It's a no-brainer that the 2021 Spartan World Championship in Abu Dhabi — our first World Championship held outside of the U.S. — will be one of the most memorable and absolutely epic experiences on attendees' race resumés. From Dec. 3-5, 2021, some of the world's best athletes will convene in the majestic Liwa Desert to face the ultimate Spartan test. Racers from across the world will show up to represent their countries and mingle once again, and incoming travelers will be met with ample authentic culture to explore. Abu Dhabi will be our most global championship to date, but not everyone attending is looking for a championship heat. So, it's only fitting that there will be a few iconic Easter eggs. Our very first Night Spartan Super is one of them.
But before you start worrying about the logistics of sand in your shoes, seeing in the dark, and whether you need to look out for snakes (you don't), take it from the Pros. Spartan Pro and 2019 Spartan European Champion Myriam Guillot-Boisset — who has also competed in the XTERRA Triathlon, Half Ironman, and was named the sixth best woman on the 50 Greatest Spartan Racers of All Time list — and Spartan Pro, 2017 Spartan Ultra World Champion, and four-time Death Race veteran Joshua Fiore have competed in (and won) countless races across the globe for decades under the most extreme, exotic conditions — including darkness. These are their insights on how to train your body and mind, optimize your nutrition, and gear up to be prepared for a once-in-a-lifetime night race.
Preparing to 'Float Through Space'
Maybe you've ran on sand before — on vacation with the family, getting miles in on the beach, or on spring break, doing circuits at sunrise. But beach training doesn't exactly translate into desert competition. And if you have run on sand, you know that it's no cakewalk, and certainly not like running on pavement or on a trail. When you add in the element of late-night, moonlight-led sand running, you've got the ultimate adventure, says David Watson, Spartan's Vice President, Product.
"We've never done anything like this before," Watson says. "It will be a really surreal experience. There's incredibly tall dunes and you'll be feeling a little bit lost until you come over the top of one of the dunes and you'll just see headlamps going off into the distance, and the obstacles far away. It's a floating-through-space kind of feeling."
What to Wear in a Desert in December
The simplest answer? A headlamp. Better yet, two headlamps (and an extra battery). Not only are they required (and not provided onsite by Spartan) to run the Night Super, but packing a headlamp and hacking a spare could save you from some extremely treacherous conditions. Speaking from experience, Guillot-Boisset says that the last thing you want during a night race is to have trouble with your headlamp and — to your horror — realize that you don't have a backup.
"My spare headlamp is always very easy to access, because if you need your spare headlamp, it means that you're in the dark," she says. "[In one race, my team was] mountain biking on a downhill section. We had trouble with our headlamps, and only one was working for three people. It was a big mess, so please bring two!"
Guillot-Boisset recommends stashing your spare in (or clipping it on) a belt if you plan on completing the race in under an hour. But if you're going out under the stars for a more fun-filled (slower) adventure, a backpack will suffice just fine.
And yes, it's a desert and December temperatures tend to hover in the mid-70s, but nighttime temps can still fall in the 50s and 60s. Keep that in mind when planning your race-day outfit — including the shoes you choose.
For the best trek possible, Guillot-Boisset says to size up on your sneakers. Though it will be cooler at night, your feet may still swell from generally warmer temperatures and heat radiating off the sand as it cools down for the day. Watson, who has put in dozens of sandy miles, says the RD Pro — with all-terrain traction and superior seal to keep out sand — is a racer's best bet.
Train Your Mind and Body
We all know that committing to and training for any big event is mainly a mental game. Another reason why your headlamp will be your saving grace during after-hours mileage is because — according to Guillot-Boisset's double-decade resumé — you'll feel more awake, less lazy, and more prepared for anything that the course throws at you. Her advice is to come wielding a powerful, wide-reaching lamp. In her experience, the brighter the light is, the more your body believes it is daytime (and, hence, time to crush it).
Although you'll be trying to trick your mind into being more awake, Guillot-Boisset does warn against restricting sleep in the weeks and days leading up to a night run. Like any other race, you'll need to make sure that you get in the recommended amount of sleep every night to ensure proper recovery. That said, squeezing extra sleep in during the day to make room for preparatory runs during dark hours is optimal to fully understand what you're up against.
"It's good to train during the night just to be used to the conditions," she says. "During the night, everything is different. Your speed looks different — sometimes you think you're going really fast but you are not fast at all. You also don't have the same perception, so it's important to get that practice."
As for the sand element, both Guillot-Boisset and Fiore compare running on sand to running in heavy snow. Guillot-Boisset encourages flat-footed running — not digging in, or pushing too hard back against the sand because it is just too soft — and even forgetting your watch altogether (to not get bogged down by timing discrepancies), and Fiore cautions racers to practice, practice, practice running on any sand that they can find. But the most critical element is still the mental game.
"Get into that mentally of, 'I'm not going to quit at night,' because that's actually when most people do quit just from feeling tired," Fiore says. "Running on sand zaps your energy, which, of course, at nighttime is even worse. You just have to prepare yourself for the fact that the sun will rise eventually, and it will recharge you."
On the days leading up to the race, Fiore says to keep a steady course in terms of your diet. Don't deviate from what normally works for you and your body during a race, in order to avoid digestive disruption.
"Never try anything new on race day," he says. "If you have to, try out new things during your long training runs so that you know what your stomach can handle."
And even if it turns out that your stomach can't handle much at all, Guillot-Boisset explains that you shouldn't be worried. Your body will adapt to the energy that you use to fuel it.
"People are very afraid about nutrition, but it's important to know that when the sun is going down, your hormone system is going down also," she says. "Your body is not designed to digest during the night, so I never eat a lot during a night race. Just drink something with sugar for energy."
Speaking of energy, Fiore is an advocate for caffeine as a game changer for endurance athletes, especially during the night. He even has one all-time favorite fuel when out on the course.
"If you're a heavy coffee drinker, taper it down before the event because otherwise it probably won't do much for you during the event," he says. "I would go down to drinking no caffeine at all one to two weeks before the race, so if you take some espresso beans during the run, it's like jet fuel. My go-to is chocolate-covered espresso beans. It's amazing — five minutes later you feel like you're flying."
Whether you're planning on making the ultimate trip to Abu Dhabi to experience the iconic, first-ever Night Spartan Super, or plan on catching a night race in the future, make sure to get your mindset in check, stash up on espresso beans, and — for your own sake — pack your headlamps.