Thursday, October 9, 2014

Spartan Race - Method Behind the "Madness"?

Sometimes, things really aren't quite what they seem to be.  And the more you consider it, the more you come to realize, there may be real genius behind it!

A couple of weeks ago I read a post about the Spartan Race Vermont Beast (Relentless Forward Commotion) and it got me thinking.  (Well, a lot of things get me thinking...but I digress!)  Every obstacle race, Spartan race in particular because of the dreaded burpee penalty, is subject to racers cheating or, in their minds, simply skipping the brutal parts.  And no, I'm not talking about the elite racers here at all.  That's a whole different story...with no shortage of posts, FB rants and drama.  When you're racing for money the rules are the rules....period. The fact is though, that Spartan Race has been having to deal with two diametrically opposed markets for a few years now.  After all, in the end it's a business and you have to keep your customers happy....all your customers!
Vt Beast 2013 gps map courtesy of Paul Jones

In the first group, you have the serious non-elite racers looking for the next challenge.  They may be running a few races a year (and if they show up for the Vermont beast, multiple races is all but guaranteed!) and they're paying too much money to be running a course that "I've already done.......twice!".  Personally, I almost skipped the Spartan Sprint at Tuxedo this year for that very reason.  (Spartan Sprint at Tuxedo.....Round 4.....Expecting the Unexpected).  I mean, how many times can you get a thrill proving yourself on the same mountain?  If you don't change up the course and make it a bit more challenging for these racers they'll find something else to do.
On the other hand, the casual weekend fun-racers don't want or need to do 30 or 6o burpees for any reason.  They came out to have fun, do some serious physical activity and go home with the shirt, the medal and the experience of running a Spartan race.  So skipping burpees or obstacles that are too difficult lets that weekend racer enjoy the course without the pain and suffering that most old-school racers got into this for in the first place.
Of course, for the racing purists, cheating is cheating.  But then again who cares?  What's the difference, if there's no money on the line?  The only real impact I guess is on the rankings.  Someone who skips the tough stuff and wimps out on the burpees (ok, so I'm a bit old-school!) will almost certainly have a better time than those who did them.  And that does get reflected in those daily race rankings.  Well, good luck figuring that one out.  There's always a way to deal with any issue but the question becomes, is it worth it?  Fact is, the racers who skip the burpees are probably only running one race a year anyway, so their times won't do anything but mess up the finishing places for that day.

So in the end, what we may actually be left with is a brilliant move by Spartan Race (or possibly a "New Coke formula" stroke of luck...who knows?).  But by not enforcing the rules they are, in a way, meeting somewhere in the middle.  Serious racers can do all the obstacles, the penalties and know that they've truly completed a tough course.  At the same time, the casual racer can have some fun and feel a sense of accomplishment without having to endure the STFU punishment typically associated with a race.  Can't help feeling like this is a win-win...and the old-schoolers will have to get passed the fact that some people are just not that into "embracing the suck"!

For those interested, here are my thoughts on what Spartan Race was thinking by building such a brutal Vermont course in 2013 (Vermont Beast - 2013 - And Who Were They Building This Course For Anyway?!).  Now, I'm off to the Everglades for some relaxing photography work.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Spartan Sprint at Tuxedo.....Round 4.....Expecting the Unexpected

The fact is, this course may have been the best I've personally far as the balance between running and obstacles go.  In 2013 I ran a number of races and one of the typical complaints from racers was the long sections of uphill climbing (running for some maybe!).  The 2014 Tuxedo course, while still holding on to the typical uphill challenges, was broken up nicely with obstacles.  Sometimes a single obstacle, but more often with small groups.
One thing that surprised me this year was the course map!  I couldn't believe it when I saw/heard some racers looking it over and talking about it.  Then I saw the map up on the kiosk.  It was all I could do not to peek.  I like the element of surprise and uncertainty on these courses.  You never know what's ahead or where!  Another pleasant surprise, although I had forgotten about it at race time, was the condition of the course.  Fortunately there was no rain that day, but this would be the fourth racing day out here and I wasn't sure if the course would suffer from that.  The fact that it never came to mind is all that needs to be said!
This was another of those times though, when I didn't decide to run until it was almost too late.  But in the end, this is where it all began for me.  My first race!  I've run every Spartan race there since then.  So not only was it a tradition for me...but it was also the best opportunity I had of judging my performance.  Even though I knew no two Spartan races were the same (2012 Spartan Race at Tuxedo, NY - What the Brochure Won't Tell You!), it was still the only way to see how effective my training has been.
And you know, I never realized it before, but Spartan Race reminds me of Disney in a way.  Every time you go, there's something new!  This race had a few new obstacles and a few changes to some old standards.  There were two in particular that stood out this race.  The Monkey Net...which was tougher than it had to be, as I heard from others after the race too, because the net at the peak was tied a bit tight to the frame so you couldn't quite grab it.  And there was no benefit to finishing it, since everyone ended up in the water anyway (at the time I went, burpees had been discontinued I no penalty for falling off).  The other was the whatever-you-call-it-wall, where you had a solid wall about 4 feet up from the bottom of the water and you had to pull yourself up by hand until you could get a foothold.  THAT was a tough one....and the way...I liked it!

Naturally, there were many of the old obstacles there too.  They had a number of "carries" (sandbag and log) and the stone drag.  One big change on these was the length.  None of them were really in the category of brutal this year...and no, I'm not complaining!  They also had the Atlas Carry.  Now THAT was a tough one.  Between the weight of that thing and the way you had to pick it up, it was certainly up there as one of the toughest obstacles.  I heard people talking afterwards, some saying the weights were as high as 80lb for the women and 125lb for the men.  Yeah...well...that just tells how hard they "thought" it was. 

Of course there was the net climb, the monkey bars and the inverted wall.  They also had the herc hoist, which for some reason keeps giving me leg cramps lately.  Even with hydrating and GU packs...when I can swallow them that easy task between water stops.  And what is it with the spear throw??!!  That used to be a given for me but another of those that have been trouble lately...burpees suck (although I've found them great for increasing endurance).  On the bright side, I rang the bell on the rope climb this race!!  Something I haven't done in a while.  And I finally realized that a good part of failing this obstacle was the fear of falling because I didn't believe I could make it.  Obstacle racing has always been about mental toughness, and once I started thinking more confidently about the climb, I was able to get past that hurdle.

Last, but not least, the barbed wire crawl.  Not as long as some, but this crawl is always on an uphill grade...which never makes it easy.  This year it seemed to be kept a bit drier than usual.  Made the crawl a lot less slick (a good thing), but it also seemed to make the small rocks grate more on the skin (not so much).  A good trade though.  So overall, I was very satisfied with the course and the experience this year...and pleased with my performance.  No, it wasn't noteworthy in the overall scheme...just in my own ongoing attempts at improvement every race.  Pleased....but not satisfied....always training just a bit harder for the next race...whenever, and wherever, that may be!


A link to the report on the 2013 Spartan Sprint at Tuxedo:

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

As Lombardi Once Said "What the Hell's Going On Out Here?"....And How Does That Relate To The World Of Obstacle Course Racing

2013 has been another interesting year in the world of Obstacle Course Racing (OCR).   The phenomenal growth continued and looks to be off to a great start for 2014.  Although the industry has seen a number of new races come and go.  With some never getting past the announcement phase, while other races managed to collect entry money without ever actually putting on a race.  This past year also saw the first filming of a race by a major sports network.  That was NBC Sports filming the Spartan Race Championship in VT last September.  Although the resulting TV program was not quite a thrill-a-minute [Obstacle Course Racing on TV...well, it's a start!] it was a big step towards building a fan base for this emerging sport.

Speaking of championship races, there was another trend developing late in 2013.  Where last year saw new races growing like weeds, the new trend seems to be for Championship races.  So far, besides the already established Spartan Race Championship, there were announcements from Warrior Dash, OCR World Championship and well, another race called OCR World Championship.  Strangely enough, neither OCR World Championship race actually exists right now and don't seem to have the OCR racing community support at the moment.  Go figure!....growing pains I guess.

Then there was the announcement of a new OCR sanctioning body [USOCR].  Interestingly, this sanctioning body seems to have come to being by self-proclamation...kinda like the big-bang.  Not that I have any objections to this or questions about the qualifications or motives of these individuals.  It's probably a good and necessary step in the growth of the sport.  Just seems like this should grow (as my son might say) organically as OCR matures.  A coming together of the major bring order from chaos, so to speak.  But again, what do I know.  Some are born great, some have greatness thrust upon them and some just declare themselves great and leave the proof as a class assignment.

There's an interesting dilemma here too.  One of the major OCR promoters isn't even a race!  That being Tough Mudder.  It's not a isn't how do you have a champion when you don't even have a winner!! [Although there is a "World's Toughest Mudder" competition, which is run in a different manner than their other races].  This could actually get sticky (no pun really!) at some point for Tough Mudder.  Without timed events, they can't be used as qualifying races for any of the so-called championship races.  So they may be left as the only major competitor with a "let's just have fun" attitude.

Last April I was prognosticating on the future of OCR [see The present and future of Obstacle Course Racing (Part1) and The present and future of Obstacle Course Racing - Part Deux)] and a major shortcoming of the races is that virtually no one could see them. At the time, there were a few obstacles visible to spectators, but the vast majority of the race was out of sight.   At the Spartan Championship in Vermont, there was definitely a huge improvement in fan viewing. Quite a number of obstacles were near the festival area, including named (by me) because of it's shorter length, 2 foot clearance and relatively dry condition. Looks impressive, but not too scary to the non-racer (read: parents, non-racing spouses, kids, etc) and barely an inconvenience for the experienced racers.

So fans were able to get a view of their racers although most of the race, even this one, still takes place off stage. And how do you know when your racer would come through that area?  Go grab some food and you may have missed them...and not even know! That's double tough when you're talking about a course where the WINNING times were near 4 hours.

Another thing that hasn't changed noticeably from last year is that you still can't really track the "elite" racers at the event. At Vermont, most everyone racing was out on the course anyway as the winners were coming in.  Unavoidable in this particular instance I guess.  There really should be a separate day for the elites to run this Championship race...maybe...someday [note to self - see multiple new championship races announced recently].  But I suppose, one thing at a time.  First, they need to figure out how to cover a race and make it exciting.  Someone out there has to know how to do that!

Monday, January 20, 2014

Obstacle Course Racing on TV...well, it's a start!

At the Spartan Championship Race in Vermont last September, one of the highlights was the filming of the event for television.  And NBC Sports was there...filming away.  This was a major development in the sport.  For anyone that has been following Obstacle Course Racing (OCR) for a while, one of the key elements to stepping up the game is attracting a fan base.  And a key element of attracting a fan base is that you have to have a means of covering the event.  I was very interested in seeing how this played out.  Obviously it wasn't going to be live coverage of this race...but it was a start!

Last April I was talking about the future of OCR [see The present and future of Obstacle Course Racing (Part1) and The present and future of Obstacle Course Racing - Part Deux)] and a major shortcoming of the race is that virtually no one could see it.  At that time, there were few obstacles visible to spectators.  However, the vast majority of the race was out of sight.  Makes it tough to root for your racer when you have no idea where they are...or where anyone else is for that matter.

With TV filming then, would that help promote the sport and provide some race coverage ideas for the future?  I know I was excited to see the final product.  I saw this as an opportunity for people to see what these races were really all about.  Up to now, anytime they showed a race it seemed to be the same few obstacles popping up.  Spartan Race seemed to be excited initially too.  But for some reason the showing was postponed until a later date.  Five or six weeks later in fact.  Well, that happens I'm sure.  What surprised me though, as the new release date approached, was that Spartan Race did not seem to be promoting the show quite as emphatically as it had immediately after the race.  And for anyone who follows Spartan Race...that was odd.  Very odd!!

One reason for this may have been a change in their marketing staff.  But as important as this must have been to them, someone at Spartan Race would have noticed it wasn't being blasted around the Internet!  Another reason is more likely though.  It seems reasonable that Spartan Race had a chance to see the final product before release.  And I can't imagine they were particularly thrilled with it.  Not that it was a poor job by any means.  Just disappointing.  At the very least it wasn't able to bring across the grueling, mind-numbing nature of this course in particular or any excitement about the race itself!  Of course I wouldn't know how to go about doing this either...but I'm not a TV producer.  I saw the same exact format used on one of those "survivor" type races and, I'm sorry to say, it was dull.  Dull....dull....dull!  And these races are not dull!  Brutal...torturous...painful...inspiring...fulfilling...but not dull!!  No race should come across like that...ever.

So, there's still some work to do on this.  A lot of work apparently!  OCR is a new and exciting sport and only needs the right person to bring it across on screen.  The Super Bowl has nothing to fear....yet.  On a positive note though, there appears to be change happening in OCR.  Another step in the maturing of OCR perhaps.  More on that thought in the next post!