2014 Spartan Race World Championship (Vermont Spartan Beast) – analysis of distance, elevation and difficulty

By SOLO

As the smoke is settling down after the championship weekend, hundreds of you are trying to figure out how long the course was, how steep the hills were, and how heavy those sandbags were. Anyone having flashbacks yet?

Well, do I have a present for you… Remember, Alec Blenis and this awesome post he did on top 10 tips for conquering Vermont Beast? Today, he presents a detailed analysis of Vermont Beast’s distance, elevation and difficulty. 

Alec, take it away…

It seems to be a consensus that the 2014 Vermont Beast was the hardest to date, and preliminary GPS data shows that the course was in fact longer and steeper than in previous years. [Check out Alec’s and Solo’s data for 2013 Spartan Race World Championship for reference.] But just how hard was it? Here I’ll take a look at some of the numbers. When reviewing the data, keep in mind that data will vary significantly across devices and among athletes (some people run straight up hills, others may run an “S”, for instance), so I’m sure your data will be a bit different. Also, remember data can also be affected significantly by loss of satellite reception and water submersions, so if your watch says the race was 30 miles but has a random line shooting out to Pittsfield, don’t quote that data as accurate. I’ve done my best here to account for satellite inaccuracies and erroneous elevation spikes.

vermont beast map

A summary of how my data was acquired:

Device: Garmin Fenix2
GPS Mode: Smart Recording
WAAS (Wide Area Augmentation System): On
3D distance: On
Elevation Data Source: Altimeter
Automatic Elevation Calibration: On, Continuous.

*These settings were applied in order to record the most accurate data possible. WAAS increases GPS accuracy, 3D distance accounts for elevation changes when computing distance instead of looking at the projection of your position onto a 2D plane, altimeter is much more reliable when computing elevation changes (it is more precise than accurate, however), and automatic elevation calibration prevents elevation “drift” due to changing weather, etc.

*Worth noting in advance is that I did zero penalty burpees and travelled through each obstacle as intended. This is kind of important later.

Solo’s notes:

Device: Suunto Ambit2
You can view a detailed record of my race here. Note that I accidentally paused my watch for about 10 minutes, so the total distance is off.
*Worth noting that I definitely did not do zero penalty burpees. 🙂

Distance = 16.3-16.9 miles

This part is pretty simple. Upon inspection of my data, it doesn’t appear that I ever lost satellite reception and I feel pretty good about quoting my distance as accurate. That said, there are still a few caveats:

  • Almost all of the elite men who carried two sandbags up the mountain did so in shuttle run fashion to the top, then carried both down the mountain together. This resulted in the men doing the first half of the carry three times (twice up, once down…think about it for a while and it will make sense). Given the length of the carry, this resulted in the men’s course being approximately 0.3 miles longer than the women’s course.
  • Unless something unusual happens with satellite reception, GPS will always come up short, not long. As a trail race director myself, I can assure you that if you “wheel” a trail course, it is generally 5-10% longer than GPS would have you believe. The only reason GPS would show a longer distance is if you were stationary for a long period of time (burpees) and GPS drift gradually accumulated distance. You could be looking at an extra .03 miles or so per set of burpees. I did zero burpees and went through every obstacle as intended, so the distance I covered was truly the course, not extra distance back and forth from burpee zones, etc.

Bottom Line: 16.3-16.9 miles.
I got 16.6. If you wheeled it, it may have been longer.
*I ran tangents and took straight line paths through the woods, but did the double bag carry shuttle run style.

Elevation Gain = 8,000-8,500 ft

I see elevation data misquoted all the time, and some people use “elevation gain” and “elevation change” interchangeably, when they are very different! As a simple example, if you climb to the top of a 100’ tall building and then come down, your elevation gain was 100’, your elevation loss was 100’, and your elevation change was 200’ (ascent + descent). If the elevation of the start and finish is the same, then elevation change will always be exactly double the elevation gain (and exactly double the elevation loss).

I also see grade and degrees used interchangeably when they are very different as well. Grade is a unitless measurement of the steepness of a hill, calculated the same way as the mathematical slope of a line; “rise over run”. In general, you can just divide the elevation gain by the distance covered and that’s your grade. However, if you use 3D distance settings or acquired the distance component using a wheel, then you’ll have to do a little more math to ensure you’re using the actual “run” component instead of the hypotenuse of the hill in the calculation. That said, if the hill is less than 30% grade (1,500’ of elevation gain per mile), then the numbers come out about the same either way. As an aside, no one talks about mountain steepness in terms of degrees (or radians for that matter). Just don’t.

Another note worth mentioning is that barometric altimeters are much more precise when it comes to summing elevation changes, although the actual altitude reported may be off. By using continuous GPS calibration, this issue can be mitigated significantly. However, altimeters aren’t without problems. Because they are pressure based, things like water submersions can affect their accuracy. Looking at my data, I have subtracted out the elevation gain from two spikes caused by water submersions. My original data showed 9,100 feet of elevation gain, but approximately 800 of that was from two erroneous spikes, so I feel confident about reporting an “official” elevation gain of 8,300 feet (and 16,600 feet of change).

Solo’s notes:
Below is the general idea of the elevation changes over the distance. E.g. you can see three climbs that Alec discusses below. Fun fact – according to my watch, I spent a whopping 9 minutes in “flat time” – that is out of 6 hours and 49 minutes that I spent on that damn mountain. Six hours and 39 minutes were spent either ascending or descending. 
*A gap in the last quarter of the graph is due to me, accidentally pausing my watch.

elevation

Bottom Line: 8000-8500ft of elevation gain.
*Depending on how you completed the sandbag carry. As with the course distance, the differences between men’s and women’s sandbag carries would affect total elevation gain by at most a few hundred feet.

More Notes on Elevation:

  • First ascent: 21% grade for 0.9 miles
  • Climb from lake up K1 to spear throw: 25% for 0.7 miles, then small descent, then 19% for 0.5 miles, then a small descent, then another mile of climbing at varying grades from 10% to 25%.
  • Random steep ascent through the woods, 30% for about .2 miles. This was the steepest continuous section of the race.
  • 3rd “major climb”: 17% grade for 0.7 miles.
  • Sandbag carry was variable grade from 20-30% depending on how direct of an ascent you took. The sandbag descent was minus 25-30% grade.

There were other ups and downs too, but those are the main ones.

There were not any continuous climbs above 40% grade. There were sections where you may have had 100% grade slopes, but it was only that steep for a few steps. The steepest grades encountered for anything more than 100 yards were 25-30%. Yet, we still accumulated lots of elevation change because we were pretty much always climbing or descending.

As an interesting comparison, the Vertical KM at the 2014 Skyrunning World Championship averages 26% grade for 2.25 miles.

Bottom Line: It was hard.

Temperature

The water temperature sure felt like freezing, but it wasn’t nearly 32 degrees (0C). I’ve seen people say 40 (4C), and saw one of the race organizers say 60 (15C). Luckily my watch has a temperature sensor. Typically, it reports a higher than actual temperature due to body heat, but when running with good air flow or when in water, it adjusts to the actual temperature rather quickly. Just before entering the first water element, it said the outdoor air temperature was 64 degrees (18C). The temperature plummeted to a low of 51.8 degrees (11C) after a few minutes in the water. While swimming, body heat isn’t going to have any effect on the temperature of the watch, so this wasn’t skewed. I was also in the water long enough for my watch to fully cool, so I feel somewhat confident in my measurement. But if someone brought a mercury thermometer and let it sit in the lake overnight, by all means share the data!

Solo’s notes:
My watch agrees with Alec’s numbers above (although keep in mind that Alec would be going through obstacles quite a bit earlier in the day than I would). Below is the temperature graph for my race, and you can clearly see the dips in temperature during water submersions, recording a low of 53.6 degrees (12C).  The average temperature was 62 degrees (16.8C).

temperature

Bottom Line: Water temperature of 52 degrees (11C) in the morning, warming slightly during the day.
*Weather was certainly different on the mountain than in Rutland, but as a reference for general conditions, here is a link to weather for 9/20/14 at RUT airport. I can’t find archived data for Killlington Peak.

Course Map

The official course map has the race at 14.9 “Spartan miles”. It’s not too uncommon to see Spartan miles used instead of statute miles or kilometers at obstacle races. For those unfamiliar, the conversion is straightforward:

1 Spartan mile = 1.1 statute miles*
*This is completely made up, by the way. But still keep it in mind when comparing GPS data to the course map.

A Few Major Obstacles (Object Carry Specifics)

Sandbag #1
The first obstacle we encountered after a 1000’ climb and O-U-T was a sandbag carry. It was your typical “pancake” and honestly wasn’t a challenge compared to sandbag carry #2, but it was just long enough to space runners out a bit more before hitting the bucket carry and eventually the tarzan swing at the bottom of the mountain.

Weight: 40# men, 25# women.
Distance: ~0.12 miles round trip
Elevation Gain: ~50 feet

Bucket #1
This first bucket carry was definitely easier than it has been in prior years, but the reason is that it was also part of the sprint course along with sandbag #1, so these obstacles were intended to be of lesser difficulty. “Beast” difficulty carries would come later in the race.

bucket carry 1

Weight: 80# men, 50# women.
Distance: ~0.14 miles round trip
Elevation Gain: negligible (~30 feet)

Tractor Pull
Surprisingly easy, although pretty much everything was compared to the never ending climbs and the second sandbag carry. However, making elite males drag two blocks may have been enough to weaken grip strength right before the first spear throw that was just up the hill.

Weight: 2 cinderblocks for elite men, 1 cinderblock for everyone else.
Distance: ~0.07 miles round trip
Elevation Gain: ~25 feet

Bucket Carry #2
If the first bucket carry didn’t cause you any difficulty, this one may have. It was 50% longer and almost twice as steep.

Weight: 80# men, 50# women
Distance: 0.20 miles round trip
Elevation Gain: 80 feet (15% grade average for ascent)

Sandbag Carry #2
This was an obstacle to be remembered, especially if you were one of the elite men that got to carry two bags.
Weight: 45-50# bag for men and women. Elite men had two bags, 90-100# total.

Distance:
0.4 miles minimum (the distance of the loop).
0.8 miles if you did the ascent one bag at a time but the descent in one trip.
1.2 miles if you did the entire carry one bag at a time.

Elevation Gain: 270 feet for a straight up climb. 540 feet if you were a man that did the ascent one bag at a time but the descent in one trip. 810 feet if you did the entire carry one bag at a time.

Other:

Herculean Hoist weight was 45# for the women and 90# for the men (plus however much the rope, carabiner, etc., weighed. Added difficulty here comes from a thin rope and lots of friction in the pulley system. Lighter than in the past, but not easy for everyone.

Atlas Stone – unofficial weights for men and women were 120# and 80#, respectively. You had to lift your stone, carry it 10 yards, do 5 burpees, then take your stone back to the starting position.

All of the others were standard Spartan obstacles like barbed wire crawls, tall walls, spear throws (two of them), monkey bars, tyrolean traverse, traverse wall, etc. Nothing crazy or new for the world championships besides the horizontal pole traverse and platinum rig. The tarzan swing has been seen before but it is exclusive to the Vermont Beast.

DNF (Did Not Finish)

There’s no official data out on the DNF rate at the time of this post, but based on the number of bib assignments for Saturday’s race, there was a combined DNS/DNF rate of 26%, but I’d like to hear what the race director has to say on this one. For those who attempted two laps for the Ultra Beast on Sunday, the finishing rate was much, much lower. The numbers don’t lie, the 2014 Spartan World Championship was brutal.

And there you have it. Thank you so much, Alec, for the hard cold facts.

Hugs,
Solo

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Posted September 23, 2014

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