A Story of Conquering the Vermont Beast alongside Founder, Joe De Sena’s 8 Year Old, Jack
The day was supposed to be simple; follow Founder & CEO Joe De Sena around and schedule interviews for the Spartan Up! Podcast. That was my first mistake, thinking a day is ever “easy” working for Reebok Spartan Race. My alarm went off at 5:00 AM and I was up in a flash. It was the morning of the 2014 Reebok Spartan Race World Championship at Killington Mountain, aptly nicknamed “The Beast.”
I had been spending the month at FOD guru Jason Jaksetic’s house in Pittsfield, Vermont and I walked out into the living room to a roaring fire. As I began to make breakfast, a thought kept crept into the back of my mind that one way or another, I would find myself out on the unforgivable terrain of Killington. I packed a lunch and headed out the door. I picked up Joe at 5:30 AM, along with Joe’s 8-year old son, Jack, and we headed out. Jack was going to be running the race that day, and we needed an early start.
6:15 AM. I was tasked with heading out a mile on course with Jack and his karate teacher Steve, before heading back to festival area. The very first leg of the course was straight uphill and it did not seem to be ending. This course was going to be brutal. Why wouldn’t it be? With mastermind Race Director, Norm Koch at the helm, anything was possible. About a half mile into the race, Steve’s plantar fasciitis began to act up, and he headed back down the mountain soon after. Now I was stuck in an interesting spot; we needed interviews for the podcast for Sunday (which I was supposed to coordinate), but I also couldn’t leave an 8-year old to traverse Killington by himself. I emailed Joe describing the situation, along with my cell number if he needed me for anything. Jack and I had a mountain to conquer.
We did not encounter any of the elite racers until we were past the Tarzan Swing and into the thick of the Vermont wilderness. Jack and I were making progress and I heard a commotion behind me, and saw a bright yellow jersey bolting through the brush at me; Canada’s own, Ryan Atkins. A few minutes later I saw John Yatsko, followed by a conglomerate of the best obstacle course racers in the world. I saw Hunter McIntyre, Isaiah Vidal, Matt “Bear” Novakovich, Cody Moat, Brakken Kraker, Jon Albon, James Appleton, the list goes on and on. Not long after that the elite women began to appear. April Dee, Claude Godbout, Corinna Coffin, Rose Wetzel, TyAnn Clark. All of the 5:00 AM workouts, countless hill runs, and even more burpees were all coming to a close for these athletes today. This was the biggest event of the year, and Jack and I had a front row seat. Welcome to the show.
Having grown up skiing on Killington, it was quite a change seeing the mountain away from all the snow. Despite all the beauty this place held, if you underestimated the mountain for a second you were in trouble. Onward we pushed, and with every step I was becoming more and more impressed with Jack. I certainly don’t remember what I was doing at 8 years old, but I wasn’t running 14.5 mile obstacle races through some of the steepest terrain I had ever encountered. The looks on the faces of fellow racers when they saw Jack running were amazing. Words of encouragement ranged from “You’re a true Spartan bud” to “I never have a reason to say I can’t do something.” Words of encouragement towards me were a little different, but my personal favorite was, “You’re an amazing father.” Hey, whatever keeps you moving, right?
Around mile 5, I heard my phone beep. It was an email from Joe with the words, “Your job is to get to the finish line.” Now if that is not motivation, then I don’t know what is. Fatigue was starting to set in for the two of us, but nothing was stopping me from crossing that finish line, even if that meant I had to carry Jack up, down, around and across that mountain.
The day was supposed to be simple. Good one, Jake. One foot in front of the other was all I was thinking about. That, and making sure Jack was okay. Just when I was really feeling the mountain beat me down, I turned uphill and saw two of my friends from Spartan HQ, Jim Courville and James Megliola, bolting downhill at me. I got hugs from both of them and that was enough to keep the legs moving. Jack and I slid down a few muddy embankments and made our way closer to the festival area. By now the place was hopping, and I was determined to keep the two of us moving.
We crossed under the chairlift and came into a clearing, only to be met by a 300-400 yard uphill battle with no end in sight. For anyone who ran this race, you know exactly the hill I am talking about. Jack sat down, and I have to admit, I was having a tough time thinking how we were going to beat this stretch. It took 20 minutes, but finally I got Jack walking. I did everything I could to keep his mind off the fact we both were suffering at this point. Questions about school, sports, favorite color, favorite food, favorite holiday were only a few things I had in my bag of tricks to distract him from the fact we were walking up a mountain. We even ended up pulling an elementary school lunchroom trade halfway up: “I’ll trade you half my sandwich for your power bar.” Food helped a little bit, but with each step up the mountain, I felt a cramp building in my quad and finally it let loose. I dropped to the ground and groaned in agony. As I pounded my leg to ease the pain, I felt someone toss something at me. It was a sleeve of energy shot blocks. My eyes lit up, and you would’ve thought I had just won a million bucks. I looked up and around to see if I could make out who gave it to me, but no luck.
This small action embodied all or what Spartan Race stands for. Strangers helping total strangers in need. Teamwork, camaraderie, whatever term you want to call to mind was on display in full force this day. The inspiration and optimism we experienced during the race was incredible, and without the other racers cheering us on, there was no way either one of us would’ve made it.
My phone rang; it was Joe’s wife, Courtney on the other end. After speaking with her for a few moments, and some more words of encouragement from Joe, I turned to Jack and said the happiest words he had heard all day: “Jack, we are meeting up with your mom soon, and she said she has watermelon Sour Patch kids.” That got the kid moving! We fought through the fatigue, the cramps, and the hunger to make it to the Sour Patch kids, and I can tell you I have never enjoyed sugar like I did at that moment (sorry, Joe).
We were on the home stretch, and I could nearly feel that medal around my neck. We went up and around the last hill and sped towards the finish line. There was one obstacle that stood between the dynamic duo of Jack and I, and crossing the finish line…the fire jump. Jack clamped his hand around mine, and was visibly nervous. The crowd was going crazy all around us, and I looked down at Jack and said, “They’re cheering for you bud. I’m right here with you, we came this far and we are almost done.” I gripped his hand tightly, we jumped the fire together, ran across the finish line, and I lifted him up on my shoulders, the fans cheering all around us. It took 10 hours, but we got the job done. I looked up to see my dad standing at the finish line. I got a huge hug and “congratulations” from him, and he was in shock at what my day had been filled with. My response was a quick wink and “Just another day at the office.”
As I sit in my living room writing this watching “Lone Survivor”, Mark Wahlberg ends the movie with one of my favorite quotes; “You are never out of the fight.” When the cramps paralyze you, when the hunger exhausts you, and when the dehydration breaks you, you are never out of the fight. When you think you are done, keep pushing on. Lean on your friends for help, help a stranger in need, and just keep moving forward. Many times I wanted to call it quits on that mountain. I had a job to do, just like everyone else out there. There are a few phrases I live by; “Regret nothing, do it for the story, and go make some f***ing memories.” To all you Spartans out there, sign up for a race, carve your place in history, and of course, go make some memories. Until next time, Spartan Nation.
Oh yeah, if you are looking at that photo and wondering, yes I did run the race in khakis.