Racing Spartan Ultra 50k, South Carolina
Late November I raced the 50K Spartan Ultra in South Carolina. This was my first Spartan Ultra Race, though I had done several Trail Ultras before.
Before The Race
I did this race two weeks after Spartan Trifecta World Championship and frankly, I was not trained well for ultra distances. Since Run the Rut 50k in September I do not think I had any runs over 30. Though on the other hand my grip strength and “obstacle game” were in good condition (at least for Spartan).
While I was planning to leave mid-afternoon for my 4-5h drive from Durham, NC, and double checking if there was any mandatory equipment I found out there is mandatory packet pickup the day before the race for Ultra racers taking place 2 pm to 6 pm, so I needed to rush to get there on time. This requirement is only mentioned in the Athlete guide – would be good for Spartan to make it more visible. Upon arriving for registration I asked if this was indeed mandatory and they said no, I could also pick up my packet in the morning before the race – they just want to avoid lines early in the morning.
If you wonder about mandatory equipment – only a headlamp was required. You could choose not to carry water with you.
I did not get much sleep before the race – excited about tackling this new distance. I woke up at about 4:15 AM to get some food 2 hours before the start of the race.
The course was really flat for Spartan, also a bit short of 50k as measured by many folks’ GPS units. I measured 47.6K (29.6 mi) and 1070m (3500ft) of Elevation gain. This elevation gain is similar to West Virginia Spartan Beast which is half the distance. While they called it a “technical course”, it was just going off trail through the forest in places and one small stretch going through the river bed. No steep ascents or descents. The greatest natural dangers were branches hitting your face and vines trying to knock you off your feet.
The Ultra course was that you do a “Beast loop” twice plus an additional Ultra extension or about 3km (2 miles) with 3 easy obstacles. Also twice. I was concerned I might miss the turn if I got tired but it was pretty well signposted.
Obstacles were on the east side, compared to Spartan Beast in Sparta but also compared to one in West Virginia. Atlas carry ball was rather light, no rigs had short ropes, no Ape Hanger obstacle, “Z Wall” which had been your classic Z-wall rather than the “Beast Modified” obstacle with ropes and no footholds at the last section we saw in West Virginia.
Obstacle Penalty Loops were not well balanced – they were plain running and so short in many cases if you are going for time and not sure you can do the obstacle, you should just touch it and run the penalty loop, which some people did. It was done much better on the Trifecta Championship in Sparta where you wanted to avoid doing a penalty.
I had a chance to briefly speak to the course director after the race and he told me in the US they can’t do much more than plain running penalty loops. This may help to keep the cost low but surely makes the course less fun.
What is different at Ultra compared to other Spartan races – there is a “Transitioning Area” by the start line, where you can drop your bag (or often bucket) to have access to after the first loop. Extra food or hydration, clothes, or a change of shoes can be stored there. Compared to many Trail Ultra races you can’t get any outside help.
The Competitive Field was rather strong – folks doing Spartan Ultra tend to have some experience with Beast or long run. There are 158 Finishers in Age Group wave – I’m not sure how many folks did not finish the race. The fastest finish time was 5:49, and the longest was 11:42.
Going into this race I feared it was going to be cold – some folks told me about running the November Spartan in South Carolina with frost on the ground, making Dunk Wall particularly unpleasant. It turned out to be too warm – it was around 16C (61F) at 6:15am when we started and it warmed up to 25C (77F) during the day – abnormally hot for late November. It was quite sunny, but as most of the race went through forested areas, it wasn’t too bad.
During the Race
I think there was only one Age Group wave, so at the start of the race, there were small lines at the obstacles, though it didn’t matter much for such a long race. I was going as planned, keeping HR at about 145 bpm. This low intensity allowed for chatting with other racers, especially during the first lap. With such HR it meant walking quite a few uphills rather than running all the time.
Starting so early I had forgotten my glasses and forgot to put on sunscreen. I picked up the glasses for the second loop but again forgot the sunscreen. Thankfully sun was not too strong this time of year and I did not get sunburned.
The first lap went very uneventfully for me – I did not rush at the start, so gradually caught up with quite a few people as they ran out of steam. It was the “clean” loop with no missed obstacles, not even the Spear.
Going into the race I did not know what to expect so I thought if I finished it within 8 hours it would be great. As it took me about 3h 15min to complete the first loop, plus some 5min in the transition area, I readjusted my goal to finish within 7 hours and ended up at 6:49:24.
The second loop is where real work happens. I was able to stick to my plan and keep maintaining the pace. During the second loop, you see a lot of folks from Beast Open wave on the course. A lot of folks find their race hard work so they are very supportive and appreciative of you doing the second loop (Ultra racers wear easy-to-see violet west). You are also generally given way on the obstacles, even if there is some crowding.
On the second loop, I Almost did Olympus, failing almost at the very end – this probably cost me a couple of spots in the ranking, and also missed the Spear. Still pretty good I think.
By this race I got a hang of using the Obstacle Course Racing profile in my Garmin watch, which requires you to press the Lap button before and after each obstacle. I think it is fantastic to see where you spend your time and what is the best opportunity for improvement. During my race, I spent some 55 minutes on Obstacles (and another 5min in the Transition zone, which I counted as an Obstacle too).
One of my fears on longer Spartan races is cramps – I only start feeling some potential for cramping a few in the last 30 minutes or so, which never developed into a major cramp.
In the end, I finished 32nd overall and 9th in my AG which is not too bad!
Nutrition and Hydration
I tend not to drink nearly enough during the races so I worked hard on it. In the end, I consumed some 3l during the race. I planned to consume 3 gels per hour and one salt tablet per hour which I generally did. I also mixed 3 scoops of Kachava after the first lap and it worked pretty well.
Spartan water stations tend to be very minimalistic – only plain water is available, except one station around the halfway point which had bananas. I started to push myself to drink a little bit of water at each of the aid stations on the second lap and got a banana.
I carried some 2.5l of Nuun hydration with me and consumed most of it.
Before the race I did not do some systematic carb loading for days – just had pasta for dinner the day before and drank a liter of coconut water. In the morning I had cereal with milk, beetelite and
Sportlegs – have no idea if it makes any difference besides the Placebo effect ?
Anti Friction – Trail toes cream worked very well. No chafing after the race.
Hand Protection – Wod & Done (with glue) worked very well and held till the end of the race.
Vest – REI swiftland Hydro 5 with bottles in front pockets. It works well for Trail runs but not great for OCR as bottles and gels easily fall out from unsecured front pockets. Will need to find something with secure pockets on the sides rather than in the front as it interferes with going over walls and barbed wire crawl. Next time I do Ultra I will prepare the second bladder and swap it.
Shoes – Salming Elements 2 with its large wide spaced lugs worked very well in terms of grip, though because of the mesh with large holes, it let a lot of sand in while going through the river, despite gaiters. Need to find something with similar lugs for traction but a different material. Something that will ventilate and drain well but hopefully keep the sand out.
Headlamp – Petzl Actik Core did the job just fine. I had a ziploc bag with me to put it in for submerging it going through Dunk Wall.
Overall it was a great experience and this is surely not my last Spartan Ultra. A little bit disappointed as the course is shorter than 50K so Strava is not going to give me 50k race credit for it ? Looking forward to both coming the same course in South Carolina as well as doing something more technical and with a higher elevation game. Looking at my race results I see I need to continue to work on my pace with long trail runs, as well as carries (sandbag, bucket, etc) this is where the most time seems to go. I’m sure my coaches from Nox.Coach can help me with that.