Tag Archives: ultrarunning

“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!

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.