Hanson handles Ultra Beast 'death race'

Local extreme athlete survives three-day contest of grueling tasks

Jul. 12, 2013
Matt Hanson of Sturgeon Bay trains for ultra marathons by carrying rocks weighing 50 to 70 pounds as he runs up inclined surfaces with a weight-loaded backpack, as shown here outside Beach Harbor Resort last week. Hanson was one of just 19 (out of 194) to complete the Spartan Ultra Beast marathon over three days earlier this summer in Vermont.
Matt Hanson of Sturgeon Bay trains for ultra marathons by carrying rocks weighing 50 to 70 pounds as he runs up inclined surfaces with a weight-loaded backpack, as shown here outside Beach Harbor Resort last week. Hanson was one of just 19 (out of 194) to complete the Spartan Ultra Beast marathon over three days earlier this summer in Vermont. / Tina M. Gohr/Door County Advocate
Matt Hanson, top, prepares to navigate a 100-yard downhill gauntlet of barbed wire with a pack weighing 130 pounds during the Spartan Ultra Beast Marathon June 29-July 1 in Killington, Vt. Hanson and the other competitors, two of whom are seen under the barbed wire, had to get through the wire five times to continue. / Submitted


A list of the Herculean labors Matt Hanson of Sturgeon Bay completed — in 69 hours without sleep — to finish the Spartan Ultra Beast Marathon “death race”:

• Help build a staircase by moving and placing heavy rocks Egyptian-slave style.
• Hike one mile up a mountain, then help construct a footpath by hauling gravel to the site in five-gallon buckets.
• Select a random boulder, weighing about 70 pounds, and lug it through and down the mountain four miles to the base. The rock is a constant companion for the rest of the competition; most subsequent events involve pushing or carrying it.
• Split 30 logs, then carry and stack them at a spot 300 yards away.
• Haul the “pet rock” back up the slope, then crawl with it under barbed wire strung over a running creek bed — five times. Proceed down the mountain when through.
• A 26-mile hike to a pond for a three-mile, open-water swim, followed by a 26-mile walk back. Note, that’s the length of two marathons just to get to and from the site. (Hanson wound up walking “just” 20 miles to the water, but was excused because some of the directional markers had been incorrect. His swim distance was shortened to two miles, because he got lucky in a random, spin-of-the-wheel draw that’s part of the “fun.”)
• Split eight more logs, jumping through and into a mud bath after each.
• With feet bound by large zip-ties, hop up the mountain to read four questions/answers posted on a board. Return to the bottom for a quiz of your exhausted memory. A wrong answer means repeating the drill. Hanson doubly secured his ankles with rope from his backpack because, if the restraints work loose, the punishment is 1,000 “up-down” exercises.
• Walk five miles round-trip for a similar mental test — this time, trying to recall the make of a camp stove inside a remote, ramshackle shed.
• Tramp another five miles, both ways, to an old iron mine/cave nestled 100 yards deep into the hillside. With no lights, read an inscription and repeat it back at base camp. The apt quotation, from Dante’s “Inferno”: “Abandon hope, all ye who enter here.”
• Trek 1½ miles to the finish line for 13 sets of calisthenics (50 to 100 exercises each). Return to the hotel for a rest, but must make it back in less than four hours for the awards ceremony.
Most of these tasks occur while toting a heavy-duty backpack carrying about 60 pounds of supplies.
— Mike Shaw

Matt Hanson of Sturgeon Bay poses at the closing ceremony of the Spartan Ultra Beast Marathon in Killington, Vt., with the plaster skull he received for finishing the event. / Submitted


Matt Hanson of Sturgeon Bay, a rising star in the growing world of “ultra athletes,” thrives on testing and expanding his physical and mental limits.

But he may just have reached the outer boundaries of the adventure-sports universe last month when he became one of the few, the proud, the elite — a finisher of the Spartan Ultra Beast Marathon “death race” in and around the mountains of Killington, Vt.

Only 19 of 194 competitors completed the grueling course; more than half of the 400 who originally signed up didn’t even bother to try.

The contest, a hell weekend from June 29 to July 1, was an extreme crucible of wills: nearly three full days of sleeplessness cram-packed with backbreaking work (log-splitting, rock-hauling); open-water swimming; marathon hiking; muddy obstacle courses; and more. Some of the physical ordeals end with mental puzzles, as well.

But the personal rewards, Hanson said, go far beyond the plaster skull survivors receive, in the shape of an ancient Spartan war helmet.

“It’s way beyond finishing a marathon, even,” said Hanson, 23, who’s experienced both thrills. “It’s sadness, too. After people start getting eliminated, you get close to the people around you who are left.

“I’d been (awake) so long, living on this mountain for three days and it had been misery. There were times I asked myself why I was there, but it was amazing.”

Most of the time, racers are lugging a companion boulder in front and a heavy pack on the back loaded with tools, food and survival gear. Like Tom Hanks and his pal Wilson the Volleyball in the movie “Cast Away,” Hanson named his stone “Tomo the Happy Rock,” after a man he met while teaching English in Japan two years ago.

Hanson drank from streams to save space and weight in his pack. He munched on peanut butter mixed with “hemp hearts,” a seed-like snack loaded with carbs and protein. The bathroom was wherever you were sitting. Hanson brought along a digital music player but said his mind was “too warped to remember how to run it.”

Hanson credits his endurance to not taking advantage of the single, one-hour break, when most of the dropouts occurred. He preferred to stay wired, fearing correctly that a moment’s relaxation might make him realize how spent he was. Dozing off is a disqualifier.

At the finish line, Hanson recalls seeing a man — about 6-foot-5, 220 pounds — break down in tears at his accomplishment. And that athlete finally got to tell off one of the event staffers, drill-sergeant types who do everything in their power during the race to break the contestants’ spirits. That includes tempting them, like a devil on the shoulder, with the showers and substantial food that await if they fold.

“The last guys you’d think would cry were just bawling when they get their skull,” said Hanson, who recently earned his elementary education degree and is attending graduate school. “One of the main harassers said, ‘There’s no crying in the Death Race!’ And this guy says, ‘I can cry if I want to. You can’t tell me what to do anymore!’”

Of course, Hanson remembered these details only after the hallucinations faded away. The visions set in at about 48 hours, he said, while tromping back through the woods alone from the swimming segment.

“I kept seeing people in the trees. You hear words, people saying your name,” Hanson said. “I saw Jeff, our bartender from Beach Harbor (his parents’ resort), three times. I was like, ‘Jeff, why aren’t you at Beach Harbor right now?’”

Hanson said his “darkest hour” was when the illusory figures appeared around various buildings along the route, deluding him into thinking he was finally back at base camp. When they disappeared, he realized the sober truth and fell into a funk.

The closest thing to a respite came during the swim. Hanson was a member of the Sturgeon Bay Clippers boys swim team in high school and qualified for the WIAA Division 2 state tournament as part of relay teams.

“My 12 years of swimming just kicked in,” he said. “My mind shut off and my body took over, just long, smooth, easy strokes listening to the water. It was like sleeping. That saved my (butt).”

The Ultra Beast Marathon is staged several times per year and is the toughest of four levels of “death races.” The Spartan Death Race franchise started in 2005 and stages numerous events around the globe, including one coming to Miller Park in Milwaukee in September.

Participants in the “Ultra Beast” must qualify or gain invitation through their results in similar races. Hanson, although still fairly new to extreme sports, was invited following his sixth-place finish last November in the “World’s Toughest Mudder” obstacle race in Englishtown, N.J.

The ancient Spartans trained boys for military duty by encouraging violent fistfights among them and using flogging for punishment. Two and a half millennia later, the Spartans might look at the death race and tell the competitors they need to chill.

Asked how the organizers guarantee safety, Hanson said, “They don’t; lots and lots of waivers (for competitors to sign). There were emergency room visits, but no one died. One guy broke his arm rolling the rock up the hill.

“Paramedics are on hand, but they make no joke that it’s a safe event. It’s pure danger. I loved it, but it’s so damn dangerous. My biggest fear is the rock rolling over me; if that hits me in the head, I’m dead.”

The first 24 hours are spent on manual labor and serve mainly to create sleep deprivation, Hanson said. One of the jobs was to build a staircase and gravel path on the mountainside, which is part of a ski resort property used for weddings and reunions.

“All of the landscaping around there has been done by the last five years of death racers,” Hanson said. “It’s beautiful landscaping. You have to do a good job, because if you don’t you’ll do extra (calisthenics).”

In the days afterward, Hanson caught a rare summer cold and flu that, he believes, attacked his decimated immune system. Surprisingly, he didn’t enjoy a good night’s sleep for several days, as the comedown from the rush was as lengthy as the event itself.

“I couldn’t make sentences for a few days. She can attest to that,” Hanson said, nodding toward his girlfriend, Hannah. “I would just say three words and stare off into the distance.”

Having reached the near-summit of his sport, what’s next? After all, he’s still the same go-getter who swam across Sturgeon Bay as a teenager and taught himself pole vaulting, returning that discipline to the Clippers track team.

Hanson said he has his sights set on South Korean Junyong Pak, the 5-foot-2, 100-pound “Pak Man” who’s the shining star of obstacle racing. Pak dropped out of the Spartan race, but Hanson wants to beat him at the World’s Toughest Mudder.

Motivated as he is, Hanson said he’d only have the drive to conquer the Death Race again if he first wins the Mudder. Like the World War II combat fliers in “Catch-22,” he’s sane enough to recognize the event is part insanity.

“That race is crazy,” he said. “I don’t want to die.”

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