted to laugh, but mostly I was disappointed in myself. Racing in the Elite wave, I had made a very non-elite mistake by taking a wrong turn just three miles into the 12+ mile Spartan Beast obstacle course race. While I was wandering around moving in the WRONG direction with a growing mob of angry racers, after descending ~300 feet into the wrong valley, the front-runners were bombing down a nice long downhill at 5 minute pace in the CORRECT direction. I hate it when that happens!

This was my first race of 2013, after undergoing major shoulder surgery in January, and damaging my wrist (bruised Hamate) in May. The Spartan Beast (12-13 miles) distance is a much shorter and faster running event than what I'm used to. My "comfort zone" is actually much longer events like 24-72 hour Adventure Races. I was looking for a good baseline fitness test for the rest of my season (Vermont Ultra Beast in September and World's Toughest Mudder in November). After racing for almost 25 years, I knew from experience that I could expect a humbling, rude re-awakening after such a long break from competition.

I started the race at a very conservative pace, knowing I was out of shape and had a much lower Lactic Threshold and LT pace than usual. Over the last two months I had reduced my running mileage and elevation gain drastically as I battled some nagging achilles tendonitis. Regardless of my fitness level, my #1 goal that I had control over was to complete every obstacle. If I felt good, I figured I could finish in the top 10 in the Elite wave by executing a smart race and picking off the "nickel rockets" in the closing miles.  Regardless of my finishing time, I would get some Spartan-specific training for the Ultra Beast and a reality-check for my shoulder.

Getting lost early in the race and losing almost 10 minutes wasn't part of the plan, but it wasn't unprecedented.. The last time I raced in Monterey, at the Sea Otter "Adventure Duathlon/Obstacle Course Race" in 2008, I did the same exact thing - while leading the race - and turned the 5k event into a 10k!  Coming to the sport of OCR from a background in Adventure Racing, I am used to taking a wrong turn, recovering, and catching up. In Adventure Races (24 to 100 hour run/bike/paddle/ropes wilderness navigation events), that's part of the game, and you can recover. In a half marathon trail race, you can't afford to make ANY mistakes.

Eventually the group of 20-30 of us who made the wrong turn got back on track. I battled to re-ignite my competitive drive, and resolved to finish the race moving as efficiently as possible. I realized that I wasn't following my normal hydration/fueling plan (I normally drink 36-48 oz per hour and take in 300-600 calories of Vitargo per hour), and I was in a bit of a hole. By the end of the race, I had only consumed around 24 ounces of water and 3 gels (no Vitargo unfortunately as I lost my flask early in the race).  That's a recipe for piss poor performance.

Staying in the moment, I took mental notes after each obstacle/challenge along the way, since I'd see these again in 6 weeks at the Vermont Ultra Beast. My race for top 10 might have been over, but the race itself was just beginning. If I was going to spend more time than expected on the race course, I was going to savor every second of it!

Before the race I honestly didn't even know if I would be able to complete every obstacle, with my surgically-repaired shoulder and wrist injury.  Only recently have I re-introduced pull ups and I am still not able to do dips, push ups (wrist injury) or muscle-up type movements; at least not slowly or gracefully. Movements that I always took for granted, like jumping over high walls, climbing rope, and burpees (!) were now in the "risky" category for the remainder of the year. About a week ago I made it across monkey bars, which was scary, and climbed a rope for the first time post-surgery. Baby steps! I didn't want to risk re-injuring my shoulder or wrist, but I also wanted to test the body in "real world, live-fire" conditions.

Combine a wrong turn and 'off' day, and "racing" wasn't in the cards on this day. The race became more about finishing than racing, and learning as much as possible along the way. I was humbled and wound up much further back than expected; closer to 40th than top 10. "Off the back" on this day. Ouch!  A rude awakening indeed. My fitness level still has a long way to get back to normal, and I'll need better than normal at Ultra Beast and World's Toughest Mudder.

In a Spartan Race, if you miss an obstacle you must do 30 burpees. I have not done anything close to a burpee since before my surgery on January 4th. Additionally, I fell and bruised my Hamate bone in my left wrist in May. Two surgeons, a PT and a hand specialist all reviewed my MRI results and told me not to bear any weight on the hand/wrist for "6-9 months". Uh oh! A bruised small bone like the Hamate takes longer than a fracture to heal, so even push ups are still very painful and I have limited range of motion in my left hand/wrist this year. Falling onto the ground violently over and over (doing REAL, FAST burpees) would be the perfect recipe for re-injuring my shoulder AND wrist. I was supremely motivated to nail those obstacles! Talk about "do or die".

One thing I guess I'm proud of is that I DID complete every obstacle in my first Spartan Race, which meant ZERO BURPEES, which for a first-time Spartan racer is no small feat. With a strong shoulder and wrist this wouldn't have been a big deal, but I had no idea how things would shake out.  I must admit that after I nailed the Spear Throw, I jumped in the air with a fist pump and roared YESSSS! like a huge dork. I didn't move fast today, but at least I moved efficiently through the obstacles.

After the race I spoke with the Ultramarathon Man himself, Dean Karnazes. Dean had raced in a later wave. He completed every obstacle but the spear throw and the heavy bucket hoist. He and I both discussed how the race was a great learning experience, and how much time (a lot) we could take off by "knowing" the Spartan Race style. We are both used to much longer events, but we agreed that the Spartan Beast distance is a BLAST and more ultra-distance athletes should give it a go.

At 50, Dean is looking as fit as ever. It's hard to imagine he just finished the 135 mile Badwater ultra across Death Valley 4 weeks prior, a 100k in Copper Canyon, Mexico a week later, and travels around the world non-stop. Dean and I will both be racing in the men's Elite Wave at the Vermont Spartan Ultra Beast. The Ultra Beast will be longer than marathon (26.2 mile) distance with unfathomable amount of climbing and (supposedly) bush-wacking.  Of course, Dean and I both wish there were more long-distance OCRs like Ultra Beast.  I guess we can always do multiple laps of the Beast or Tough Mudder races, if that's allowed.

Another guy I ran into the race was none other than Spartan founder and CEO Joe De Sena.. He and I   raced against each other in the past, at Adventure Races like the Expedition Adventure Race World Championships in the early 2001, across (literally, across) Switzerland. With NBC covering the Vermont races, he and I discussed bringing in the top mountain/ultrarunners to raise the level of competition. He mentioned that the Hawai'i Ironman "blew up" in the early 80s when they televised Julie Moss's famous breakdown. His goal is to create a course that will ensure maximum suffering from the racers, which should make for "good TV".  My kind of guy, and my kind of race!

Chunkay Monkay!

In the end, balancing the promising shoulder re-hab "benchmark", hiking around for an extra mile bird-dogging an imaginary turn, and an off day, and I'm happy to take away some lessons, albeit "old lessons". I'm confident that I'll be running in the top 10 next time around if I take my head out of my ass. In the meantime I'll continue to strengthen my shoulder (it takes 18 months to get back to "normal" again, and I'm a few months from doing dips!), heal my wrist, chisel off the body fat, and build better running fitness. Fortunately I live next to the Santa Monica Mountains above Malibu so I get to train on some very enjoyable mountain trails every day.

Beast Mode

My FAVORITE part of the day was seeing my wife Alla did the race! This was her first race of any kind, ever. When she was a young kid in Georgia, USSR, she was not allowed to play any sports, since she had a large family. I know for a fact that she has more talent than I do. The girl has an ENGINE and a very positive attitude.  She seems to be able to just "show up" and move well in the mountains all day, like she did in Yosemite earlier this year. I sure hope our kids inherit those genes! I love this woman so much it's crazy. She didn't train for it, she just did it, because she was going to be there anyway. We will go out on the odd hike or short run occasionally, but that might only happen  a few times per MONTH.

Alla raced in the women's Elite wave, which started 15 minutes after the men's Elite wave. This allowed us to finish much closer together than if she had run in an afternoon "Open" wave. This meant we could spend more time enjoying the area, walking around Pacific Grove in the afternoon. She didn't just finish, she came in the top 3rd of the Elite wave! She was around top 12% overall for the 4000 total racers in all waves, men and women. She nailed all but one of the obstacles, too. Best of all, she was smiling the whole time and crossed the finish line laughing and celebrating. She taunted the Gladiators at the finish line. laughing hysterically.

Your attitude really does determine your altitude, as the late Zig Ziglar might say.  I'm not going to pressure her to start training and maybe considering another race, but I hope someone else will!  Alla's positive attitude, resourcefulness and inner strength (born and raised in a big family in the USSR before escaping to the US with ZERO English at age 9) are three things that I really love about her.

The day after the race we spent some time in Carmel-by-the-Sea before driving 7+ hours in traffic back home to Los Angeles. We were in a bit of a hurry, as we had tickets to the opera; LA Philharmonic with Dudamel conducting Aida at the Hollywood Bowl.  The deal was, if I did the race, we were going to still make the opera as well. Alla is a classically trained opera singer, so hitting these shows as often as possible is a priority. I'm happy to support her passion as I enjoy the symphony & opera as well. We made it by 5 minutes!  I dropped Alla at the gate, parked half a mile away, and literally ran uphill to our seats. At the opera, one does not simply show up late. When my head hit the pillow after midnight on Sunday, I was OUT. Great weekend!

Alla Clancy laughing all the way to the finish!

My little shredder

Pacific Grove

JUST made it!

Embarassing, Painful Lessons Learned (OK, re-learned)

Question: How do you finish a race moving slower than your "easy/long" training pace, on terrain that is identical to what you're used to?

Answer: You make every rookie hydration and fueling mistake in the book, all at once. Drive 6 hours and Sleep 4 hours the night before.  Drink 24oz total over 2hrs30+, when you usually drink 24-40 oz per hour on long runs, and take in 300 calories total (in gels) when you usually take 300-700 calories per hour of VITARGO, the best fuel money can buy.  Also, carrying 20 extra pounds of muscle and fat this year makes  me slow. Gee, Whodathunkit?

You can't expect to run at even your "easy" pace if you drop the ball on hydration and fueling. I tell myself and the people I have coached the same thing...all the time. That mistake is compounded if you go out too fast in a race and burn through glycogen. There's no excuse for someone to make these mistakes, especially in my case. For the Vermont Race, I plan on arriving a day early, racing in a hydration vest, and rocking an Ultimate Direction hip belt to ensure constant hydration and a steady stream of Vitargo.  The weight penalty will easily be negated in a race like Ultra Beast where the winner takes 6-8 hours.

I have less than 6 weeks to prepare for the Ultra Beast Spartan Race in Vermont. With my shoulder, achilles and wrist "on track", I will log some better running mileage and vertical on my backyard trails in the Santa Monica Mountains and San Gabriels and show up prepared to execute a smart race.  The Ultra Beast distance is more in my "wheel house", and hopefully the terrain will be somewhat horrifying and involve a fair amount of off-trail bushwacking.  By executing on my nutrition/fueling and pacing plan I hope to out-perform my fitness level in what is sure to be a race of attrition. 

If you're reading this and you're interested in a "Pro Deal" on Vitargo or any other supplements, drop a comment and I will email you a discount code to 

Hasta Luego,

Go out and Play!