We took some time to speak to Serbian Utlra Marathoner Jovica Spajic before taking on the Atacama Crossing in Chile.
Hey Jovica! Where are you now? What is your upcoming race schedule looking like?
At the moment I am in Serbia and I’m going through my final preparations before my departure to Chile.
During the past few years I’ve been somehow profiled as an athlete who loves to run on some of the World’s most demanding environments. I like to choose races where I can use some of the skills that I’ve learned in my Special Anti-terrorist Unit – SAJ training.
My upcoming race, the Atacama Crossing in Chile is just that. I will experience everything that Mother Nature could possibly throw at someone in this unique and epic event. Desert heat, high altitude, sand, strong wind, you name it, I’ll be experiencing everything on this long journey.
Athletes must find a way to survive and battle with weather conditions, distance, sleep deprivation and among many factors that could determine the final result. Atacama Crossing represents a symbiosis of everything that makes an Ultramarathon and extreme endurance races special. It’s both beautiful and dangerous at the same time. 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. It’s absolutely necessary to have not just exceptional physical preparedness, but also mental stability, stress resistance, the ability to move for days with minimal food intake and fluids at temperatures between -7 and +37 degrees Celsius.
I think many people don’t know a whole lot about Serbia, let alone its running scene. Can you give us some insight into running in your country?
I was born in Priboj in Serbia in 1987. and grew up with my grandparents in Serbia’s wild mountains. As a boy I would often listen to my late grandfather’s tell fairy-tale-like stories late into the night. We were 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.
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.
Running and especially Trail-running is growing day by day in Serbia.
Our planet is full of beautiful landscapes, but Serbia offers many choices in one place. Mountains in Serbia are barely known, unexplored, unused and untouchable, but full of natural beauties, rareness and diversity, each wonderful on its own way. With altitude up to 2000 meters above sea level, it offers countless opportunities for hiking, trekking, mountain biking, enjoying nature, leisure, recreation, training, exploration and adventure.
If I’m correct, you’re part of the Special Anti-Terrorist Unit of the Ministry of Internal Affairs of the Republic of Serbia – SAJ. That’s quite a mouthful. Can you tell us more about how your military training has shaped your approach to ultra-marathons?
My whole life has been about training. When I first joined the Serbian Special Anti-Terrorist Unit SAJ, I could no longer travel to the city to practice my martial arts (Judo). 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 a real sense of freedom. 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 phoenix, I’ve always managed to rise from the ashes and go on, more courageously and with renewed vigor, heading into even bigger and tougher challenges.
The special forces for me is like my second family. In my 12 years in the SAJ there’s been a lot of dangerous situations. It’s very stressful serving and these experiences make me strong from a psychological point of view. 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.
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 to run in nature, where it’s just you by yourself with nature.
What do you love most about ultras?
Ultra-running and especially this type of extreme Ultra-trail distance running is somehow synonymous to our regular life. You have a lot of ups and downs, high and low points, but you must always find motivation and inspiration to move forward and be determined and dedicated until the finish line. My credo is always: “Slow is smooth, smooth is fast.” 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 it sends you. With the time you spend in nature and experience, your knowledge deepens, and you become more aware of yourself and what you can and cannot do in any given circumstance.
Remember that after the rain, the brightness and warmth of the sun rays always light us. I encourage myself with the thoughts of the sun rays and the smiles and hugs that are waiting for me after each difficult experience. I also know that love and attention are the only things that truly can regenerate you. To me happiness is when you know that you and your loved ones are healthy, because health is the most important thing, it is a building block for all life plans, dreams, hopes, longings, ideas and visions …
Ultramarathon and projects related to the extreme endurance races for me represent an entire mosaic of a wide ranging knowledge and skills. It awakes in you, this creative, adventurous spirit and makes you start dreaming about the most distant parts of our planet. When the races finally take 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 something much deeper. This sport gives you the chance to show yourself just how special you are.
What is your favourite race you’ve completed so far? What was the hardest and why?
Often described as the most challenging and cruel ultra-marathons on the planet, La Ultra – The High is a race like no other.
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 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. I was lucky enough to win this amazing race.
At some moments in this race 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 enters your heart. That’s when you have to find motivation deep within yourself in order to move on and overcome the crisis or problem in front of you.
Nature reminds us that we are only human beings, regardless of how physically and mentally prepared we feel or how ready we are with all of the highest quality equipment in the world. Nature always has the last word.
With a race like La Ultra – The High, the very fact that you finished the ultramarathon is already a great victory and a heroic act. It certainly gave me wind in my back for future life struggles and everyday challenges.
On a lighter note, what is your favourite snack while on an Ultra?
I use rice cakes that I make myself.
You just boil lots of rice and then get a tupperware box. Add one layer of rice, one layer of jam, one layer of peanut butter and another layer of rice. Leave it in the fridge overnight and then cut into small squares on the morning.
The rice cakes are very easy to eat, easy to digest because they fall apart into little pieces and full of slow release carbohydrates and water. The jam provides some sugar and the peanut butter a little bit of protein and fat.