Thursday, October 17, 2013

The VT Spartan Beast......and just who ARE they building these race courses for?

Much has been said lately concerning the future of Obstacle Course Racing (OCR). There's talk about a professional circuit.  Even talk about a potential Olympic sport.  In my last post, which was on my experience at the VT Spartan Beast last month, I left off with the question of what that race might mean to this vision of the OCR future.

Much has also been said about what needs to happen to get to that next plateau.  Right now the races are primarily made up of casual participants who do one or two races a year and don't really know much about the sport outside their own experience.  I think most observers accept that to move to the next level, it's going to take fans.  Somebody has to want to watch this stuff!  People are going to have to develop a serious interest in the elite/professional racers.  They're also going to need a way to see the races in real time.  Believe me, seeing a Facebook post that says they started, then another that tells you they finished...and who won...is not particularly exciting.

It also seems to make sense that the current racers and their friends/families are the most likely place to start recruiting fans.  So what you need to do is to get people excited about racing, outside of their own race.  Excited about the courses and about the sport of OCR in general.  But what happens if you turn off these racers?  What happens if their own experience is not up to expectations?  It seems that the last thing you need is to send a once enthusiastic racer home with a negative experience.  There is nothing like a satisfied racer to spread the word to family, friends and colleagues.

So what does this have to do with the VT Spartan Beast?  Having the dubious distinction of being on that course longer than almost anyone else, I heard a lot of conversations and comments from racers.  The name of the sport is Obstacle Course Racing...with the emphasis on Obstacle.  Introducing long climbs into most of the races became the norm for Spartan Race.  But only lately had the climbs begun to overshadow the obstacles.  I heard these comments about the Super Spartan in NJ and the Sprint in PA.  I know that what attracted me to the sport in the first place was the fact that it was all about obstacles...not running.  But this race didn't have the feel of an obstacle course race...the climbs were overly long and detracted from the "enjoyment" of the competition. Many racers said they would never run a Beast again. Well, I can understand that sentiment...from several different perspectives, but I've never heard people saying that before, on any Spartan course. 

Then the question that comes to mind for me is "if the casual racer is not thrilled, who exactly were they building that course for?" Obviously Spartan Race always tries to outdo themselves to build the toughest, most challenging course anyone has run. No doubt many of the elite racers, who are in unbelievable condition, found the course tough as well. Tough to them though means slower, not impossible. But if your goal is to provide a positive racing experience for as many people as possible, then this is not doing it.  And losing potential supporters/fans is certainly not going to bring you closer to the goals of expanding the sport...let alone becoming an Olympic sport.  You have to keep focused on, and understand, why people race and compete and what they are looking for.  Because if the racers aren't satisfied and they aren't coming back, you'll never build a substantial fan base.

The fact is, what typical racers are looking for is different from what the hard core Spartan racer and Spartan Race itself seems to want from a race course?  What the typical racers want are obstacles...not tortuous climbing.  That's what they were sold in the early races and why many have continued to race.  A difficult course is great...as long as the obstacles were the main focus of the course.  If people want to do endless running they would do marathons or cross country.  Of course maybe that's just me.  Time will tell though I suppose.

The Spartan Vermont Beast and the Fulfillment of a Goal

"I guess this will teach me to be more careful about what I promise."  At the end of the classic mini-series Lonesome Dove, Tommy Lee Jones' character makes this statement, after completing a grueling trek to bury his friend and fulfill his dying wish.  Well...I suppose I should learn a lesson in setting wild and unrealistic goals about taking on races where I can't possibly understand the effort required.

Last January I set the goal of training for and running a number of Spartan Races during the year.  In hindsight, I don't think the goal was as unrealistic as I make it sound.  But an illness/injury (I'm still not sure which) at the Amesbury build kept me from any serious training leading up to the race and meant that I probably should have passed on both the NJ Super and the VT Beast.  However, the phrases "a promise is a promise" and "stupid is as stupid does" come to mind, to quote Tom Hanks in Forrest Gump, so maybe I never really had a choice.

When the rains came later in the afternoon that day, after 7 or 8 hours out on the course...then the dark...then the cold, it really pushed me very close to just walking off the course.  I could feel my core temperature dropping and this has always been a major concern for me about any cold weather race.  Ironically, the "smoke" coming off me and floating up through my headlight as night fell later on, actually gave me hope.  I felt that as long as I was generating body heat, that somehow I would be fine.

On every course though, there always seems to be one obstacle that epitomizes the fact that these races are as much mental as physical.  In Vermont, that obstacle was the last pancake sandbag carry...truly a mind-numbing event for me at that stage of the race.  It was at the twelve and a half mile point.  Up to then, the only thing that kept me going was the fact that it would soon be over.  I could see the lights of the festival area and it seemed that a quick left turn and a short downhill and it would finally be done.  But just where the turn should have been was a row of crates.  A row of crates filled with sandbags.  I could feel my heart literally crushing when I realized this.  By this time it was dark...so you couldn't even see where the turn was up the hill (and of course it was UP the hill...which turned out to be a 3/4 of a mile loop!).  Not only that, but the cutoff time was approaching, and since I didn't know the time, I was greatly concerned about being pulled off the course after all this effort!  Oh, and during some short rests on the uphill carry, I noticed that it was sleeting....yes, there was a misty, fine sleet falling to make this just a perfect ending.

To say this course was hard is to say that Einstein was pretty smart.  And even that sarcasm doesn't even begin to describe it.  There were barbed wire crawls, three of them actually, if you don't count the one at the slippery wall.  There were four "carrying" obstacles, including a 60 lb sausage shaped sand bag (did they really call that a log carry?), the aforementioned pancake carry, a gravel carry and a 60+ lb concrete cylinder carry.  Of course there were expected obstacles: a couple of inverted walls, the rope climb, the Hercules lift, spear throw, log hop, 4'/6'/7'/8' walls,  rope and wall traverses.  But there were also some new ones: a few culvert crawls, a rope ladder climb out of the water to a "Tarzan" rope swing and oh, a memorization obstacle.  Yes, you had to memorize a word and number to repeat back hours later on the course (hours for me anyway) or, you guessed it, burpees!

[2013 VT Beast gps course map-photo credit, Paul Jones]
And then there were the climbs!!  I can't even remember how many there were.  Three or four for sure, depending on whether you count those that went along wooded trails or were part of the sand carries.  And sometimes it was hard to tell when there were back to back climbs or level interludes on one long climb.  This, more than anything else, really got me thinking during the race about the similarity to what I thought a Death Race would be like.  I had always wondered about taking one on someday, but honestly, the thing that "scares" me the most is exactly this.  A mindless, never ending task that has no purpose other than to wear on your willpower.  Don't get me wrong, the "desire" to finish any of these races is often more important than the physical skills you bring to the table.  However, I didn't come here for a Death Race...I came here for an incredibly demanding obstacle course race.  So running (and I use the term very loosely) and climbing endlessly up and down the mountains was really not what I signed up for.  I went hours, and what seemed like miles sometimes, between obstacles.

Eventually though, after more time on the course than just about anyone else, I finally crossed the finish.  All I could think about at that point was eating, checking with someone about my timing chip (which I thought had stopped working during the race) and eating (did I mention that already??!).  I also wanted to just change, get all my stuff and lay down!  Unfortunately, although I did get my Beast finish medal and tee, apparently there were tons of people finishing their Trifecta at this race, so I didn't get my Trifecta medal and tee [before I could finally finish my posts here, I did receive everything...just as Spartan Race promised].  Not world ending of course, but after so much preparation and training this year, so much effort in all these races, it would have been nice to see the symbols of that accomplishment I'd worked so hard for.

More importantly though, I walked away from that last race with a much different feeling than I'd had before.  I don't know if that was because this race was the last...the culmination of all the training and racing for this year.  Or because I had somehow changed my perception of racing.  It's hard to tell...even after weeks of contemplation, during which time I moved to Florida to start up my real estate business here.  So maybe after things get settled I'll be looking at next year and feel differently.  Time will tell.  But one thing I continued to reflect on was the design of the course in VT.  It made me really wonder who they had built this for.  Because I knew it wasn't for the casual racer like me.  And if not, then where are they going?  That thought will be the topic of the second part of my post VT Beast report.  Hope you will take the time to read it!


[The VT Spartan Beast......and just who ARE they building these race courses for?]


Wednesday, September 18, 2013

The NJ Super Spartan....the VT Spartan Beast....and then....

 
The Super...the Beast...and then???!!!...   Well, before I start worrying about "and then...", I better keep focused on that Beast this Saturday.  Back in January of this year, I declared this the "Year of the Beast".  My intentions then were to run a series of races and train enough to start...and finish...the Spartan Beast in Vermont.  At that point this race was so far in the future and I supposed an unrealistic goal.  It's hard to believe though,  that I'm just a few days from not only achieving this goal, but fulfilling my Spartan Trifecta and (through some undiscovered fault in their ranking methodology no doubt) placing very near the top of my age group in the 2013 points race.  Man...it's a long way from some tough talk last winter.

One of the big tests...in fact, the biggest one in my mind, was always going to be the NJ Super Spartan.  It was going to be my first and only Super on hilly terrain...and this coming only two weeks before the Beast.  To have any chance at completing the Beast, I knew I would have to have a decent performance at the Super.  Decent for me, of course [read: finish!].  The morning of the Super arrived and I was up around 4am.  Little sleep the night before and hobbling around on two bad feet...courtesy of what exactly, I haven't quite figured out.  I had never bailed on a race yet, but I decided that there was no way I could drive 2+ hours and then run that race.  So I made one of the toughest decisions I've ever had to make.  I was going to skip the race.

The more I thought though, the more I realized that it wasn't just the Super I was giving up on.  Not running the Super meant I would be going into the Beast with absolutely no idea of where my performance level was.  Not counting the Miami Super (heat does NOT make up for flat), I hadn't run more than 4-5 miles on this sort of terrain.  I knew I wouldn't be comfortable tripling the distance...and in all likelihood, that would mean passing on the Beast as well.  Seriously, giving things a shot is one thing, but skipping work and spending time and money on a crazy idea made no sense at all.  Somewhere though, in the next 30 minutes, I realized I had to try (see Yoda on "trying").  In a way, the whole season was riding on this.  All the effort for the entire year...all the hours of training...not to mention all my big talk...was geared toward the Beast...and the Super was the key.

So off I went.  Bad wheels and all.  I hobbled to the venue shuttle bus...hobbled through registration and all the way to the starting line.  And just under 4 hours later...somehow...I managed to cross that finish line.  Only people who have experienced this can truly know the feeling.  When you complete something that you really, deep down in your heart, didn't believe was possible.  And this was no easy course by any stretch.  It had all the usual obstacles, plus a couple of my personal favorites [yes, that's seething with sarcasm if you missed it!] that pop up here and there.  But I think the most unusual thing for me was something that I came to take for granted...and that is probably the biggest mistake to make.  Every Spartan race I'd done had a long, steep climb right off the start (leave out the steep for Miami).  After that, the climbs tended to be much shorter and interlaced with obstacles and downhills.  So when I hit this tortuous, never-ending climb midway through, I had to tip my hat to Spartan Race...in between the gasps and curses of course.

So, having only just now booked a hotel for it, I've resigned myself to the fact that I really am going to tackle this Spartan Beast.  It's the only race that I won't be driving back and forth the same day.  First, it's just too far away to realistically drive to on race day.  Second, I can't even imagine trying to drive 5-6 hours back after the race...whether I finish or not.  No...even driving the next day will likely be a challenge.  So Norm Koch is getting the Beast ready for me...and I am doing what I can to be ready for the Beast.  What comes after isn't even a thought any more.  The only thing that's important right now is being prepared.  It will be the longest, toughest race course I've ever been on...maybe tougher than any course there is, except the ultra-beast.  Certainly it will be more than just the climax to an incredible year of racing, it will also be the test of will I've been waiting to face.  And they'll be filming this??!!  Yes, I can honestly say...bring it on...I'm ready...ready for my closeup Mr. DeMille!!
 

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

The Summer of 2013...and why I haven't been blogging...or training...

Since my last blog on the Spartan Sprint at Tuxedo, the summer took a turn for the incredibly busy.  Between then and now: I've run two Spartan races; helped build the course at another; driven my daughter and my grandkids back and forth from Florida; been sick twice; and went on some great outings with my kids and grandkids...including an epic trip into Manhattan.  Oh...and in between I did just a bit of real estate work and prepared to move again.  Unfortunately, this left very little training time in there!  Other than that, it was just a typical summer.  Ironically, my first trip to a NY beach will probably be this Wednesday (although I will admit to a trip to South Beach...the price of the Florida drive...as always!)
Since there's been so much going on, I won't try to detail the entire race this time around.  The first race I ran after Tuxedo was the Spartan Sprint in Palmerton, PA.  Although this would be my 6th race, it would be my first non-stadium race other than Tuxedo.  Well, not counting Miami...although that was the longer Spartan Super and the temperature was a factor there, the lack of any serious elevation change made it a much easier race for me overall.  Anyway, the PA course was everything I had expected...and a bit more.  The initial hill climb was typical of all Spartan races...brutal.  Add to that the sandbag carry over the last part of the climb and you are bordering on genius...in terms of pure torture anyway. 
Unfortunately for me, about 20 yards into that sandbag carry, I got a back spasm.  Yes....the word "sucks" comes quickly to mind...along with several others.  I knew immediately that this was a result of my modified (read: ignored) training schedule all summer.  So there I was.  Moving about ten baby steps at a time up this slope, and all the time thinking that I've still got 90% of the course to go still...assuming of course that I can even make it up this hill.  All I could think of was what would Tom Hanks do?  NO....not in Forrest Gump, the one where's there's no crying..."There's no crying in OCR!"  So, the short of it is, I didn't drive two hours plus to crawl off that damn mountain and limp home.  Although I had a few spots where it was still difficult, I did manage to finish.  Even though I think the first climb was tougher at PA, overall I still feel that Tuxedo was more challenging over the entire course.  I admit, I'm biased about that...Tuxedo was my first OCR race and will forever be that which all else is measured.  And no, the word "easier" does NOT even enter the conversation! 
Although I did manage to get some formal training sessions in during the early summer, there were some informal ones.  Like the trip into Manhattan.  During that marathon day I would take every opportunity to run up any stairs...usually at the subway stops.  And of course always carrying the pack and stroller.  One particular climb comes to mind, when I challenged my 4 year old grandson to a race...me up the stairs and him up the escalator with my daughter.  It was only after throwing down the gauntlet that I looked up to see five...very...long...flights of stairs.  Again, words like "oh, shit" came to mind very quickly.  Yes, I did it...and yes, I needed oxygen at the top...but at least I made it a race.
We also had another chance for some sprint training that evening.  After taking the train back to Long Island, we were down at street level and heading toward the van.  I issued another challenge (yeah...I know, but learning lessons is often lost on me).  I shouted, for my grand daughters, that "first one to the car gets to drive home!".  Obviously I was watching them like a hawk...this was NOT a race I would let them win...they'd have me in court on breach of a verbal contract or something!  Well, they never made a move.  The words hadn't finished coming off my lips though, when junior (aka my grandson) took off like a cruise missile toward the car...running back and forth off the curb towards his first chance to drive!!  And here we go again...trying to beat a four year old, still carrying the pack and stroller and at the same time, trying not to run him over in his unintentional serpentining.  Now THAT was fun!


So, as of this writing I've already run the Spartan Super in NJ.  That story will have to wait until my next time.  Meanwhile, nursing the continuing ailments, I'm readying myself for the final goal of this year...the Spartan Championship Beast in VT on Sept 21st.  While I still have a healthy respect for it, I no longer fear it.  After the NJ race I'm confident that I can finish!  Exactly how or in what shape?...who knows.  In preparation for this, I have adopted the following as my official song for the Beast.




With it or on it...those are the only choices for this race!



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Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Spartan Sprint at Tuxedo 2013...the battle continues...

Hard to believe it's only been a week since the race.  This has become an annual event for me now, having started my racing "career" at the first Tuxedo run in 2011.  The irresistible urge to once again challenge Spartan Race to do their best to beat me off that mountain.  True to form, they designed a brutal course to punish you right out of the gate.  And once again, the gods were with them.  Not only was it a scorching day, but they even managed to get an air quality alert...I mean really?!?...running is tough enough for me without any intervention from nature! 

I really should have suspected something from that very first race anyway.  Have you ever seen anything pleasant happen in a movie when there's a sleepy little country town in the opening scene?  No...me neither.  Maybe I should watch different movies.  But I digress....

So...there are several things I've learned to count on in any Spartan race: the opening run is intended to kill the weak; the rest of the course is intended to finish the job; expect it to be worse than you imagined.  Last Saturday was certainly the most intense opening run I've seen in my short Spartan life.  Worse even then Citi Field, which I thought was truly a work of tortuous art.  I don't know if they have the mileage on that climb, but it just seemed to go on forever.  There were a couple of rogue obstacles thrown in, but pretty much it was a long, slow uphill climb.  By the way, I heard from someone I ran into on the course that, as hard as the course was on paper, apparently it was actually laid out to be even tougher.  Whomever was really to blame for that, for the first time since I started racing, I really wondered if I could make it to the end...physically...would I have enough, regardless of the how bad I wanted it.  And somewhere along the way is when it hit me...what the hell was I thinking signing up for the Tri-State Super in NJ...or the Beast in Vermont!!!?  I must have been completely delusional to think I'd ever be able to finish either one of those.  Well, that was before I finished though.

As far as the obstacles go, I think my favorite this time around was the sandbag carry.  Picking a favorite though was pretty tough.  There were several that could have claimed that honor...   the traverse wall (which I was able to do just fine at Citi Field and the practice wall)....the rope climb (which I missed for the first time ever...just no juice left at that point I guess)...or probably the runner up, the (much too) inclined wall after the barbed wire crawl (guess it would have helped if I'd realized there were no intermediate boards where I was climbing in the middle...duh!!!).  And honestly, I just about shit myself when I saw that dreaded pole walk was back again.  I thought for sure the insurance company had banned it...I mean isn't bad karma to impale people?  But in the end, I had to pick the sandbag carry.  Just a gruelling uphill carry after so long on the course and starting off through a bog at the bottom.  I guess it's also a good time to make my apologies to my sandbag.  For slamming it down so many times and mumbling rude, nasty and unprovoked vulgarities at it throughout....I mean, it's only a sandbag after all...just doing it's job.
 
Then there were the easier-than-expected obstacles.  The reverse inclined wall was one (although, as I was joking with the volunteers, I slipped coming out of the mud pit and almost face planted into the back of it...didn't everybody??!).  The barbed wire crawl wasn't as bad as I anticipated either...but definitely more challenging with the berms they put in...I guess they want more crawling and less rolling.
 
Like every race though, there's always at least one obstacle that you just know you can't do.  Then somehow, in the midst of sheer exhaustion, you manage to succeed.  In this race, it was the high walls for me.  Although I've learned some fairly unorthodox ways of getting over these, the last few races I used the side blocks to get over the 7' and 8' walls...all except the first one of course...you have to beat at least one of them.  But Saturday, they told us those steps were off limits for the men.   Interesting!  Even with all the training I'd been doing specifically for this obstacle, the course had taken it's toll and I just couldn't get enough lift to muscle up on those.  But somehow, I did manage to get just high enough to find my way over both...and I've got the bruises to prove it too!  I still remember the people behind urging me on and the groan from the crowd when it looked like I wouldn't get over at first...then the shouts when I managed to pull myself up finally.  Most people just wouldn't understand the feeling of accomplishment from such a simple feat...but I guarantee Spartan racers will know exactly what I mean.
 
The organization was much better this year too.  Another given about Spartan race is that they improve every time.  At least they try to....though setting off a smoke bomb every 15 minutes in front of the med tent might be one thing they might want to change next time.  So...next year's race will be different...it will be harder...and like they said before the race Saturday, there will be something you haven't seen before.  And next year they will see me...again.  Because as long as I can run, I will never let them beat me off that mountain! 

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A link to the report on the 2012 Spartan Sprint at Tuxedo:
 


 

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Spartan Races and Tough Mudder....there is a difference! (to me anyway)

For those that were expecting a report on the Spartan Sprint at Tuxedo, NY from Saturday...it's coming!  Just as soon as I'm strong enough to handle it.  But something else came to mind during the race that I thought was interesting too.  In fact, it was a combination of several recent observations that seemed to be related somehow.

By most accounts, Spartan Race (SR) and Tough Mudder (TM) are the top dogs in this new world of Obstacle Course Racing (OCR).  And of course there are people on both sides that are absolutely certain that their events are the true test...the one that everyone should be aspiring to run.  Well, in all fairness I haven't run a TM yet.  Not out of any particular leaning, but more out of the practical aspect that I suck at running!  Which also explains the fact that I don't run any more than I have to.  Which goes on to explain that since TM's are longer races than a typical Spartan Sprint... the Sprint is what I started with.  Just makes sense.  The ironic thing is that I've only run the sprint at Tuxedo for the last three years, and that's been described by some of the elite OCR racers as the equivalent of a TM or even a flat Spartan Super.  Anyway, I do plan to run one in the future...god willing and the river don't rise!

Meanwhile, what occurred to me during the race were several things that I had read over the last few months [in fact many thoughts occurred to me during this race...but since most of those revolved around water, pain and beer, they're not really relevant].  One was from a relatively successful Spartan racer who said that he didn't want to run the Super Spartan races until he was sure he would "dominate" them.  Another comment I read had to do with a TM race, and the question was about which obstacles to skip based on his physical "deficiencies" (for lack of a better word).
I realized that both of these ideas really epitomized the difference between these two OCR titans.  TM makes a point that it's not a race but a challenge.  Spartan Race on the other hand, is...well...a race...just like the name says!

Why would a race not be a challenge as well though?  Doesn't really make sense when you think about it.  I can tell you from my own experience, these races are real challenges.  They push you to your physical limit and challenge you mentally to hang in there and finish it.  You know your time...your know everyone else's time...and you know exactly how well you performed.  If you don't know how well you did, then how do you judge when you're getting better?  I can guarantee that the competitive TM racers are timing themselves every race and if they don't compare their times to each other, they're definitely comparing their own from race to race.

One thing there's no doubt about in both events, that you will have a feeling of accomplishment rarely found these days.  Something that people can't really understand until they experience it.  I had someone tell me that Saturday.  He had just finished his first race and said, now I get it....now I know what people are talking about when they go beyond what they thought was possible.  That's happened to me on every course so far.  I deliberately attempt these races for that very reason...I want to know what my limits "aren't".  I found out again this Saturday that I could do something I truly thought impossible.  Facing real exhaustion and for the first time truly questioning whether I had enough left physically to finish, I hit the walls...time after time.  Real walls...big walls...like the kind you have to go over!  In the past we could use the blocks on the side but this race they said no!...those were only for the women racers...I had to go over.  Racing alone can be a bitch!  But I can tell you, it wasn't pretty but I got up and over every damn wall that race.  And I can tell you too, whatever my time was, wherever I fell short somewhere else on the course, in the end, that small accomplishment is mine (along with about eight feet of bruises all told...but that will heal in time...I guess).

That's another big difference in the events too. At least to my understanding. Spartan Race has a penalty for missing an obstacle...the dreaded burpee!  There's no skipping an obstacle either.  As far as I know, other than maybe falling into water and having to swim to the other side, TM doesn't have any penalty.  If you want to skip an obstacle you can!  I guess that makes sense because it's not really a race. But sometimes we need to fear the punishment more than the obstacle. I don't think there's a racer that will intentionally do 30 burpees on a Spartan course without first trying the obstacle...more than once if they can get away with it.


Whether it's the racer that wants to wait until he's "ready" for the next stage or one that's looking to skip an obstacle because it's "too hard", I feel they're missing out on the very essence of these runs.  It's not just about proving what you already know you can do, it's the fear of the unknown....and the feeling of reaching inside for something you didn't even know you had...and succeeding.  I've said to a number of people over my racing adventure that each race shows me that I can exceed what I thought possible.  To me, that's the whole point to doing these runs in the first place, otherwise what was the point of coming?  If you fail, at least you tried.  And that's where the real triumphs come...from giving your all on something you "know" you can't do...and doing it!

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Spartan Sprint at Citi Field - April 2013

When the Citi Field Race was announced I knew immediately that I was going to run it.  Whether I ever ran another stadium event, I just had to do this first one.  Besides the opportunity itself, I wanted to know what a stadium race was like...and not just from reading what someone else thought about it.  In the end, I'm very glad I did!
 
I have to admit, when I got there and sat down in the stands to watch some of the race, I really wasn't feeling it....maybe it was the cold!!  There have been mixed reviews about the race, like this one in Obstacle Race Magazine...(Obstacle Racing Magazine/Heather Gannoe - Spartan Citi Field 4.13.13: A Mixed Review).  I think that those who were disappointed were more likely the hard-core mud racers (like myself, I admit) who really weren't prepared for this "clean" course.  As a matter of fact though, I did take some of the warning track clay and rub it into my shirt...but that's just me I guess...one way or another, I was getting my "mud".
 
One thing I knew going in was that there would be stairs...a lot of stairs!  They also made great use of the ramps...which I also feared.  True to Spartan Race, they come at you hard right from the start.  The first obstacle was a series of ramps from the first level up to the top of the stadium.  Of course, just running up a ramp is too easy...so they strung rubber cords across virtually the entire length.  Some you had to high-step over, some you had to go under and a few series where you had to alternate between them.  Not surprisingly, that was brutal for me.  Seems no matter what I try to anticipate, they make it worse.  And I suppose these stadium races also lend themselves particularly well to some unique obstacles too.  Like the "Hobie Hop", where you have to climb up a number of flights of stairs with a giant rubber band wrapped around your ankles.  Yes...it feels (and looks) as stupid as it sounds...but that is one tough climb!...which is all that counts in these races.
 
This course was also packed with obstacles.  I guess what they couldn't do in mud and barbed wire, they would make up in sheer quantity.  The typical obstacles were there like the rope climb, wall traverse, sandbag carry, cargo net and spear throw.  The Hercules lift was there too, but they seem to have found a frictionless rope to use...which you can't seem to actually hold on to...clever!  Naturally, there were also a number of walls to climb over, under and through.  They had a water jug carry too (of course it was up and down stairs...you have to ask??!)  This probably replaced the tire carry...watching tires careening down the rows of seats and ramps might have been a sight to see, but I doubt the Citi Field management would have seen the fun in that. 
 
There were new obstacles too...which seemed to be right out of gym, or maybe Crossfit, training (I'm not really sure since I've never been in either one).  One of the first ones I ran across was the Ball Slam.  No...really!!...you lift a 20lb semi-deflated ball over your head and slam it down in front of you...twenty times.  Then they had the giant jump rope...about 3 inches thick and weighing who-knows-how-much...try fifty of those suckers.  I'm only too glad that there were no videos of that little fiasco.  Just one more time I would have been thoroughly out-performed by an eight year old.  And I suppose the 5 gallon concrete block carry with burpees, that I first saw in Miami, was just too much fun to leave off the list.  Another interesting change were the monkey bars...although they weren't quite traditional.  I did manage to do them...however, since there was no one there in front of me that I could watch, and no one offered any explanation, there is every reason to believe that I may have invented a whole new way of traversing them!  One challenge, which I'm going to fail to mention, is the "box jump" on the home stretch by the visitor's dugout.  I will leave it as an independent assignment for the reader to determine how wonderfully this one must have gone, to be left out completely!
 
The thing about this event, was that the race was only a part of it.  Even with some long delays at the traverse wall and spear throw....not to mention (and I didn't) the rowing obstacle...the course was challenging, surprising and enjoyable.  Besides that though, it was also a spectacle and a festival, in a way that none of the other races can be.  There will be those that never grow to love these...or even like them...but if you can let go of the need for the mud and barbed wire for a day, you'll find a great way to share the racing experience with family and friends.
 
 
[For more on the state of obstacle racing and the evolution of stadium races see (The tale of two races or is it three?)]
 

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

The Tale of Two Races...or is it Three?

The future of Obstacle Course Racing (OCR)?  For some reason I keep thinking about this.  Maybe it's because of the Spartan Citi Field race on the 13th.  A different sort of obstacle race than most of "us" are used to.  It begs the question, how do those fit into the future of the sport?  The other reason is the post I read from Ekaterina Solovieva. (Ekaterina Solovieva - Does obstacle racing have the feet of clay?)  Seems like she's the only other person writing about it.  Maybe not though...you see, I don't get out much.
Most of what you do hear revolves more around the type of races...the differences in distance and the density of obstacles on the course.  They also seem to be concerned about the rise of new races showing up almost weekly.  Many of these races end up being disappointments in any number of ways.  Unorganized...long lines for entry, parking and obstacles.  Poorly designed or "imitation" courses which have few, if any, real obstacles.  Some don't even get off the ground after much hype and promise.
However, to me there really is no question that the sport of obstacle racing will endure.  Of course it will likely reach it's peak in the next few years and then contract back to a more solid core of race promoters and a stable base of racers.  But here's where the race structure will start to differentiate to accommodate a diverse racing population.
The original style events are generally run in natural settings, if not in the actual woods, and include barbed wire, mud and assorted other hard-core (read: relatively dangerous) physical challenges.  Right now, there are two groups that make up the OCR base for these events.
The first group are the serious racers, meaning people who will do at least a few races a year, will travel regionally to compete and will likely do races from different promoters.  These "traditionalists" like the format we have now and really prefer to see that remain the same.  They will continue to train seriously and continue to attend these events for as long as they challenge and motivate the racers.
There is also a "casual" racer who will probably just do one or two of these traditional races a year.  For them it becomes an annual event and they focus on it like they would a holiday event or a company picnic.  Well, a company picnic with eight-foot walls, rope climbs and sand bag carries.   A challenge to look forward to every year, to prepare for and probably attend with a group of like-minded friends.
The new type of events are the "stadium" style, like the one at Citi Field.  A third group of racers...which is just beginning to be tapped...is the "urban warrior".  The physical challenge is real and many of the racers are serious athletes!  Many of the same obstacles can be found there too.  But you won't find the barbed wire...or the mud!  There are fans in the stands...there is big screen video of the event from all over the venue.  Music blaring from the sound system...it's a true festival atmosphere.  Some of the "traditionalists" (like me) were there mostly because it was a first.  I mean, how often were we going to have a chance to run through (and on) Citi Field?  Without being chased down by security or police I mean (which I guess could be a whole new level of OCR). 
There is also a strong contingency of teams at the stadium events, seemingly much more than at the traditional races.  Many use the race as an platform to fund raise or bring awareness to their cause.  The accessibility to fans also makes this a great opportunity for family and friends to watch the racers...something that is all but impossible in most of the traditional venues.
The third race "style", if you can call it that, is the newest...and least proven.  All the top tier races right now are "mobile" courses.  They come to a venue for a weekend of races...or now we have Spartan Race doing a second weekend at their Tuxedo venue...then it's off to the next city.  This new style is the "fixed" course.  The course is stationary...and logic would say that they can develop larger and more challenging obstacles by the very fact that it doesn't have to be moved every week.  The big question though is how many people can you attract.  Certainly the local racers will flock to it initially, to try it out.  Maybe use it periodically to test there progress and condition.  But how many people will travel to these locations just to race?  Even if it's near a vacation destination, considering the nature of at least a day or two recovery after racing (for normal people), how many people will give up half their vacation week just to run the course?  We'll see how this one plays out too...maybe I need to get out to one of these and check it out!
Which promoters will be left standing at the end is unknown of course.  An interesting observation is that it's not usually the company that's first out of the starting gate, but the company that makes the necessary adjustments and has the most attractive product that becomes number one.  In my opinion though, there will be OCR in the future and I think it will have a substantial following, whichever promoters are left.  The fact that races are popping up and disappearing is inconsequential to this future.  In fact, I believe it's just a healthy sign of the growth and evolution of OCR.  It will be very interesting to watch the progress and development of OCR over the next few years. It's not often that we have a chance to see the birth of  a new sport or industry.  And I'm guessing this won't be the last thought on the topic....so until then....

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Personal thoughts on coping with the tragedy in Boston

An attack on any one of us is truly an attack on us all.  When those attacked are innocents and children, so much greater our anger...so much greater our outrage.
 
Monday night was going to be a time to reflect on the Spartan Race at Citifield on Saturday.  Maybe take some time to respond to a blog from a fellow writer over the weekend.  But just before 3pm on Monday we were stunned and saddened with news of a bombing at the Boston Marathon.
 
So many times now in the last twenty years, America has been rocked by senseless and indiscriminate violence.  Oklahoma City, 9/11, Columbine, Newtown and now the Boston Marathon.  For me personally, there can never be any adequate answers.  All I can ever feel is the heart-wrenching sadness and the helplessness in knowing that this evil exists in the world.  An evil which is forever beyond my ability to comprehend.  At the same time we realize that we are all vulnerable.  That there can be no ultimate security.  And that can be a frightening revelation.
 
Yesterday's victims were, once again, innocent bystanders just trying to take part in an American tradition....the 117th running of the marathon in Boston.  All they wanted to do was share in the accomplishment of family or friends.  To show their support by being there at the finish...a day that should have been a celebration for each and every runner.  Instead, some lost their lives.  Others will never be the same, physically or emotionally.  In fact, none of us will ever really be the same after this. 
 
We have come to understand that terrible things happen in war...but not to people on the street of an American city.  Not until now anyway.  America though, is a strong and resilient nation.  Boston is a strong and resilient city....
 
We will mourn for those we've lost....
 
We will care for those who are injured....
 
We will be stronger on the other side of the pain....
 
We will search for answers....
 
Make no mistake though...we will not be threatened; we will not live in fear; we will not retreat from the freedom our way of life has bestowed upon us, the freedom that Americans have died defending; justice will be served upon those responsible for such a cowardly act!
 
 

Thursday, April 4, 2013

The Present and Future of Obstacle Course Racing...and other secrets of the universe (Part deux)

[continuation from part one (the present and future of obstacle course racing - part one)]


In part one, I talked about the need for fans...and to have fans, the need to be able to watch a good portion of the races in real time...whether at the race or from somewhere else.

The fact is, that the only fans of the sport you have right now are the very racers attending the events. I would be surprised if many others (outside of some family and friends) were following any of these races at all.  Even if anyone wanted to watch or follow them, there's no practical way of doing it.

So what you have right now is the typical OCR racer paying to race and indirectly providing whatever prize money the elite racers receive (with some corporate sponsors of course). However, most of the racers don't know even a quarter of these elite racers and the ones they do know, they rarely get to see other than a few Facebook pictures. Many may not even care...the focus of these events so far has been primarily on the racing itself and the competition/teamwork.  Neither the NFL, the NBA or any other professional sport is like this...why would one expect OCR to somehow become successful in this strange fan arrangement...or in the absence of any fan base to speak of?

[Editor's note: in the time between part one and part deux, a blog was written on the definition of "elite"...(Ekaterina Solovieva - "Are You Elite?" blog)...so, in all likelihood, the elite racer is actually a figment of the author's deranged imagination anyway]

There are also other factors in the sport that vary greatly from promoter to promoter.  Some events don't even keep times...they consider the challenge to finish and value teamwork over times.  Race lengths vary from 3 miles to over 26 miles...and that isn't even considering the World's Toughest Mudder or Spartan Death Race.  Not only do the race lengths vary, but so do the number of obstacles and density (obstacles per mile).  Some people feel there should be a balance between the running and obstacle challenges.  That will be another aspect that will play itself out in the competition between the events themselves.

The greatest efforts will likely have to be made in the area of viewing the races.  Initially it will be the families and friends of the racers and the racers themselves that want to see.  Spartan Race has recently started using their chip technology for tracking the racers to identify their personal videos.  What if you used that same technology to track a racer over the course.  A smartphone app could be developed for their fans to monitor their progress.  Maybe even use this tracking to notify their fans that the racer is approaching a particular obstacle.  Then they could watch a monitor at the event that was live broadcasting the obstacle and actually watch...or even watch remotely.  I'm sure there are many other ways to bring this about, and some may already be in some stage of  planning.

Coincidentally, another blog post came out since yesterday after part one of this blog.  It seems like the changing of the "sport" has been on a lot of people's minds.  It's another perspective on the growing trend towards the reality of professional obstacle racers. (Amelia Boone - "Walking a tightrope")  Certainly, money will change things...some things for the better, some for the worse.  And which is which depends on who you ask.  But there will be opportunities for people in all types of ancillary areas...training, equipment, health products too.  It might be a few years from now, but make no mistake big changes are coming to OCR.

However, as with any change, there are always those that feel it's the wrong direction.  Sometimes it's because they just like the way things are and have no interest in seeing anything change at all.  Sometimes it's just about the way it will change the sport for the racers themselves.  Personally, I like the idea of each race course being unique...and changing from year to year.  I really believe that not knowing what's ahead is one of the greatest challenges these races offer.  Others think course standardization is the way to go.

What motivated me to finally write about this was a post I saw on Facebook...actually a link on another racers timeline to this post (Ekaterina Solovieva post).  Whatever you think about the future of OCR, the only certainty is that the sport will change...that is guaranteed.  It may grow into the Olympic sport that some want to see.  It may peak soon then fade back to what it is now...a weekend challenge for people that enjoy the feeling of accomplishment by simply finishing.

The one thing all the OCR powers-that-be should remember is that the golden geese are the racers.  Whatever lofty plans they have and whatever changes they make to reach their particular goals, they'd better make sure the hordes are with them.  Because once you lose them, getting them back is like herding chickens...or maybe geese!  Now that would be a real challenge....

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

The Present and Future of Obstacle Course Racing...and other secrets of the universe (Part one)

I've only been observing the sport of Obstacle Course Racing (OCR) for around 2-1/2 years now.  My introduction to the sport was purely accidental, but I can truly say, I will never be quite the same.  I've also been racing for almost two years...although it's not what you would call competitively or even regularly until this year.  Normally, two years would not be considered a very long time to be involved with a sport.  But since this sport is relatively young itself and really has only become popular in the last year or so, 2-1/2 years has seen much change.

There are many different races and it seems that a new one pops up every week (a sure sign of their growing popularity).  Each has it's own story, which I'm not going to try to recount here.  But there are a few that stand out as the leaders in the field.  In all fairness, I have only run the Spartan races so far (Spartan Race homepage) so I don't have first hand knowledge of the others.  However, by most accounts, Spartan Race and Tough Mudder (Tough Mudder homepage) are the top two race promoters.  I've also heard that Warrior Dash (Warrior Dash homepage) is another promoter that puts on similar races.  There are others too, but many of these seem to be more concerned about gimmicks than serious, challenging events.
 
The big question though is, what is the future of OCR?  Last year I first started hearing talk about the subject.  I heard people talking about a racing circuit, sponsored teams in competition across the different courses, standardized courses and even talk of an Olympic sport.  Of course there's always someone looking towards the future of any activity...and that's important.  Seems to me though that before you can talk about professional OCR racers, you have to develop fans!

When that question was posed last year, that was my first thought.  How can you have a sport without fans?  And how would you have fans when the only view of the race was the start and the finish?  In fact, at that time, the only real interest in these elite racers was from...well...from the non-elite racers.  One of the unique qualities of the sport was the very fact that any racer could run the same course, the same day...even during the same heat...as the elite racers.  You could appreciate the accomplishment of these racers because you could test yourself against the very same course.  I mean really, what other sport allows virtually anyone the chance to get on the same field as the very best and compete equally?  Baseball, football (American or the rest of the world's version), track and field?  Try it at those events and they arrest you!

Two problems were evident immediately though.  The first was that, even at the race, the elite race was started and finished before most of the other racers were even there.  Even if people wanted to see the race, more than likely you were either on the course or about to be go on when they were finishing or awarding medals.  And these non-elite racers are your most likely candidates for "fan-dom"...at least to begin with.  They have to spread the word.  Right now, they're spreading the word about participating...but not about watching.

The other, more serious problem, was that even at the race, there IS no way to watch it.  There's no leader board, no announcements...nothing to tell you what was going on.  If you were lucky there may have been an announcement at the end...if you were lucky.  And if you were interested in following a race that you couldn't attend...well, all you were likely to hear is an update or two, then a Facebook post of the winners.  Could you place cameras throughout the course, at various obstacles and some key points...so people can watch the racers and their progress?  The excitement is knowing where you favorite racer is and rooting them on during the race.  They actually did this very well at the Olympics with mountain bike racing.  While I had no particular interest in the racers or sport as a whole, the way that they broadcast the race, I was not only able to follow it, I found the race exciting and entertaining.  Lesson number one I guess, is learning what's already working successfully.
 

....so ends part one....more thoughts and ideas on the present and future of OCR in part deux (that's French for "what didn't fit on the first page" I think)....

Part deux...[link to the second part of this blog post]

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Friday, March 29, 2013

Miami Super Spartan - 2013

Until the Miami Super Spartan, the only Spartan races I had ever run, in fact the only obstacle races I had ever run, were the Spartan Sprints at Tuxedo NY.  I had read from one of the top Spartan racers that the Tuxedo course (3.5-4 miles) was just as hard as a Tough Mudder (appx 10 miles) and harder than the Miami Super (appx 8 miles).  Nevertheless, I had never run that kind of distance and I found the thought of doing it very intimidating.  But if you're going to avoid challenges because you might fail, you can never expect to experience the thrill of achieving something you thought was impossible!  My first time was Tuxedo and I just want to keep finding ways to have that feeling again.
 
So, once more, I prepared to face down the doubts and fears you have when going up against an unknown challenge.  In general I knew the biggest hurdle (no pun intended) was going to be the distance and heat.  I'd lived in Miami for 14 years so I knew very well that the heat, even in February, would be grueling for us northeners.  Even on the shorter Tuxedo course, muscle cramps were a factor.  So I took some steps to try to limit the damage.  Besides a training program that included a lot more running, I also took along a Camelbak and some "packs of GU"...(which I'll leave as a homework assignment for you to find out what that is).  I also knew that I needed to work on my upper body strength.  The rope climb, the Hercules lift and a few other dainties are unforgiving if you don't have the strength.
 
Of course the one consistent factor about the Spartan races is that you never really know what to expect.  The spear throw was AWOL...and I think I had that one down!  The rope climb was off dry land for once...I liked that!  Someone somewhere decided that lifting and carrying a concrete cylinder the size of a 5 gallon bucket 20 feet, then doing some burpees was fun...oh, and bring it back over here when you're done...please.  And how many walls were there on that course??!!  I can remember 12 but I'd swear there were more than that.  Who knows...maybe I climbed a few twice...it was a long, hot day out there.  Maybe the biggest surprise...hills!  Well, they wouldn't be called hills in most parts of the country.  But knowing that the highest point in the everglades is 3 feet above sea level, I was absolutely shocked to find climbs throughout the course of 15-20 feet.
 
Another experiment no doubt, was the placement of 4 of the obstacles in a row at the end of the run.  I'm sure this was to give the spectators a chance to see more of the actual race.  Not a bad intention, but for the racers, having to do the rope climb, wall traverse, mud crawl and "slippery incline" one after another was a bit much.
 


The funny thing is though, when I finished, I wasn't dead!  I had fully expected to be.  Before I left NY, I had carefully bequeathed all my office paraphernalia to my teammates...knowing full well what awaited in Miami (and I think they were surprised and disappointed too, when I returned to reclaim my stuff!).  I told my daughter, who lives in Miami, that whatever we were going to do, needed to be done before the race, because I planned to be horizontal from the finish until my plane trip back.  I honestly don't know how much to credit my training (and GU...thanks Janice!) or the fact that the elevation changes were minimal compared to NY, but I actually felt a bit disappointed.  I know, it sounds strange...but somehow, not being brutalized and beaten to a pulp by the course left me feeling like I missed out on something!  So I guess maybe I reached another level.  I've got Citifield coming up in around 2 weeks, so we'll see how that goes.  Overall though, I have to say I'm still enjoying this sport and feel like there's greater potential yet untapped.  Time will tell.  One last thing...I finished Tuxedo in around 2:39.  I finished Miami in around 2:52.  That means I finished the extra four miles at an average pace of 3 minutes, 15 seconds!  Hey, do the math!!...I'm just saying....
 
I would be remiss if I didn't thank my daughter Dawn and her husband Brian for the airport rides, the rides to the race and for putting me up (or is it putting up with me...maybe both) for the days I was there...and to the grandkids for...well...just for being themselves.  Until next time....

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Spartan Race WOD's aka "Workout Of the Day"...what they don't tell you

One of the basic assumptions that these WOD's seem to make is that you have, at hand, a fully equipped gym alongside a running track with a hill just outside the door.  I guess it's also assumed that you have a field where you can do all sorts of imaginative exercises which may include old tires, large rocks and tree parts.  I haven't seen any yet that involved wrestling wild animals or carrying domestic ones...but I'm sure that's just an oversight and will be addressed at some point soon.

Well....I belong to a gym...just an ordinary, regular gym.  So that pretty much puts most of the WOD's out of any practical reach.  I do however, read them on a daily basis.  And much to my surprise, along came a WOD that I could not only do at my gym, but was only 5 lines long!!  What was even more surprising was the fact that it looked pretty easy.  Now, anyone familiar with Spartan Race knows, if it looks too easy...watch out!  Since I've written about these guys before (see 2012 Spartan Race at Tuxedo NY ) I really should have known better.  I suppose we all know where this one's going!

So...WOD in hand...I trotted off to the gym one day, intent on doing my first WOD.  This was an exciting day!  Knowing how difficult most of these are, and knowing that there were people out there doing them regularly, I felt like I was on the threshold of some exclusive and elusive society.

Now, it took a bit of innovating but I worked out a way to do this oh-so-simple WOD.  Of course it wouldn't be perfect.  There would be an unavoidable, relatively small time lag between exercises.  Overall though, it would be close enough to get the feel of really doing one.  They also have a rating system for these.  Each one is rated up to 5 in the areas of strength, endurance and speed.  So I did one rotation through the WOD exercises!  And the first thing that hit me was, "how the hell could something this short be so freaking hard??!!"  For Spartan athletes these ratings were fine I guess.  For me, they better put them in dog years!  20 minutes later, it was done...and I was done!  It was my first one...but hopefully not my last.  Unfortunately, a gym is just not the ideal place for these...which is probably a big reason I'm still alive!!

Just a final note about one of the people that creates these "things", Dr Jeff [aka Dr. Jeff Godin].  For those who like the science of exercise, he writes some of the most technically interesting articles.  I credit him with my breakthrough performance in longer distance running endurance....all due to one of his posts on the "long slow run".  Aroo Doc...keep 'em coming...even if I can only manage a few.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Spartan Race 2013 World Rankings....and how the hell did I get on there?!

One of the special moments in writing a blog is when you see that people all over the world are actually looking at it. I have no idea who they are or what they think about it. But just knowing that someone in Croatia or Ukraine or Australia is reading these is exciting. Another special (read: strange) moment is to one day wake up and find that you are an internationally ranked obstacle racer! No really...stop laughing...here's the picture to prove it.  I wouldn't lie to you!  Well...ok...maybe I would, but not about this.

Ok...the fact is, everybody that finishes a race has a ranking. And while being 118th out of 222 in my age group is personally gratifying, I'm not expecting Reebok or Wheaties (do they still make that??!) to come knocking on my door anytime soon. The truth of the matter is, there is great advantage in attrition! Being old lessens the competition. You can check out on their website, the formula for how Spartan Race calculates these ranking points.   It's pretty simply to understand really...I only had to pull out my college calculus, physics and actuarial books to follow some of the math.

So, at the age of 55, it seems I've managed to achieve something in sports that I'd never even thought of before. I had all but given up hope on an NFL career (anyone that knows me will tell you I have this little problem with giving up on things). Even a respectable college football career seems unlikely and I will have to settle for attending that NFL football factory now known as "The U".  But somehow, through the magic of Spartan Race, I have become a world ranked obstacle racer!  How does it feel?  Well...it doesn't suck!!