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 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 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 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?]