Alot has happened over the last couple of years, with some big life changing events that left little time for adventure & racing and sadly this blog! However for the 4th time now its Spartan Race that has brought be back to thinking about what’s next, hence putting pen (keys) to paper (screen) once again.
First of all lets set the scene with a taster from Windsor 2017 –
Background– Why Spartan Race is for me?
I stopped racing motorbikes in 2009, and had a few years in the doldrums. Life was good, but without that bigger reason to train my physical fitness really slipped, and with that my mental attitude followed. But I needed that ‘carrot’ ahead to make big life changes.
It was actually Karl Allsop’s (current UK Race Director) fault that I discovered Spartan long before he worked for them. Via an image share on FaceBook i saw while he was packing for a ‘Death Race’ in America. He had all the standard endurance event gear for a race but also a massive log splitting axe. I wondered what on earth kind of event he was going to that needed an axe….. but it seriously grabbed my interest!
Spartan Race was formed off the back of the iconic Death Race, itself an organic event that grew as a brain child of Joe De Sena. Joe then wanted to expand the feeling these top 1% elite athletes got from the event so that everyone could get a taste. This was before OCR was even a thing, before Park Run had really taken a hold to motivate people to get off the couch. And he launched a number of races – the Sprint (5km), Super (8 mile) and iconic Beast (13+ Miles) Obstacle races – with a lifestyle brand wrapped around it that made it all mean something bigger than just a muddy run.
From inception these races were designed for all of us. The elite would have a competitive wave and be timed, rankings, podiums, trophies and everyone else would have the challenge to just finish (and of course enjoy themselves!) The sport currently draws 40% female entries – and I’ve personally seen racers of all ages, all abilities, from wounded veterans to people recovering from major surgery and illness.
For me personally, struggling to finish my first sprint, led to a complete lifestyle change. I lost 2 stone in weight, became fitter, faster, leaner, stronger than ever before, and mentally became my old confident and competent self. My wife came with me on my fitness journey and it became a huge part of our lives and still is.
I had a blip in late 2014/15 where I was diagnosed with COPD and poor (60%) lung function. My dreams of elite podiums slipped away me leaving me a little lost – but that year Spartan launched their World Championship race in Lake Tahoe, and top ten elite finishers around the world could qualify and earn a Spartan Coin. I had to have one, and spent the year adapting my training around diagnosis to gain a top ten finish & eventually earn one and go race in the US. Spartan gave me a new goal and that was awesome.
Skip forward to 2017 and a rough year again for my family, I was unsure what to focus on, and Spartan launched the Agoge and Hurricane Heats in the UK. A new focus was born for me that was just in grasp with the type of training I was able to fit in. (I’ll write more about these events in a separate blog) and the type of event that I felt I was strong at.
And now, after being a bit distant from the sport with other priorities I’ve just got off the phone with Karl I and have to say my blood is pumping for the 2018 UK season and the sport I love. There are some VERY exciting things entering the sport this year.
I’d like to touch on one thing. Joe De Sena has set a goal to get Spartan Race at the Olympics. People have scoffed at this goal in the past, most companies are just after making a buck from getting people muddy. But Spartan Race is not, they have been on a continuous improvement cycle year on year to make the courses consistent, develop the sport and have an approved rule book to ensure it’s a respected as a sport. And on the Olympics aspiration, ill quote a military sniper school saying “aim small, miss small”. By setting his vision that high, Joe is moving the sport forward in a way that’s good for all of us.
I’ve crossed paths with Karl multiple times in the last 6 years, from his involvement in racing, to endurance events he ran (Primal Events – On Trial) and the recent years running a consistent UK team at Spartan. Speaking with him you can hear his passion for the sport, the balance of having an operationally smooth event, with the challenge of catering for elite Pro racers and fun runner alike. All the while maintaining Joe’s vision and global standards yet still listening to UK racers views.
Some say Spartan is this big multinational corporation that’s steamed into OCR, and I have to say that it’s not at all, it’s been integral to OCR’s growth from the offset, to making it more professional but more importantly the team running it are UK, home grown racers themselves. It’s a small community of staff with faces that are all known to us and are all very approachable. Speaking of which, this is how my call went :-
So Karl, good to speak with you! Spartan Race UK is returning to Aston, I’ve heard the numbers are good 5000 runners??
Hi Luke, yes that’s right. Aston is in fact our fastest growing event, year 1 we had around 1000 entries, year 2 that doubled to 2-2.5K and introduced the first Hurricane Heat, and this year its doubled again to 5k expected over the two days!
What is it about the Aston venue that stands out?
Spartan is about the unexpected, and Aston’s approach is totally that. You drive onto an airfield, its flat! No obvious elevation. But it’s after that race start that everything changes. It’s a wolf in sheep’s clothing!! A real unknown as you enter the aptly named ‘death valley’ and realise the huge distance and elevation you are going to be covering in a really small footprint. We purposely have made that section obstacle dense, and as you leave the valley, heading up to bucket brigade you can look back and know that you really accomplished something down there. It’s neat, and it’s that feeling that drives the awesome feedback we get from racers. The accomplishment is what Spartan is all about.
(Luke – in 2017 Karl’s team used the tape to map out the letters of AROO (battle cry of the 300) as the course on the side of one hill. Many runners didn’t notice it until the drone footage came out. Geeky fact if you check the venue on Google Map now you can still see it!)
I’ve heard we are seeing some new hardware at Aston?
Yes indeed, we’ve seen a big refresh for this event. Something the build team and I are excited about, but it’s going to be great for the racers. We have a new Herc Hoist (Luke – racers pull a rope to lift a weight via a pulley and then return it to earth slowly), new A frames, Multi-rig, Monkey bars which have seen an extension. There’s more branding, and the build quality you can expect at Spartan.
What about water? (as a swimmer I’ve always loved the open water swim sections to gain advantage!)
We have a water crossing at Aston, however full open swimming adds some logistical & safety challenges. It’s also actually quite a concern for people coming to enjoy the race who can’t swim. It’s off putting. Likewise the costs of safety with a deep water crossing would draw funds away from other options that improve the course overall for everyone.
That said If you REALLY want to get submerged in the water, come to the Hurricane Heat as you will certainly be getting wet there [Karl sniggers]
(Luke – I can testify to doing a round of PT with rucksack in the shallows for an age in 2017, as night fell….. brutal)
Speaking of the Hurricane Heat…?
Aston is where we launched the UK’s first 4hr Hurricane Heat. These expand the portfolio of what we do. You can live the Spartan ethos via the Trifecta races, but the endurance events allow us to have more time with racers, and take it to something else. The have also changed the dynamic for race weekends as we have added camping, and it joins the weekend up really nicely for those that want a big challenge.
Ps – We have both Hurricane distances on at Aston, if you are curious come down on Friday night to see the 4hr get underway from festival. Or be in festival early Sunday to watch the 12hr team come in. It’s inspiring!
(Luke – I’m going to cover Hurricane Heats in a second Blog up shortly, as it deserves its own report. However I will add that they are the type of event that underpin the Spartan values and give every racer something else to try)
You mention the improved Festival area?
Yes, absolutely, and it’s something we are really focusing on for 2018. With Hurricanes we have started to include Camping and we are working on making the whole weekend an event for people. A real social / community scene with plenty going on. In fact I’m always after ideas that racers want – if you see me over the weekend and have some ideas just shout! There will always be music, good food, drink – but we are looking at what else we can include.
Sounds like a busy weekend for the Spartan staff!
For sure, but we follow what we preach, the warrior ethos, the team spirit keeps us all on mission. It’s what we are about and have a great operational plan to deliver both distance Hurricanes, a Super and Sprint race over the weekend!
A topic I’ve been vocal about before, as has the community, is cheating especially with prize money and result tables to think about…
I’m pleased to say Spartan Race UK are taking the sport forward a step this season. We have cameras at each burpee station (Luke – at Spartan if you fail an obstacle you get a 30 chest to deck Burpee penalty) we ARE counting Burpees – and also form. Chest to deck, feet need to leave the ground, arms above the head.
This year we have a race official in charge of policing this for the competitive waves. We review footage on site, can check for any protests and in the days after the event our official will review every-single-burpee. That’s right, every one, from the competitive waves – and penalties will be retro applied where needed.
Cheating can sometimes be down to rule ambiguity, or at least that’s the excuse I hear a lot!
Agreed. Hence we have a rule book, and it’s in the timing tent at each race. The rules are revised as we watch the racers and what they get up to and evolve it over time. But this makes it simple, and we are ensuring the rule book is sent out to racers, and we will have signs repeating the basics of each obstacle as you approach them.
So no kicking the bells?
No, that’s a flat no now Luke, I know you like to do it! It’s a safety issue pure and simple. As is the bucket brigade (Luke – brutal carry of a big bucket filled with gravel) they can no longer be put on a shoulder. Its carry only. This kind of thing we want to make clear to everyone. Of course we are reliant on integrity of racers in places, but we are making it less of a thing for racers to worry about.
Technique / physical demo of right & wrong can help understanding I think?
Our Official will be in festival area, people can come see them and demo / practice their burpees. Ask the questions – again that’s all part of the community / festival vibe we are working on.
You mentioned the competitive waves, how is that working in 2018?
We have two options this year. The Elite wave as it’s always been, full on racing. This is the overall podium. However for this year we have taken the step to split Male and Female races. So we have two starts for the first time.
We have been watching races over the years and many of the ladies battling for podium can get held up with the guys and that’s never seemed fair.
(Luke – I can contest to this, I used to run around top ten pace but often ran with the podium ladies and saw the frustrations they had at times battling for lanes / space at the sharp end of their race. It’s AWESOME that Spartan are making this change)
Then we have the Age Category wave – also split male / female. And this wave is focused on ranking you with your age category only. So you are racing like for like. It means the racers who are older, like you Luke 😉 , don’t only have the option to keep up with the young spritely racing snakes in the Elite wave but you have a relative to age race going on also. And we have podium medals for these categories.
Speaking of Ladies – I heard Spartan is seeing 40% of entries are female, that’s amazing.
It is, and shows how inclusive the sport is. What we would like to see however is more Elite ladies. The split starts have really shown us the numbers are lower there than we thought.
(Luke – personally I find that an exciting place to be for female racers. Now’s the time to push yourself up to Elite and give it a crack! I’ll be sharing this news with all the fast ladies I know!)
And you still have the global rankings?
We do – and our age categories are aligned globally so you see the same groupings wherever you run a Spartan.
What’s going to be pushing the Elites as Aston?
Totally depends on how people have trained, but the new hardware changes may catch people out. Also the weights will. The Herc hoist is going up a gear, and without proper technique that can be a burpee maker (Luke I saw this in Scotland 2015, many of the front Elites got burpees – the indignation! I’ll confess to not getting it done at the World Champs in 2015 also)
People ARE getting stronger though so we need to keep pushing them. We’ve had feedback about the weights, yet as the years pass people adapt and get used to them – so they need to increase. Its adds something to peoples training back home too to get used to weight.
And then, away from the competitive waves we have the Open Waves?
Yes, now I’ll be clear on this – Age Cat and Elite – they follow the same rules this year. To the letter. Hence the officials and cameras. However we are an inclusive sport as I’ve said. The Marshals are also instructed to ensure the Open waves have fun, and have empathy with were the runners are at. Spartan is not about humiliation it’s about encouragement – that’s our driving force.
Yes the Burpee penalty is set for ALL racers – 30 chest to deck, but the marshals have the ability to split that up for groups or improvise – and really keep the racers enjoying their experience whilst keeping it meaningful and true.
This must be a challenge for Spartan – keeping the Elites racing hard but keep everyone else smiling?
It is in part yes, however like anything competition drives operations forward. The gain we see from optimizing the course route everyone benefits from.
Our obstacles aren’t just put out randomly, we have a plan. We think about what tests runners, but also calculate the throughput on each obstacle, every one gains from that.
So is Spartan Race still a race for everyone?
Absolutely. Spartan are a life package – wellness and mindfulness. With the right approach anyone can finish a Sprint if they focus on it (Luke – average Open sprint pace is around 1.5hrs). And that accomplishment, the question is – how do you then carry that from race day into day to day life into work, into private life take forward a Spartan mindset.
A big tradition of ours is to get the whole team to the finish line to support the last runners over the line and get a cheer. It’s a great feeling, – warrior ethos – no one gets left behind.
(Luke – I’ve witnessed this many times and it’s so cool. I’ve finished a different endurance event before near the end of the day and there was literally no one at the finish. No medals left, no drink – they had started to pack up – it was an anti-climax for me. I respect the UK team for doing this.)
What about queues – can you ever fully remove them?
Being realistic – no. We do our very best with the course, however we can’t determine wave behaviour, that’s the big variable. Unknown to us a whole wave could decide to run together as a big herd, and that would completely throw out the flow on the course. But we have a good handle on getting things close over the years.
The planning that goes into the course, the obstacles sequence takes a huge amount of planning. To manage capacity on the course, volumes, the throughput is really thought about.
And a quick word on your awesome volunteers
Where would we be without these guys, they are brilliant. And what’s great is with the program we have mainly racers taking these roles. People that are enthusiastic and help motivate people to finish the course – it’s just what you need when the going is tough, to see 2-3 people cheering you on to get it done and best of all – enjoy it!
And the element Spartan is renowned for – the finisher rewards!
Everyone that finishes the race will get a quality 2018 Medal, and our new Black Technical Tee Shirt. And for the first time in the UK we will issue male and female cuts – something the ladies have really been keen for in the past!
Finisher tee’s are a marmite conversation to get perfect as everyone loves something different, this year we have gone for Tech following racer feedback.
New for this year however we have also launched our exclusive event limited edition event shirts too. These are really cool, and they will never repeat, so you can have the free Tech Tee then pick up a coloured one off casual shirt to have also.
And the other goodies?
As ever we will have post-race fitness snacks – Vita Coca are coming on board this year and there will be beer at the finish line for those that want it!
Thanks for your time Karl, and I guess ….AROO!
See you at Aston!!
I wanted to close this blog by saying I’m very excited about the direction the sport is taking. Policing burpees has been a hot topic for years and Spartan are onto it. They are removing ambiguity with the rule book and launching split sex races which means the Ladies scene is really going to see a boost I think. They have reinvested in refreshing their hardware and numbers of entries have really grown – Its exciting times.
I’ll be at Aston, and hopefully the other remaining rounds so hopefully I’ll see you there.
If you are thinking about booking and have questions feel free to ask on this Blog or shout a DM via Twitter / Instagram both are @LukeLawrenceOCR, please don’t be shy. Spartan Race has much to offer all of us.
To see more, and book an event please visit www.spartanrace.uk
**25% off Discount Code**
If you fancy booking a race please use this code – SPARTANLUKE – to get yourself 25% off any race!
Remaining Spartan Race UK Races –
Spartan South-west – 23/24 June:
- Aston Down, Aston Down Airfield, Gloucestershire GL6 8HR
Spartan Midlands – 14/15 July:
- Marston Lodge, Marston Trussell, Market Harborough, Northamptonshire LE16 9TT
Spartan Scotland – 15/16 September:
- Kinnoull Hill & Deuchny Woods, South Inch, Perth PH2 8AX
Spartan Windsor – 6/7 October:
- Rapley Farm, Bracknell Road, Bagshot, Berkshire GU19 5PN
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