Inside The Epic 24-Hour Spartan Race In Iceland

Photo provided by Spartan.

Racing In The Land Of Fire And Ice

The inaugural Spartan Ultra World Championship, a 24-hour ultra-endurance obstacle race, lived up to the hype in both the setting and the racing. The race series’ first event in Iceland offered up every possible combination of winter weather for the hundreds of competitors brave enough to take this race on. The race started out with a stirring Viking ceremony, complete with offerings to the Nordic gods and lots of shouting. After chanting the trademark Spartan “aroo, aroo!” the racers set off for a 5K around the town of Hveragerð, a short drive from the capital city of Reykjavik. The weather was cold and the skies overcast, and a few runners slipped on the ice on the road. Little did they know, Mother Nature had much more challenging conditions on tap for later in the day.

The course consisted of a 6.8-mile loop with 20 obstacles, ranging from carrying blocks of ice to crawling under barbed wire to scaling cargo nets and grip-strength testing multi-rig and monkey bar-style obstacles. The idea was simple: The person who completes the most laps in 24 hours wins. Far from simple, however, were the racing conditions. The morning’s gray skies turned angry as the afternoon progressed, pelting racers with sharp, stinging bits of hail that whipped through the air on wind that blew nearly at hurricane force. The hail eventually changed to snow and then rain. And the rain stayed around for a long time. Racers were allowed up to 60 minutes in the indoor transition area between laps. Most took the opportunity to dry off, refuel and rest up. Others just pushed forward, not wanting to stop for even a moment in the warm environs of the town’s sports dome, which was serving as the home base for the Spartan race. As the race stretched into the early hours of Sunday morning, the rain subsided and those hearty souls braving the course in dark, muddy conditions were rewarded with a stunning display of the Northern Lights. The sky lit up with the colors of white, purple and green above the racers as their headlamps dotted the mountainside, showing their steady progress around the course. The sun peeked out for the last two hours of the race, revealing a steady stream of weary but determined racers closing in on their final lap of the course.

The winner of the Ultra World Championship’s men division was USA’s Joshua Fiore, who crossed the finish line after 11 laps with a time of 22:55:42. Morgan McKay of Canada placed first in the women’s division after completing nine laps with a time of 21:06:38. Germany’s Vanessa Gebhardt and Canada’s Alison Tai trailed behind in second and third place, also with nine laps each. Iceland’s Katrin Sigrun Tomasdottir completed eight laps to place fourth along with the UK’s Lilian Keller trailing behind her.

Photo provided by Spartan.

This was my first experience of an OCR, and it exceeded my expectations. I had heard about the spirit of community that existed in the Spartan events, but it was another thing entirely to experience it firsthand. Just one of the many acts of kindness and camaraderie I witnessed involved a racer whose luggage had been lost on the way to Iceland. By the time the race morning arrived, his bags had still not turned up. His fellow Spartans rallied around him, providing him with shoes to run in as well as various pieces of gear that he needed. I heard many stories of strangers helping each other out on the course, encouraging people through and over obstacles when fear or lack of experience threatened to derail someone’s race, sharing fuel when someone was flagging out on the course, or helping stretch out someone suffering with a bad bout of cramp.

It was inspiring to see how far people could push their bodies and their minds to accomplish a goal. On top of the physical demands of a 24-hour race, the weather conditions were some of the worst I have ever been in. I found it difficult to walk upright in the fierce wind sometimes, much less scale obstacles that were 20 feet high. I asked new and veteran racers what their advice would be to anyone–regardless of fitness level or athletic background–who was considering signing up for their first OCR. The unanimous response was, “Just do it!” Time and again, racers said that the experience was the point, not trying to achieve a predetermined time. That attitude was definitely reflected in the way that racers continuously interrupted their own race to help others in need whom they passed on the course.

The experience made me want to sign up for a Spartan race (although one in Southern California, where there may not be any Northern Lights to spot, but I won’t need snow boots, either!). The idea of combing running with the challenge of working out how to tackle obstacles, and getting to join in the fun of this raucous and devoted community of racers, is too enticing to pass up. Go to www.spartan.com to find a race in your area, and explore the training plans on our website to find advice for a variety of races.

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