By Chris Redig, MovNat Expert Trainer
“Today’s race is 32 miles with 60 obstacles,” barked the staffer. 78 of us stood at the starting line for Spartan Ultra at Drumlanrig Castle in Scotland. It was 6:10 am. Everyone wore headlamps and stood bouncing on the balls of their feet.
The race was divided into two 16-mile laps with 30 obstacles on each lap. I’d signed up for the age group competition. The elite competitors had already started their race, and the general competitors would start in waves after us. We’d also be sharing the course with the beast-runners, who were tackling a half-marathon length race with 30 obstacles.
“There are five water stations on the course,” continued the staffer. “Three quarters of the way through the first lap, there’s a cut-out just for you ultra-runners. It’s clearly marked. Don’t miss it!”
I had two liters of water and 8 GU’s in my pack to get me through the first lap at which point I’d resupply. My goal was to finish the first lap in under 6 hours. If the first lap took more than 8 hours, I wouldn’t be allowed to start the second lap.
As the staffer wrapped up the orientation, I reached up and switched on my headlamp.
A few moments later, we were off and running. The race began in the grass fields below the massive castle. It was too dark to see the castle, and there were no crowds—no cheering. The first obstacles were walls of various heights and a massive cargo net climb.
I glanced down at my watch to check my pace. Too fast, I thought. The urge to keep up with everyone was primal. I slowed down to my go-all-day pace. Hopefully, I’ll see some of these guys again later. For now, I needed to let them pass.
It wasn’t long before we crossed over a stream at the edge of the grass fields and walked across a balance wall. So far so good, I thought as we started our ascent into the hills and mists of the Scottish countryside.
A Natural Movement Based Endurance Strategy
My strategy was simple and summed up in one word: efficiency.
The strategy had two components. First, I’d pick the most efficient movement for each obstacle. MovNat had given me a movement toolkit. It’d given me options. And my plan was to choose the most energy efficient tool for the job.
Second, my training focused on fatigue resistant movement efficiency. Picture the pace you’d see on a farm or at a construction site. It’s a different pace than most fitness sessions, and it comes with it’s own set of physiological and psychological adaptations. It’s a Natural Movement based approach to endurance. No stress response. No heavy breathing. It is relatively easy, but there has to be lots of it.
Here’s how it works.
As fatigue accumulates, your movement technique and efficiency deteriorates. There are several reasons for this. First, muscle damage and accumulating waste products make it increasingly difficult for your muscles to function.
As this loss of function progresses, your body beings to compensate. It gets harder and harder to maintain good form. You start lifting with a rounded back, struggling to pick your feet up on the trail, and your breathing mechanics start to crumble.
Second, your brain tries to slow you down. As far as it’s concerned, you’re being reckless, and it’s time to stop. One way your brain does this is by making it more difficult to recruit muscle fibers. As a result, the same amount of perceived effort accomplishes less and less work. You’re forced to dig deeper and deeper just to keep going.
From there, your mind starts to wear down. You stop paying attention to your deteriorating form, and you struggle to watch your step on downhill runs. You go to your happy place.
It’s easy to see this during long runs. A natural runner with pristine form who has never ran more than five miles, is not going to look like a natural runner after 10-15 miles. This is why marathoners often display ridiculous running technique as they cross the finish line. They didn’t start off like that.
To combat this, I practiced maintaining my form during high workloads. For example, during my long runs, I would monitor my running form. If it started to break down, and I was too tired to correct it, then the run was over. The goal was to extend good running mechanics over progressively longer distances.
Similarly, I’d do all-day-strength-endurance training. For example, I might to pullups, split squat walks, dead hangs or loaded carries. I’d break the training up into manageable sets and spread it throughout the day. The goal was to maintain perfect form, good breathing mechanics and a relaxed mindset.
The Ultra-Length Olympus Wall
The first 10-15 obstacles were relatively easy. There was a rope climb, a couple carries, some climbing and some barbed wire crawls.
Then we hit the Olympus wall.
An Olympus wall is a short angled wall with rock climbing grips at the top. You need to move horizontally across the length of the wall. There’s nowhere to put your feet, so you typically drop into a deep squat so your feet can take some weight against the wall.
I’d crossed similar walls in other OCR’s. They were never a problem.
A staffer directed all the ultra-runners (clad in purple jerseys) to the two walls on the right. It was a special wall just for us. It was much longer than the typical 8-10 footer.
Did they put two of them end on end? I wondered. It looked terrible.
I took my spot and tested the grips. The wall was too slippery for my trail running shoes, which were already wet and muddy. I was able to get a bit of traction with my knees, so I began working my way across in something like a kneeling position.
It did not go well.
First, metabolic waste started to build up in my forearms. As a result, my grip started to deteriorate. Second, my subconscious began estimating the time left on the wall versus the rate of fatigue. Doubt started to creep in. I struggled to stay committed.
Three-quarters of the way, my brain was ready to call it quits. My hands were barely functional. I’d started at the top of the wall, but now after several near misses, I was working across on the bottom row of grips. Some runners behind me started cheering me on. No one was making it across, and I was getting close.
I kept pushing.
I was less than a couple of feet from the end when I missed a grip and fell to the grass. I got up and stretched my burning forearms. They felt like they were full of battery acid. I was not even halfway through the first lap, and I’d just wrecked my grip. I trotted over and joined a growing crowd to start my 30-burpee penalty.
As a reference for anyone looking to try an Ultra, I had been training towel hangs, loaded hangs, one arm hangs and hand carries. I could do 20 chest to bar pullups. Moreover, I have several amazing traverse opportunities where I live. Long story short, do not sleep on the grip strength training or traverses. Ultras are a different kind of OCR with their own unique obstacles.
Once my burpees were finished, I took the opportunity to pack my headlamp. The sun was up. Time to get after it.
The rest of the first lap went smooth. There were two spear throws. I hit the first. On the second, I hit the target, but it didn’t stick. 30 more burpees for me.
I entered the transition tent in a little under 4 hours. I had covered 16 miles of trail with 2,215 feet of total ascent. I’d only failed two of the thirty obstacles, and I felt great. The first lap had gone far better than my expectations. I had been worried about the 32 miles of trail, but at the 16-mile mark, my legs felt fantastic.
I hadn’t ran as many training miles, as I would have liked. So I had leaned into my natural movement lifestyle. As a rule, I walk any errand that is within walking distance. I use a standing desk for my coaching. And I sometimes commute by bike to my Danish language classes.
Clearly, all that time on my feet was paying dividends.
I resupplied my GU’s and water while I munched on a couple bananas. Just in case the second lap took longer, I threw a bar of dark chocolate into the pack.
7 minutes later, I was back on the course.
The Second Half: When Things Get Hard
If you trained properly, the second lap is where the real race begins. Can you hold your pace or did you start too fast? Can your body handle the distance? The second lap is where you find out.
It’s also where things start to go wrong.
The first thing to go wrong for me was the monkey bars. This was the easiest of all the traverses and one of the early obstacles. But on the second 16-mile lap, it was wet. The mists had rolled through leaving all the traverses soaking wet.
I gave it a go and realized immediately that a normal front swing traverse would not cut it. It was just too slippery, so I switched to a bent arm traverse. A bent arm traverse has the advantage of being more precise, and it keeps more of your palm on the bar. Although it reduces your chances of a slip, it’s a bit more fatiguing.
It was going well, when I suddenly slipped three bars from the end. As I walked to the burpee pit, I noticed that I’d torn off one of my callouses.
Glad I practiced burpees, I thought as I unclipped my hydration pack and started 30 more.
The whole rest of the race, I struggled with the wet traverses. As far as I could tell, everyone was struggling, but as a MovNater, it felt like a silly mistake. An OCR (like life) takes place outside the gym. I should have practiced my traverses in the rain, but I hadn’t. I paid for the mistake with burpees on several more traverses.
The second thing to go wrong was cramping. Initially it was mild hamstring cramping, but as it progressed, it started to interfere with my ability to pass obstacles. Here is where the MovNat toolkit came to the rescue. It gave me options when things stopped working.
First, on one of the seven-foot walls, my calf cramped as I jumped. I dropped from the wall, released the cramp and walked it off. Then I used a short hop and a wall climb up to pass the obstacle. It took more upper body strength but it spared my calf. It was something I’d learned at the Level 3 certification.
Second, on the rope climb, just as I cinched down with my feet for a J-hook, the inside of my thigh cramped up.
“Are you ok?” asked a staffer as I dropped from the rope.
“Yeah, I just need a minute. . . Cramps,” I replied. From the burpee pit, a group of beast-runners watched me limp around.
After walking it off, I attempted a legless rope climb. At this point, I was plenty tired, so I used body weight transfer to help. I repeatedly tucked my legs (think knee tucks) to generate upward momentum. I quickly reached the top and slapped the bell. Then I tried to use my legs to control my descent, but I fell the last few feet.
As I walked away from the rope, someone in the burpee pit smile and yelled, “Nice dismount”.
I laughed. It was all of us versus the course.
“On to the next suffer fest,” I replied as I broke into a less than perfect jog.
Finally, on one of the barbed wire crawls, I cramped up, making a rotational knee-forearm crawl impossible. There were rocks, stumps and logs littering the ground under the barbed wire. I switched to a combination of hip thrust crawling and sideways rolling to get through it.
I kept eating and drinking and by mile 20-26, the worst of the cramping was over. It became a lingering nuisance, but it never again interfered with an obstacle.
Aside from SCUBA diving and Nordic hamstring curls, I’ve never cramped up before. But I wasn’t alone. It seemed to be common towards the end of the second lap.
The scientific explanation of race day cramping isn’t clear. And it isn’t clear what helps. Most people suggest salt tablets, pickle juice and/or mustard. Next time, I’ll have all three!
Ultra-distance races often come down to your ability to manage problems, and I’d managed mine.
My watch clicked over to 27 miles. A new personal best. I had five miles to go. Much of the rest would be downhill running or walking over broken terrain. There would also be some of the heavier lifts and carries. The last thing I needed now was a stumble or injury.
I needed to stay focused and pay attention. I thought back to my Level 3 training. Erwan had spent some time teaching us to trail run. Keep your head up. Always be aware of your surroundings. Think a few steps ahead. As you fatigue, those cues become crucial, but challenging.
At the ultra-cutout on the second lap, I saw how much they matter. There was a group of ultra-runners and a beast-runner ahead of me (The ultra-runners wear purple jerseys). The beast-runner split right into the ultra-portion of the lap, which would have added a few miles and a few obstacles to his race. Everyone started yelling at him to turn around, but he had his head down. He was in his happy place, far from the race. Eventually, someone got his attention and saved his race.
It was a powerful example of the problem of inattention.
It reminded me of the MovNat Combatives course. Stay in the moment, even if the moment sucks. You can’t afford to stop paying attention. It only makes things worse.
Every time my mind wandered off in search of a happy place or my power animal, I could picture the instructor tasing me back to my senses.
I could also hear Dory (from Finding Nemo) singing, just keep swimming; just keep swimming… It’s one of my daughter’s favorite movies.
I kept my head in the moment. Those last few miles were brutal. I remember an atlas carry, a sandbag carry and a Hercules hoist. I stumbled more than a few times on the downhill runs. I walked a lot.
I would run until I could feel a cramp starting and then switch back to walking.
A runner would pass me, and then they’d cramp up.
Then I’d pass them.
We’d trade positions back and forth while we talked about the race.
Fortunately, I passed all the remaining obstacles. I even stuck my last spear throw.
8 hours, 51 minutes and 39 seconds after I started the race, I jumped the fire and crossed the finish line. Good enough for 11th place for my age group (40-45) and 44th for all age group competitive runners.
I learned a ton. I know I can do it much faster next time. I could have logged more training miles. I could have improved my grip strength, trained my traverses in the rain and practiced the spear throw. I could have brought salt tablets or another of the common remedies for cramping.
I’m convinced my strategy worked. Aside from the cramping, my form and efficiency lasted well into the second lap. It reduced my chances of injury, kept my movement efficient and set me up for success when things got hard.
The race was an amazing confirmation of natural running. Before my MovNat training, running was a source of injury and endless frustration. Adapting to a natural gait was a game changer.
You can read more about that transition in my article, From broken to Athens: how MovNat made me a barefoot runner.
I discovered that there’s something fascinating and even enchanting about that second lap. You test and develop your mental agility and toughness. You’re forced to solve new movement riddles as your muscles fatigue or cramp. Your crawls, traverses, lifts, carries and climbing techniques shift to match your evolving capacities. It’s a great way to test and confirm your MovNat toolkit under extreme circumstances.
Overall, it was one heck of an adventure, and I’m looking forward to the next one.
About the Author
Chris Redig helps adventure-lovers of all abilities look, move and feel their best. He’s a certified fitness and nutrition coach, a Spartan Ultra finisher and a MovNat Expert Trainer (MovNat Level 1, 2, 3, Aquatics & Combatives Certified). You can connect with him on Instagram or at Adventure Driven Fitness, where he runs a blog and offers online coaching. He currently lives in Denmark with his wife and two kids.
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