Confusion abounded at the finish line of the inaugural Spartan Ultra World Championship on Sunday, Dec. 17, in Reykjavik, Iceland, but it had nothing to do with the outcome of the race.
Joshua Fiore, a resident of North Andover, Mass., was the winner – that much was certain. What puzzled the race’s announcer and other spectators gathered at the finish line was why Fiore was so intently digging into his pack pocket rather than exuberantly celebrating his world championship.
“Uh-oh, we’ve got a surprise coming,” the announcer said.
“Passport?” the announcer eventually speculated, before making a better – albeit incorrect – guess: “Is that a Mylar Blanket?”
The announcer and spectators found out what Fiore was digging for moments later when he walked over to his girlfriend, Cheryl Puello, dropped to his left knee and asked her to marry him.
“Winning the race, and dare I say winning at life!” the announcer appropriately said, moments after Puello said yes.
In Puello, Fiore found an ideal partner and enthusiastic supporter of his passions. She has been his support crew at numerous races, and did so again at the world championships.
“Cheryl and I have been together for about five years,” Fiore said. “She has been my absolute rock through both training for these crazy endurance races and supporting me as she did in this race. She was my solo pit crew for the entire 24 hours and did a phenomenal job!”
It was important to Fiore that he and Puello share a life-changing moment at the finish line together, so he secretly built that into his race strategy.
“To be completely honest, it wasn’t that bad (staying focused on the race) until the end of the race,” he said. “I was using the Salomon S-Lab 12 Vest which has a zippered back and comes with a space blanket inside of a small Ziploc bag where I hid the ring. I carried it with me the whole time but didn’t realize that I needed to get it out until crossing the finish line as the winner with all these people and cameras staring at me!”
Before Fiore and Puello could share their magical moment at the finish line, he had to endure 24 grueling hours on the race course. The race began at noon Saturday, Dec. 16, and Fiore and his fellow competitors had 24 hours to complete as many laps as they could of the approximately six-mile course and its abundance of obstacles.
The field separated quickly, and Fiore and four other competitors built a sizeable gap on the others within the first 16 miles. By the time they reached the 50K mark the top four had established themselves. Fiore held a seven-minute lead on David Dietrich of Austria after 37 miles, followed 24 minutes later by Pavel Paloncy of the Czech Republic and Chris Lemke of Germany.
“The race itself was brutal,” Fiore said. “The ground itself was incredibly icy with mixed conditions of both soft and hard, uneven ground. This meant that every step throughout the entire course had to be calculated or else you were taking a pretty bad fall. The obstacles also gave another aspect to the race, because if you failed them you either had to do burpees at the end of the six-mile loop all at once or added distance in a penalty loop.”
After one loop Fiore was forced to do 120 straight burpees before heading back out onto the course.
The terrain presented a notable challenge.
“The hardest part of this race was the mountain,” Fiore said. “Each loop had about 1,800 feet of elevation gain and the majority of it was about a half-mile up an incredibly steep incline. Most of this climb you were hands over feet and had to pull yourself up on rocks because of either loose rocks or ice for your feet to grab ahold of. This was all done without any type of climbing gear, hiking poles, or crampons (all of which were not allowed per the rules of the race.”
The athletes were battered by rain, sleet, wind and snow, and they spent much of the race faced with freezing temperatures. That was just fine with Fiore. In addition to wearing and carrying proper gear for the conditions, he said his time playing in the New England outdoors and running ultramarathons with the Trail Animals Running Club had him well prepared.
“I actually felt great all along,” he said. “Other than my hands at times, I was very warm with my layers of clothing, Darn Tough mountaineering socks, and Inov8 shoes. I also attribute my ability to react to the course and these elements to being an ultramarathon athlete from Massachusetts! They had a saying in Iceland, ‘If you don’t like the weather, wait five minutes.’ I’ve grown up most of my life in Mass., and that is a very common saying here as well.”
Through it all, Fiore continued to set the pace. He was the first athlete to cross through 44 miles, and he completed his eighth lap of the course (50.70 miles) in 13:51:52, a comfortable 15 minutes ahead of Dietrich and 39 minutes ahead of Paloncy.
Paloncy made a strong push in the final hours and passed Dietrich for second place, but nobody caught Fiore. All three of the top finishers completed 71.1 miles, but Fiore got it done the fastest with a time of 22:55:42. Paloncy took second in 23:16:01, followed by Dietrich in third in 23:39:04.
“I think at the end of the race I was both in a state of shock and joy,” Fiore recalled. “Winning anything is still foreign to me, but that is what endurance racing has given I think me and many other athletes. It’s almost like this thing that you never knew you had or were good at growing up, but once you find it, it’s amazing!”
Two athletes, Lemke and Robert Killian (2015 Spartan World Champion from Charleston, S.C.), both completed 64.3 miles. The top two women, Morgan McKay and Vanessa Gebhardt, were the fastest two athletes to finish with 57.5 miles. A total of 85 competitors in the Elite Division completed at least 30.3 miles within the time limit.
For Fiore, the winning a world championship was a dream come true, and his engagement moments later made it all that much sweeter. As he looks to 2018, he knows another exciting year is in store. In addition to wedding planning, he has a variety of trail ultramarathons and ultra-distance obstacle course races on his calendar – as well as a championship to defend.
“In this coming year I look forward to running more local ultras and ‘shorter’ eight-hour obstacle course endurance races leading up to next year where I plan on competing in both World’s Toughest Mudder (24-hour race) and next year’s Spartan Ultra World Championship to defend my title!”