John Penland Relives the 2018 Spartan World Championship
I left the 2017 Spartan World Championship feeling disappointed after never truly attacking the course, finishing 85th, and with energy still in the tank. So, I focused my entire 2018 season on getting redemption and attacking the course even when it meant riding the ‘pain train.’ I had two goals coming into Tahoe: leave everything out on the course and finish within the top 25 male athletes.
My plan was to start the race by holding back within the top 30 on the first climb with the intent to really push the second climb as other racers faded.
I woke up at 5:45 am on the morning of the race, ate a banana, drank a bottle of water, took a hot shower, and did a session in my Air Relax boots to get my muscles loose and warm. At 6:15 am, I started some high tempo music and headed out on my warm-up, a slow 2 miles – running off any tightness and preparing my mind and body for the task ahead. I ended my warmup back in my room where I went over the course map one more time planning out where I thought it would be smart to push. I talked to my family one last time and finalized my gear selection for the day. I jogged over to the starting corral to finish up my stretching and warm up, and then get into position to be one of the first athletes into the starting corral. It was important to start out close to the front, so I could control my race. I lined up directly behind Jon Albon and Ryan Atkins, two of the top racers in the world. It was awesome to be racing against them on a beautiful fall day in Tahoe.
After the national anthem, I was excited and ready to go. I had a plan and was confident that I could handle anything that the course threw at me. When the gun went off, I started the race the same way as I would any other. During the first 100 yards, I pressed with a hard surge to take advantage of the free adrenalin before settling into my pace. This surge put me in the front of the pack next to Robert Killian and Cody Moat, two of the most recent Spartan World Champions. I was closer to the lead than I had planned, but I felt good; so, I went with it and stayed with the front pack for most of the first mile.
After the terrain changed from fire road to the woodchips, I started to feel the effects of going out hard. My calves and quads began to get heavy, so I slowed my pace and slowly fell back in the ranks. I didn’t panic, remembering my original plan of attacking the second half of this long course. So, I continued to climb and fought only moderately to hold off anyone attempting to pass me. When we were almost to the top of the mountain, there was a short 50-yard downhill section on which I felt great. This is where and when I realized that downhills would be the place for me to make my move…especially in the second pass. However, there was still a lot of race left, and my new focus was the lake that had just appeared before me.
Going into the race I felt very comfortable with the thought of swimming in cold water because I had practiced all year running and swimming in alpine lakes. I had also heard that the lake swim was warmer than 2017. I ran up to the swim snatching my life jacket while running by, buckled it on the run, and jumped into the brisk water. I started swimming using freestyle, but halfway through the swim, the life jacket started choking me. So, I switched to side stroke with big kicks to propel me forward. I scrambled out of the water and started running as fast as I could to stay warm. As I ran by my dad, he told me that I was in 30th place by his count.
Making it to the bucket carry, I began to feel warm… and even forgot that I was wet during the carry. After picking up the bucket, I realized that I had caught up to several racers, and this was an opportunity to pick up some places. I took the more technical side of the downhill and started to gallop past several before reaching the turnaround and heading back up. After leaving the bucket carry, I made another surge, catching up to another pack before entering the gauntlet of plate drag, atlas carry, barbed wire, rolling mud, dunk wall, and slip wall on the what they call the “soccer field” on the top of the mountain. After clearing the gauntlet, my hands started to get cold. So, I broke out the merino wool gloves I had stored in a Ziplock bag in my pocket. Now that my hands were warm, I could focus on pushing the next section of the run before the spear throw.
The spear throw has been my nemesis throughout the 2018 season… making only 4 of 11 before this race. Couple that with the fact that I hadn’t thrown a spear competitively since mid-July’s Palmerton, and this was a make or break part of my race. I lined up pulling my spear in, balanced the spear as Ian Hosek had taught me, and let it rip. I made it! This removed all the stress
from my race as the spear was the only obstacle I was really concerned about. I sprinted over to Twister and used this rush of energy to fly over to the first double sandbag carry. I took a second to distribute the weight in the sausage-like sandbag before throwing it up to my shoulders and grabbing the other (pancake) sandbag. I moved at a consistent pace up the carry, hit the turn, and just let my legs go on the downhill. I ended up passing multiple racers which left me with a welcomed but manageable dose of confidence!
I knew I had faced more technical terrain in my training. Now was the time to translate those hours and miles into achieving my goals. I continued to use the momentum from the sandbag carry into the first big descent down the mountain and started to put ground between me and the competitors behind me. At the same time, I was gaining on a pack of 5 racers in front of me. I arrived at the bottom of the mountain in roughly 16th position with several competitors on my tail going into the last obstacle gauntlet.
I traversed Olympus and pushed the run, fighting to hold my position, and knowing that the tire ahead was going to be difficult enough to stop some competitors in their tracks. I jumped into the rope climb racing up to the bell before dropping. I ran over to the Tyrolean Traverse, grabbed on, and used my MudGear compression socks to protect the back of my caves as I dragged my legs across the rope. After hitting the bell, I ran over to Ape Hanger and eased myself into the water because the Yokohama Tire flip was next and would be a nightmare if my hands became wet.
Making it through Ape Hanger, I ran to the tires looking for a crack in the pavement to allow for me to get my fingers under the tire. I found a tire and got the first flip. As I searched for a grip on my second flip, the competitor next to me flipped his tire onto mine. Damn!!! This slowed me down because I couldn’t flip the tire while his was on top adding even more weight. We pushed his tire off mine, and I finally got my second flip.
I knew that after the second sandbag carry and Monkey Twister Monkey, it would be a running race to the finish. I picked up two sandbags and struggled to find a comfortable position. Nevertheless, I muscled through the carry knowing there were not many obstacles requiring strength left. After cruising through Monkey Twister Monkey, I had no choice but to surge towards the next climb knowing that it would be steep… and that I was being chased.
I ran the first half of the climb alone just trying to get out of sight from the pack of 4-8 racers behind me trying to hunt me down. The second half of the climb was steeper, and here was where the pack caught up to me. Richard Hynek and Tayor Turney caught and passed me. I reached the top of the second climb seeing Stairway to Sparta and was relieved knowing there was just a downhill to the finish. I pushed as hard as I could on the downhill trying to hold off Mike Ferguson and gain ground on Taylor Turney.
Reaching the last two obstacles, Bender and the Multi-Rig, I knew I needed to be efficient and not make any mistakes. Mike Ferguson was right on my tail. I cleared Bender and made it to the rig. Finally, my friend, Fergy, conceded me my place in the race. I swung through the rig hitting the bell clenching my finishing spot in the Top 20.
The Road to Tahoe for me was literally 365 days long. A top 25 finish in the 2018 Spartan World Championship was among the first and biggest public goals I set for the year. Why was it so important to share my goals out loud and with so many people throughout the year? Maybe because I wanted the added pressure or accountability. Maybe because I knew some would have misgivings about my ability to accomplish it. Their doubt never deflated me; it fueled me. I knew that if I stayed healthy, put in the twelve months of hard work, and truly ran my race, I could do it!