This would be my 4th time returning to Lake Tahoe for the Spartan Race World Championships and likely the last and most controversial. Every year I get a sinking feeling as I drive up the motorway from San Francisco climbing steadily up to 2000m. Normally I just have the feeling of weakness and shortness of breath to tell me I will be racing at altitude but times have moved on, so now my watches’ display of my blood oxygen levels confirmed it too.
The story for this race includes the previous week as this is when the shenanigans began.
To try and acclimatize a little I arrived at Tahoe on the Sunday night, one week before the race. I have never arrived at this event so early and took the opportunity to run on the mountain on the Monday morning, 6 days before the event. There are only really two paths and Spartan have always used either one up and the other down. So I loaded the GPX file of the 2018 course and headed up the mountain. To my surprise some course marking was already up and a few obstacles too. On my way down I met someone from Spartan who told me it wasn’t allowed to be “on the course”. I was confused as I know of loads of people who have been running the courses before a race, even this race the year before. I have never done so though, simply because I have never been there early enough.
The week passes until 10 minutes before the press conference on the Friday when I am told that I might be DQ’d. I was assured that I was most likely to race but Spartan had to go through the motions of officially reviewing my case…this included a full scale social media exploitation of the situation.
In the end it was decided I could race as we would be running on Sunday and the course was open to all on the Saturday (even elite if they entered the open category).
I found it hilarious that some people could think I got an advantage from running on the mountain when the course has hardly changed in 4 years. What was a big disadvantage were the 5 new obstacles that have only ever been seen in the USA. So racers from the rest of the world would spend precious seconds either working out what to do or fumbling their way through, having never practiced or raced on them before.
Sunday morning came with snow and low temperatures delaying the start. We were then told that the dunk wall obstacle was closed but the swim at the top of the mountain remained open. I am torn between thinking the swim should have been open because it is an obstacle race and cold water is part of the package and thinking it should have been closed because if people do get in trouble, they are stuck up a mountain. The best solution would likely be to have used the pond in the arena so racers in trouble can quickly find a hot-tub in an adjacent hotel, but this wasn’t to be.
Letting none of this irritate me I got ready to race hard. The strategy was to try and stay in touch with the lead to the top and then use my second half stamina to secure the win… “The best made plans”…
I decided to wear a double layer merino wool top with an armless Gore windproof. I figured this was adequate for the speed I was planning to run and decided to leave the neoprene layers I had brought in my suitcase.
So, finally we get started and I stick with Ryan Woods and Robert Killian on the first big climb. My throat burnt from the cold air and inadequate warmup, but I held on reaching the spear throw on top in touch.
Woodsy threw first, misses. Robert second, nailed it. I throw mine, it seems to go through the edge taking a bit of foam with it. I am sure the guy would have died from blood loss eventually, but it was thirty burpees for me.
This penalty is harsh at the best of times but in minus degrees, at elevation, on wet snowy gravel, knowing your rival is streaking into the lead, these burpees were not fun. 30 burpees take a few minutes and ruins your leg speed for the following kilometers. Usually, once you get a penalty in this race the likelihood of you winning is next to none. It would have been easy for me to give up mentally, but penalty complete I pushed on.
The biggest problem now was my breathing, it seemed a combination of the cold and the altitude was making my breaths so shallow that it felt like I was only using 50% lung capacity.
The double sandbag was likely the nail in my coffin. I could hardly get the two bags onto my shoulders. Once up they seemed to restrict my breathing so much I could hardly get any air in. Down first and I lost ground. On the up my vision started to darken then go blurry. Dropping the bags, I crumpled over trying to get air into my body. From here it was a case of ten steps holding a bag in each hand like shopping before stopping to keep from fainting.
Now it would have been even easier to quit but dropping the bags of I kept going onto the swim. If anything, this saved me as the calming break of a little breast stroke was what I needed to clear my head. I had one big descent left before a 350m climb and descent into the finish. I was in something like 7th at this point.
Leaving the swim, I hurtled down the mountain and spent the remaining half of the course hunting. In the final kilometer I just nearly caught Atkins in 2nd but with the second sandbag carry, heavy tire flip and herk hoist left I was happy to secure third and gave up the chase.
I learnt a lot in this race and am proud that I fought till the end. Thankfully the breathing issues I had have left my body feeling pretty fresh which is nice with the final big races of the season imminent.
Great Photos by Jack Goras from The OCR Report