The Active/Mudder/Spartan Standoff

Catch up with the latest Tough Mudder news

Last week Spartan CEO Joe De Sena issued a press release announcing that it has an option to purchase Tough Mudder’s international (i.e. non-US) operations, and that it is in negotiations to purchase the entire company. Joe spoke with ORM’s Matt B. Davis and Josh Chase about the plans, saying that he wanted to expand Spartan’s mission to rip people off their couches, but that he was not planning to change the fundamental look and feel of Tough Mudder events. Yesterday, Tough Mudder founders Will Dean and Guy Livingstone gave an interview with Matt B. Davis, contradicting some of what Joe said. On the surface, it would seem that either one side is telling the truth, or the other side is telling the truth. Or, to be less charitable, it would appear that someone must be lying. However, in circumstances like this, it’s worth taking a closer look to see what is really going on.

The key take-away, where both sides agree, is that Spartan is moving towards taking over Tough Mudder’s operations. While Joe and Will gave different indications about how far along that process has gone, the goal appears to be the same for both Spartan and Tough Mudder. Observers should keep in mind that this is a sizable business transaction, and negotiations are likely to be complicated. Both sides are going to make statements that prop up their status at the negotiating table, whether or not they are 100% true. Also, both sides are going to keep negotiating, using whatever means they have, in order to get the most money out of the transaction. This is the same whether the business deal is over obstacle course racing, real estate or airlines.

There were a couple of points where the two parties seemed to contradict each other. Will says that Spartan has no enforceable option to purchase the international operations at the moment, but that he hopes to work it out. Joe says not so: “After listening to this awesome podcast I thought maybe I’ve entered the Twilight Zone (a show I watched growing up). I was so confused that I had to check my own head by calling others involved in the matter, and they too are baffled. That said, I’m sure reality will reappear within a week or so.”

So, is all this just posturing between two companies involved in a take-over bid? Not quite. There are two major clouds on the horizon for Tough Mudder. First, if you’ve tried to buy a ticket for a Tough Mudder event for 2020, you may have noticed that ticket sales have been shut down for the past week. Why? This goes back to Tough Mudder’s original money woes, which you can read about here.

Tough Mudder Lawsuit

Tough Mudder’s creditor is Active, which is itself owned by the multi-billion dollar company, Global Payments. When you buy a ticket to a Tough Mudder event, your money goes to Active, which passes it along to Tough Mudder, presumably so that Active can make sure that Tough Mudder keeps paying Active back (note that Will characterizes the loan from Active as a “quasi-debt instrument”, but for the rest of us, it’s something that sounds a lot like a loan). According to Will, Active recently started withholding payments from ticket sales. Tough Mudder, in turn, turned off ticket sales to get leverage with Active.

We reached out to Active, whose spokeswoman replied: “Since late 2018, as a service provider to Tough Mudder, Active Network has supported its financial restructuring and turnaround efforts. Occasionally merchants like Tough Mudder are unsuccessful in turnarounds. Active Network has unfortunately been placed in the middle of disputes that have nothing to do with us. We remain steadfast in our commitment to the Active community of event participants, organizers and customers. This matter is immaterial to us.”

This is a little disingenuous. Stepping back again to treat this as a generic business transaction, there is a buyer (Spartan), a seller (Tough Mudder) and the seller’s creditor (Active). As with any such transaction, the creditor is going to be involved in aspects of the sale that will have an impact on the creditor’s financial interests. Will went to great lengths to emphasize that everything is going well at Tough Mudder and that the company’s financial future is bright.

Tough Mudder Active Registration

Which leads us to the other dark cloud: there is, once again, the question of whether Tough Mudder is currently solvent. At least one vendor reached out to us, off the record, to inform ORM of  large receivables due. There are rumors of additional vendors not being paid, and it is unclear whether the staff is getting paid. According to a source close to the situation, Kyle McLaughlin, Tough Mudder CEO, has stepped down from that position in frustration over his inability to get the board to provide the funding to keep the lights on and make payroll. In his interview, Will denied that Kyle has stepped down, and Kyle told us flatly “Unfortunately, I’m unable to comment at this time”.

Reading between the lines, it seems that Spartan, Will and Active are all in negotiations to keep Tough Mudder afloat long enough so that Spartan will have something to buy. Reaching a deal would benefit everyone. Joe has stated that he does not intend to change the product that is Tough Mudder (keyboard warriors: please stop saying that he’s going to make Tough Mudder participants do burpees. That’s not going to happen). The question remains whether or not Tough Mudder will be around in 2020, transitioning to ownership under Spartan or in some other format. Until all the parties come to an agreement, the situation is, unfortunately, dynamic. With any luck, the high-powered lawyers and savvy MBA’s on all sides will come together so that the rest of us can have fun running around in the mud next year.

Will Dean Forced Out Of Tough Mudder (And What Else Co-Founder Lawsuit Alleges)

**Update January 2020 – Click here to read the most up to date Tough Mudder news.

Stories have been circulating for months that Tough Mudder is in tough financial straits: vendors and race winners had not been paid, and TMHQ recently announced that there would be no prize money for any races in 2019.  Last week reports emerged about a lawsuit against Tough Mudder by one of its co-founders, and the complaint pulls back the curtain on the company’s strained balance sheets.

Guy Livingstone co-founded Tough Mudder with his friend Will Dean, who became the face of the company. Anyone who read Dean’s book “It Takes a Tribe” will recognize the name, but the book doesn’t discuss much of Livingstone’s role in the company. While I had assumed this omission had to do with the vanity-project nature of Dean’s book, it now appears that it was a sign of the crumbling relationship between the company’s founders.

The complaint outlines the company’s financial history, from its heyday in 2012 when it made a profit of $10 million, to its current state, where it relied on $18 million in outside financing to keep the operation going. A caveat: this complaint is clearly Livingstone’s side of the story. We have not seen Tough Mudder’s response, nor have the underlying financial documents been revealed. Still, the details are juicy.

According to Livingstone, he pulled back his involvement in the company in 2013, at which point the company started to falter. Tough Mudder was eventually bailed out by Active Network LLC. You will recognize the name from your credit card statement if you have signed up for a local 5K, an Ironman, or any number of other athletic events.

Over the next few years, Tough Mudder went deeper and deeper into debt to Active. At the end of last year, Active tried to find a buyer for Tough Mudder, and when it failed, it moved on to a more aggressive plan: in exchange for its debt, it took control of the company and forced Dean to resign. The litigation stems in part from the terms of Dean’s severance package. Tough Mudder was owned by Dean and Livingstone, 60/40. According to the lawsuit, Dean negotiated his exit without Livingstone’s knowledge or consent, handing over his control to Active.

What does this mean for the average weekend racer? Ironically, all this bad news for two wealthy Englishmen could be good news for the rest of us. Unlike the original Tough Mudder, a scrappy startup with a stubborn leader, Active is a big company. Most of it was recently sold for $1.2 billion to Global Payments Inc., a multi-billion dollar payments conglomerate. This means that Tough Mudder is now controlled by a company with deep pockets owned by a bigger company with even deeper pockets. They have already made changes: a new president took over at TMHQ, Kyle McLaughlin.

Mr. McLaughlin appears to have a strong background in events management and doesn’t seem as interested in promoting himself the way Dean did. If he can right the ship, Tough Mudder could have a future. The flip side is that the company is now controlled by people at a greater distance from the product and who have no history in the sport of OCR. Should Tough Mudder fail to break even this year, even without handing out prize money, the new overlords might find it easier to pull the plug. They will also need to find a way to resolve what could be a very expensive judgment against the company in the form of Livingstone’s lawsuit.

We have scheduled an upcoming podcast breaking down this even further in the coming days.

Terrain Race, the Spirit Airlines of OCR?

Here at ORM, we see plenty of complaints about races. Sometimes complaints are valid, and sometimes race participants are venting about things that don’t really merit the venom that gets spilled. One of the downsides of the spread of social media is that it has become very easy for people to complain, loudly and without the need to show both sides to a situation. Was your life really ruined because they ran out of race t-shirts in your size? Probably not. Disappointing? Sure.

Accounting for the numerous grains of salt that have to be taken when reviewing internet comments, there is still one race that generates more legitimate beefs from racers than any other: Terrain Race. Some complaints represent what I would consider minor inconveniences: having to pay almost as much for parking and insurance as you do for the race fee, for example, or missing race photos. But others are more worrisome, such as complaints about safety and unpaid podium winners. And plenty of these complaints have come from people who want to like Terrain and want to see the company succeed.

Here’s a good example from Colleen in Florida:

I was the first place female finisher at their Pensacola race on April 7, 2018. I was also the only female to keep my band that day. When the results came out, after a ridiculous amount of time, they were incorrect. I emailed them, sending  everything they asked (photo with my band on and a time stamp) and they have never corrected them. As an OCRWC qualifying race, I would think the results would be expected to be accurate.

My husband also had a podium finish that day and the week after the race we sent in the required paperwork in order to have our award checks mailed. After not receiving the checks or hearing back from TR, we emailed and they repeated replied with “we will look into it” or “it has been sent to our accounting dept”. Eventually I started sending Facebook messages and after a couple they ignored those too.

A couple of weeks ago my husband posted on several of their FB ads regarding the issues we have had and they again requested the tax paperwork, which we sent…again. They said it was sent to the accounting dept, again and we would receive checks in about 3 weeks. I’m not holding my breath!

I really HATE to bash a race company because we love racing and don’t have a lot of options here in Pensacola, but it is a business and as customers we deserve what was promised to us.

I have heard that TR has someone new trying to straighten things out and I surely hope they are successful.

And from Greg in Pennsylvania:

I’ve done a few Terrain Races the past few years. The most recent was May 5th Pittsburgh at Mines and Meadow. They were suppose to have an event in Erie, PA on Aug 11th but announced it only a few months ago then cancelled it and apparently rescheduled it for next year. The event is Pittsburgh did not have a single person on course anywhere taking photos. I ran the multi lap option and never came across anyone. Not even someone from terrain taking any photos to put on their own page. Some obstacles were described pretty accurately in the Facebook video the other day that mentioned the Robert Killian stuff. The walls were very wobbly. But their walls are basically 2x6s that they slide into a track that keeps them upright but doesn’t secure them into place. One of the starting pools actually deflated and all the water drained out of it. The half cargo net that you had to climb the metal pipes to reach the net was scary. The net totally had too much slack so when you start to go up or down the other side it shifts. Racers were pulling down the one end to stop it from moving so people could get down it more easily. There was talk that someone fell off it and broke their leg. There were some volunteers at a few obstacles but I can’t remember which ones did and didn’t. A lot of the end obstacles didn’t have anyone like the monkey bars or the plank walk to the sideways cargo net.

Like the bigger races series (Spartan, Tough Mudder, Warrior Dash) Terrain puts on over sixty races a year, but they have distinguished their brand by having very low race entry fee, usually $30.00. And those ads you see warning you that you should buy now because the price is about to go up? No, the price isn’t about to go up. It’s going to be $30.00. Is this a good deal? You might think so, especially as you can pay five times as much for other race series if you wait until the last minute. However, the race experience will feature the dramatic builds you see at a Tough Mudder or the well-oiled machine you observe at a Spartan Race.

I’ll make the comparison to Spirit Airlines. Their prices are lower than, say, Delta or American, but the services they offer aren’t as good. The planes aren’t as comfortable, you get charged for every possible add-on, and the customer service? Well, better not to ask. However, Spirit will still get you to Florida, and for less. If that’s what you’re looking for, then Spirit isn’t necessarily a bad choice. I have a friend who is grateful for the existence of Spirit because they had direct flights from her home in Philadelphia to Minneapolis, and she could afford to visit her recently widowed mother each weekend. Spirit doesn’t lack for customers.

Similarly, Terrain Race will get you around a 5K course with some obstacles, and you’ll get a medal and a t-shirt at the finish. Will the obstacles be dramatic or challenging? Not really. Will you still have a fun day out with the friends you brought? Probably, assuming that none of them see themselves as elite racers and everyone keeps their expectations low. And hey, it was only $30.00! What else can you do at that price? It would be churlish, not to mention snobby, to condemn Terrain for being cheap.

You still get a medal at the finish

However, what about those safety issues? And what about those missing podium checks? Terrain has timed first heats (generally 8:00 a.m. for the men and 8:05 a.m. for the women). Checks are promised to the top racers, but too many people have written in to complain that Terrain hasn’t paid as promised and has dodged customer service requests to fix this. Even those not in the money have complained about timing. This isn’t just an ego issue: Terrain Races are qualifiers for the OCRWC, and there are athletes who are relying on accurate timing results in order to get to the championships. A number of racers have written to ORM with their stories of missing results and getting the runaround from Terrain when they complained.

More worrisome are stories about lackluster monitoring of the courses and safety concerns. After a rig collapsed at the Terrain Race in Chicago in 2016, you would think that safety would come first at every event since then. Nevertheless, a rig obstaclce had to be shut down at a Southern California race last month after it appeared to be unstable (no injuries were reported this time). People will still fly Spirit even if they charge for soft drinks, but if their planes start falling apart, that’s a reason to stay away.


Not Terrain’s finest hour

Terrain Race is currently operated by company called Cool Events. Cool Events have been producing The BlackLight Run and Foam Glow 5k for the last few years. Both of those races have some complaints on social media and the Arizona Better Business Bureau. The BBB states 

BBB files indicate this business has a pattern of complaints concerning service and refund issues. Complainants allege the business may fail to be responsive to race or refund inquiries as races are repeatedly cancelled, and may also fail to ensure consumers are informed of the business’ no-refund policy. In addition, complainants allege the business may occasionally offer refunds, but may fails to follow through with providing the refund. BBB contacted the business regarding complaint history concerns. The business responded indicating a no refund policy, but failed to address the cause or offer a resolution to the current pattern of complaints.

When we reached out for comment to Cool Events management, they referred us to their new spokesman, Dustin Dorough.

Dustin has been a start line MC in the OCR scene for years, and is extremely well liked in the community.  To his credit, he was candid about the problems Terrain has been facing. Many of the problems people complain about simply boil down to money. The race promises course photographs (for a fee, by the way), and social-media-ready pictures are the lifeblood of OCR as documented in Rise of the Sufferfests. And yet Terrain failed to provide any photos at a number of races. Why? Dorough explained that, unlike other races that can afford to bring staff photographers to each race, Terrain hires locally, and sometimes the photographers simply fail to show up on the day of the race (or, worse, one showed up but… forgot to bring her camera).

He also explained the reason for another complaint, the lack of volunteers monitoring the obstacles. Since volunteers are promised a free race entry, and a race entry costs only $30.00, it is difficult to recruit someone to work for six hours in exchange for, well, do the math.

Dustin is optimistic that Terrain can improve. I expect this is partly his nature (you can hear much more about Dustin in a highly entertaining interview here before he was affiliated with Terrain), but he also told me that he is part of a new team of staffers brought in to address the same issues that racers have been complaining about.

Will this new team be able to turn Terrain around? Let’s hope so. There is room in the market for a lower-cost, less epic race product. After all, Tough Mudder has been experimenting with shorter courses with fewer obstacles. Terrain also appears in smaller markets that are not served by some of the big races. OCR shouldn’t have to be expensive. The question remains whether the $30.00 price point is sustainable for Terrain, or for any race, in the long run.

Spartan Race – Surprise Drug Testing

At last month’s Spartan Super in Utah, athletes were told at the start of the race that the winners would be drug tested. For four years Spartan has put its racers on notice that they might be drug tested if they reached the podium, and one of the many check boxes racers of all skills have clicked on to get to the next screen included the promise to abide by the anti-doping rules that Spartan has adopted.

For 99% of the people who jump over fire to cross the finish line, doping controls never cross their minds. How many weekend warriors would bother with the time, expense and health risks that doping entails in order to get a medal and a banana? However, racers who are in it for the money sometimes take that risk.

A little background: Spartan announced its drug testing policy in 2014, but it did not get around to doing any actual testing until the 2017 World Championship in Tahoe after a few false startsThis hit the news at around the same time that OCR star Ryan Woods was disqualified from the OCRWC after testing positive for a banned substance he says he took by accident. 

The OCRWC family of races has tested frequently and consistently, and last month Spartan raised its drug testing profile by the surprise announcement in Utah. Even Lindsay Webster got a little worried at the start when she heard about drug testing at the start line. On a recent podcast she told ORM’s Matt B. Davis that she started second guessing all of her recent medication choices.

Since Lindsay really is the sincere, honest Canadian she appears to be (as well as a champion athlete), the drugs she was worried about? Advil and Tylenol. Which are both completely legal.


In an Instagram post, Ryan Woods talked about his reaction.


Great post, but we could have done without the visual, Woodsy.

And as comments showed, some people will always be angry about those who have been caught cheating.

Joe Di Stefano told ORM that the top three men, top three women as well as a random competitor  were tested by a third party, who collected the urine samples and shipped them off to a lab at UCLA. To the relief of everyone, none of the samples tested positive. By contrast, the same company’s work at a recent CrossFit championship turned up fourteen athletes using banned substances.

OCR athletes can feel smug that our sport is cleaner than CrossFit. However, CrossFit prize purses are an order of magnitude greater that OCR’s, and the question remains whether our athletes will continue to compete clean as the rewards for winning grow.  For now, it is reassuring that Spartan Race is keeping its promise of random testing, and it is also reassuring that the threat of testing was enough to put a little fear into athletes who should have nothing to worry about (Lindsay Webster) as well as those who have learned to be much more careful about what substances they put in their bodies.

OCR bureaucracy: why this is a good thing, and why you should care

In the past few months, two organizations that hope to help govern the sport of OCR have been rebranded and, more important, taken major steps to becoming forces to help advance OCR from its current status as an exciting, competitive pastime to the level of an internationally recognized sport. Their activities have the potential to improve OCR for everyone from elite athletes to people trying out their first mom-and-pop local race. Even if you have no interest in elite athletes, the actions of these organizations will make the sport better for everyone.

Who They Are

At the top of the pile is World OCR, formerly known as the IOSF. As per their website: “World OCR, the Fédération Internationale de Sports d’Obstacles (FISO) is the world governing body and sole competent authority for obstacle sports and related disciplines. We are an independent association composed of national member federations worldwide.”

Let’s break that down: they are the world governing body. What does that mean? They are the OCR equivalent of  FINA  for swimming, the ITU for triathlon, or the IAAF for track and field. These organizations set the rules for competition. They organize world championships. They determine who goes to the Olympics every four years. Some of them are powerful, wealthy organizations,(hello, FIFA !). Others, not so much.  One thing they all have in common is that they exist to advocate for their sport and to support the athletes who take part.

What does this have to do with you?

More than you might think. If you’ve ever done a triathlon, the rules of competition are set, generally speaking, by the people at the ITU. Safety standards that allow race organizers to get insurance also trickle down from the ITU. Even more common sports feel the effect of the international governing bodies; if you ran a marathon lately and noticed that it was a Boston-qualifier, that means that the course was certified according to standards that the BAA, USATF and the IAAF all came up with and approved.

I spoke with Ian Adamson, the President of World OCR, and he explained that World OCR will make OCR “safer, cheaper, and fairer” (maybe not as inspirational as “Citius, Altius, Fortius”, but we’ll take it). The safety part includes working with the ASTM process of establishing standards, including the requirements for obstacle construction and the need for medical personnel at events. Safer events can make for cheaper events: our sport is riskier than most, and insurance is a big expense for race organizers. Safety standards reduce risk, which makes insurers happy, which means they can charge less, which makes races more affordable. Setting up rules that can be applied to all races and that are widely understood mean that races can be fairer. Something that applies to all three would be the implementation of WADA anti-doping standards. Doping is both a safety consideration (it’s banned because it’s not safe) and a fairness concern (doping athletes can get an unfair advantage), and the application of the same standards across all races can make things cheaper when elite athletes are getting tested.

World OCR is “composed of national member federations worldwide.” This takes us to the next level, the recently re-branded USAOCR (not to be confused with AOCRA ). So far, their activities have been fairly quiet, which is not to say that they are not being active. What most OCR fans will remember was their event last year in Miami, which was tacked on to a local Spartan Race. What I learned from Jamie Monroe, USAOCR Co-Chair, was that this event was put together rather quickly in order to determine who would represent the US at an upcoming international OCR competition, an event that ended up being canceled.

USA Obstacle Course Racing

In the meantime, USAOCR is working hard to get launched towards bigger and better things. I am reminded of the early days of OCR, when events were put together based on few resources, a lot of volunteer labor and good will, and with plans to create something bigger. USAOCR is still working on a revenue model, one that might look something like the way USAT operates. If you register for a local triathlon, you are probably asked if you are a USAT member. If you are not a member, you are either invited to join or required to pay for a one-day membership. Either way, the membership covers your insurance for the race. Again, going back to the safety element, USAT sanctions events, which means that the insurance side of things is taken care of through the national governing body’s bureaucracy.

Other goals for USAOCR include the development of a ranking system for OCR athletes across the US. This requires paying software developers, and given USAOCR’s shoestring budget, this isn’t happening yet. Since AOCRA has also stated this as a goal, it seems that some cooperation is in order here. USAOCR also wants to set up a way of determining who gets to represent the US in international competition. For now, it is not in the position to host events on its own where champions could be crowned, and for the future, it appears that this would take place at events that other race organizers host and which are branded by USAOCR as national championships.


Why the French name for World OCR? It’s not officially called Fédération Internationale de Sports d’Obstacles just to sound classier. And why is it headquartered in Switzerland, a country not especially known for its OCR heritage? This leads to the million-dollar question: what about the Olympics? I hadn’t mentioned getting OCR into the Olympics until now, because that’s the first thing people bring up when the subject of governing bodies comes up, and it shouldn’t be, at least not yet.

The name is French because the IOC is headquartered in Switzerland, which makes it the natural home for the governing body of a sport that aspires, someday, to be part of the Olympic Games. And while that is a goal, it can’t be the stated goal for a number of years. The IOC has hurdles and milestones that have to be passed before a sport can even be considered for a spot at the Games. These include the less glamorous tasks that World OCR is going through right now: getting federations set up in countries around the world, having conferences and other more paperwork-related activities. They don’t make for dramatic Instagram posts, but they are necessary all the same.

A more tangible part of the process is setting up world competitions, and the first such event will be the Shardana World Team Challenge on April 14 USAOCR is sending four athletes to represent the US, and I hope to hear more about their experiences when they get back. If you are asking yourself “But what about the OCRWC?” you would not be alone. For now, World OCR’s position is that this event is part of a racing brand, in the same way that Spartan’s World Championship or World’s Toughest Mudder are branded events. In the future, cooperation between OCRWC and World OCR might help both organizations achieve their goals

No one likes to cheer on bureaucracy, but I would argue that it is sometimes necessary, and not even a necessary evil. An example: OCR had its first doping scandal last year when Ryan Woods tested positive for a banned substance after the OCRWC. The question arose whether he would be banned from other OCR events, and he spent some nervous days waiting for phone calls from Spartan and Tough Mudder HQ’s. He was not alone in saying that if only we had a governing body to consult about questions like this, we all could have had some certainty about his ability to race in the upcoming season. USAOCR and World OCR exist to fill that gap. Elite racers should be pushing for these organizations to thrive, and fans of the sport should be rooting for them, too.

Spartan goes to Iceland and brings back a new race format

What Was that Spartan in Iceland All About?

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

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

The Great Unknowns

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

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

What’s Icelandic for “Athlete Briefing”?

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

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

Iceland Ultra medal and belt buckle

At The Start

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

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

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

Genuine Wikings

Icy Start

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

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

Why they call it Iceland

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

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

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

All that steam eventually turns to ice

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

Robert Killian, OCR mensch

Throwing In The Towel After Throwing In The Spear

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

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

It was warm and dry in here.

Deflated by De Sena

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

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

Spartan’s professional photographers capture the northern lights.

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

International Attendance

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

Me: “So, where are you from?”

Another American Spartan: “I live in Scranton.”

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

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

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

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

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

Iceland Recap

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

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


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

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

Final Complaints

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

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

The Ultra Appeal

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

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