2019 Spartan Race Elite Female Champion | Singapore | Ilona Errington
Welcome to episode 12 of TheOCRPodcast.
In this episode, we talk to Ilona! She is no stranger to the Spartan scene! You probably have seen her on stage numerous times in the female elite category. In today’s podcast, she will be sharing with us her OCR journey, how she got started, and how she gets to where is it now!
Ilona – @ilonajte
If you enjoy listening to our podcast interview! Do check out the rest of our podcast!
[0:48] Justin: Thanks for coming on to this podcast. So why don’t we start off this podcast by you introducing yourself?
[0:55] Ilona: Hi, my name is Ilona. I’m from the UK but based in Singapore, been living here for just over three years now. I started racing Spartan races back in 2015. Last year was my first competitive season. This year was my first running in Elite.
How Did You Get Started?
[1:18] Justin: So you mentioned that you took part in your first Spartan Race in 2015. Can you share with us a little bit more about it?
[1:26] Ilona: So 2015 I was dancing a lot.
I was not running at all and my husband now (at that time boyfriend) said to me “I’ve seen this thing, it looks really cool, it looks kind of similar to what I used to do when I was doing the army cadets where you get to run around and do all these obstacles, and I really want to sign up.”
I looked at it and was “No way in hell, I’m not doing it, not for me.” I was doing a lot of cheerleading.
So you know, other than being out in the sports pitch, it involves being in a dance studio with air conditioning, lots of makeup, which are complete worlds apart.
After he badgered me incessantly, I decided on signing up only if I was racing for charity.
So that was a decision made, and lots of people were quite willing to pay money to see me run around on behalf of a homeless charity in the UK because no one actually believed that I was going to do it.
[3:05] Justin: So that was your first race, how was it?
[3:11] Ilona: Very long.
It was my longest Sprint that I’ve ever run, but we were surprisingly well prepared for it considering neither of us really knew what we were doing.
So I started a blog called «Can I Spartan» which documented our whole journey and we made like a bunch of obstacles and training tools and changed our garden.
We basically went skip dipping and found old tyres that we could flip. We made like makeshift spears out a broomstick handles with tennis balls.
Yeah, in the end, we found some old beaten up garden gnomes that we wrapped a rope around and we would drag them up and down the garden to do plate drags.
So it was all very makeshift, and we watched a lot of YouTube videos to find out how to make and do them.
[3:54] Justin: If the blog is still active, I’m gonna put it down in the description here!
Spartan Race Competitive Age Group
[10:33] Justin: In 2018 you started to take part in competitive racing. So what are the races that you took part and how was the experience for 2018?
[10:47] Ilona: The first race of the year was in the Philippines. We’d signed up for the first Asian OCR championship in the age groups which we actually did with you. That was 20 obstacles over 5 km and it was a wristband system. It was a different set of obstacles, everything from like the Stairway to Heaven to the laser gun.
[12:04] Ilona: So I took part in that and I’ll try to just run as fast as I can and try these new obstacles but you know, it’s January.
It’s my first competitive race. I’ll just see what happens. I didn’t take it competitively, I was having a really good time, I was chatting to people.
I was really making the most of my two attempts at obstacles because of a couple of new ones that did take me the second attempt to get through.
[14:23] Ilona: That race was really good fun but was completely surprised when they announced my name for the 3rd place. The second place and I were like a minute apart at the obstacles. We both reached out at the same time, and I’d be like “No, no, after you.”
[14:59] Ilona: After the first Asian OCR, I’d come in 3rd and I was quite surprised by it.
So going into their Sentosa Sprint I was a little bit more confident, the course was quite similar to the Viper race.
I have an inkling of what to expect in terms of obstacles along the beach.
There’s this big tower that you have to run up in Sentosa and it kills your legs, and it’s always at the start of the course! Basically like some Australian start line up our that tower to kill your legs.
Then there’s a couple of picturesque trails. Good course.
[16:01] Justin: So how did you do for the race?
[16:03] Ilona: That one I came in third as well, at which point I was thinking maybe I can be competitive at this sport.
So, yes, that was the start of the SEA series last year.
After that, Jay and I kind of looked up online and realised there was a series and went to participate in the others. There’s a board behind me that my mother in law kindly made with all the flags on it from the series, so it has all of the flags and all of the medals that I won last year.
[16:53] Justin: So after the Sentosa Sprint, what was the next race did you take part in?
[16:58] Ilona: It was a Thailand Super, it was a super hot course with no coverage whatsoever, really flat and fast, it’s the type of course that I love although I do remember because it was so hot there were loads of people who didn’t have enough hydration out on the water.
I’ve crossed the line as the sixth woman and needless to say, I won my age group. At that point that I was starting to think that maybe I’ve entered in the wrong category.
[18:54] Justin: So what’s next after Thailand? Did you do all 5?
[18:58] Ilona: After that, I took part in all of the SEA regional events which actually finished with a really dramatic ending, the Philippines have had a typhoon gone through.
We showed up to the race site on Saturday and they postponed the event by an entire day. All the conditions have been so bad overnight.
They had washed the sandbags carried out to sea, there were parts of the course that had been torn down and needed to be rebuilt. The final race was a mud bath but the conditions held out. I finished off that race, finishing series as the overall age group winner.
Spartan Race Elite Category
[24:27] Justin: So in 2019 you started taking part in the Elite category?
[24:36] Ilona: Yeah, I did a couple of test races in the Elite just to see who else was running and get a feel for things and my head made the shift from Age Group to Elite at the beginning of this year.
I was that super lucky to win my first podium place in Malaysia, Semenyih at the beginning of the year.
[26:02] Justin: What’s next after Semenyih?
[26:10] Ilona: After that, I decided to focus on the SEA series and all the races in Singapore.
I went into Yio Chu Kang or and somehow made it across the finish line and first position. The race here in Singapore brought me into first place and the SEA series as well.
Tahoe World Championships
[20:21] Justin: So afterward you took part in the Tahoe, right?
[20:28] Ilona: That was the first time I’d gone to Tahoe, didn’t really know what to expect.
To be honest, I think I actually took the course quite conservatively, with the conditions so different from what we’re used to here in Asia, especially in Singapore where we’re running around at sea level.
I’ll say at most Bukit Timah, that’s 165 meters or something like that. It is also much more humid and hot in Singapore than in Tahoe. The temperatures there varied quite drastically; at the top of the mountain in Tahoe, it’d be 5 degrees and you can be down in the village and it’ll be 20 degrees.
I think Tahoe’s elevation probably goes up to around 2000 meters up, significantly above sea level.
It’s enough that going out for a run just by the race village you can feel the altitude, especially when you start going uphill.
[21:52] Justin: Did you have difficulty breathing?
[21:55] Ilona: I’m actually mildly asthmatic.
It wasn’t so bad when you’re on flat ground, but hiking uphill, you could feel the lack of oxygen and your breathing was a bit constrained.
I met some amazing people when I was there, like Amelia Boone during the day before the race. I remember saying to her how nervous I was because the conditions are so different in Singapore. It’s hot, it’s humid, it’s flat. I just don’t know how I’m going to deal with the altitude tomorrow. And she said to me ‘don’t worry, humidity is a poor man’s altitude, so if you’re used to running around in that you will find the conditions the same.’
Once I got out there, it wasn’t as bad as I was expecting. I really psyched myself out that I was going to fail.
There was no way that I was going to finish especially with the swim that you know, famously a lot of people get hypothermia from but I hung on through the race.
[41:13] Ilona: I did a lot of training for the cold this year as I hate being cold. We have a really big freezer in the pantry. So every evening I get in from work, and Jay would push me into the freezer. I’d have to go and try and sit to train to absorb the shock. When you first get into really cold water, your body kind of goes into fight or flight mode.
I kind of saw the training as getting used to feeling that shock, acknowledging it, absorbing it, and just learning to control your breathing and your panic and breathe through it.
[41:59] Justin: Yeah. Did you get this freezer because you were training for Tahoe or was it there before?
[42:03] Ilona: No, it was specifically because I was training for Tahoe.
So last year as part of my preparation, I was training with my friend Chun, he’s a Wim Hof instructor and he actually had a similar setup.
[42:28] Justin: For those of you who have no idea what is the Wim Hof method, would you like to explain it.
[42:34] Ilona: Yeah, so I guess it’s a training philosophy that as part of it, you practice different breathing techniques and different exercises, as well as cold immersion, and how you deal with that.
So I would kind of go and work with Chun on how I was breathing, holding my breath, you know, the different kinds of paces that you would breathe and then getting into cold temperatures and using those techniques to help endure the cold.
When you do it long enough eventually actually, you kind of get used to get not even get used to it, but it almost becomes pleasant.
[43:09] Justin: Yeah, I’m sure that really comes in handy when you are training for when you are in Tahoe.
[43:15] Ilona: Absolutely. I think that’s where my mantra pain is temporary, really came from.
I’d go and sit in the freezer and I would like I’d be really suffering because it is a shock to your central nervous system.
I would sometimes have to call it quits and get out and just do work to kind of warm-up.
Then you know, you’d be like in the water miserable like, this is the most horrible thing and 10 minutes later, you’d be feeling absolutely fine, feeling like you can do it again.
I think that kind of training in mental toughness or understanding your limits and what you could endure or how you can deal with it, for me made a really big difference.
So doing burpees in the cold and feeling really miserable, but knowing that it would soon past, knowing the point at which I have to use my one remaining hand warmer now.
Knowing the initial shock of getting into the water knowing to absorb it to breathe and to just continue. I think that was really invaluable to me.
[27:09] Justin: So 2019 you took part in Tahoe again, right? Walk us through it, how was it?
[27:15] Ilona: Last year, I finished Tahoe with a bit of gas in the tank, So this year, I want to run this race as hard as I possibly can leave it all out there.
I had big grand plans as I felt really prepared for the terrain and the conditions as they should be similar to last year, except as we all know that wasn’t the case.
[28:01] Justin: A horrible storm was it? Yeah, I saw pictures where the whole mountain was covered in snow. Everything was delayed by 12h because there was some hail, right?
[28:13] Ilona: I landed in San Francisco and it was beautiful around 33 degrees outside which was perfect for me having trained in this temperature.
Then on Friday afternoon, we’re all in the race village and announcements go off that we need to evacuate the area.
They have been monitoring and tracking it and the next thing the storm moves through, and there are hail and snow.
It was really unexpected. The temperatures had been dropping and dropping till -5 degrees. We woke up on Sunday morning and when we open the curtains there’s snow on the ground.
The start time of the race got delayed, but the race will be going ahead, no matter what, just standby for updates at 8 am if there are any weather issues.
During the Race
[30:29] Ilona: The first 5km on the hill, despite the fact that there’s snow on the ground, I was going up the hill taking off layers of clothes.
I’ve literally put on every single t-shirt that I packed which is like 7 t-shirts on. But I think in retrospect, having never raced a snowy race, I didn’t really know the best way of doing things. Later I felt that my body was quite hot so I’m just stripping off layers.
When I got to high camp, it was so cold up there having temperatures dropped to -5 to -7, but the thing that really gets you is the wind chill.
At the Spear Throw, I massively overshot so I had to do my first set of burpees which was a real killer as that point. I took my gloves off during burpees and I realised how cold it was. That’s what I started losing the feeling in my fingers. That was kind of the beginning of the bad turn in my race.
From there, I then continued further up into high camp and there were quite a few other obstacles such as the Mount Olympus which you’ve literally started in the snow.
I got partway through and just slipped – another set of burpees. By that point, I then went into multi-rig and I’d lost the feeling in my fingers and made it all the way through to the second last one and I literally couldn’t bend these fingers and drop. I failed 2 obstacles that for me are obstacles that I just considered non-failure and I know that I can do these as I trained really hard for these, but I’m just chilled to the bone.
So yeah, that was the point in time where I realised that I maybe wasn’t going to have the race that I expected. By that point, the only thing that was actually going through my mind was thoughts of convincing myself not to quit. It was really cold at that point.
I tied my windbreaker in a knot around my waist, and then do a bunch of burpees and couldn’t feel my fingers. I couldn’t undo the knot around my waist, so I was doing it without the windbreaker, which means that all of my layers are now getting wet, and I was suffering.
[35:03] Justin: Everything that can go wrong really went wrong.
[35:05] Ilona: Exactly. So at that point, I was thinking that the race had very different conditions to what you’re used to. If you quit at this point, is anyone going to judge you? Is this race worth dying over? However, I decided that I needed to buck up and convince myself the course wasn’t going to kill me. I hadn’t flown a 17-hour flight from Singapore to America to not finish.
With the help of a few mantras such as “Pain is temporary.” and “It isn’t going to last forever.” which I repeated it again and again through the course, I psyched myself to continue.
I even started saying out loud, like a crazy person.
[36:31] Justin: Well I guess if it works, it works right?
[36:37] Ilona: Yea. So going on to my gear failure.
In my hydration pack in the pockets, I had two of those like reusable hand warmers which were meant to be used after the swim.
Quite frankly, I’m probably not going to reach there if I don’t use these after the multi-rig. One of them, unfortunately, snapped. So I went for the second one, but I can’t feel anything on my hands. I then put it on my face to check if it was working, and it felt warm – I just can’t feel my fingers.
This was before we went to the ape hanger, which I then met a fellow competitor from the Philippines. Both of us did not make it through the obstacle because neither of us could feel our fingers.
The ape hanger underneath had a big pool of water underneath it and the penalty for failure for that obstacle wasn’t burpees, you had to walk the whole way through the water, and then there was a really long paracord crawl in the snow. It was cold!
[38:39] At that point, not only was I repeating my own mantras, I was thinking I’m not gonna fail as I had someone else that I was there together with.
We got to the swim part, which I had looked at what other people were going to be doing. What I’d done was pack some Ziploc bags in my hydration pack.
So at that point, I stripped off all of my top layers, shoved all those into some Ziploc bags, and then go into the water.
[40:00] I found that running in Tahoe is that the swim wasn’t the difficult bit like once you’ve jumped in and you’d kind of absorbed the shock and the cold, actually being in the water wasn’t the hard part.
The hard part was trying to get your body warm again afterward especially in 2018. The course was in the opposite direction. So you get the swim first and then high camp portion, which was really miserable. Whereas this year, once you got out of the water, you started running downhill straightaway.
[44:54] Justin: So, after coming out of the lake, you know, you run down here, so what’s next?
[44:59] Ilona: The next one was a lot of new obstacles.
It was the first time that I’d encountered Helix and there was a supersized twister; two sections of twister, a section of monkey bars and two sections of the twister. That was considered as one obstacle.
[45:57] Justin: Your fingers are numb! How are you gonna conquer twister, monkey bars and then twister?
[46:02] Ilona: I couldn’t! Watching some of the pros, they did an amazing job of it.
There’s a great video of one literally hanging on one of the sections by one arm as she’s like breathing on her hands and like rubbing up her fingers to warm them up. But know, it was a bad race for me in terms of but I think it’s the most burpees I’d done this season, which is like over 200. I’d honestly lost count.
[47:18] Justin: So moving forward, what is your plan for next year?
[47:23] Ilona: It’s been a year of learning experiences. So you know, everything from going into Tahoe and having a very different experience from what I was expecting and having to shift my mental approach to it to guess learning about the other competitors, how to race against them, how to shift and adjust my training.
I’ve definitely fallen foul of over-training and over racing a few too many times in the last couple of years. So looking into next year, I’m taking an off-season now.
I’m actually going to take a couple of months to just build up my aerobic base and my strength so I can hit next year strong.
I’ll be running Elite again and hopefully can do a repeat performance at the SEA series, but then also see how I can maybe push myself a bit further for the other Championship races.
[48:20] Justin: Nice. Ilona, you are definitely one of the best OCR female racers in Singapore. So what tips can you give to new racers?
[48:33] Ilona: I guess probably similar to what I’ve just mentioned, falling foul of over-training and over racing.
There is something wonderfully addictive about OCR, the feeling of euphoria once you’ve made it through your first race and having exceeded expectations that you have of yourself.
It’s also very easy to get swept up in the amazing community and train too much or too hard or to race too often.
I think the biggest piece of advice that I’d give to people is to know what it is that you do and what you’re capable of, and don’t bite off more than you can chew. Make sure that you’re also working with some of the other amazing trainers that are here in Singapore.
So obviously, Justin runs a lot of obstacle training camps so you can go and learn some great tips and tricks from him.
There’s a great setup at Ministry of Fitness and they’re building obstacles at the moment. Sean Camp has some great classes there. Look at your running form, running techniques as Spartan is predominantly a runner’s race.
I follow a program by Coached Fitness and they do everything from your online programming to running sessions on Tuesdays and Thursdays to doing all of your scientific testings.
My whole program is based around heart rate (HR) training. I know which HR zones to me are easy and which HR zones are super hard. I can then tailor my training to make sure that most of that is easy and enjoyable to help keep me injury-free.
I can then adding in the harder portions of training in the lead up to races what you want your body to get conditioned to going as fast as possible.
[51:12] Justin: Yeah, I think that’s very important. So instead of taking part in random exercises, so it’s very important for us to have a program. Doing exercises with no goal and plan is the recipe for burnout. Hard work with no recovery will skyrocket your injuries.
[51:55] Ilona: Especially like for most of us who are racing in this part of the world who also have full-time jobs, your body doesn’t differentiate the stressor.
It’s just too much for your body physically and mentally. Eventually, it’s going to lead to a breakdown, and then you start getting worse, not better.
[52:19] Justin: Correct. Mental stress could be stress from your work or stress from your family at home. All these are factors that can affect your performance at the end of the day. These are the stuff that you need to take into consideration when programming and designing.
[52:39] Ilona: That’s why I love heart rate-based training.
Your HR adjusts depending on your stress level, high-stress levels naturally lead to high HR which means you probably need to train a little bit easier that day.
To The Community
[52:54] Justin: Awesome. Well, thank you so much for coming onto the podcast and sharing with us your experiences.
[53:02] Justin: For those of you who are interested to find out more information about Ilona, I’m going to post her Instagram on the description below, so you guys can follow her there.
Is there anything else you want to add on?
[53:13] Ilona: No, I guess Thank you for having me. And if you see me at a race site, please do come and say hi, I love meeting all the people from the community.
For me, that was really what made Singapore feel like home.
[53:27] Justin: Awesome. Thank you so much, Ilona.
So that brings us to the end of today’s podcast now I hope that you guys find this podcast valuable and informative.
Once again, I would really appreciate it share this podcast with your friends and fellow obstacle course racer, to help me grow this channel.
And lastly, I hope you guys have a great day and I hope to see you guys up there in the racecourse soon.