Best of 2016: Talking Breck Spartan with Spartan World Champ Robert Killian
Editor’s note: When the Spartan obstacle race debuted in 2015, I got out on the course and gave it a try. Tough stuff. When it returned, I interviewed one of the world’s best Spartan racers. Is it a legit sport yet? He’s still on the fence, but his finish time was impressive no matter what: 4 miles and 20 obstacles in 46:37, just four seconds behind Angel Quintero Ramirez in first.
Ask Robert Killian how he plans to dominate the Breck Spartan and he’ll hit you with a curveball.
“I’m 34 and competing against a bunch of 25-year-olds, so they’ve got the speed and energy to just hammer at course,” he says, and then laughs, the audible equivalent of a shrug. “I rely on the old-man strength.”
Another laugh from Killian. It’s two days before the Breck Spartan Beast — a 14-mile race filled with 35 Crossfit-style obstacles, all held above 9,600 feet on the slopes of Breckenridge for the highest Spartan course in the world — and he’s in good spirits, like he’s almost looking forward to the pain. The old-man strength hasn’t failed him yet: not after 12 years with the U.S. Army, not after several Ironman championships, not even after bringing the Army’s coveted “Best Ranger” title back to the Green Berets in 2011.
At 7:30 a.m. on Aug. 27, the Army Reserve captain and native of Charleston, South Carolina enters the men’s elite race in prime position to defend his world title. He might be 34 years old — a self-proclaimed old man in a field of young bucks — but he has altitude on his side. He’s been living and training in Colorado since 2010, when he transferred from active duty in Louisiana to the U.S. Army National Guard base in Watkins, home of the 5th Ranger Battalion — the Green Berets.
“The slopes, the mountains — I love it all,” Killian says. “I moved out here and thought I’d move to Boulder, but I found out I couldn’t afford Boulder and went to Longmont instead.”
Oddly enough, last year’s inaugural Breck Spartan was Killian’s first-ever obstacle race. Since then, he’s built most of his training around the nasty, mountainous terrain he encountered there, which helped him almost easily claim the Spartan World Champion title last year at the championships in Tahoe.
This year’s Breck race comes with an added perk: If Killian finishes well ahead of fellow pros like Ryan Atkins and Hunter McIntyre, he’ll win the first-ever American Spartan title. Not bad for an old man.
On his drive from Longmont to Breck, the Summit Daily sports desk talked with Killian to hear more about the course, his military background and why obstacle racing isn’t ready for the Olympics — yet.
Summit Daily News: You come to Breck as the defending Spartan Race world champ. How does this course stack up against the rest?
Robert Killian: It’s pretty crazy. This was the first Spartan I did last year and it was a few months earlier, with snow on the ground and all of that. I was part of an army sports program that wanted to put together a team for Tahoe — the world championships — but I didn’t want to show up to that and not know what to expect. I went to Breck as kind of a way to train, and that was the hardest race I’d ever done, really. I was walking crooked for weeks after (laughs).
But, since it was my first race, I based all of my training since then on that course — on what I saw at Breckenridge. And, it’s the big one this year. It’s the final race of the (elite Spartan) points series and right now I’m still in the lead. I’m the only one in the elite group who has done all four races and that helps with points. I want to win the Breck race, the home race, and be the top finisher — the top American.
SDN: When I interviewed another pro, Cassidy Watton, before the first event last year, she thought the altitude and route itself to be half the battle — all the up and down. Is that the toughest part for you?
RK: Oh, absolutely. It’s my home course, but in a Spartan race the terrain dictates a lot. The obstacles aren’t easy no matter where you go, but they’re easier when you aren’t as high. When you’ve been crushing it up a mountain, from 9,000 feet to 13,000 feet, you get to a point that you can get mentally confused from exhaustion and height. Your muscles are tired and your mind is tired. If you get that way, you can really start to fall behind or make mistakes.
SDN: Does a hilly mountain course like this play to your strengths, or do you prefer something that’s flat?
RK: I absolutely love the hills. I’m 34 and competing against a bunch of 25-year-olds, so they’ve got the speed and energy to just hammer at course. I rely on the strength (laughs). I’ve got these massive quads that help me just keep it going, the stamina, and they come from doing Ironman competitions. I’ve won the Ironman in the past, I was named U.S. Army athlete of the year — I’ve got the experience.
SDN: What obstacles can really throw off the pace of a race, even if you’re ahead?
RK: Hand-bag carry, especially if they do a double. A lot of these obstacles are classified before the race so you don’t even know what to get ready for. The bucket brigade is also brutal, and they usually do it with a massive climb and slippery footing. If you drop your rocks — if you drop your load — it could cost you the race right there.
Then, we have the rain from the past few days. They leave a lot of the equipment on the mountain, and, when it’s been raining, it’s soaking up all that water and heavier than before. A lot of people don’t think about that, but I do. I have to. Rain also means you have to deal with slippery ropes (and) losing your grip. When it’s cold you lose dexterity. I just know I have the experience to handle all of that.
SDN: So how did you get into professional obstacle racing? It’s a relatively new discipline.
RK: They’re really competitive in the military, with an internal sports sports program. You do things like triathlon, orienteering, winter biathlon, and I got into this one called the “Best Ranger” competition. I was able to win that the first year I entered — competed in it five times and won a few times. I took second this past year.
One of our commanding officers, Col. Liam Collins, said he was getting together an Army team to handle obstacle races across the nation, and with my background as Best Ranger he wanted me on the team. I had no idea what it was all about, but I said, “Sign me up — I want to represent the Army.” And then we went out and ended up winning the team category last year for the Spartan team race. Col. Collins is a professor at West Point who developed obstacles racing programs, and now he’s our coach.
SDN: Too cool that Col. Williams specializes in coaching obstacles racers.
RK: Oh yeah, he’ll be there at the race on Saturday. He took third overall at Worlds last year, and he was actually my inspiration to win Best Ranger. He was the last Green Beret to win it when he did in 2007 and I wanted to bring the title back to us.
SDN: Obstacle racing might be new, but it doesn’t feel like it’s going away anytime soon. What do you think: Will pro obstacle racing be around for a while?
RK: I think it’s something that has ground to stand on, but like you said, it’s only been around for a few years. It takes a while before something gets added to the Olympics. You look at things like rugby that were just added to the Olympics and that has been around for years. Right now I just don’t think it has the presence or enough of an athlete base to make the Olympics.
The Spartan is becoming the standard though. It’s the only series with races worldwide, where you have competitors from across the globe coming together to compete, and compete at the highest level. And then you have judges who are standardized across the world. I think it’s nice that there are also accredited distances. This is not a spectator-friendly course — even the sprint is a few miles and not a 5K. You can go all the way up to an Ultra Beast, which is two laps and 26 miles on a Beast course. That’s an obstacle marathon.
SDN: Think it will get any bigger?
RK: Yeah, I think it is growing. You have over a million participants a year, with more people and more cities and more courses than ever before, and that’s been growing over the years. Again, that’s where the distances are nice. You can get the trifecta and that helps it gain a lot of momentum, when people can go out and finish three distances at three races.
It also has a personal community feel. That’s what drives it: like a triathlon community it gets addictive, and people just want to go out and do more. They’re usually doing it for a good cause. You have adaptive athletes out on the course, amputees with Operation Enduring Warrior, and the group that I race for (another veteran support group). We’re about giving people the support they need to get out there and do something active again, to do something for themselves.
SDN: Back to the Breck course: Who’s going to be your fiercest competition this weekend?
RK: Ryan Atkins and Hunter McIntyre. We’re the only three guys who have been consistently on the podium at every race this year. It’s usually been in different places, but those two are always a threat. Jay Bode would be right there with us, but he unfortunately hurt his ankle this year.
Last year’s Beast winner — I’m not sure if he’s going to show up this year — was Travis Macy, the local endurance runner. That’s what’s cool about the endurance scene and these local races: you never know who’s going to show up. Even though I knew who he was, no one else did, and then he ended up winning.
I just need to put as much space in between myself and Ryan and Hunter this weekend as I can, because I can’t just be finishing with them around me. I need to get more ground in the points rankings, and if I put one or two or three unranked guys between me and them, it helps me in the end. Being top American is a great achievement, don’t get me wrong, but I’d love to top American and the World Championship.
SDN: Think you can repeat your world title this year?
RK: Definitely a chance, but this is the first time they’ve ever had a points championship. That makes things interesting. It’s also an added bonus for the year, to be national champion at the same time as world champion, and it’s anyone’s game with that on the table. And, you never know how the race will go for you on that day. I could have a horrible race and roll and ankle and end up down, just like Bode.
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