I came to slay the Beast.
After last year's experience, I had a score to settle. I never beat that race; I merely survived it.
The psychological warfare starts early this year, with an online check-in process that first tries to divert us to the wrong wave, and later breaks completely. I email support a few times and they ignore me. The Beast Does Not Care About You.
There's no entrance to the start area. You have to jump over a wall. (Whoever thought of that: I'd like to give you a high-five, sir). The race safety briefing consists of a burpee demonstration and some shouting. This ain't the Rat Race.
They hit us early and hard with some of the toughest obstacles in the race in quick succession. For the first time, I clear the monkeybars over the pond, after failing in my last two races. There's a ridiculous amount of carrying heavy things, including a one-mile circuit with a tyre. But, apart from the steep, muddy terrain breaking up my pace, I'm not suffering much.
That all changes when we hit the river swim. In certain other races we'd have had a half-hour queue for lifejackets at this point. Instead, the Beast has two guys with kayaks and serious faces.
The river is perhaps thirty metres across, deep, flowing slowly. We've done plenty of smaller crossings already and I've had to swim some of them, so I'm confident. But, halfway across, I'm hardly getting closer to the far bank. I switch through breaststroke, crawl, and even backstroke, but I'm barely moving. And it's so cold. I get a mouthful of water. I try, uselessly, to put my feet down. One of the guys on the kayaks approaches. I'm not quite calling for help but I'm not waving him off either.
I'm going to get dragged out of this. I'm freaking out badly enough that I don't even mind. I wonder if they'll let me go under before they fish me out.
I somehow haul myself onto the far bank and lie there, not even attempting to run. This was savage, and confusingly uneven - my teammates haven't had much trouble with it.
We run on. I notice that I'm no longer looking for the very easiest way to do things, and now I'm seeing autobalance opportunities everywhere. Some are obvious: at one of the obstacles, you're free to carry either one ammo box or two. Not everyone picks two. There are walls that have a ledge partway (I leap, slap my hands on the top, slip off, land on my back.. then use the ledge). There's a deep crater full of what looks like muddy water, but clear ground on either side, possibly outside the course boundary. I charge that, yelling, sink into thick, smelly, chest-high mud, and nearly have to be rescued.
With last year's fuel problems sorted - we're all carrying as many gels as we can, and we know to use them - the next-weakest link in the chain is exposed. My joints are going. After miles of slides and scrambles up and down muddy hills, I can't stabilise myself on landings any more. New training target; arm strength and endurance aren't the limiting factors any more.
It's over quite suddenly. I'd expected the mile markers (new this year) to be fake, another product of Spartan psychological warfare. But they're accurate, and a quick leap over the fire pit takes us through the finish line after barely 13 miles.
As always, I find myself instantly wishing I'd pushed myself harder (I'm not wrecked, crossing the line), while simultaneously aware that actually I probably couldn't have (I'm much more tired than I feel). In any case, this was a massive upgrade over last year's effort. I beat the monkeybars. I beat the rope climb. I held onto the distance over some atrocious terrain without bonking out.
But there's more work to do. I flailed hopelessly at the Spinning Chin-Up Apparatus Of Doom, fell off the traverse wall, and nearly drowned in the river swim. And my friend Elle is talking, again, about 100km ultras.
There's always more Beast.