Earlier in the week I brought you part one of my interview with the brilliant obstacle course racer and ultrarunner, Rea Kolbl (if you missed it, you can read it here), in which Rea chatted about her running, love of hills and her long-term plans to one day run the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc (UTMB).
In part two, Rea talks about last year’s World’s Toughest Mudder experience, how she fuels her endurance events and, amongst other things, her favourite items of kit (hello, dryrobe). Thanks, Rea!
You’ve won World’s Toughest Mudder twice. How did 2018 compare to your first race in 2017, and did last year’s new location throw any curveballs?
Atlanta was much colder than Vegas! But, ironically, I was actually warmer in 2018 [in Atlanta]. I was much better prepared. A couple of weeks before World’s Toughest Mudder I ran the New Jersey Spartan Super – it was raining, with temperatures almost below freezing, and high winds. I wasn’t prepared for that weather and ended my race in an ambulance with hypothermia. This really scared me, especially with the low temperature forecasted for Atlanta, so I bought a thicker wetsuit that afternoon. That ended up saving my race in Atlanta – it was 4mm thick neoprene with an insulated inner thermal layer made out of fleece, and I had to double up with another neoprene vest over that to keep me warm. There’s no way I would have made it through the night without it, and it was so bizarre seeing frost and ice everywhere around me while I was soaking wet yet warm.
How else was Atlanta different?
In Vegas, I didn’t have to put on my wetsuit until 5/6pm; in Atlanta, I changed into a wetsuit after the second lap. This made running harder and I actually decided to stop at 9am after 21 hours because of chafing. It also slowed me down quite a lot, but slower is still faster than a medical DQ. The terrain was also a lot more challenging. In Vegas the ground was hard-packed dirt that you could run on almost with your eyes closed, and the descents were ‘free’ – you just let the gravity do the work. Atlanta was a mix of mud, wooded singletracks, and steep ascents and descents where you worked equally hard on the downs trying not to fall as you did on the ups, which were mostly too steep to run. In that way, the course was a lot more challenging.
Mentally, however, the varied terrain provided distractions, with the changing views and light. At night it was especially beautiful; the reflectors around obstacles cast shadows through trees, and the heat evaporating from lakes looked magical. For me, while physically harder, Atlanta was also easier.
Regardless, these races are full of curveballs, and that’s the point. The challenge is to figure out how to attack them, and what that’s what I really enjoy doing.
Do you ever train for the sleep deprivation of 24hr OCR or does your fitness carry you through?
I don’t – I love sleeping too much! With all the volume I do daily, I found that sleeping a lot is essential to keeping me healthy. I get 8-10 hours of sleep each night, making sure to let my body get as much rest as it needs when there are no scheduled errands during the day. I never really have issues with 24-hour or overnight races – I think it’s a combination of caffeine and adrenaline keeping me wide-awake. Or perhaps all those all-nighters I pulled going through college and grad school. I do, however, make sure to sleep as much as I can in the weeks leading to the race so that I have my sleep tank full and overflowing.
Have you found a fuelling strategy that works for your 24-hour races and ultras?
Yes! I actually spent most of this past year optimising my fuelling strategy, especially during the night hours. During my 2017 World’s Toughest Mudder, I had pretty awful GI issues and wearing a few layers of neoprene didn’t help with emergency porta potty calls. I later found that the maltodextrin and fructose, which are so common in energy gels, don’t work for me at all, especially since my day-to-day nutrition is all whole food based – my stomach isn’t used to so much processed food.
After switching to Spring energy gels, which are mainly made of rice, fruits, nuts, and honey, most of my issues disappeared. I now stick to them for shorter ultra events. For races longer than six hours, I also eat a lot of real, solid food, which is a bit easier for races like World’s Toughest Mudder where every 5 miles I’m back in the pit.
In 2017, I struggled a lot towards the end of the event because I couldn’t really eat anything sweet anymore and savoury options are more limited when it comes to easily digestible, high calorie snacks. This was less of an issue in 2018, and I think the main difference is that Spring energy gels are a lot less sweet. In the pit, I mostly eat lots of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, complemented with some homemade savoury easy carb dishes (rice with soy sauce, wheat berry salad, etc) and chicken broth to keep me warm. I add salt to just about everything I eat, and for the races without pit visits I bring salt tablets. On course, I try to eat an energy gel or a waffle every 20-30 minutes, but as the race progresses eating always becomes a bit harder, so I just try to eat as much as I can stomach.
Do you have any mental strategies for when things get seriously challenging in an event?
Actually, the harder the event the less stressed I am beforehand. I’m a lot more nervous before short races when a lot more depends on how you feel the morning of the race. For the really long, challenging races, or shorter races that have a lot of elevation gain, all the work has been done in the weeks or even a year before, and as long as I’m not sick or injured, I know I will do well. In any case, the couple of days leading up to the race are always the hardest, especially since I’m used to being really active every day and taper forces me to slow down.
Right before the start I always remind myself that at the end of the day, all I need to do is just try my hardest. I’ve never regretted a race where I felt I gave it my all, regardless the outcome, but I did regret races where I felt like I could have tried harder. I also try to remind myself that there’ll always be another start line, and that if you don’t have bad races there’s nothing to scale the good ones against. But what really stops me from quitting is that I know that no matter how cold and uncomfortable I am, or how much I’m hurting, the pain of quitting would be worse.
Do you have any pre-race rituals?
I do – and they actually start the day before. I always go for a short run in the morning with some intervals to wake up my legs. My husband and I always take the day before the race easy and spend most of the afternoon playing a card game we bring to every race. If I lose in the game, I always say that I’m saving my wins for the next day; if I win, I say that I’m warming up for the race. I always eat similar food for dinner as well – rice or pasta with onions and mushrooms, broccoli or a similar veggies sautéed with garlic, and rotisserie chicken.
In the morning before the race, I have a special playlist with songs that carry meaning for me. These are all from adventure movies that inspired me, and that make me appreciate the life I have. I always listen to it in the car on the way to the race venue. I make sure to get to the venue always at least an hour before – to warm up, but mostly to sit in the porta potties for extended periods of time.
What’s on the horizon for you in 2019 – will we see you at the OCRWC in the UK?
Yes, I will be there! I missed it last year due to injury which shuffled around my season plans quite significantly. This year, I’m planning on coming to Europe in early October (I already have my one way ticket!), then staying for Spartan Trifecta World Championship in Greece and maybe even until Spartan Ultra World Championship. At my last OCRWC a couple of years ago I got stuck at wet monkey bars for over 30 minutes, which sparked my desire to get a lot better at obstacle proficiency. I’ve been working hard on that for the past two years with Yancy’s help, and I’m really excited to see how I’ll do in London this year. Nonetheless, I’m still hoping for sunny skies!
What are your favourite items of kit for training?
I’m a very minimalist runner, so for most of my runs all I need are running shoes (Merrell Agility Peaks are my go-to trail shoe), shorts, and a sports bra. In the winter, I like to bring my Ultimate Direction running vest with some extra waterproof layers for the cold and microspikes just in case if the trails are icy. My hands get cold easily, so for runs below 40F (5ish degrees C) I always bring gloves.
For the longer running adventures I also bring my phone; both to take pictures and for emergencies. I also stash Spring energy gels in different backpacks I bring on adventures so I don’t have to cut them short due to hunger; sometimes I grossly underestimate the amount of time I’ll spend outdoors.
What about on race day?
For OCR races shorter than four hours I wear shorts and a sports bra, unless races are cold and wet; in that case I’d throw on a light waterproof layer. I don’t really like to have anything sticking out that could get caught in a barbwire or be in my way on an obstacle. Similar as for my runs, for races below 40-50F I wear BleggMitts – these are neoprene mitts with a cut down the palm of your hand so you can stick it out for the obstacles. I also stuff enough energy gels in my sports bra to eat one every 30-40 minutes. For endurance OCR and ultra trail my kit situation is similar – but for those longer races I would bring a running vest, since there are only so many gels I can fit in my pants and sports bra!
Whether it’s racing or training, I always keep my dryrobe handy. After long runs in the winter my core is warm, but as soon as I stop I cool down – having my dryrobe in the car keeps me warm on the way home so I can go straight to breakfast after. I’m even more excited to bring it to races – I never know when I’ll be able to change into warm and dry clothes, since even during dry races I usually end up crossing the finish line soaked from water obstacles. Being able to keep warm right when the race is over helps my body conserve energy for the recovery instead of trying to keep me from shivering, especially when the weather is rainy and cold.
You can follow Rea’s racing season in OCR and ultrarunning via www.instagram.com/reakolbl.