Spartan CitiField Sprint 2017: There are no rain delays in OCR

Those who have followed my recent race history might notice a common theme: weather on race day has been unusually hotunusually cold or unusually wetThis weekend proved to be no exception, as torrential rains hit New York on the same day that Spartan Race returned to CitiField. If you take away nothing else from this review, please remember that if you want to avoid extreme weather, make sure I’m not at your race. All the same, Spartan and thousands of Spartan racers were up to the challenge. As Spartan advised racers in a pre-race e-mail warning them to be careful on slippery stadium stairs: “rain is just another obstacle”. Aroo.

 

Eight-foot wall climb, in the wet shadow of CitiField

Before I tell you about what Spartan presented, can we talk baseball? Like all right thinking people, I was raised as a Yankee fan. To be sure, I believe in equal justice under the law, even for Mets fans, though I’m not sure I can extend that consideration to Red Sox fans. When Spartan started its first stadium race at Fenway Park in 2012, I was tempted by the concept, but the venue was a deterrent. I’m pretty sure that some kind of supernatural flames would consume me if I tried to cross the threshold at Fenway. When the event proved to be a success and Spartan extended it to other cities, I hoped that it would come to Yankee Stadium. Instead, Spartan opted for CitiField, which I still think of as Shea Stadium, partly out of resentment towards the corporate sponsor, and partly out of general orneriness. While I am reluctant to admit it, when the new stadiums were built for the Yankees and the Mets, it was the Mets that ended up with the better building. There, I said it. And it doesn’t make me less of a Yankee fan.

Why focus so much on baseball? Because the venue really made this race special. Even if you are not a baseball fan, there is something special about running on the warning track of a major league stadium. For me, one of the most memorable moments of the race was emerging from the visiting team’s clubhouse (smaller than I imagined) and… into the the visiting team’s dugout. Even without the obstacles and Spartan-ness of the day, that moment would have been enough for me.

And what about the obstacles? Here’s a good video that shows them all. Spartan presents the stadium races as an introduction to the entire series, and the distance, the numbers of obstacles, and the level of difficulty were perfectly calibrated to serve as a gateway to longer events. Many of the signature obstacles were on the course, along with a few that seem to be unique to stadium events. Racers faced six- and eight-foot walls, a rope climb, a spear throw, monkey bars, the Hercules Hoist, a sandbag carry and an A-frame climb. For the stadium races, they added “obstacles” that are really more like exercises from a typical CrossFit workout: box jumps, hand-release push-ups and ball slams. To me, these made the event seem more like an extended workout rather than a race; the sense of achievement you get after twenty-five ball slams is not really the same as the satisfaction you get from ringing the bell at the top of a rope climb. However, if you had never done a Spartan race “outdoors”, you would not notice the difference, nor would you miss the dunk wall or the fire jump.

Not one but two T-rexes appeared on the Jumbotron as they conquered the “obstacle” of box jumps. Not so hard for them, despite their tiny, tiny arms.

Spartan handled the logistics well. Waves were sent out every few minutes to keep the flow of athletes moving through the course without bunching. The only back-up I faced was at the spear throw, which used foam instead of hay bales – perhaps a sign of Spartan’s continuing efforts to standardize their “sport”? Most of the targets were out of commission and two wet – though cheerful! – volunteers did their best to manage the crowd.

Beyond the actual race, this event had the best “festival” atmosphere of any Spartan race I can recall. Racers and spectators mingled along the concourse, where many, many exhibitors plied them with samples (frozen yogurt! Something called “hard seltzer”!). Because of the compact course, spectators got the chance to see their athletes on several occasions, though many opted to do so from locations that kept them out of the rain.

 

There were spectators watching the finish line, but mostly from seats that were sheltered from the rain.

By my unscientific survey after the race, it attracted both Spartan veterans and plenty of racers who had never heard of the brand until recently.  Despite the cold and the rain, everyone I spoke to was eager to sign up for another race. I would consider another stadium race, even if the price point seems a little high for what feels like an extended workout at an extravagantly large CrossFit box. One final gripe: where was Mr. Met? If I’m going to go all the way out to New Shea, I expect to see Mr. Met (“Hey, Mr. Met: do you even lift?”).Despite the round head, this is not a picture of Mr. Met. Mr. Met was not at the race. This is me, showing off my Spartan bling, with the special stadium medal.

Photo Credit: the author and Spartan Race

Safety Standards Heading to Obstacle Course Racing?

Terrain-Race-Chicago-Cargo-After

“I know I signed a waiver, but this is still safe, right?”

I expect I am not the only person who has gone to a race, seen an obstacle and wondered how safe it really is. Was it something that looked like it had been assembled hastily, or was it something sturdy that is cleverly designed to look like it is less stable than it really is? The whole point of the sport is to get people outside of their comfort zones, but no one wants a race to end with a trip to the emergency room – not the racers, not the race directors, and certainly not the organizations that are trying to build the sport up.

Another question I find myself asking at races is “How can this obstacle possibly be insurable?” Unfortunately, as a lawyer I tend to see far too much of the world through the lenses of liability and litigation. As the sport of OCR has grown from practically nothing to a major industry in less than a decade, more participants and more dollars being spent has meant that more lawyers have gotten involved, often with the effect of making things less fun for everyone. Sorry about that.

Nevertheless, it is in the best interest of everyone involved to keep the risks of OCR in check, and to make sure that the sport challenges us, and even sometimes scares us, but that it doesn’t hurt us (at least not too much). This is why races are coming together around the idea of implementing safety standards.

For most organized events, there are industry standards about what preparations must take place to make sure the event is safe enough for everyone to enjoy and to make sure that in the event something goes wrong, the problems can be addressed quickly. Some of these precautions we take for granted: the lifeguard at the swimming pool. Others we may not even notice: your garden variety 5K will have lots of safety measures in place, even though most racers will never be aware of, say, the medical staff hanging back ready to react if someone gets hurt.

Sometimes these safety measures are put in place because local laws require them – the health code that mandates testing the water quality of a swimming pool, or a building code that requires enough fire exits for a concert venue. For other events, it can be an insurance company that mandates how much safety planning has to occur before a policy gets issued (those medics at the 5K). The regulations and insurance policies have all been developed over decades of trial and error, and people in those industries know what to expect. The organizer of the local triathlon will know that the insurance carrier requires so many water safety staff per 100 racers or medical personnel with radios every so many miles on the run course.

OCR is brand new, and therefore decades behind in developing standards that race organizers and the companies that insure their events can rely on. To make up for lost time, a number of the largest race companies approached ASTM International to put together safety guidelines. ASTM is a non-profit that brings an industry’s constituents together to agree to safety standards. These standards turn into guidelines that insurance companies and government agencies can then turn to when issuing policies, granting permits and drafting regulations, though ASTM itself goes to great lengths to make sure that they play no part in that role, in order to maintain their independence. For more on how ASTM is involved in recreational safety, you might watch this helpful cartoon.

How do the standards come to be? Interested parties are invited to draft standards. The drafts are circulated to the committee of people who have volunteered to assemble the standards, and ASTM facilitates the process. The committee then asks for comments. Based on those comments, they tweak the rules, lather, rinse, and repeat until a consensus is reached. ASTM then publishes the rules, putting them out in the world for the industry to rely on. The drafters meet twice a year, and at least very five years the rules are reviewed to make sure they work in the way the drafters hoped. Any unintended consequences get ironed out, and any previously unforeseen needs are addressed.

What does it mean for race organizers? Once the standards are agreed to, insurance companies can require that races comply with the standards in order to have policies issued. This may sound intimidating, but practically speaking it can benefit both sides. Insurance companies want to avoid risk. When they can minimize risk by requiring the insured races to implement features that will minimize potential harm, they can charge the races less for those policies.

Tough Mudder Block Ness

How deep is that water?

It’s not easy to make an explanation of insurance policies entertaining, but I’ll try with some made-up examples: if a race has water crossings on the course, that makes it more expensive to insure, because when you put people near water, there is a risk they will drown. The standards might say that, if the water is no deeper than three feet and the crossing is less than twenty feet, at least one safety monitor must be present to make sure the racers do not trip and accidentally drown (you can drown in as little as six inches of water! Lawyers worry about this!). However, if a water crossing is more than three feet deep, then the organizers need to have, say, two safety monitors at the crossing, one equipped with some kind of buoyancy life-saving device. This means getting more staff and more equipment and paying a higher premium for the riskier crossing on the course. At the same time, the race that has the shallower water crossing will pay a smaller premium, because the standards show that the crossing is less risky. The standards give the insurance companies something to work with, a technique to determine which races are bigger risks and which are smaller risks. This benefits the race organizers because, without the standards, the insurance companies would have simply categorized both races as equally risky, and they would have charged higher rates accordingly.

How do races try to work with their insurance carriers? They approach ASTM. Here’s a statement the Big Three issued:

“Spartan Race, Tough Mudder, and Warrior Dash are currently working together with other interested stakeholders in ASTM International, a globally recognized standards developer, to help formulate obstacle course racing industry standards. As industry leaders, we recognize the need to harmonize standards and provide guidelines to existing and new event producers to ensure that the industry continues to make participant safety a top priority. We invite and encourage other OCR producers, operators and safety leaders to help with this process. Anyone interested can contact ASTM International F24 Staff Manager Katerina Koperna at kkoperna@astm.org.”

When I learned that the main drivers behind the move to implement standards were the big three races, I was worried that they would draft the standards in such a way as to make it difficult for other operators to enter the market. While the big races have been great for getting OCR into the mainstream, the early days of the industry showed that the companies behind them were willing to play a little dirty (poaching race venues, etc.), and I thought the standards could discriminate against the mom-and-pop races, as well as new races that help keep innovation alive. ASTM is aware of this risk, and they told me: “having a standards development process in place is helpful to entrepreneurs and small businesses that want a seat at the table.  Our process is open to them, and anyone can submit what are called ‘negative’ votes that must be addressed before the standard is published.” The standards can help these smaller races, not only by making insurance easier to come by, but also in providing guidance in how to create a safe obstacle course. As new races popped up all over the country, the wheel got reinvented over and over again as course designers tried to figure out how to build safe course, not always successfully. If a new course designer can rely on published standards, he can build an obstacle he knows is safe. Trial and error isn’t always the best way to design an obstacle, especially when error can lead to a trip to the hospital. Finally, if a small operator doesn’t have the ability to design and build a course that meets with basic safety standards, maybe that operator shouldn’t be in the business of organizing obstacle course races.

muddy-red-deer

Defying certain death on the monkey bars

What does this mean for racers? For starters, it means safer obstacles. We all want to feel like we cheated death by pulling ourselves across the monkey bars. We don’t want to go to the hospital after an A-frame collapses . It can also mean lower race fees, if lower insurance costs get passed along to the racers. It can mean that new races aren’t as much of a gamble, as their organizers can rely on the standards as guidelines for safe obstacle construction. I worry that it might lead to some cookie-cutter standardization of obstacles, but that is something that can happen even in the absence of published standards.

The process of drafting the standards is long. What does it mean for the sport today? It means that you should get involved. Anyone can send the committee suggestions: ASTM values openness as part of the process, and the more people who get involved, the better the end product will be. An ASTM spokesman told me about the father of a hockey player who was concerned about his hockey-playing son’s safety and got involved in drafting the new standards for neck guards. People who work first hand with any product are going to understand the pros and cons even better, and this is why I would suggest that racers get involved. Elite racers, who are hoping to make a living on these courses, have even more reason to get involved, not just to offer their personal expertise, but to have an influence on making their workplace – the obstacles – a safe place.

No one wants to remove all the risk from OCR, and these standards will not prevent the cuts and scrapes that show up as pictures on social media every Monday. The standards will not prevent some more serious injuries either. While the races keep very quiet about this data, anecdotal evidence suggests that the biggest cause of race injuries is when racers take bad landings off 8- and 12-foot walls. Racers get so involved in how they are going to get to the top of the wall that they ignore the importance of a soft landing, and twisted ankles are one of the main reasons racers need medical attention. Risk and the perception of overcoming risk are at the heart of the sport – otherwise we would all be running 10Ks every weekend, right? Keeping that risk at an acceptable level, by implementing industry standards, is a good thing for us all.

Tacoma Mud Run Fire Jump

Will fire jumps still be OK? Get involved and find out.

 

Here’s ASTM’s press release on the subject:
Proposed ASTM International Standard Will Support Land-Based Obstacle Courses

ASTM International’s committee on amusement rides and devices, and its subcommittee on adventure attractions are developing a standard that will provide guidelines for building and operating obstacle racing courses. Anyone interested in helping develop this standard is welcome to join and get involved.

The obstacle course racing community has grown significantly in recent years. Designers, owners, builders, and operators could benefit from this proposed standard, currently known as the work item: “New Practice for Design, Construction, Operation, Inspection, Safety, and Maintenance of Land-Based Pedestrian Obstacle Courses” (WK54714).

The scope of this proposed standard also includes removing obvious hazardous conditions by logically applying existing standards and model codes.  Also according to its scope, this standard will not address attractions such as ropes courses or zip lines, nor will it purport to address all of the safety concerns associated with the standard’s use. (It will be the responsibility of the user of the standard to establish appropriate safety and health practices prior to use.)

This animated video shows other examples of ASTM International standards that help support safety of recreational activities.

ASTM Committee F24 on Amusement Rides and Devices Next Meeting: October 11-14, 2017, Scottsdale, Arizona, USA

Media Inquiries: Dan Bergels, tel +1.610.832.9602; dbergels@astm.org

ASTM Staff Contact: Katerina Koperna, tel. +1.610.832.9728; kkoperna@astm.org

Release #10282

March 22, 2017

Spartans Take on the Cold at the Winter Sprint

Be careful what you wish for.

Last year I grumbled that the heat at the Tri-State Spartan Sprint slowed me down. In general,  I don’t like the heat and humidity that comes with many races each summer in the Northeast. If only there were a race where that wasn’t a factor! Spartan HQ must have been reading my mind, because this year, they organized their first US Winter Spartan Sprint after trying out the concept in Europe.

When I signed up for the race, I saw that at the Greek Peak Ski Resort, where the race took place on Saturday,  the average temperatures topped out at about 30 degrees this time of year. Chilly, but certainly not the coldest race I have done, and doable with a few layers. As the race approached, I kept checking the weather. Earlier in the week, temperatures were hitting an unseasonable 70 in the Northeast, which made me wonder how they were going to handle any winter-based snow-dependent features. Mother Nature had other ideas. A few days before the race, Spartan sent out notices warning racers that temperatures were going to start out in the 20’s and that we needed to dress accordingly. No such luck.

When I made it to the venue, the air temperature was 10 degrees. That’s minus 12 in Celsius, for those who use the metric systemI was grateful for the extra layers I had packed.

The sprint course was similar to those that take place at other mountain venues in warmer months, only with the added elements of snow and ice. A handful of obstacles were adapted for this: Rolling Snow instead of Rolling Mud, for example. Some were removed (no Dunk Wall, no water crossings). The rest were the same, but frostier.

Obstacles that are easier in the winter:

Barbed wire crawl: usually I loathe this obstacle, as I end up putting my entire body weight on every single rock as I crawl along, piling on the scrapes and bruises at every yard I advance. This time? I could pretty much drag myself along the frozen surface, and while I wouldn’t call it smooth, the bumps were cushioned by the extra layers that protected me from the cold.

Plate drag: I had hoped that this area would be like a skating rink, and while I was disappointed, it turns out that it’s still easier to drag a heavy object across a frozen surface than a dusty, rocky one.

Obstacles that are harder in the winter:

Anything where you need to take your gloves off, such as the Rope Climb or the Hercules Hoist. The layers I was wearing were good at keeping my core warm, but as soon as the wind hit my hands, there was little else I could think of.

Between the obstacles, my main concern was not losing my footing. On other courses I have worried about slipping because the surface is muddy or wet or dusty or loose. Here, the same instincts applied, and I spent a lot of time crab walking down slopes, figuring that the sacrifice in my personal dignity was worth it to avoid a broken wrist or collar bone. There were also a number of muddy patches, which was baffling – how could there be watery soil when it was 10 degrees out? But I spent most of the time making sure that my feet would not slip out from under me in the loose ice and snow.

The sandbag carry up the slope was challenging because the sandbags were frozen rather than pliable, but some of the open wave racers figured out a way to put the snowy conditions to good use by sitting on the bags and sliding down the slope to the end of the carry. A Spartan volunteer tried to put a stop to this (“No tobogganing on the sandbags!” he shouted repeatedly), which was probably the appropriate safety instruction, but racers did have some fun with this while they could.

My biggest take-away from this winter event was that I never stopped enjoying myself. At other races I have caught myself thinking “this isn’t fun anymore” as I climb up yet another steep rocky trail, but this time I was happy from start to finish. Even the burpees were less unpleasant, as the ground, while not soft, was not as sharp under my gloved hands.

Some logistical observations: when I arrived, check-in had been moved indoors, causing a long line which snaked out the door. Apparently, registration was supposed to take place outside, but the computers had frozen, both literally and figuratively, and the operation was moved indoors, causing delays. The weather had also caused Spartan to move the parking for the event off-site, but when I arrived at the satellite parking I was told that, on the one hand, the lot was already full but, on the other hand, I could park at the venue after all. Rain the week before had caused the lot to be too soft, but it would seem that the sudden freeze had fixed that problem. In both cases, Spartan staff and volunteers adapted and fixed the problems.

Bling (because there are some readers who take this very, very seriously): yes, there were special Winter Sprint medals in the shape of a snowflake. You’ve seen the pictures, but what I didn’t know was that they also have “Nothing burns like the cold” stamped on the back. I’m not exactly sure what that’s supposed to mean, but it sounds intense. Aroo.

The finisher t-shirts (white, long sleeve, miracle fiber) were unique to this race. They also caused a bit of a stir. I noticed that mine looked a little dirty, but I assumed that I must have dropped it at some point. On Facebook I read a good deal of chatter saying that, in fact, the shirts had been exposed to water at some point and had gotten a little moldy. Racers were reporting that the mold stains weren’t coming out in the wash. Yet another Spartan t-shirt controversy in the making?

[UPDATE: on March 21, Spartan HQ sent out the following e-mail: 

“Hi there,
We appreciate your patience regarding the Finisher Shirt discoloration at the Greek Peak Winter Sprint. Spartan Race is committed to providing the best possible experience from the parking area all the way to earning that coveted shirt. For that reason, we are working with our vendor to have all of the shirts remade from this event and shipped to you at our cost. We simply need you to fill out the form below to confirm your size and shipping details. The estimated arrival time is 60 days to allow for reproduction of the shirts and shipping. Please do not reply to this email, as we will touch base as soon as we have the shirts in our warehouse to let you know when we will be shipping them to you.

(link to form to input your data)

Thanks!

AROO!”

Seems that Spartan heard the complaints and is working on fixing the problem.]

What does the future hold for the Winter Sprint? There are already two more on the calendar for 2018, one in New Hampshire and one in Utah. The racers I spoke to were willing to drive over six hours to get to this event, and despite the cold, cold weather, seemed to enjoy themselves. Many already had other plans to complete a Trifecta, so it would appear that they were doing this race for the novelty, not just for the sake of doing a Sprint distance. It is unclear at this point whether Spartan will come back to Greek Peak, whose name must have resonated with Spartan founder Joe De Sena. There are references to Classical Greek themes throughout the area (I flew into Syracuse, the ski resort is not far from Ithaca, etc.), and the trails we used for the race were named “Odyssey” and “Olympic”. How could Joe not come back here? However, I have to wonder at how effective it is to host an event at a ski resort while it is open for, you know, skiers. OCR as an industry has done a great job of making use of venues that are otherwise empty, providing revenue for the owners and the local communities. Hosting a large event that could displace the regular customers doesn’t seem to be as clever a move.

Rugged Maniac’s Changes Its Timing Protocol

Rob Dickens, co-founder of Rugged Maniac, recently sent out an e-mail explaining the way this event will time competitors going forward. After relying on timing chips, and then making timing chips optional (at an additional cost), the race has decided to do away with timing chips entirely. For 2017, anyone who wants to compete for a spot on the podium will have to enter the first wave of the day. Other competitors will simply time themselves against the start and finish line clocks. Rugged Maniac will then let you submit your time to their online database so that you can track yourself against others in your age group, at the same event, etc.

This move appears to solve lots of problems: racers who are competitive can race in a competitive heat. Those who want to keep track of their score and compare their performance with others can do so (assuming enough people take the extra step of reporting their time). Those who want to participate as part of a “fun run” are automatically do this. And no one has to pay for a complex, expensive timing system. This arrangement is similar to the one Warrior Dash implemented a few years ago.

The only possible downside to this arrangement is that it might have compromised Rugged Maniac’s ability to serve as a qualifying event for the OCR World Championships.  However, Rugged Maniac and OCRWC are working together so that the top ten male and female finishers at each event will qualify for OCRWC.

I asked Rob some questions about this new format:

ORM: Did you compare notes with the people at Warrior Dash to see how their transition to this system had worked?
Rob: We did not.  We looked at what our contemporaries were doing with regards to timing to see what options were available, and we talked to our Maniacs to understand what was most important to them. What we learned was that Maniacs choose to get timed for one of two reasons: (1) they want to win the race and/or qualify for the OCR World Championships or (2) they want to see how fast they are compared to others.

Moving away from chip timing actually allows us to better provide what our Maniacs want.  With respect to winners/OCRWC qualifiers, we’ll have our staff at the finish line to manually record the top 10 men and women in the Elite Heat, which is a more accurate system than chip timing (but not scalable for timing everyone) and doesn’t cost the runners anything.  We’ll continue to award prizes to the top 3 men, top 3 women, and top man and woman 50 or older.  We’ll no longer offer an under-20 category.

For those who simply want to know how they stack up against the field, we’ll compile self-reported times from Maniacs who wish to be included in the unofficial results, sort them by age and gender, and then make them available after each event.  This is an improvement over what we were doing in previous years because now that Maniacs no longer have to pay $10 for a timing chip, many more will submit their times for the unofficial results, creating a much larger field for comparison.

ORM: Since I am a lawyer by training and therefore inclined to see the worst in people, I have to ask about the possibility of cheating. The start and finish are easy to monitor, but what about the obstacles on the course? Wouldn’t it be easy for a less-than-honest competitor to skip obstacles on his way to a top ten finish?
Rob: Nothing will change with regards to obstacle completion on the course.  We have always relied on a combination of staff monitoring and runner self-policing to ensure that only those who complete all obstacles are eligible to win the race or qualify for the OCRWC.
I reached out to OCRWC founder Adrian Bijanada, who told me “as long as they have sufficient staff to guarantee the integrity of results ” he was happy to accept the new timing scheme.  This includes marshaling on the course.
The reaction on Facebook has been encouraging. One bonus that Rob did not trumpet is that Rugged Maniac does not charge extra to sign up for the first, elite heat, unlike most races with competitive first waves..
 While this might not be the best development for the timing chip industry, it represents progress for the sport as a whole. It acknowledges that participants come to races for a variety of reasons and with a variety of expectations. It also presents the possibility that more races might eliminate the extra expense of timing, which is a good thing for smaller races that are trying to grow. Finally, it sends a message that more people are welcome at more races: you don’t have to be competing against anyone to take part, but if you feel the drive of competition after trying one of these races, you can come back again with tracking your time as a goal. Let me know your thoughts in the comments.

Here’s the full text of what Rugged Maniac sent out:

In case you haven’t heard, we’ve decided to eliminate official timing at our events.  Going forward, you won’t have to pay $10 for a timing chip to see how you stack up against your fellow Maniacs on the course!

Here’s how it’ll work:  The post-race email will contain a link to an online form where you can enter your name, age, gender, and finish time as determined by you (there will be a clock at the finish line for this purpose).  We’ll then sort all the results by age and gender and post them on our website.  The beauty of this system is that it’ll be open to everyone, not just the people who run in the Elite Heat, so you’ll see your time compared to many more people than in the past.

This system will NOT be used to determine the winners, so there’s no incentive for people to intentionally fudge their times.  The winners will be the top 3 men and top 3 women who cross the finish line in the 9:45 a.m.Elite Heat.  The top-10 men and top-10 women in the Elite Heat will also qualify to compete in the OCR World Championships.  We will not record times for anyone outside of the top-10 in the Elite Heat.

I hope to see you at an event this year! As an added bonus, sign up between now and January 13th and take 10% off your registration with promo code TIMING.

Sincerely,

Rob Dickens
Co-Founder
Rugged Maniac

Obstacle Difficulty: In Search Of The Sweet Spot

When is an obstacle just difficult enough, but not too difficult?

I have been thinking about this question a lot recently. One of the great things about OCR is that it appeals to participants at all ends of the fitness spectrum: there are countless stories of people whose first foray off the couch is a Warrior Dash that they got dragged to by a co-worker, and there are athletes whose fitness levels match those of the top-ranked men and women in any sport. The courses that designers create must provide a good experience for everyone who attempts them. How do you make sure that the array of obstacles is a good match for the broadest possible market? And what happens when you don’t?

The first time I noticed this problem was when I tackled the Spartan Sprint at Tuxedo in June.  I went with some instructors from my neighborhood CrossFit box, who had never done a Spartan Race of any distance. After climbing up the mountain and down the mountain and up the mountain and down the mountain on a hot summer afternoon, they were exhausted. Again, these were people who are among the fittest around; there is also supposed to be a good match between CrossFit skills and what is needed to succeed at Spartan Races (and not just because both are sponsored by Reebok). Nevertheless, they found the Sprint distance to be daunting enough that they weren’t going to try it again. I found myself closer to the back of the pack during the race, and I spoke with plenty of people who were overwhelmed with how difficult the course was. Some were novices, and some were racers who had tried the stadium sprint at CitiField a few months prior. If a Sprint distance race, which is presumably the entry-level event for this series, left so many participants gassed and burpeeing out of obstacles, how was Spartan going to appeal to the masses it hopes to convert to its way of life?

Another Spartan Race brought this issue to mind, this time in Asheville. Followers of ORM will remember the time when Ryan Atkins, one of the most successful athletes in the sport, found himself unable to climb a rope because it was too slippery. As he later said in an interview, if it was too difficult even for him, how could anyone else be expected to succeed at that obstacle? For the record, I should point out that because Ryan is Canadian, when he said it he made it sound modest and not at all obnoxious as it might seem out of context.

Ryan_Atkins-Spartan_Race-3

Ryan Atkins has a 100% completion rate for this obstacle

Finally, I read about another race series that bragged about how difficult its obstacles are, which sounds like decent marketing. However, this race also featured mandatory obstacle completion, which is to say that you were not eligible for a spot on the podium unless you completed all the obstacles (i.e, no option for taking a penalty like burpees and continuing with the race). The result was that a number of the age-group podiums lacked anyone who made it to the finish line without failing at least one obstacle.

There must be some kind of sweet spot: a level of difficulty between there being no obstacles at all (a 5K trail run, for example) and where the obstacles are impossible to complete. Somewhere in the middle there must be a level of difficulty that challenges people new to the sport but still makes the experience competitive for those who are hoping to win, easy enough that racers can get through the obstacles but not so easy that the experience is boring. Is this something that race directors think about? How do they balance those needs?

I spoke to Garfield Griffiths, who has designed obstacles for Savage Race, BattleFrog, OCRWC and, most recently, CMC. He is a fan of mandatory completion, though he sees that it can lead to problems and empty slots on the podium. As he put it, “how many 70 year olds can complete Sawtooth?” Races need to appeal broadly, and he is more about people being able to do the obstacles. “A 70% success rate is a decent rate to shoot for.” For example, at the OCR World Championships, he thinks that 70% would be the right level for an designer to strive for, and that there is not much point in making an obstacle so difficult that even Ryan Atkins can’t complete it. He also noted that a world championship event can have the same level of difficulty as a less famous event. The Olympic marathon is just as difficult and just as long as the marathon in your home town, so the obstacles at OCRWC should be just as difficult as at a locally run competitive race. A less competitive event, such as a Rugged Maniac, might shoot for a higher rate, perhaps 80%. He also noted that there are different success rates for different types of obstacles; a showcase obstacle might be designed to have a success rate of 65 to 70 percent, whereas for a harder obstacle such as monkey bars the rate might dip to 60%. Of course, this is balanced by other obstacles where failure isn’t really an issue. “You can’t really fail at a mud crawl.” Finally, he pointed out that “you need people to come back”. If the obstacles are so daunting and discouraging, eventually you lose customers.

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Garfield Griffiths, right, mugging for the camera

Saw Tooth

Sawtooth. Not easy, especially for a 70 year-old.

I also spoke to Eli Hutchison from Tough Mudder, whose official title is Senior Product Manager, but who might be better known as one of the designers of Tough Mudder’s brilliant range of obstacles. Indeed, he told me that there is a sweet spot for every obstacle, though since Tough Mudder is “a challenge, not a race”, the reasons for selecting that sweet spot are different from those of other events. He opened the (I’ll assume orange-colored) kimono as to how TMHQ selects their obstacles and adjusts their difficulty. For starters, Tough Mudder divides obstacles into four categories, depending on its goal:
1) Fun, such as Mud Mile.
2) Personal accomplishment. An obstacle such as Funky Monkey, requires upper body strength, which comes with training and developing skills.
3) Courage (“Mental Grit”). Obstacles such as Arctic Enema and Electroshock Therapy require participants to overcome fears, but they do not require any physical skills.
4) Teamwork. Generally these obstacles require that you cooperate with other people on the course, though there are some that, if you are a top athlete, you could also complete on your own, such as Everest 2.0. However, these obstacles are all totally achievable if you work together.

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Eli, right, poses with fellow Tough Mudder Evil Genius, Nolan Kombol

For the personal accomplishment obstacles, the designers set a goal for how many can complete the obstacle. The rate varies from obstacle to obstacle, but most hover around 60% in dry ideal conditions. For King of the Swingers, about one out of every three participants succeedes in hitting the bell, a rate that TMHQ achieved by adjusting the distance to the bell until they got that rate. Why so low? King of the Swingers, and its level of difficulty, keeps people wanting to come back and try it again until they get it right and attain that level of personal achievement. How does TMHQ figure this out? You know those customer satisfaction surveys they send out? They actually read them and tabulate the results. This should not surprise anyone who remembers Tough Mudder’s origin story as a business school project. King of the Swingers received the highest score when the bell was set at a distance where one in three could hit the bell. Part of the experience that Tough Mudder sells is providing people with true physical challenges and giving them the opportunity to overcome them. Some of the happiest customers are those that surprised themselves.

King-Of-Swingers

King of the Swingers

The same number-crunching applies even for the “Mental Grit” obstacles. These are supposed to instill fear, but the fear is not supposed to be so debilitating that participants balk and cause a back-up as they hesitate to go through the electric wires or into the ice bath. TMHQ calculates the throughput, times how long people stall, and optimizes the experience. When TM introduced the Half Mudder as an entry-level event, they also made adjustments to these obstacles.

Eli also told me that these precepts are applied differently for World’s Toughest Mudder. Given the differences in the number and experience of the participants, they could adjust some obstacles to make them more difficult. When Toughest Mudder (an eight hour version of WTM) is introduced next year, they will shoot for a middle ground because the length of the event gives them more time to work with than the regular Tough Mudder.

Finally, as Tough Mudder branches out globally, they have analyzed how to apply the sweet spot to appeal to customers in different countries. For example “Australians like things to be a lot harder“, so you will find a different menu of obstacles there. Local conditions can also dictate what constitutes a tougher obstacle. As Tough Mudder moves into Asia, they have had to take into account that the percentage of people who can swim is lower than in the US. Even smaller distances can yield different results. Apparently there are 15 -20% swings in completion rates for the same obstacles in Tahoe and Vancouver.

At Spartan Races, I spoke to VP for Production Mike Morris, who told me that the relative difficulty of the obstacles was something they talk about a lot at Spartan HQ.  Their approach is different from Tough Mudder’s, because while both are concerned about safety, Spartan also prioritizes developing the sport of OCR. “The obstacles don’t have to be mind-blowingly difficult or crazy or huge. It’s not about just building the biggest monstrosity, but building and developing the sport and building a lifestyle around the sport.” They are looking to challenge the elites, but they are also looking to engage the majority of runners who are racing for fun. For the elite runners, the variety of the obstacles allows racers to leverage different strengths – a bucket carry is a good obstacle for a stronger athlete, but the monkey bars are a better obstacle for a lighter racer.
Spartan WC 2015 Byrce Stanton Bucket Carry
Bucket carry – better for some athletes than for others.
In its early years Spartan experimented with race-specific obstacles  for the races of different lengths, so you would see some obstacles only at the Sprint or only at the Super distance. For 2017 there will be more specific obstacles, ones that are unique to the Beast or unique to the Super. “People who show up for harder races are in better shape.”

Are obstacles at races too hard? Too easy? And do you seek out events depending on the level of difficulty? While no race series will be able to satisfy everyone, is there one that has the broadest appeal to you based on how tough the event is? Let us know in the comments.

Tough Mudder Introduces New Obstacles for 2017

Tough Mudder has released details about the new obstacles for 2017, and it is clear that they will keep Tough Mudders wet, disoriented, and dangling in midair. Which is how Tough Mudder likes it.

Most of these obstacles will debut at World’s Toughest Mudder, which takes place this weekend outside Las Vegas, and those who are curious are bound to get glimpses of the new obstacles during the copious live feeds that will be broadcast.

In the meantime, you can also see many of the obstacles in this dramatic video: 

Once you have picked your jaw up off the floor, you might want to know more about the individual obstacles you just saw. The most impressive is called Augustus Gloop. Why is that name familiar? If Johnny Depp is your WIlly Wonka, then you will remember this:

However, if you go old school Gene Wilder, try this instead

Sadly, this obstacle does not involve a river of chocolate. Rather, Mudders will climb up a tube while water rushes down at them. I spoke to obstacle designer Eli Hutchison, who explained that while the tube itself will not be difficult to climb, the force of the water flowing down will make it feel like you can’t breathe. “Just keep your head down”, he advised. Thanks, Eli.


auustus-gloop-top

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Another brand new obstacle is called Reach Around, which requires participants to climb almost 20 feet in the air to a point which requires some problem-solving to get past a point before climbing back down. This obstacle combines both the need for upper body strength as well as the need to overcome a fear of heights.

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The remaining two new obstacles are the latest updates on successful obstacles from the past. Arctic Enema was originally just a dumpster full of ice water separated by a fence, requiring you to dunk yourself completely to emerge at the other side (and originally it was called “Chernobyl Jacuzzi”, but that’s another story). Version 2.0 introduced in 2015 forced Mudders to slide into the ice under wire fencing, preventing you from hesitating on your way down. The latest version, Arctic Enema – The Rebirth, replaces the fenced-in slide with a tube, reminiscent of the old obstacle “Boa Constrictor”. The catch? You’re supposed to go down the tube head first, which means you get more submersion, more cold, and a greater element of fear. Well played, Tough Mudder.

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Also updated is Funky Monkey. This was originally just a monkey bar climb over water, and it was updated to add a transition from monkey bars to a pole. If you have finally mastered this skill, in 2017 you get to try Funky Monkey – The Revolution, which adds moving wheels to the mix of items you need to grab to get across. This innovation may or may not have its inspiration from the American Ninja Warrior courses.

Legionnaires, those who have already completed a Tough Mudder, will have more options this year as well. Three obstacles will feature Legionnaire Lanes, where an obstacle has been adapted to be just that much tougher (and get an even more aggressive name). You might call these versions “enhanced”, with the same meaning as “enhanced interrogation”. Augustus Gloop will become Snot Rocket, and Legionnaires will have to approach the entrance to the tube through a wire covered pool of water, reminiscent of Cage Crawl, with only a few inches of water between you and the fencing. The Legionnaire Lane for Reach Around is called Stage 5 Clinger and will require you to climb to the top at an even steeper, more technical angle. Birth Canal has been adapted as Black Hole, requiring you to crawl under heavy bags of water, but this time in complete darkness (WTM insider alert: this obstacle will not be present at Vegas this weekend. Now you know!). Finally, instead of Electroshock Therapy, Legionnaires will be able to opt for something called Kong, which will require you to swing from ring to ring high in the air. The twist is that the rings are spaced farther and farther apart as you cross the obstacle.

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Tough Mudder has shown that it can innovate by introducing new obstacles and keep the event fresh by updating old ones. The focus is on making obstacles that are challenging, but entertaining.I know that I can’t wait to give Augustus Gloop a try. Even if no chocolate is involved.

Bonus: You can hear the podcast with the entire conversation between Eli, ORM’s Matt B. Davis and myself, here.

Tough Mudder Press Release:

BROOKLYN, NY (November 10, 2016) – Tough Mudder Inc., the leading active lifestyle brand, announced today its new obstacles for the 2017 event season which feature four new challenges – a new Legionnaire finish obstacle (for participants who have completed at least one Tough Mudder event) and three Legionnaire-only features. Select new obstacles will debut at World’s Toughest Mudder, the grueling 24-hour extreme endurance race presented by Cellucor, on Saturday, November 12 at Lake Las Vegas at 12 p.m. PST.

Fans can watch the world’s leading ultra-endurance athletes take on these new challenges for the first time and compete for a $100,000 grand prize by viewing the Tough Mudder/CBS Sports’ World’s Toughest Mudder Livestream at ToughMudder.com.

The new 2017 Tough Mudder obstacles are:

New Extreme Obstacles:

  • Augustus Gloop – Participants must enter into a chest-deep pit of water before ascending up a vertical tube. As they attempt to ascend through the confined tube, they must fight off a cascade of water gushing down on them from above.
  • Funky Monkey – The Revolution – A literal “spin” on Tough Mudder’s classic Funky Monkey obstacle. Participants test their upper body strength to complete this challenge while transitioning from monkey bars to traverse a series of revolving wheels – all while dangling over a water pit.
  • Arctic Enema – The Rebirth – Participants slide down a confined, dark tube head first into an icy pool of water, navigate across one section and must submerge themselves yet again under a wall to escape this freezing vessel of ice water.
  • The Reach Around – Playing upon one’s fear of heights and one of the most challenging obstacles on the course, this nearly 20 feet tall obstacle forces participants to climb up and go beyond vertical in an inverted 45 degree angle to overcome it.

For those who have completed a Tough Mudder event, known as Legionnaires, Tough Mudder is providing new challenges – in the form of special Legionnaire-only lanes to enhance their experience in 2017. The lanes will be new twists on classic challenges, as well as an all-new Legionnaire-only finisher obstacle that will test participant’s upper body strength and fear of heights.

Enhanced Legionnaire Lanes:

  • Snot Rocket (Augustus Gloop Legionnaire Lane): Before attempting to enter the vertical tube of this kicked-up Augustus Gloop, participants must pull their way through a steel fence-topped trench while floating on their back with only a few inches of air between water’s surface and the fence.
  • Black Hole (Birth Canal Legionnaire Lane): Participants must crawl and push their way through a confining gauntlet of 100 lb water-filled barriers suspended above them in total darkness.
  • Stage 5 Clinger (The Reach Around Legionnaire Lane): In addition to scaling one of the tallest and toughest obstacles on the course, Legionnaires will have to come up with a new strategy to navigate across a now 90 degree angle to reach its peak.

Legionnaire Finish Obstacle:

  • Kong: Taking Legionnaire finish obstacles to new heights, literally, this giant, 30-foot obstacle will have participants swinging like Tarzan, traversing from one floating ring to another with increasing distance between them.

“The 2017 enhancements set a new standard of excellence in obstacle innovation and showcase the physicality and intensity which makes Tough Mudder unique,” said Will Dean, CEO and Co-Founder of Tough Mudder, Inc. “The mental and physical challenges participants experience is ­­­­what makes Tough Mudder the industry leader. We remain committed to exploring and engineering ways to present new challenges and increase obstacle difficultly to keep our events fresh and exciting. We look forward to welcoming thousands of new and returning participants to Mudder Nation in 2017 to face these challenges together.”

Deemed as “probably the toughest event on the planet,” Tough Mudder tests teamwork, while pushing pushes one’s physical abilities and mental grit limits. With more than 2.5 million participants to date across four continents, Tough Mudder events challenge people across a 10-12 mile course featuring 20-25 signature obstacles.

In addition to the Live Stream of World’s Toughest Mudder, CBS Sports will premiere its series of programs on the World’s Toughest Mudder in December. Viewers can tune into Road to the World’s Toughest Mudder on CBS Sports Network on December 15 at 9:00 PM EST for a behind the scenes, in-depth look at the obstacles, the competitors and preparation leading up to the grueling 24 hour competition. On December 25 at 2:00 PM EST on CBS, viewers will get to experience all the excitement, drama, agony and joy from the 2016 World’s Toughest Mudder. Immediately following the World’s Toughest Mudder program, CBS Sports Network will host a post-event roundtable World’s Toughest After at 3:00 PM EST, featuring the winners and top competitors.

For more information on the 2017 Tough Mudder obstacles, World’s Toughest Mudder, the Tough Mudder CBS Sports special or to register for an event, visit ToughMudder.com. Join the conversation by following Tough Mudder on Twitter at @ToughMudder or Instagram at @Tough_Mudder.

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About Tough Mudder, Inc.:

Founded in 2010 with the launch of the Tough Mudder event series of 10-12 mile obstacle courses, Tough Mudder Inc. has since grown to become a leading active lifestyle company. The brand includes Tough Mudder Half, an obstacle challenge bringing the thrills of Tough Mudder to a 5-mile course; Mudderella, an obstacle course series created by women for women; Fruit Shoot Mini Mudder, a custom event for children ages 7-12; Toughest Mudder Series, the eight-hour, overnight competition series; World’s Toughest Mudder, a grueling 24-hour endurance competition; and an extremely vibrant engaging social and digital destination for leading fitness, nutrition and wellness content delivered across multiple platforms. The Tough Mudder family of brands and online community is united by a commitment to promoting courage, personal accomplishment and teamwork through unconventional, life-changing experiences. With more than 2.5 million participants to date, Tough Mudder Inc. will produce more than 120 events worldwide in 2016 across five continents, including Asia through its partnerships with Seroja and IMG. More than 20 of the world’s leading brands are sponsorship and content distribution partners, including Merrell, Old Spice, Shock Top, Cellucor, Volvic, Jeep, Britvic, L’il Critters, US Army, Virgin Active, Olympus, Bosch, Live Stream, The CW and CBS. To join the conversation, follow Tough Mudder on Facebook at facebook.com/toughmudder, on Twitter @ToughMudder, and on Instagram @Tough_Mudder.

World’s Toughest Mudder

Known as one of the most extreme endurance events in the world, the World’s Toughest Mudder event, presented by Cellucor, is the only competitive event that Tough Mudder, Inc. hosts in 2016. Competitors are eligible to win a total of more than $170,000 in prizing, including a grand prize of $100,000 for teams that complete at least 100 miles together. Like all Tough Mudder events, World’s Toughest Mudder encourages Mudders to work together, help one another overcome obstacles and push past their physical and mental boundaries. While competitive in nature, World’s Toughest Mudder is about finding one’s personal limits and putting teamwork to the test, and hundreds of participants take part in the event as a team. The course is a grueling, five-mile loop featuring diverse desert terrain, steep hills, mud pits and more. Prizes are awarded to participants who complete the most miles within 24 hours, and the team of two or more that completes 100 miles together wins $100,000. Competitors take on 20-25 of Tough Mudder’s most challenging obstacles including The Cliff, Human Operation, and Gut Buster, in this 24-hour, timed event to be deemed the toughest man, woman and team on the planet.

Tough Mudder PR Contacts:
Angela Alfano
(703) 447-5629
Angela.Alfano@ToughMudder.com

Jodi Kovacs
(732) 597-2094
Jodi.kovacs@toughmudder.com