Variously described as the most challenging and cruel ultra marathons on the planet, La Ultra – The High is a race like no other, a class of ultra that’s a step up (maybe a few) from the rest.
Firstly, it’s long, very long. In just 72 hours, competitors try to cover an incredible 333km traversing three 17, 500 ft high mountain passes of Ladakh - a massive cold desert, which is part of The Great Himalayan mountain range in India. The race begins at the base of the Karakoram Range in Nubra Valley, moves towards the mighty Indus River after crossing Khardung La (the highest drivable road in the world at 18,380 ft). The finish line is set in Morey Plains, an elevated stretch of land at 15,500 ft, that marks the beginning of Changtang plateau.
Secondly, if the distance doesn’t beat you, the brutal conditions might. Set in a high altitude desert, temperatures can fluctuate from +40°C to -12°C in matter of just six hours. What’s more, oxygen levels are 50% of what you breathe at sea level.
The very idea of tackling La Ultra – The High seems ludicrous, bordering on the insane. It’s a race that’s redefining the limits of human endurance, both mental and physical.
Unsurprisingly, only a few in the world of ultra running dare to take up this challenge. Even less surprising is the fact that in the past six years, 59 runners from 22 different countries have participated and just 30 have finished.
If a competitor is not at very pinnacle of physical and mental fitness, this is a race that should not even be considered. The demands on body, mind and soul are immense. The La Ultra – The High is one of the utmost tests of psychological stability and resistance to stress.
Joint winner (with Grant Maughan from Australia) of this year’s La Ultra – The High, 333km category is Serbian, Jovica Spajic whose herculean effort saw him complete the race in a staggering 60:37:58.
With a background in martial arts (he hold black beslts in jiu-jitsu and judo) and a member of the Serbian Special Anti-Terrorist Unit (SAJ), the thoroughly formidable and impressive Spajic is no stranger to the tremendous physical and mental resolve required to complete at such a punishing level.
UVU catches up with the legendary ‘Serbian Wolf’ to understand what motivates him to tackle this most onerous of ultra marathons and what it takes to push himself to the edge of his endurance levels.
Congratulations on your incredible result at the La Ultra – The High. You must be delighted?
Winning it is one of the best results of my running career. I have been running for just four years and have run 30 ultra marathons beyond 200km, so far. I was best the European who finished at Badwater, for example. Almost all of the races I have competed in, I have won. But this is the number one for now.
How did you take your first steps into becoming a long distance runner?
My whole life has been about training. When I first came to the Serbian Special Anti-Terrorist Unit, I could no longer travel to the city to practice my martial arts. The only other thing I could really do was to run in the fields and the mountains. When you run in the mountains it gives you a clear mind. You have a true relationship with nature. You feel and real sense of freedom.
We understand this love of nature was very much inspired by your grandfather?
Yes, I remember the words of my late grandfather when I had as a boy listened to his fairytale-like stories, tucked in an old wooden house far away in a small mountain village in Serbia. I listened to the howling of wolves coming from the depths of the one hundred year old oak forest on the top of the mountain. I made a firm promise to myself that night that one day, when I grow up, I will search for and see those mysterious forest creatures. My grandfather encouraged me never to give up, never to break down, always push myself to the limits in everything I do. It has always stuck with me.
There must be parallels between SAJ training and tasks with your experiences in ultras?
As a member of the special forces, during different field trainings and tasks, I faced extreme physical and psychological difficulties, constantly and repeatedly questioning the limits of my abilities, my motivation and strength of spirit. In the same way, participating in some of the world’s hardest ultramarathons, I have passed through the most extreme areas on the planet, through dark rainforests and endless plateaus. I’ve been scorched by the sun and whipped by the wind, my faith has been tested by rain and storm, I’ve suffered from hypothermia and heat shocks, but like the legendary bird phoenix, I’ve always managed to rise from the ashes and go on, more courageously and with new vigor, heading into even bigger and tougher challenges.
The training must help you?
So much of the knowledge I have acquired with the SAJ is incredibly helpful. Topographic understanding; how to survive in nature; what to expect in really tough conditions. I can manage to run really well in extreme environments, in harsh environments and in conditions where there’s mountains, snow, rain and mud. I like that sort of race. I don’t really care so much for 24-hour races on tarmac. I like to run in nature, where it’s just you by yourself against nature. The knowledge I have from SAJ gives me the edge on other ultra runners, I think.
Tell us about you first ultra, how did you get on?
After one of my tasks with the SAJ I was at my base and I read about the Sahara Race in the desert. It felt like a unique challenge where you could push yourself to the very limits and find new inspiration for your training and your life. On that race I turned up with my old shoes, cheap equipment and running gear, my food was very basic – I had nothing that was specifically for an ultra. For me there was so much suffering. I think I lost about 14 kilos in about 5 days.
After that race something changed within me. I started to run more and train constantly, always going to the mountains with a backpack. I found myself in ultra distance running because it’s like a river. It is not like running a few seconds and then you are finished, in ultra running it is about covering lots of ground, going from left to right, the bigger picture.
What drives you to carry on during one of your races?
The special forces for me is like my second family. We eat together, we train together, we fight together. There are so many inspirational moments with my colleagues, and these moments give me something really positive to focus on during the really difficult moments in ultra marathons.
I find also find motivation in small things and people around me. I try to motivate other people with my own example, to start training and running, at least for their health and recreation. Constant pushing of the endurance limits is another thing that motivates me, as well as my responsibility towards my own family, country and special unit. They live their dreams through my races. It is not about money or glory. It’s a deeper story than that.
We understand that you do a lot of charitable work raising awareness of the Angelman syndrome - a complex genetic disorder that primarily affects the nervous system of children? That must also be very motivating for you?
There’s not a huge amount known about the syndrome. Most affected children also have recurrent seizures and a small head size. Delayed development becomes noticeable by the age of 6 to 12 months, with other common signs and symptoms usually appear in early childhood. Children with Angelman syndrome typically have a happy, excitable demeanor with frequent smiling, laughter, and hand-flapping movements. It is very tough for the family.
I tried to raise awareness of those children and their parents to life during the race. With that picture in my heart, it made the more challenging stages of the race easier. I was doing it for them. It was a huge psychological boost for me. I was the wings for those children. They believe in me and believe in my story. They believe that they can finish this impossible race.
What’s the best thing about running for you?
For me it is the feeling when you finish a race. You have so much peace in your soul. You become a better person for doing it. Everyone thinks you are a better son, brother and friend. You have so much positive energy, which you can take into other areas of your life. You become like some kind of inspiration source for everybody, like a person that they can look up to. Your soul is much more complete.
But there must be a low after the high of finishing a race like La Ultra – The High?
After the race you often don’t feel happy or sad, you just feel empty. Everything else feels so normal. You don’t laugh. You meet an emotional low point, Maybe it’s a stress thing. After a few days, when I come home and spend time with my family or with my unit, then I can stop and think about happy and positive things about the race. But I always have another project in mind. Luckily, I need very little recovery time. Two days after a race I can run normally again and get back to work and my training.