By Pete Williams
MIAMI – To see the current edition of the Super Spartan Race, it’s hard to believe it’s the same event that appeared here at the Oleta River State Park just two years ago.
That race was tough, but Spartan Race has dialed it up a notch to attract mostly hardcore athletes, creating a punishing, ass-kicking course over 8.5 miles, moving the date from mid-February to mid-April to add to the degree of difficulty with increased South Florida heat.
But the biggest difference is the window dressing. Two years ago, Spartan came across as just another fledgling endurance sports operation. There was little branding, lame black T-shirts that looked like 1980s concert rags, little sponsorship other than a cheesy “Dial for Men” partnership, and post-race refreshment that consisted of half a banana and a Dixie cup of tap water.
What a difference Reebok sponsorship, private equity investment, and the relentless drive of Spartan founder Joe De Sena can make. Saturday’s event was blanketed with black-and-red Reebok Spartan branding, from wind flags to obstacles wrapped in signage to literally miles of Spartan Race barrier tape lining the running paths throughout Oleta’s slash pine forests.
Throw in a tent city of sponsors, sharp fitted T-shirts, post-race refreshment that included the Core Power recovery drink, full bananas, and Clif Builder bars (a sponsorship that apparently has been swiped from arch rival Tough Mudder) and Spartan now comes across as a big-time endurance sports property.
But what makes the event is what Spartan is not. De Sena, an accomplished endurance athlete himself, has worked to distance his event from teamwork-style mud runs and the type of Fear Factor-style obstacles that Tough Mudder provides.
That means no water slides, plank jumps, claustrophobia-inducing tunnels, or electroshock. Just a relentless parade of ass-kicking, back-wrenching, cramp-inducing physical assaults that weeds out all but the most well-prepared athletes. Then there’s the mandatory 30-Burpee penalty for failing to complete any obstacle successfully.
There’s a tendency to say Spartan is more CrossFittish than other obstacle events. But we don’t know of too many CrossFit boxes that require 8.5 miles of running a month, let alone a day. No obstacle event better combines running, strength, and endurance demands.
We’ve done about 40 obstacle races and can’t recall ever seeing so many people doubled over with cramps. Spartan upped the number of water stops to four for this race, but we were glad we raced for the first time ever with a Camelbak hydration system. By the time our wave left at 10:15 it already was 80 degrees. Even with a course that included miles of shaded running in the woods, that was tough.
Though not as brutal as the obstacles, which seemed to be laid out in increasing order of difficulty. The first few miles were familiar — a half-mile slog through waist-deep water, a 30-yard swim (lifeguards, tow ropes, and life jackets available for those in need), monkey bars (interesting wrinkle with nets instead of bars, which were easier to grasp but tougher on the hands), and plenty of wooden walls.
After a twisting, meandering 5K trail stretch with a few obstacle breaks, the real punishment began. There was an up-and-downhill five-gallon bucket of gravel carry for 100 yards that left many competitors struggling in frustration. (The key was not to stop, suffering through the pain. Once you stop, it’s tough to pick the bucket back up.) This was followed shortly by Spartan’s 80-pound concrete boulder carry (slightly less for women), and another 100-yard carry, this time with sandbags. There was a dash across stumps that needed to be done American Ninja Warrior style to avoid a fall (and 30-Burpee penalty), the familiar horizontal pegboard crossing (which I’ve still never completed, 30 Burpees for me), and a new brutal tire drag-and-pull obstacle.
Spartan kept the sandbag hoist for mile seven and finished with the familiar gauntlet of final mile obstacles, including the spear throw (miss, 30 Burpees), rope climb, and barbwire mud crawl. There were no Spartan warriors wielding rubber mallets guarding the finish line, perhaps because athletes were so beaten down or because the novelty has grown tired.
Therein lies one of Spartan’s strengths — continually refreshing its product. Tough Mudder, forever switching locations and dates, held an event somewhere in the Everglades the same weekend. TM announced last week that it’s projecting $100 million for 2014 and we have no doubt that’s true, as its untimed, team-oriented marketing has proven successful. But Tough Mudder seems to constantly be searching for new obstacles as it tries to be all-inclusive, to say nothing of dealing with parking, traffic, and the out-of-the-way location issues.
De Sena doesn’t seem to care how challenging he makes things. Though he’ll never admit it, he does care about Tough Mudder, which explains how he’s out-Muddered them on the marketing front. He now has better sponsors, better T-shirts, and better headbands (you know a headband is cool when you see women wearing Spartan bands in the gym, unlike Tough Mudder’s garish orange headbands that only Curly Neal could appreciate).
How big has Spartan grown? The Miami event was only Spartan’s second-biggest event of the weekend, with thousands flocking to New York’s Citi Field for a second-annual Spartan Sprint at the home of the Mets. The trailer to the new 300 movie prequel is featured on the Spartan website.
Spartan, like a good retailer or real estate agent, has claimed the best real estate locations, whether it’s a gorgeous state park in the middle of Miami, Tampa’s Raymond James Stadium, or some of America’s finest baseball facilities.
We just wish Spartan hadn’t bailed on plans to hold a late-2014 Spartan Beast event at Little Everglades Ranch in Pasco County, just north of Tampa. Spartan apparently believed the obstacle market was too flooded to support another big obstacle event.
Maybe. Then again, Spartan is delivering more value than anyone in the category at this point. And it’s “Spartan Trifecta” challenge is growing in popularity. Athletes need to complete a Spartan Sprint (3 miles), a Super Spartan (8 to 10) and Spartan Beast (12 to 15) in a calendar year to complete the Trifecta. At each event, athletes get a medal and a second pie-shaped magnetized metal third (left) that with the other two form the Spartan trifecta.
Florida athletes who have completed the Special Ops Spartan Sprint in Tampa in February and this weekend’s Super Spartan at Oleta River must venture to South Carolina in October (or further) to complete a Beast and a trifecta. That might not have looked very attractive a year ago.
But Spartan not only has created a worthy challenge. It’s made it worth the trip.
(See other Spartan Race reviews HERE)