Altitude Sickness

“Nausea guy! You finished! Way to go!”

Nausea. Twitchiness. Abject nervousness. Hot skin. Fear. Loathing. Frothing at the mouth.

So the Thursday before the Spartan, I finally registered for the Ultra Beast. I waited, because as a nascent real estate agent I have very little money, and I had the sincerest hopes that the Spartan organization—with dozens of open spots in the Ultra—would throw a sports columnist from their hometown newspaper a spot in the race, since he was writing about it.

No dice, so I had to wait until I was certain that the funds would be available.

The day before the race, I drank 24 raw eggs blended with vinegar, and ate a pound of beef. I did the same the day before. I had also been loading fat and loading water.

So I was so amped up for the event that I only slept about three hours. This did not bode well for my performance. I got up, drank a dozen eggs, ate a handful of nuts, my vitamins, and some pickles, took a shower, and went off to the race.

I was alone at the start, no friends, and I was frankly annoyed at the way people stood around, debating what shoes to wear. “You’re wearing New Balance? You’re going to slip all over the place.” Well, buddy, I didn’t slip more than anyone else, and they are not only American- made, but they have the highest arch and the widest toe box available.

I tore through the first lap like I was on fire, and by the time I hit the second barbed wire obstacle (less than a mile from the end of the first lap) I was on time to finish my first lap under 5 hours.  I was well ahead of many of the elite athletes. I had been given some very well-intentioned advice by a friend that I should roll through the barbed wire, as it was easier and faster. The only issue is that this made me nauseous. I lost five or ten minutes in that obstacle just trying to settle my stomach. I tried rolling again at the third barbed wire obstacle, and by halfway through I was throwing up into my mouth, and swallowing it back (it was just water and a little liquid nutrition). I lost a good solid half hour sitting up trying to settle my stomach, trying not to vomit where people would have to roll around in it. This took all of my energy . . . sapped me. I was well-hydrated, well-fed, and sick as a dog. I staggered into the halfway station at between 5.5 and 5.75 hours and curled up in a fetal position. I lay there for about 45 minutes, took some nutrition, changed my socks, and moved on.

Heading up Killington Peak the second time, I was not able to shake the nausea and had to take six or seven fetal position breaks, occasionally going so far as napping. I had to explain myself so often to other athletes that I became known as “the nauseous guy.” About halfway up, in tears, I decided I would take the gondola down. I expressed this to fellow athletes, and their response was simply, “Don’t do it. You got this.”

I am a person who is very stoic about pain. I need stitches from a barbed wire injury on my ankle. I never noticed it. I carried the stone bucket in ways that other people couldn’t because I was able to tolerate the pain in my fingers. Nausea, however, makes me curl up in a ball. I have no stomach for nausea, as it were. The four hours after the third barbed wire obstacle were, quite frankly, abject misery, mouth-watering, ear-ringing, head-splitting, stomach-curdling nausea (and really, it was not dehydration, I was peeing like a race horse every half hour).

At the top of Killington Peak, I tricked myself into walking down the mountain, because I wanted to at least close in on 20 miles. I asked the fellow at the peak sand bag-carry the quickest way down, so disoriented that I couldn’t remember. He asked if I wanted a medic. I said no, I would just walk up and take the gondola down. He offered me Gatorade, and then said,”Keep going, put one foot in front of the other.” I took a sand bag, and did what he said. When I brought it back, I decided to keep going, since there was a significant downhill.

I encountered a person called “Mud Pixie” who passed me on the downhill . . . she was all energy and profanity, and yelling “death before DNF” (short for did not finish). She literally gave me my second wind. I will never see her again, but if you’re reading this, Pixie, you saved my bacon.

In 15 minutes I had left her in the dust. On the sandbag carry where I dropped Pixie, I returned the favor. There was a guy trying to talk his girlfriend into picking her sand bag up, and she wouldn’t do it. She had given up. I looked at her and said “You got this. An hour ago I was lying on the ground in fetal position crying. I feel fine now. You can do this!” She picked up her bag and got on with it. I hope that she finished.

Things went well for a while, but on the second climb up Skye Peak the vestiges of the nausea returned, and I spent a bunch of time lying down resting on the way up. Significantly, I kept up with everyone, I just rested more often and went faster in between.

It’s amazing how you get to know people on the course, you joke with them, you keep them going, they keep you going. You pass them, they pass you. Good people.

I spent hours with William (a beast of an African American man with an indefinable accent). He never stopped. Never sat down. Slow and steady, he was inspiring. I could see the pain he was in with every step. I passed him about four miles from the end. “Chelmsford” was a cute, friendly girl that I left behind about six miles from the end of the first lap, passed me as I was choking back vomit in the barbed wire, and I never caught up to her. “Blue Shirt” was a college student from Boston, and we had great conversation for an hour of climb. “Sam from Jersey” kept me going my second time up Killington Peak. A surgeon who did two tours in Afghanistan and one in Iraq (as a surgeon) and his son from Utah. also provided great conversation; we stayed with each other for a very long time. I helped Jessica, a cop from Jersey City, with the rock climb, and then she helped me (which was a bit humiliating as I’m a former rock climbing instructor and it wasn’t that hard, but it was muddy and I was completely tapped out and my cold fingers wouldn’t grip). I gave her my top layer and then she dropped me like a hot rock in the barbed wire (she rolled, I butt-scooted). Then there was this Spartan guy at the upper bag carry who was another linchpin in keeping me from quitting. He had a big hat, three miles before the end of the course and told us we had made the cutoff. He told me that if he saw me on the ground at the end when he was clearing the course that he would drag me across the line if he had to.

I finished at about eight o’clock, no dragging necessary, after 14 hours on the course. The race turned out to be around 30 miles, and the folks with altitude trackers on came in around 12,000 vertical feet, which is fully twice as many vertical feet as I have ever climbed in a day, a hair farther than I have ever run in a day, and harder body work than I have ever done.

This was without a doubt the most difficult thing that I have ever done by choice.

While I was not noticeably cold during the race, I rapidly chilled at the end waiting for my medal, and I was not warm until this morning. For the record, I did not come within a mile of a muscle cramp. In the finishing area, dozens of people high-fived and fist-bumped me saying “Nausea guy! You finished! Way to go!”

I won’t describe the whole course, but here are the highlights by number for the two-lap Ultra Beast:

~ 40 vertical obstacles (walls, logs 5-feet off the ground, etc.)

4 up/down log carries

4 up/down sandbag carries

2 up/down carries of a 5 gallon pail full of rocks (they doubled the length on the second lap, sadistic bastards . . . many didn’t finish because of that little detail)

4 rigs where you cross a 20-foot gap going from ring to ring or rope to rope without touching the ground

2 spear throws

6 barbed wire crawls totaling at least 2,000 yards

2 farmer carries of large logs with chain handles,

2 carries of concrete catapult balls of about 15 inches in diameter (you have to pick up the ball twice and do five burps in between)

1 memory test where you memorize a word and a number and have to recall it 5 hours later at the end of your lap

1 bouldering wall (it was easy but even the joke wall almost got me in the end).

Oh, and I climbed up Killington and Skye (from Needles Eye base) peaks twice each, on the steepest routes available- —let’s not forget that little detail.

More than anything, this was an emotional experience.

No one I talked to in the Spartan organization or among the athletes had ever heard of a first-time Spartan doing the Ultra (let alone the Killington Ultra with all of its vertical), which makes me proud. But it was not the race that made this worthwhile. It was not the accomplishment that made it worthwhile. It was not the Spartan machine that made this worthwhile. It was the people.  I will likely never see them again, but I bonded with them in an amazing fashion.

While I can honestly say I will never do this again. What I will say is that next year I will be volunteering at the Spartan. And when you are up there ready to puke your guts out and walk off the course, I am going to be there, telling you to put one foot in front of the other and keep going.  Left, right, left, right. Wash, rinse, repeat.  Left, right, left, right. . .

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