"Endurance is not just the ability to bear a hard thing, but to turn it into glory"
- William Barclay
When Spartan Race announced this race just a short 4 months ago...in Iceland...in December, I knew that it was PERFECT for me! Prior to this race I had never been to Iceland, but I had much experience in running/hiking in the extreme conditions of the White Mountains of NH. That being said, what this small island country gave us in brutality on course was MUCH worse than anything I had ever done in both training and racing.
Prior to the race, I convinced my girlfriend, Cheryl, to not only join me on this adventure but to pit for me at the transition area for the full 24 hours. Before going on with this race review, I cannot thank my now fiance (more on this...) for such a spectacular job at pitting for me. For those unfamiliar with ultra endurance events, pitting is most of the time harder, both mentally and physically, than actually racing the race.
What greatly helped me in this race was having multiple conversations with Cheryl about what our game plan was, what I would need every time I came through, and having very short time in the pit before starting a new lap (think pitting at Nascar).
The Spartan Ultra World Championship in Iceland was a brutal 6 mile loop course where you have 24 hours to complete as many loops and gain as much mileage as possible. This format is similar to a race that I participated in and finished in third place team with my good friend Mark Jones back in 2016 called World's Toughest Mudder (also a world championship race). While this was a similar format, the two races were VERY different in many ways.
Firstly, the terrain and location of this race was incredibly fierce. Iceland is a country where the weather changes constantly, and for the majority of the time, not in a good way. The ground was a mixture between snow, slick black ice, rock, mossy fields, incredibly uneven terrain, thick red mud, and very short sections of paved road. What made this course also particularly hard was the mountain section. This section included an incredibly steep incline where you literally had to grab onto rocks and pull yourself up the mountain or end up slipping back down. At the top the winds were howling with limited vision while trying to find flags on the ground. The decline was arguably just as hard to run down with every step having to be calculated precisely. Heavy carries included (2) separate 60 lb sandbag carries and (1) bucket carry over 24 hours certainly slowed down even the strongest athlete. Finally, the penalties for failing an obstacle. There were three types of obstacles on course; mandatory, burpee penalties, and penalty loops. If you failed a burpee penalty obstacle then instead of doing your 30 burpees at the obstacle, you had to finish the total number of burpees at the END of the loop. For myself, this wasn't much of an issue except for one loop where I ended up doing 120 burpees in a row!
As for obstacles, they were as follows:
1. Tire Drag MANDATORY
2. Monkey Bars BURPEE OBSTACLE
3. Atlas Carry MANDATORY
4. Twister BURPEE OBSTACLE
5. Bender 1 PENALTY LOOP
6. Vertical Cargo 1 PENALTY LOOP
7. Farmers Carry MANDATORY
8. Tyrolean Traverse BURPEE OBSTACLE
9. Rope Climb PENALTY LOOP
10. Olympus BURPEE OBSTACLE
11. Sandbag Carry 1 MANDATORY
12. Vertical Cargo 2 PENALTY LOOP
13. Bender 2 PENALTY LOOP
14. A-Frame Cargo MANDATORY
15. Bucket Brigade MANDATORY
16. 8 ft Lattice Wall MANDATORY
17. Spear Throw BURPEE OBSTACLE
18. Sandbag Carry 2 MANDATORY
19. Plate Drag MANDATORY
20. Hercules Hoist BURPEE OBSTACLE
21. Bridge MANDATORY
22. Multirig PENALTY LOOP
For those keeping score at home, that is 6 burpee obstacles with a possibility of 180 burpees in a row if all of those obstacles were failed.
The race itself started at noon on Saturday with a great Viking sendoff as we all walked together as athletes from the transition area outside into the bitter cold to line up at the start line. A woman sang the national anthem of Iceland, followed by the American national anthem. The first part of this race would be held as a 5k prologue through the town of Hveragerdi (still trying to pronounce that one correctly, trust me it's nothing like you think it is...). Following the 5k prologue on icy pavement we entered the actual course for the first time.
My initial impression of the course was that it wasn't too bad until we reached the mountain. At this point myself and Robert Killian were in first/second place respectively. As we climbed up the incredibly steep incline of the mountain we both said to each other that the winner of this race would likely only do 60 to 70 miles (which for a 24 hour race isn't all that much). At the top the winds had already started to howl and the rain had slightly started to creep up upon us. When entering the downhills I saw Killian start to change up his gloves and at that point I barreled down the also very steep downhill of the mountain, only to be shortly thereafter passed by 2nd place male winner Pavel Paloncy (phenomenal downhill runner)! We then ran together until making it into the end of the loop and into the burpee pit. This intial loop I only had one failed obstacle so 30 burpees it was, I completed these burpees quickly and ran past the transition area to start my second lap...in first place, and I never looked back!
Following my second lap I came into the transition area for the first time in very high spirits. My girlfriend/fiancee was waiting for me with all the essentials for a quick pit which I will list at the end of this race recap. Quickly I went back out to take on my third and possibly hardest loop of the entire race.
At this point in the race as I explained earlier about Icelandic weather, the rain came, in full force! With it came howling winds and a mixture of freezing rain, and sleet depending on which area of the course you were on. The mixture of both harsh conditions and mini mental mistakes cost me (4) burpee penalty obstacle fails, I came into the burpee pit at the end of that loop ready to take on 120 burpees in a row...
At this point I want to talk about a great lesson that I both learned from one of my coaches Rich Borgatti of Mountain Strength CrossFit (MSCF) and from previous races. When things go wrong, you acknowledge them, but do NOT let them dictate the rest of your race. I could have gone into this burpee pit in a frenzy, pumping out each burpee with incredible speed, however, that would have more than likely affected my next lap and consecutive laps. Instead, I broke those burpees into sets of 10 and 15, following each set with a short break. I knew that the other athletes were not far behind (20 to 30 minutes) but I knew that to win this race I had to run MY race!
Following this disasterous lap I took on every obstacle in every future loop with both determination and a methodical approach. For example, when getting to twister, I would look down the entire lane to see which one was perfect for me before just jumping onto the twisting rungs. At the hercules hoist, I would look to see if any of the ropes were tangled and which ones had the best pulley (the one on the opposite left corner became my best friend!). Slowly I started to gain more time on my fellow competitors but always had the idea in the back of my head that they were all PHENOMENAL athletes that at any time could pick up the pace and catch up to me.
The Finish and Proposal
Going into the transition area before my last lap I was told mixed information about where second place was (either David Dietrich or Pavel Paloncy, two phenomenal endurance athletes). I ran off after another short pit to finish off this race with every intent to also become an engaged man to my wonderful girlfriend.
At the end of this loop as I curved around the transition area to complete the final obstacles it suddenly dawned on me that the ring that I had been holding in my backpack the entire race...was still in my backpack!
I finished the final obstacles, completed my final set of
burpees (15 for a failed Olympus obstacle), and ran across the finish line WINNER OF THE SPARTAN ULTRA WORLD CHAMPIONSHIPS! I cannot really put into words the emotions that crossed my mind as I crossed that finish line as announcers shouted out my name and cameras were all on me. As a football player in high school I remember standing on the sidelines while the star players had the cheerleaders and crowds shouted out their names. I have come far from that young skinny, awkward kid to be the athlete that I am today.
Without much time to savor this feeling I had one more task to complete, ask my wonderful girlfriend to be my future wife. The announcer, Matt Davis asked me if I had any words to say. At that point I took off my hydration vest to obtain the engagement ring. As I took it out of it's hiding place, tucked into my folded emergency blanket inside a small ziploc bag, my hands were so frozen that I could not take it out! I first asked Matt if he could, but his gloves were too thick, another man standing at the finish line, Mark,
asked if he could rip the bag open, to which I replied, "yes." As he ripped the bag open the emergency blanket came ripping out, sending the ring flying into the air! In panic we quickly looked around the emergency blanket until I looked down at my feet to see the ring sitting atop my hydration vest at my feet. I grabbed the ring, went to hug my girlfriend and quickly bent down onto one knee to ask Cheryl to marry me, to which she replied, "YES!" Matt Davis ended this amazing moment with saying something that I completely agree with, "winning the race,and dare I say it, winning at life!"
I will end this blog with a list of what I wore and used for gear, what I ate throughout the race, and lessons learned. I hope that this blog has not only entertained you, but that whoever you are, you learn some tips about endurance events such as this, but that you also realize that with hard work, determination, and consistency you too can finish like I have!
Gear (from head to toe)
1. Beanie (simple one won at an Endurance Society race last year)
2. Buff for the neck (from Blizzard Blast last year)
3. Brooks running jacket
4. Nike Compression long sleeve top
5. Nike Hyperwick T-shirt
6. Under Armour compression leggings
7. Darn Tough socks (one pair the entire race, feet were warm the entire race).
8. Gorilla Grip Gloves by Grease Monkey (FOR THE WIN!). These gloves did not protect my hands from the elements but they allowed me to attack every obstacle without being barehand. My grip was stronger throughout the race, did not have ripped hands, and best of all, they're only $6 bucks a pair!!! If you are doing any type of endurance OCR event I highly recommend going to Home Depot and buying a pair.
9. SealSkinz waterproof gloves. These gloves did protect my hands from the elements and with the thin Gorilla Grip Gloves, I was able to place these as an outer layer, taking them off every time I got to an obstacle.
10. Inov8 MudClaws. As with my socks, I never changed out of these shoes. For this type of terrain, the aggressive rubber lugs were perfect for everything that Iceland threw at me.
11. Salomon ADV S Lab 12 Hydration Vest with (2) 500 ml soft flasks. This pack had everything that I needed for this race. It had PLENTY of room to store all of the mandatory gear including my waterproof jacket, waterproof pants, extra headlamp, batteries, extra flashing light (just in case), emergency blanket (included), engagement ring (nice and secure the whole time), and mandatory first aid kit. I honestly felt like I wasn't wearing anything the whole time and it has a nice contoured fit to your body which is crucial for conquering both the terrain and obstacles.
1. Tailwind Unflavored. This has been a gamechanger for me when it comes to ultra distance events. It does not have any flavor, which to me is awesome because after a long time I tire of sweet tasting foods and mixed water. Cheryl would mix 1L with 4 scoops which came out to 200 calories per soft flask and we would change this out everytime I came into the transition area.
2. Peanut butter and jelly/honey sandwiches with pita bread
3. Potato chips
4. Peanut M and Ms
5. Snicker bars
6. Chicken broth
8. Frog Fuel. Every transition I would take one Ultra Frog Fuel (contains carbs, very low caffeine, and low amino acids) and every 8 hours a regular Frog Fuel which contains more amino acids. I cannot thank Frog Fuel enough for fueling me throughout this race and for making such a great product!
1. Tapering efficiently! I followed a tapering 3 weeks prior the race of the simple 80%/60%/30% principle. Leading up to those weeks I decreased by that percentage but kept up the same intensity leading up to the race. I felt incredible and rested right from the start.
2. Back to back long runs. Every weekend I slowly increased mileage by completing two long distance runs back to back. The first week I did this was 15 miles on Saturday followed by 15 miles on Sunday. Leading up to the race I was doing 30 miles on Saturday followed by 30 miles on Sunday.
3. Yoga and stretching during the tapering phase.
4. Meditation and mental preparation, including talking with my pit crew during the tapering phase.
1. Do not use Under Armour for long distance events! These leggings did not stay tight the whole race which, umm...rubbed me the wrong way...
2. When throwing the spear throw, wait until the wind dies down.
3. When attempting the hercules hoist, look up at the ropes to make sure that pulley is working and that the ropes are not tangled (got me on that 120 burpee lap).