Spartan goes to Iceland and brings back a new race format

What Was that Spartan in Iceland All About?

While this is a challenge for all of us who write about OCR, my biggest concern in writing about the Spartan Iceland Ultra World Championship was avoiding overuse of the words “epic” and “grueling.” My solution here is substituting the words “saga-worthy” and “difficult,” because Iceland is a land of difficult terrain that inspired centuries of sagas. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

This summer, Spartan announced that it was launching a new race in a new location: Iceland. I’ve been before, but I wanted to go back, and this seemed like a great excuse. Spartan also announced a new format:  a 24-hour UltraBeast consisting of 5-mile loops. My first reaction was “So, this is going to be World’s Toughest Spartan?” The staff at Tough Mudder must have been pleased, as imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. My next reaction was to note the date: December 16, a month after World’s Toughest Mudder and, more important, a time of year when the sun barely shines in one of the world’s northernmost countries. The flip side of this was that it would make viewing of the northern lights while racing a real possibility.

The Great Unknowns

Racers were stymied at first, as Spartan’s website was ambiguous about what exactly the race would consist of, where it would take place, and who could participate. Many were reluctant to fork over $750 for a race without more details – Spartan promised it would be “epic” and “grueling”, but not much more. Eventually, enough people signed up that Spartan committed to the event and provided a travel agent to arrange hotels and transportation. The exact location was kept secret until close the date of the event, though it was easy enough to guess from Spartan’s description (a quick web search of the term “thermal streams,” one of the course features, pinpointed the site as Hveragerdi).

Adding to this uncertainty was one of the first data points provided by Spartan: a mandatory gear list. While Spartan has made some gear requirements for races in the past, particularly to make sure that racers would have enough water on the Beast and UltraBeast courses, the gear list provided was more reminiscent of what was required for the Death Race or an Agoge. In addition to a pack for water, racers were required to have on their person rain gear, warm clothes, lights, backup lights, and a very specific foot care kit. While I could imagine hikers needing an Ace bandage out in the wilderness, the need for one on a five-mile loop was less clear to me, and an informal survey after the race turned up no one who used it out on the course. The list caused considerable online puzzlement: would we be disqualified before the start if our rain jackets didn’t have the correct type of waterproof taped seams? Would there be pack inspections along the course?

What’s Icelandic for “Athlete Briefing”?

Racers met the day before the race for a mandatory briefing at Reykjavik’s Harpa, a concert hall and conference center, something like Iceland’s Carnegie Hall, but sleek and modern. Before we got to the important race details, we were treated to what might be the Icelandic equivalent of a motivational speaker. Bjartur led us all in a chant, having us cry “Wiking! Yes!” and jump in the air. Yes, Scandinavians have trouble with word-initial v’s, and it’s funny. The next few days included plenty of cheers of “Wiking!”

Next, Spartan Founder Joe De Sena took the stage and explained that staging the race had cost over a million dollars, and he expressed gratitude for some last-minute sponsors who had made the event possible. Given how expensive Iceland is, this was certainly credible. Finally, we were given the details of how the race would work: the loops would be six miles, not five unless bad weather forced the closing of part of the course. We were shown the bling, and we received a lengthy explanation of how that bling would be allocated. The format of the race would have different levels of finishers, one for those who completed over thirty miles, and another for those who completed over thirty miles and did so over twenty-four hours. Calculating the twenty-four hours involved crossing the finish line just after 9:00 am on Sunday, but not after 12:00 noon, which would result in not completing the race at all.

Iceland Ultra medal and belt buckle

At The Start

We picked up our timing chips and race bibs: purple for the elite competitors, black for us civilians, with reflective areas to make us visible in the dark, and so to bed. In the morning (still in the dark – remember, Iceland gets about four hours of sunlight a day this time of year) we were picked up from designated hotels in Reykjavik by bus and taken to Hveragerdi, about 45 minutes away. Iceland is powered by geothermal energy, and Hveragerdi is one of the locations where the steam pours out of the earth. We had been warned to stay on the course during the race because cutting corners could land us in the middle of a scalding thermal pool. Not a good reason to be disqualified.

In addition to pervasive eerie steam, Hveragerdi has an inflatable dome that provides an indoor rec center for the locals – basketball court, putting green, soccer field. This served as the Transition Area, and we were provided tables to store our gear, mandatory and otherwise. Cheerily, it was announced that in the wee hours, there would be cots and inflatable hammocks available for napping or for more comfortable viewing of Christmas movies which were to be projected on the walls.

We geared up, but before we could go outside there were two more groups to take the stage. First was a cohort from the concurrent Agoge that had started the day before. I don’t know what they had been up to on their spiritual and physical journey, but they looked miserable. A crowd of hundreds was cheering their efforts, but they all appeared too exhausted and demoralized to crack a smile. I did not envy them. Next were two Vikings (Wikings?), or the modern reenactor equivalents, who led us in a Viking prayer, which consisted of calling out the names of gods in each direction (Thor! etc.) and pouring out mead.

Genuine Wikings

Icy Start

We filed out of the dome into what little daylight there was. The weather called for rain, freezing rain, snow, some clearing, and then more precipitation. In short, a miserable day to be outdoors. Still, there was a race to complete, and twenty-four hours had to start eventually. At noon we took off for a 5K “prologue” through the town. This was a clever way to stretch out the field, and it gave us a taste of what the conditions were like: icy. Even before we started on the trails, we had to figure out how to keep upright on slick surfaces. Running up even a slight incline on ice is tricky.

After the prologue, we headed to the hills and the obstacles. One of the first obstacles was a pipe that was part of the landscape and replaced the usual hurdles that can be found on Spartan courses. Some of the obstacles (Monkey Bars, Twister) were closed on the first lap to avoid backups, and we soon came across another nod to the local conditions: the “farmer carry” obstacle had racers carrying… ice. Handles had been frozen into large blocks of ice. Nice touch, Spartan, and I always appreciate it when races that somehow acknowledge the course settings (think tire carries that used to be part of the Tough Mudder course at Raceway Park in New Jersey).

Why they call it Iceland

Soon we were directed up the side of the mountain. Spartan has steep climbs in its races, but this was among the steepest and most difficult I could remember. This wasn’t running, but rather climbing up the side of the mountain, pulling yourself up on whatever you could grab and hope that your footing wouldn’t slip. Also, hoping that you weren’t inadvertently kicking loose rocks into the faces of those below you. Video of that climb here

At the top of the mountain, it became clear exactly how treacherous conditions were: winds of more than 40mph pummeled racers on the exposed summit. The combination of the slick ice underneath your feet and the strong winds made it tough to stand even on a flat surface, and the wind was powerful enough to blow the snot out of you. Apologies to anyone who might have been downwind from me.

Going down the mountain was not easier: there was simply not much stable footing. Between the ice and the freezing rain on top of the ice and the wet terrain below the layers of grass, my feet were wet, cold, and unstable. The obstacles were spaced out fairly well as a distraction, but when your hands are cold and wet and the surfaces are icy, even simple obstacles like a rope climb are challenging. A complaint I heard from several people was that the sandbag carry was the most difficult obstacle; the sandbags were 60 pound Spartan “pancakes” (who knew they came in this size?), but these bags had been left out in the freezing rain, where they absorbed water and froze into awkward shapes. One noteworthy innovation: Spartan had replaced the typical round of thirty burpees with other penalties for some failed obstacles. Instead, some obstacles had short penalty loops, bucket carries or barbed wire crawls. In another twist, the elites had to carry a “passport” with them where volunteers recorded how many obstacles the racer failed. At the end of each loop, the elites did all of their burpees in one session.

All that steam eventually turns to ice

The obstacles were all familiar, which was a relief given the unknowns of the terrain. As it got darker and as the rain started fogging my glasses, it was tougher and tougher to see the course markings, though I was brought back on course by helpful fellow racers. As I trudged up yet another hill, I had one of the highlights of my OCR career: I got passed by Robert Killian. As he danced up the hill past me, he said “Good job!” What a mensch! [Editor’s Note: Mensch is a person with honor] It says a great deal about our sport that one of the top elite athletes would spare the breath and brain power in the middle of a race to offer some encouragement to someone at the back of the pack. Thanks, Killian.

Robert Killian, OCR mensch

Throwing In The Towel After Throwing In The Spear

I was cold, wet and not sure how I was going to finish one loop, let alone keep going for twenty-four hours. As I tried to figure out the best way to get to the next marker, I found myself asking “What would Bear Grylls do?” I also remembered that Bear had once taken on Iceland.  But I’m not Bear Grylls, I’m definitely not Robert Killian, and the appeal of warm air and dry clothes back at the dome was overwhelming. I also realized that I should have signed up for the Sprint, not the Ultra, and one loop was going to be enough for me. Trying to hit the spear throw is difficult enough, but doing it in heavy winds, in the dark, and then having to do burpees in an inch of freezing water? I know when to say when, and I opted to avoid the risk of a broken wrist, or worse, from slipping on icy paths.

After admitting defeat, I settled into the world of the Transition Area, the dome where racers warmed up, changed clothes, recovered from each lap and refueled. There were cots and water jugs supplied, and the overall appearance was that of a refugee camp, albeit for especially buff refugees fleeing a repressive Gore-tex based regime. The dome was a veritable festival of DryRobes. There was food for sale, the camaraderie of fellow racers, a festival atmosphere for the few spectators and crew, and loud top-40 hits to keep the mood high. Myself, I took a nap in one of the Spartan-branded inflatable hammocks (pro-tip, Spartan: if you are going to note how expensive the race was to mount, maybe hold back on putting your logo on the hammocks next time).

It was warm and dry in here.

Deflated by De Sena

As I recovered, wedged happily in one of the hammocks, who should stroll by but Joe De Sena. Knowing his goal to yank the world up off the couch, I asked him if he was going to revise his pledge to rip 100 million people out of their inflatable hammocks instead? “They also deflate, you know” he replied.

All through the night, racers trickled in and out. At about 1:30 in the morning, an announcement was made: the skies had cleared and the northern lights were visible. This was enough to get me out of the warmth of the dome, and it was enough to justify the entire adventure. Photographs do not do the phenomenon justice, but this natural wonder was augmented by the tiny lights from the headlamps of the racers out on the course. Saga-worthy.

Spartan’s professional photographers capture the northern lights.

Northern lights plus racers in the night, as taken by my phone.

International Attendance

While this may happen more often at Spartan races in Europe, one notable aspect of this race for me was how international the field was. Joe De Sena has worked hard to build the race series around the world, and the athletes that traveled to Iceland had come from over thirty-five countries. According to Spartan, 48% of the racers came from the US, with 40% from Europe and the rest from even farther away. It was an eye-opener to see how global OCR has become. Also, it afforded a few entertaining cross-cultural opportunities:

Me: “So, where are you from?”

Another American Spartan: “I live in Scranton.”

Genuinely bemused Spanish Spartan: “Wait, that’s a real place? Not just on ‘The Office’?”

American Spartan: “Yes, it’s real. But they made some stuff up for the show. We don’t actually have a Chili’s in Scranton.”

Shortly after 9, Morgan McKay crossed the finish line to win the race for the women, and not long afterward, Josh Fiore claimed the title for the men. He did so in romantic style, having carried an engagement ring in his pack for the entire race and popping the question at the finish line.

ORM’s Matt B. Davis MC’s the proposal from the warmth of his DryRobe and my borrowed warm socks.

You can read more about Josh’s race experience here: Not to be left out, Morgan got engaged soon after.

Iceland Recap

Apart from diamonds, what are the takeaways from Spartan Iceland Ultra? To be sure, there were some rough spots. I try to keep in mind that this was a debut of a new product at a new venue. As an organization, Spartan does not shy away from a challenge, and I respect them for their daring. Still, I’ll point out some mistakes, some of them that were probably avoidable. Too many details were kept under wraps for too long. It’s one thing to tease, but if racers are going to commit to training for an endurance event, they need to know what the event is going to require of them. I was unsure if Spartan HQ was being coy for much of the run-up to the event or they were just not sure what they wanted to produce.

My biggest criticism of the event was one that struck me as soon it was announced: December is the wrong month for the race. I appreciate that the weather and the darkness were part of what made the event so difficult, but bringing an event to a place of spectacular natural beauty only to schedule it for a time when participants can’t see the scenery seemed like a waste. My suggestion: try March instead. You still get 12 hours of darkness, the weather is just as unpredictable, the northern lights could come out, and dates that are not so close to Christmas and coincide with school vacations would all bring out more racers. It also avoids the end of season conflicts with Spartan’s other championship event, with OCRWC, and World’s Toughest Mudder.

Downsides

Iceland is remote. This is part of what makes it appealing, but it also means that it is an expensive trip for everybody (well, almost everybody). There will never be one place that is convenient for everyone, but no one was going to be piling into a car for an affordable road trip for this race. And on the topic of accessibility, the initial price point of $750.00 was off-putting, especially given the additional costs of travel to the venue. Discounts were offered, and hotels turned out not to be too expensive in Iceland at this time of year, but sticker shock was enough to keep many away.

There were other problems that might have been avoided: the timing software was not yielding updated results throughout the race, which is particularly crucial in a twenty-four-hour race, where elite racers’ strategies can be built on how many laps competitors have completed. Even for regular racers, the results were not finalized for weeks after the event, which made the medal vs. belt buckle element confused at the end of the race. Speaking of which, apparently many of the medals that made it to Iceland for the Ultra had ribbons denoting Hawaii as the location. While both are remote volcanic hotspots, the contrast could not be greater. Another gear-related snafu was that there was supposed to be unique Spartan Iceland-themed swag on offer, but only samples were available at the race, to the disappointment of many. I understand that the setting made everything more difficult (absolutely everything: I heard that Spartan lost not one but two drones to the heavy winds, resulting in a lack of aerial footage that definitely would have been described as “epic”), but shipping race merchandise should be a no-brainer.

Final Complaints

Of all the obstacles not to bring to Iceland, there was no fire jump. Normally I think of this as a silly photo-op rather than an obstacle, but when you are in the Land of Fire and Ice, you bring the fire. That’s just what you do, especially when the race is mostly in the dark. I’m hoping a risk-averse landowner was to blame for that. More seriously, Spartan once again has problems measuring its courses. The original plan was five-mile loops, and the day before the race we were told loops would be closer to six miles. In reality, the loops were closer to 6.8. I raise this because it is a flaw I have seen at almost every Spartan course. This isn’t a matter of under-promising and over-delivering. Getting the distance right at an endurance event is Race Management 101. Spartan has enough experience by now that even at a new venue they should get this right.

In the end, the event was a success. It was difficult: 600 racers started the Ultra, and only 322 finished (208 finished the two sprint waves out of 250 who registered). This is not an event for everyone.  While the race could not have been a financial success, it was a way to launch a new product, the Ultra, which appears to be getting its own series separate from the Beast. Exactly how this is going to happen is still murky. The only clear message we received about the new product is that its colorway is going to be purple. However, in the same way that Tough Mudder has used the Tough Mudder distance to generate the multi-loop Toughest Mudder event at its regular venues, it appears that Spartan is using this format to create a much longer event without having to wrangle a longer race course. Very clever.

The Ultra Appeal

Who will sign up for this new product? Plenty of people, apparently. One refrain I heard from several racers was that the race was not challenging enough. At first, I thought this was bravado, but when I talked to these racers, many were coming from an ultrarunner background; their events can be longer and more difficult than what they encountered in Iceland. There is a market for very difficult events, and remember that Joe De Sena has a background in adventure races. Those events are frequently multi-day challenges that test not just athletic endurance levels but also raw survival skills. The question remains whether the Spartan brand can pull together enough new racers into a product with this level of difficulty, either from those who regularly do more difficult events or from those who are attempting their first twenty-four-hour race.

Spartan is definitely going to try: after the race, it sent out a survey asking where racers would be interested in having next year’s Ultra Championship. Iceland was an option, and after the money and research expended to find this unique spot, it seems a shame not to go back. However, other Scandinavian countries were on the list, as were some closer to home. Wherever the Ultra Championship lands next year, one thing is for sure: it will be both epic and grueling.

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Christopher Stephens

Christopher is an attorney, a middle-of-the-pack triathlete, a marathoner, an open water swimmer, and a recovering Jeopardy contestant. A native New Yorker, he trains in the rugged wilderness of Central Park and can sometimes be found swimming in the Hudson. He also bakes pies. Delicious pies.
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