The Spartan World Championships in Abu Dhabi was going to be a very different affair to the usual Lake Tahoe race in the USA. My desert racing experience is minimal to say the least but then I don’t think anyone racing was going to be comfortable with the hot, sandy conditions.
My preparation consisted of 3 weeks specific training in the polar opposite conditions of wintery Norway. Some of these sessions were more comical than anything else: driving to run in a sand quarry only to find that the sand is frozen solid, taking a sauna after having run on a treadmill, clad head to toe in Gore-Tex, throwing a spear who’s string had frozen into a stick from being left out in -15C. I had good reason to be looking forward to simply getting this race over and done with.
I knew that to race well specific fitness, acclimatisation and kit were going to be essential. On the kit front I did my research and decided desert gaiters were 100% necessary. These I managed to source and attach to some VJ shoes in an uncharacteristically organised way. Looking back though I should have done far more research into which shoe model to wear, which makes a massive difference when running on soft sand. To maintain the sands surface tension and not sink in as much, NOT having deep lugs and using a shoe with a large surface area is very much advised…
Recognising this before the race wasn’t much help as the sand gaiters had already been sewn on. I also realised that having a good running stride (perhaps my greatest asset) was also not going to help much in these conditions. Running in the sand is more about power endurance and I really think having strong cycling legs is preferable to quick running feet.
So it wasn’t with much hope that I boarded the Spartan shuttle bus to take us 4 hours into the desert to a sand dune which is most definitely not the biggest in the world. But it is the sand dune which is maybe driven on the most in the world by exceptionally loud cars, motor bikes and buggies that literally don’t stop all night long. Thankfully with all the competitors in the same campsite at least no one actually managed to sleep the night before the race. Words can’t describe the fumes and noise, which wearing noise cancelling airpods (inside noise cancelling headphones) did little to dampen.
My race plan was to start a bit easy in the hope that everyone would blow up towards the end. So I tried not to panic as I found myself a minute behind after just a few kilometres. Something like 95% of the course was on extremely soft sand with the rest on slightly harder salt flats. It was on these small sections that I could find my stride and close gaps. A larger salt flat allowed me to finally catch Ryan who was leading at the halfway mark.
This boosted my confidence and I started to think that maybe I could pull something out of the bag. It wasn’t to be though; at this halfway mark, having accidentally missed a water station and used up far more of my leg power than I thought, it was clear that there was nothing left in the tank…and not much determination to find any spare reserves either. At this point, I was in 3rd behind Ryan and Sergei and resigned myself to “plodding” around without a hope of catching up again, especially as there wasn’t much harder ground on this loop.
With the sun setting I was finally on the last descent and over the line still in 3rd. Ryan and Sergei had battled it out to the line with Ryan finally winning the race that has alluded him since we first competed against each other in 2014.
Reflecting on the race itself and the general Spartan World Championship experience I can’t help but feel disappointed on several levels. Obviously, I’m disappointed with my preparation and result, it is always nice to win. Poor races do happen and I do think that a 3rd place finish was perhaps more than I deserved on that particular day anyway. I am also disappointed with the other athletes, especially with regards to littering. Witnessing multiple racers simply discarding gel packets and water cups on the course is something that will always sadden me.
Lastly, I am disappointed with Spartan and their priorities when it comes to being a legitimate race or a being preoccupied with content creating and influencing as a lifestyle media company. I was shocked to finish the race and find out that there would be no drug testing whatsoever, when for the past 5 years at this event the top 3-5 athletes (male and female) had been, to my knowledge, always drug tested.
On a positive note, my 2021 season is officially over and I can now look forward to relaxing into the healthy rhythm of training, exploring and moving in nature without the added stress of peaking for races. Who knows what 2022 has in store but one thing is for sure; whatever races I do I’ll be spending the next few months laying the foundations to make it my best season yet!