Spartan Race returns to the Canadian Rockies.
KIMBERLEY, BRITISH COLUMBIA
6 months ago (or thereabouts) Race Director Johnny Waite was scouting the location for this race on a snowmobile. Back then, temperatures could have been as low as -31ºF. Now, it’s mid-July and in this part of Canada, it can be almost as hot as Southern California.
This a place of uncompromising toughness; a landscape in which only nature’s toughest endure – the grizzly bear, the moose, even the goddamn wolverine. It’s under those conditions that Spartan Race Canada delivered one of the toughest events ever.
The Sprint, for example, was an intense 9 kilometer trip up and straight back down the mountain in scorching temperatures. The Spartan Super, at 16 kilometers, had more elevation gain than most of the mountains in the Canadian Rockies. The Beast and Ultrabeast were among the hardest courses based on distance and climbing ever devised for a Spartan Race. I have stats to prove that claim but forget all that. Instead, let’s just say that 4 hours into the race I used a volunteer’s phone to send this text to my wife.
Let me break it down for you in terms you might appreciate. This was Spartan Beast that was so steep that I will unashamedly admit to finding and using someone’s lost ski poles to help me climb the hill. This was a race weekend where I watched a fellow elite heat racer give up on racing and begin desperately foraging for berries on the hillside for energy mid-race. “Oh boy, that was hard” doesn’t even begin to describe it.
The standard set of obstacles were in play on each day of the event and if you’re interested you will find maps and lists here. If you are familiar with Spartan Races, you will instantly know what to expect – obstacles like the Tyrolean traverse, the sandbag carry, and the bucket carry etc. Spartan Race Canada tried something new this year, and attempted to include an innovative wreck bag push obstacle. That idea was unfortunately reduced to 5 wreck bag clean and jerks by Spartan Race Corporate. It was still cool, but it is a real shame that Spartan Race Canada doesn’t have full autonomy over what to include.
One of my favorite obstacles on the Beast was the sled pull, and this one was set up on a slight incline making it extra difficult (still got it though). The Platinum rig was all decked out with various levels of rings that required careful planning and that 90 degree single arm lock to complete (yup, failed that one). I also succumbed to the Z wall, as a foothold block was really out of reach for my stubby legs and a leg cramp made it ugly (you know one of those ones around the corner?) It’s a frustrating one to fail but such is life.
The climbing was brutal.
For the Beast, we ascended ski run after ski run before heading back down to the main fire road to connect to the next climb. One final climb put us up onto the top of Vimy Ridge, and apparently, the views of the valley were spectacular, but my legs were so beaten down that sightseeing was the last thing on my mind. The course eventually began to drop into the resort area with the final quad busting descent through the desert-like dust of the North Star ski run. Apart from a thrilling mountain bike switchback trail (which was probably the highlight of the race for me), there were few sections of the race where it was possible to actually run – instead, it was mainly hiking. Obstacles were spaced pretty evenly and there were 9 well-stocked water stations along the way. Despite that fact scuffles and misunderstandings over water allowances marred the day for some on Saturday’s Beast and Ultrabeast.
Mud and water were conspicuous by their absence – a technical challenge posed by the limitations of the location was given as the reason for this. On that subject, (not that we often drink water on course) if you intend to run the Spartan weekend at Kimberley, a hydration pack should be strongly considered.
It is possible you should also take fuel with you unless you are really good at picking saskatoon berries quickly! You should expect high temperatures, and you should definitely expect to run low on water or to need some hydration between stations. Many people I saw out there were very unprepared for fuel and water. You can see more about the effect of temperature and exercise here with additional guidance here and here to determine how much water you will need. Google it and ask someone who knows what they are talking about. Test and repeat before race day.
Back to my race… As I crested the top of the ridge, I took a reading from my watch. I had gained 1980 meters or 6496 feet over the 15 kilometers I had covered so far. Yeah, it was steep. Eventually, I saw myself slip back further and further into the middle and then the back of the elite pack, slowing to a hobble and finally a walk. This didn’t suit me well, and my pride was dented pretty hard when my legs couldn’t keep up with my ego. I was failing at something I usually did OK at. The finale of the race was a downhill barbed wire crawl, the spear throw, bucket carry, slip wall and finally the fire jump.
I was done.
It was a strange feeling for me to walk into the finishing area feeling like I hadn’t enjoyed myself. I almost feel ashamed of myself for thinking that, but most of the time was spent wanting the whole thing to be over. My own pride and lack of preparation were my own problems for sure and I can’t blame everything on “problems with the course.” Many people came more prepared than I was and had a far better experience out there, however, I felt a little better about it when I realized that it wasn’t just me who had a rough day on the mountain. It was steep. Very steep. So steep in fact that it became difficult to enjoy for quite a few people. The scale of the task ahead of people was massive. Racers who finished all three events for the weekend had covered a total distance of 46 kilometers and accumulated a total elevation gain of 4200 m or 13780 feet! A massive congratulations to everyone who made it!
But there were enough people who had problems that Spartan Race Canada took note.
“This is why I’ll never run Spartan again” – Some random
“This is why people say, “never again” and actually mean it”.
– another anon
Or even simply, “Eff Johnny”
– quite a few people actually.
Despite this vocal group of people, 94% of people who started the beast course actually finished, while 45% of those who started the Ultrabeast finished. This is just about right for the difficulty level Spartan are aiming for, but the question for me remains on will be how many finishers and non finishers will return for more next year?
How many will feel like they don’t want to go through this again? How do we ensure volunteers don’t end up making up their own rules about water allowance and obstacle safety? For the open heat and first time racers, do the memories of the suffering fade and get replaced with the desire to conquer the event next year? If things do change, do we then feel more shortchanged if the event isn’t as hard next year? And what was that log drag obstacle about exactly?
Johnny reached out to me to discuss these things, so we went Live on the Facebook feed for Obstacle Racing Media.
As it turns out Johnny approached the issues people had with the race in a very contrite and considered way, answering questions for almost an hour. He took full responsibility for the problems with the course design, and promising changes – but at the same time took steps towards reshaping expectations about what a championship weekend would look like.
What’s clear is that Spartan Race Canada (and Johnny Waite himself) has things to learn in this new venue and he seems eager to go about applying the feedback provided by the participants to form a better race for everyone. I don’t think we as consumers should form a committee to decide how a race should set up.
In fact, we need to apply a little bit of the STFU principle and find ourselves in all the suffering, etc. We (I myself) HAVE to be more prepared in order to enjoy these tougher ones. A Beast at an alpine ski resort should be difficult for everyone – both professional athlete and first-time participant should expect to be tested and we should be prepared to leave it all out there on the course – otherwise what accomplishment is there?
Despite that Spartan Race Canada can improve with constructive feedback, I’m full of ideas (mainly ideas I have stolen from other smarter people). My recommendations for Spartan Race Canada and participants in the event are detailed below.
Glenn’s ideas on how to make a truly incredible OCR experience:
(and stolen ideas that I have claimed full credit for).
- We’re getting better at obstacles and some of these are getting stale. Focus on making more unique and novel experiences – push Spartan Race Corporate to get those innovative new obstacles approved. I still have a blueprint for a pegboard traverse… that would make a sick obstacle.
- Bring back some mud – look to the past races for elements that gave joy and entertainment to participants and spectators – as we discussed, mud and dirt is still part of the experience.
- Water obstacles add dynamic elements to an otherwise ordinary race. Water obstacles (even without mud) add that much needed cooling element for summer races. We need a dunk wall. A wade pool. A water slip wall. I found myself almost wishing for an arctic enema ice pool on Saturday.
- Photography. Part of our identity as Spartan Racers is tied up in that image of us, muddied but determined. Quality, timely photography makes us feel awesome about ourselves and proves our accomplishments. This was much improved at Kimberley over Red Deer!
- Create sections that are exhilarating to complete – obstacle couplets, multiple walls, balance beams, narrow singletrack, weaving through tight tree sections, creating simple level changes, swinging obstacles, direction changes, climbing, rope descents and natural obstacles all stand up well in any race.
- Continue to support volunteers with things they need to perform the tasks set for them. Specifically offer shelter from the elements, written instructions and explicit rules regarding water provision and obstacle safety.
- You probably don’t need to film burpees for anyone outside of the top 15 runners.
In conclusion, it’s fairly obvious that a race doesn’t just have to be harder to be better. A truly incredible and epic race involves a strategy of variety and laying the groundwork for racers to experience adventure, competition and memorable moments in a balance worth coming back for. If Spartan Race Canada can adjust that balance next year, I think it will be a classic.
For this race, in particular, I should add that we should celebrate our volunteers who spent many hours in the heat and sun to ensure we could participate safely in this event.
I also want to congratulate the effort put in by our top athletes who showed tremendous courage, effort and stamina to battle extremely hard on one of the toughest Spartan Race weekends ever. Our Elite racing group sometimes don’t get acknowledged enough for the hours and hours of hard work they put in to compete in places like this. You should all be very proud of yourselves.
Finally, for this one I think we can all celebrate crossing that finish line, or hell, even stepping up towards it. Until next year.
Photo credit: Spartan Race Canada.