Iceland is truly one of the most beautiful yet harsh mistresses in the world when it comes to terrain. Obviously that made it the perfect choice for Spartan's first European 24 hour obstacle racing event. Lucky for us, we had Adam Jacobs chomping at the bit for this kind of punishment. Read his enthralling play-by-play below!
Earlier this year, the announcement came that Spartan would be entering the 24hr OCR arena competing with the likes of World’s Toughest Mudder and the upcoming 24 hour OCR World Championships event in Australia. Not only that, but they would be holding it in Iceland. In December. This was an event and an experience I did not want to miss for a number of reasons. Firstly, the location; Iceland is one of the most picturesque countries in the world and I have wanted to visit for years. Next, the chance to possibly see the Northern Lights, I mean who doesn’t want to see one of the true wonders of nature? And of course, I wanted to see what 24 hours of a Spartan race would be like, burpees and all.
The buildup started long before the event with the release of the mandatory kit list. This was not to be your everyday Spartan; this was something else entirely. The list read like a cross between a mountain expedition and large-scale point-to-point ultra, covering you for all eventualities. We also received details on how to book transfers to and from the event location, as no cars would be allowed on site. Spartan were a little lacking on the detail front regarding this though, with pickup locations not known until very late, leading to many competitors scrambling with last minute planning. The Spartan Iceland Facebook group allowed competitors to share information and help their fellow Spartans with all manner of queries. It was great to see the OCR community coming together to help each other in this way.
Very soon, the time rolled around for Amie and me to board our flight to Reykjavik, wearing our Dryrobes to save space in our hold bag and to ensure we would be warm when stepping off the plane. Our conspicuous appearance led to us meeting Raissa, who we adopted as our unofficial 5th teammate, on the plane. Arriving on Thursday allowed us time to settle in and orientate ourselves in the city prior to the mandatory pre-event briefing and registration which would be taking place on Friday. The house we were staying in not only housed our other teammates but two athletes who would by vying for the win in the Solo Elite category; Morgan McKay of Canada and Mark Jones of the USA, who you will hear some thoughts from later.
The briefing started with some true Icelandic motivation: we were all energised with multiple shouts of “WIKING” (not Viking!), with accompanying chest thumps and squat jumps. Following this we were told the rules of the event. There would be three categories, Solo Elite, Solo Open and Team, and the rules would differ slightly for each. On course there would be 3 types of obstacles, those with burpee penalties (30 before midnight, 15 after), those with penalty loops, which would consist of carries, runs or crawls, and mandatory obstacles. Burpees would work on an honour system at the obstacle for the open wave but the elites would have to carry an ‘Obstacle Passport’ which they would need to have stamped upon completion of the obstacle they would them have to perform any burpee penalties accrued at a adjudicated burpee zone at the end of each lap (meaning a potential 180 burpees in one hit for a full lap of failed obstacles). I liked how this was done as it meant that no burpees could be “miscounted” or skipped. Teams would also be working in a different way, teammates did not have to stay together for the entire 24 hours but did have to complete the first and last laps together meaning you had to set a time to meet in transition before your planned final lap. Mileage for teams would therefore be cumulative, adding each individual's distance together to determine the team total.
After some encouraging words from Joe De Sena and a showcase of the race bling, buckles and mileage patches, it was off to registration. Registration was efficient and quick with everyone being issued their race vest (with reflective patches to been seen easily in the dark) and timing chip. I was surprised that at this point there wasn’t a check on the mandatory kit to ensure that everyone had it all.
On Friday night the house was abuzz with talk of what we could expect out on course, kit choices and transition food planning. The highlight was Morgan’s interpretation of the required waterproof gloves -a pair of yellow rubber gloves that had everyone rolling with laughter.
After an early night the morning came around swiftly and we all packed on to transfer coaches headed to the venue, which lay about an hour outside of Reykjavik in Hveragerdi. Arriving at the Dome, which would serve as the event village and transition area, we were immediately greeted with the Bridge to Sparta sitting atop two shipping containers, which we would have to cross at the end of each lap. Inside the Dome, the anticipation was building with a palpable energy among those waiting to test themselves against 24 hours of Icelandic terrain, weather and Spartan obstacles. The event village itself though was underwhelming for an event of this scale with only 2 small food stands, some Icelandic souvenirs and no Spartan merchandise or bar. It would be a long 24 hours for any crewmembers or those that dropped early. After some time setting out our transition area making sure food and clothing changes were easily accessible, it was time to head off to the stage for a uniquely Icelandic pre race warm up. Led by an Icelandic Viking as wide as he was tall, shouts went up to Thor, Odin, Freya and Loki and all were met by swigs of mead from a horn before he showered those at the front with the remaining contents. Then we were ready; led outside to start our 24 odyssey through wind, rain, snow and ice.
The race started with a gentle 5k prologue through the small town of Hveragerdi leaving many locals bemused at the sight of hundreds of Spartans running down their usually serene streets. This amble would count to any overall mileage totals and was a good way to break up the pack before hitting the course proper and avoid any congestion at obstacles. The weather really closed in during the prologue and I was beginning to regret my decision to start without my waterproof pants as my tights were holding off the wind before being soaked through by the rain. Towards the end of the 5k and heading back towards the transition dome, we were confronted with the Spartan course for the first time. Sticking as a team with our adopted Spartan Raissa, we set out onto the mountain.
The course started with a little wooden bridge crossing a small geothermal stream and the beginnings of the ascent. The wind was really picking up and causing the rain to attack us horizontally, which made progress hard going. A ready built sternum checker greeted us in the form of a water / steam pipe which, in the conditions, was slick and slippery. For the first lap, the monkey bars and twister were closed to further break up the pack and ensure no bottlenecks. A quick succession of obstacles followed with new favourite Bender, a vertical cargo net and Spartans unique Icelandic take on the farmers carry. We had two frozen blocks of ice to carry rather than the traditional sand buckets or logs. I felt this was a great bit of innovation that helped give a unique feel to the event. Following on from this, we encountered the climb for the first time: over 700m we gained over 160 meters of elevation, bouldering as a part of my training really helped here as at a number of points, there was no option but to grip with your hands and pull yourself up the slope. It was a struggle in daylight with the wind and the rain and we were going to have to tackle this multiple times in the dark, as there would only be 5 hours of daylight throughout the entire race.
Once at the top we were greeted with a beautiful view back over the town, and ahead of us everything was covered in snow. The terrain was constantly changing underfoot due to the nature of the mountain itself and the constant barrage of rain, which was quickly turning to snow. This was a great section to make time on due to the lack of obstacles but you had to be careful on the descents, as there were patches of ice waiting to catch out those not paying attention. The terrain was a fantastic combination of loose rock, snow, ice, soft grass and mud, and I loved being able to open my stride on the downhill (always my favourite part of trail running). Where others were inching down on bums and hands I was letting my legs go, jumping and sliding with each step, possibly scaring those I was hurtling past. This may not have been the smartest thing having just come back from an ankle injury, but the Roclite 325s I was wearing had great ankle support and the grip never failed.
Obstacles began to appear thick and fast once down from the summit, the elements again making simple challenges such as climbing a rope far more difficult (ski gloves and frozen ropes don’t play nicely). Sandbags that have been rained on for the best part of six hours before being frozen solid were awkward to carry as they wouldn’t form to your shoulders and were far heavier than the advertised 60lbs. The number of orphaned sandbags directly after the midway timing mat was disappointing to see but at least they weren’t lonely. There were two of these carries on course alongside Bucket Brigade, none were short and none were flat and all appeared just as you were wanting a break - perfect course planning from the team to keep it challenging. All the while, the terrain kept us on our toes. There were constant shouts of “ICE!” echoing through hills warning those behind that someone ahead had just found out the hard way. The Dome seemed to taunt you from about two thirds of the way through the lap, tricking you into thinking you were nearly at transition before dropping into the distance again on multiple occasions. When it finally came into view for the last time you were met with a tough sequence of final obstacles - all taxing the upper body. Once again, Iceland decided it needed its own unique take on a Spartan staple: the bags for the hoist were quite literally frozen to the floor. I could not get mine to budge, so 30 burpees for me before swinging across the rings and taking the route into transition.
Once into transition, our carefully made plans from the night before were swiftly torn up, nothing that we planned had prepared us for quite how challenging the combination of weather, terrain and Spartans build crew would be. A change of socks, leggings and the addition of my waterproof pants meant I had my kit ready for lap 2, before heading back out into the storm. Though I needed to eat, on the menu was biltong, Jon Albon’s favourite Rice Krispy squares and my own secret weapon of squeezy condensed milk (seriously guys, try it). Many people were dropping out after the first lap and the area was already filling with people huddled in Dryrobes and sleeping bags, either finished for the day or attempting to wait out the storm.
Heading out for lap 2 I thought I knew what to expect and that I would be better prepared than I was when first encountering this beast of a course. I was wrong. The weather had taken a turn for the worse while in transition and what was wind and rain was now a full on blizzard with snow whipping all around. This would also be the first lap in the dark with just our headlamps to guide us, so concentration needed to be high to ensure we kept our footing. This made the Atlas Stones very awkward, but I must admit that I am a fan of the stones, and there is more to them than brute strength and I think they make for a perfect Spartan obstacle. In the blizzard, obstacles like the monkey bars and Twister were only being completed by those with the best grip strength as wet bars and cold hands joined forces to keep the burpee quota high. Twister in particular caused issues as I think the bar was attempting to freeze in position and where it normally smoothly rotates it had to be pulled round with each progression.
Lap 2 felt like a completely different race and venue: sections of trail that were previously solid underfoot had become muddy marshland and vice versa. There was also far more ice on course than in the first lap where the rain had frozen in pools on any gravel surfaces and entire stretches of trail had become little more than ice rinks to slide along. This became a theme; each lap being a totally different experience to the last, never being able to predict with any certainty how the terrain ahead would be. The steep ascent would continue to be the most challenging aspect of the course, especially once it began to freeze over. Rather than switch to the short course, which had been mentioned in the Friday briefing, Spartan sent out brave members of their team with ropes and spikes to aid people in their journey up the mountain.
The sections that weren’t frozen over were loose underfoot and I felt sorry for the one or two people I saw taking this on in road shoes.
The undoubted highlight of the night time laps was at around 1:30am when after a few hours of calm we had gotten a chance to dry out. The clouds gave way to clear skies, and those that had braved the dark were treated to a stunning sight as the bright greens and purples of the Northern Lights danced across the sky. Time almost stood still as every racer in view stopped where they were and stared in awe at the beautiful show. A moment like this is something that will live with me, and with all those who braved that mountain during those early hours, forever. Running by headlamp through stunning scenery, with friends old and new, under one of the great wonders of our natural world stripped away all aches gained over the previous hours and miles.
I entered transition for the final time just after 5am, the plan being to regroup before heading out again at 6:30 to complete our final lap together as per the rules. Many people had already dropped out by this point, but some were waking from sleep ready to get in one more lap, and to cross the line after 9am to become an official finisher. That final lap was a time to enjoy the surroundings for the last time, watch a beautiful golden sunrise, stick one final spear throw and cross the finish line arm in arm to bring an end to an epic race. After crossing the line it was a little disappointing not to be greeted immediately with your finishers medal but instead directed inside the dome to the results tent where they would check your data and then give you the relevant reward. The swag was worth the wait though - a heavy belt buckle the size of my hand engraved with the location and date for those completing over 30 miles and the new purple Spartan Ultra medal for those finishing after 9. All four of us received both, with a team total of 141.61 miles, which we later found out placed us 3rd in the team event so we may all yet be receiving a shiny Spartan Iceland plaque too.
After the event, there was confusion over a number of results as the weather had played havoc with the timing systems. Luckily there were backups and plenty of people in the pit area keeping tabs on leaders’ positions. The podium ceremony felt a little lacklustre for an event of this scale with no presentations of cheques or plaques for the winners and a small crowd due to most racers scurrying for buses which had been brought forward by 90 minutes, leaving late finishers little time to change, pack up transition and get to the right transfer. There was some confusion on the men’s podium with 2nd and 3rd place in the wrong position, which was swiftly rectified later in the day when results were finalised. This explained why the full presentation didn’t take place to - ensure everything was correct.
Launching a new 24-hour format in the middle of an Icelandic winter was a huge undertaking for Spartan. There were issues with communication in the lead up to the event, the transfers to and from the venue were a source of confusion for many and since these were compulsory due to no parking being allowed at the venue then they ought to have been included in the race ticket. The marshals and volunteers on course deserve immense credit. They were upbeat and implemented the rules well throughout their rotating shifts, but it did seem they were a little short in this department. It would be great to see some more friendly Mudstacleites out there next year - the reward of an Iceland sprint ticket, Iceland clothing and a trifecta pass will cover the cost of your flights and who knows, you may get to see the Northern Lights! The issues with timing and live coverage were out of Spartan’s control with the weather crashing drones and killing timing boxes, but this was dealt with professionally and issues resolved swiftly. The course, obstacles and experience during those 24 hours absolutely delivered. Mike Morris and his team deserve immense credit for designing a course that flowed and challenged in equal measure while dealing with extreme conditions and a very tight schedule. I have not taken part in a more challenging or rewarding race; this is a totally unique beast and I count myself lucky to have been a part of it. When the opportunity comes around again, I recommend you start saving for this experience of a lifetime. I have no doubt when they return it will be even better than this inaugural event.
I asked Morgan Mckay (winner of the women’s 24hr event) what her thoughts on the event were; “I would describe the race as epic, racing in Iceland was so unique. Battling the extreme weather and terrain made it very challenging. It was a true obstacle course, with lots of challenging obstacles and heavy carries. I loved it!”
If any of you are still reading and are interesting in what gear I used over the 5 laps, here is the full break down:
- Marena Sport compression tights x 2 (1 lap and 4 laps)
- Marena Sport compression vest (worn full 24 hours)
- Inov8 Merino wool long sleeve AT/C base layer (24 hours)
- Inov8 Stormshell waterproof (24 hours)
- Inov8 All Terrain Pro Vest
- Inov8 Roclite 325 (24 hours)
- Darn Tough Merino Wool socks x 3
- Kaisike Waterproof pants (4 laps)
- Trail toes (foot care before and during race)
Look out for the second part of our Spartan Iceland 24 Coverage next week: an interview with the dastardly minds behind this awesome endurance event.