Tough Mudder Takes on Michigan

Tough Mudder arrived at a new Michigan venue last weekend, and they showed the Mitten this year’s crop of new obstacles. Mudders were impressed on both counts.

I visit Michigan every June to take part in a bacon festival and to visit my college roommate Adam and his family. When I saw that Tough Mudder Michigan was going to be on the same weekend, I knew I had to make take advantage of the scheduling. Until now I have only done Tough Mudders in the northeast (Englishtown, Jersey City and Coatesville) and in cold to very cold weather. A summer Tough Mudder in the midwest? Sign me up! Plus, I decided to see if Adam would be interested, and sure enough, he expressed enthusiasm about joining me.

I was hoping that doing a Tough Mudder with someone who had never done an obstacle course race before would help me see the event through fresh eyes. In some ways, Adam and I are very similar: we are both finishing up our fifth decade, we both exercise enough to keep the doctors at bay, and neither of us will be on a podium any time soon. We also share a certain approach to the world. He is a professor, but he nearly blew his job interview at Michigan State by explaining that it would be much more appropriate for the Athenians to be the school mascot rather than the Spartans, what with it being an institution of higher learning and all. He got the job anyway. So what would the professor make of Tough Mudder?

At first I was worried he had not done his research about the race. As we approached Kiss of Mud, the barbed wire crawl, he grimaced: “They sanitize this mud, right?” Yes, of course, that’s a thing, sure. I made it clear at the start that the obstacles weren’t mandatory, there would be no burpee punishments for failing, and we were here to have fun. When we approached Hero Carry, I offered to take him on my back the entire way rather than have us switch after half of the distance, as is the design of the obstacle (I’m a good deal larger than Adam). All the same he insisted on carrying me.  Skidmarked (the slanted wall) was a challenge for him (“You’re taller than me, so it’s easier for you.”), and as I tried to give him a boost over the wall in Tough Mudder teamwork-style, he managed to kick me in the head and knock a lens out of my sunglasses (no permanent damage done to either).

I explained the psychology behind the obstacle design, and I think he appreciated the concept. Still, when we approached Everest (the slippery quarter-pipe ramp), he declared that it was another obstacle that discriminated against short people. All the same, when he was able to get to the top on his first try, he conceded that there was a certain satisfaction in facing something that seemed impossible and overcoming it.

He didn’t enjoy Block Ness Monster nearly as much as I did. I still see it as the pinnacle of Tough Mudder’s obstacle innovation program, the perfect combination of challenging technique, strength, teamwork and plain old fun. I think Adam was put off by the muddy water, which was relatively deeper for him than for me.

I recently spoke to Tough Mudder’s course designers, asking them about how they calibrate the difficulty of the obstacles, and they explained that they shoot for a level that allows a certain percentage to conquer the obstacles on the first try and encourages those who fail to want to come back again to complete what feels like unfinished business. We got to Funky Monkey, with its monkey bars and spinning wheels, and I had low expectations for myself. I have lousy grip strength, and I only made it a few bars across before falling in. As I paddled across to the exit, I watched Adam swing his way across from the bars to the wheels, only to slip on the last bar before reaching the other side. I praised him for his performance, and I told him that he could try again if he wanted. No, he said he would come back next year and get the entire way across. It seems that the evil geniuses at TMHQ know exactly how to manipulate our emotions. Well played, TMHQ. Well played.

Despite this being his first obstacle course race, Adam had no trouble getting through any of the remaining obstacles. He griped at Ladder to Hell (“again, what about us short people?”) but it did not slow him down, except that we both have issues with the theological misconception of the obstacle’s name. I worried that he might balk at Arctic Enema’s ice bath, but it turned out that the operation had run out of ice – the only operational hiccup I noticed on the course that day, and since we were in the last heat on a warm Sunday, not altogether surprising. What was meant to be a shock to the system turned out to be a refreshing dip on a hot day.

I got the feeling that, in general, he did not really approve of the level of dirt we were getting exposed to, and he actually said out loud that it would be great to get a shower, and sure enough the next obstacle was Augustus Gloop/Snot Rocket, this year’s biggest new blockbuster obstacle. Participants have to climb up a tube while a strong shower of water pours down from above. The net effect is that the hand holds/foot holds on the side of the tube are slippery and you end up having to keep your eyes closed, so you can’t see the holds and you aren’t sure how far from the top you are. It was challenging and disorienting, a little scary and highly successful as a new obstacle.

Having given him the option of skipping obstacles, I was surprised that the only time he took me up on this was Pyramid Scheme, where participants have to form a human pyramid to scale a slippery wall. Perhaps this was just too much close contact with too many wet and dirty strangers? I also told him that I was willing to go along with any medical history he wished to concoct in order to skip Electroshock Therapy. At our age, friends don’t pressure friends into subjecting themselves to 10,000 volts. All the same, he ran through and was more frustrated than pained that he got shocked.

An audience waits for the next electrified face-plant

Will Adam start searching out other obstacle course races to try in the future? Probably not. However, he will definitely be bringing his son next year, when the boy turns sixteen and will be eligible to run with the grown-ups. And he will definitely conquer Funky Monkey next time.

Beyond the personal story of triumph over adversity, what else did the course hold? One of my favorite innovations was that the final two obstacles, Kong and Electroshock Therapy, were set up next to each other, and TM arranged seating so that an audience could watch as Legionnaires (those who have completed a Tough Mudder) tried to swing dramatically across Kong from ring to ring at a great height, or as first-timers ran through Electroshock Therapy and, not infrequently, face-planted. In the past I have been doubtful about the value of charging spectators at these events, but I think that for $20, I wouldn’t mind sitting for a few hours watching people try to get through these obstacles.

Who wouldn’t want to watch this all day?

I also noticed on the course a group of participants in matching outfits, all wearing spiffy Merrell compression gear and Merrell shoes. It turns out that Merrell, a Tough Mudder sponsor, is headquartered in Michigan, and they brought a large and well-dressed cohort. They also had several promotional tents, including one selling shoes, and, for some reason, a hula-hoop competition. Fun for all ages.

When I spoke to participants during and after the event, one opinion was unanimous: by moving the event to this new location (Koenig Sand and Gravel in Oxford, MI), TM offered a much better experience. The previous location, Michigan International Speedway, offered none of the change in terrain that made for a more interesting run. The logistics worked well; on the Sunday, with a smaller crowd, all parking was on site, but the people I spoke to who ran both days told me that the shuttles to off-site parking worked as promised.

My overall impression is that Tough Mudder continues to provide a challenging and entertaining day out. At the finish, everyone was smiling, and even on the course, people seemed happy. Of course, that could have been Midwestern optimism as the local default attitude, and as a New Yorker I can have trouble seeing through the regional cheeriness and good manners. All the same, I’ll let that Michigander worldview take hold and declare that Tough Mudder is delivering a great product. I’m looking forward to seeing what they come up with next.

Midwestern teamwork at its finest.

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.]

[UPDATE, AGAIN: on August 18, I received in the mail a brand new t-shirt, without any suspicious stains. There was no note enclosed, so it took me a while to remember why they were sending it to me. Five months after the race, they made good, I guess. It merits half an “Aroo”.]

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.

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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.