It took a while for it to sink in. I was sitting in a sushi restaurant with an enormous bowl of ramen steaming in front of me, feeling blissfully unaware of what was about to happen in just 36 hours. And by unaware, I mean I was in complete denial. Half the group at the table had done this race the year before; the other half were newbies like me. The talk turned to the race, and the veterans shared war stories about last year’s course. They lowered their voices the way you’d deliver a ghost story around a campfire. They threw out names of obstacles that sounded like Greek to me: an Ape Hanger, the Tryolean Traverse, the Hercules Hoist, an alpine swim.

Wait. Alpine swim?! What? No one said anything about a swim.

And that’s when it hit me: I was about to race a Spartan Beast—a 15-mile, 33-obstacle death march race up and down a mountain—without training for it, and I was in way over my head.

What was I thinking? Well, the short answer is, I wasn’t (and for the record, I don’t advise anyone to follow in my footsteps). But hear me out.

I consider myself to be in pretty good shape. As a fitness editor, it’s kind of my job to be well-conditioned. I often get thrown into odd physical situations and am expected to perform. So when the opportunity to try an obstacle course race with Clif Bar and Company (the nutrition sponsor of Spartan Race) came along, I jumped at the chance.

If you can’t already tell, I have a tendency to underestimate things. A cab to the airport? That won’t take long. Dry January? Doesn’t sound so bad. A 15-mile Spartan Beast Race? I can probably do that. Maybe I’m a Pollyanna or maybe I’m just a downright fool, but I tend to be a glass-half-full, I-can-do-it kind of person.

In the weeks leading up to the race, I thought about training. I really did. The most I’ve ever run in my life was a half-marathon; prior to the race, I was running only three to four miles once a week. What’s the saying, if you can do three you can do 15? (That’s not a saying. I just made that up.)

Because of the obstacles, I knew I needed to focus on my upper-body strength. As a cyclist, monkey bars and gymnast rings were completely foreign to me. I considered doing a few CrossFit WODs but never made it to a box. I did go indoor rock climbing once, so I don’t know, that should count toward something, right? Oh, and the alpine part— this race was taking place in Tahoe between 6,000 and 9,000 feet of elevation. I live at sea level so, yeah, overall things were looking pretty rough for me. I was trying to play it cool, but I was scared sh*tless.

Back at the sushi restaurant, I chugged my beer.

Da-nile ain’t just a river in Egypt, so I spent the night before the race getting a new pair of shoes (Reebok Spartan Race All-Terrain Super OR Race shoes), googling whether mud will come out of Lululemon leggings, and thinking about how I should style my hair for the race (double French braids for those wondering)—you know, the important things.

The next morning I dressed in my race kit: trail shoes, tall compression socks (the vets recommended these to protect against rope burn), leggings, and a quick-dry t-shirt. I showed up at the tents surprisingly calm (there’s nothing to worry about when you have next to no idea what lies ahead).

That was, until I realized the mountain we were looking at was the one we’d have to run up and back down—twice.

I was totally out of my league, but there was no turning back. I silently reviewed my goals: finish and don’t get hurt. If you fail an obstacle, the penalty is 30 burpees on the spot. I knew I wasn’t going to be able to complete some of the obstacles, so rather than fall and get hurt, or deplete my limited grip strength by trying, my strategy was to intentionally skip some obstacles and hit the deck for 30 burpees. Woof.

The race announcer started the countdown over the loudspeaker.

“AROO. AROO. AROO,” chanted the Spartans, jockeying for position like a herd of angry bulls.

“What the sh*t?” I thought. “Am I at a race or an extra in the movie 300?”I tried to think about a shirtless Gerard Butler in a loin cloth to ease my nerves. Didn’t help.

The gun went off.

Not 100 feet from the starting line, we had to wade through cold, muddy water up to our chests. I knew there would be water and mud, of course. (I’m not that naive.) But I sure as hell thought it would come hours into the race. Nope, we were going to get wet and dirty right off the bat and hope the puddles in our shoes dried out before the blisters formed. Joy.

The next section was running straight up the mountain. I kid you not, the trail was so steep in places, I thought I might fall backward into the abyss. In fact, I actually ran parts of it backward just to take the pressure off my calves for a hot second. I skipped a few obstacles up front and realized 30 burpees isn’t so bad. But 30 turns into 90 real fast, and I was starting to hurt.

Every chance I had, I pulled a sleeve of CLIF BLOKS energy chews out of my pocket and popped one of the gummy cubes in my mouth. When you’re stuck on a dirt trail on top of a mountain, it’s crucial to pretend a margarita-flavored chew is actually a frozen margarita you’re sipping on the beach, watching the waves roll in. But in all seriousness, providing my body with steady energy throughout the 15-mile race was not only physically essential but also gave me a mental edge.

I actually hit a high around mile seven. We were descending the mountain for the first time. I was warmed up and suddenly felt unstoppable. I loved the technical challenge of the single-track trails, the epic views from the top overlooking Squaw Valley, and seeing the crowds cheering below. It was exhilarating, and we were already halfway done. This was exactly what I hoped for. I was all focus and feeling super confident that I was going to finish this thing.

That was until (dun nuh nuh): the Bucket Carry. The Bucket Carry is a staple in Spartan races and is exactly what it sounds like: You fill a five-gallon bucket (like the ones you see at Home Depot) with “road base,” a combination of rock, stone, and dirt—but not light, fluffy dirt; this was heavy, dense, horrible dirt. The buckets don’t have handles, but you have to carry them up the steepest pitch on the mountain and back down again.

There are a few different techniques to carrying them, but none of them matter because every single one hurts. The edges of the bucket are so sharp, they slice into your hands, forearms, and thighs. This obstacle nearly ended me. I could only make it about 20 steps before having to put the bucket down to regroup. I can only describe my experience during this obstacle as the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. I spent the most amount of time in the anger stage because this was exactly what I was afraid of: something so difficult that it made me question every decision I had ever made in life to get there—and whether or not I could actually finish this.

But then a funny thing happened. The other racers—complete strangers—started cheering me on. “You got this,” one whispered under his breath as he passed me slumped over my bucket. “One step at a time,” another said as we took labored strides at the same pace. “Wait, what?” I thought. “Are these the same slightly terrifying people who were chanting ‘AROO’ at the start of this thing?”

And they were. But that’s the hidden beauty of a Spartan Race. As intense and intimidating as it seems, the challenge brings compassion out of every contender. As much as it’s an individual race, you are all in it, suffering and surviving, together. The experience, though grueling, offers these tiny slivers of glory that bind and bond you with fellow racers. Their quiet words of encouragement drowned out my fears and gave me the extra push I needed to take one more step. And then another. And then another. Until the finish line.

In the end I survived the Bucket Carry, and the alpine swim, and all of the 33 obstacles, 120 burpees, and 15 miles of trail. And although we leapfrogged each other throughout the entire race, the four newbies from my group and I neared the finish line at the same time, and we decided to cross it together.

In hindsight, I was never in over my head. I was physically capable all along; the only thing holding me back was my own fear. Sure, the race is a brutal test of physical strength and endurance, but the realbeast is the fear that festers in your head. And once you overcome that monster, you realize there really isn’t any beast—in a race or in life—you can’t beat. (Though I’d totally recommend training for it first.)