CSU freshman shines at Spartan World Championships on the coast

Luke Zahlmann

In just his first season as a professional obstacle racer, Colorado State freshman John Penland made history in Lake Tahoe, California.

(Caleb Carpenter | Collegian)

The Spartan Elite World Championships, an event that hosts over 40 countries, played host to Penland on Sept. 29 where he finished 19th in the professional heats of the event.


The top-20 finish marks the highest for a participant as young as Penland, 18, in the event, as well as the 2nd-youngest competitor in the event as a whole.

Spartan obstacle races began in 2001 and have grown to 55 events throughout the globe, doubling in size within the last year.

The Spartan World Championship has been the focus of my racing season. I put in hundreds of hours of training over the last year working out multiple times a day.  After finishing 85th in this race last year, I had set an aggressive goal of a Top-25 finish.” – John Penland, Spartan race competitor

Hosted at Squaw Valley Resort, the race was a 13.5-mile course, elevating by nearly 4,500 feet and featuring 31 various obstacles for competitors to endure prior to the finish line.

Obstacles in the event included swimming a lap in the lake at the top of Snow King Peak, carrying a 120-pound pair of sandbags on a 300-yard loop and crawling through both mud and barbed wire.

Boy competing in Spartan race.
John Penland competes in the Spartan World Championships on Sept. 29 at Squaw Valley Resort in Lake Tahoe, California. Penland placed 19th in the 13.5 mile race. (Photo courtesy of Spartan Race)

Penland was able to excel throughout the weight barring portions and downhill running, recording one of the fastest times in the event in the 2.8-mile section down the mountain. Penland ran close to six-minute miles throughout the descent.

“I started the race a bit faster than I planned,” Penland said. “After a half mile, I was in 3rd place running up the mountain with Robert Killian, the 2015 Spartan World Champion.  Later on the climb, my legs started to feel heavy and I needed to slow down but I think that (an) aggressive race attitude helped me all day.”

A native of Clarendon Hills, Illinois, Penland attended Hinsdale Central High School before making his way to Fort Collins. Now a Biomedical Science major, Penland has already begun to utilize the running landscape of Colorado.

The mountains of the course provided an opportunity to excel for Penland, a Colorado resident and will continue to be a building block in his young career.

“Going to college in Colorado gives me easy access to the mountains for training,” Penland said. “My trail running has really improved since arriving for my freshman year six weeks ago.  I really look forward to what I can accomplish training in Colorado over the next 4 years.”

The inspiration to begin a career in the dirt came through the same race in 2015, televised on NBC. As Penland and his family sat in their living room, watching the aforementioned Killian and Cody Moat lead a title push, a drive was ignited.


A visit to the U.S. Military Academy began Penland’s fitness career, despite once being unable to run a sub-six-minute mile. Penland chose to begin lifting and running to prepare for their fitness test. Now an everyday runner, Penland said he would have ran 2,500 miles by the end of this year

“I only miss a day of running if I’m sick or injured,” Penland said. “In addition to running, I lift weight at least 5 times a week usually before my classes.”

In his high school tenure, Penland played soccer for three years, with a one-year stint in track and field, and half a season of cross country. The fire within Penland failed to ignite for more organized running, forcing him to result to an outside-the-box endeavor.

Now sponsored by Mudgear apparel and EndureElite supplements, Penland concluded his first season as a professional runner with the Spartan event, just a year after winning the 2017 Obstacle Course Racing World Championship, running for the 17-and-under division.

“Interest in obstacle course racing is growing very fast around the world,” Penland said. “I am really excited to be part of the next generation of athletes who can pursue the sport professionally and potentially in the Olympics in Los Angeles and/or Tokyo.”

Collegian Sports Director Luke Zahlmann can be reached at sports@collegian.com or on Twitter @lukezahlmann.