For ultra-runner turned OCR athlete, Rea Kolbl, the longer the event, the better. Unbeaten in all of her 8-hr+ obstacle course races, the former Slovenian gymnast has a strong work ethic carved out after spending four hours a day training for the national team as a child.

A two-time World’s Toughest Mudder winner, Rea has excelled in 24-hour obstacle races and her success spreads across OCR to ultra-trail skyrace podiums (she came second in the Broken Arrow Skyrace). The Dryrobe ambassador trains every day, but took a break from her training in Boulder, Colorado, where she lives, to answer chat mountain running, 90-mile weeks, and her propensity for suffering.

Rea gave me such wonderfully detailed answers I decided to make this a two-part interview. Check back on Friday for part two!

You were part of the Slovenian national gymnastics team during your childhood. I imagine you had a pretty intense training regime?
Yes, for as long as I can remember practices were four hours a day, every day except Sunday. I think it was around middle school that we also added a few extra sessions in the mornings – a couple of hours before school or instead of P.E we’d come to the gym. There are so many skills to work on in gymnastics so it’s really hard to condense it to a shorter time. We also travelled a lot to meets, so many of my weekends were spent on the road and competing in other European countries.

Do you think that the strong work ethic you developed as a child has played a part in your ultra/OCR success?
Absolutely. I honestly don’t think I would be where I am right now if it wasn’t from the work ethic I got as a gymnast. In the gym, whenever we fell the first thing we had to do was get up and do it again, so that our brain remembered a successful attempt rather than failure – assuming there were no injuries, of course.

And we never got a break; whether you felt tired, sore, sometimes even sick if a big competition was on the line, or if you felt on the top of your game, the practice was the same: 4 hours long, every day. But perhaps the most important lesson for me was that if you keep trying and you work hard at something, eventually you’ll figure it out.

How did life take you from gymnastics to ultra-running?
After quitting gymnastics I gained a lot of weight and generally became really unhealthy. I picked up running mainly to lose weight, and I still remember my first run when my calves cramped so bad I couldn’t even feel them after a mile. When I moved to the United States for college I lived right next to a trail that had gorgeous views of the Golden Gate Bridge, so I started running more consistently. After a couple of years I entered a trail marathon just to see if I could go the distance. Surprisingly, I placed second – I’d never before ran with people so had no idea that I was fast. I think I lucked out in the genetic lottery for trail running because I’ve never had any formal training for running and gymnastics isn’t exactly an endurance sport.

From then on, I wanted to see if I could go 50 km; then 50 miles. I was signed up for a 100 miler just when Spartan caught my attention, and I found climbing ropes on mountain tops even more fun than just trail running, so I shifted my focus solely to Spartan races. After a year, I started missing the long distance events but wasn’t quite ready to give up the obstacles, so trying a 24-hour World’s Toughest Mudder seemed like the perfect challenge.

You’ve only been racing OCR for a few years yet you excel at the longest, hardest events. What is it about the seriously tough endurance events that you enjoy?
I think I have an extremely high pain tolerance, and I’m really good at getting in the zone. I noticed that after these long, 24-hour events, I don’t really remember suffering. I know it must have been hard because I remember it being difficult, but it’s almost like I was an observer to all of that. When I’m out on the course I don’t really think about it; I just put one foot in front of the other and solve the problems one by one as they come along.

Problem-solving is one of my favourite parts of these races – knowing that things will likely go wrong but also knowing there’ll be time to fix them. For shorter races, you have to almost sprint out the gate, and if you make a mistake or fail an obstacle you’re likely off the podium. But for these long, endurance events, you can jog out the gate, chat with people, give out hugs and high fives, make the wrong food and gear choices, put the wetsuit on front side back, yet still correct all those mistakes and win the race.

© Spartan Race

Do you prefer the training that comes with longer events?
I spend a lot of time out on trails, both running, hiking, biking, and skiing, and I much prefer being in nature for long periods of time rather than doing short, high intensity workouts. I’m also really lucky with how quickly my body recovers, so high volume days are never an issue. Of course, when short races are in season, I adjust my training to make sure my legs have enough speed to not get dropped in those races, but those sessions are never my favourite.

Last year I also got physiological and metabolic assessment done at CU Boulder, which just confirmed what I already suspected: I have a very high lactic threshold and relatively lower VO2 max. This means I can go relatively fast for a very long periods of time without hurting much, but I lack the higher gear required for short and fast races.

Looking at your Strava, you run a crazy amount of elevation (15-19,000ft) each week. Is running uphill a passion?
I’m absolutely in love with running uphill. To me, going up is actually lot easier than going flat, especially for long, unbroken stretches. Views are much better too. I would say it’s a lot harder to find flat trails in Boulder than those going uphill; there’s quite a few of the flat paved bike paths, but only a couple that are dirt, which I prefer to avoid injuries from pounding concrete. I get bored running the same trail too often, but if you don’t mind going up the selection of trails is nearly infinite. I moved to Boulder over a year ago and I’ve only repeated a handful of running loops.

In addition to trail variety, the terrain never gets boring either. There are trails that gain over a 1000 feet in under a mile, full of boulders and roots, really working on those power hiking and technical running skills. Then there’s trails that are less steep and have excellent footing, so you can really work on the uphill running speed – and downhill – without worrying about where your feet are landing. And everything in between. It’s really hard to get bored of running around here, especially with all the changing seasons that make even the same trails look entirely different during different times of the year.

What does a typical week of running look like for you?
I run roughly 80-90 miles a week when there are no races, and I run every day. Around races my mileage drops to around 70 miles a week due to tapering and recovery. I really try to do almost all of those miles on trails or anything that isn’t concrete. I’m lucky enough that the closest trailhead is only a mile away, and I often choose to drive 3 minutes just to get to the dirt.

I don’t really have a firm plan for each week and I do a lot of my runs by feel, making a plan for each day as I assess how I feel in the morning. In general, I have at least two long and slow days, where I go on steeper trails that are much slower, try to get as much vertical feet as possible, and enjoy the views without worrying about my pace. Every week I do at least one hill repeat workout, where at least half of my workout is interval training. I would also add some shorter, 30-second hill repeats at the end of a longer run when I feel good, but those intervals don’t take up more than 10 minutes of the entire run. Then the rest of the runs are either tempo runs or easy runs, depending on how I feel and what the weather is like. Doing anything hard in a blizzard is near impossible, when already walking out the door takes all the mental strength I have for the day!

I also drag my tyre around for 30 minutes once a week when there are no races. Yancy Culp, my OCR coach, suggested I add this into my running training, and it’s worked magic in decreasing my recovery time after the long, 8 hour+ races.

How much elevation do you usually gain in a typical run?
Unless there are flat races on the horizon, all of my runs have 1000+ feet of climbing, unless I feel sore or notice any potential pending injuries. Before flat races I do a bit more flat running, and some of my hill workouts are replaced by flat strides. But as soon as those races are over I quickly find my way back into the mountains.

In the summer when the snow is gone, I also like to venture up in the high country for some of my runs. Above 12,000 feet my pace drops significantly, but my stoke for running increases proportionally. I try to do these adventures as often as I can so my love of running never dies.

What OCR-specific training do you do?
I work with Yancy Culp through his Yancy Camp program, which gives me three workouts a week. They’re a lot like race simulations, each one consisting of short running intervals followed by full body strength, heavy carries, and grip exercises. Grip portions usually involve a lot of hanging on a bar doing different movements: pull ups, shoulder or hip touches with one hand while holding on with the other, switching grip from facing forward to backwards, toes to bar, or just hanging.

I always do those in the afternoons, and since I already run in the mornings I usually substitute runs for low impact cardio machines in the gym – the spin bike or stairmaster are two of my favourites. These workouts are fairly long, so I rarely make it through the entire session – I limit my afternoon gym workout to an hour and a half.

On days without programmed Yancy Camp workouts, I do my own concoctions; sometimes I row – I find that rowing for 30 minutes works on my grip strength as well, maybe because my form isn’t the best, haha. Sometimes I do an interval workout on a spin bike, a plyometrics tabata with emphasis on upper body strength, additional leg strength to help me with hill climbing, leftovers from incomplete Yancy Camp workouts, or cross-training outside; in the winter I go uphill skiing, in the summer I bike more, and I like to hike year round. I used to also do a separate heavy carry workout last year where I’d carry buckets and sandbags up and down a hill, but this year I’m limiting the workouts with high injury risk, so I think I’ll do a lot fewer of those.

You came second at your first skyrace last year – could we see you move away from OCR to skyrunning or back to trail ultras?
I love running in the mountains, but I love running in the mountains with obstacles even more. I don’t see myself leaving OCR any time soon, but I do plan on mixing it up this year. Following the announcement from Tough Mudder that they’re removing the prize money for 2019, I decided to branch out and try some bucket list races I thought I wouldn’t have time to do otherwise. As of now, I’m definitely coming back to the Broken Arrow, which was a blast, squeezing in two more sky races in the US, and possibly one late in the year in Europe. I found that it takes me a lot less time to recover from trail races compared to OCR and they’re a great way to add variety to my season and keep me excited to train and race.

Eventually, I do plan on focusing more on ultra trail, as there are some bigger races I hope to one day qualify for – Western States and UTMB being my two big goals. But these plans can wait while I monkey around for a few more season.

Who are you sponsored by right now?
Ascent Protein, Dryrobe, Mudgear, Spring Energy, Ultimate Direction, and InsideTracker, and I’m also on the Spartan Pro Team.

Check back on Friday to read part two of my interview with Rea, where she discusses World’s Toughest Mudder, fuelling endurance events and sleep deprivation!

You can follow Rea’s racing season in OCR and ultra-running via Instagram: