Oliver Apel

On October 8 2021, Jovica Spajic took a new pair of norda001 straight from the box on race day, never previously worn, and ran the Moab 240.

The Moab 240 Endurance Run is 383.50 km with 8,881 meters of elevation gain in Utah. It is here you find the skyrunning’s elite, 350 athletes who face temperatures from 7 degrees below zero to plus 37 degrees, – or four seasons in one day. 

Over the next 2 plus days, Jovica did not change his shoes once.

He finished at 56:54:39, 2nd place, without pacers, beating his previous best in the Moab 240 at 62:40.

Jovica is an ultra-trail outlier. He’s not interested in the noise or the medals; he chooses adventure runs over the typical races in the circuit. He’s quiet, un-assuming, humble, whip smart, and at 34 years old, 5’8 inches tall, weighing a slight 125 lbs, he’s not to be under estimated. He’s an instructor and team leader of the Special Anti-Terrorist unit of the Ministry of Internal Affairs of the republic of Serbia- SAJ. Jovica is the type of person that goes back into a burning house after he’s barely survived the first escape, because that’s exactly what he did in the Moab 240 this year.

Nick and I joined Jovica on a video call 24 hours after Moab 240. He regaled us with stories from the trail and what it was like for him, arriving in the United States, going into the run slightly jet-lagged, food being completely different from at home in Belgrade, no family, no friends, no team, and struggling with things being lost in translation. But it was nothing this self- professed lone wolf couldn’t handle.

It is the fine details of an endurance run like Moab 240 that define who are the champions. There is no doubt Jovica Spajic is one of them. On the first night of the Moab 240, a freak winter storm rolled through. The course was changed at the last minute, and the lead runners had to navigate a new course in the dark. Jovica was in first place up until this point. He had left the last rest stop and his key competitor, Mike McNnight, had dropped behind, suffering with back problems. As the storm hit its peak, Jovica describes looking back to search for Mike. He could barely make out his head lamp. It was clear Mike was moving slowly and possibly in distress. Jovica ran back what he estimates to be 5km to find him. Mike was sleep deprived and was lying down on the trail. Jovica woke him up after 15 minutes and urged him to continue through the night- together. He sacrificed his lead and possibly first place without hesitation nor an ounce of regret. Not turning back for another runner in a storm, in the dark, would have weighed far more.

Here’s our Q&A with Jovica Spajic post Moab 240.

In true norda spirit, we like our runners to speak, unedited, for themselves.

Below is a detailed glance into the mind of one of the best ultra-trail runners around and we are proud he is part of the norda family. We can’t wait for our adventures ahead in 2022.

norda: What was it like growing up in Serbia and how did you got into ultras?

Jovica: I feel blessed, privileged and utterly pleased to live in a country as beautiful as Serbia. The abundance of natural beauty is priceless and visible on every step, and the diversity and composition of nature in Serbia is mesmerising and magical. From the remarkable mountain tops and highlands, through rivers, lakes, forests, pastures, to inland dunes and canyons, these features make my tiny Serbia an ideal location for true lovers of Nature (with a capital N – as a sign of respect towards Mother Nature) and all kinds of outdoor activities, and they paint a picture of a huge natural “playground” where I grew up.

The fact that I spent a lot of time in a tiny picturesque village in the mountains with my grandparents had a very important role in my childhood because I spent a lot of time on the mountain tops and developed a strong bond with nature and the mountain. Additionally encouraged by reading Jack London’s novels about the Far North, I daydreamed of running through endless landscapes and pristine nature. As I boosted my adventurist spirit, I’ve never thought that it would be the initial impulse that would lead me to my later entry into the world of endurance sports, especially ultramarathons and Ultra-Trail running.

After completing regular education, the path of life has taken me to the Special Anti-Terrorist Unit – SAJ, the elite specialised unit in Serbia whose active member and part of the “A” Team I’ve been for the last 14 years. My genetic set-up, continuous sports activities in various forms and disciplines and perfecting them through work and specialised activities in the Special Unit (alpinism, topography, survival in nature, skiing, orienting, martial arts, reacting in complex and stressful situations…), as well as my childlike spirit and daydreaming which are part of my identity and personality were the necessary conditions for the natural flow of events, as I decided to step into the world of Ultra running and represent my country Serbia in the world’s legendary Ultramarathons with a lot of love, enthusiasm, dedication, perseverance, motivation, and inspiration, in a worthy and dignified manner.

norda: How do you choose which race to run?

Jovica: In the last few years, I’ve profiled myself as an athlete and specialist for races that are extremely demanding and take place in areas of the Earth that have temperature variables and inversions, where the terrain is the mix of everything that Mother Nature can “throw” at the racers and that require experience, additional skills and knowledge not necessarily linked to running, high levels of self-awareness and knowing one’s abilities, as well as impeccable physical, mental, emotional, and logistic preparation, the planning of the tiniest details, and assembling this unique mosaic into a unified structure. The inevitable elements are also the true motivation and the ideals which motivate you to participate, and they should be righteous, pure, and reinforced with high goals and desires. The races I participate in need to have a special story behind them, the epic character, the ability to pull the best out of me and bring my full potential to light. I usually take part in 2 major projects each year, so I’m particularly dedicated in the process of making the decision about participating.

norda: You recently ran the Moab 240. Describe to us what it feels like when you have run 100 miles and have 100 more to go. Do you sleep? What do you eat? What do you think about? What motivates you?

Jovica: The point of view changes with experience, maturing, and age. I used to be more weighted with expectations, I would think about the final goal, fall into the trap of predictions and ambition, the result imperatives and other distractions while neglecting what is essential… For me, the essence is to eliminate all the unnecessary thoughts that halt us and to let go, to solve all the temptations and problems as they come, step by step, and sooner re later you will reach the goal, which is the race’s finish in this case. Of course, there are ups and downs during the race, both in energy and in motivation. One can easily become fainthearted and start thinking more and more about quitting. Still, I try to think about the fact that all these weaknesses and energy drops, pain and all other misfortunes will pass, so positive thoughts prevail and take me back on the right track. I don’t burden myself with distance, I focus on each step and small goals.

I’m often faced with the issue of time zone change because most races I participate in take place on different continents and different time zones… This is reflected in harder adaptation to not being able to sleep during multi-day races, but I’m aware of that and I try to improve this segment by arriving several days earlier, before the beginning of the race, and I try to adapt. I can usually endure not sleeping for 2 days without any problems by constantly moving, and during the Moab 240 race I haven’t slept more than 56 hours, although I tried several times to make shorter breaks trying to fall asleep, but without success.

When it comes to food during the race, it’s also an important and delicate part of the whole project. The plan of nutrition needs to be balanced, of high quality and individually adjusted to you, which is solved by testing and taking food under real circumstances during preparations and training that take place months before the race. You must not experiment during the competition itself, as this can be counter-productive. You need to be sure what is good for your body, which food, electrolytes, and sources of calories to take, and to be aware that your need for calories will vary depending on the weather conditions, terrain, and the effort you put in. You must be prepared for all scenarios. I like to have my homemade energy bars based on nuts, dry fruit, and oat flakes, combined with electrolytes, salts, and food richer in calories after multiple hours of running. I have to be honest and say that this sphere still inspires me to explore because I believe that I can progress additionally and that I haven’t reached my maximum. I still search for solutions that could be adequate for me and fulfil me as an athlete. Unfortunately, Serbia is still a small market for the high-quality world brands when it comes to sports diet, so we are limited in terms of product accessibility and consequently their testing. I believe this will change in the future because the outdoor sports and community are growing in this region, so I’m confident that the leading companies will be interested to support the development of the activities closely related to Ultra running and Ultra-Trail running.

The greatest motivation for me is the desire to be a true ambassador of Serbia through my results and behaviour, to bring out the story of my country, our mentality, character, tradition, history, and the heritage we nurture. There is also the bright motive to represent my family, friends, colleagues from the Special Unit, and all people who support me unconditionally and with pure hearts in a dignified and honourable way, with a lot of faith, love, and hope. Again, I also find my motivation in everyday life, in the small things and stories of simple people, their honest smiles and support I constantly get. I’m trying to show that nothing is impossible with a lot of effort, will, honest approach, and renunciation – dreams become reality.

norda: Some ultra-runners say they start to hallucinate or dream while awake. Does that happen to you? How do you anchor your mind?

Jovica: I used to think it was all “metaphysical”, unreal, that it doesn’t happen, that it was made up by athletes who wanted to be funny and interesting to other after the race finish, and especially that it would never happen to me. However, during the extremely demanding projects “La Ultra - The High” in the Indian part of the Himalayas, as well as the race “Tahoe 200”, I experienced hallucinations that could have severe consequences. Luckily for me, everything ended well. The feeling you experience is unlike anything else. Your brain plays tricks with you due to extreme tiredness and exhaustion and makes you completely lose contact with reality and the current situation around you. You become a passive observer of a “show”, without an adequate mechanism to resist this feeling. This is why it is crucial to know your body well, and as soon as you start feeling drowsy, you should make a break long enough to sleep, regain energy and freshness, and move on. The line is very fine, so one must be extremely cautious.

norda: Tell us about the gear you chose for Moab 240.

Jovica: One of the most important factors to create the entire project and race, as well as a significant factor of the end result is the selection of appropriate gear. Gear is tested for months, and in time you become familiar with all its features and you know what to expect in different weather and terrain conditions. I’ve always been fascinated with stories about the effort, dedication, and ideas of small family manufacturers who put their whole being into the product and stand behind it with their experience, knowledge, and vision. This is the kind of people I encountered when I contacted the norda team. Our affinities, energies, ideas, and enthusiasm just “clicked” together, and I felt great desire to create a truly honest contact and a creative and concrete co-operation. I received my norda shoes swiftly to test and try out, and from the first moment I was thrilled by the design and aesthetics, the selection of sophisticated materials, innovation and details, the blend of hybrid materials and constructions into a remarkable whole, the comfort, features, and the way the shoes behaved on various surfaces, including the technically most demanding mountain terrains, resilience, and the fact that the shoes didn’t lose any of their potential even after 1000 km. I got an extra, new pair of norda001 shoes just a couple of days before the start of the race, so I started with brand new shoes, fresh out of the box, because I was absolutely convinced that everything will be fine, and so it was… From start to finish, 240 miles with a single pair of norda 001 shoes. I crossed diverse terrains without any problems and with a lot of confidence during this epic adventure, and with every step my smile grew, and joy to be part of the norda team and family overcame me. The end result was amazing, but I was even more thrilled by the fact that my norda team was behind me, believed that I could tell the story of the brand in the right way, and stated that we were yet to write new chapters together and participate with even more inspiration in new projects – both races and the creation of outstanding products.

norda: You are a purist. You have little interest in typical sponsorship deals, you run without pacers, and you often train alone. Tell us: “What Do You Run For?”

Jovica: I run ennobled by the feeling of true happiness and freedom when I’m in the nature, especially in the mountains. All the worries and temptations of this world stop there, there is no pressure, you breathe with full lungs, you can feel the smell of herbs in the mountain air carried by the wind, you can hear the sounds of nature in their original form, and you surrender to the unique feeling of simplicity and connection with nature. Your moves become fluid and you sort of coexist with everything that surrounds you in that moment, you become one. You do it out of love, not because of money, interest, additional “likes” on social media, and you would do it any way – without the sponsorships, the most expensive gear, logistics. You also do it because of all the previously mentioned noble motives – because of the desire to identify your country, family, friends, colleagues, and people who support you for who you are with your races, because of your passion, personality, because of what is said by the story of a boy who started off from a small mountain village in Serbia and headed towards fulfilling his “personal legend” and his dreams. This story could be the story of every one of us.