I started working for Spartan at the beginning of 2021, but I had always been an athlete. I was a sprinter, ranging from 100 to 400 meters, and the first leg of my 4x100 meter track team. But even though I was an athlete, the truth is that I had always skated by on improper training, haphazard nutrition, and a poor mental outlook that left me feeling like second best was good enough. Suffering from constant shin splints, self-confidence issues, and subsequent burnout, I threw in the towel on running … until the pandemic hit.
Like many, I turned the lockdown into a self-improvement project. I started with three miles and pushed myself to simply improve by 1% each day. Over a year and a half later, I average 30 miles a week — with my furthest distance reaching 14 miles on New York City streets and bridges — eat a whole foods-focused, plant-based diet; lift weights three days a week; and consistently seek out books, articles, and podcasts to improve my own mental strength, stamina, and focus.
So, when our New York marketing and media team decided to head out to the Tri-State New Jersey Spartan Trifecta Weekend to volunteer for the Saturday races, I assumed that my consistent training would set me up nicely to handle the 21K, 30-obstacle Beast course at Vernon Peak’s Mountain Creek Resort — what would be my first OCR race.
Those who have run the course — ranked the fifth most challenging Spartan course in the United States — are likely shaking their heads at my naiveté, and they’d be right. Nothing could have prepared me for the physical suffering and mental agonizing that those 13-plus miles and 5,000 feet of elevation gain would put me through. But I survived, completing the Open heat course in four hours, 19 minutes, and 20 seconds (even placing 133rd out of 2,263 total racers). Here’s how I did it, what I’d do again, and what I wish I'd known before I hit the course.
What You Need to Know About Running a Spartan Beast
1. You NEED to Have a Tried and True Nutrition Plan
You might be able to let your nutrition slide for a Sprint (and maybe even a Super), but I seriously do not recommend approaching the Beast — the third and most challenging piece of the coveted Trifecta title — without some serious dietary preparations. Like most races, that means testing your race-day fuel during training runs, and not deviating from what works for you in the days leading up to your race. Staying consistent will help you avoid potential stomach discomfort. (But don’t worry: There are plenty of portable toilets stationed throughout the course, in case you do run into trouble.)
Knowing I’d never tackled 30 obstacles before (nor 5,000 feet of elevation gain) and that carbs would be my key to powering through, I wanted to reduce my protein, fat, and fiber intake, and up my carbs to about 85% of my calories, especially the night before. Since I was racing at 9:15 a.m. the next day, I wrapped up dinner around 7 p.m. to allow for proper digestion, and consumed a small (but carb-loaded) breakfast before leaving my apartment that morning around 5:45 a.m., armed with my trusty course fuel.
Here’s what I ate to prepare:
— Dinner the night before: 2 white mashed potatoes, about 3 ounces of angel hair spaghetti (no sauce — just salt, pepper, and a little butter), a small dinner roll, 1/2 cup of grilled chicken, 1 full orange, and plenty of water.
— Breakfast the morning of: 1/2 cup of oats mixed with 1 cup of unsweetened almond milk and 1 tablespoon of peanut butter. Also, 10 ounces of black coffee and more water.
— 30 minutes before the race: 3 Honey Stinger Mini Waffles and one half of a banana. Water.
Here's what I ate during the race:
As a 130-pound woman, I aimed to consume 1 gram of carbohydrates per 1 kilogram of bodyweight (about 59 kilograms) per hour. That looked like this:
— 3 Honey Stinger Energy Chews every hour, or
— A Honey Stinger Energy Gel if I was tired of chews
— 1 cup of water at every water station (I usually carry a running water bottle, but decided to leave it at home due to the need to use my hands for obstacles.)
— 1 Spartan Energy pill around 6 miles in, and another at 10 miles to enhance my mental focus
— 1 Spartan Hydration tablet every 4 miles
Of course, everyone’s body is different. This nutritional layout allowed me to feel completely fueled and — as a result — I was able to devote all of my energy and focus on the race, rather than feelings of exhaustion, hunger, or dehydration. What worked for me may not work for the next person, so it’s crucial to test your nutrition ahead of time and come prepared with ample fuel in your pack.
2. Don’t Underestimate … Anything
If you’ve never run a Spartan race but are thinking about signing up, eliminate every preconceived notion you may have about what the course will look and feel like.
As an endurance runner who regularly cycles through half-marathon training, I was not at all prepared for the grip strength that the course demanded. And while my cardiovascular endurance allowed my lungs to power through the monumental upward climbs, my calves were not quite as prepared (nor were my knees and ankles for the steep and intensely technical descents that followed).
Here’s my advice to prepare: No matter where you are, find a hill and run up it. Then run back down. If you can’t find a hill, double up on your squats, calf raises, and Nordic leg curls. And as hard as the hills may feel, do not underestimate the treachery of the downhill descent. Laden with rocks, logs, creek beds, and thick, shoe-swallowing mud, the terrain of a Beast will not be kind to untrained ankles and knees. Do the damn mobility exercises.
If you’re not a regular OCR-goer and are unsure how to prepare for the obstacles you’ll face out on the course, there are limitless workouts on the Spartan FIT app to help foster your grip strength and prime you for the course. Each obstacle requires a certain skill set, and you’ll face 30 burpees — or a potential penalty loop — if you fail it. As someone with minimal grip strength, these are the obstacles that I found most difficult to overcome:
— The Sandbag Carry (Though not technically a grip strength obstacle, this one was particularly tough on my back and core. Train accordingly.)
3. Plan Your Outfit Strategically
It goes without saying that whatever you choose to wear will be soaked in mud and unrecognizable by the time you cross the finish line, so keep this in mind (not only for the sake of not trashing your brand new gear, but for practical purposes as well).
Above all else, do not wear cotton. The Beast is a long race, and depending on the weather, you’ll likely go through multiple cycles of being dry, sweaty, muddy, downright soaked, and then dry again. Accordingly, you’ll need light, breathable, and tight-fitting clothing that will dry fast, won’t snag on obstacles, and won’t drag you down. You’ll also need water-slicking, grippy sneakers that drain easily and provide traction, like the RD Pro. They’ll especially come in handy following obstacles such as the Dunk Wall and the Water Crossing, where — in regular road sneakers — small bits of rocks and sand can lodge in your socks and create a rubbing that leads to course-long blisters (speaking from experience).
I wore long leggings, primarily to protect my skin from rope burns on the Tyrolean Traverse — an effect you can also get with long socks — and a form-fitting sports bra to provide plenty of mobility in my core, arms, and shoulders. And if you’re worried about ripping your hands on obstacles, grab some gloves for a smoother swing.
A few additional things to note wardrobe-wise:
— Earbuds are not allowed on the course. You can bag check your phone or, if you must bring it, keep it stashed in a waterproof case or plastic bag to avoid damage.
— Wet skin may chafe more readily than dry skin. If you are someone who chafes on longer runs, apply Body Glide generously.
— If you’re packing nutrition in a pack, keep it sealed. Gummies don’t taste as great when they’re caked in mud — trust me.
— If you’re wearing a hydration pack with a straw, bite the straw when you submerge under the Dunk Wall to prevent mud from entering the water canal.
— I wore my Apple watch to manually track my miles, heart rate, and calories. It (along with other sports watches) are good to go, and do withstand the wear and tear of the course.
— Bring a towel and a change of clothes, shoes, and socks (and a plastic bag for your dirty ones).
4. Make Friends and Help Each Other
One of Spartan’s greatest hallmarks is a community of racers that — despite any personal, political, social, or other differences that may stand between them — will go out of their way to support one another, lend a helping hand, and build camaraderie and lasting friendships around mutual suffering. When you hit the starting line before a Beast, you’ll experience this firsthand.
Not only were my fellow competitors eager to chat face to face pre-race about how much (or how little) they had prepared, but even those who had sidelined themselves somewhere along the course to rub out a cramp or catch their breath did not hesitate to shout encouragingly, “You’re doing great!” or “Keep crushing it!” to total strangers.
And if you’re competing in an Open heat like I was, you’re able to help each other, which might be the difference between getting over those final obstacles or racking up tons of burpees when your body is already fatiguing. Although I ran by myself, two kind strangers offered me a boost on both the Stairway to Sparta and The Box, so I returned the favor for someone on the second-to-last obstacle, the Vertical Cargo.
The point? Pay it forward as much as you can out on the course. Unless you’re racing Elite, many racers out there are just looking to find a way to the finish line and prove something to themselves, so make friends rather than enemies.
5. This Race Is 99.9% Mental, So Own It
Because earbuds are not allowed on the course, this was the first race that I ever ran without music, which usually acts as a mental stimulant and motivator. Focusing on external forces (like the voices and cheers of fellow racers and the soothing sounds of flowing water) will definitely make you less self-conscious of your own pain. But no matter how much physical and mental preparation you do, I can testify that there will come a time of reckoning during the Beast — a moment where you begin to wonder if you made a mistake thinking you were capable of completing such a course.
Personally, this moment came around mile 8, when my watch was already reading mile 10 due to several penalty loops, and the accurate course mile markers were disheartening at best. I was cramping in places I never had before (and walking as a result), the obstacles just kept on coming, and I started losing faith in my own ability to persevere. This is where your mental training, and relying on your “why,” will be CRITICAL.
If you hit this wall, you will be forced to push yourself past what you ever thought was physically or mentally possible. To get through this dark place, remember that you've already done the hardest part: You showed up. So just keep going. Ask yourself, "How bad do I want it?" Direct all of your focus externally to the racers around you, the incredible scenery, and how far you have already come.
Just. Keep. Going. Chip away at the race step by step, mile by mile. Sooner or later the finish line will appear. In the meantime, run your own race and forget the clock if you want to. Smile, have fun, and be grateful for the opportunity to show up and do difficult things that make you feel alive. Spartan up and get after it, because when you do, you’ll come out of the experience an entirely different — and better — person because of it.