Inside Look at Spartan Race Big Bear Winner Johnny Luna-Lima

Courtesy of Johnny Luna-Lima

Johnny Luna-Lima finished up the barbed-wire crawl, jogged toward the finish line, leaped up in the air and let out a ferocious double fist pump in celebration. He had just won the fourth race in the Spartan US National Series at Big Bear Lake, California, on a rugged and unrelenting mountain with steep climbs and blazing descents. He gave a few aw-shucks interviews and soaked in the adoration from those close by, but it was clear to everyone watching that this guy was making a statement. This win was no fluke, and he’s arguably one of the favorites to win the World Championship in Lake Tahoe this September.

If you were shocked by the results of the Big Bear Beast, then you haven’t been following the sport closely enough. Lima has been putting in quality work for a few years now and has a truly balanced and holistic approach to endurance athletics. (This season he has finished 7th, 14th, 4th, and 1st in the National Series races.)

Johnny grew up playing competitive soccer at the age of four – and didn’t stop until he was 19. He had aspirations of becoming a professional soccer player and worked tirelessly at the pursuit of his dream. (This is a thread that runs through all of his pursuits.) A younger Lima trained two hours a day, honing skills and building a strong fitness engine. It’s easy to get burned out on one particular sport, though, and after high school, it was time to try something new. His dad is a marathoner, so he watched closely as his mentor pursued long-distance races over many years. Johnny eventually took a crack at a half marathon his senior year of high school and ran a very impressive 1:20!

The talent was there, but he had developed many overuse injuries – everything from stress fractures to muscle strains – and kept getting hurt during his early 20s. Here was a young kid who ate clean, kept his running volume low, and looked after himself – and he still couldn’t avoid the injury bug.

Instead of being stubborn and banging his head against the wall– like many talented athletes tend to do– Johnny decided to pivot a bit.  He went to visit with Dr. Justin Brink at Premier Spine and Sport in San Jose, California on numerous occasions, and slowly learned that in order for the human body to work well and sustain high stress over a long period of time, he had to have all the bases covered. That might sound a tad generalized, but for him, this meant seeking out the expertise of a few coaches.

Enter elite OCR athlete Ian Hosek and multi-faceted specialist Taylor Kruse. To have Johnny tell it, each coach serves a specific purpose for him. “Think of Ian as being the engineer who tunes an engine to be able to move quickly and efficiently,” he told me in a recent interview. “Taylor is the mechanic that makes sure the car’s wheels are rolling smoothly; the brakes are working and that the engine can cool off well.”

Hosek has an insatiable work ethic and a desire to learn more about running, so he was a great fit for Lima’s lifestyle. He has taught Johnny how to train smart to attain his desired level of fitness. “[Ian] programs his run training according to heart rate zones, which for me is important since I do not come from a running background; this is helping me bridge the learning curve that comes with running.”

Then, Lima realized he wanted to find someone who shared a similar mindset with him regarding the movement of the human body and keeping it healthy and balanced long term—or as he put it much more succinctly, “the diversification of stress and movement the body needs in order to function well.”

Kruse comes with a breadth of knowledge in this area, and although he’s hiding out in the White Mountains of New Hampshire and not a household name, he’s a smart guy who brings a lot to the table for any elite or standard athlete. Hearing Lima talk about this crucial piece of the puzzle was very illuminating. He really cares about this shit and it shows.

“The body is meant to move constantly in a wide variety of directions with different loads,” Lima went on. “Embody that and integrate that into your training and I promise you will be a healthier and happier human being.”

Kruse has helped him take care of the body in many different ways, including mobility and strength exercises that keep his feet, ankles, knees, and hips happy. Durability, as he’s learned at a very young age, is not a given. He will balance out his training with running on varied terrains in addition to climbing and scrambling adventures. This is a life-long pursuit, so he’s doing great at making it an enjoyable process.

He told me he meditates daily as well, which is a practice many elite athletes adhere to. (I can just picture him sitting in the mountains, Headspace or Calm playing in his ears, setting the stage for a busy day to come.)

Lima currently resides in Boulder, Colorado, which he described as a “mecca for training.” Whether he wants to run steep technical trails, flat sections, or just climb easily in the beautiful Colorado Mountains, he has it all at his disposal.  His two favorite cross-training methods are Skimo in the winter and mountain biking in the summer.

“I train so that I can move through the mountains and explore,” he told me. “The fitter I am the quicker I can move through the mountains. I’d say that’s what really motivates me to train. Racing is a great way to test you and keep yourself honest and learn more about yourself… plus I enjoy it and am super competitive!”

The refreshing aspect is that, like his running coach Hosek, he wants to continue to learn more and more about endurance sports and his body within that arena. He currently lives with Andy Wackers, a pro-Nike Trail runner, who just finished eighth in the US 25k road running championships and has a 63-min half marathon PR. Running with a guy like that twice a week only enhances his ability to train smart and learn more about the sport.  He looks up to and admires Atkins, Jon Albon, and Kilian Jornet and Ryan Woods, all mountain-running legends that dominate in their respective sports and also have balanced training regimens that they’ve turned into a way of life. Woods, in particular, has been very helpful to Lima over the years, selflessly lending him advice and hard-earned wisdom.

The win at Big Bear was no temporary blip on the radar, and it’s exciting to see where Lima goes from here. Whether it’s taking down the beast at Tahoe, or toeing the line with the best Sky Runners in the world this year across seas, he’s built an amazingly coherent and studied approach. “My career as an athlete is a work in progress and is just beginning, what is working for me now may change in the future. I by no means have everything figured out and I am still learning a lot about how to train, my body, running and racing. I am excited to see what else is in store for me!”