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Iceland Spartan Ultra World Championships

I can confirm that Iceland is cold, really, really cold, especially when you are clinging to the side of a mountain in the wee small hours.  I can also confirm that Iceland is as beautiful as it is harsh, the scenery is monumental, to say the least.

The Spartan Ultra World Championships would be my final race of 2018, a fitting end to a very busy season.  It would also be my first 24-hour race, and as inaugurations go, it was a doozy.  The race format was simple, start at midday and complete as many ~10km laps as possible in 24 hours, however, with sub-zero temperatures, snow, biting winds, 300 meters of altitude gain on terrain that challenged the strongest of runners plus 25 of Spartans favourite obstacles per lap, it was not going to be an easy task (don’t just take my word for it read Jon Albon’s write up here).

Spartan held a “mandatory” briefing at the Harpa in Reykjavik on the Friday before the race and despite the waffle and chest beating there was a lot of good information about the event and the rules thereof.  That being said, there was nothing that had not already been covered by the rule book, which I’d read at least six times.  After the briefing, it was packet pick up, a final meal and back to the hotel for a night of kit preparation and panic; as always I had more kit than was practicable yet in my mind I’d only brought the bare minimum.  For those that care here is a breakdown, feel free to skip ahead, this will be dull.

  • Inov-8 X-Talon Ultra shoes (I love these)
  • RatRace merino socks
  • Rooster Hot Socks over-socks
  • Sub Sports compression shorts
  • Sub Sports running tights
  • Decathlon base layer
  • Merino mid layer
  • Inov-8 weatherproof shell
  • OMM waterproof trousers
  • Sub Sports beanie
  • Buff
  • Rooster AquaPro gloves
  • Age Group Vest – Pink, customised and very fetching

Survival Kit, Fuel and Spares – Carried throughout the race

  • Rat Race pack
  • Rat Race liner gloves
  • Salomon over mittens
  • Black Diamond head-torch x 2
  • Rear red flashing light x 1
  • Glow stick x 2
  • Bloc snow glasses
  • Bivy bag
  • Emergency whistle
  • Medi-kit
  • Salomon hydration bladder
  • Small dry-bag
  • Travel glasses
  • Spare buff
  • Naked bars x 2
  • Pip & Nut sachets x 4
  • Caffeine Bullet pack
  • Heat pack
  • Lip balm

Fuel and Supplies

  • Mountain Fuel sachets x 4
  • Recovery Fuel sachets x 1
  • Fire Pot dried meals x 3
  • Tent Meals dried meals x 3
  • Naked bars x 10
  • Fuel peanut butter sachet x 1
  • Pip & Nut sachets x 15
  • Potato crisps
  • Collapsible cup
  • Spork
  • Mixer bottle
  • Caffeine Bullet pack
  • Codeine
  • KT Tape
  • Tissue
  • Hand towel
  • Charging cables and power pack
  • Spare batteries
  • Glow sticks x 2
  • Foot lube
  • Heat packs x 5

Clean Clothing and Spares

  • Inov-8 Mudclaws
  • 1000 Mile and Rat Race socks
  • Sealskinz waterproof socks
  • Rooster PolyPro socks
  • Sub Sports compression shorts
  • Sub Sports running tights
  • Sub Sports mid layer
  • OMM smock
  • Virus beanie
  • Buffs
  • Bleggmits
  • Dry Robe
  • Towel

Somehow, all of the above excluding the Dry Robe but including clean post-race clothes fitted in two TARDIS like KitBrix, still amazed how much you can fit in these bags.

The race took place in Hveragerði, a small town forty minutes east of Reykjavik, at last years event Spartan had arranged shuttle buses from Reykjavik, but after feedback, this was not repeated for 2018.  Competitors had to find their way to Hveragerði and use allocated parking sites, a bus then shuttled folk from two pick up points to the venue, Hamarshöllin a couple of kilometres further up the valley.  It was all very well organised and efficient, so a good start to the day.

Once at the venue racers were directed to what can only be described as a marshmallow the size of a small football pitch that through the use of air pressure and airlocks provided a dry and heated environment for the racers and their supporters.  The inside of the “dome” was split into three sections, a central festival area with a stage and food stalls plus two transition zones, one for the elites and one for the open and age group athletes.  As an age grouper, I found a table with space for my gear, took note of which row I was in and proceeded to get race ready.  Eeek.

At 11:15 the pre-race briefing began, and sh*t started to get real.  The race would start at 12:00 with a prelude five-kilometre race through Hveragerði, this would give the pack time to space out and very importantly, warmup.   After a rousing Viking ceremony we were led en masse to the start line where after a rendition of the Icelandic national anthem we were given a sending off by Spartan Phil, who deserves a medal for braving the cold in his traditional Spartan outfit.

One last Aroo and we were on our way, trotting through the town, avoiding the patches of black ice and compacted snow, dodging the occasional motorist who had no idea why 400 people dressed in purple, pink and black vests were running through the town.  The prelude came and went, and we were soon back at the venue heading towards to official start of the course.

The course was split into two halves; the first section consisted of climbing / scrambling over scree, rocks, snow and ice while on an average incline of forty degrees.  Thankfully Spartan has installed ropes; so you didn’t have to rely on digging your toes and fingers into the snow to gain traction.  I have to say this was my favourite section of the course, just like being in the Peak District in the winter.  After the ascent, the ground levelled out, and we got to spend the next kilometre or so running across a snow-covered plateau.  Later in the race when all light had faded this section was a joy; just you, a snow field and the odd glow stick for company, bliss.

Once across the plateau, it was a steep descent through a wooded section; this was perhaps the most hazardous part of the course as the trail was nothing but roots and ice if it weren’t for the ropes installed by Spartan this stretch of the course would have been impossible.  Many folks took a tumble here, some serious enough to end their races, later, around 1 AM traction devices were permitted on this descent, in my opinion, his should have been done much earlier.

Out of the trees, it was a short jog to the first proper obstacle, the sandbag carry.  The carry wasn’t too bad, same weight as usual (60 lb or ~27 kg for the non-imperialists) and the terrain only undulated but with half of the sandbags being frozen solid, picking the right one was key to a “comfortable” carry.  On lap three I learned a valuable lesson, elites will steal your bag if you take your eyes off it, damn you, Mr Atkins.   From this point on it was like running a very compact Spartan Super, the obstacles came thick and fast, which for the nerds were as follows:

  • Olympus – With added frost just to make it extra fun
  • Ice Carry – Farmers walk with two bucket-sized lumps of ice
  • Bender – Up and over, frozen ground made the return to earth more challenging
  • Barbwire Crawl – Grass was soft on lap one, not so after that.
  • Vertical Cargo Net – Easy in the daylight, more care required in the dark
  • Tyrolean Traverse – Fail this one, and the penalty fairy would be paying you a visit
  • Rope Climb – Surprisingly challenging when wearing waterproof over trousers
  • Bucket Carry – Heavy as always
  • Vertical Cargo Net – as before, just the other way around
  • Bender –  evoba ees
  • Atlas Carry – Pick up a heavy, icebound stone ball and carry it somewhere else, do burpees, then bring it back, great fun
  • Multi Rig – Rig hung with rings, which despite being dry felt very slick, a bonus of a penalty if you messed up

After the rig, it was a stumble through the darkness to the A-Frame we had passed under at the start of the lap.  One point to note here is that the lower ground was dissected by several geothermal streams and as the race progressed the warmth from this created marsh like condition, so whereas five kilometres earlier you were up to your knees in powdered snow, now you risked sinking to the same depth in mud and water, not many chances for dry feet on this course.  Following the A-Frame was the second Sandbag Carry, same weight as before but the terrain was awful.  Steep, rocky and frozen in places, it was at the summit of this carry, on lap four that the race strategy shifted.

Dropping the sandbags and following the edge of a river, we scrambled over rocks and small tributaries to the next two obstacles, Twister and Spear Throw, both of which we penalty earners.  Twister should have been a breeze as it was shorter than usual, two sections rather than the usual three but the sub-zero temperatures and wind chill meant that bare hands on aluminium were going to be a painful affair.

After a quickly replacing at least one glove it was time to heft a spear, laps one and three were perfect examples of a hunter-gatherer, laps two and four not so.  No additional lighting on lap two and high winds on lap four; or perhaps I just suck at Spear Throw.

Last year from this point the course headed back to the venue, with the chance of warmth and food, not so in 2018.  The route headed out on to an old lava field looping around the back of the event village; the ground was incredibility rough underfoot, a mixture of moss beds and rocks, with the odd bush thrown in for good measure.  In the midst of this alien landscape, Spartan had placed a three-metre high lattice wall, not a problem so long as you were very careful about where you put your feet on the descent.  After more unworldly terrain we dropped onto some man-made trails that took us to the final obstacles, the Plate Drag, Hercules Hoist and the Cargo Bridge.

The Plate Drag was simple, drag a large steel pan filled with two 25kg bags of cement ten meters, then haul it back to the start position using an attached rope, just what you need before the Hercules Hoist.  As the final penalty obstacle the hoist can be very challenging to those that have tired hands or weigh less than 70 kg, thankfully I’m heavy enough and strong enough not to mess this one up, but I do admit to using my feet to anchor the rope while my grip returned.

Finally, it was up and over the Cargo Bridge and into the Burpee Pit.

One point I’ve omitted so far are the penalties and given that there is a fair bit to say on the matter I’ll refer you to the SPARTAN ULTRA WORLD CHAMPIONSHIP COMPETITOR GUIDE & RULES document.

But in summary, there were six penalty obstacles, failure of which meant burpees.  Age groups and Elites carried a burpee passport, which was stamped after each successful attempt, no stamp equalled thirty burpees (or fifteen after midnight).  At the end of each lap, you entered the Burpee Pit where your passport was checked, and you were instructed as to the number of burpees required before you could complete the lap.  My worst lap was sixty burpees after slipping on Olympus and missing the Spear throw. However, I did witness one poor chap from Mexico pushing through one hundred and fifty burpees after a particularly bad day at the office.  Once you had paid your penance, it was a set of irregular monkey bars before heading back to the dome or calling it a day and heading over the finish.

I mentioned that there was a strategy in place, this was indeed the case, and it had goals, three to be precise.

Goal One – Get the Ultra medal, this meant covering thirty miles in the 24 hours.  At Friday’s briefing Spartan kindly announced that this would be four laps, including the prelude.

Goal Two – Get the 24-hour finishers medal, this meant meeting goal one, being on course for fifteen hours and finishing the last lap between 9 AM and 12 PM.

Goal Three – Get the fifty-mile patch, confirmed as eight laps.

The intention was to reach goal one as fast as possible, then depending on the physical impact of these four laps it would be either rest and do one more lap starting around 7 AM and so qualify for the 24-hour medal, or if things were going push for all three goals.  It was clear that by the start of lap three that fifty miles were not going to happen, so focus shifted to goals one and two.  Due to an old injury on my part and a recurrent chest issue for my running mate, our pace had slowed, so much so that we did not start lap four until 11 PM, we were very much off the pace and starting to feel the elements.  After the main climb, we pushed along taking each challenge as they arrived. However, I’ll be honest; I was not enjoying myself anymore.  The last sandbag carries hurt, and I was getting cold; time to make some decisions.

Catching our breath at the top of the sandbag carry it was an easy call to make, this was our last lap.  If I’m not enjoying something I stop, I’m not one to suffer just for the sake of it, just the small question of getting to the finish line in one piece and without too many burpees.

We finished the race as we started, together, with all our limbs and some semblance of our sanity, it was 2:30 AM, time to collect the bling and get some rest.

Would I do it again?  Yes, but not in 2019, Iceland is expensive, and it will take some time to fill the hole in the Ward finances.

Did I get the kit right? Almost.

  • My base and mid layers should all have been merino as the human-made fabrics did not wick well enough and on some occasions I found myself steeped in my juices.
  • I only used two pairs of socks, next time I’ll still have too many, but I’d rather have warm feet than cold toes.
  • I had too much food, I’d planned on a meal of 400 kCal between each lap with 200 kCal of nut butter and a Nakd bar midway through the lap.  Doing only four laps meant that none of the Fire Pot meals was consumed and only half the Tent Meals were hydrated and gobbled down, that being said what I did eat, went down very well and stayed where it was supposed to.
  • I got dehydrated on lap 2, the prelude to lap 1 and the immediate hill climb and end of lap burpees created more perspiration than I realised.
  • I should have used my Bleggmits, the Rooster gloves were great but my hands chilled very quickly and the gloves, once damp through sweating were awkward to remove for obstacles.

How do I feel about only meeting goal 1?  Slightly annoyed at myself for stopping, but I know it was the right call, too many things could have gone wrong on a fifth lap.

Almost all images copyright Spartan Race, Inc

Get The Details On

Iceland Spartan Ultra World ChampionshipsOCR Review

Event Website
When Was The Event?
8th December 2018
Was This A Qualification Race?

Your Reviewer

Richard "Itch" Ward
Reviewed By
Richard “Itch” Ward
About The Reviewer
Richard was born in the late 60’s, the consequence of a chance encounter between a one-handed truck driver and a Catholic. He finds being described as an athlete vexing.
What Age Group Was I In?
Type Of Competitor
Was This My First Time At This Event?
Read More By Richard “Itch” Ward

Quick Overview

After a successful inaugural event in 2017, Spartan is returning to magical Iceland. The atmosphere of last year's event was electric and our race directors are hard at work planning a new 2018 course, full of Ultra-worthy challenges.

Value For Money
The Pros
Incredible Terrain
Heated Transition Area
Quality Of Food Stalls
The Cons
Cost - very expensive

Event Location

Hamarshöllin, Vorsabæjarvöllur 810, Hveragerði

Booking The Event

How far In Advance Did I Book?
3 months before
What Discount Did I get?
21% - 30%
How Easy Was It To Book?
Book Your Ticket Now

The Event Arena / Village

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Rate The Buzz Around The Event Arena
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The Event Facilities

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Rate The Toilets
Rate The Showers
Was There A Bag Drop?
Was There A Changing Tent?

The Swag

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No Swag Bag%

The Course

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Was The Event Timed?
Was There Water On The Course?
Did I Need To Be Able To Swim?
Where There Bouyancy Aids Available?
What Was The Maximum Depth Of The Water?
Up to 1 Metres
Types Of Terrain On The Course?
Water Crossing
Natural Obstacles
Man Made Obstacles

The Obstacles

Rate The Quality Of The Obstacles
How Many Obstacles Where There?
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Where There Any Compulsory Obstacles?
What Was The Standard Of Mud?
Where There Any High Obstacles?
What Was The Maximum Height In Metres?
4 metres
Did I Need A Harness?
What Types Of Carries Where There?
Unique Carries