Back to Bama: Saraland Spartan Super 2019
On March 16th of 2019, a slew of Spartans sauntered up to cold and windy registration lines at the Alabama Super in Saraland. This race was the first time Spartan had been back to the southern venue since 2016. It was also the second race in the Spartan National Series.
After Jacksonville, athletes expected another muddy slog, but may have been either pleasantly or not so pleasantly surprised. From raucous roots to a very well mapped spectator path athletes met many challenges and thrills at the 8.4 mile Super.
However, the amount of enjoyment of this race depended very much on preference.
The venue was quite different than past races in the sweet home state. The venue was clear cut recently by Spartan for the race and it was PAINFULLY (literally for many) obvious. Here is where one’s tolerance for “clean” trails comes in when judging the experience of running the Saraland Super. The festival area was a barren land of dust and roots, but did not compare to the stick stricken gauntlet that was the entire course of the Super. It was literally simply running through cut-over for 8.5 miles.
One can argue that it adds to the technicality of the course. One could argue that the course would have been far too fast without the added challenge. These are valid points. However, the bottom line is that sticks and stobs are not as fun as rocky downhills, mud, or truly technical terrain. Not to mention these stobs, straw, and random divots caused a few injuries. While the terrain wasn’t absolutely un-runnable or completely lacking in fun. Could it have been better? Yes.
On the flip side, the layout of the obstacles as well as the quality of said obstacles were great. Allowing the beginning of the race (a muddy barbed wire crawl followed by the new slippy slow down: Axis) to be viewable in the spectator area was a great idea. Competitors then traveled back into the trails to immediately run into the spear throw followed by Twister. However, many people were not happy with the addition of the tennis balls to the ends of the spears for elites and age group as it caused balance to be thrown off. Twister was set up nicely, but still claimed the burpees of many.
What felt less like trail running and more like a continuous slog through broken sticks and dust eventually led competitors to many fan-favorite obstacles. There is no point in explaining the basics and a course map is available for the detail meticulous. What is important to note is the modifications to fan favorites from last year as well as the new additions and how they fared.
Olympus was slightly harder, yet easier for 2019. It has added height as well as a quite steeper incline. This increases the difficulty of gaining footing and doesn’t allow competitors to rely on resting their grip using their legs. However, ball grips were placed on the end of the chains which makes them much easier to hold onto. Now if your hand slips down the chain it will just hit the ball. For people like me who prefer the chain grips in order to gain leverage and rely on grip, this makes Olympus easier to handle (if my shoes aren’t caked in mud. I’m looking at you Jacksonville.
The first of the new obstacles of 2019 racers faced and spectators were able to view was Axis. Axis is quite interesting to me in that it looks simple until you get on it. Created from slick steel like Spartans other bar obstacles, Axis is a menagerie of different sized grips and footholds of rectangular and cylindrical bars. The trick is that some of these are easy to reach. Some are not. Some are too small. Some are covered in plexiglass and you ARE NOT ALLOWED to touch the top.
Plenty of elites did anyway, but this was partially due to not enough repetition of rules by volunteers. Axis is easy to deal with if you take your time and make sure to keep good footing as tempting as it is to go fast. Placing this obstacle after the muddy barbwire crawl was quite brilliant on Spartan’s part. I also loved that spectators got a great view.
After mud mounds, Herc hoist, stairway to Sparta and other fan faves, competitors got to face down “The Box. The Box: otherwise known as the 8 foot box, also known as the slick brick. It is NOT like an 8-foot wall. The box is made of a completely different type of material which, when wet and muddy, is super slick. You can forget performing any type of ninja warrior skip on this bad boy and forget grabbing a lip at the top, BUT there is one handy little addition- ropes.
Don’t expect to just climb or walk up it like a slip wall though because unless you can get your upper body on top of the box and grab that handy little bar you will just be hanging. That sweet silver bar is your saving grace. If you are on the short side, your best bet is to jump and simultaneously jerk your body upward and attempt to throw an elbow up onto the top of the box, Many competitors made it over and many burpeed out, but the lack of the UNENDING mud in Jacksonville made it not quite so daunting. This time around.
Last but not least was Beater. For those of you who haven’t seen it, Beater is simply a set of monkey bars with a few multiple bars on cylinders which rotate with the swinger’s momentum. Think “egg beater.” As long as you keep your momentum going and utilize hip movement much like on normal monkey bars, flying through beater is a breeze. Placed at the end of the race before the rig, beater was visible by spectators and sure to rattle the nerves of many Spartans. Beater is a new nifty challenge for Spartans. Once figured out, it is a lot of fun. Fun is an important aspect of OCR and an aspect Spartan has been lacking in the obstacle department for some time. It’s nice to see Spartan at least attempting to be innovative this year.
The Festival and Registration
Registration didn’t go super smooth like a buttered baby bottom. However, it didn’t go nearly as slow or wonky as it did in Jacksonville either. I feel like Spartan is working out the kinks in their process and hopefully with the next few races will have those lines moving faster than a cat on a hot tin roof. The Spectator area for the race was the best I’ve seen at any Spartan Race ever. Spartan has definitely improved in this area by giving spectators an up-close view of the competitive races as well as the ability to get superb footage of their loved ones.
There still wasn’t much to do in the festival area especially for kids (aside from the kids’ race which was also well put together). It is an improvement from last year, but yet again most racers left immediately after finishing. No one is going to stick around for a ten dollar carton of hastily prepared food.
Spartans come to run, and they come for the camaraderie. Spartan has to give them something to do and a reason to stick around and spend money on merchandise and food. Otherwise, they are just going to all go hang out somewhere else. It’s only natural. Pull up contests to win free t-shirts only go so far. Spartans festivals are.. meh… but they are in desperate need of some pageantry in order to keep the masses around and returning.
All in all Spartan Saraland was a nice little saunter in the south. It was nice to have one a bit closer. It was nice to see an improved course. It was awesome to know spectators actually had something to watch. I just wish I could say the same for the terrain, venue, and the festival. When Spartan does something right it does it really well. No one can usually top them for grit, competitive waves, challenge, and attracting the masochistic masses of weekend warriors with the clout they’ve gained over the years.
However, there are still aspects which quite frankly can be done better. I hope to see Spartan continue to improve in these areas. I have seen them evolve over the years and adjust. They usually stick to who they are at the core and I find that admirable. I’m just ready to see what Spartan can truly be once all of the kinks have been worked out.
If Saraland happens in 2020. I would run it again. I would also recommend it to any who wanted to run a Spartan. I especially recommend it to first timers looking for a flat course, but I hope that Spartan learns that simply clear cutting land and saying “here, run this.” is a bit below their level of expertise by now. Adios and Aroo! I wish you many great races ahead.