For Spartans anticipating the Spartan Beast and Sprint events on Saturday, May 18, and Sunday, May 19, the course at Big Bear Lake (100 miles east of Los Angeles) looked to be the ultimate proving ground. Elevations topped out at 8,200 feet, with a vertical drop of 1,200. Beast participants would have to surmount 13 miles (21 kilometers) and 30 obstacles in nature’s arena. And for the top Spartan point earners in the U.S. National Series, the Big Bear Beast and Sprint Weekend was another chance to earn points for the Spartan U.S. National Series.
On July 20, the National Series champions will be crowned—based on cumulative series ranking points—at the finale in Huntsville, Utah. The U.S. National Series leads to the Spartan North American Championship, which takes place August 24, 2019 in Glen Jean, West Virginia—and this is where they will draw the best racers in the U.S., Canada, and Mexico. To qualify for the regional championship, where there are only 600 total elite spots available (300 men and 300 women), elite male and female racers must place in the top 10 during a U.S. National Series event.
So far this year, competition has been close. Going into Big Bear weekend, less than 300 points separated the tenth place Elite Male (American Ian Hosek with 542 points) from the first place Elite Male (Canadian Ryan Atkins, 828 points) in the rankings. Third-place Spartan Ryan Kent said before the race, “It’s going to be interesting. Minutes not seconds are gained and lost on a course like this, making a potential shakeup in the rankings very likely. It’ll be the most competitive race so far this season and it’s where we find out who the true contenders are.”
For the women, the battle at Big Bear was even more cutthroat: The top five ladies, all Spartan veterans, were within 250 points of each other. Points leader Nicole Mericle said, “This year’s rankings are wild and I love it. Wet races proved to mix things up and I’m excited to see what adding in big mountains does to the competition.” Rose Wetzel, ranked fifth, added, “I’ll have to race with pure grit...to keep my top five ranking.”
But, ultimately, it was all about Big Bear Mountain itself. “In my opinion, you can’t fake your fitness in a long mountain race," said elite racer Kirk DeWindt before the race. "You’re either ready or you’re not. I’m in the best climbing shape of my life and I am looking forward to putting it to the test in Big Bear. Also, you have to respect this mountain. Last year, it broke people’s souls; this year, we’re all more prepared.”
“I don’t think I came in to this race ready for it last year," Canadian Lindsay Webster said. "I underestimated what the mountain had in store for us with those steep climbs and descents! I’m much more ready this year, but I think everyone is coming in more prepared."
Prepared or not, Spartans of all walks of life were put to the test. And when the dust settled on the Spartan Beast race on Saturday May 18th, it was Brazilian Johnny Luna-Lima who stood victorious. Luna-Lima was ranked fifth going into the weekend, and managed to finish ahead of Ryan Atkins (2:13:01), Ryan Woods (2:14:40), and Ryan Kempson (2:16:36) by blazing through the course in 2:09:35.
“Big Bear was unreal! 1st place at today's Spartan Race National Series Race. Pretty wild to see a dream transform itself into a goal during a span of a race. Huge thanks to the support from my family, friends and coaches for believing in me during this process!” Luna-Lima wrote on Instagram after the race.
Webster, who entered the weekend second for the Elite Women in points standing, crushed it in the Beast event. Using strong tactics and maintaining a blistering pace, Webster crossed the finish line in 2:26:14, good enough to beat second-place competitor Rea Kolbl (2:30:49). Nicole Mericle, who entered the event leading the rankings, finished third in 2:33:11.
“The finish line hugs were especially sweet yesterday hearing about Johnny Luna-Lima’s breakout performance and win," Mericle wrote on Instagram. "Even though my calves had been cramping for miles, I somehow had it in me to literally jump for joy. After only three miles into the race, I had to keep repeating to myself 'you can do this' and 'just keep moving.' Those mantras and everyone’s cheers got me to the finish line and a 3rd place finish. I couldn’t be more excited about my performance and coming out of the weekend healthy and ready to prep for the next race.”
Veejay Jones paced the Spartan Elite Men in the Sprint event, conquering it in 29:25, with Aaron Newell second (30:28), and Ryan Kent third (31:11). Nicole Mericle doubled back to win the Sprint for the Elite Women, running 32:45 to edge out Amanda Nadeau (34:24) and Rea Kolbl (36:14).
For the Spartan Trail racers on Sunday May 19th, Ivan Santana won the 10K event for the Elite Men, clocking 43:40, with Jon Clark (46:13), and Parker Marlatt (46:44) joining him on the podium. For the Elite Women, Erin Wachter finished first (and third-fastest time overall) in 46:43. Lauren Curley was second in 48:52, and Nicole McManus third in 51:03.
Now, attention turns to the next qualifying race as Spartans gear up for Fayetteville, Chicago, and Monterey next weekend. The competition will just keep getting tighter as the points keep rolling in through July.