Over the past few days, I’ve had a chance to reflect on winning the 2019 Spartan World Championship and the season that led up to it. We more often than not only get to see the results of people’s efforts, so I wanted to share with you some of what went into the win and where I’m headed next.
Going into the 2019 Spartan Race World Championships I had quite a bit on my mind. This obstacle course racing season was longer than any other; we started in February and for some of us, it will go until December. With such a long season there’s a much higher risk that at some point you’ll have to battle through an injury or two. But that’s the life of an athlete; it’s very rare to be at 100%. However, I had never suffered an injury that completely stopped me from training.
This year I decided to coach the National Guard Best Ranger teams in Georgia from February to April. Right before the competition we went for a run in the Appalachian Mountains. I felt fine the entire time and decided to bomb the final downhill. All of a sudden I felt a burning sensation in my knee. I had to walk and even skip back to the start point as it progressively got worse almost to the point I couldn’t even bend it or put weight on it.
I still didn’t think much of it because I didn’t fall, I didn’t feel a pop or bend it in an irregular way, or notice anything significant to indicate that it might be an injury. I simply went home and took some Advil. The next day when I woke up, I wasn’t able to put any weight on my leg at all. I literally had to crawl over to use one my foam rollers for support to get down to my car and head to the hospital. I immediately scheduled an MRI but was forced to walk on crutches and unable to do any type of impact training.
Upon completion of my MRI the doctor’s results identified that I had a horizontal tear in my meniscus and partial tear of my MCL. This was devastating news to me as their only recommendation was corrective surgery. My physical therapist recommended that I consider other options like strength training but that would take much longer, with no guarantees to heal. I decided to forego surgery and not focus so much on the Spartan Championship Series, but rather to take some time off, heal and wait to make a final full effort attempt in Tahoe. Nothing else in between really mattered to me – Spartan World Championship was my “A” race.
This was especially important with it being the last year the race would be held in Squaw Valley, and even with my injury in April, I set a goal to finish what I started and get back on the podium no matter what. After finishing 3rd three years in a row I knew it wasn’t going to be easy. The most difficult part for me was trying to compete at a high level during the National Series while injured. Due to the requirements for me to attend and race per contract obligations, I didn’t have another option. Oddly enough, I didn’t so much mind not being on the podium during the Series. It was more a test of mental toughness; knowing I was capable of performing better but just not being able to get there.
After a ton of focused strength training and physical therapy sessions, my knee finally starting to feel like I could push the down hills and put proper weight on it. I finally had a breakthrough race in Utah where my volume was starting to get back to normal. It was there that my focused training for Tahoe began. That was the point where it became do-or-die. I told myself, no matter what condition you’re in, if you don’t start to push hard now you will run out of time.
At the Utah Spartan Race I was able to stay up front and felt great on most of the downhills. However, while trying to keep up with Ryan Atkins and Johnny Luna-Lima during the descents, I felt like it was too much. I had to back off or risk another injury. Although to be honest, even healthy I can’t stay with them long; both are phenomenal downhill runners.
With Utah proving to be a small success on my path to Tahoe, next came the North American Championships. I had a good race but misjudged my efforts based on information on the Spartan course map. I was expecting another 1,200 feet of gain during the 2nd part of the course, but that never came. I literally ran out of race course and time to try and close the gap for a podium finish. Although that one was a bit of a let-down, I looked for the silver lining and used that solid effort’s momentum to push my training and increase my volume significantly before heading to Austria for one last hard race effort before Tahoe.
I thoroughly enjoyed going to Oberndorf, Austria for the last race of the European Mountain Series. In my opinion it’s what I believe Spartan was like when it first began. Even though the course was extremely well balanced between the obstacles and terrain, it was very raw and defined by rough conditions that require grit. You don’t have access to a course map, you don’t know the distance, and you don’t know what obstacles you’ll face. And adding to the challenge, the weather in Austria was rough, which turned out to be great prep for Tahoe. Cold temperatures mixed with rain made the obstacles extremely difficult and slippery. I already had a lot of volume on my legs that week plus jetlag from arriving the day before the race but it was no excuse not to give everything I had. In the end, I simply got out performed during the Beast and Super, but managed to still win the Trifecta weekend in preparations for Sparta.
Once I got home from Austria, I planned a trip to the high country in Leadville, Colorado near Twin Lakes. I decided the best way to cap off my training was to put in a high quality week at altitude with no other distractions. I really needed that as a final boost of confidence before Tahoe.
Upon arriving in Tahoe the anticipation hit me full force. The weather was beautiful but I knew the conditions were predicted to change drastically for the race on Sunday. I got excited knowing the weather alone would have a major impact on many of the competitors I would be racing against; a place I like to be. What I wasn’t expecting was how busy the two days leading up to the race would be for me. Between the meet and greets, interviews, photo shoots and other scheduling I was working eight hour days. I even arrived at the Pre Race Briefing late due to a Podcast with ATP Science I was doing that overlapped in timing (the podcast was amazing by the way, give it a listen and check out their 4 Pillar System!).
I wasn’t fully aware of the details surrounding the controversy with Jon Albon pre running the course that Monday, but was eager to hear what Spartan decided. I respect Spartan’s decision and the different opinions of racers and fans, but I too had a perspective. In my opinion I felt that he did create an advantage, even if only a slight one. At the foundation of all sports are rules and that should remain constant. A slight advantage, even 2%, at our level can make the difference between 1st, 2nd, or even 3rd for that matter.
The only thing for me to do was to register for the race on Saturday (the day before the Championship) as Spartan Race published that it was legal and would not disqualify you for Sunday’s World Championship. I knew it was a bit risky running the technical course and putting-in hard miles the day before the event, but I still decided to go out for the first 8 mile loop. The weather held off for the most part with only extremely high winds and mid 30ﾟ temperatures during the race, but it was worth it to see the current trail conditions. Even though I’d run the course many times in previous years you never really know what the trails are like in an alpine environment. It’s beneficial to identify parts of the course where you can open up versus conserving. In hindsight, I’m extremely glad that I went up and did this shakeout run because I was able to legally practice some of the obstacles that gave many of the other competitor’s issues the next day.
Race morning came quick and I actually had a good night of sleep for the first time in a while prior to a big event. And, that might be due to another first for me, along with using Pure Power’s “Power Down”; I decided to sit down with a sports psychologist early Friday morning and see if there was anything he could identify to help me lower my anxiety and focus more during my race. We identified some areas, worked on the process to put my mind more at ease, and I felt ready to take on the event Sunday morning – get your body right, get your mind right.
Despite the two hour delay that may have shaken up a few of the competitors and knocked them off of their normal pre race routine, I felt at ease. As per usual, I had some Tailwind Nutrition, laced up with Lock Laces and I went out on my warm up run. For the first time in a while, it felt really good; like my body was ready to perform and I wasn’t limited by any injuries. I believed in myself, my training, and knew it was going to be a good day. The only unknown was if my day would be better than some of my top competition.
This year at the start I felt a lot more at ease and focused on what I needed to do versus letting anything out of my control affect my mood. One of the biggest reassurances I think I had was that I really trusted my gear provided by Craft Sportswear. I had tested it and knew it would perform, so with the high winds, cold temperatures, and the fact that we would be going into a cold swim; I had to be spot on with what I was wearing…and as it turns out, I was.
Once the gun went off, I wanted to get out in front quickly and set the tone for the first big climb. It wasn’t long before I found myself in first, but Ryan Woods and Jon Albon were nipping at my heels. Woods went past me comfortably, then started to put some distance between him Albon, and I. I just kept telling myself to remain calm and that there was still so much course in front of us. The thing I was most concerned about was the fact that Albon was so close to me so early in the race. I knew that he was going to be extremely tough to beat, especially having arrived early and acclimating to the altitude better than he had in years past.
When we got to the bucket carry, I wanted to try to distance myself from Albon and Woods but ended up only gaining about 5 to 10 seconds at most. They were flying. However, I knew that the spear throw was coming up and I didn’t want to gas myself; I wanted to throw that spear feeling as fresh as possible. I knew there was the potential for it to be a game changer. Just before approaching the spear, having just come down from Bender, I saw that Woods missed it. I knew that this was the opportunity I needed early in the race.
It was like déjà vu being that I faced this situation before in 2015 with Cody Moat right beside me. I knew as I did then that I needed to throw my spear first, hit it, and let Albon know that I made it; this would put more pressure on him. I threw, hit dead center, and let out a loud yell before running out of the area. I didn’t look back to see if Albon made his until I was rounding the stairs and saw him entering the burpee pit. I was in disbelief, this almost never happens at our level. I knew it was time to drop the hammer and put in a hard effort in the obstacle gauntlet that was coming, just before heading into the double sandbag carry.
During my train-up I did a lot of longer heavy carries so I felt right at home with the double bag carry and again just remained calm and focused on not blowing myself up too early in the race. This obstacle was another game changer that heavily impacted the race, as it rightfully should as it tests other aspects of fitness that we need to be ready for. I was happy with my carry and felt good pushing on to the swim. The water was really cold but not nearly as bad as other years. The biggest problem that I struggled with was that after the swim, I wasted a lot of time struggling to put my gloves back on when I should have been focused on running down that hill faster. However, my major concern was that my hands would get too cold during the descent and I would struggle with the upcoming obstacles, Helix, Rope Climb, and Twister Monkey Twister.
Being in the military, one of the tricks I learned while shooting from the prone position in a cold environment is to use the back of your neck to warm your palms, which helps to maintain good dexterity. As often as possible, I tried to keep my hands warm but at the same time get a bit of moisture on them because of the dry air. Some of the ropes and even the twister we’re more difficult due to the cold. Normally I would just put my hands against my body in my armpits but because I had on a jacket plus a base layer, it just wasn’t possible to do that.
The good thing was that coming down the mountain it got warmer. I actually felt much better than expected. I got down to the rope climb and had no issues but tried to save grip for what was about to come. I went into Twister Monkey Twister with a very methodical and focused approach. I had no desire to take any risks or move to quickly, the goal was to stay out of the burpee pit! A failure on any remaining obstacle with who I thought was Aaron Newell and Albon quickly closing the distance would potentially knock me off the podium.
To my surprise I actually had a bit of a struggle at the top of the 8′ Box. There was still some cold water from the melted snow on the bar where you grip to pull yourself up. It was extremely slippery. I had to use every bit of arm and core strength I had to get my body up to the platform and when there, I took a breath and started on the final two mile climb. It was on this loop, over the past two years, where I lost the race despite leading the whole time. However, at that moment I didn’t think about those years, I just focused on what I was doing at the time and continued to push as hard as I could. I didn’t try to block the negative thoughts, they just weren’t there. I was in the zone. I honestly felt the excitement of the crowd and felt they truly wanted me to win just was much as I did!
Before the final downhill I took a few looks back going around the corners and didn’t see anyone at the Irish Table Vertical Cargo, but that fact just kept me pushing even harder to make sure I stayed out of sight and out of mind. Once I hit Stairway to Sparta, I knew it was all downhill from there, literally, and all I needed to do was to make that final descent faster than I had in any previous years.
When I came out of the tree line I could hear the crowd cheering and saw my wife who was screaming at the top of her lungs. I grabbed a sand bag and headed up the final climb. When I got to the turnaround I started running and had to blink my eyes and focus to see who was behind me because it didn’t look like Newell at all, or Albon. Ryan Atkins was quickly approaching. Are you kidding me?! My first thought was, “Where did he come from!?” I hadn’t seen him anywhere in the race. He must have smashed the double sandbag and really bombed that last downhill in record speed…like 4 min mile pace…at the end of a 14 mile course. Nonetheless he had a smile on his face and I knew he was trying to close the gap. With a determined Ryan Atkins on my tail, I had to step on the gas right then and there.
As I approached the bottom my wife had the phone facing towards me and our kids were on FaceTime screaming “Go Daddy!” That’s when I knew I HAD to win. I glided through Beater and headed to the Yokohama Tire Flip knowing what I had to do; flip those 400 pounds of cold rubber as fast as possible. I made it a point over the past year to practice tire flips in wet, muddy, cold conditions because it can be a deciding factor in race. We saw it last year in Tahoe and more recently in West Virginia at the North American Championships. I used the pinch grip technique and flipped the first one without an issue. And, with the mass of people right there cheering and my family watching, it wasn’t an option to fail the return flip. I headed off to Mega A Frame Cargo and gave a quick look back to see where Atkins was before moving on.
There was only one more obstacle that could potentially give me an issue, the Luminox Herc Hoist. When I got there I gave it a couple pulls and felt the rope slipping due to dryness. It was risky, but my headband was still wet from the swim and I needed a little bit of moisture to help grip the rope, so I used it for the first couple pulls and was able to get to the knot half-way up. At that point I knew I had won the Spartan Race World Championship for the 2nd time. Up to that point the win was still in question because there is just so much course and so many opportunities for something to happen. In OCR, you really never know until you cross the finish line…or in the case of this race, get to that beautiful rope knot!
I’m already fully recovered thanks to my post-race routine and awesome muscle recovery fuel, Ascent Protein, and I suffered zero blisters or hot spots because I wore my favorite socks, Darn Tough Vermont Merino Wool (guaranteed for life). **And in case you’re wondering, no, I don’t have to include any of my sponsors here, I do it because I genuinely believe in everything I use and trust that if it improves my performance, it might work for you too!
Okay, now it’s time to turn my attention to the Spartan Trifecta World Championships in Sparta. Hope to see you guys there!
Robert Killian, Spartan World Champion 2015 & 2019!