“You will be: timed, ranked, judged”. This is the motto that has been infamously touted on signs at the entrance to Spartan Race venues in the past; a motto that has held this race series in a class of its own among countless other obstacle course races and mud fun runs that seem to be springing up overnight. A sign warning all participants that Spartan races are
competitive, not just for the elites, but for every single one of us who steps up to the muddy starting line. Spartan Races were designed to test the physical and mental toughness of all participants, regardless of age, gender, or fitness level. At any given time during an event, Spartan Race founder Joe DeSena might be found on the course yelling at participants to move faster and push harder, reminding them that this is a race, and not a hike through the woods.
For the weekend warrior, there are alternative obstacle course races that offer a mud run experience. An experience that often includes long lines at obstacles, the option to skip over parts that push you outside of your comfort zone, and a party atmosphere. However, the reputation that precedes the Spartan Race is exactly that, a race, an uncomfortable challenge, and not simply the “experience” that is provided their competitors.
As an avid obstacle course racer, this competitive edge and high standard of racing is what I have come to expect, and love, from the Spartan Race group. Today I am highly disappointed to report that, for the first time ever, Spartan Race did not meet these expectations.
The 2013 Reebok Spartan Sprint at Citi Field was held on April 13th in New York City, at the home of the Major League baseball team, the New York Mets. After a successful time trial race at Fenway Park during the fall of 2012, Reebok Spartan Race has created a Stadium Series that will cover four ballparks for the 2013 race season. As one may imagine, the logistics of an obstacle course race inside of a baseball stadium are vastly different from the muddy, wooded trails that are often synonymous with Spartan racing. However, despite the lack of terrain, mud, water, and fire, the Spartan race directors still brought a fantastic physical challenge.
The three mile course began in staggered waves, with 15 racers starting every minute or so. The stadium series takes many of the obstacles Spartan Race is known for, alters many of them for the venue, and adds in many new challenges. On the course at Citi Field, participants took on the usual over, under, and through walls, rope climb, Herculean hoist, sandbag carry, and spear toss. Added in were functional training style exercises that had to be completed by repetition and/or time. Slam ball tosses, heavy jump rope, box jumps, and hand release pushups were among the fitness challenge obstacles. A 500 meter row on an air rowing machine was to be completed in two minutes or less. In true Spartan-mental-toughness style, racers saw their required distance decrease on the screen as they rowed, with absolutely no reference to time. Once you completed your 500 meters, you were shown one of two messages on the screen: “AROO” with a congratulations indicating you had completed the task, or “BURPEES”, meaning you didn’t make the two minute cutoff, and must do your burpee penalty.
There were changes in some of the more familiar Spartan Race obstacles as well. The cargo net climb was now made of webbed straps instead of rope. Earlier in the day, the Traverse Wall was reportedly using removable pegs that the racer must move from hole to hole for their hand grips (by the time we made it to the traverse as the 11:15 am heat, all but one wall had the original block hand grabs). The traditional monkey bars had been replaced with opposing single hand, smaller, bars that rotate when grabbed. The degree of tautness varied, but you didn’t know until the bar started spinning in your palm. Word from Spartan Race staff was that racers and volunteers had renamed this obstacle “burpee bars”, as most people failed this obstacle and had to do their penalty 30 burpees.
Lines form at rowing obstacles
Covering three miles without leaving the confines of Citi Field meant only one thing: stairs, and lots of them. At many points during the race participants were running up and down large access stairways, as well as the actual stadium stairs and rows after rows of seats. And this, from the very beginning, is where I realized this would not be a race for time. I had a very hard time passing the crowds of people who chose to walk up the stairs, or even on the flat rows of seating. Being a race rule follower, I felt it wasn’t appropriate to jump “off course” to try and pass these people. Numerous times I yelled to runners ahead of me “hey guys, mind if I pass?” to which I almost always received zero response.
And it was fortunate for my internal competitive drive that I resigned the idea of a fast race early on, because as it turns out, everyone I was able to pass would eventually catch up to me in the massive lines we had to stand in at the obstacles. The lines at the rowing machines were at least 2-3 people deep, resulting in at least a 5 minute or more delay. I encountered a line of about 8 ladies ahead of me at the rope climb (fortunately, there was a minimal line for the men’s rope, without the knots, so after impatiently waiting a few minutes on the women’s side, volunteers let me ascend a men’s rope instead). There was a wait for the atlas carry, congestion at the sandbag and water jug carries, and the stairwell for the Hobie Hop. The worst offender however, was the traverse wall and spear throw. After rounding a corner in a hallway deep within Citi field, I came to a bottleneck at an exit door to a parking lot. So much of a crowd, those of us towards the back had no idea what was going on ahead. The ten to fifteen minute (at minimum) wait for my turn at the traverse wall made me very happy I had my long sleeve shirt still tied around my waist to keep me warm from the unexpected premature cool down. After finally completing the traverse wall, we waited in another line for at least 5 or more minutes. Volunteers told us we were welcome to skip the wait and obstacles all together, do the penalty burpees instead, and be on our way. In my honest opinion, that should never be an option. Spartan Races are about the obstacles and challenges. A 5k race with intermittent burpees thrown in is not what any of us signed up for.
I am overcome with mixed emotions coming out of the Reebok Spartan Race at Citi Field. The course itself was fun, and I imagine without the crowds, would have been very challenging. I thought the organization and execution was excellent, and that the race directors and staff had done a great job at bringing the Spartan Race series to a non-traditional OCR setting. Packet pickup was easy, the atmosphere was amazing; with live feed from the course on the massive big screens, and great music. There were plenty of restrooms, a large merchandise table with plenty of the new Reebok Spartan gear, and baseball style food concessions. And the race specific medals were a nice touch, one I’m happy to have in my collection.
The number one problem, that in my opinion completely ruined my race experience, was the overcrowding on course. As a fitness professional, my dream is to see everyone on this planet become physically active, and have fun doing so. As an obstacle course racer, I am happy to see a sport that means so much to me become so wildly popular. As an athlete who likes to challenge herself, and who has come to expect a certain standard of race quality from Spartan Race, I was highly disappointed.
Looking at the numbers between the Fenway park race and the Citi Field race show a staggering difference. The Fenway race, which was considered a huge success by numerous racers and staff, had a total of 5,579 finishers spread out over both Saturday and Sunday, according to Spartanrace.com. The Citi Field race had 10,038 finishers, and the race was only held on Saturday. That is almost double the number of participants, over the course of one day instead of two.
Being that this is a new venture for the Spartan Race series, and only their second attempt at a ballpark stadium race, I will give them the benefit of the doubt, and hope that the overcrowding situation will not become a regular occurrence. Otherwise, the only thing I “will know at the finish line” is that this experience felt more like every other generic OCR on the circuit and not the immense challenge I’ve grown to love.
Heather Gannoe is the woman behind RelentlessForwardCommotion and one of our favorite people. (No, really, we mean it!)
Photos courtesy of Spartan Race and Amanda Ricciardi.