When he isn't climbing up and down ladders for his employer of 20 years, D.R. Chamberlain Corporation, Gasport's Aaron Berner is climbing mountains — both metaphorically and literally.
Berner, 39, finished 49th in the world recently in the highest, most competitive class, Ultra Beast, at the Spartan Ultra World Championship 2019, held earlier this month in the snowy, mountain village of Are, Sweden.
It's a far climb — no pun intended — for the former Roy-Hart cross country and track runner who married his high school sweet heart 15 years ago and is now living life to the fullest as the proud husband and father of two boys.
“I saw a Spartan race on television back in 2016 and I said, ‘That looks like so much fun.’ So, having run track and cross country at Roy-Hart and one year at Alfred State, I just wanted to get back in shape,” said Berner, a 1998 graduate of Roy-Hart.
”I go up and down ladders at work, but it was nothing like this. I talked about it with my wife, Jennifer, and one day, she just said, ‘We're going to Pittsburgh. I signed you and the boys (Jacob, 11; and Owen 9, soon to be 10) up for the Ultra race,’ ” he said.
Berner, the son of Rhonda and the late Richard Berner of Gasport, caught a bug at that race, and it wasn't a cold or the flu.
“I did Open Class and finished 30th,” Berner said. ”It was a short, four-mile race with 20 to 25 with obstacles, but I just loved it because it wasn't just straight running. There was all this other stuff.”
Among the “stuff” competitors were doing included carrying 60-pound bags of weights 200 feet, crawling 50 feet under barb wire, scaling slip walls, pulling large, tractor-trailer-size tires long distances and many more, similar types of strength and endurance-testing obstacles.
Having fallen in love with the Ultra Challenge, Berner participated in three more such events the following year before soon setting his sights across the Atlantic in the most competitive division. However, in order to qualify for the Ultra Beast Division (30 miles, with 60-plus obstacles), Berner would need to place among the top finishers in his class.
“I'd been to Toronto, Pittsburgh and Ohio, then last year, my youngest says to me, ‘Maybe you should try for an ultra beast?’ So in Jujy, I went down to Ohio and I finished 30th in my first one ever. After that, I felt that this was a once-in-a-lifetime thing to participate in, so the whole family and I went to Sweden for a week.”
Among the highlights for the close to 400 competitors representing 38 different countries and their families, including the Berners, was the “Parade of Nations” through the village. Many of the events were held near his hotel, Berner said, but some were held at various points throughout the picturesque village. Temperatures hovered in the 20s and snow blanketed the area throughout the week, he added.
Ultra beast class events in the Ares' mountains included included 25 obstacles per lap over 12,000 feet of total elevation. The 24-hour competition, featuring 142 military-style obstacles, is designed to push the bodies and minds of competitors to their limits
How does Berner train for such competition?
“I just run around Lockport and lift weights at home a couple of times a week,” he said.
Berner said he's met fellow competitors from all parts of the globe, including the United States, Canada, Europe and Asia. Other than the elite class events, where rules prohibit participants from assisting a fellow co-competitor, Berner said everyone was out looking to help one other reach their potential.
At work, Berner said his fellow workers, especially the D.R. Chamberlain management staff, have been more than extremely supportive of his Ultra Challenge excursions.
A flyer, featuring photos of Berner, was circulated recently by the company, with the words, “Congratulations Aaron Berner on competing and completing the Spartan Ultra World Championship 2019. Ordinary people know their limits. Spartans know how to push them.”
Berner said he's already signed up for two more Ultra events, one next March in Cortland and another in May in Ohio.
Anyone interested in competing in an Ultra Challenge or learning more about it can go to spartanrace.com.
Follow veteran Lockport sports reporter and editor John D'Onofrio on Twitter at @JohnD'Onofrio7.