You’ve likely seen the teaser video by now. If not, watch it above.
Here’s what’s obvious: There will be a 24-hour event called the Ultra World Championship happening in Reykjavik, Iceland, on December 16, 2017. It will involve terrains that are simultaneously stunning and intimidating. There will be waterfalls, and snow, and the Aurora Borealis (i.e. the Northern Lights) as a primary source of illumination. The only thing missing from the video is a Viking gutting a shark with his sword and then hungrily devouring its guts for sustenance. But maybe that’s implied.
We’ve read the online rumblings and rumors about what the Ultra World Championship might actually involve. Some details have managed to leak through—that only 1,000 participants will be accepted, that the winners will walk away with $25,000 in cash—but so much is still shrouded in mystery. At least until now.
We cornered Spartan Vice President of Product David Watson, the co-creator of Iceland’s Ultra World Championship, and asked him to share some spoilers about Spartan’s upcoming Icelandic challenge. He was more than happy to oblige.
Why Iceland? Of all the places in the world you could host a Spartan race, why there?
Well, let me answer that by backing up, and asking why we bother to do any of these races at all. There’s a historical value to what Spartan does. We sit around every week and discuss things like, “What can we learn from the ancient Egyptians?” Or “What is it about the Spartans that made them so tough, so mentally tough?” Or “What is it about African tribal culture that allows them to endure such living conditions?” This is what we think about when we’re designing races. How do we keep these ancient ideas alive in a modern sense?
Some of those ancient cultures make us look awfully coddled.
Absolutely. Life is just too easy now. You can turn on the tap and get water, you can walk down the street and there are a billion restaurants. We’ve lost our sense of life and living and adventure and what it means to be human. So what we’re doing at Spartan is, we’re trying to build better humans.
Or better Vikings.
Yes! That’s it exactly. You can’t get a better role model than a Viking. These people were incredibly tough. So you ask, why do this in Iceland? It’s because Iceland is the epitome of tough. If you spend any time walking around Iceland, you’re like, “Why the fuck would anybody want to settle here?” [Laughs.] These guys are insane. Why would you come here? Sail south. Find someplace warmer!
This race happens in Iceland during the winter. Just saying that sentence made me feel like I need to put on a down jacket.
[Laughs.] I think a lot of people assume it’s going to be freezing. Iceland can be cold in the winter, but probably not more brutal than New York.
The average is something like 30 degrees Fahrenheit, right?
Yeah. If you live in New York or Chicago, you’d be like “This is it?” But the weather in Iceland can be challenging in ways besides the temperature.
Like its unpredictability.
Everybody likes to brag about their hometown weather, “Just wait five minutes and it’ll change.” But that is literally true about Iceland.
It is absolutely true. It’s shocking.
It could be 40 degrees and sunny, and the next minute you’re in a blinding blizzard that buries you in snow.
When I was out there doing recce, it wasn’t even during winter, and the weather smacked us around. It was sunny and warm so I was wearing a t-shirt, but then we’re on a cliff edge and this strong wind comes out of nowhere. It was the strongest wind I’ve ever felt in my life. It was unbelievable.
It hit you like a close-fisted punch?
Definitely close-fisted. It was like being literally punched. I’ve never had to escape into a vehicle because the wind hurt too much. Even when we got back into the car, it felt like if we didn’t have six big guys in there, the car probably would’ve been blown over the side. And then the rain hitting us. But then out of nowhere, the sun came back out.
__Welcome to the Ultra World Championship! Everything’s fine! Oh wait, no, you’re under ten feet of snow. __
That’s what I love about this race, and why Iceland was such a perfect choice. You can prepare like you would for any other Spartan race, but you can’t prepare for this sort of hostile, unpredictable environment.
What goes into planning a race like this? Does everything get mapped out before you get to Iceland, or do you spend a few weeks out in the field, walking over the terrain and creating the race on foot?
A lot of the ideas come from [Spartan Founder] Joe [De Sena]. He’s a great visionary for this stuff. We’ll sit down and talk about the broad picture with him. And then we’ll go away and draw something up. We’ve got to run everything by the team, from the production end—the guys on the ground, who bring in the obstacles and build everything—and the marketing department and the PR guys and the social media team and the sponsorship team. There’s an incredible number of people and departments who need to give input. That’s the first step.
And the second step?
I went out to Iceland with the head of production and one of his staff. As soon as our plane landed, and you look out at this magical place, which is bathed in eerie light and it looks pre-historic, I was like, “Oh shit, this is real! This is really happening!” Then we went out and started scouting possible courses with these Icelandic guys with big beards.
Icelandic guys with beards? You mean Vikings?
I like to think of them as Vikings with mobile phones. But they definitely looked like they could steer a ship through icy waters. They embodied that spirit. Everything in Iceland has that energy about it. It’s everything you think it’s going to be. I remember when we were scouting locations, and we found these thermal rivers, and we’re crossing them on foot, and the steam is coming up. We’re charting it all on our GPS and taking notes and pictures. “Oh, we can put a great obstacle here. Here’s a great climb spot.” Then we took all this data back to the hotel, and we start laying out the tracks, which is really a fascinating process. It’s just the three of us sitting with this huge screen with satellite images, marking out all the key points on the course. It’s a real Jason Bourne kind of moment.
__What else can you tell us about the actual race, without giving too much away? __
It’s beyond anything anyone can imagine. In terms of obstacles, there’ll be all the favorites, of course. But we’ll have some new surprises to throw in there as well. For one thing, you’ll have to wear a headlamp.
Because of limited daylight?
That’s right. I think there’ll only be three hours of daylight for the whole race. There’ll be some twilight, and hopefully we’ll be getting the Northern Lights as well, because it’s the right time of year.
So it’s like a regular Spartan race, but with ice, and in the dark, and the constant threat of snow, and wind strong enough to push a car off a cliff.
Right, right. [Laughs.]
Sounds easy enough. Are runners out in the elements for all 24 hours?
We’re setting up something called the Festival, which is a huge indoor space to give people a little bit of a reprieve from the elements. They’ll be able to get inside between laps, to get food and drink and then get back out there.
__I also heard rumblings around the office that you’ll be serving raw meat? __
Well, visualize a Festival setup that’s a little like *Game of Thrones. *You can clean up in a natural spring, play some chess, and yes, grab some fresh protein.
I also heard the course will take racers to the famous Jakabol gym, where The Mountain trains. Can you confirm or deny?
You’ve competed in these races before, right?
Oh yeah. Quite a few.
So that must color how you create a race. Do you think about it from an athlete’s perspective? Lean toward challenges and obstacles that you’d personally like to face?
Absolutely. I love running downhill on a single track. I love river crossings, and Iceland has plenty of thermal rivers. I like boulders and scree slopes and anything that involves moving uphill. When we’d finished designing it, we were running around the course like kids. It was so fun. As a runner and an OCR athlete, it just made me so excited.
__Another thing we should talk about are the volcanos. __
There are volcanos in Reykjavik.
They’re not very active, I don’t think.
__But the race will be happening near them, right? __
So there’s always the danger of “Oh crap, I just fell into a volcano”?
*[Laughs.] *I’d be more worried about the glaciers. Or the ocean. There’s so much there to challenge and inspire people.
__What about geysers? They’re freaking dangerous. __
They absolutely are.
Remember last year when a guy visiting Yellowstone fell into a geyser and his body completely dissolved?
His body dissolved like a human Alka Seltzer tablet!
We were actually thinking about that guy when we were putting together this course, oddly enough. We had to look into it, talk to people who know about geysers. We asked them, is it bad if we run past a couple of these things? Should we warn people about this? What happens if somebody falls into one of these things?
That changes the whole dynamic of this contest.
It absolutely does.
Is there anything you considered doing but decided it was too dangerous? Something that seemed pretty awesome in the first draft but then you and Joe were like, “You know, that might kill 80 percent of our racers?”
Well, you’re talking about a guy who designed something called the Death Race. Joe doesn’t think like a normal person. I’ve been out with Joe on a mountain in Kyoto, Japan, with the Marathon monks. We’ve walked for 60 hours carrying 44 pound kettlebells up and down a mountain. He doesn’t think like normal people. Joe doesn’t back off. If anything, Joe does the old Spinal Tap thing. He turns it up to eleven.
He never says, “We should tone this down”?
[Laughs.] That never happens. We didn’t scale anything back. In Spartan, we only scale up.
If you were in this race, and you didn’t know anything about it, what part would make you stop in your tracks and think, “Whoa, whoa, is that for real? They want me to do that?”
I know this is gonna sound strange, but the biggest challenge is probably just getting to the starting line. Just getting to Iceland. It’s intimidating. It’s easy to sit there and fantasize about it, which I do for a lot of races. “Oh, that’d be cool.” But to pull the trigger on it, that’s something else. Because you’re committing to something that’s epic, and you have to make the effort to get out here, for something you know is going to hurt. It’s not easy to run through winter in Iceland for 24 hours while facing Spartan obstacles. Spartan obstacles are hard enough in a less oppressive setting. On a good day in the sun on a flat field of glass, the obstacles are still hard. But it’s also going to be the most rewarding experience of your life. It’s going to bring something out of you that you could never have imagined.
Are you sure you want to stick by your original answer?
That just getting there is the hardest part?
Yeah. Because it sounds like the hardest part is all of it.
But once you get here, something kicks in within you. It brings out superhuman powers. That’s what people need to realize. Once you do this, something changes in your DNA. I’m not just saying this because I work for Spartan; I’m saying it because I’m a racer myself. While talking to you on the phone right now, I’m doing circles around my study with my eyes closed, and I’m thinking about the way the course in Iceland is going to be lit up, and the thermal rivers, and the twilight, and the whole vibe when that shotgun goes off. I’m not joking, I have goosebumps thinking about this. Because it’s just so epic and so cool. It’s got everything.
It’s the kind of life experience that somebody can only share with their friends while drinking mead.
*[Laughs.] *That’s exactly right. You’ll have to tell it over mead. You have to be eating stinky shark and toasting big mugs full of mead.
Or drinking mead out of an ox horn.
“Gather round and I’ll tell you all a tale!”
I love it! I’ve been talking to Joe about maybe getting a special token for everybody who takes part in the Iceland race.
What kind of token?
I don’t want to ruin anything. We have a few surprises in store. Joe told me, “I want something with ancient Norse writing on the side. Something badass.”
Like a big Viking sword? Or a helmet with horns?
You never know. *[Laughs.] *It’s going to be amazing, that’s all I can say.
Click here to reserve your spot at the Ultra World Championship in Iceland. Registration is limited to 1,000 participants, so don’t delay.