Think of the most challenging feat you've ever attempted. Imagine the excruciating (yet insanely satisfying) pain of pushing past comfort and through completion, the overwhelming pride you feel from finishing the seemingly impossible, and the immense newfound motivation in knowing that you truly can do anything you put your mind (and body) to. Now imagine that feeling for a full, uninterrupted 24 hours.
The 2021 Spartan Ultra World Championship, Powered by Rakuten, will be the hardest 24 hours of your life, but it will also be the most rewarding. And for the first time EVER, it's coming to the United States.
Held Oct. 9-11 at the Telluride Ski Resort in Mountain Village, Colo., the championship that Spartan CEO Joe De Sena calls "the most grueling event of the season" will put racers to the ultimate test on the longest loop in Ultra World Championship history (10 miles), with each loop featuring more than 4,000 feet of vertical elevation. Starting that Sunday at 10 a.m., Spartans from across the globe will embark on what is — for many of them — the most ambitious athletic journey of their lives, conquering some of the most intense signature Spartan obstacles (including the Tyrolean Traverse, the Stairway to Sparta, The Box, and more).
The views will be breathtaking, but the weather will be unpredictable, the climbs will be unforgiving, the terrain will be intensely technical, and — for a good portion of the race — it will be completely dark. As racers battle it out to see who can sustain the most laps within the allotted sleepless time period (and share more than $35,000 in prize money), they'll challenge their physical and mental thresholds to the very limit and find out exactly what they're made of.
The Spartan UWC is not for the faint of heart, strength, or will. But thankfully, it's not uncharted territory. Spartan SGX Coach and Spartan Mexican ambassador Isabel Zamora, who has received first- and second-place medals in nearly 10 races ranging from 20 to 69 kilometers since 2017, qualified for the 2021 UWC Elite heat at the 2019 Spartan Ultra 50K in Guadalajara, when she took first place.
"I am really excited to see the date for the Ultra World Championship approaching," Zamora says. "I know I am better at endurance than speed, and I am looking forward to seeing how my body will react to this scenario. I know that if I prepare and take care of my body, it will take care of me. I am up for the challenge."
If anyone knows the secret to running the most efficient Ultra, it's Zamora. Here are her five hacks to not just survive, but conquer the most challenging day of your life.
What Do You Need to Run an Ultra Race?
1. A Watch
Though some racers may prefer running by effort, Zamora says that a running watch is one of the most important pieces of equipment that Ultra runners should have in their race-day arsenal, and not just for mileage pacing.
"My watch allows me to work on predictions that help me to stay focused during the race," she says. "It also helps me check my pace to see if I need to step out of my comfort zone or slow down. In such long races, time flies — five hours feels like one hour. In these moments, you realize that time is relative to what you are doing. This is very good for your pace, but I have to make an extra effort to not miss a gel or a meal."
By staying on top of how much time has passed, you can plan your fueling schedule accordingly so your body can sustain hours upon hours of relentless running.
2. Footwear With Room for Swollen Toes
"For any race your equipment is important, but for an Ultra, the right equipment can make or ruin your race," Zamora says.
Her personal favorite is the Spartan by Altra King MT 2.0 Trail Running Shoe, which she's put thousands of miles on since 2018. After Zamora lost six toenails in a past race, she switched to the Altra due to its exceptional spaciousness. And she's getting a lot of use out of them these days: Zamora is currently running 20 miles twice a day to prepare for the upcoming championship.
"They are light, durable, and have plenty of space for my toes," she says. "Once you have been running for a couple of hours your feet tend to swell up, and you need that extra space on your shoes."
3. Adequate Course Fuel
Nutrition, Zamora says, is the most important component of your race — not pacing, not what you wear, not even your training. Though this might be surprising, it makes sense when you consider the sheer amount of energy you'll burn by running dozens of miles.
"Your body is such an amazing machine, but the fuel you give it will make all of the difference," she says.
If you're training for an Ultra, you understand the proper pre-race fueling and hydration techniques necessary in the months, weeks, and days leading up to the race. But not everyone is quite as clear on how to carry that existing knowledge into an intra-race plan. Plus, not everyone likes (or can stomach) gels for 24 hours straight. In that case, Zamora suggests one underrated form of fuel: potatoes.
"Potatoes are one of the best snacks and recovery meals I have tried," she says. "I tried it first in Don Diablo in La Paz, Mexico. I had 10K left in my race, and everything in my body was hurting. I was so tired of eating gels, and when I got to one of the water stations, they had boiled potatoes that you could dip in a little bit of butter and salt. That's what gave me that extra energy to finish strong and keep on fighting for that first-place medal."
In short, pack potatoes.
4. Emergency and Precautionary Supplies
Zamora says that as a thrill seeker, a grueling, hours-long race through the mountains by daylight and moonlight — no matter the weather — is exactly the right amount of adventure. But even with a vast amount of experience under her belt, the course is unpredictable. You'll never truly know what you're getting yourself into until you've conquered it, so ensuring your safety remains a top priority.
A few items that Zamora won't hit the trails without include:
- Tape, in case she twists an ankle
- Band-aids, in the event of blisters
- A headlamp, which is required for nighttime races, but not provided at the start line
- A thermic blanket
- A whistle
- A fully-charged cell phone
If it appears like most of these supplies resemble wilderness survival equipment, good — that's exactly what they are. The reality of any Ultra course is that it's rugged and, though clearly marked, getting lost is not out of the question if you're stuck in your head instead of out on the course.
"I have gotten lost a few times and I remember thinking, 'Either I am running super fast or I just totally missed a turn,' which, in the mountains, is very possible," Zamora says. "During a 50K in Hueytamalco, Mexico, we had to follow the orange signs, so I kept on repeating in my head, 'Orange, orange.' After five hours of running and trying to catch up to the person in first place, I suddenly realized that I was following the orange leaves on the orange trees — not the signs.
"I had missed a turn and gotten lost. I was able to get back on track, but I got a taste for what the mind will do to you when you get lost in your thoughts."
5. Mountain Lungs, Legs, Mind, and Heart
It probably goes without saying that attempting the Telluride Ultra without a long track record of optimized training is not a good idea. Every racer should be showing up with what Zamora calls her triad: physical, mental, and emotional strength. For her, that requires acclimating months in advance and getting her mind and motivation sorted for easy access on the trail.
"I've recently spent one week in El Nevado de Toluca doing altitude training," she says. "It was hard on my legs and my lungs, running uphill at 15,354 feet of altitude, but it was beautiful. It is critical to study the race terrain. You will always learn something in every single race. I am always open-minded and humbled by the mountain. I am excited for my teachings of the day. This helps me to deal with the unexpected."
Consider the added challenge of running straight through the night and, as Zamora likes to say, you've got a metaphor for life. She says that the only step you need to see is your next one, so focusing on one step after another will be key, along with trusting your body and your motivations.
"There will be a point in your race where your legs will be running empty, but that is where your 'why' will come to save the day," she says. "At that point you will be running with your heart, so make sure that you're not only training your legs, but also your mind and emotions. I keep a drawing that my kids made for me close by during the race, to make sure that I stay focused on what matters. And be ready, because an experience like the Ultra World Championship will surely change your life."
The 2021 Spartan Ultra World Championship is right around the corner! Now is the perfect time to experience the Everyday Spartans series from Rakuten Sports. Follow 7 ordinary people on 1 extraordinary journey to become champions. Watch Episode 1 here.