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“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!