It’s a beautiful balmy and overcast New Jersey morning at the Mountain Creek Waterpark, and I’ve already run over six miles on uphill, rocky trails, scaled half a dozen walls, hopped over logs and rolled under ropes with my feet bound together, swum under canoes, jumped from a 23-foot cliff into deep water, swung across monkey bars, flipped tires, drug (then pulled) concrete blocks and carried a sandbag.
I’m just over half way through Day One of the Tri-State Spartan Super Elite Heat.
I continue to run and sometimes walk up the mountain, focusing on the sky above the ridge. Surely this will be the final uphill challenge. As I finally step up onto a small area of flat terrain, I see IT looming above me: nearly half-a-mile of rocky, uphill climbing that is so steep they’ve draped a woven net on top to keep rocks from avalanching down on weary racers below.
And, of course, the small red race arrow is pointing straight up.
Amid the sudden flood of emotions – expletives, shock, exhaustion -- I am also left with a feeling of admiration and have two instant new loves: the state of New Jersey for surprising me with its beautiful, rugged terrain AND the New Jersey Spartan Race Organizers.
It’s brilliant! Out of all the races I have participated in, only those crazy folks at Spartan would pile on such a grueling physical and mental challenge two-thirds through an already difficult course. This will be my third full summit of this ski mountain, and at this point, I am unsure if there might be even more climbs.
Running up mountain trails has been a passion of mine for nearly two decades.
As a teenager, I was always active but organized sports were not an option for me because of my family’s work schedule and the location of our home. One day, when talking to a male, high school classmate on the phone, he mentioned he loved to run. At the time, I had never run just for the sake of running, but instead of admitting it, I agreed that I too often ran.
Not wanting to be caught in my fib, I began running that same day.
Heading out the door of my Morrison, Colorad,o home, I could have either headed left: down the street and onto a paved route, or right: straight up Mount Falcon, a trail that starts at around 6000 feet and gains 2000 more feet of elevation.
Instinct and curiosity pulled me right.
Even though I only made it a few yards on that first run, I immediately felt at home. Running trails activates all parts of my body and invigorates my spirit. I kept working up the Mount Falcon trail until eventually I was reaching the summit nearly every day. As fate would have it, I ended up marrying the classmate on the phone, and we just bought that same house, where I still continue to run my first and favorite trail.
Now, as I stand in New Jersey at the bottom of yet another mountain, I try to remember that this is what I flew in from Colorado to do: test my mental and physical endurance while competing amid some of the nation’s best obstacle racing athletes. This race would also be the last piece of my Spartan trifecta.
I hike up. And up…and up and up and up and up, sometimes bear crawling because it’s so vertical.
If I look too far up or turn around, I lose balance, so I try to stay focused on each step and not worry about the women athletes closing in on me, the other obstacles left to come or that I had signed up to do this same course again the next day!
I hear music and see crowds just about the same time as I view the last remaining obstacles, each immediately stacked one after the other, and all at the very end of a race spanning nearly 11 miles and gaining about 3000 feet of elevation.
I head to the spear throw hoping for luck, as I have missed this in the last two Spartan races.
As I complete my 30 burpees, I spy Rose-Marie Jarry run past.
Next up, I head to the traverse wall.
My heart is beating fast and my hands are shaking. All the while, I am trying to calculate if I can still manage to catch up to Rose-Marie.
As I reach for the finish bell, my foot slips on the last peg.
Thirty more burpees, and my heart sinks as I see a flash of neon green go past: Andi Hardy.
In that instant, my body suddenly feels as if I had run up the mountain a fourth time.
I take twice as long as I normally do to complete the rope climb, and as I head to the barb wire crawl I can hear the announcer congratulating the top two women finishers.
Rolling, scooting and ducking under the barb wire, I hardly notice the sharp rocks underneath. Jumping over the fire, I duck past the Spartans at the end and cross the finish line.
I had been in first place the last few miles, but came in third in those last 360 seconds -- just a few minutes slower than the second place winner, Andi Hardy, but also only just a few minutes faster than the 4th place finisher, who unbeknown to me was on my heels!
Pretty quickly, excitement takes over any disappointment, and I am relieved to chug some coconut water, chat with and congratulate the other super-friendly racers and accept the third place dagger award, which I already am trying to figure out how to take it on the plane and calculating the hundreds of practical uses for it when I get home, such as cutting sandwiches for my two toddler girls or dramatically pulling it out of my diaper bag while searching for wet wipes.
In the late afternoon, the skies open, and with word of lightning actually on the mountain, things shut down pretty quickly. We are caravanned down, and my shift ends early.
Clearly, besides being amazing athletes, the women in my heat were also obstacle racing veterans, mastering not just the endurance and running portions of the sport but the specific skills needed to come out on top. How would I do tomorrow? I was sure those obstacles would be hard for me again.
I also stayed up thinking about the Spartan community, where friendliness abounds. A newbie to the Spartan circuit, veteran racers had been incredibly open and welcoming. Really, everyone at the race had been awesome – from the Zico and iTaB vendors, who cheerily hand me nearly a dozen cups of chocolate and coconut milk and chatted about how I can put anything on the back of my medal, to Chris Davis, who shook my hand at the finish line and whom I later saw smiling as he waited at the top of the mountain in torrential rain, to Uncle Billy, who picked us up and dropped us off at our volunteer stations, all the while giving us insight into all the behind-the-scenes preparation and work it takes to set up the obstacles on this course and others around the country.
Falling asleep, I also thought about my family and support at home – all the hours my friends and I had switched off training and watching each others’ children, all the times on the mat that I had wanted to quit but my Coach Justin Houghton had motivated me to keep going for a few more reps, all the moments my husband had given me words of encouragement or had offered to watch our girls so that I could go on just one more run.
Like a water drop on your windshield, starting off small but gaining momentum as more drops come, the momentum of positives managed to overcome self-doubt by morning. I awoke with a newfound strategy for Day Two.
Yes, I would probably miss the same two obstacles, but I also had the advantage of knowing the course this time -- and I knew I could be faster if I saved my energy -- walking quickly up all the hills, rather than trying to run them.
Lining up in the elite heat on Day Two, I was still nervous, but surprisingly not sore. Actually, I kind of felt warmed up and even slightly excited. At the starting line, I chatting with some of the familiar faces from the day before and spotted Leyla Di Cori, whom I recognized from her blog post about racing with her mom.
Just like the day before, it started by going UP.
After reaching the swimming section with the canoes, we headed off for more trail running through the forest. As I ran through the woods this second day – jumping over fallen logs, sidestepping rocks, mucking through puddles, skidding around winding turns and pushing through large sections of weeds and brush – I felt as if I could actually enjoy the experience and the unique terrain.
I had more energy, and am sure I was able to move more quickly. Also, since I ran without carrying water, I spent an extra few seconds at each water station to drink another cup and gulped down my one gel packet at what I already knew would be the hardest part of the race for me -- after the sandbag carry and tire flip but before the final, giant hill ascent.
Somehow, I ended up running pretty much by myself the last couple of miles, which was incredibly peaceful and made me feel like I was training at home.
When I headed down the last stretch, nearing those last four obstacles again, I tried not to think about who might be right behind me and hoped for better luck in the spear throw.
Buuut… missed again.
And yup, even fell off the traverse wall again.
However, this time I managed to be the first woman to cross the finish line and even three minutes faster than the previous day. Leyla Ester Di Cori zoomed in next and Melinda Branch was third, beating her Day One time by 15 minutes!
The New Jersey Tri-State Super was my favorite race to date because of the length, the physical and mental obstacles and the awesome community that surrounds all things Spartan.
This kind of race is addictive not just because of the adrenaline rush, but also because in the process of pushing through challenge after challenge you’re forced to summon the strongest and most positive parts of yourself.
Thanks, Spartan. Aroo!