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.


  1. I did not run the VT beast, but based on what i've read on blogs and talking to my friends that ran the crazy elevations at the Wintergreen VA course, it is hard to argue with what you are saying. On the flip side, I feel that Tough Mudder has been taking the opposite approach with it's own set of pitfalls. I ran the raceway park mudder on saturday and I felt it was easier than in the past. I'd like to think that I'm just getting better, but I am fairly certain everest was shorter than in 2012. This has 2 effects.1. it allows more people to finish and conquer the course feeling exhilarated which helps with the word of mouth marketing and 2. potentially alienates people that want it to get 'tougher' and not easier. There is a middle ground for both these events and I think they are going to the opposite extremes. I could be wrong as I don't have obstacle specs from 2012 v 2013 everest but it's just my gut feeling since I haven't seen a human chain since 2012 on everest.
    At the end of the day you can't please everyone, but if the majority of OCR racers wanted to run ultras they would just run ultras and there would be no market for OCR. It's a slippery slope, but if you want to be in the olympics you will need the fans or history to backyour case up (just ask wrestling)

    1. Thanks Chet for your comments. I haven't run any races other than Spartan as of yet, although I try to keep abreast of the industry and use the blogs, etc, as you mentioned, for that. You may be right about Tough Mudder getting easier, although I've personally found that the Spartan races were "feeling" easier as my training and preparation increased. The biggest problem with Mudder is that it's not timed...without winners, there's no least to me.
      Extreme Nation has an interesting concept, with it's shorter course, more obstacles and increased spectator viewing. I know Spartan did a better good of viewing in VT...and has been improving steadily over the last 2 years (minus the relatively high cost of spectator viewing). 2014 should be very enlightening with regard to these competing strategies.

  2. Thoughtful post, John. There are lots of different takes on this year's VT Beast. Some appreciated that type of race and many didn't. It will be interesting to see how things go from here.

    1. Thanks for checking out the post Jeff. Yes, I think next year is going to be very interesting to watch as Spartan Race, Tough Mudder and Extreme Nation (assuming they an get the races off the ground) push the OCR sport forward.