Jon Albon Is In to Win Spartan Ultra Worlds
Jon Albon has had a hugely successful year of racing, but he is nothing if not realistic about the Spartan Ultra World Championship on December 7–8 in Iceland. And truth be told, he’s also a bit ornery about it. But he’s also absolutely all-in to win it.
The Spartan Ultra event will be ridiculously challenging, and the stakes are immensely rich—uniquely so for the tenacious but decidedly laid-back 29-year-old Brit. You see, there’s a $1 million prize bonus on the table, but it’s only out there for Albon to win.
Back in July, Spartan Race founder and CEO Joe De Sena offered up this unprecedented bonus to any athlete—male or female—who could win all three Spartan World Championship events. “It won’t be easy,” said De Sena when he announced the bonus. “But if you wanted easy, you wouldn’t be here in the first place.”
It hasn’t been easy, but the way Albon has been racing this year, it has certainly appeared so at times. He won the first two Spartan championships—the September 29–30 Spartan World Championship in Lake Tahoe and the November 3–4 Spartan Trifecta World Championship in Sparta, Greece—and now, after jetting to a 50K Spartan Ultra qualifying event on December 1 in Malaysia (which he won by more than 30 minutes), he has a chance to win the mother lode payout.
100 Miles or Bust
The 24-hour race will be run over a rugged 6-mile course with about 24 obstacles per lap. To win the race, Albon has to complete 100 miles—which means he’ll likely have to finish 17 laps—in 24 hours or less. If that seems daunting, consider that last year’s champion, Boston-area firefighter and medical student Joshua Fiore, covered only 71 miles. If that’s not a big enough ordeal, less than 5 hours of the race will be in daylight, and the weather is expected to be cold with freezing rain or snow likely.
Plus, there is a stacked international field that includes Fiore and four-time World’s Toughest Mudder champion Ryan Atkins, who will be among Albon’s toughest competitors.
“It’s a heck of a challenge,” Albon says. “I don’t need to win the money—I’ve already won a lot of money, and I don’t buy a lot of stuff—but, yeah, I’m going to go and give it my best shot. I just hope they don’t try to make the course harder or make it impossible to finish. It will be hard enough to win the race without any additional problems. After winning the first two (and earning a qualifier), why not give it a go?”
“I hope to finish win the race and finish 100 miles in under 24 hours and win the money,” Albon says. “I can imagine . . . it will be dark, and yet I can see the northern lights, and I’m running well and doing all of the obstacles, and that will be a lot of fun running with the other competitors and chatting away. But it could just be really f#%@-ing miserable out there too.”
No matter what, it will be a legitimate race. Neither Atkins nor Fiore nor Albon figure it’s possible to work together during the race, and there’s no point since only Albon can win the big bonus.
Will Others Team Up Against Albon?
“I don’t see ‘working together’ as being very effective,” Atkins says. “As soon as someone fails an obstacle, the others will have to continue. If Jon and I are able to stay together, morally, that will make things easier, but I don’t see it as being very effective or possible. It’s still a race, though, and I won't ‘throw it’ to let him win.”
No one has been letting Albon win all year, and he’s been cleaning up, especially during the past three months leading up to the Iceland race. In mid-September, he won the Ultra Skyrunning World Championships in Scotland against an elite field by more than 12 minutes. The following week, he dominated the Tougher Mudder World Championships in Seattle, and the week after that, he notched a 15-second win over Ryan Atkins at the Spartan World Championship in Lake Tahoe. Then he won the OCR World Championship in the UK, taking both the short and fast 3K distance and the longer but still fast 15K distance.
From there, he headed to Sparta, Greece, where he won the overall title of all three distances after winning the Sprint race, taking second in the Super race, and winning the Beast race. For good measure, he teamed up with Norwegian triathlete Gudmund Viljo Arponen Snilstveit to win the daunting Original Mountain Marathon, a two-day mountain orienteering race, by 2 minutes.
Albon's Approach to the Spartan Ultra
“I think the only way to approach it is just to get out there and get on with it and keep an open mind,” Albon says. “I hate the first half of races because that’s when you are thinking things like, ‘Do I have enough energy? Am I going to get tired? Is this going to go wrong? Is that going to go wrong?’ But once you get past halfway, well, then you can think, ‘I’ve already done half of it, so I know I can do that much again and just get on with it.’ And if I get to halfway in relatively good shape, then I’ll be happy.”
It hasn’t all been rainbows and roses for Albon this year. He fell hard in the Sparta race and banged up his left knee. Plus he’s had lingering soreness under his right big toe joint for several years, and it tends to flare up during longer races. He’s had it checked out (including an MRI two weeks ago), but all doctors can tell him is that the tissue around the sesamoid bone is inflamed. “There’s nothing I can do about that, except deal with the pain,” Albon says. “All I can think is that it will just be inflamed again, and I’ll carry on.”
But aside from all of that, Albon admits his body is fatigued from traveling and from an especially long season of racing that has included more than 30 races in a dozen countries. By now he’d typically be into a recovery phase of training that would include more strength work, low-key skiing and climbing, and much lower intensity levels while running.
Like Atkins, Albon is one of the most versatile competitors on the obstacle course racing circuit, capable of winning short and fast races as well as long multi-hour slogs. But he’s blunt about the fact that he doesn’t see the benefits of racing for 24 hours. He’s competed in 24-hour races before, but his results have been up and down. He entered the 2017 World’s Toughest Mudder despite being ill, but dropped out after about 5 hours of racing because of lingering illness he experienced in the days before the race. He was part of the winning squads at the World’s Toughest Mudder team competitions in 2015 and 2016 but hasn’t won a 24-hour obstacle course race yet in his career.
Skyrunning Vs Spartan Ultra
So far this year, Albon’s longest race has been a 90K (or 56-mile) skyrunning race with 5,600 meters (or 18,400 feet) of climbing, an event he won in 9 hours. “But racing for 9 hours or so in a running race, that’s pretty different from racing a 24-hour obstacle race,” Albon says. “I don’t really see a 24-hour race as being good for you, and that kind of annoys me really because I don’t like to think that I’m just ruining my body for the sake of doing this race.”
The Spartan Ultra Champs looks as if it will be a battle royale among some of the titans of the sport. Even though he doesn’t have the chance to win $1 million, Atkins has been training like a fiend. He’s been preparing himself—mentally as much as physically—to suffer in Iceland’s dark, cold conditions.
“My training has always been to build general fitness, but in the month leading up to this event, there has been a big shift to longer workouts in the snow and mountains,” he says. “I’ve done lots of ice climbing, running, snowshoeing, and skiing. I just love being outside and breathing hard. I spend a lot of my time ‘outside my comfort zone,’ so I’ve become quite comfortable being there.”
Meanwhile, Albon admits he hasn’t trained much in the last few months because he’s been racing so much. He added a few extra long runs in the mountains near his home in Bergen, Norway, but he knows he’ll have to trust his training and go into the race with the notion that it’s a battle of attrition more than it is an endurance race.
“I trained all year by racing,” Albon says. “The things you can train for in a race like this—running continuous laps for 24 hours and doing obstacles—I’ve already done. The biggest variables will be the weather, and you can’t really train for those elements, you can only adapt and do them when you get to them and carry on.”
Albon's Spartan Ultra Gear List
While Spartan events typically don’t require excessive amounts of gear, Albon plans to have a trunk full of clothes and accessories ready for this Spartan Ultra. The most important piece of gear will likely be his shoes, but that depends on the conditions. Although the ground will likely be frozen or even icy, studded or spiked shoes are prohibited. Instead, he’ll take two models of the VJ Sport shoes that he typically uses for skyrunning and orienteering events; both offer good traction and a wide toe box. He was also considering a pair of Saucony Peregrine 8 ICE+ with two types of outsole rubber specifically engineered to provide good traction on ice.
Because there are no water obstacles, he won’t be wearing a wetsuit (as Robert Killian did for much of the race last year en route to a fifth-place finish). Instead, he’ll dress in layers for breathability and to adapt to the temperature and precipitation. A comfortable wool top and tights, a waterproof jacket, windproof pants, and possibly an insulating top will be key, he says, as will a warm, breathable hat. One of the biggest unknowns is the type of glove he’ll wear—either a warm insulated pair or a more grippy, articulated pair that will perform better on obstacle climbs, bar hangs, and carries.
Fueling & Race Plan
He’ll fuel by taking some Clif gels, energy bars, and warm sports drinks out on the course with him (“but not the sweet ones”) and supplement that in the pit station every lap with more hearty food—most likely a warm rehydrated camping meal in a pouch.
Ultimately, Albon hopes to be in it to win it. But if he falls off pace too far halfway through, he might call it a season and be done with it.
“Normally these races are fun for me, but how much fun I have in Iceland might just come down to the weather,” Albon says. “You just have to deal with things on the fly, and I think that may be one of the best things about obstacle racing. And that’s what this is going to be all about.”
Start preparing for your next Spartan challenge: Download our free obstacle training guide.