Click here to read Names To Watch In 2021 (Men)
Honestly, it’s pretty unlikely that most of the women in this article will join the ranks of Lindsay, Nicole, or Rebecca at the top of the sport. It’s not that the women I’m about to mention aren’t really good, but rather that those three are simply on another level at most races.
The main reason I’m saying that is because there’s a huge difference in terms of drop-off within the top-25 for both genders. As you can see above, the 25th best man finished as close to the winner as the 10th best woman at US National Series races last year. Yes, the women’s field is much deeper now than it was just a couple years ago, but a top-10 finish on the women’s side at a major race (while very impressive) is still not as difficult to achieve as it is on the men’s side. Combine that with several higher-than-expected placements at Tahoe after several top contenders DNF’d and it’s easy to have big expectations for some new names on the women’s side.
The reality is that they’ll probably be slightly behind the next pack of women, including Faye, Rea, Alyssa, Rose, and Leigh Anne. That doesn’t mean they’re not fantastic racers, though. I repeat: everyone in this article is already among the best in the sport. They’re all still capable of a top-10 finish at major races no matter who shows up. You should start familiarizing yourself with these women who are on the rise for 2021 because they’ll only continue to climb the ranks of the best female OCR athletes going forward.
I was on the Myriam Guillot-Boisset hype train all of last year and she didn’t disappoint. Most people in North America weren’t aware of her ridiculous margins of victory throughout Europe and Asia, but I could tell that it would translate well during championship season. All of the women in this article are trending in the right direction, so let’s see if my predictions for 2021 are as successful.
Eszter Hortobagyiova (@estikaofficial)
By now, you’re well aware of how good the top European women are, specifically Zuzana Kocumova and Myriam Guillot-Boisset. They’ve taken down the best North American racers at Tahoe and Greece, so it’s undeniable that there’s plenty of talent at the top in Europe. It’s time to add another name to that list: Eszter Hortobagyiova.
Speaking of Zuzana, did you know that only 8 women have ever beaten her in a Spartan Race? Eszter (4) and Lindsay Webster (2) are the only women to have beaten Zuzana multiple times.
Eszter has been one of the top racers in Europe for a few years, but she took her racing to another level in 2019. How dominant has Eszter been lately? She’s won 19 of her last 22 Spartan races and finished 2nd in the other 3. For comparison, Nicole Mericle has won 13 of her last 22 Spartan races and finished on the podium in the other 9.
We were able to get a sense of how close they are when they went head-to-head in Greece last November. Nicole won the Super and Beast, while Eszter won the Sprint after Nicole missed her spear. However, they were essentially tied after the first two events, miles ahead of the competition:
There are very few women in OCR who have the speed to run with Nicole, but Eszter is one of them. Go back and watch some of the 2019 Trifecta World Championship coverage and you’ll see some clips of Nicole and Eszter battling throughout the first two races:
Prior to her great performances in Greece last year, Eszter had finished 3rd at the 2017 Spartan European Championship and 2nd at the 2018 Spartan European Championship, a few minutes ahead of Myriam and Alyssa Hawley. Additionally, Eszter won the 2018 European OCR Championship by nearly 10 minutes, proving she has good obstacle proficiency at non-Spartan events, too. Although Eszter DNF’d at Tahoe last year, she was in 4th place over 80 minutes into the race after the swim, only 2 minutes out of podium position at the time. You can’t fake being in 4th place that late into the world championship.
Bottom line, Eszter is probably the best racer that most OCR fans have never heard of. Start working on pronouncing “Eszter Hortobagyiova” now because at just 26 years old, she’s going to be one of the best in the sport for a long time.
Ulrikke Evensen (@ulrikke_evensen)
The not-so-secret formula for doing well at OCR is being a fast trail runner with great grip strength. Let’s see if Ulrikke checks either of those two boxes.
✅ Ulrikke represented Denmark at the 2019 World Mountain Running Championships, finishing 20th overall on the 25.7-mile course with 7,200 feet gain. Ok, she’s pretty good at trail running.
✅ Check out some of the videos on her Instagram page to see why Ulrikke is one of the most obstacle-proficient women in the sport, like this one:
Her range is up there with the best in OCR:
— 4th at last year’s 2019 OCRWC 3k
— 1st at 2019 OCRWC team relay
— 1st at 2018 Europe’s Toughest Mudder (45 miles, tied for women’s record)
— 5th at 2017 World’s Toughest Mudder (80 miles)
It’s a shame that Ulrikke DNF’d at Tahoe last year due to the cold, as she was less than a minute behind Rebecca Hammond in 5th place over an hour into the race. Don’t be surprised if she finishes next year’s Spartan Race WC in the top-5, though. Like Eszter above, Ulrikke is only in her mid-20s, so get used to her battling for championship podiums for a number of years.
Annie Dube (@mountaingoatgirl)
Just two years ago, Annie Dube raced in the Age Group division at 2 of her first 3 Spartan Races. The third Spartan Race of her career was at Tahoe in 2018, where she was the top Age Group finisher, which was good enough for 25th overall. She permanently switched to Elite last year and had several great performances in her first year on the US National Series circuit and 8 Elite podiums since the start of 2019. She’s proof that it’s possible to start in Age Group before successfully transitioning to Elite.
Her Instagram name says it all: Annie loves spending time in the mountains. She spent several months exploring the Andes Mountains in South America before entering the OCR scene and even hiked Mt. Kilimanjaro last year. Not only that, but Annie spends a lot of time rock climbing. As we all know, good mountain runners who like to rock climb succeed at OCR.
After finishing 7th at Utah and 9th at West Virginia, Annie had high hopes for Tahoe last year. Like so many others, however, she DNF’d after the swim despite entering the water in 8th place over 80 minutes into the race. Based on her progression over the past year, especially at major races, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Annie continue to finish in the top-10 at USNS events once racing resumes, especially on courses with lots of elevation gain.
Morgan Schulz (@morgan.schulz)
Another promising young athlete, 23-year-old Morgan Schulz is looking to make a name for herself in Hyrox and shorter obstacle races. Morgan ran the 6th fastest Hyrox time on US soil in Chicago, finishing within a minute of both Faye Stenning and Alyssa Hawley. Even though Morgan has been focusing on shorter, high-intensity races, she finished 7th place at the 2019 West Virginia Beast against the top Spartan athletes from North America.
Prior to OCR, Morgan was an NCAA Division 1 runner at the University of Illinois. Her running pedigree and strength background makes her skillset tough to beat. Expect to see Morgan put up one of the fastest Hyrox times in history next season and be a podium threat at every Stadium Series race. She might also go after the women’s world record in the beer mile, too, after running a ridiculous 6:54 earlier this year.
Jezabel Kremer (@jezabelkremer)
After starting her OCR career with 3 straight podiums back in 2017, Jezabel was forced to end her season early after getting pregnant in July 2017. Jezabel returned to action just 4 months after the birth of her son at the 2018 Spartan European Championship in Morzine, one of Spartan’s most difficult venues worldwide. She was in 8th place about a mile from the finish before suffering a freak accident on the slack line, fracturing her elbow and two ribs. Her 2018 season ended immediately.
Jezabel returned with a vengeance just 6 months later, and she was arguably Europe’s third-best female Spartan racer last year, behind Myriam Guillot-Boisset and Eszter Hortobagyiova. Her 9 podiums in 2019 were the 5th most in Europe, with 6 of those coming in the French National Series, Italian National Series, or European Mountain Series. The only races she didn’t finish top-4 last year were at the Trifecta World Championship in Greece, where she finished 8th overall.
Prior to OCR, Jezabel was a very talented swimmer, finishing 1st at the European University Championships for France. She also had several top-10 finishes at cross-country skiing races in her mid-20s. Next year will be only her second full season of racing, but expect her to be in the front pack at many Euorpean races and a top 10-15 finish in Abu Dhabi.
Arielle Fitzgerald (@ariellefitz22)
No one thought that Arielle Fitzgerald would finish in the top-5 at West Virginia last year. Seriously, not a single person included her in nearly 200 ballots for the Yancy Camp prediction contest for that race. Yet her surprise 5th place finish was not a fluke. Arielle is an accomplished runner with 10 Spartan podiums in 17 career races. Did you know Arielle set two Guinness world records back in 2016?
— Fastest 50k on a treadmill (3:51:25)
— Fastest 100k on a treadmill (8:30:34)
Arielle has been one of the best Canadian female racers for nearly 5 years, but no one has really noticed because Lindsay and Faye have (understandably) gotten all of the attention (note: Jessica Lemon is another Canadian athlete who deserves more recognition). In fact, Arielle only has 2 career finishes outside the top-5 at a Spartan Race, one of which was 13th place at the 2018 Spartan Race World Championship. She was on pace to finish slightly better last year, too, before DNF-ing after the swim. The top athletes know who she is when they see her at the start line, but fans should get used to hearing Arielle Fitzgerald within the top 5-10 at major races whenever she travels to the US from Canada.
Lillie Elkin (@lillieelkin_spartanocr)
OCR fans have been calling Lillie Elkin “the female Veejay Jones” since her surprise 5th place showing in Jacksonville at the first (and only) US National Series race in 2020. That performance wasn’t a fluke, though. Lillie has been moving up the ranks since she finished 10th during her Spartan Elite debut as a 17-year old back in 2017.
The name “Lillie Elkin” first caught my eye in November 2018 when I saw that a teenager finished within a minute of Rose Wetzel to finish 2nd at the Sacramento Sprint. I saw her name again a few months later at the 2019 Jacksonville Super USNS after she finished 19th overall if you combined Elite plus Age Group divisions. Lillie raced the remainder of the US National Series, dominating her 18-24 Age Group and finishing in the 16th-23rd range if you combine Elite plus Age Group divisions.
Then she took her game to the next level. After finishing just 5 minutes outside the top-10 at West Virginia, Lillie ran the 13th fastest overall time at Tahoe after winning the Age Group division outright. She switched to Elite and won her last two races of 2019 in Sacramento.
After her 5th place finish in Jacksonville to start the 2020 US National Series, she’s no longer an under-the-radar athlete. Lillie’s pre-OCR background is actually in softball, just like Alyssa Hawley. Give her a couple more years to develop as an endurance athlete and Lillie Elkin will be an even bigger threat on the US circuit.
Jamie Brusa (@bruiser_ocr)
Just like Morgan Schulz, Jamie Brusa was a former NCAA Division 1 runner at the University of Illinois. After several finishes in the 13th-22nd range during the 2018 US National Series, Jamie steadily improved last year with a 9th place finish at Big Bear. She took things to another level towards the end of the year, though, finishing 12th at both West Virginia and Tahoe. Her progression at the Spartan Race World Championship was 28th to 23rd to 12th over the past three years. That’s what usually happens when you’re a talented runner who has finally transitioned to an obstacle racer.
Amazingly, Jamie has never podiumed at a Spartan Race before, which is insane to think about for someone who finished 12th at last year’s World Championship. She also has a VO2 max of 71, which is world-class for women. Not only do I think Jamie will finally get her first podium next year, but she’ll also be a 7th-10th place threat at major races.
Last but not least is Joanna Hills. Unlike all of the other women on this list, I barely know anything about her. Shocking, I know. However, I can assure you that if anyone can find out info about someone in OCR, it’s me. You don’t even want to know the lengths I’ve gone to to find some results in the past. Eventually I’ll get to the bottom of the Joanna Hills mystery. Part of me wonders if she is even a real person. This is literally the only ever non-blurry photo I’ve been able to find of Joanna Hills:
Joanna doesn’t have any social media accounts and is the only one missing in nearly all post-race podium photos. Talk about a woman of mystery! It’s not just me, though. I’ve reached out to several top racers in Australia since I first noticed Joanna in 2018 to try to find out more about her. They’re all as confused as me. Here’s what they had to say about Joanna Hills:
— “You’ve pretty much got as much info on her as we all know! We know she does cross-country running and I think is a mountain running champion, too. Apart from that, she turns up, dominates EVERYONE, and then goes home again.”
— “No one knows if she’s coming because she signs up on the day (of the race). Just turns up on the start line and that’s all you see of her. Super shy. Keeps to herself. Never really travels to many races.”
— “She’s been training really hard and was planning on (racing Spartan) World’s this year until Covid. I would be putting a good amount of money down that she would be top-3.”
— “Crazy mystery woman! I’ve tried to have a good chat with her after races and she barely said a word.”
— “She stopped racing Spartan for a bit because she used to win by sooo much that she’d get in the top-5 for men. She’s an absolute force.”
— She’s the next Deanna Blegg for sure. We just can’t seem to chat to her long enough to find out who she is!”
Now that we’ve established that Joanna is a “legend,” let’s take a look at some stats. Here’s what I do know about Joanna Hills, the mysterious 23-year old Australian sensation:
— Never lost a Spartan Race in 7 attempts
— 16th at 2015 World Mountain Running Championship (Junior division, representing Australia)
— Absolutely destroys the women’s field every time she steps on the start line (14:12 average winning margin over 2nd place)
— Has finished top-10 overall finishes (men + women combined) in all 4 Australian National Series races in which she has competed
— Defeated 2-time Olympic steeplechaser Victoria Mitchell by over 7 minutes only a year after Victoria competed in Rio de Janeiro in 2016
Joanna’s most impressive Spartan accomplishment happened at the 2020 Gold Coast Super, where she won the race overall (men + women combined) by over 4 minutes. She took down the reigning Asia-Pacific Regional Champion (the equivalent of West Virginia in the US) and a couple other Spartan Pro Team men, so it’s not like there wasn’t good competition in this Gold Coast race. One of the top finishers in that race managed to get in a couple words with Joanna and told me, “She did a lot of grip and strength training. Hence, why she “chicked” us on that course.” That’s bad news for her opponents who may have hoped she was simply a great runner but not obstacle-proficient yet.
The only time she hasn’t won by at least 4 minutes was a 39-second win at the 2020 Gold Coast Sprint. Want to know who finished 2nd in that race? Her 13-year old sister, Denielle, who finished 2nd at the 2019 Australian Cross-Country National Championships for the 12-and-Under division. With that podium, Denielle Hills became the youngest person to ever podium in an Elite Spartan Race, even 2 years younger than Veejay Jones performed the same feat. It might not be a bad idea to remember her sister Denielle’s name a few year’s down the road in case she decides to pursue Spartan racing.
Bottom line, no one knows much about Joanna Hills, but I won’t be surprised at all if Joanna Hills is fighting for a podium in Abu Dhabi in 2021. She is a fantastic mountain runner, is used to hot/sandy conditions from living in Australia, and has won every Spartan Race she’s ever done by ridiculous margins. Based on the “legend” status that Australia’s best racers have given her and the Spartan results I’ve seen so far, Joanna Hills gets the “Jack Bauer OCR Stamp of Approval.”
Other Names to Watch
US + Canada
— Bethany McChesney
— Cody Mezebish
— Erin Wachter
— Lacey Bourgois
— Laura Cummings
— Lauren Stroud
— Lauren Weeks
— Nell Rojas (if she races)
— Sara Woodward
— Tia Reagan
— Adela Vorackova
— Alisa Petrova
— Anna Karaseva
— Natalia Gurchenkova
— Ona Sociats Razquin
— Svetlana Parygina
— Nedene Cahill