To give you a glimpse of the 2021 Spartan World Championship in Abu Dhabi — arriving Dec. 3–5 in the land of the United Arab Emirates — race director Garfield Griffiths suggests searching for video of the Liwa Sports Festival, where you will see science-fiction-like SUVs souped up in Mad Max fashion, exploding their way up the the Moreeb sand dune.
The dune itself — nicknamed the “Hill of Horrors” — vectors skyward more than 300 meters on a 50-degree slope. The SUV sand dragsters start in fourth gear and blast up the hill. So unforgiving is the sand that engines tend to blow up and apart, sparks and fire spilling out from underneath the hood.
Clearly, it's a great place to test customized off-road cars, and an even better place to test some of the world's greatest athletes: Spartans.
“It’s one of the biggest sand dunes in the world,” Griffiths says. “Of course, we’re going to make Spartans run it. We’re mean like that.”
Of course. And when Griffiths says Spartans, he means a global spectrum of top elite professionals, age-groupers, Trail racers, and extreme adventure seekers, all coming together in early December to tackle an equally broad spectrum of events.
The Empty Quarter
In describing the location for the legendary Spartan experience — about a three-hour drive south from the Abu Dhabi International Airport — Griffiths says that the desert imagery stirs absolute awe.
“The scope of it is mind-blowing,” he says. “It’s one of the biggest stretches of desert in the world. It’s beyond description.”
The first time Griffiths was visiting the location and setting his eyes on the imagery, he was told what he was looking at was just the mere edge of the Rub’ al Khali — also known as "The Empty Quarter" — the beginning of 2,500 miles of red and gold sand, equal in breadth to the entire United States.
“I got my camera out to take a picture,” Griffiths recalls. “Then it occurred to me that there was no way my camera could handle it.”
He put the camera back in his pocket.
“I decided just to enjoy the moment,” he says.
The Venue: The Liwa Desert
This will be the first time the Spartan World Championship will be held outside of the United States. Griffiths says the draw of the other-worldly beauty of the desert, in combination with the unmatched uniqueness of the cultural experience, are bound to make for a special race.
“Without a doubt, it’s going to be one of the most spectacular races we’ve ever put on,” he says.
Although Spartans will be human dune buggies for parts of the races, the area has plenty of hard-packed trails where you can run with a more normal level of energy return.
Slate of Spartan Races: Beast, Super, Trail, and More
The Spartan World Championship will be (both figuratively and literally) a Beast: 21 kilometers populated with 30 obstacles. Available Beast divisions include the Elite competition, the Age Group Worlds competition, and an Open division.
The Teams World Championship will be a Super 10K race with 25 obstacles.
For those not racing in the championship event — who perhaps enjoy a starry sky — a nighttime Super 10K will be held Dec. 3.
And, this event is family-friendly, so bring the kids. The Abu Dhabi Spartan Kids race will be held Dec. 4., free of charge.
Hit the Desert Trails
These zero-obstacle races are being held in the Empty Quarter, alongside the Spartan World Championship.
More (and More and More): Agoge
A Spartan Agoge — a 60-hour extreme endurance school of adventure — will begin Nov. 28. On tap are desert survival skills, navigating with ancient trade maps, “battle and barter for morsels of food and water,” flying falcons, herding camels, and plenty more see-what-you-are-made of experiences.
Camping Under Desert Stars
It’s worth noting that the camping experience has suitable amenities for those focused on racing in a world championship: beds, bathrooms, restaurants, a supermarket, and even food trucks.
The Weather: Warm, but Not Unbearable
“The last time I was there, it was 111 degrees Fahrenheit,” Griffiths says.
It reminded him of the blast-furnace-like air rushing into your face when you open up a hot oven. In December, however, the temperatures are far more moderate. The high is expected to be 78 degrees.
“It can get chilly at night, though,” Griffiths adds. “You’ll want your sleeping bag.”
Although it won't be that hot during day racing, it will be desert dry. Accordingly, plenty of water stations will be available to racers on the course.
Post-Race Activities in Abu Dhabi
And here’s one for the bucket list: sandboarding. Star Wars fans will remember how Rey is adept at sliding down sand dunes. Fun fact: The Empty Quarter was a shooting location for The Force Awakens. Here’s your chance to see what it’s like first hand.