Oliver Apel

In crewing and documenting athletes for multi-day events, the bulk of time is spent constantly refreshing your browser, letting a little tracker dot dictate your next moves. The amount of time you actually see them is in fleeting but monumental bursts of maybe 10 minutes—an inordinate amount of time is spent in nervous anticipation. You estimate their pace in relation to distances between checkpoints and hypothesize a certain chunk of time in which you can either prepare or safely get some rest so that you are alert enough to show up (in the various senses of what that means). Nights are a mix of half-sleeping, half-anxiously-watching that little dot move at a pace that feels inconceivably impressive and punishingly slow. Whereas the act of running is likened to some kind of transcendental meditation, the process of crewing is maybe an anxiety larger than the world that subtracts from you. So the fact that we willingly flew halfway around the world to crew 665 athlete Jovica Spajic for his Spine Race Challenger North adventure should tell you something about the kind of human he is, in and of itself.

The Spine Race touts itself as “Britain’s most brutal.” The full distance traverses the entirety of the uber iconic Pennine Way, a trail considered the backbone of Britain (hence “Spine” Race, probably). The Spine Race Challenger North is the most difficult 165 miles of the trail, the northern section beginning in Hawes and ending near the Scottish border. During the summer, this very popular public trail is well within the physical means of most people to enjoy: rolling hills, beautiful weather and lush scenery with little concern with respect to altitude or remoteness. Not very brutal. However, doing this in the middle of winter is a totally different story. 

Laws of Thermodynamics tell us that damp air transfers heat more quickly than dry air. As a result, more heat escapes the body making someone feel colder—and holy hell is it cold in the UK in January, when the Spine Race is held. Whipping winds penetrate every layer and your bones feel naked to the cold. On top of that, distances between checkpoints span 30-50 miles—ultras in and of themselves—during which you are to be completely self-supported. Furthermore, considering the very thorough mandatory gear requirements, you are lugging an at least 10kg load on your back for the entirety of the race. “Britain’s most brutal” no longer carries any risk of hyperbole.

Before getting into multi-day events like the Spine Race, Jovica spent years like most ultrarunners racing distances 100 miles and less. Spending his childhood in the mountains of Serbia, his relationship with the outdoors is deeply engrained. But through the process of competing at these more common ultra distances, he found his relationship with nature paradoxically being eroded. In obsessively running 1,000km per month, there is very little time or focus for anything other than the movement itself, mechanical and unrelenting. He felt a constant pressure—to perform, to be faster, to be relevant. During races he would come roaring into aid stations, allowing an emotional and egoistic state to wash over himself and everyone and everything around him: “p letting dark energy guide my performance.”

In meeting Jovica, it’s hard to imagine a version of him that was ever overcome by “dark energy.” Upon finding him 100 miles into the race at the Brown Rigg Lodges checkpoint in Bellingham, where he was forced to withdraw due to his broken GPS device (a mandatory piece of equipment), he was cool, calm and collected. In the face of supreme disappointment, he retained an undeniable poise and empathic consideration. As we were leaving to take him to our hotel, the checkpoint manager made a point to stop and tell me that in all her years of working this event, she had never met anyone quite as thoughtful and insightful as Jovica. 

In 2018, after barely surviving the Yukon Arctic Ultra, everything changed. The same year an Italian runner’s attempt led to him tragically having his limbs amputated, Jovica had a life-altering experience. Somehow in the midst of the race, he never found out that due to particularly hostile conditions, the race was called off. The checkpoint he was running toward was not set up, nor was going to be, and nobody was there. It was so cold that snowmobiles couldn’t start and thus nobody could access him. He spent 18 hours in the freezing and remote Yukon wilderness without food or water, ambling towards nowhere. He lost part of his right thumb to frostbite from the experience, though this seemed minor compared to the fate he thought was waiting for him out there, “After the Yukon Arctic Ultra, I learned a deep respect for nature. You cannot defeat nature and you must learn how to coexist with it.”

He recalled his upbringing with his grandparents in the Serbian mountains and was shocked at how much this spirit of unhinged competition had driven a wedge into his relationship with nature. From that moment forth, he completely changed his entire philosophy toward running, ultras and the outdoors at large. “There is a line at 100 miles. Everything after it is its own universe. When you finish a 200+ mile race, you are reborn. Pure, like a baby.” To be guided by winning places the impetus outside of yourself—Jovica was seeking to center himself again. 

Ditching the obsessive 1,000km per month, he relished in large chunks of time spent away from running but still immersed in nature, cross-training with ski mountaineering, climbing and hiking. Simply spending prolonged periods of time in nature, at different speeds and conditions, helped restore and rejuvenate his bond to it. He introduced uniquely developed types of training in service of sharpening his mind for the inevitable high stress moments that occur during multi-day events: having a friend help him get lost in the mountains after which he would practice calmly retracing his steps back to familiarity; during long 50km+ training runs, he would stop in intervals for a moment of pause to solve a Rubik’s cube; deliberate periods of sleep deprivation training. In de-centering ego or competition, Jovica was able to prioritize the reestablishment of his love and respect for the outdoors.

Though we had spent some time getting to know him virtually, we met him in person for the first time upon arriving in Hawes, near the start of the Spine Race Challenger North. Moe and I had really only known about him through his Serbian special forces career and his resume of running various 200+ mile events, so we weren’t entirely sure what to expect. In finally meeting Jovica in real life, any inkling of intimidation or extremism is put immediately to rest. Built stereotypically like a long distance runner, what he lacks in stature he exudes in aura. We instantly felt comfortable around each other.

Normally, in the days leading up to an event like this, we would be spending time with the athlete going over any necessary details or logistics to help us in our ability to properly crew him. However, because the Spine Race is a completely self-supported race, zero crewing is allowed. In fact, the content manager of the Spine Race suggested we be overly cautious and cognizant of the optics of what we were doing, as he’s had enthusiastic civilians in the past report suspicious activity in an effort to uphold the sanctity of the race. This simultaneously absolved us of some stressors and added more on us to “capture” the experience—something that, no matter how many times we do this, eludes us in exactitude of meaning and objective. 

So instead, we spent the day prior to the race scouting the first couple miles of the course with Jovica, experiencing the perpetual drizzle and intermittent rainbows that is January in the UK, collectively reveling in the serendipity of having been brought together from disparate parts of the globe to simply hang out and enjoy a novel environment, if even just for a moment. This type of activity is always instrumental in disintegrating barriers between crew and runner, helping establish a certain kind of rapport that transfers over in capturing more difficult moments at checkpoints after arduous mileage. It’s difficult to gaze or point a camera at suffering; familiarizing yourself with the interiority of your subject is a must—there are things you cannot glean from questions and answers and simply require time spent together.

To add to the list of things that make the Spine Race a unique event, this year’s Challenger North began at 6pm, which meant the runners were immediately thrust into the night. After spending the early morning looking through all of his gear with him in his room, we accompanied him to the registration and initial bag check. The race volunteers told us we could drive him to the start, but being the person he is, he insisted that he take the shuttle with the other runners, so as not to have any difference in conditions. We briefly rendezvoused before the shuttles came to give him our direct love and support, and then we split off and drove separately to the start.

We parked our car as off the road as small UK towns allow, nearly against a likely hundreds-of-years-old stone wall, and splashed through puddles in the freezing dark to stand in wait near the start. Spectators were dressed in full, still shivering while waiting for all the runners to arrive in their separate shuttles and begin—30 yards through a field followed by a hard left onto what earlier was a muddy stone-riddled trail surrounded by lush green and rainbows but now was black abyss. 

We drove about an hour to reach our hotel in Middleton-in-Teesdale, which was the next checkpoint at which we were to see and access Jovica. We refreshed our browsers for about an hour or so to estimate the pace he was running at. He and one other runner established a very heavy lead over all of the other runners early on and were sustaining it. After determining the rhythm they were going at, we allowed ourselves about five uninterrupted hours of sleep. It was about 30 miles to here for Jovica. 

Upon waking, we quietly made our way down the creaky hallways and stairs of the old inn and out into the wintry night. The roads were iced over and as we were approaching our vehicle, a runner went trotting by, not noticing us. In a moment of sudden realization, Moe quickly said, “Is that Jovica?!” and our hearts dropped. Even in giving ourselves what we thought was a comfortable buffer, we somehow underestimated the pace. We quickly drove to the checkpoint and just barely made it there before him. 

The Middleton checkpoint—like many of the other race oases, we would find out—was in what looked like a church or youth center. The space was fluorescently lit and the walls were scattered all over with small climbing holds. The guy in front of Jovica was already there, finishing his meal. Jovica came and sat down and took a plate of pasta, eating, staring both zenly and blankly out into space. Although it never doesn’t feel like a stupid question, we asked him how he was feeling. He told us it was so incredibly muddy and that even with waterproof socks, his feet remained unavoidably saturated. As he was preparing to leave, the checkpoint volunteers reminded him of the mandatory gear check. Suppressing a grimace of minor irritation, he placed his bag on the table and removed items out as they listed them off their clipboard one by one. We went to the entrance/exit and awaited the photo-ops. He came and sat down to meticulously put his saturated shoes back on and then skated across iced cement back out onto the course. All in the space of 10 minutes, in and out again into the night. We drove back down and captured him once more running through town before he disappeared towards Pennine Way.

We awoke to the streets in a dusting of snow. In light of this, we wondered and worried about the kind of night Jovica might have had. It was 50 miles to the next checkpoint in Alston. Given the amount of time it would be until he was there, we had a leisurely English breakfast before making our way. The innkeeper turned out to be a trail runner himself, and reiterated to us how truly terrible the conditions of the Pennine were at this time of year. He shook his head incredulously at the fact some Serbian guy was doing this race, sight unseen, and then kindly saw us off.

Days after the race, Jovica would explain to us how not doing any kind of recon on the trail was a grave error on his part. Not just to be able to understand how awful the conditions were—which were definitely worse than he imagined they would be—but mostly to acquaint himself with the trail marking system. Often, he would come to an open field where there would be no clear path to follow. He eventually discovered you would have to look for a break or hole in the wall, or some other kind of ambiguous marker that fell in the “if you know, you know” kind of vein. He didn’t know and this became an obstacle.

The drive to Alston, though gorgeous, turned out to be somewhat treacherous. Our vehicle slid and skated on icy turns on tiny roads for much of the way. When we arrived, we discovered the checkpoint was famous for lasagna. It apparently has its own Instagram page, even. We hiked backwards from the checkpoint on the course for about a mile, trying to see if there was a better place to capture Jovica. We determined we were better off just seeing him closer to the checkpoint and headed back.

Still about two hours until his arrival, the Alston checkpoint manager came out and graciously invited us to wait inside with hot food and drink. Given the advice the content manager gave us on being mindful about the optics of our operation, we were waiting outside to err on the side of caution. We thanked her for the kindness and were relieved at the opportunity to wait inside.

While waiting, we saw an incredible photo of him posted on the Spine Race Instagram account of him at a non-accessible aid station called Greg’s Hut. His entire body was decorated with frost. As Jovica’s dot got to about half a mile from the checkpoint, we hiked back onto the trail and awaited his arrival. 

When he approached us on the trail, about a hundred meters from the checkpoint, he was so shaken by the night he was confused as to whether it was where he was supposed to stop. His shoes and pant hems had comically enormous ornaments of ice dangling from them. After some photos, we jogged with him to the checkpoint.

“The night was absolutely brutal,” he exclaimed as he sat down on a chair in the vestibule leading into the checkpoint proper. All of the checkpoints, it turns out, required runners to remove their shoes, which Jovica saw as a major impediment and as such decided to forego entering the full warmth of the facility. He tore his pants trying to remove the ice from them so the checkpoint volunteers brought him hot water to pour over it to melt it away. It turns out the ice ornaments were rime ice, frost formed on cold objects by the rapid freezing of water vapor in cloud or fog. His shoes each had very large pieces of rime ice that made it feel like he was running with ankle weights. He explained to us that the snow and wind was so intense in the night that he experienced temporary blindness from the way it whipped into his eyes. The race has goggles as a piece of mandatory equipment and he understood why. However, given how deeply buried they were in his pack, by the time he considered getting them out, it was too late—the damage was done.

As he sat in the vestibule, he was brought some of the famous lasagna and hot tea. Although the night was extreme, he stated he felt physically great and once again wasted very little time at the checkpoint. Even with all the time spent melting away the rime ice, eating some lasagna, and going through the mandatory gear checklist, he was  in and out in all of 10-15 minutes. After discovering he enjoys hugs, we both embraced him before he set off again onto the trail, this time in daylight.

Nick met with us in Bellingham, where we would ultimately find Jovica after he was forced to DNF the race. About 40 miles for him to get there from Alston, we spent that night in worry. The race was experiencing a very large network error and everyone’s trackers in a certain vicinity were in a state of TBD. Jovica’s dot spent hours moving around the same 2-mile radius. We figured this might be part of the network error but Jovica would later tell us that he was just that lost and confused. The aforementioned unfamiliar marking system used for the trail was exponentially more difficult to navigate in the night, where the range of visibility was dramatically reduced. However, after making it back on trail, his GPS device continued to fail. Upon getting to the checkpoint, he asked the staff there to help him troubleshoot the device. Even with his backup batteries, it wouldn’t reboot. It was a bit crazy, actually, considering these things are supposed to be bombproof. The speculation is that from it being out and exposed to the wintry conditions the whole time, it may have somehow broken the device. In any event, because this race is so strictly self-supported, no assistance could be offered to help fix the device, and he was forced to quit.

For Nick, Moe and myself, all we saw was his dot turn black saying he “retired at 4:44am”. Not knowing what that really meant given the network error or where exactly he might be, we rallied as quickly as we could and drove to the Brown Rigg Lodges checkpoint, where we walked inside and saw him wrapped in a sleeping bag, sitting in a chair. He explained the situation to us and immediately began profusely apologizing for letting us down and disappointing us. He was so frustrated because physically he felt completely fine but just could not continue without a functioning GPS device. 

It’s a surreal moment, always—as crew, or even as a brand, whenever the athlete you’re working with doesn’t succeed, it brings into question what that even means. Of course, a goal is set anytime a project like this comes into fruition, whether it’s chasing course records, podiums or simply certain times. And no matter how philosophically we wax about running, these goals do in fact serve a direct and useful purpose. It tethers the endeavor and serves as the placeholder for some kind of abstract temporal storyboarding. But that never is really the compelling story in the end anyway. It’s far easier when everything goes right but the real moments are when things don’t. These adventures are always at least two-sided: the unknowable inner story of the athlete, and then the experience of those crewing him. Along the way, these feats push crew to extreme limits as well. That inordinate amount of time spent in nervous anticipation weighs heavily upon and strains relationships. They can either fortify them or destroy them—I’ve experienced both versions. While Jovica justifiably felt disappointed that he was forced out of the story he had visualized for himself, I couldn’t help but be overcome with how much we had all been able to build up our relationships during this process. Sitting there with him, Nick and Moe, even in the fog of major fatigue, I felt nothing akin to disappointment.

Jovica’s energy and philosophy towards running imparted upon all of us a deeper appreciation of nature—and each other. We assured him he had nothing to apologize for.


Words: Adam Voidoid
Photography: Moe Lauchert