Spartan Ultra World Champion - Rea Kolbl
Earlier this month dryrobe ambassador Rea Kolbl headed to Sweden to take on the Spartan Ultra World Championship: an endurance obstacle course race where competitors battle complete as many laps as possible of a brutal course in 24 hours.
Rea goes into detail about the race, its challenges and what it takes to be crowned a Spartan Ultra World Champion.
Welcome to Åre, Sweden
I was glad I put sweatpants on over my shorts the moment I stepped off the train in Åre. I spent the last month training in Europe which was unusually warm for the season; after over a week of running and climbing shirtless in Greece, going from 18 degrees Celsius to about equivalent in Fahrenheit was quite a shock to the system.
Next morning was my first chance to test my gear for the race, and after a 30-minute jog through the frozen winter fairytale I quickly realized that neither my pants nor my gloves were warm enough to keep me going for another 23.5 hours. Good thing I still had 3 days to figure it all out.
The start line
I stood on the start line, wrapped in my dryrobe standing close to the rest of the racers that shielded me from the wind. It was really cold out; at around 18°F, snowflakes were making a fresh coat on the course. I think there’s a correlation between unflattering outfits and the epicness of the race; wearing my balaclava, lab safety goggles, and men’s mitts sized XL, this was a promising start to what turned out to be one of the best races I’ve ever done.
We started the race 3 minutes early – I think the announcer might have been cold standing around in his swim trunks while the rest of us were reluctantly handing coats and jackets to our crew. Off we went! I always love the start of endurance races. Adrenaline takes over and running feels effortless at a pace that’s still slow enough so you can chat with racers beside you. On the first lap we skipped the obstacle gauntlet at the start, ran through the town and then started the climb up the mountain. As my legs felt light running up the hill I was grateful for all the races I chose to stand on the sidelines within the last month, focusing exclusively on the Ultra World Champs.
Just yards from the transition area the lap started with an obstacle gauntlet: twister, A-frame, slip wall, spear throw, multi rig, and the rope climb, all within the first half a mile of the race. After the gauntlet we ran through the town, with the Hercules hoist right in the main square. I loved this part of the course despite the concrete running surface. Late at night, the cheers from the locals and people passing through town always lifted my spirits and made me pick up the pace. Herc hoist was the 4th out of the 6 burpee penalty obstacles – before the climb even started, you already knew if you saved yourself 120 burpees for the lap.
I loved the climb up the mountain. First part was runnable for me – wide trail with steady grade that never got too steep nor too icy, ending at the Olympus roughly halfway up the mountain. Olympus for me was the hardest, and I only completed it on two laps. Before the second half of the climb there was the Sandbag Carry, which tested your balance skills on the descent. It quickly became hardpacked and slick, and on one of the laps I crashed so hard (landing on the microspikes in my vest with a sandbag landing on my chest for good measure) I lost both my breath and my bladder holding ability. The second part of the climb was steeper and deeper; later in the night it turned into a staircase, as we each followed another’s footsteps. It followed up a ski slope then ducked into trees, spitting us out near the summit for the final stretch to the top. The last part was exposed, windy, and full of icy stretches we all did our best to avoid.
We reached the top of the course after nearly 2,000’ of gain. The highest point was windy and snowy, with deep snow, fresh powder, and views of the valley below that made me feel I was running around in a snow globe. My favorite part of the course was right after log farmers carry – we crested a small bump and the views opened to the valley below. We could see the frozen lake during the day and the lights illuminating Åre and the nearby towns at night; every lap it made me feel so lucky to have the ability to be out there, for one more lap.
The descent was soft through fresh snow without many things to trip over (and if you did, you landed in powder which made me feel like a kid on a snow day), which meant I could look up and really enjoy the course. The soft landing was easy on the knees and ankles, and for the first time this year I actually looked forward to going downhill. I opened up my stride and just let the gravity do the work. The end of the downhill was marked by a never-ending uphill barbwire crawl. As much as my knees hated the 5-minute uphill slog, I kept reminding myself it could always be worse; at least frozen snow is more comfortable than rocks (and I’m only 5’4”).
Right after monkey bars, the last burpee penalty obstacle for the lap, was the sled pull. On ice, this always made me laugh; all you needed to do was give it one nice tug, and the sled did the rest of the work all by itself. The last part of the descent into town was probably the most treacherous part; a thin layer of snow-ice on concrete was slippery and the fall on your ass hurt. Coming back into town there was the last gauntlet of obstacles – vertical cargo with loose net that was surprisingly hard (there are so many ways your gaiters can get stuck in a net), atlas carry (stone seemed to have been growing in size as the night went on and additional layers of ice coated its surface), tyrolean traverse that left me with a couple or rope burns, another vertical cargo, and the final jog into town.
Plan A B C Z
After the first lap I always start looking for a routine and try to find ways to divide each lap into smaller chunks. At the same time, I try to pay attention to my body, gear, nutrition, and conditions on course. Any small inconvenience can quickly escalate and affect your race, so it’s important to never stubbornly stick with the original plan if it isn’t working. I focused on the four big things: am I too hot or too cold at any point? Am I eating and drinking enough? Are my toes and fingers staying warm? Are my shoes grippy enough on the snow, is my glove situation good enough for the obstacles, and are my eyes protected from the cold and the wind? I kept thinking about those questions as I raced, changing my race plans and solving one problem after another.
The first issue I came across was on lap one, when it was time to eat my first snack. My plan was to eat one Bobo bar per hour, supplementing with Spring Energy gels in between if I felt hungry or low on energy. This strategy would eliminate the need to stop and eat in the transition area. This went out the window as soon as I took the first bite: my bar was frozen. I could barely bite into it, let alone trying to chew and swallow. Over the next few laps I tried stuffing them in different pockets in hopes of keeping them warm with my body heat and gluing both sides with foot warmers, as well as trying different varieties of energy bars. In all cases my food invariable turned into ice.
Since I could no longer eat on course, my pit stops became eating contests in how many calories I could consume in the shortest amount of time. I opted for the food that was calorie dense; PB&J sandwiches, dehydrated backcountry meals (cottage pie really hit the spot), trying to stuff my mouth with as many snacks as I could leaving the transition area. With twister only yards away, most often I was still chewing as I swung along. I managed to drown somewhere between 500-700kcal in the transition, enough for 1.5-2 hours on course. The only snacks that never fully froze were the Spring Energy gels; ice cream on the climbs.
Staying acceptably uncomfortable
With the temperatures around 15F at the bottom of the mountain and around zero at the top, it was impossible to dress in a way where I would be comfortable the entire time. The main goal then became to never be too uncomfortable; I broke some sweat on the climb, but I made sure never so much I would freeze at the top and during the descent. I quickly realized I was the coldest coming out of the transition area; it was inside a relatively warm hall, and after being stationary for even a couple of minutes my body stopped generating enough heat. After a couple of laps I also learned that I warmed up quickly going through the obstacle gauntlet at the start. Remembering this was so important, because I became okay with being a little cold; it was important to not overdress which would make me sweat too much on the climb, starting just a mile later.
Another important part was keeping my eyes protected. I knew from previous experience my eyes get tired from the wind, the cold, and the glare of the snow over a long period of time, making it hard to see. I forgot, however, that sunglasses will be too dark for most of the race; waking up to a blizzard on a race morning it became clear shaded lenses won’t work at all. I realized this too late to order clear lenses for actual sport glasses, so I asked my mom to pick up a pair of lab safety goggles from her work.
As soon as I started the race, however, they started to slide down my face, sitting awkwardly at the end of my nose. After a couple of laps of pushing them back up to where they belong, I asked my crew to pick up a pair of clear swimming goggles; covering only my eyes they won’t be able to slide anywhere and surely the won’t fog up. I couldn’t have been more wrong; about 10 minutes later I tried to clear the moist by spitting on it, which froze on the lenses before I had a chance to wipe it, rendering them useless. That was a good test to see if my eyes could handle the wind at the summit – after I got back to the pit, lab safety goggles went back on the end of my nose and stayed there for the rest of the race.
The glove conundrum
One thing I couldn’t quite settle on was my glove strategy. I’ve always had trouble keeping my hands warm, and I have yet to find a glove that gives me sufficient grip on the obstacles. I showed up to Are with five different pairs yet on my two training runs there I decided none were keeping me sufficiently warm. I spent the last couple of days before the race running around skiing stores looking for the warmest glove, until eventually settling on an oversized mitt rated for -30°C. Since I figured bare hands on obstacles weren’t going to cut it either, I went to the hotel gym on Friday with all of my options and just tried to figure out which one is the least bad. I settled on a pair of ice climbing gloves to go under my supersized mitts.
On the first couple of laps, my glove strategy worked well. I kept both the gloves and the mitts on for most of the lap, taking the mitts off for anything that required grip.
As the race went on, however, ice climbing gloves kept getting slicker, and on the 4th lap I found myself losing grip on top of the rope climb, almost falling to the bottom. I decided to try again, this time with bare hands; I almost made it, but my grip was tired from the previous attempt and I slid fairly uncontrollably down to the bottom.
Next up was Hercules hoist; again, I lost grip when the bag was almost at the top. With the help of my foot I lowered it back to the bottom, and tried again with bare hands. After 60 burpees and slipping off Twister on the next lap, I realized gloves were no longer working and if I didn’t want the burpeefest to continue, I’d have to do obstacles bare-handed. At first I was scared of the cold metal but quickly realized that as long as my hands were warm before touching the obstacle, I could warm them back up after. The obstacles suddenly became sticky.
After a few laps of adjusting nutrition and gear and occasionally forgetting to run my own race, I found a routine. I left the transition wearing only the mitts with fresh pair of hand warmers, my finger gloves tucked into water bottle pockets of my vest (left on the left side, right on the right, so I didn’t have to figure out which goes where with cold hands later on the lap). I walked to the twister, chewing down the last bits of my fuel. I always picked the same lane on all obstacles; I called them my lucky lanes. Mitts off, twister, mitts on, A-frame, mitts off, slip wall, mitts on, ice shuffle across the lake, headlamp on bright mode, right mitt off, spear throw. I missed an embarrassing 11 out of 14 throws, and I think after a while doing the penalty almost became a part of my routine… I liked how the heavy carry penalty loop gave me a chance to warm up my hands before the multi rig that followed.
Mitts off, dimmed headlamp, chicken-wing the rig, mitts on, walk to the rope, take a deep breath, mitts off, rope climb. Mitts on, run through town, mitts off, herc hoist, stairway to Sparta, mitts on, then uphill jog. End of the first part of the lap.
I ran the first part of the hill to Olympus while changing mitts for the finger gloves, then hiked the steep second part while eating Spring Energy ice cream gel for a snack. Mitts over gloves at the top. End of the second part of the lap.
Deep snow shuffle that turned into hip-deep posthole towards the end, then 10’ wall, 8’ wall, headlamp on bright mode, fluffy descent. Dim the headlamp, uphill barbwire crawl, slow and easy descent to monkey bars taking the low line with the lowest chance of falling on my ass. Third part done.
Mitts off, gloves off, take a deep breath, monkey bars. Mitts on, sled pull, mitts off, gloves on, snack while carefully shuffling down an icy hill, mitts on, last obstacle gauntlet, burpees, then into the pit. Fourth part done.
Late at night (or maybe early in the morning) the course got quiet; I mostly saw green glow sticks marking the course instead of white headlamps running it.
Nighttime is probably my favorite part; quiet woods, headlamps in the distance, and the towns below us illuminated by the lights. Those are the times that really make me appreciate my ability to do these events. There aren’t many times in life when you can be out on the mountain, running downhill through powdery snow, living life completely in the moment.
Saving precious minutes in the pit
Minimizing the time in the pit is the easiest way to run farther in the race. Quick pits were especially important this time around with the pit roughly 50 Fahrenheit warmer than outside; the longer you stay inside, the colder you are starting the next lap. My first few pit stops were slightly chaotic; with the pressure from Myriam and Janka close on my tail or right in front, I was rushing along, forgetting everything that wasn’t permanently attached to my body. Once I had to go back for my mitts; second time around I took the wrong vest. I really made a point to become more organized and less stressed, spending 10 extra seconds to double check everything and save 2 minutes for not having to come back in. It took a few tries, but eventually both my crew and me got into a fast and efficient routine.
Knowing I couldn’t eat much on course, I had to get enough calories for 1.5 -2 hours, hydrate (I didn’t bring water on course either), and change the burpee passport for a new one (every lap they punched it for completed obstacles). As soon as I walked in I headed straight to the timing tent for the passport exchange. I also exchanged my vest with frozen snacks for a new one each lap, keeping my mandatory gear in a hydration belt that I never took off so I never had to worry about forgetting something in the pit.
While the timing staff was doing the passport swap I ate; PB&J sandwiches, Clif blocks, crackers, rehydrated backcountry meals, mashed potatoes Nicole found in the pit (sorry Trever!), someone else’s pizza crust… smashing my face with as many calories as I could handle. I overdid it a few times making for an interesting lap, but I’d rather burp for two hours than bonk.
Eating is usually my favorite part of these races; all these goodies I normally avoid are a fair game! This time, however, eating was the hardest part. I felt hungry, yet nothing tasted good and I didn’t want anything. Having friends with foods I don’t normally eat to trade helped, but eating was still a chore. Nonetheless, I wanted to win more than I didn’t want to eat, so it became just another part of the routine.
It’s okay to be afraid
When I almost fell from the top of the rope I got really scared of the obstacle. I took my gloves off for that second attempt, but my grip was tired and I almost fell, again.
The next lap I started with bare hands, yet I still felt I just barely made it up and down safely. As I was leaving the transition at 10:30pm, I figured I’d make it back to the burpee pit just after midnight when the penalty dropped from 30 to 15 burpees per obstacle; seemed like a great deal for not feeling like I was about to fall from 15 feet. But when I checked with Graham who was keeping keep track of my laps if I could skip the rope, he figured I’d still be back just a few minutes before midnight.
Maybe I could waste some time in a toilet then? Instead, I listened to his advice: “Do it just one more time.”
I did try it just one more time. This time my grip was less taxed as I did all of the obstacles beforehand barehanded, and the rope felt a little less scary. Getting back to the pit at 11:56pm, I was glad I saved myself 30 burpees by giving it just one more try. So on the next lap, I tried again, for one more time. Then again on the next one. And the one after. It never got any less scary, but it never failed to give me a small mental boost when I didn’t skip or fail it.
Empty tank finish line
I always start counting laps remaining around sunrise. After doing the math I figured 70 miles (or 14 laps) would be a good goal, but on my 13th things started to get really hard. I realized I had enough lead I could slow down, and I started hiking more of the climb. This made me a bit colder and I started to feel my toes beginning to freeze. Knowing I was close to the end I also started noticing things that hurt; my knees on the descent, my shoulder getting over the walls. I think I have this ability to mask the pain when I’m really focused on a race with no end in sight, and that fades as the finish line draws nearer. I started tripping over everything, including air.
Crawling under the barbwire I noticed just how low my energy was, and I wasn’t sure if I wanted to do one more lap with all the obstacles and the scary rope climb.
As I was running into town I saw Steve Hammond going up the mountain on the snowmobile, and as I hugged him and cried tears of exhaustion I said I didn’t want to go for one more lap.
When I got back to the pit we did the math and decided I didn’t have to go back out again. It was 9:30am. But, one of my goals for this race was to end it with nothing left to give. I had 4 hours left – enough to hike the uphills, jog the flats, do the burpees for the rope climb, and still finish before the 1:30pm DNF cut-off. I was tired, but I knew I could do that much. Finishing right there and then wouldn’t have been giving the race everything I had, and I knew how bad I felt about myself finishing early at World’s Toughest Mudder the year before.
So I put on fresh socks (first time I took shoes off since the start), extra layers (maybe a few too many, sweating buckets and stripping off my down jacket at the start of the climb), took some painkillers and caffeine, and headed outside. I skipped the rope climb this time for the first time, saving diminishing physical and mental strength for the rest of the lap. I hiked the entire climb, walked through the deep snow at the top that with less people on course turned into hip-deep postholing, and took time to appreciate every part of the course and every person on it. I put on waterproof pants so I could slide on my butt for most of the descent.
My mom and the crew waited for me at the monkey bars, and then ran alongside into town (not all of my “watch this part for ice” warnings came on time). By the time I crossed the finish line just minutes after the start line officially closed at noon, I knew that going out for one more lap was the best decision I’ve made that day.
I won, but more importantly, I fulfilled all of my race goals. To run and hike until the course closed; to give the race everything I had; and to be kind to others along the way.
The perfect race
For most races, the perfect race is the one where everything goes according to plan.
What I love about 24-hour ones is that nothing ever does. It’s important to have one coming in, but it’s even more important to have all the other plans for backup. I did absolutely nothing according to my nutrition plan, my gear needed a whole lot of tweaking, and my pit stop plans were abandoned after the first lap. Still, I don’t think there was a single thing I would have done differently. I not once sat down in the pit and there isn’t much that I could have changed to save time and run further. It was my perfect imperfect race.
Bedside pizza delivery
The hardest part of these races is making it back to your room after everything is over. We had until 7pm for awards, and my grand plan of taking a shower and a nap fell through when I couldn’t get out of bed even for a slice of pizza (thanks mom and Adam for bedside delivery). As I climbed to the top podium spot with a help of Spartan staff wearing socks only because my swollen feet wouldn’t fit in my shoes, I was just as happy as I was sore. Ever since I was a little gymnast it has always been my dream to be a reason for my national anthem to play at awards ceremony.
Finally, it was a dream come true.
It’s never just me
None of these races are just about me, and I could never have done so well without all the support. It was amazing being able to share this experience with my mom who was the best pit crew I could ask for. She met me on course every single lap then ran back to the transition to get everything ready. Before the race she was running around stores helping me buy things I forgot, and after the race she walked to get pizza delivered to our beds not once, but twice (even after staying up all night with me for the race). I love you and thank you mom for everything you do.
Another thing that was special about this race was sharing it with my training partner and best friend Trever Townsend. Whenever I saw him on course it always lifted my spirits and made me run a bit faster. I thought I was stubborn with high pain tolerance until we started training together, and all the stupid stuff we’ve done this year prepared me for this race better than any solo training plan could ever have.
I cared about his race almost as much as mine, which lifted some of the pressure I put on myself to perform. We were leapfrogging for the first few laps and ran parts of the course together until he fell off an obstacle, landed on the stepping stool, and fractured his ribs. This caused fluid and blood to get into his lungs making it hard to breathe. Any normal person would have quit, but Trever kept on trucking along for another 20 hours. Seeing him never give up put my sore knees into perspective. He finished 8th with 60 miles, waiting for me at the finish so we could cross it together.
I also could never have done it without everyone else racing the same course. One of my favorite parts of these multiple lap races is that I get to chat with so many people. Even saying “hello” gives me energy when I need it the most. Thank you everyone for all the cheers, words of encouragement, stepping out of my way so I didn’t have to go around, and most importantly for not giving up yourselves. Seeing everyone trucking up the mountain lap after lap removes any excuse creeping into my head telling me to slow down or stop. At one of the World’s Toughest Mudder start lines Sean Corvelle said something that stayed with me since: “No one is better than your best, but doing your best will make you better. And that makes us all better.”
A huge thank you to volunteers as well – running kept us warm, but I was amazed by everyone standing by the obstacles for hours on end. Thank you for every single word of encouragement, your energy, and just the fact that you were out there for us.
Thank you Spartan and Spartan staff for making this probably the best course I’ve ever raced. I loved everything about it, and all the work you guys did to make everything run smoothly is so appreciated. Thank you for all the support before and after event, and especially for caring for us as athletes.
Lastly, there’s the support of all of my sponsors who make it possible to train full time and even dream of becoming a world champion. dryrobe helped me immensely this weekend with gear, lodging, and extra help in the pits. Thank you James Appleton for following me around with your camera, getting some of the best photos and videos I’ve ever had. Thank you Ascent Protein for supporting me year-round in recovery (less than a week after Sweden I was already back to running after lots of sleep, good food, and high-quality protein supplements), and StairMaster for supporting my adventures and making my indoor workouts just as hard as running up mountains. Thank you Spring Energy for healthy snacks that didn’t freeze on course, and Ultimate Direction for giving me gear to bring everything I needed on course. All of these companies support me as an athlete so I can train full time and keep living my dream while also making products I couldn’t be without and I truly believe in.
Congrats to everyone who was in Sweden, whether you completed one lap or 24 hours. And the crew who probably ran around pits just as much as we did on course.
VJ Maxx shoes - I fell in love with these shoes when I first tried them couple of months ago. I never had to put on microspikes for the snow/ice, or change shoes.
Craft Sportswear Lumen Subzero Wind tights - With fleece inner layer and windproof outer layer these kept me warm without needing an additional layer on top. I did avoid sliding on snow though until the last lap.
Black Diamond GTX FrontPoint gaiters - These were an amazing last-minute addition to my kit. They kept the snow out of my shoes and kept my socks dry. Never once did anything enter my shoes.
Craft Sportswear Active Intensity top baselayer - Kept me warm but not so hot I’d sweat. And when I did, the layer stayed warm. Only needed a jacket on top to keep me warm for most of the race.
Gore Shakedry Running Jacket - Probably the most expensive jacket I’ve ever owned, but it was worth the money keeping me warm while never restricting the range of motion for my arms.
Balaclava - I tried running with bandanas, but my throat always froze. So I decided to look ridiculous in favor of staying comfortable.
Lab safety goggles - Best $5 ever spent. They protected my eyes from the wind and the cold and never fogged up. They did however prefer to sit on the end of my nose rather than close up on the face where they belong.
Arc'teryx Ice climbing gloves - Worked well for the obstacles for the first few laps, then I think they got wet and start becoming slippery. I still used them for obstacles requiring finger dexterity but less grip.
Goretex skiing mitts (rated -30C) - This combined with the hand warmers kept my hands toasty when I was doing obstacles barehanded. I opted for a larger size to have more warm air inside that kept my fingers warm, especially when I was using ice climbing gloves as well.
Ultimate Direction Race Vesta 4.0 / Ultimate Direction Race Vesta 5.0 - I alternated between the two vests on each lap so I didn’t have to waste transition time restocking it. Each vest had microspikes in the back (which I never needed) and 2 spring energy gels in the front. I used bottle pockets for my finger gloves when I wasn’t wearing them on my hands.
Ultimate Direction Hydration belt - This contained all my mandatory gear and never left my body: waterproof pants, emergency blanket, empty soft flask, and a spare headlamp.
LAP 13 ADDITION:
Craft Sportswear Active Intensity top base layer - These stack well! Having two kept me warm when I started to move slower.
LAP 14 ADDITIONS:
Ultimate Direction Ultra pants - Waterproof pants so I could slide the descents on my butt.
Photos and films by James Appleton