New Year, New Race Classes, New Medals – Spartan Race SoCAL shows us what’s in store for 2018

January ushered in a brand new start to the Obstacle Racing season and 2018 is shaping up to be very exciting! The first Spartan Race of the year was held on January 27-28 in Chino, CA. The Spartan SoCal Super/Sprint weekend brought new racing classes, finisher shirts, and medals.

The first big change this year is a revamped racing class called “age group,” which replaces last year’s competitive category. There are six categories for men and women that break down as follows:

14-17
18-24
25-29
30-39
40-49
50+

I like this idea as it feels like apples to apples. Age group also works similarly to the former competitive category for requirements (completing obstacles without assistance, etc.) and qualification into the World Championships. This link provides detailed information:  https://spartanrace.zendesk.com/hc/en-us/articles/115013084888

One more race change is in regards to the Ultra Beast. It will now be a stand-alone event and will not count towards your trifecta count.

Next up are the 2018 finisher shirts and medals. They rock! The shirts run pretty true to size and are made of tech material. The medals look great. I was really impressed with both.

Now, for the obstacles. Surprisingly, there were no new obstacles at the SoCal Spartan. There were some good old standbys that are staples in the Spartan races such as the Herc Hoist, Dunk Wall, Rope Climb, etc. There were also some of the newer ones such as Olympus, Twister (with the terrible foam pads on the bars….no one likes those!), and Bender. The one missing obstacle was the monkey bars. I was a little sad as I really like that one. I asked around and a couple people mentioned they may be phasing it out this year. This is just second-hand information though, so time will tell.

Spartan hosted an open house on Friday night so I decided to go. It was the first one I’ve attended. It was a good opportunity to work on obstacles and talk with SGX Coaches. I’ve been trying to get past the rig but haven’t been able to yet, so that is where I headed. The rope climb was on the way and I saw a couple of gals staring at the rope. I stopped and one of them asked if I could show her how to climb it. I taught her the J Hook and she went right up. She was impressive. I showed another gal and she got part of the way up and was getting the hang of it pretty well. It was fun to see the excitement on their faces! I was really curious if they got it the next day in the race. I bet they did!

I practiced the rig and did pretty well. I felt excited to try the next day and see how far I could go. The sun started setting, so I knew it was time to head out and rest up for the main event the next day.

Saturday arrived and it was time to start the SoCal Super! The start line had the standard wall you climb over to get to the corral.  I got into position. Aroo, Aroo, Aroo…and we were off!

The first few obstacles were the over walls, O-U-T (over, under, through), the hurdles, and the 6′ and 7′ walls. It was nice to get some of the walls done and see what else awaited. The first barbed wire crawl was next. There were two in this race and the second one was a doozie. I like to roll and I came away with tons of barbs in my clothes. They were an obstacle all their own for the rest of the race.

We had the Yokohama tire flip and Olympus, but the Herc Hoist was the obstacle where I noticed the biggest difference…biggest meaning, weighing a LOT! They were definitely heavier. There were six other women around me at the time and none were able to hoist it on their own. I helped a couple and then continued on. The bucket brigade had pre-filled buckets with lids, which made it nice. No filling or dumping at the end. They didn’t feel too heavy and it made it efficient. Plus, you could tip them a bit and don’t have to worry about the gravel falling out. I got to the Spear Man and it stuck…YES!

The Z wall looked different as it didn’t have a middle, but it felt the same for the most part. It did seem a little trickier getting around the corner before the bell, but not too bad.

When the race was over I decided to walk around the venue and cheer some of the racers on. When I got back to the dunk wall I spotted two movie cameras and a small group of people. I realized it was Joe De Sena! This was the first time I’ve seen him at the races so it was very exciting…the man who started it all!

I talked with a man who was with the group and he said they were doing a documentary on a 60’ish-year-old man who was trying to get into better shape for health reasons and Spartan was his inspiration.

The man’s 80+-year-old father was there too. I wanted to get a picture but didn’t want to interrupt. The man said I should go ahead and get closer and take a shot. I told him, “only if Joe doesn’t make me carry a big rock if he spots me!” We both laughed. I wish I had more detail on the interview but I’m sure it will be available soon so keep an eye out on the Spartan page.

Sunday brought warm temperatures for the Sprint. It was 70 degrees at the start line at 8:30 am. It was a nice change of pace from the cold and wet that has been dominating Seattle for the past several weeks.

I got about a quarter into the race and ran into the gal I raced with last year at Lake Elsinore…Karen! Out of all of the people racing that day, what were the odds of running into each other? We raced the rest of it together and caught up. We had so much fun. I love that about Spartan races, it’s such an amazing community and you almost always see someone you know while you are there.

Two days of fun in the sun, seeing old and new friends, and getting just a little further on the Multi-Rig, which I am going to conquer this year gosh darn it!! It was a terrific weekend and a great start to an exciting racing season!

Spartan fun facts:

  1. Serena Williams opted for a Spartan Race instead of tennis this weekend. Check out this clip of her having fun on the hurdles:  https://www.instagram.com/p/BeiesAvhWn4/
  2. The SoCal Super was approximately 8 miles and had 27 obstacles
  3. You WILL find mud in your ears after a Spartan Race!

Photo credit: Kim Collings

 

 

Spartan goes to Iceland and brings back a new race format

What Was that Spartan in Iceland All About?

While this is a challenge for all of us who write about OCR, my biggest concern in writing about the Spartan Iceland Ultra World Championship was avoiding overuse of the words “epic” and “grueling.” My solution here is substituting the words “saga-worthy” and “difficult,” because Iceland is a land of difficult terrain that inspired centuries of sagas. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

This summer, Spartan announced that it was launching a new race in a new location: Iceland. I’ve been before, but I wanted to go back, and this seemed like a great excuse. Spartan also announced a new format:  a 24-hour UltraBeast consisting of 5-mile loops. My first reaction was “So, this is going to be World’s Toughest Spartan?” The staff at Tough Mudder must have been pleased, as imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. My next reaction was to note the date: December 16, a month after World’s Toughest Mudder and, more important, a time of year when the sun barely shines in one of the world’s northernmost countries. The flip side of this was that it would make viewing of the northern lights while racing a real possibility.

The Great Unknowns

Racers were stymied at first, as Spartan’s website was ambiguous about what exactly the race would consist of, where it would take place, and who could participate. Many were reluctant to fork over $750 for a race without more details – Spartan promised it would be “epic” and “grueling”, but not much more. Eventually, enough people signed up that Spartan committed to the event and provided a travel agent to arrange hotels and transportation. The exact location was kept secret until close the date of the event, though it was easy enough to guess from Spartan’s description (a quick web search of the term “thermal streams,” one of the course features, pinpointed the site as Hveragerdi).

Adding to this uncertainty was one of the first data points provided by Spartan: a mandatory gear list. While Spartan has made some gear requirements for races in the past, particularly to make sure that racers would have enough water on the Beast and UltraBeast courses, the gear list provided was more reminiscent of what was required for the Death Race or an Agoge. In addition to a pack for water, racers were required to have on their person rain gear, warm clothes, lights, backup lights, and a very specific foot care kit. While I could imagine hikers needing an Ace bandage out in the wilderness, the need for one on a five-mile loop was less clear to me, and an informal survey after the race turned up no one who used it out on the course. The list caused considerable online puzzlement: would we be disqualified before the start if our rain jackets didn’t have the correct type of waterproof taped seams? Would there be pack inspections along the course?

What’s Icelandic for “Athlete Briefing”?

Racers met the day before the race for a mandatory briefing at Reykjavik’s Harpa, a concert hall and conference center, something like Iceland’s Carnegie Hall, but sleek and modern. Before we got to the important race details, we were treated to what might be the Icelandic equivalent of a motivational speaker. Bjartur led us all in a chant, having us cry “Wiking! Yes!” and jump in the air. Yes, Scandinavians have trouble with word-initial v’s, and it’s funny. The next few days included plenty of cheers of “Wiking!”

Next, Spartan Founder Joe De Sena took the stage and explained that staging the race had cost over a million dollars, and he expressed gratitude for some last-minute sponsors who had made the event possible. Given how expensive Iceland is, this was certainly credible. Finally, we were given the details of how the race would work: the loops would be six miles, not five unless bad weather forced the closing of part of the course. We were shown the bling, and we received a lengthy explanation of how that bling would be allocated. The format of the race would have different levels of finishers, one for those who completed over thirty miles, and another for those who completed over thirty miles and did so over twenty-four hours. Calculating the twenty-four hours involved crossing the finish line just after 9:00 am on Sunday, but not after 12:00 noon, which would result in not completing the race at all.

Iceland Ultra medal and belt buckle

At The Start

We picked up our timing chips and race bibs: purple for the elite competitors, black for us civilians, with reflective areas to make us visible in the dark, and so to bed. In the morning (still in the dark – remember, Iceland gets about four hours of sunlight a day this time of year) we were picked up from designated hotels in Reykjavik by bus and taken to Hveragerdi, about 45 minutes away. Iceland is powered by geothermal energy, and Hveragerdi is one of the locations where the steam pours out of the earth. We had been warned to stay on the course during the race because cutting corners could land us in the middle of a scalding thermal pool. Not a good reason to be disqualified.

In addition to pervasive eerie steam, Hveragerdi has an inflatable dome that provides an indoor rec center for the locals – basketball court, putting green, soccer field. This served as the Transition Area, and we were provided tables to store our gear, mandatory and otherwise. Cheerily, it was announced that in the wee hours, there would be cots and inflatable hammocks available for napping or for more comfortable viewing of Christmas movies which were to be projected on the walls.

We geared up, but before we could go outside there were two more groups to take the stage. First was a cohort from the concurrent Agoge that had started the day before. I don’t know what they had been up to on their spiritual and physical journey, but they looked miserable. A crowd of hundreds was cheering their efforts, but they all appeared too exhausted and demoralized to crack a smile. I did not envy them. Next were two Vikings (Wikings?), or the modern reenactor equivalents, who led us in a Viking prayer, which consisted of calling out the names of gods in each direction (Thor! etc.) and pouring out mead.

Genuine Wikings

Icy Start

We filed out of the dome into what little daylight there was. The weather called for rain, freezing rain, snow, some clearing, and then more precipitation. In short, a miserable day to be outdoors. Still, there was a race to complete, and twenty-four hours had to start eventually. At noon we took off for a 5K “prologue” through the town. This was a clever way to stretch out the field, and it gave us a taste of what the conditions were like: icy. Even before we started on the trails, we had to figure out how to keep upright on slick surfaces. Running up even a slight incline on ice is tricky.

After the prologue, we headed to the hills and the obstacles. One of the first obstacles was a pipe that was part of the landscape and replaced the usual hurdles that can be found on Spartan courses. Some of the obstacles (Monkey Bars, Twister) were closed on the first lap to avoid backups, and we soon came across another nod to the local conditions: the “farmer carry” obstacle had racers carrying… ice. Handles had been frozen into large blocks of ice. Nice touch, Spartan, and I always appreciate it when races that somehow acknowledge the course settings (think tire carries that used to be part of the Tough Mudder course at Raceway Park in New Jersey).

Why they call it Iceland

Soon we were directed up the side of the mountain. Spartan has steep climbs in its races, but this was among the steepest and most difficult I could remember. This wasn’t running, but rather climbing up the side of the mountain, pulling yourself up on whatever you could grab and hope that your footing wouldn’t slip. Also, hoping that you weren’t inadvertently kicking loose rocks into the faces of those below you. Video of that climb here

At the top of the mountain, it became clear exactly how treacherous conditions were: winds of more than 40mph pummeled racers on the exposed summit. The combination of the slick ice underneath your feet and the strong winds made it tough to stand even on a flat surface, and the wind was powerful enough to blow the snot out of you. Apologies to anyone who might have been downwind from me.

Going down the mountain was not easier: there was simply not much stable footing. Between the ice and the freezing rain on top of the ice and the wet terrain below the layers of grass, my feet were wet, cold, and unstable. The obstacles were spaced out fairly well as a distraction, but when your hands are cold and wet and the surfaces are icy, even simple obstacles like a rope climb are challenging. A complaint I heard from several people was that the sandbag carry was the most difficult obstacle; the sandbags were 60 pound Spartan “pancakes” (who knew they came in this size?), but these bags had been left out in the freezing rain, where they absorbed water and froze into awkward shapes. One noteworthy innovation: Spartan had replaced the typical round of thirty burpees with other penalties for some failed obstacles. Instead, some obstacles had short penalty loops, bucket carries or barbed wire crawls. In another twist, the elites had to carry a “passport” with them where volunteers recorded how many obstacles the racer failed. At the end of each loop, the elites did all of their burpees in one session.

All that steam eventually turns to ice

The obstacles were all familiar, which was a relief given the unknowns of the terrain. As it got darker and as the rain started fogging my glasses, it was tougher and tougher to see the course markings, though I was brought back on course by helpful fellow racers. As I trudged up yet another hill, I had one of the highlights of my OCR career: I got passed by Robert Killian. As he danced up the hill past me, he said “Good job!” What a mensch! [Editor’s Note: Mensch is a person with honor] It says a great deal about our sport that one of the top elite athletes would spare the breath and brain power in the middle of a race to offer some encouragement to someone at the back of the pack. Thanks, Killian.

Robert Killian, OCR mensch

Throwing In The Towel After Throwing In The Spear

I was cold, wet and not sure how I was going to finish one loop, let alone keep going for twenty-four hours. As I tried to figure out the best way to get to the next marker, I found myself asking “What would Bear Grylls do?” I also remembered that Bear had once taken on Iceland.  But I’m not Bear Grylls, I’m definitely not Robert Killian, and the appeal of warm air and dry clothes back at the dome was overwhelming. I also realized that I should have signed up for the Sprint, not the Ultra, and one loop was going to be enough for me. Trying to hit the spear throw is difficult enough, but doing it in heavy winds, in the dark, and then having to do burpees in an inch of freezing water? I know when to say when, and I opted to avoid the risk of a broken wrist, or worse, from slipping on icy paths.

After admitting defeat, I settled into the world of the Transition Area, the dome where racers warmed up, changed clothes, recovered from each lap and refueled. There were cots and water jugs supplied, and the overall appearance was that of a refugee camp, albeit for especially buff refugees fleeing a repressive Gore-tex based regime. The dome was a veritable festival of DryRobes. There was food for sale, the camaraderie of fellow racers, a festival atmosphere for the few spectators and crew, and loud top-40 hits to keep the mood high. Myself, I took a nap in one of the Spartan-branded inflatable hammocks (pro-tip, Spartan: if you are going to note how expensive the race was to mount, maybe hold back on putting your logo on the hammocks next time).

It was warm and dry in here.

Deflated by De Sena

As I recovered, wedged happily in one of the hammocks, who should stroll by but Joe De Sena. Knowing his goal to yank the world up off the couch, I asked him if he was going to revise his pledge to rip 100 million people out of their inflatable hammocks instead? “They also deflate, you know” he replied.

All through the night, racers trickled in and out. At about 1:30 in the morning, an announcement was made: the skies had cleared and the northern lights were visible. This was enough to get me out of the warmth of the dome, and it was enough to justify the entire adventure. Photographs do not do the phenomenon justice, but this natural wonder was augmented by the tiny lights from the headlamps of the racers out on the course. Saga-worthy.

Spartan’s professional photographers capture the northern lights.

Northern lights plus racers in the night, as taken by my phone.

International Attendance

While this may happen more often at Spartan races in Europe, one notable aspect of this race for me was how international the field was. Joe De Sena has worked hard to build the race series around the world, and the athletes that traveled to Iceland had come from over thirty-five countries. According to Spartan, 48% of the racers came from the US, with 40% from Europe and the rest from even farther away. It was an eye-opener to see how global OCR has become. Also, it afforded a few entertaining cross-cultural opportunities:

Me: “So, where are you from?”

Another American Spartan: “I live in Scranton.”

Genuinely bemused Spanish Spartan: “Wait, that’s a real place? Not just on ‘The Office’?”

American Spartan: “Yes, it’s real. But they made some stuff up for the show. We don’t actually have a Chili’s in Scranton.”

Shortly after 9, Morgan McKay crossed the finish line to win the race for the women, and not long afterward, Josh Fiore claimed the title for the men. He did so in romantic style, having carried an engagement ring in his pack for the entire race and popping the question at the finish line.

ORM’s Matt B. Davis MC’s the proposal from the warmth of his DryRobe and my borrowed warm socks.

You can read more about Josh’s race experience here: Not to be left out, Morgan got engaged soon after.

Iceland Recap

Apart from diamonds, what are the takeaways from Spartan Iceland Ultra? To be sure, there were some rough spots. I try to keep in mind that this was a debut of a new product at a new venue. As an organization, Spartan does not shy away from a challenge, and I respect them for their daring. Still, I’ll point out some mistakes, some of them that were probably avoidable. Too many details were kept under wraps for too long. It’s one thing to tease, but if racers are going to commit to training for an endurance event, they need to know what the event is going to require of them. I was unsure if Spartan HQ was being coy for much of the run-up to the event or they were just not sure what they wanted to produce.

My biggest criticism of the event was one that struck me as soon it was announced: December is the wrong month for the race. I appreciate that the weather and the darkness were part of what made the event so difficult, but bringing an event to a place of spectacular natural beauty only to schedule it for a time when participants can’t see the scenery seemed like a waste. My suggestion: try March instead. You still get 12 hours of darkness, the weather is just as unpredictable, the northern lights could come out, and dates that are not so close to Christmas and coincide with school vacations would all bring out more racers. It also avoids the end of season conflicts with Spartan’s other championship event, with OCRWC, and World’s Toughest Mudder.

Downsides

Iceland is remote. This is part of what makes it appealing, but it also means that it is an expensive trip for everybody (well, almost everybody). There will never be one place that is convenient for everyone, but no one was going to be piling into a car for an affordable road trip for this race. And on the topic of accessibility, the initial price point of $750.00 was off-putting, especially given the additional costs of travel to the venue. Discounts were offered, and hotels turned out not to be too expensive in Iceland at this time of year, but sticker shock was enough to keep many away.

There were other problems that might have been avoided: the timing software was not yielding updated results throughout the race, which is particularly crucial in a twenty-four-hour race, where elite racers’ strategies can be built on how many laps competitors have completed. Even for regular racers, the results were not finalized for weeks after the event, which made the medal vs. belt buckle element confused at the end of the race. Speaking of which, apparently many of the medals that made it to Iceland for the Ultra had ribbons denoting Hawaii as the location. While both are remote volcanic hotspots, the contrast could not be greater. Another gear-related snafu was that there was supposed to be unique Spartan Iceland-themed swag on offer, but only samples were available at the race, to the disappointment of many. I understand that the setting made everything more difficult (absolutely everything: I heard that Spartan lost not one but two drones to the heavy winds, resulting in a lack of aerial footage that definitely would have been described as “epic”), but shipping race merchandise should be a no-brainer.

Final Complaints

Of all the obstacles not to bring to Iceland, there was no fire jump. Normally I think of this as a silly photo-op rather than an obstacle, but when you are in the Land of Fire and Ice, you bring the fire. That’s just what you do, especially when the race is mostly in the dark. I’m hoping a risk-averse landowner was to blame for that. More seriously, Spartan once again has problems measuring its courses. The original plan was five-mile loops, and the day before the race we were told loops would be closer to six miles. In reality, the loops were closer to 6.8. I raise this because it is a flaw I have seen at almost every Spartan course. This isn’t a matter of under-promising and over-delivering. Getting the distance right at an endurance event is Race Management 101. Spartan has enough experience by now that even at a new venue they should get this right.

In the end, the event was a success. It was difficult: 600 racers started the Ultra, and only 322 finished (208 finished the two sprint waves out of 250 who registered). This is not an event for everyone.  While the race could not have been a financial success, it was a way to launch a new product, the Ultra, which appears to be getting its own series separate from the Beast. Exactly how this is going to happen is still murky. The only clear message we received about the new product is that its colorway is going to be purple. However, in the same way that Tough Mudder has used the Tough Mudder distance to generate the multi-loop Toughest Mudder event at its regular venues, it appears that Spartan is using this format to create a much longer event without having to wrangle a longer race course. Very clever.

The Ultra Appeal

Who will sign up for this new product? Plenty of people, apparently. One refrain I heard from several racers was that the race was not challenging enough. At first, I thought this was bravado, but when I talked to these racers, many were coming from an ultrarunner background; their events can be longer and more difficult than what they encountered in Iceland. There is a market for very difficult events, and remember that Joe De Sena has a background in adventure races. Those events are frequently multi-day challenges that test not just athletic endurance levels but also raw survival skills. The question remains whether the Spartan brand can pull together enough new racers into a product with this level of difficulty, either from those who regularly do more difficult events or from those who are attempting their first twenty-four-hour race.

Spartan is definitely going to try: after the race, it sent out a survey asking where racers would be interested in having next year’s Ultra Championship. Iceland was an option, and after the money and research expended to find this unique spot, it seems a shame not to go back. However, other Scandinavian countries were on the list, as were some closer to home. Wherever the Ultra Championship lands next year, one thing is for sure: it will be both epic and grueling.

Central Florida Beast and Sprint 2017

The End To A KICKASS 2017 Season

     Mulberry, Florida hosts Spartan Race for one last day in the mud. As the 2017 season comes to a close, athletes are looking to wrap up trifectas and qualify for next years OCRWC and have one last kickass race. Spartan delivered a grueling 13.5 mile Beast and a 5.5 mile Sprint to Central Florida. Spartan has tried in the past to bring Floridians a Beast but sadly was unsuccessful, until NOW. The response of racers for the beast was astounding as first time trifecta chasers entered the start corral.

Brian-Mahon-First-Trifecta                                          First time Trifecta Tribe member- Brian Mahon

       Brian Mahon of Davenport, Florida states that “the course was well designed using every bit of the terrain between obstacles…and a few cows on the course. I’m very happy with the fact that I earned my first ever Trifecta here in Florida and I do hope the beast makes a return to our state. Maybe even see a trifecta weekend here one day.” The weather made for an additional obstacle. Brian says that the Beast was his longest and coldest race to date. At a brisk high of 52 degrees Fahrenheit Floridians had no idea how to prepare for such chilly conditions.

Central-Florida-Spartan-Map                                Beast and Sprint Map 2017- Photo Credit: Spartan Race

Venue:

Mims Ranch in Mulberry, Florida is located about 70 miles southwest of Orlando with swamp-like, flat terrain. Being that the venue was completely new for 2017, athletes had to expect the unexpected. Thick and deep mud crossings made for the perfect shoe sucker scenario. Although Florida is known to be quite flat, the venue did offer a few foothills around the course. While running the Beast I did happen to spot a few unused bigger hills in the distance that would have been a nice addition as well. The course overall was laid out beautifully and even had a few racers stopping mid-race to check out the woodsy scenery.
Noticeable changes once again to the beloved Twister obstacle. Traditionally, Twister is known to have three sections of the spinning monkey bars, but in Mulberry, only two sections were offered. Additionally, the grips last saw in Spartanburg were non-existent. Perhaps Spartan is removing one section and the grips to avoid hand injuries. Either way, I was able to conquer this obstacle, no problem.

Elites

Palmer-Killian-Beast-Podium-2017Tiffany Palmer and Coach Robert Killian
Photo Credit- 
Killian’s Instagram 

      Impressive back to back podiums by Tiffany Palmer and her coach, Robert Killian who finished the 13.5-mile beast in ONE HOUR AND THIRTY-TWO MINUTES !! The double wins for the two elites help to secure top spots in the US Elite Point Series. While other elites are now in their offseason, these two did not waste any time to showcase their skills in Florida to get a few extra wins before next season. Killian states “Déjà Vu. A perfect way to end my last US race of the season, clinching a win in both the World and US Elite Points Series. I’m feeling even better today than yesterday and ready to take on the Iceland Ultra World Champs.” He adds “Big congrats to Tiffany for locking down 3rd overall in the US Elite Points Series after another dominating weekend”

Santa-Spear-Sprint

Santa’s like Spear Throws too.

Bucket-Brigade-Sprint-2017

Thank you to ORM for making this season possible and for all the amazing people I’ve met along the way.

 

 

Donut-Weight-JpopJessika Signature
Check me out on Instagram !! 🙂

Photo Credit- Myself unless otherwise stated.

Obstacle Course Races and the Bad Business of Spectator Fees

Spartan-festival

Photo Credit Patrick Prentice

Last week I experienced my very first DNF in my three years, fifty plus race career. I was running the Spartan Beast in Spartanburg, SC with my longtime running partner and around mile 2.5 I started experiencing knee pains from an injury I sustained over a year ago. Luckily, we had just passed by the festival area and I sent her on to run the remaining ten miles alone while I hobbled back up the path to turn in my timing chip. My teammate and I had driven up from Florida together so I had no choice but to wait around for her to finish.

This is the first time I have ever spent an extended amount of time in the festival area of an obstacle course race and let me tell you: it was boring. I have been to craft fairs that are more exciting than a Spartan festival area and those have no entry fee. On top of this, there is no seating, the only entertainment is top 40 hits blaring from the center stage, and the food situation is reminiscent of a high school lunch cafeteria (but twice the price). In the end, the most exciting thing I came up with was balling up my gear bag and taking a nap in the grass. So why do Spartan, Savage, Tough Mudder, and all of the other big names in OCR think that this “festival experience” is worth anywhere between $10 and $25 dollars?

The issue of spectator fees really hit me when I ran the fall leg of the Savage Race one week after DNFing my Spartan Beast. My fiancee happily agreed to accompany me to my race just in case my injury started to flare back up while I was on the course and I was unable to drive myself home. After paying $60.80 for my entry, $15 for the insurance, $3 for a service charge, $4.20 for a processing fee, and $10 for parking I had already spent $93 dollars for the privilege of gracing Savage Race’s 7.2-mile course. Upon reaching the entry gates, however, I realized there was one thing I hadn’t accounted for: the spectator fee. This fee not only confused my fiancee but when she inquired about what the spectator’s pass entitled her to she was met with the lackluster response, “Access to the festival area.”

savage-festival

Photo Credit Savage Race

Spectators at athletic events such as races, triathlons, and OCRs have a vital function for the athletes. A well-placed spectator can drastically improve the performance of the athletes and provide the necessary motivation to complete the event. Anyone who has had a friend or family member cheer them on during a race knows what this feels like and it really should go without being said.

Running is a sport where the energy of the crowd can be the catalyst for change. Dave McGillivray, the director of the Boston Marathon, states in his article What Do Race Spectators Need to Know? for Runner’s World, “I always picked up the pace a bit whenever I hit key pockets of screaming fans… If we put timing mats at the beginning and end of this stretch, I’m sure we’d see just about everyone hitting their fastest paces of the day thanks to the immense crowd support.”

On the flip side of that coin is the function spectators perform for the race organizations themselves. In the 2012 study The Relationship Between Visitor Spending and Repeat Visits: An Analysis of Spectators at the Old Mutual Two Oceans Marathon researchers find that “spectators are just as important to a sporting event as participants” (Botha, et al). The reason given for this claim is that the more times a spectator attends a race the more likely they are to visit it in the future. Obviously, in a sponsorship-laden sport such as obstacle course racing having more people exposed to the sponsors can only have a positive effect on a race organizer’s relationship with those sponsors.

In another study published in the Journal of Sports Economics The Rewards to Running: Prize Structure and Performance in Professional Road Racing (Lynch and Zax, 2000) the researchers claim that participants of races actually derive utility, or a sense of accomplishment, from larger numbers of spectators in races. The utility can be seen as the driving factor for participants to actually compete in races, especially in races where they have little to no chance of receiving any monetary compensation. In other words: spectators equal customer retention.

fort-lauderdale-a1a-marathon-festival

Photo Credit Fort Lauderdale A1A Marathon & Half Marathon

I contacted both Spartan and Savage concerning why they charge spectator fees and what those fees are used for. Spartan Race responded by saying that they have started to improve the spectator experience at their races by opening up the venue to allow spectators to follow the racers more closely at a majority of their courses. They went on to tell me that the spectator fee went towards paying the insurance premiums for each individual race. In Savage Race’s response to my inquiry, they simply stated that spectators would have access to the festival area and the ability to follow the runners along the entire course. Savage had no comment on the use of the spectator fees but did exclaim that the fee was similar to any other sporting event.

Not every organizer believes in charging spectators for their attendance. Rugged Maniac, most notably, did away with their spectator fees in 2012 (along with every other nickel-and-diming fees such as insurance and processing fees). In a 2015 interview with Obstacle Course Racing Media Rugged Maniac’s COO Rob Dickens explained their position, “But we stopped doing it the minute we could afford to, which was back in 2012. Why? Because price-gouging your customers show a complete lack of respect for them and violate the golden rule (do unto others…). I don’t like to have a bunch of fees tacked on to something I’m buying, so why would I do it to my customers?” Rob Dickens also claimed the following:

After all, none of the “processing” or “insurance” fees charged by the other guys are legitimate. We all have nearly identical insurance policies, and none of those policies require us to charge our customers an insurance fee. Likewise, we’re all using similar registration platforms, and none of those platforms charge more than a $2 fee per registrant, so why are the other guys charging 8%-12% processing fees?

Everyone’s insurance policies are based on the number of expected attendees in a calendar year, so if Spartan is charging an extra “insurance” fee when someone run the same course twice, it’s simply another way for them to squeeze more money out their customers. Their insurance company doesn’t require it, and they don’t have to pay higher premiums for someone running twice. As I said before, their insurance companies don’t require any “insurance” fee. It’s completely bogus.

If Rob Dickens is correct then this claim would appear to contradict Spartan’s own response to my inquiry over the use of spectator fees.

rugged-festival

Photo Credit Rugged Maniac

Despite Rugged Maniac being free to attend, their festival area and spectating experience never leave you wanting. Coincidentally, both Rugged Maniac and Savage Race are held at the same location in Florida every year: Little Everglades Ranch in Dade City. It is hard not to compare the two races, thanks to this shared location.

One of the most prominent differences is in the way they use the venue. Rugged Maniac puts all of the high energy, high traffic areas such as their stage, vendors, and sponsors in one area while Savage Race spreads their vendors, sponsors, and their stage around the edge of their festival area. The difference is pretty dramatic: Rugged Maniac festival area feels more alive thanks to the sheer number of bodies in one area. Savage Race brings out tables and chairs (a huge improvement over Spartan’s zero-seating offerings) but Little Everglades Ranch has its own bleacher style seating that only Rugged Maniac takes advantage of.

Savage may claim they want their spectators to have sporting event style experience, but Rugged Maniac actually achieves this by using these sporting event style bleachers. One other difference that might often go overlooked is the difference in the number of children at each event. Savage Race, unlike Rugged Maniac, has a kid’s course. Despite this, however, the number of little people at Rugged Maniac greatly eclipsed Savage’s population. The reason for this is obvious: if your children want to watch you race you’ll have to pay another $25 to have someone there to look after them at Savage.

Another example of a race organization that does a fantastic job of providing a fun spectator experience is Warrior Dash. Like Rugged Maniac, Warrior Dash is completely free for spectators. I last ran Warrior Dash in 2016 and I heard nothing but praise for the festival area. Unlike most other organizations, Warrior Dash had live bands playing on their stage with a live DJ in between sets.

One other thing that set them apart from the type of audience participation they organized. Pushup or pullup contests are common events that obstacle course race organizers will put on but those types of contests are geared towards athletes, not your average spectator. Compare that to Warrior Dash who delivered a dance contest and a beard competition, both less physical and more engaging than their competitor’s presentations.

warrior-stein-contest

Photo Credit Warrior Dash

So why does it seem that the more widespread and well-known obstacle course race organizers are so anti-spectator? There are studies showing the positive effects that spectators have on both race organizations and athletes making it scientifically sound to encourage attendance. Athletes around the world sing the praise of a cheering crowd and the ability they have to motivate. The extra attendance would invariably please the sponsors and vendors of these events.

These are all things that traditional road races such as marathons and triathlons realized a long time ago but at some point, the OCR world dropped the ball. By all appearances, it would seem that removing the spectator fee, a barrier to attendance regardless of what anyone claims, should result in greater customer retention and revenue via sponsors and vendors. Unfortunately, it would seem that OCR organizers would prefer to view their spectators as a revenue source instead of their true function: revenue boosters.

 

A Day at the Ball Park – Spartan Stadium Series AT&T Park Sprint Review

Take Me Out to the Ball Park


AT&T-Stadium-Sprint-Stadium-View

Home of Major League Baseball’s San Francisco Giants, AT&T Park is situated in downtown San Francisco right on the San Francisco Bay with a beautiful view overlooking the water. This view was highlighted from the top of the rope climb; located in the stands above right field which overlooks McCovey Cove. Fun fact: home runs hit into “The Cove” are known, unsurprisingly, as “splash hits.”

AT&T-Stadium-Sprint-Rope-Climb

This was my first Spartan Stadium Race, but I had done my research beforehand as well as watched the Spartan live stream that morning. I felt prepared and honestly, most of the reviews that I had read of the Spartan Stadium Race Series indicated that they were the easiest of all Spartan race types.

This was an interesting race for me. It was the first race where going as fast as I could wasn’t my goal. My ultimate goal was to help a first time Spartan, and good friend, not only complete the course but actually enjoy himself. Running with my friend allowed me to really take in the venue and focus on how this race was laid out. This gave me a unique perspective on the course design.

Batting OrderAT&T-Stadium-Sprint-Obstacle-List

From my perspective, I thought it was a fast and furious course with few potential hang-ups. Once the Spearman was completed it was essentially a time trial for the rest of the course.

From the other perspective, and the focus of this article, I saw a course designed to exhaust untrained/new racers. Having the Spearman (the most failed obstacle) as the 2nd obstacle on the course, it was almost guaranteed that anyone who was not prepared for this race was going to be pumping out 30 burpees early on. Shortly after the Spearman, there were multiple low crawls up an incline and then the Z-Wall. For someone unpracticed in grip strength and balance, the Z-Wall can be a difficult obstacle. For these people, they are looking at 60 potential burpees within the first 5 obstacles.

The Z-Wall was followed by more stairs and then 20 slam balls before you could move on. While the slam balls aren’t difficult from a technique perspective, it really ramps up the heart rate. Moving on from the slam balls there were more low crawls followed by low crawls, and once again… Low crawls. It seriously felt as if we were going to low crawl from the very bottom of the stadium to the top (and we may have). Once we made it through all the low crawls we just had to clear the 8-foot wall before the sandbag carry.

Foul Ball 

In my opinion, the sandbag carry, which was really a Spartan pancake, was by far the most difficult obstacle in this race. Not because of weight or distance or any actual factor relating to the obstacle, but because of the DISGUSTING stench of the sandbags. These things smelt rancid. Even as I approached the sandbag carry I could smell them from a good ten yards away. At first, I thought I had come upon a group of Spartans that did not believe in personal hygiene, but I could not have been more wrong. The carry was only a short route and yet nobody wanted those things anywhere close to their body. That scent attached itself to any body part or piece of clothing that it came in contact with. I do not know what Spartan did to make them smell so terrible, but there were people at the end of this struggle that were on the verge of vomiting.

Once everyone’s stomach settled from the smell of the sandbags, we did some more stairs and approached the box jump obstacle. This was another obstacle that wasn’t necessarily difficult in terms of strategy, but rather conditioning. My one issue with this obstacle was the lack of coordination between volunteers. Some volunteers would tell Spartans to stand straight up after jumping on the box while other volunteers just let people do it however they wanted.

Seventh Inning Stretch 

Up and down some more stairs (it’s a Stadium Sprint – shocker, right?) and there was the rope climb. Really the only reason to discuss this obstacle was the view. I finished my rope climb quickly, but my friend was unable to make it to the top and had to do his burpees. Being the good friend that I am, I enjoyed the view while he did all his burpees. I actually did offer to do some for him, but he wanted to do it all on his own no matter how long it took, which definitely earned him added respect from me.

AT&T-Stadium-Sprint-Assault-Bike

After a couple of staple Spartan obstacles – the Atlas carry and Herc hoist – there was a brand new obstacle: the assault bike. This was another take your heart rate through the roof type of obstacle. Burn 10 calories and then move on. Simple enough, but being so close to the end of the course, a lot of people were already exhausted. Right around the corner from the assault bike was the jump rope. 20 revolutions to advance. The only caveat being that you had to have an exercise band wrapped around your ankles. This was more of a nuisance than any real added difficulty.

AT&T-Stadium-Sprint-Multi-Rig

The Multi Rig was next and turned out to be a tricky obstacle due to the fact that the rings/baseballs were hanging precariously low to the padding. Being 6’2” myself and my friend being 6’3”, this made things more difficult for us and it was crucial to keep our knees up and arms bent in order to complete this obstacle.

Sliding Into Home Plate

There were only a few more obstacles left to finish the race: the A-frame cargo, some military hurdles, a couple walls and then the gladiator. I have only been doing Spartan races for a couple of years now, but I have read that they used to have actually “gladiators” at the end of a race that you had to get past. Unfortunately, now they just have some punching bags hanging from a structure that you need to run through.

AT&T-Stadium-Sprint-Hurdles

Going back to my perspective, I found the course to really be too easy. I completed the race burpee free, and I didn’t feel like there were any true challenges. With that being said, I did enjoy it and would love to do another Spartan Stadium Race. Plus, the medals are really cool.

I did regret not being able to run the course as fast as I could. In hindsight, I could have run it earlier in the day and then run again with my friend. More importantl, though, I was able to introduce another person to Spartan races and he is already talking about signing up for his next race! No matter what time I could have run on my own, I consider this a far better result.

AT&T-Stadium-Sprint-Medals

Dallas Spartan Race Weekend: How I Survived My First Ultra Beast

My first Spartan Ultra Beast was in Dallas on October 28, 2017. There was laughter, there were tears, there was a mess. Seriously though, there were some things I learned that I hope might help others during their first Ultra Beast.

Transition container – What it is, why you need one, and why you don’t have to use a 5 gallon bucket!

First, I didn’t even know what the transition container was all about or why you even needed one. I saw people post pictures of theirs but had no idea what was supposed to go in it or what it was used for. After doing some research and asking questions I found that it was pretty helpful to have a resupply of food, water, and clothing at the halfway point.

I was under the impression you had to use a 5-gallon bucket with a lid and decorate it up so you could find it in the sea of other buckets. I found, through some great groups on social media, that you can actually use pretty much anything. If it’s going to rain you certainly want to keep things dry and secure so the buckets are a great choice, but there are many options. Some of the containers I saw were plastic totes, backpacks, duffle bags, fabric grocery store bags, a shoe box, and even a plain old garbage bag. Since I was flying, I was hoping for an option that would be easy to carry on the plane and didn’t require bag check, as I didn’t want to take a chance of my luggage being lost.  I opted for a backpack so I could put it in my suitcase for traveling and fill it up at the hotel.

What went into the transition container:

-IMPORTANT: I lined the backpack with a trash compactor bag in case of rain

-Food for transition included baby food squeeze packets (chicken and rice, sweet potato, and banana). Someone listed this on a site and it was great. Quick, easy, and didn’t weigh me down.

-Food to resupply my pack for the second half of the race included homemade energy balls (date-based with nuts, chia, coconut, etc.) and honey stinger gels

-Food for after the race was a peanut butter and jelly sandwich to get me by until I could drive to get dinner

-2 Liters of Water to refill my bladder (quicker to pour it in than switching out for a new one)
-Electrolytes
-Towel (to clean feet at transition)
-Shoes and socks
-Extra top and pants
-Garbage bag for dirty clothes
-Gloves
-Sunblock
-Advil
-Body Glide
-Band-aids

What I actually used from the transition container:

-1 liter of water
-Electrolytes
-Change of shoes
-Garbage bag for dirty clothes
-Sunblock

What worked:

Backpack – I was very happy with the garbage bag lined backpack. Easy to transport on the plane and easy to carry to the drop site at the race (nice being able to put it on my back instead of doing an early bucket carry)

Trash compactor bag liner – they are much heavier than garbage bags and won’t rip unless it’s an extreme case

Food – I sorted the three categories of food into their own gallon baggies so they were easy to pick out

What didn’t work:

Sunscreen incident – At the beginning of this article, I mentioned tears, laughter, and a mess. Well, I didn’t close the sunscreen all the way when I reapplied at transition and it leaked inside my bag. Yes…..it wasn’t pretty! Putting it (and this goes for all liquids) in a baggie would have prevented a big mess. Lesson learned.

Packet pickup:

I arrived the afternoon before the race to pick up my packet. I decided to store my transition bag the next morning as I came directly from the airport and didn’t have time to completely pack last minute items in it.

Race day:

I live in Seattle and chose Dallas for my Ultra Beast partly because it’s warm! Well, it ended up being colder in Dallas than Seattle that day. Very, very cold. My start time was 6:15, so I arrived at 5:15. I heard it was 28 degrees and I believe it. It was still dark, so I broke in my headlamp as I took my bag to the transition area. As I set it down I saw the grass sparkle from frost. I grabbed my neoprene gloves (they are the best thing in the cold and have great dexterity). We headed to the start line.

The Ultra Beast Elites went out first. Things were a little behind schedule, so they sent both open wave UB’s at the same time. We were off! It was dark, cold, and a bit crowded through the first few trails. It was awkward to run with the headlamps and uneven ground.

As the sun rose, the terrain came into view and it was a spectacular site. We started to spread out and came to the hurdles and short walls.

There was a lot of rough terrain,  more walls, and then we came to one of my favorites, Bender! Once it was complete I could see something looming in the distance. It was the first sandbag carry. These were old school sandbags which were duct taped in a criss-cross fashion. They were firm and had no wiggle room to drape over a shoulder. Just a solid bag of sand to carry. I was able to get mine on my shoulder which helped. The second time through was a bit easier as the bags had become unraveled a bit. I was able to hold onto an end this time.

The hardest part about the carry was the ground. There aren’t many hills on this course, but they utilized the ones that were there to the fullest extent. The sandbag was on a short steep hill with very loose gravel and some spots you had to step down quite far. With the bag on the shoulder, it made it harder because your weight isn’t distributed evenly. I almost went down a couple times but saved myself.

We came to the barbed wire crawl which was long and had a lot of dry hay like grass. I like to roll, so this went pretty fast. Next up was the Ultra Beast loop. It was about 1.5 miles and consisted of hay bales to jump over, the memory test, and the Cormax flip. Then up more hills, over water crossings….more hills, more water. It seemed like that went on a long time.

When I reached the Tyrolean Traverse I talked with a gal who had paced most of the first half of the first loop with me. We ended up hitting it off and running the rest of the race together. She was so much fun and so interesting. Vanessa and I were both running in the open heat, so we were able to help each other along the way.

The UB group didn’t have to cross the “Ball Shrinker” the first round, but the second one was cold as heck! I tried to keep my shirt dry but it didn’t work. Went into a hole and it was all over.

A very interesting development occurred at the Olympus. The obstacle was the same, but the penalty was not the standard 30 burpees! If you failed the obstacle there was a loop you ran instead. I was very curious if this is something they are testing or if they may incorporate more alternate penalties at future races. I like the idea of varying penalties.

We reached the festival area and had the usual obstacles including the rope climb, spearman, A-frame cargo net, and multi-rig. Usually, that means you’re getting towards the end, but not this time. Next up were the bucket carry and about six more obstacles and a rather large distance to travel before reaching the transition area.

To enter the transition area we recited our memory test word and number combination and received our pinney to wear during the second loop. I applied sunscreen (messy incident moment previously discussed), changed my shoes, and ate. I caught up with a couple of my team members and Wes looked a bit concerned about my baby food pouches, but they worked like a charm. I had chicken and rice, sweet potato, and banana. They settled right into my stomach and I couldn’t even tell I ate anything. They were great! I thought about leaving some of my layers behind as I was wearing four shirts, but it barely got up to 60 degrees that day so I opted to keep them all on and I was very glad I did.

Round two began and my new friend and I were underway. The second loop started out fine, but as time went on I could tell that the obstacles were going to be more of a challenge. I particularly noticed it with the atlas carry. I could barely pick up the stone. I got it up about knee height and duck waddled to the flag, burpeed, and duck waddled back. They also had a second atlas stone, but this one had a chain attached. You just carried it to the flag and back without burpees. This was the first time I’ve seen it. It was a bit awkward and hard to decide whether to carry centered or off to one side.

We finally made it around and reached the wonderful, marvelous fire jump! I had been waiting for this moment for quite some time and it was here at last! We did it!!!

It was funny because I introduced my new friend Vanessa to my Seattle friends and they knew each other already! Such a small world! We went to the results tent and received our belt buckles. What a great feeling! It is something I will cherish as it holds memories that will never be forgotten. Oh, and a quick side note….if you notice the white slip of paper you will see that my bag was randomly selected to be checked at the airport. I bet they loved it when they unknotted my double garbage bag full of cow mud covered clothes! AROO!

Photo credit: Spartan Race, Kim Collings, Patricia Glaze