Spartan Race Meets Special Ops

By Pete Williams

Workers construct a barbwire crawl the length of the Raymond James football field.

Workers construct a barbwire crawl the length of the Raymond James football field.

TAMPA – The latest incarnation of the Reebok Spartan Race will have a distinctive military feel. Tomorrow’s  “Spartan Sprint Special Ops 2014,” held at Raymond James Stadium here not far from U.S. Special Operations Command, will include appearances from top military brass, paratroopers, military equipment from private collections, and a few badass special operators for whom competing will be something of a light workout.

For all of the talk about how obstacle mud runs mimic military training, the Spartan Race might be the one that comes closest to delivering. Joe De Sena, who debuted the Spartan Race in 2010, sees the event as a fierce competition with stiff penalties (30 burpees) for any obstacle not completed and worthy of the tradition of King Leonidas and his legendary band of 300.

That tends to scare away the type of corporate team-building groups that Tough Mudder and other untimed events draw. Which explains why Spartan is expecting a relatively modest 6,000 competitors to attend the most conveniently-located obstacle race ever held in Florida, smack dab in the middle of Tampa at the home of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on a morning when the New York Yankees will open Derek Jeter’s final spring training across the street.

An athlete prepares for the spear throw for tomorrow's Spartan Race, part of which takes place in the shadow of Steinbrenner Field.

An athlete prepares for the spear throw for tomorrow’s Spartan Race, part of which takes place in the shadow of Steinbrenner Field.

Spartan Race has staged events at several baseball facilities, including Boston’s Fenway Park, New York’s Citi Field, and Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia. Those races, though well attended, had more of a CrossFit Games feel to them since Spartan could not tear up the fields and was mostly limited to staging inside the stadiums.

That meant lots of climbing grandstands and running along concrete concourses. There will be some of that at Raymond James tomorrow – the first race at an NFL facility – as athletes will navigate three of the four concrete ramps and tackle challenges on two concourse levels, part of an 18-obstacle course spread over 3.5 miles. (Though a pedestrian overpass connects the property to the Yankees spring training home at Steinbrenner Field, the Bronx Bombers’ first workout made it impossible to make the Spartan Race a baseball-football affair.)

Much of the race will take place outside in the grassy parking lots north of Raymond James Stadium, including Spartan’s signature gauntlet of race-ending obstacles, including the spear throw, rope climb, and final dash past mallet-wielding Spartans. With grass removed from the stadium for the winter, Spartan was able to construct a barbwire mud crawl the length of the football field.

All of which makes the Tampa race something of a hybrid event for Spartan, closer to a traditional Spartan Race than the in-stadium baseball events, and more of a military-style competition.

Not your usual concourse obstacles at a Bucs game.

Not your usual concourse obstacles at a Bucs game.

Two years ago, U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM), based at Tampa’s Macdill Air Force Base, began looking to work with an event that might rival the Marine Corps Marathon. Though there’s no official relationship between SOCOM and Spartan Race, there’s some interaction.

Col. Tim Nye, a recently-retired SOCOM public affairs officer, now serves as Spartan’s military liaison officer and is helping plan races near other U.S. military bases.

“People are making a connection between obstacle races and the military in terms of health, fitness, and teamwork and that’s good,” Nye said today, overlooking the field as workers applied the finishing touches. “But with the proliferation of events, the question becomes what qualifies you to put on a race like this? Can you put it on and push people without breaking them? There’s a need in the industry for some standardization and the military is all about what the standards are and following them.”

Spartan athletes must scale a rope and ring a bell -- or face a 30-burpee penalty.

Spartan athletes must scale a rope and ring a bell — or face a 30-burpee penalty.

Spartan Race has come a long way since we tackled our first Spartan event at a paintball facility in Northern Virginia in June of 2011. Back then, it was a bare-bones, truly spartan affair lacking the window dressing of a major traveling national production. As recently as April 2012, Spartan’s biggest sponsor was Dial for Men (deodorant), which gave events a cheesy “Meet the Spartans” vibe.

These days, the Vermont-based Spartan Race has private equity backing, major corporate sponsors such as Reebok, an ambitious worldwide schedule of events at multiple distances, an NBC Sports television special, and an upcoming book. Driving it all has been DeSena, 45, who made a fortune on Wall Street, once completed a dozen Ironman triathlons in one year, and has made no secret of his desire to get Americans off the couch and his distaste for rival Tough Mudder’s untimed, non-competitive format. He bristles as the phrase “mud run,” viewing obstacle racing as a sport worthy of inclusion in the Olympics. (Indeed, with the exception of the barbwire crawl and a possible fall from the rope climb, there’s no mud in tomorrow’s affair.)

This all-steel depiction of two soldiers by Tampa artist Dominique Martinez will be on display at the race.

This all-steel depiction of two soldiers by Tampa artist Dominique Martinez will be on display at the race.

This morning, Spartan set up shop in the shadow of the Yankees and Buccaneers, two of the wealthiest franchises in sports. Dozens of workers wore red and black Spartan gear, blending in with the Raymond James and Buccaneers branding.

The workers rolled out chain link fencing and Reebok Spartan-branded signage, set up a huge Spartan souvenir tent, and prepared for both 6,000 Spartans and De Sena’s latest aggressive push into the world of professional sports.