The first time I ran the Spartan Sprint in Calgary was in 2012. It turned out to be my first ever timed race; it was my gateway drug into OCR… Yada… Yada… This was my 5th time at this venue, and you’d think it would get old, but this race just evolved. Zero reference to Pokemon Go.
The Calgary race venue is at a motocross circuit in an industrial park, located just a few minutes from downtown Calgary and the world famous Calgary Stampede grounds. It seems an odd location, being so close to downtown, but it works. The festival area and parking can be quite muddy so prepare your spectators with appropriate footwear!
Such proximity to civilization means that the venue presents a sandbox in which the Western Canadian Spartan Race team can build and create without too many natural limitations. However, using such a closed environment also means that there is little in the way of natural obstacles or significant elevation gain to incorporate into the course; most of that stuff has to be worked out, planned, simulated, brought in and concentrated to achieve an experience that is worth getting bruised and muddy for.
Did they achieve that? Absolutely. You could skip to the end of this review now and just know that this was the most challenging Spartan Sprint in the history of the race in Calgary, but please read on to hear how they achieved such a great race this year.
The experience of launching off the first high ledge of the Calgary Spartan Sprint is much like climbing into a washing machine spin cycle filled with mud, water, barbed wire and fire, and from the very first deep pool of mud to the finish line the action didn’t let up for one second.
FAST AND FURIOUS
So one design triumph is using the terrain. What the course lacks in elevation, it gained in speed and variety this year. Running with the elite heat, it felt like I was on a self-propelled roller-coaster ride, hurtling towards multiple hairpin corners, over wooden log ramps, down short but steep descents, and back up over the speed-way which was full of whoops, gap jumps, double and triple jumps. In a departure from previous races on the course, additional challenges were created by making us cross the racetrack multiple times, rather than running directly on it. The hard direction changes and multiple rapid level changes kept things very interesting.
WET WET WET
Underfoot, water was plentiful and also used strategically. It’s a simple tool, but it works. Long wades and huge levels of ground saturation meant that there was never an opportunity to settle into a true running pace. Every step was devilishly muddy and rutted, meaning that every opportunity to open up the throttle was met with some kind of punishing situation involving a pool of water.
IN WITH THE NEW
Obstacles were well spaced and strategically organized. For example, the sandbag carry took place on a long wall ride section, and the bucket carry (which was new for Calgary this year) was a short, but took place on an exceptionally steep drop off. Climbing up was a difficult grunt. I was also happy to see the atlas carry finally make an appearance in Calgary, tucked into the first 2 kilometers of the race. Maybe more significantly, this was the first year of the Western Canada Spartan series to feature a multi-rig, which was placed right after the rolling mud – and as intended, I slid right off the second ring because of the mud. People with better grip strength, or the foresight to tackle the obstacle with dry hands did very well.
A similar tactic was used by placing the rope climb almost immediately after what was a very muddy and cold barbed wire obstacle crawl. Let’s talk about the rope… Mainly because I failed that too. The ropes used in western Canada must be among the most challenging of all: this rope is a 1 inch double braided polyester flat surfaced rope, which I will be purchasing very shortly from eBay for practice purposes. Elites must climb an un-knotted version, while open heat runners can take the slightly easier knotted route. I’ve never failed a rope climb until today, but I ate another 30 burpees there. I have no complaints though. We have to embrace and love the challenges! Volunteers were expertly placed and well invested in adjudicating the obstacles.
SOME THING(S) HAD TO GIVE
The only real weak point to the whole race was the barbed wire crawl. The design of the crawl was superb from a technical standpoint (I LOVED IT), forcing Spartans to crawl between crossed spears and hay bales, but it only really allowed two channels of people to crawl through at one time. This resulted in the only real bottleneck of the race later in the open heats.
THE ALCHEMY OF DESIGN
The course designers at the Calgary race were sending a message: rapidly changing conditions, mud, water and careful course design can create a significant mess of anyone’s training plan, and that even without massive amounts of elevation gain it is possible to create something from nothing.
As a result of the design changes this year, overall pace was slower. Just as a reference point, I have run Calgary in an open heat and taken just 34 minutes. Today, the course design elements meant that it took the elite winner just under 36 minutes, while I clocked in at about 50 minutes. That time differential points to a paradigm shift in the design of the Calgary race this year.
This was a great revision of the Calgary Sprint; the race wasn’t bad before, but simple design touches had a great effect on the overall feel and success of the event. It was a reinvention of sorts, resulting in the best race Calgary has seen since Spartan began here.
Whatever happens, I’m glad to see the Spartan Race is keeping things fresh in my part of the world. Aroo!