As my car winded through a narrow, mountainous road in the New Jersey countryside, I passed sweeping farmland, red barns, large fields of green nothingness, cows grazing, and wooden signs for fresh eggs. I had just left the Tri-State New Jersey Spartan race in Vernon, New Jersey, and was heading northeast towards Warwick, New York.
This is New Jersey? I asked myself as I alternated between the gas and brake pedals around bends and tight corners, going up and down, up and down, up and down. Those views! Those mountains! That greenery! This was not the Jersey that I had grown up in. This felt like the Midwest, or perhaps somewhere in northern New England. It was quiet, peaceful, and rather beautiful. As the road opened up slightly, going from one lane to two, another car came up on my left. It was a Jeep, and a large Spartan logo was branded on its tire. A bit farther up the road, I passed a Dairy Queen on my right. (Ah, civilization!) The sign out front, generally reserved for 2-for-1 deals or some lame attempt at humor, printed the following message: "Spartan Racers: You Deserve a Treat!"
Though we'd never encourage our racers to down a large Banana Shake after a race, I couldn't help but smile and appreciate the significance of seeing that sign just moments after witnessing the Spartanized tire.
This was now Spartan country, at least for the next 24 hours.
The Venue: A Mountain That Will Kick Your Ass
The Tri-State New Jersey Spartan race is a Beast, both literally and figuratively. We ranked it the fifth-hardest race on the schedule for a reason: It's f***ing hard. It's mountainous, rocky, and relentless, with 1,040 feet of vertical and a summit elevation of 1,480 feet. The hills are as punishing as the views are stunning.
The first of two stops at Vernon Peak in 2022 — the second is a Trifecta weekend on Oct. 1-2 — was heavy on endurance, with a 21K, 30-obstacle Beast and a 50K, 60-obstacle Ultra the main attractions on Saturday. (The 10K, 25-obstacle Super, which took place on Sunday, is no slouch, either, especially on that course.) When a few of my colleagues decided that they were going to take a stab at the Beast, I knew I was going to have to take a pass. With a newborn, and the sleepless nights that come with it, I knew I was in no shape to trek 13 miles up a ski mountain. I decided instead to take a drive, support my friends and cheer them on, and take in the event as a spectator.
The Festival Area: Endless Merch, Free Samples, and a Pig Roast
The Vernon race has been one of the most beloved, most anticipated races on the schedule for years. Not only is the course supremely challenging and the surrounding area picturesque, but it's one of only three races in the New York Tri-State area, where there are tons of people and the Spartan community runs deep. (The other two nearby are Bethel, New York and the Spartan Stadion at Citi Field.) As a result, there tends to be an infectious energy on the event grounds come race day.
I could feel the energy the second I got out of my car in the jam-packed parking lot. Even though I wasn't racing, and even though I was dead tired after attending to my daughter in the wee hours of the night, I felt like I could run through a brick wall. I was instantly surrounded by thousands of Spartans, donning finisher T-shirts and brandishing medals, all of them experiencing the post-race high that's so addictive and so utterly intoxicating.
With plenty of time to take in the sights and sounds — Beasts generally last anywhere between four and five hours, and Ultras can take at least double that — I took a leisurely lap around the festival area. I spent some time in the comprehensive merchandise tent, filled to the brim (no pun intended) with badass Spartan hats, T-shirts, pants, shoes, shorts, and more. There's something for every kind of person and every kind of racer, for both on the course and off.
As I approached the festival area, various tents abutted many of the final obstacles, as well as the finish line. Fellow racers and spectators watched as finishers powered past — or succumbed to, depending on their proficiency — the Bucket Carry, Rope Climb, Hercules Hoist, and Vertical Cargo Plus before leaping over the fire to the finish line.
It was a picture-perfect day, sunny with blue skies overhead and a slight breeze to make it comfortable, even refreshing. It can get cold in New Jersey in April, especially at that elevation, but racers and spectators lucked out on this day. It felt like summer. As I watched the athletes compete and stride to the finish, each and every one of them exuberant upon completing their journey and accomplishing their goal, I began to go tent by tent. I started at the SGX Coaching Area, where SGX Coaches were giving personalized tutorials on Spear Throws and conducting group workouts, fine-tuning racers' skills and approaches before they toed the start line. The coaching area wasn't limited to racers, either. Spectators like myself were free to get a quick workout in or get some obstacle pointers for their next race. When you're in the midst of racers pushing themselves to the limit mentally and physically, you can't help but want to move your body and get your heart rate going. The coaching area gives you the opportunity to do that.
I then stopped by each partner tent, where I could sample a variety of products. I picked up a pack of Rev Gum, which provided an additional burst of energy on a long day, had some Ac+ion Water to cool down — that tent also had an exercise bike, which I enthusiastically hopped on — and munched on some Chewma Protein Bites. The grill was firing, a pig was being roasted, and spectators and racers were enjoying cold beers and cans of Mike's Hard Lemonade. (For those not imbibing, there was no shortage of non-alcoholic Athletic Brewing beer on hand.)
As racers from the morning heats were finishing up, the festival got more and more crowded. With music blasting in the background, finishers huddled to dissect what they had just experienced. There was constant chatter about which obstacles were the hardest, which were a breeze, how the race compared to last year's Beasts or Ultras in Vernon, how this course compares to other mountainous races, and how goddamn good they felt at this very moment.
About four-and-a-half hours after they first started, my friends and colleagues finished their races and joined me in the festival area. They were clearly exhausted, but perhaps happier and more energized than I'd ever seen them. They were tired and hungry, hardly able to stand after such exertion, but they didn't want to leave. Nobody did. We hung around the area for another hour or so, enjoyed a cold beverage, took some photos, basked in the sun, hung out and swapped stories with other racers, and reveled in post-race bliss.
It was a party.
I drove home pumped and ready to take on my next race, in Bethel, in a little over a month. This time I'd be out there, perhaps with some spectators to cheer me on. Though that DQ sign admittedly did peak my interest, I blew past it without a second thought. No Banana Shakes for me on this day. Shit, I have a race to train for.