How do elite Spartans optimize their days? When do they wake up and go to sleep, what do they eat, how do they train, how do they stay centered, and how do they balance life and work? We've been asking these questions for years, and now we have the answers. In Spartan Day in the Life, our highest-performing athletes and coaches share the daily routines that make them unbreakable.
When Morgan McKay raced the first Spartan Ultra World Championship in Iceland in 2017, she and her fellow intrepid competitors encountered the following elements in the 24-hour event:
Downpours of rain. Sub-freezing temperatures. Geysers. Winds gusting at the speed of a gale tornado. Hail. Climbs up ice-coated rock. And especially tough: the ever-present backdrop of 21 hours of thick darkness that comes with a December day in Iceland.
And oh yeah, 20 obstacles per six-mile loop.
But for the 2017 women’s winner, McKay — who was caught positively beaming at the finish line by a photographer as if she had just won an Oscar — there’s only one question:
What’s not to like?
The Spark That Lit the Endurance Fire
McKay’s journey toward becoming one of the toughest endurance athletes on planet Earth began with a chance bit of self-discovery in a 2013 Spartan Sprint. With the aerobic and functional fitness base that comes with mowing lawns for a living, she joined a friend in the race that included a run up a ski hill.
Thoughts flowed through her head:
I’m dying. This is so hard.
Man, that was the hardest thing in my life.
That 5K lit the fire illuminating uncharted territory within. Almost immediately afterward, McKay started googling around for more, finding out about two things: The existence of the Death Race and the fact that — oddly enough — the grueling experience sounded incredibly appealing to her.
She quit her day job and started personal training to make some cash to survive on, then poured herself into eight months of training, eventually doing the Death Race.
World Record and Knowing Thyself
After her 2017 Spartan Ultra win, McKay took on a 10K cross-country run. (No big deal, except for the fact that — in a Guinness World Record attempt — she’d be hauling 100 pounds in a backpack.)
She duct taped 100 pounds of barbell weights to a steel-framed backpack and started the 10K. The day was hot, and waves of sweat seeped into her eyes. Just 1K in, the harsh reality of the challenge sunk in.
McKay’s self-discovery went to a profound depth: "I think I’m normal," she thought. "I guess I’m not."
Regardless, she beat the previous record by 19 minutes — a record that had, in the past, been held by a male racer.
A Day in the Life of the 'Battle Unicorn'
How does Morgan McKay — dubbed the “Battle Unicorn” — do what she does? She attacks her daily training using her own mantra: Train like you’re training for the Hunger Games.
From diving off a cliff, to box-jump burpees, Olympic lifting, and galloping through the woods, the Battle Unicorn’s training methodology boils down to a combination of the basics.
Six days a week, she blasts through 60–90 minutes of cardiovascular-based work daily, complemented by various bouts of functional strength work. In McKay’s case, functional strength exercise is illustrated by a lot of pulling herself "up and over things.” That means pull-ups, rock climbing, and jumping over walls.
McKay also has made a point of attacking weaknesses head-on.
For example, running up hills was once a massive weakness for the endurance junky, so she attacked this by dialing her treadmill to inclines between 15–30% and performing one-hour runs. It was a gnarly experience (especially at first) but after adapting, McKay almost had to laugh when a race course served up a 10-minute ascent.
Saturdays typically serve as McKay’s long day, when she chooses from one of the following:
- Road cycle for 60 kilometers (This one is most common at the moment)
- Mountain bike for two (or more) hours
- Trail run for two (or more) hours
Food: Keep It Clean
In terms of nutrition, McKay tries to keep things simple and clean.
There is also the “magic shake,” consisting of green leafy vegetables and spiked with branch chain amino acids, glucosamine, and even a dose of apple cider vinegar.
Blending It All Together
As it has been for all of us, the last couple of years has wrought a myriad of twists and turns in how we live, work, train, and race. It's been no different for McKay (and as we will get to in a moment, her life has recently taken yet another turn.)
Along with her training and racing, McKay had been working as a full-time trainer. She adapted to the COVID lockdowns by coaching workouts via Zoom on top of a full-time office job.
The Battle Unicorn says that she does her best to circumvent the limitations imposed by a desk job. Exhibit A: an under-the-desk pedal bike.
How did co-workers react to the bike?
“They wanted to borrow it,” she says.
A Change of Course
This summer, McKay took on yet another challenge (although of a different variety): She’s expecting a child, and will become a mom later this year.
In a complementary move to being pregnant, the prospective mother is currently in the later stages of the 75 Hard Challenge, a whole-body/whole-mind test that challenges participants to do things like follow a strict diet of their choice with no cheats, complete two 45-minute workouts per day (with at least one being outdoors, no matter the weather), read 10 pages of a nonfiction book and drink a gallon of water per day, and more — all for 75 days. She expects to finish in late October.
“It’s less intense than what I was doing," she says. "But I’m finding the outside workouts to be therapeutic. I power walk, hike, or ride a bike. I’m finding it to be an incredible way to stay connected to fitness.”
But despite some detours and new adventures, a return to pushing herself against the limit of endurance is calling McKay's name.
“Oh yes,” she says. “I’m thinking in a year or two. I can’t wait.”