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Stories

“Everything that I learned for years, through survival training in the special unit, no longer made sense.”

In February, Jovica Spajic, member of the Serbian anti-terrorist special unit as well as X-BIONIC’s authentic athletes faced one of the cruellest challenges in his life so far: he participated in the Yukon Arctic Ultra. We interviewed him afterwards about what he experienced, how he overcame lows, his most important item and much more.

  1. Why did you take part in this gruelling race?

The Yukon Arctic Ultra Race represents a symbiosis of everything that makes Ultramarathon and extreme endurance races special, at the same time beautiful and dangerous. During such a “life chapter” and epic adventure, you experience unforgettable moments filled with the most diverse emotions, lots of “ups and downs”, tears and smiles, and it is necessary to have in addition to exceptional physical preparedness, also mental stability, stress resistance, the ability to move for days with minimal food intake and fluids at temperatures lowering below -55 degrees Celsius, without sleep….

Before the start at the big welcome board of Whitehorse, where the gruelling ultra marathon is hosted.
  1. What has been the toughest during the race?

 I still remember as if I’m looking at the picture of the first night when the race was stopped due to extreme cold (the temperature dropped below -55 degrees Celsius) … I was far ahead, hours ahead of the other participants of the race, on the way to the checkpoint with the evil name “Dog grave”. Completely frozen I looked more like a creature of the most horrible fairy tale than like a man. The supplies of water and food were at the end, and the lightening of the checkpoint did not appear. I felt something was wrong, but I continued on. The body was exhausted and the only thing that pulled me forward was the instinct for survival and a huge desire to experience the return home and a hug from my loving ones.

I no longer thought about the race, but just how to survive the next hour, minute, second… Neither the markings on the track were any more clear, the front lamp was lighting with a low light, the food was completely frozen, without any more water, I went on automatism and let it go. Everything that I learned for years, through survival training in a special unit, no longer made sense. Nature said hers and did not let me go, she made the wall from the ice, darkness and hopelessness, I dropped on my knees, expecting a final blow. Nevertheless, I found a spark of heat somewhere deep inside me and enough strength to persevere and try to get out of the abyss in which I sang.

At one point I heard the voices of people and the lights of the snowmobiles were pointing right towards me. I thought it was hallucination due to exhaustion but told myself that everything was real and that they were people from the organization of the race. I was right. They followed my tracks and informed me that the race was stopped, that I passed next to the checkpoint but the volunteers did not expect me so quickly and  they did not turn the lights and fire in time… Happiness filled my heart and soul again and I was ennobled with a new motive and a desire to continue on, the power returned…

  1. How many layers did you wear?

During the race, I was wearing four layers of clothing including an expedition jacket and trousers. I also wore three pairs of warm socks and two caps, two scarves, three pairs of gloves, and some more additional and spare clothes that were housed in the sledges I dragged during the race.

Jovica dragging the sledge behind him through the winter wonderland.
  1. What’s the most crucial piece of clothing you wore?

For me, the most important part of the clothing was an incredible second layer, as I called it “my super-powerful Spiderman suit”, the revolutionary “ThermoSyphon” set of the X-Bionic brand. This ultra-lightweight set of accessories provides extreme protection in the most challenging environments and gives you great thermo-regulation, comfort and feeling as if it’s a second layer of skin and part of you, monitors every movement and you really have the feeling that you are an action hero, and that your clothing “ThermoSyphon” gives you special power and advantage.

  1. What’s the most crucial item in general in such conditions?

I think that in this case, more important is the mix of more pieces of equipment, and in my opinion, the most important thing is that you have a comfortable and high-quality second layer of clothing, footwear designed for moving on iced and snowy terrain, extremely warm expedition jacket and pants, as well as gloves and socks. I’m trying to get my equipment tested before going to extreme endurance races to know all its advantages and not to be surprised on the race itself.

  1. What do you have to do when you’re cold?

It is very important to move as much as possible to maintain an optimal body temperature. In addition, extremely important is the sufficient intake of liquids, food, electrolytes and other nutrients as it is essential for you to be able to go forward, regardless of the weather conditions. Since I’m slimmer in body composition and with minimal body fat, it’s crucial for me to be constantly moving and to finish such an extreme and long run as soon as possible. 

The nutrition is key during such extreme and ultra distance races. Especially, if the weather conditions are life-threatening.
  1. How did you overcome lows?

The races I participate in are held in some of the most challenging areas in the world, where nature is cruel and does not forgive mistakes. At that time it is very important to respect “Mother Nature” and her laws, and it is even more important to “listen” to your body and those little signals that only the body sends us because we are all special in our own way and individuals for ourselves. With the time you spend in nature and experience, your knowledge deepens and you become more aware of yourself and what you can and what not in the given circumstances.

Remember that after the rain, the brightness and warmth of the sunrays always light us. I encourage myself with the thoughts of the sunrays, the smiles and hugs that are waiting for me after difficult experiences and lows, and know that love and attention are the only things what truly regenerates you, and that happiness is when you know that you and your loving ones are healthy, because health is the most important and it is a prerequisite for all life plans, dreams, hopes, longings, ideas and visions …

  1. How do you apply that to the «normal» life?

Ultramarathon and projects related to the extreme endurance races for me represent an entire “mosaic” of a wide range of knowledge and skills. It awakes in you, this creative, adventurous spirit and you start dreaming about the distant parts of the Planet, and when the race takes you there, you feel immense joy in your heart and soul. You become the protagonist of an extraordinary story, which is not just running, but much deeper and wider. This sport gives you the chance to show yourself personally, both in physically and socially aspects.

Warming and fueling up at a checkpoint.
  1. How much did you sleep during the race?

I’m used to sleeping in long ultramarathon for only a few hours, and sometimes it happens that I do not sleep for three days, moving constantly. During the race of the Yukon Arctic Ultra, I had the opportunity to sleep a little longer, because the race due to extremely low temperatures was stopped several times, so I used every opportunity for a break and a dream that is so important for you to regenerate your body for the efforts that you further expect.

  1. You’ve been mostly on your own with silence around you. How does that feel?

 At some moments you feel peace, you are happy because you can embrace the nature with all your senses, you are alone with your thoughts and you realize how little you need to be happy, away from city noise, stress and crowd. But again, moments come when you feel lonely, discouraged, and apathy “goes” into your heart. Then you have to find a strong motive in yourself to move on and overcome the crisis and all the problems.

  1. How did you prepare for this extreme adventure?

I’ve been training continually for many years, the peculiarities of work ( I am part of the Serbian Special Anti-terrorist Unit – SAJ, the most elite special police formation) and the sport I chose, requires discipline, dedication and perseverance in training. The hard work involved in training gives you confidence and security.

Also, I listen to the signs that the body gives me and I adapt my training to the feeling, I do not have a strict training plan that I have to fulfill, it is important for me to find pleasure and motivation in everything for further upgrading and improvement in the field of physical and mental preparation. Specifically for this race, I prepared myself in Serbia, taking advantage of the fact that winter in Serbia has been very cold in recent years and in some ways I could “simulate” the conditions that would befall me on the race itself. I went to the coldest places in Serbia and in the mountains covered with snow and ice and trained there for days and nights.

Only a few moments until the starting signal sounds.
  1. What’s the most important for such an extreme race?

The most important thing is to be aware of how the Yukon Arctic Ultra and similar races are extreme and dangerous and that it is not just marketing, but it is a “thing” right and real. It is necessary that you go to the race completely healthy, physically fitted and logistically secured, that you know your body perfectly, that you have good quality equipment, a real motive why you are doing it and to be ready for the worst possible scenario, respecting Nature and listening to the advices you get from the Race Director and people who have previously participated in the race, to repair the injuries immediately, on the spot, and to run “your” race, without disregard the other competitors, you shouldn’t bother yourself  with the time and results.

The very fact that you finished the ultramarathon is already a great victory and a heroic act, something that gives a “wind in the back” for other life “struggles” and everyday challenges.

  1. You had to quit the race in the first position due to frostbite on your fingers and nose. What was your first thought when making this decision?

At first, I was very disappointed and with a broken spirit, but then I realized how important is the experience I gained in this race and I am sure it will mean a lot to me in future adventures and races. I have nothing to regret too much, I have given it all, honestly tried and invested all my knowledge and experiences, but sometimes Nature reminds us that we are only human beings, regardless of how physically and mentally we are ready and have the highest quality equipment in the world. Nature always gives the last word, and I am happy because I have preserved my health and passed without serious injuries. When the Yukon Arctic Ultra race ended I got the support from the people around the world who have been following the event and announcements on social media. This gave me a new motivation and “impulse” for new projects and inspirational stories.

  1. What has been the most impressive during the adventure?

Yukon’s nature is special and untouched, you feel like you are the protagonist and character of Jack London’s legendary novels about the wild and unexplored areas of the distant “north” in search of your “personal legend”. The nature of Yukon I will remember my whole life and it will be an inseparable part of my personality.

Thank you for the in-depth interview, Jovica!

“We lived, suffered and loved”

Interview from Laufen.de about the Sahara Desert Race 2017 and the Little Desert Runner’s Club.

You must love desert running – that’s what Rafael Fuchsgruber says. Exactly ten years ago, he discovered this love. Since then he has been drawn back again and again to the driest areas of the earth. Namibia has a special meaning for him – four years ago he won the 250-kilometre ultra race “Sahara Desert”.  A year ago he founded the “Little Desert Runners” Club to celebrate his “ten-year-anniversary” as a desert runner. 15 runners, rookies as well as experienced ones,  followed him into the desert. After returning from Namibia we talked to Rafael Fuchsgruber about the adventure of desert racing.

Back from the Namib. The Little Desert Runners Club spent almost ten days in the desert. How are you doing?

Lovely. We’ve been out for over a week. Away from everything. Out of normal life, out of all forms of modern communication. No network – a single permanent radio hole. We lived, suffered, loved, walked and talked a lot. Just like before – from person to person. Without the chronic check of the smartphone. That’s all it takes.

Your role this time was different from the many desert races before. More a guide than a competitor. You’ve put your own race aside to be able to accompany your team optimally. Didn’t you realize already before the race that focusing on your own race wasn’t enough to get in the front?

That’s the great thing: If everything would have been already clear to me before, I wouldn’t have had this much fun. The Little Desert Runners Club was my baby for over a year. I didn’t just want to celebrate my 10th desert running anniversary with a run, finish it and then hold up a medal. However, I didn’t know before how I would handle my personal run. Before the race, the club was very time-consuming. The communication was lengthy – but I could always squeeze it in between work, family and running. I mostly found time in the evenings for it. On site, however, it was more difficult. When topics arise in the desert, I can hardly say: “I’ll take care of it tonight”. The topics are usually very urgent – excitement, worries, injuries or questions about equipment problems and processes on site. It became completely clear to me during the first twenty kilometres of the race. On the one hand, I tried to run forward. On the other hand, my thoughts always went back to my rookies. Almost all of them participated for the first time in a 250-kilometre desert race. One year we prepared for this race together and now that it happened, I wasn’t able to be selfish and focus only on my own race. Deep inside me, I was hoping until the start to still be able and only focus on my own race. Because I just love it! But after 20 km, I decided to quit the competitive side of the race. That wasn’t a big deal and doesn’t need any further explanation.

Rafael with Christoph Harreither, another very experienced desert runner from Austria, who finished all 4 Desert races – © 4 Deserts

Besides, there was also a film project to work on…

One of the participants, Steffen Neupert, and I filmed two TV formats in addition to our running for RTL. Steffen was obviously more involved than me. It quickly became clear to us that we set ourselves a huge task. It was also Steffen’s first big ultra race as a runner. He was practically at work, finishing his first desert run on the side.

How did you come up with the idea of starting this club a year ago?

During my two races in Sri Lanka and Iran last year, I noticed from some of the runners I supervised, how enthusiastically and enthusiastically they are experiencing these races. I am also still taking part with my heart and soul and a week of running in the desert is still my highlight of the year. But it would be presumptuous to say that my excitement at the starting line is still the same as in the early days. The virginity’s gone. But having many desert rookies around me for my anniversary was a great idea.

A little stretch in the morning enjoying the first sunrays – © 4 Deserts

Do you still think it has been a good idea after the project with 15 runners in the desert?

Absolutely! When I communicated via Facebook the first day that I wanted to take care of my people instead of my race, my wife wrote me a very sweet e-mail in the desert. Among other things, it said: “I knew that before. You are a hound of great solidarity”. The comparison is true because sometimes I have a big muzzle *laughs*. To see it in the right light: The 15 people would have got along without me and would have brought the race home brilliantly. But I had created the club explicitly for desert run beginners. And for a year I felt a great responsibility to get the best out of this project for everyone involved.

So the “Little Desert Runners Club” is going into the next round?

Before the race, I had already agreed with myself that I wanted to let everything sink in for a while. There’s a lot of emotion going into it. It was my anniversary and somehow a step in one direction. I have been trusted very much. That really honours me. We have also received support from sponsors for our wild little club. That’s obviously not a matter of fact at a premiere. On the finish line, we were all in each other’s arms, laughing and crying together. The atmosphere simply called out for a continuation. A picture that is one reason for me to continue: Martina Hesseling at the finish, sitting on a dune, crying alone and completely happy for twenty minutes. Parallel and synchronously crying with Martina, Andrea Löw in my arms. More is not possible! Yes, the club will continue and all new and current “clubbers” are invited. The new challenge: To participate in the Gobi March in Mongolia at the end of July 2018. Again over 250 km within six stages. That’s 14 months from now – a good time to prepare for such a great adventure.

Members of the Little Desert Runners Club showing their excitement about this big adventure – © 4 Deserts

With Rafael Fuchsgruber as a top desert-runner or as a coach and mentor?

There’s not really any of those three. But in Mongolia, the club members will again be in the focus. Although, I will attempt another victory in the age group like in Namibia as always. Otherwise, the role as mentor & coach is fine with me – everyone can call me however one wants. I’ve been called tour guide as well. This fits and reminds me of my former times as manager of various bands. I always came into the hall on the tours and found the sentence: “I am the manager” so stupid and then introduced myself as a tour guide.

Kirsten Althoff proudly showing her winner’s medal – © 4 Deserts

Athletically, your project was a bulls-eye. You still finished in 5th place, four women from the team among the top ten and with Kirsten Althoff a club runner even won. 14 of 15 starters at the finish. You’ve prepared the team well!

The group was very good and there are many reasons for that. With some of them, I was quite close, also in the preparation. Others, less. But in the end, everyone had to find their personal way in the Namib. But let’s look at it the other way round: Dörte Schreinert, who dropped out, volunteered on the long leg and helped us and all the other runners at the checkpoints for the rest of the race. In the best mood, she made her health knowledge available to us. And she gets a lot out of that too. I have to salute for that. Dropping out of the race but still keeping the team in a good mood is a special achievement. Of course, there is also the sporty performance. Though, especially Dörte’s story is a wonderful sign for the team spirit in this club. But I’m also very happy about Kirsten Althoff as the women’s winner, Martina Hesseling as the fourth and AK50 winner, Andrea Löw as sixth and Antje Wensel as 9th. This time only the old desert Fuchsgruber made it into the top ten, but five men between 10th and 20th place.

Kirsten Althoff showing Rafael how to march – © 4 Deserts

The special challenge was the royal stage…

…the long stage over 81 kilometres was pure horror – so beautiful! The first 40 kilometres we ran with 45°C warm headwind, which blew at us with constant 50 km/h. By constant I mean constant – one could almost lean against it. On this stage, 15 out of 95 runners had to drop out. Even some really desert-experienced runners struggled here. Only after checkpoint 3, we made a 90-degree turn and one could walk or run continuously again. Kirsten and I even made it to third place at the last checkpoint. We did a pretty good job that day.

Kirsten Althoff, the winner of the women’s category, enjoying the company of Rafael Fuchsgruber – © 4 Deserts

Did you always accompany a member from the club?

Already from the first stage on, I accompanied our first running clubber. These were Steffen Neupert, Sascha Zipp and then three days in a row Kirsten Althoff, who became stronger and stronger from stage to stage. When I had time and the crew had a car available, I occasionally went out into the desert again after the finish and accompanied runners from the backfield of participants to the finish.

Such a week is certainly extreme in many ways. Did you process everything already?

Nope! Not at all. But it gets better. I had health problems towards the end and at home, shingles made me rest. The overall burden was high. Nevertheless, I wouldn’t want to miss a minute.

What inspired you personally the most?

My people! Let’s neglect for a moment my high expectations for the club. Let’s also avoid to say they’re my people. I’m just the oldest. Let’s also neglect what the clubbers themselves were most enthusiastic about. The most decisive was that the club had a wonderfully long and good “germination time”. The LDRC had one year to grow and on-site in just a few days it went with giant steps an extraordinary final. I don’t mean the athletic part – I’m talking about the smart part, the spirit. If possible, each one of us stood at the finish line in the evening when our last ones came in. The club received admiration and recognition for its spirit from the Namibian crew, media representatives and especially runners from the other 39 countries. And that’s what happens now. The third place winner of the race Jovica Spajic from Serbia wrote to me the day before yesterday that he wants to become a member of our club. We are a free-roaming group of madmen from Austria, Switzerland, Luxembourg and Germany. This spirit carries outwards but also drives each and every one of us. Especially, when things get tough. And it’s guaranteed to get tough in a race like this. If you’re lucky, someone will be there to talk you into the race again and I mean this sentence very lovingly. Even if you may just go on because you don’t want to resist anymore. Our success proves us right in any case. A crisis is a temporary phenomenon. Support is good for that. This is the main task of the club.

A long and flat stretch on gravel. No other sounds besides your breath and footsteps – © 4 Deserts

What can be done better?

I can get better. Much better. With so many people, there are also disagreements. This affects me because my need for harmony is very strong. Disharmony in the desert is impossible – because for me it is the epitome and the place of peace. I can still improve the handling of the topic. But what upsets me much more is unfairness. The fact is that one of our runners knowingly shortened and overtook runners. I only learned that this even happened several times after the race because third parties asked me about it. I’m not personally angry or disappointed. It’s just very embarrassing for the club, which is seen in such a positive light. I have to criticize myself – I should have addressed this as a “team boss”. But I would never have thought that I would have to take care of something like this in the context of a desert race.

And what’s Rafael Fuchsgruber up to? Are there plans for an ambitious race without being a tour guide?

For sure. There will be something else this year. Chile, Mozambique and Chad are possible options. On the last short stage in Namibia, I had the pleasure of running all alone. I missed that a little bit. The three days with Kirsten on the route were sensational. I’ve never run 160 kilometres in the desert with a running partner by my side. What she delivered sportily in her first race is madness. Just as much I am impressed by so much curiosity to ask questions and really listen to the answers. I felt particularly honoured when the interviewer from a Japanese television in Namibia finally said to me: “And once again very warm greetings and congratulations to your daughter on winning the race”.

Antje Wensel marching to 9th place – © 4 Deserts

If you’re interested in a desert race today: What do you have to be able to do and how long do you have to plan to finish such a race?

Quite simply: You have to want it! Best example: Antje Wensel from Dresden. She contacted me two years ago and we met. Antje suffers from lipedema, an inherited fat distribution disorder. Subcutaneous fatty tissue increasingly accumulates in the thighs, buttocks and hips. The typical appearance is a rather slender upper body with a voluminous lower body. She does not have the classic runner figure and can be found in the backfield of the usual races with a marathon time of 5:16 hours. When we met, I liked the clarity with which she saw this race, herself with her illness and the tasks at hand. She wanted it so bad. But she also wanted to tackle the necessary issues. That’s it! She worked it off piece by piece in exactly this clarity and has sensationally walked and marched into the top 10 of the women. And trust me, Antje can march! I tried to keep up with her in the Namib – no chance at all. She’s one of the sensations in this club. I knew she’d make it. But she surprised me with this result and the manner how she achieved it. I didn’t expect this beforehand. But it also shows us what can be achieved if we have a plan and take the necessary steps. And even if you have better conditions than Antje, you still have to take care of the steps. A few years of running experience is good to enjoy the race. The cut-off times at these events are determined in such a way that a runner or marcher can make it at 4 km/h and stay in the race. This, however, for six days from morning to evening. Basically, the direction at the start is important. The pace comes second. The winners only need 23 hours for the 250 km, whereas the slower participants have considerably more of the race with up to 70 hours.

The members of the Little Desert Runners Club at the finish of the Sahara Race – © 4 Deserts

The Little Desert Runners Club starts on 29 July 2018 in Mongolia at the Gobi March. Fourteen months preparation time is ideal!

Original interview by Norbert Hensen in German

The human behind the athlete Jovica Spajic

Jovica Spajić was born in a small village near Priboj – a town surrounded with magnificent mountains and the river Lim in their foothill. He spent his childhood and early youth growing up in one of the most picturesque parts of Serbia where a traditional Serbian family and the moral values of the good-natured people unblemished by civilization development have still been preserved.

Jovica thinking about life and the next big races to come.

The place arose from the foundations of a medieval square and a high fortress, a legacy of a former town Jagat, built to defend and safeguard the monastery from pre-Nemanjic and early Nemanjic era and a generation after generation of its people matured with a deep sense of respect for sanctity, religion, motherland and life. Hence, it is no wonder that Jovica matured from a boy into a young man gifted with virtues which his modest family, his closest surroundings and historical spirit of the place had been instilling into him.
Searching for his quintessence, he continues his schooling in Sremska Kamenica and after graduating from High School of the Internal Affairs, he returns to his hometown where he works until 2008 as a police officer in Priboj police station. The same year, he comes to the capital and becomes a member of Special Anti-terrorist Unit (SAJ) within the Ministry of Internal Affairs of the Republic of Serbia.

Guided by motives enhanced by his permanent desire for constant self-improvement in order to broaden the mind which is resisting selfishness and materialistic impulses, he perfects and completes his spiritual expansion by spreading out into equally sublime physical spheres of interests and actions.
He is a black belt holder in Japanese jiu-jitsu and judo. He competed in Cross Fit and accomplished outstanding results in all disciplines. Since 2012 he has been a member of the Serbian ultra marathon national team and has represented his country at the world’s most significant endurance races and competitions.
He persistently improves and acquires knowledge and skills through continuous courses and training in alpinism, free climbing, parachuting, survival in extreme conditions, topography and nutrition. He is exceptionally tactically, mentally and physically trained.

Jovica covered in ice during the Arctic Ultra 2018. The Energy Accumulator with ThermoSyphon technology enables the perfect thermoregulation below the shelter layer.

All the experience allowed him to undertake the greatest and most extreme ventures a human body can bear. He carefully chooses the biggest and toughest races to take part in. From 2012, his versatility, readiness, motive and a deep faith in himself lead him to the most demanding world ultramarathon races where he becomes one of the best ultramarathon runners in the world. The exceptional thing about him is that he factually is a competitor but above all, he moves his own limits in the fight with his strongest rival – himself.

Jovica back home enjoying the scenic nature surrounding him. This is his retreat to recharge after hectic races or work assignments.

Jovica’s aim is to awaken and motivate other people with his results and determination to make them aware that they can always move their limits, beat themselves, be persistent, committed and believe deeply in their own journey. No matter whether it is the race or challenges in life, surrender is not an option.
One of Jovica’s main characteristics is that he is recognized as exceptionally devoted and ready to help everyone. Results are not a matter of utmost importance for Jovica. The mission and motive which drive him through the race come first. He wants to represent Serbia in the best way on any continent, represent the tradition, the culture and show that Serbians are noble and spiritual people. For him, a race is not just a race, a mere competition or rivalry. For him, each race is a serious project which is planned down to the smallest detail for months beforehand. His modesty, upbringing and understanding of true values of life made him a role model of numerous runners and young people who idealize him.
In each and every race he does his best, led not only by the aim to finish the race but to motivate the ones on the verge of surrender with his own endurance, to give back hope to all who think that they are not strong enough to run their own life races. It has not been his physical fitness and skill that proved to be crucial in any of his races but his complete dedication to the aim which he runs for. The aim has always been inspired by humanity, love and deep faith.
He is highly respected worldwide because he often disregards his own results and success on the race in order to help a competitor in need.

That is the reason why Jovica and his friends founded a running community “Ultra Runner Serbia” which now has over 2,000 members.

Jovica believes that the mental state plays the most important role in order to succeed in endurance sports. However, the physical state is important too and therefore he is determined to train.

Moreover, Jovica brings attention to the problem of Angelman syndrome, pulmonary arterial hypertension as well as other rare diseases. Helping the diseased, people is a strong personal motive. He is determined to help people in need and bring them back hope in goodness, endurance and humanity.
He donated souvenirs and equipment from all his races and sold medals in order to raise money to help children and the ones in need.
His tough, wiry body conceals indomitable will, strength, determination and above all modesty.
Jovica is not a slave of material wealth and does not share the desires of his peers. He always goes back to his solitude and contemplation. Bursts of euphoria of others bring him back to faith in the time when most people struggle with a lack of it. He finds mental strength even when there is nothing left in his body. He recognizes nobility and perseverance in everyone reminding people who they truly are when they are guided with the strength of pure heart, hope and faith.

Here is a list of the big races he participated in:

  • In 2012, he was the only representative of the Balkans in the ’’Sahara race’’, a 250 km long stage race with 250 competitors from all over the world. He takes 17th place overall and 5th place in his category.
  • In 2014, he participated in a 24-hour race and 100 km at the IAU Ultramarathon which took place in Palic, Serbia. He broke the national record of Serbia in 24-hour racing by running over 222 km.
  • In 2014, he took part in “Tor des Geants”. It’s a 333 km long trail ultramarathon in the Alps with a total elevation gain of 24,000m.
  • In 2014, he competed with the best ultramarathon runners in “Icarus Florida Ultra Fest“, a six-day race on a certified track. He was second overall and first in his age category with a new national record of 682.30 km.
  • In 2014, he took part in “Milano – San Remo“ ultramarathon, a 283 km long race. Among elite world ultramarathon runners, he was the youngest competitor but managed to finish the race in the top 10 and first in his age category with the time of 41 hours and 13 minutes. 85% of competitors didn’t finish the race.
  • In 2015, he finished the legendary race “Badwater” in Death Valley, USA. The race belongs to the toughest ultramarathons in the world, running 217 km from the lowest point in the USA up to 2530m in California. Jovica finished in 8th place overall and 2nd place in his age category.
  • In 2015, he represented Serbia at the 24-hour World Championships in Torino, Italy.
  • In 2015, he published a book called“Beat Yourself” together with a SAJ colleague in which he writes about physical and mental preparations for endurance sports.
  • In 2016, he took part in the World cup “World Trophy” in Athens. He won the 6-day race and set a new national record of 702 km.
  • In 2016, he won “La Ultra – The High“ in the Himalayas and broke a long time record. The race is 333 km long and takes place in the Indian part of the Himalayas at an average altitude of 4.800 m.
  • In 2017, Jovica, inspired by hope, inspires others and runs for the ones who can’t. He sets new standards in the ultramarathon. His will and motivation lead him to races on three different continents with a total temperature difference of over 100° C – from the North Pole and the Arctic to the hottest part of the Namibian desert.
  • In 2017, he took part in the “Yukon Arctic Ultra” at the Arctic Circle, a 700km long race which is run with temperatures reaching -50° C.
  • In 2017, he ran the “Sahara race” which takes place in the Namib, the world’s oldest desert. It’s an ultramarathon stage race of overall 250 km at temperatures exceeding +50° C. Jovica finished in 2nd place overall.
  • In 2017, he took part in a legendary “TAHOE Lake” in California, the last habitat of the Navaho Indians in the national park Homewood. He finished the 340 km long race as 4th overall.
  • In 2017, he also participated in a legendary race called “Jungle Marathon”, the last edition of the race and enters history as the winner of certainly one of the toughest ultramarathons in the world.

Running the Sahara Desert

The journey to run the Marathon des Sables started two years before even standing at the starting line in the blistering heat of the Moroccan desert with 1200 other enthusiastic runners. Last doubts are pushed aside and I bravely clicked the “submit” button on the application form of the Marathon des Sables. My sportswear closet contains many marathon finisher shirts, but 250 sandy kilometres through the heat of the Sahara is a different story. The challenges for such an endeavour are plentiful: gathering together the optimal equipment, testing race nutrition or keeping the balance between job, family and training, just to name a few.

These guys are much better adapted to the conditions than us humans. However, the Fennec running pants did a great job in keeping my legs cool, too.

Planning stage: The race distance is 250 km within 7 days. Roughly 20% of the race will be through energy-sapping sand dunes with fine sand, the other on gravel, dried salt lakes and mountain ridges. Temperatures are expected to be above 30°C during the daytime and drop to 5°C at night.
The organiser offers rationed water, a tent for shelter and medical support if necessary. The runners, on the other hand, carry their entire gear, including the sleeping bag, cooking utensils and nutrition for a week.

Blowing Sahara sand, which a friend imported, onto different gaiters to check their functionality. Testing your equipment is essential!

Training: My preparation in the lead up to the event consisted of five workouts a week with many back-to-back runs and up to 100 km a week. Almost every run was also used to test different equipment and clothing options. Early on, the choice fell on the X-Bionic Fennec pants. This much I can reveal: they served me very well during the race. Backpacks and sleeping bags were also tested during short overnight stays on different campgrounds. The tapering phase, the month before flying to Morocco, was used for heat training with 10 sessions of 40 minutes at 40°C. In order to achieve these conditions, I set up a treadmill and installed a heater inside the bathroom. This torturous training prepared me well and is now a standard part of my preparations for races in heat.

My training centre at home, converting the family’s bathroom into a heat chamber with radiant heaters.
Perfect temperatures at home to acclimatize to the heat in the Sahara.

 

“Whenever my mind is challenging my sanity for enrolling in this race, I close my eyes and see the breathtaking views from a tall sand dune. I am sure it will be worth the sacrifice. “

Travelling: After a long day of travelling by plane and bus we finally arrived at the first bivouac, a tent city in the Moroccan desert. Every sense is presented with a new sensation: the air is clear and dry, the hot sun is relentlessly challenging our skin and steps are demanding in the soft sand.
Here, I first meet my tent mates, a group of dedicated runners with a common goal in mind.
The challenges over the next days will let us grow together as a family. After the medical check, the backpack is re-packed once more. It is barely closing, with the zipper under tension. Just like a slightly too little shirt over a belly. The last night before the start is short due to a sandstorm and the wind almost blew our tent away.

Race day: At sunrise, the bivouac turns into an ant farm with all the competitors getting busy cooking breakfast and getting ready for the first “ACDC- Highway to hell”, which will mark the start of every morning in the following days.

Before the start, proudly presenting Switzerland. There is a certain tension amongst the athletes.

Day 1 – 34 km (570 hm): After 3 km we reach a huge patch of picturesque sand dunes. Breathtaking views but also breathtakingly hard to run on. Reading the sand is an art form, which, when done correctly, allows you to run on wind compressed sand. The shoulder strap of my backpack is already cutting into my shoulders. After a while, the wind picks up and stops any running activity. Wrapped in a balaclava to protect the airways, we lower our heads and lower the pace to a brisk walk. The hot sand stings on the skin. We all remain covered in sand for the next 3 hours until we reach the finish line where we collect the rationed water and move to our tent to asses the damages on our feet and equipment. I twisted my right ankle stepping on a rock today, but I am fortunate that I only needed a bandage.

Using wood that was collected in the vicinity of the camp we start a small fire. However, the wind made it difficult to maintain the fire burning.

In the middle of a dried out salt lake.

Day 2 – 41 km (320 hm): The road book points out, that day two should be a fairly easy day with 41 km without significant amounts of sand dunes. However, my perfect race comes to a forceful stop at 22 km, where I find myself dealing with stomach cramps. Two salt tablets without sufficient liquid have been a bad idea. I walk to the next checkpoint and rehydrate in the shade of a tent. After resting for a while, I decided to speed walk the rest of the distance in the glistening sun. I also had to make use of my secret weapon, a small iPod with an audiobook on it. Reaching the finish line after 7 hours we are told, that this day showed one of the highest dropout rates in the history of the race. Incredible heat, wind and only 7% humidity took its toll on all of us.

Day 3 – 37 km (370 hm): It is truly amazing how fast your muscles recover if you treat them well: yesterday, shortly after passing the finish line I took a protein meal and elevated the legs for 2 hours. Today, my legs feel fine again, despite the marathon yesterday. The plan for stage 3 is to start slow and conserve energy for the large stretch over some impressive dunes and the first Jebel (desert mountain). Carrying three litres of water makes the backpack heavy and the extra bottle fixed on my front pack rocks back and forth kicking my stomach and making me nauseous.
After 100 km in the desert, I finally learned to read the sand and efficiently place my steps. Rule of thumb: sand with fine ripples as well as sand with any vegetation is harder. Running the dunes downhill is a lot of fun, but if you run too fast your back leg will get stuck in the sand and cause a fall. I had a great race today and was able to keep up the pace until the finish line. Finishing strong – a true confidence booster for the next day.

It’s running smoothly today.

Word of mouth is spread quickly and so I became the “official” blister doctor for all neighbouring tents: I open the blister with a needle and replace the fluid with a red eosin solution. After 30 seconds of a burning feeling, some tears and unpronounceable swear words, I squeeze out the red fluid and compress the wound tightly with a bandage. Runners in the next tent are not feeling well today and we hear vomiting sounds. Unfortunately, many will drop out of the race this evening. While the water was cooking for my Spaghetti Bolognaise, I decide to use some precious water to rinse my X-Bionic gear. It was easy to remove the salt collected over the past days and my pants and shirt were just as new.

Climbing up one of the Jebels.

Day 4 – 84 km (1000 hm): At 8.30am ACDC is played and we set off to the longest stage of the race. Shortly after the start, we climb up the steep Jebel Otfal holding onto ropes. After taking in the breathtaking view at the summit we run downhill on the opposite side. The rocks on this mountain remind me of huge blocks of dark glass with shattered parts sharp as knives. My garters get ripped open twice, which forces me to take out my sewing needle and close the holes. I can’t risk that sand will enter my shoes and cause blisters. The next stretch through the Sahara is brutal. Around noon we stand in the centre of an immense salt flat fully exposed to the sun. The view of the mountain chain in the distance seems out of focus in the glimmering air. My shadow is barely covering my feet that take me forward step by step. After many more hours, the temperatures drop with the setting sun. The final 35km have to be run in the dark, which adds a new challenge. Reading the sand in the beam of the headlights is impossible and we need so much energy sinking in with every tiny step. We have to make additional rest breaks which offer the possibility to enjoy the night sky. I have never seen so many stars before and it seems that there are no black areas at all. The last 10 km are torturous because the finish line is clearly visible and seems so close, but does not come any closer. After a while, tired and happy, we reached our tent. After 1h the thighs stop burning and I fall into a shallow sleep.

Looking back at the big amount of runners who still have to climb the sand dune.

Day 5 – Rest Day: Sleeping in is just not possible after sunrise. The heat in the black tents is unbearable. Sitting in the shade in underwear, we try to catch some of the desert winds to cool our bodies. After 2000 calories I can feel my body recover and I can move around the bivouac. A headache is bothering me and I take care to replenish sufficient fluid and salt throughout the day. Everybody makes use of the spare time to send short emails from the media tent. Many of the runners are still out there in the blistering sun making their way to the finish line. At 5 pm we spot the two camels which accompany the last runners. Everybody makes their way to the finish line to welcome the final athlete with a great round of applause.

The nutrition during such long races is one of the key elements.

Day 6 – 42 km (270 hm): I have already eaten 4 kg of food from my backpack so carrying it became so much easier. Today, I want to challenge my body and start the day with the goal to run a respectable time over the marathon distance. After the gun goes off, I put in the effort and try to stay with the lead runners. While some clouds are protecting us from the sun, the temperatures are still too high for me to maintain my effort. I decide to start a shuffle allowing my body to cool down after every 15 minutes. From the roadbook, I recall that the navigation calls for two left turns and therefore stay as far left as I can. This saves me an energy-sapping detour through small dunes. The finish line comes in sight. I push harder and go over my aerobic threshold, but I have nothing to lose – the ultimate goal of the 2-year journey is in sight. After passing the finish I drop to my knees and sit in the sand for a long while.

During this adventure, I was taught many valuable lessons. The most striking lessons were the following:

  1. You can teach your body to recover fast – back-to-back runs are a great workout for that
  2. Test all your equipment beforehand, you will be happy you did
  3. Prepare for the heat in any possible way (clothing, heat training, sun protection…)
  4. During endurance events like the MdS, it’s a small ridge between “all is running smoothly” and “catastrophic loss of energy” lay really close together. Accept this and make plans on how to cope and adapt to realistic goals. With the right mindset, you will get back on your feet and to the finish line.

Your Daniel

24h MTB European Champion on a diet

One week before the European Championships I took part in a charity campaign for multiple sclerosis sufferers. The goal was to collect as many vertical meters and thus also money for the Nathalie-Todendöfer-Foundation within 12 hours. Actually not the best preparation for an important race one would think. But I got to know incredible people with touching life stories, who have an enormous will to live (and survive). Cycling means living for them. Since I was still the World Champion in the Masters class, I was at the start with my World Champion jersey and many MS sufferers told me that it is motivating for them to be allowed to ride with me. It was exactly these great people who deeply impressed me and gave me the necessary motivation for the European Championships. So I was determined to give my all for these personalities at the European Championships.

Optimized training, structured nutrition, highly motivated and tuned the bike, I travelled to Dießen am Ammersee with my support team one day before the race. It had rained for half a day and it was already certain that it would be a mud battle because the soil in the forest and on the meadows would probably not dry so quickly. For time and weather reasons, we refrained from a track inspection.

I was floating over the track in the first laps and no solo starter could follow me.

The alarm clock rang at 4am and it was just too early to get up. With small eyes, I tortured myself out of the bed. Breakfast, set bikes and off for the race.

When we got there, our pavilion was gone. The entire area was closed and not a single team was there. Sascha Straus, a befriended cyclist, came running towards me. “The area is closed. We took down your tent yesterday and put it back up there.” He pointed to our pavilion that was now located in the paddock but at a descent. Not perfect for catering during the race, but at least it was directly on the track. That is the beauty of us “extreme riders”. You help each other and it’s more about friendship than about rivalry. Unfortunately, this is far too rare in sport.

After the shock with the pavilion, there came immediately the next one. My girlfriend was furious because I had bought too little and the wrong drink and had much too little to eat. “You want to race a 12-hour race on carbonated mineral water? You only have three bars with you and there’s only a sip left in the iso bottle. That’s never enough. You’re gonna die like a raisin!” I knew she was right. But I had to counter somehow. “I brought homemade bars, five jelly babies and homemade gel. It’ll be all right.” Don’t panic was my motto. It was now 7:30 am, another 30 minutes until the start and the sun was already burning down from the sky. It promised to be a hot day and I really had to keep up with the few calories I had packed.

Refuelling, no matter whether it’s carbs, electrolytes, or simply water, is one of the key factors to success in any endurance sport.

The starting shot was fired, 68 individual starters and a total of 99 teams whipped off. I tried to put a lot of pressure at the beginning because I knew that you couldn’t keep up the pace in the scorching midday sun. Especially if you didn’t have enough food like me. So I mingled with the teams of six and four. But right from the beginning they set a good pace and my pulse was above the 170 mark several times during the first lap. As expected it was still really wet in the forest sections and on the meadows. It took a lot of energy, but everybody had to go through it.

Maximal concentration in full speed action.

After three hours of racing and an average heart rate of 155, I had already gained a considerable lead. So I slowed down a bit because I knew that the heat would come. In the forest it was still reasonably pleasant, but in the transition area and in the team area, which were below the mountain, the air was stagnant. I called this place “Death Valley”. I was very happy that I didn’t ride the race with my world champion jersey. On the one hand, I was a bit embarrassed but on the other hand, I could fall back on all advantages of my cooling jersey from X-Bionic.

The atmosphere cycling through the lush forests is remarkable. Not to forget about the much appreciated shade!

Meanwhile, the pulse levelled at 140 beats per minute and the lap times also became slower and slower. I received the information from another driver that a group of five had formed behind me, apparently working together. But it turned out that there was a good minute between my pursuers. So the race was really on and a gruelling race arose.

This is how it’s done!

My very economical diet was now also a problem for me, but I knew that this was now a tactically decisive point of the race. I pushed the pace and put quickly anther 5 minutes advantage on my competitors. However, after eight hours of driving, not only my stomach felt empty, but also my legs. The dry, hot air and the thrifty diet made me feel more and more uncomfortable and I slowed down. Even though I slowed down, I still increased my lead. Everybody was suffering from the conditions.

The last few hours have been a crucial test for the head. The legs did their job, but the mind kept screaming “stop”. Though, encouragement from the reigning 24-hour world record holder Slim Gamh-Drid, helped a lot. The last two hours, I didn’t minimized the risk and slowed down. I talked to the marshals and my comrades on the track. I tried to give back what they gave me before. Encouragement. Even even gave my last gummy bear to a participant who apparently really needed it. Before the last lap I even had enough time to put on the world champion jersey for the finish.

Taking in the atmosphere and cheers from the incredible crowd in my last lap.

The numbers to win the MTB 12-hour European Championships in the solo category: 264 kilometres with 4,600m elevation and 5,000 calories.

Your,
Kai

It feels surreal to be on top of the podium.