(This article originally appeared in Mud & Obstacle)
The Reebok Spartan Race World Championship will be decided at the Vermont Beast in Killington, Vermont, on September 20. With a sizeable cash prize and national exposure at stake (the race is scheduled to air tape-delayed on both NBC and NBCSports on November 16), every Spartan elite will be eyeing the podium.
This year’s men’s race is wide open. Spartan chief Joe De Sena says this is the best men’s field they’ve ever had, and any number of competitors could win it, even those not on the radar. Reigning champ Hobie Call is sitting this one out. So who’s going to take it? Here’s a look at some of the top contenders.
Isaiah Vidal – At 21-years-old, Vidal is only beginning to enter his physical prime. That’s a scary thought for other racers, considering Vidal was a Top10 finisher in last year’s Vermont Beast — after he biked to the event from Texas. This year, he moved to Colorado, were he trained with fellow Spartan Elite April Dee. The two followed a brutal 17-week training regiment, with tons of climbing, focused exclusively on the demands of the Vermont Beast. “This year’s a real game-changer,” says Vidal. “I’m on a whole different level.”
Cody Moat – The 2012 Vermont Spartan Beast Champ took a step back in 2013, albeit a small one, taking fourth place in last year’s Vermont Beast. This year, he aims to get back on top. His training has featured lots of hard trail running, including plenty of uphill training. He’s also been hitting the weight room a few times each week. He says cross-training has been paying off, as he felt incredible after running a recent Warrior Dash. “It’s the best I’ve felt in years,” says Moat. “Physically, I felt ready to go for Vermont.”
Matt Novakovich – After being considered one of the favorites heading into last year’s Vermont Spartan Beast, Novakovich had to settle for 16th place among male finishers after battling severe leg cramps on the course. But this year should be different. Novakovich says he’s changed his nutrition plans to avoid cramping. Despite turning 40 this year, he’s looked in top form, with strong races that have included a win at the Virginia Spartan Sprint. And the former winner of Alaska’s Mount Marathon views the Vermont course as playing to his climbing abilities. “I think I have a strong climbing advantage,” he says, “as 75 percent of this course is climbing.”
Hunter McIntyre – The “Sheriff” hopes to build on a strong performance at last year’s Vermont Spartan Beast, where he finished in third place, a mere 27 seconds behind second-place Matt Murphy. At nearly 200 pounds, he has a big frame for a racer. But he’s been one of the most successful obstacle racers over the last two years, and, like Vidal, is only just beginning to enter his physical prime at age 24. He says he injured his ankle during the Virginia Spartan Sprint in August, but he’s using it as motivation for Vermont. Still, that ankle may be something to keep an eye on come race day.
Matt Murphy – Many of his American competitors didn’t know what to make of the Australian obstacle racer when he toed the start line at last year’s Vermont Beast. But Murphy’s second-place performance put the obstacle racing world on notice that he’s the real deal. With a year of experience both running the Vermont course and traveling to compete on the other side of the globe now under his belt, he could be very dangerous come race day.
Ryan Atkins – Canadian Ryan Atkins has never competed in a Spartan Beast. But he has a history of showing up to races under-the-radar and winning them, which makes him an intriguing competitor in Vermont. Last year, almost nobody in obstacle racing knew about him when he showed up at the 2013 World’s Toughest Mudder as just another guy and shocked everyone by winning it. He was then invited to take on the Winter Death Race a few months later, and he won that. He says distance and climbing don’t scare him —he did a run of nearly 60K this summer with an elevation gain of roughly 17,000 feet. He also works for a Canadian obstacle course company in the summer, giving him plenty of chances to train on obstacles. It’d be a mistake to overlook him. “I think I’m good at preparing for specific events,” says Atkins. “I’ve done my homework for the Beast this year.”
MY PREDICTION: When a veteran of the Vermont Spartan Beast talks about how grueling the course is, they don’t talk about the obstacles. They talk about the mountain. The course features painful, endless climbs up Killington Peak, climbs that reduce runners to a slow stagger and can cause doubt in even the most strong-willed competitor. Perhaps no one is better suited for so much climbing as Matt Novakovich. The former Mount Marathon champ’s hill-climbing prowess is well-known, and he was running a strong race in last year’s Vermont Beast before cramps dragged him down. Given his recent win in Virginia, he may be peaking at the right time. This year’s Vermont Beast is wide open. Any of a dozen guys could show up and win it. But, when it comes to conquering hills, I’ll take Novakovich. My Pick: Matt Novakovich