GLEN JEAN — Perry Bennett walked me to the starting line of the Spartan Beast Race at the Summit Bechtel Family National Scout Reserve in Glen Jean, near Fayetteville.
I was a bundle of nerves and probably would have gotten lost on my own.
About 25 participants milled around inside a corral that opened on the far side into the day’s course. I asked one of the volunteers about what I was doing. I’d been asking almost everyone with a volunteer badge some version of that question for the last 20 minutes.
“I think I’m supposed to be going at 1:30,” I said.
The woman said I could just go on ahead. The earlier heat wasn’t full, and the starter was letting people in.
I nodded and looked toward the group. There was no door or gate to get to them, just a wooden barrier bookended by steel cattle fences.
Perry, my friend and photographer, looked at me and said, “I think you’re supposed to jump the wall.”
The wall was maybe 5 feet high. I took a breath, hopped up, and swung my legs over the top and slid down the other side — no problem.
But I knew that was probably the easiest obstacle I’d see all day. The race hadn’t even begun yet.
How did I even get here?
Almost three years ago, when Spartan had announced they were coming to West Virginia, I’d been excited about running the race. I’d just come off the first year of “One Month at a Time” and was completely full of myself (more than usual).
Training for the obstacle course race was going to be a big, one-year task, but then I didn’t train. I signed up, but didn’t do much of anything, except obliterate whatever good I did by giving up meat the previous year.
A month before the race was supposed to take place at the Boy Scout Reserve, I dove headlong into training and injured my stomach while jumping.
A physician’s assistant at my doctor’s office told me I was done with anything more vigorous than a Netflix marathon for a while.
She also told me to follow up with the doctor. My blood pressure was high and, sure enough, when I returned in a couple of days, he put me on medication.
Last year, I didn’t make it to the Spartan Race — didn’t even seriously consider it. Instead, I ate all my bad feelings and ballooned up to around 260 pounds, which helped bump up my blood pressure medicine dosage and ushered me into the ranks of those with high cholesterol.
We started calling the high blood pressure “essential hypertension.”
Then, it gets real
Then came the health scare in September 2018, which led to me completely retooling how I ate. By Christmas, I dropped about 30 pounds. In January, I started “One Month at a Time” at CrossFit WV in Charleston.
Through CrossFit, I slowly began to get stronger and healthier, but I figured I needed a concrete goal to keep me on task, something more real to me than biometric measurements.
I wanted a quest, so I signed up for the 13-mile Spartan “Beast” Race, the biggest, ugliest obstacle course race on the books in West Virginia.
To get through that, I figured, I’d need to be the fittest I’ve ever been.
For nine months I trained. I went to CrossFit WV four or five times a week, while occasionally dropping by the YMCA to swim, lift weights or pedal on a stationary bicycle while watching Fox News with the sound turned off.
But the distance worried me. Thirteen miles on a treadmill wasn’t the same thing as 13 miles on a road or on a trail.
As winter turned into spring, I added distance running into my training. Then I picked up a copy of running guru Hal Higdon’s “Half Marathon Training” book from the Kanawha County Public Library and followed one of his novice plans to get me to 13 miles.
I ran short or moderate distances Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays. I took Mondays and Fridays off but do a miserable, longer run on Saturdays, followed by swimming, cycling or hiking on Sundays.
The running, the weights, the CrossFit was a lot, but I worried it wasn’t enough. I imagined the start of the race being like something out of “Braveheart” with wild-eyed barbarians charging forth in a frenzy.
I’d get trampled underfoot.
Then there were the obstacles. How was I supposed to train for those? I couldn’t climb a rope, was clumsy and had crummy knees, but I stuck to my daily schedule of workouts, trained in rain or the blistering heat.
One Saturday in July, to approximate the burning August sun, I ran in the middle of the day during a heat advisory when temperatures hovered above 100.
Friends thought I was nuts.
The morning of the race
A few days before the race, I saw on Facebook that an old friend was running the Beast, too. I reached out, hoping to meet up. I was jittery about going alone, being alone. What if I got hurt? What if I was too worn out after it was all over to drive home?
There was no one to bring with me except my dog, and she doesn’t drive.
My friend asked when my heat started.
“1:30,” I said.
He told me maybe he’d see me at the beer line. His race started much, much earlier.
I wilted, but then Perry contacted me about coming to shoot pictures.
“Yes,” I said. “Absolutely.”
It felt like I’d been tossed a life preserver.
The morning of the race, I got up too early and then spent hours puttering around the house, cleaning, finishing library books and texting. I took my dogs out so many times they began to hide when I walked toward the front door.
Half an hour before I needed to leave, I packed my clothes and put them in the car. I made a meal for after the race and filled up a jug of water. I’d been told to eat very lightly before the race but expect to be starving and parched at the finish line.
To take with me on the course, I filled a CamelBak hydration pack, a kind of backpack used by runners and trail hikers to carry extra water over long distances.
There were water stations along the course, but hydration packs were recommended for this kind of race, along with electrolyte replacements to help avoid dehydration, mineral loss and muscle cramps.
My sister sent me packages of “GU,” which looked like condiment packages for gas station sandwiches, but contained a mix of sugar, salt and minerals.
I had the salted caramel variety, the best flavor according to several racers, which tasted like how I imagined Halloween candy tastes if it’s stored under a sink, next to bottles of household cleaners.
I hung the CamelBak on the coat hook next to the front door above my running shoes and got dressed in a good pair of running shorts and the one Captain America shirt I had that wouldn’t absorb water.
A wet shirt would likely lead to chafing.
As an extra precaution, I put Band-Aids over my nipples, which made me feel dirty, but was absolutely necessary if I wanted to wear a shirt the entire race.
Race organizers wanted everyone to be on site early to get registered, check bags, go to the bathroom, do a little convenient on-site shopping and maybe stretch before the race — if there was time.
Running a little behind, I left the house at 10:15.
I figured I’d be there by 11:45, which seemed like plenty of time to get to the starting line, but 20 minutes down the road, I realized I’d left the hydration pack next to the door.
I had to go back.
Somehow, I managed to get to the Summit Bechtel Reserve and get parked with about 45 minutes to spare. Even getting out of the car, I wasn’t entirely sure what I was doing.
I asked a couple from North Carolina in the car parked next to me, Alex and Courtney, whether I should bring my bag or leave it in the car. They told me to bring it. It would be fine. I’d want to clean up.
I nodded, laughed nervously and explained this was my first Spartan Race.
“And you’re doing a Beast?” Alex asked.
His girlfriend looked alarmed.
Alex paused for a second and added, “That’s very brave.”
Continued next Sunday.