© James Appleton
At the 2019 Spartan Ultra World Championships in snowy Åre, Sweden the temperature dipped to as low as -30° degrees, but this didn’t stop women’s champion Rea Kolbl from smashing out 70 miles across 350 obstacles and 28,000ft of elevation, during the 24-hour race.
How did she do it? I quizzed the dryrobe ambassador about her training and fuelling – after first asking her about her experience racing the 800km Eco-Challenge team adventure expedition race in Fiji last September.
So before we talk about the Spartan Ultra champs, tell me about your experience racing the crazy Eco-Challenge adventure race?
Where to start?! This was one of those unforgettable adventures where I don’t think I’ll ever do anything quite the same. A lot of what was special in this race had to do with the local people and the experiences tied to the race itself, which I don’t think can be repeated at another time or in another place. I can’t say much yet (athletes are under a strict embargo until the TV show of the race is released later this year), but it was at the same time the hardest and best race I’ve ever done.
There were moments when I felt so tired I wasn’t sure I could take another step, yet somehow my body kept on moving on for hours. There were parts when I felt so happy – my life felt complete in a way nothing else had done before, and most of those moments involved other people. I think it made me see a part of the world I’d never otherwise see and interact with people I’d never otherwise meet. It made me question and re-evaluate what’s really important. When we finished, I was exhausted, but in a way where I knew right away, this is something I really wanted to do again. I left with so many memories and perhaps a new definition of what is hard; I think for a long while, any struggle will measure against something we did in Fiji.
Did it give you a taste for expedition adventure races?
Absolutely! It’s definitely something I’d like to do more of. But these races require so much gear, preparation, and recovery I might stick to just one big one per year. I love daily training too much and my bucket list of races is still growing.
OK, on to November’s 24-hour Spartan Ultra World Championship. This was your ‘A race’ of 2019 – did you plan your 2019 training and racing schedule with it in mind?
Yes and no. With my ‘A’ race being so late in the season, most of my races before then weren’t chosen with Sweden in mind. I raced a lot (maybe a bit too much, looking back at it), but it was hard for me to focus on shorter distances because I had both Fiji and Sweden always in the back of my head.
I did, however, keep my training volume high throughout the year both for running and by adding in other sports. I started mountain biking a lot – it was one of the disciplines in Fiji and I had a lot to learn. I also added a lot of climbing into my training – I ran uphill almost every day, climbed a lot on the bike and added more hikes in my training. In a typical Rea fashion, I might have overdone it slightly, losing some of my speed in the process and rarely showed up to races fully rested. Nonetheless, I think all the training really paid off in the end – I was able to recover quickly enough from Eco-Challenge to race Sweden 100%, and I only needed a couple of weeks to jump back into training after that. At the end of the day, that’s what matters to me most – to be durable enough I never have to miss out on the fun of being active outside.
Can you talk us through what the conditions were like in Sweden and how this affected the race/obstacles?
It was cold, dark, and windy. I got to Åre a few days early and left a couple of days after the race, and it was mostly sunny skies, except for the 24-hours during the race. We woke up to a blizzard outside and it never stopped snowing, adding fresh layers of snow throughout the race. It was pretty windy down at the lake and even windier at the top, and the snow accumulation along with the wind drifts at the top of the mountain were so high the course markings disappeared under the snow on the last couple of laps. Temperatures never rose above 15F (-26°c) at the bottom, and I’ve heard reports of -20F (-28.8°c) with the wind-chill at the top of the course. Somehow, I managed to stay warm throughout regardless!
The cold temperatures actually worked in our favour – it was too cold for the snow to melt and turn into ice, so the course stayed soft throughout. Layers of fresh snow made descents easier on the ankles and knees since the ground was so soft and you could almost slide on your feet. On the last couple of laps, I wore snow pants and slid down on my butt. The only hard part was in the village; the thin layer of snow on concrete did get really slippery, making the last half mile of the descent treacherous and if you fell there, the ground wasn’t very soft.
All that said, the course was one of the most beautiful I’ve ever been on. Constant snow, lights decorating the town, wintery trails up the mountain, snow-covered descents with views of the lit-up towns below, and the frozen lake with the windswept snow cover made it all seem like a winter wonderland to remember.
It was so cold your nutrition froze! How did your fuelling plans change as a result?
I switched from eating on-course to eating in the pit almost exclusively. The only thing I could bring on-course and eat was the Spring Energy gels that never freeze; they turn into ice cream, almost. I had a couple of those on the climb and the descent. Most of my fuelling happened in the pit where I tried to smash 500-700kcal in the couple of minutes I was there. It took me 1.5-2-hours to finish a lap, and while normally I would aim for 200-300 kcal per hour, I increased that slightly due to the cold, assuming my body burned more energy trying to stay warm.
I mostly ate real food; dehydrated backcountry meals (cottage pie was the best!), peanut butter & jelly sandwiches dipped in hot chocolate, oatmeal (our hotel had a hot breakfast on Sunday and Mom grabbed me a warm bowl of porridge, likely the highlight!), mashed potatoes, and whatever I could find from other people’s spare supply when my food no longer seemed appealing. I also always grabbed some snacks to go, but with the twister right outside of the transition area, it was mostly whatever I could stuff in my mouth in the 10 yards to get there.
How did you find the whole race experience, and what was the most challenging element?
It was probably my favourite race to date – excluding Eco-Challenge, which was so different I can’t really compare it to anything else. I loved the venue, the course, the elements, and the difficulty. It was hard to the point where it challenged me but not so hard it would bring me down. I also shared the experience with my mom, who crewed for me, my best friend Trever who finished 8th, and my sponsor, dryrobe, who came to document the race and support me. All these personal connections made the race very special.
Most of the things didn’t go according to the initial plan but I managed to fix them to turn Sweden into a pretty perfect race (as perfect as these races can go). The only thing I struggled with was my hands. I have a hard time holding on with gloves, and after a few laps, I started slipping off obstacles even with the grippiest gloves I could find. I was worried taking them off would make my hands so cold I would lose all my grip strength, and touching bare metal in sub-15F seemed like a terrible idea. But after realizing that doing 60+ burpees per lap is probably worse, I chanced it and it ended up working great. The obstacles were really grippy due to the dry cold, and having hand warmers ready inside my skiing mitts warmed up my hands in-between the obstacles.
You’ve suffered in cold races previously, but amazingly in Sweden, you didn’t get cold until the final few laps. What did you wear that kept you warm?
I’ve only really suffered in cold and wet races. I’m used to training in the cold with Boulder winters sometimes dipping into the negative temperatures, but I rarely get to train in wet cold as Colorado is extremely dry. Sweden was dry as well and stayed sufficiently cold that I never had to worry about sweating so much I’d soak my base layers. I wore a Craft base layer, their windproof and water-resistant tights with fleece inner lining, and a Gore-Tex jacket. That, along with a balaclava covering my head and most of my face, kept me warm until I slowed down significantly. To keep warm on the last couple of laps, I only needed to add another base layer and waterproof pants.
Did you have any low moments where you questioned whether to keep going or were you in a positive place throughout?
Coming into the race really rested and very excited really helped me – I stayed in a happy place for most of the race. Running well without any pain, completing most obstacles (except Olympus) on every lap, and just loving the scenery really made this race ‘easy’ to run. My lowest moments were towards the end, when I started doing the math of ‘how many laps until I can be done’, and when I realized I didn’t really have to go out for another lap, even though I had time to do it. Ultimately, I didn’t want to finish with so much time to spare, so I made myself go out on another lap. That was probably the hardest; with most of the people already off the course, it was lonelier, and going slower it felt colder. But I’m really glad I did it.
Physically and mentally how did you feel when you crossed the finish line after 70 miles and 28,000ft of climbing?
Exhausted, on both accords. For the first time ever, I felt like I couldn’t really do one more lap, even if I needed to. Perhaps had the race been longer I would, since I feel like a lot of the physical limits are imposed by the brain. I felt so happy with how the race went, how I raced it, and where I finished. And just really excited to be done.
How did you feel the next day?
The worst was actually that afternoon. For the past couple of races, I’d go to bed right after the race and sleep until the next morning, but with the awards that evening, I had enough time to nap and shower and then wobble back to the venue. At least that was the plan. As soon as I cooled off, everything started hurting and after unsuccessfully trying to nap, I had to have Mom help me get up from the bed to eat a slice of pizza (or a few).
My feet had swelled so much I couldn’t fit them in my shoes, so I showed up to the awards wearing socks, and my knees wouldn’t bend so I needed help getting onto the stage. After a few hours and a couple of painkillers, I felt better enough to sleep that night, and waking up the next morning I felt a lot better. I didn’t do much for the next few days other than travel home, sleep a lot, and eat plenty of good food. But with every nap and every sleep, I felt better, and it was less than a week later I was back to activity. I took a week off from running, and for another few days my knees were achy and I couldn’t go very fast. Not that I really wanted to though. These are the perfect races to end the long season of racing with.
How has your training changed now that it’s winter – have you any downtime?
I changed my mountain bike days for ski days (mainly because of snow-covered trails), but other than that, not much has changed. I really love my training so I never want to take much time off, and I realize that doesn’t necessarily make me fast. But it makes me happy.
I’m actually not really taking a break from running, as I have some big dreams for 2020 that I’m already training for. The only thing put on hold in the winter is the time spent in the gym. I don’t really do any workouts inside; I run, ski, bike, climb, and only visit the gym to sit in the hot tub or sauna.
I might compete in the local skimo series, but only for fun. The one event I am actually training for is the Audi Power of Four at the end of February. Trever and I are coming back for redemption after last year’s non-ideal attempt; we’re actually training both uphill and downhill this time around!
What are the big dreams you mentioned for 2020?
My schedule is by no means complete, but I do have some bucket list races I’ll try to cross off in 2020. First off, I really want to try the Western States 100 (legendary 100-mile trail race). I’m racing in a golden ticket race this month, hoping to carry my Sweden fitness into the 100km. If I can place first or second, I can give WS100 a shot. If not, I have a few backup options later in the year.
Second, Trever and I are attempting to break a record to go from the lowest to the highest point of Slovenia self-propelled. We’ll freedive to 120’ below sea level (we’re taking classes for that), bike 210km to the mountains (hence all the bike training on Strava!), then summit the highest peak in what will likely still be a very snowy ascent. I’m really excited about the project because it involves sports I’ve never done before and I love new challenges. The fact that no woman has ever done it before makes it even more exciting. While I’m in Slovenia I’ll also race the Spartan race there – the first-ever to be held in my home country.
I also want to come back to both Eco-Challenge and Spartan Ultra World Champs, if only the timing will allow that. I’ve decided I won’t be at the Spartan US National Series this year. With the change of the Super distance to a 10km, I realized I don’t want to change my training to get fast at short distance; instead, I’ll change my races to match the type of training I love. With Spartan announcing the Ultra Series for 2020, I think I’ll focus on those instead.
With last year evolving as it did, I decided to just keep my mind open to new challenges and train like I have before; to always be fit enough to say yes to any kind of adventure thrown my way.
You can follow Rea’s training this year via her Instagram: www.instagram.com/reakolbl.