Ryan Atkins On The State Of Spartan Race

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Editor’s Note – Ryan Atkins reached out to Obstacle Racing Media with a request to let Spartan Race and the OCR community as a whole know his thoughts. We agreed, and other than adding photos/links, and editing for grammar, have not changed any verbiage.

I don’t consider myself a negative person. I always try to see the best in people, look at things from their perspective and be the best version of myself that I can be. With that being said and as a “figure” in this sport I felt that the thoughts that have been plaguing my psyche for the last few weeks needed to come out. So, I wanted to step up with some instances of what the Juggernaut of OCR is doing right and wrong.

  • Great Marketing campaign. The NBC producers have been doing a great job of consistently making good TV shows that catch the personality and passion behind the sport. Everyone associates with brand and it is slowly becoming the “IronMan” of OCR. Good job.
  • Terrain. The courses make a habit of using big vertical gain and a great mixture of technical running and less technical double track. This has been forcing the athletes to become better runners and gets people off trails, exploring their backyards. I love that. I think Norm Koch and Richard have a lot to do with this.
  • Coming up with a “Championship Series”. Until this year, the Spartan series were very mysterious and no one really cared about them. By using a cool name and some great graphics they were able to incite some stoke about participants focusing on a more prestigious tier of racing. Most big sports do this, and its a step in the right direction.

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  • Solid obstacles. They aren’t particularly tough or big, but you know what you are going to get. They don’t collapse and they go along with the “look” of Spartan. WTG.

Most issues that I see in this instance come down to the lack of money spent on the actual race. Given the amount of traction that the “elite” and “competitive” waves get, there is no excuse not to have this issues ironed out.

Having trained, paid referees at all the obstacles.  This is about 10 obstacles per race. These people need to know how to look for methods of failure and be prepared to call people out on their penalties. Self-policing doesn’t work. Trained volunteers at other obstacles should be sufficient. In Ashville, they didn’t check my bucket… no one was watching me at the rope climb (even though an employee was present, he wasn’t paying attention) and the ref WATCHING 2nd place didn’t notice his foot hitting the ground. 3 instances in the top 3, in a single race. I’m sure there were dozens more.

Lack of Drug testing. Aside from a very suspicious and last minute decision to test the Female world Champion at last years World Championship, I haven’t heard of anyone ever being tested at a Spartan Race. EVER. They should have independent Drug testing at every Championship Series, and World Championship race. Random testing at other events would be great too. Blood AND pee testing. C’mon people. This is the biggest example of Spartan putting more emphasis and care on making money than an iota of care on the future of the sport.

The philosophy of “random obstacles”. I was told by a Spartan employee that they strive to have randomized obstacles. I stood there incredulous. Really? For a sport that wants to put in a serious bid to be a part of the Olympics, this is crazy. Imagine a world where one athlete had to jump over hurdles that were 6 inches higher that the rest of the field. Or maybe we make Michael Phelps swim 51 meters, against a field who swims 50 meters. The comparisons are endless. Ultimately some measure of care needs to be taken to ensure obstacles lanes to be as similar as possible. I realize that we live in a natural world, where nothing will ever be identical, but it needs to be close. please.

Elite fields are too big. In any big sporting event at the “pro” level there is a qualifying process to be able to race. In triathlon its called a Pro card. In cycling its a pro license. Regardless, you can’t just show up, pay money and race. Id love to see this happen in OCR. If you can’t complete the race within 15% of the winners time, you shouldn’t be in the Pro category. In every Spartan race I’ve done, the Elite category has been filled up, weeks/months before the race. I’ve then had to get special permission to get into the race. For the top racers they should have no problems getting into the race if they belong there. I don’t want to seem like I’m putting others down by saying this, but the elite field needs to be much smaller. I’d like to see a max of 50-70 people in these categories.

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Burpees. The fact that they still have burpees and spear throws for the elite/pro field is surprising. It makes a farce of what could be a legitimate sport. Penalty loops on failable obstacles seem like the easiest answer, or Mandatory obstacle completion. Ditch the spear. Replace it with balance and agility based obstacles. Every other aspect of the race is repeatable challenging and awesome. Ditch these two.

Water stations. In Asheville, there was a 5 km stretch, up high on the mountain with no water station. This is dangerous and shows a lack of care was taken for the whole field. In hot climates and steep terrain, there NEEDS to be more water. This is a safety issue. Also, the volunteers should be filling the cups up.

I wrote this article not because I wanted to seem whiny, but because I really love this sport. What Spartan has done (ripping millions of people off the couch) is so awesome. I have spent thousands of hours and dedicated myself to be the best I can possibly be, because I believe in OCR. I think that the sport is at a tipping point where it’s either going to become a worldwide legitimized sport or fizzle out. Hopefully these sticking points can bring not only Spartan, but OCR as a whole to the next level.

Ryan Atkins
Caledon, Ontario

Matt B. Davis

is the host of the Obstacle Racing Media Podcast and the author of "Down and Dirty-The Essential Training Guide for Obstacle Races and Mud Runs". He is also the only (known) #wafflehouseelite obstacle racer.
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