Tag Archives: Spartan Race

Ready to Spartan Up?

By Pete Williams

SpartanUpCoverWe already knew Joe DeSena was a legendary endurance sports badass, the guy who did 12 Ironmans in one year and who in a one-week span conquered the Vermont 100, Lake Placid Ironman, and Badwater. We knew a decade ago he created the Death Race, the no-set-time-limit event that brought a couple hundred athletes to Vermont for three or four consecutive days of mental and physical pounding, as well as the more accessible and widespread Spartan Race, now a worldwide series.

What we didn’t know was how DeSena got there. And while his just-published book Spartan Up is an effective get-off-your-ass, cut-the-crap, don’t-be-normal motivational book, it’s at its best as a memoir.

Who knew, for instance, that DeSena made his first fortune – he made his second on Wall Street – building swimming pools for anyone in New York’s five families of organized crime looking to take a dip? (His childhood next-door neighbor belonged to the Bonnano crime family.) Who knew that DeSena responded to rejection from Cornell University by showing up on campus in Ithaca every day until they eventually let him in? Or that he met his future wife in the transition of a triathlon, following her out on the run while still in a wetsuit? Or that he lost a casino bet to his future wife, a former Penn State soccer captain, after three weeks of dating and has a tattoo to show for it? Or that he nearly lost his left leg in a 2003 car accident?

SpartanMiami6We knew DeSena, now 45, was a little different in June 2011. That’s when we showed up to compete in a fledgling operation called The Spartan Race, which was putting an event on at a paintball field in Northern Virginia. Just three miles, it was an ass kicker with all of the now-signatures lifts, climbs, carries, spear throws, 30-burpee penalties, and challenges tailor-made to the course (getting shot at by a paintball sniper, having to hit a target with a paintball gun or do 30 burpees). Back then, DeSena stationed hecklers at obstacles (Dude, you’re not really wearing Spandex?) and patrolled the course himself doling out encouragement or grief as needed. We’ve since done three more, including two Miami Super Spartans, and training for a Spartan Beast in October.

It took DeSena and Spartan a while to distance themselves from more well-heeled events that drew bigger crowds to what are glorified Woodstock events with running. These days, it’s Spartan Race with private equity investment, national sponsors, and a loyal group of hardcore followers looking to push their bodies by overcoming the unforeseen as opposed to the paint-by-numbers racing of marathon, triathlon, and themed runs.

SpartanMiami4Therein lies the core message of DeSena’s book: Challenge yourself. Suffer. Deal with the unexpected. Get uncomfortable. Change your frame of reference. Doing 12 Ironman triathlons in one year seemed simple since he already had done eight 10-day endurance events. Push yourself through one unforeseen obstacle after another and you’ll no longer pitch a fit over the stresses of ordinary life.

DeSena has made no secret of his disdain for other races, though his competitors are not listed by name in Spartan Up. “Each (Spartan) obstacle includes an athletic element, a requirement for all of our courses,” he writes. “We don’t shock people with electric wires or place obstacles designed purely for a cheap thrill. We run competitions, not an amusement park.”

Spartan Up also is a pretty good parenting guide. DeSena hates helicopter parenting, trophies for showing up, and fast food. (He gives props to Whole Foods and Chipotle.) Think your kid is a badass? “I was walking in the mountains of Vermont with three of my kids, ages four to seven,” DeSena writes, “and near the four-hour mark, they started complaining.”

SpartanMiami3No whining, kids. Spartan Up! DeSena uses the story to illustrate a point. If the kids were accustomed to hiking eight hours, four hours wouldn’t be such a big deal. His sons, ages 7 and 5, speak fluent Mandarin Chinese because the DeSenas insist that their kids speak two languages. His four-year-old daughter has done sets of 300 burpees.

DeSena gives some training tips – apparently that will be the focus of his already in-the-works next book – but the biggest advice is to get off the couch and Spartan Up already.

SpartanMiami2“The use of our body is a privilege, one that millions of people forget, neglect and forfeit,” he writes. “Too many forget what enjoying life really means. And before they know it, carpe diem, Latin for seize the day, turns into mea culpa. Latin for my bad.”

DeSena has been offering $25 Spartan Race discounts to anyone who buys the book, which makes the book a freebie. I’ve done dozens of obstacle races and the Spartans were the only ones I considered quitting. But I Spartaned Up. “Nothing tops the feeling of continuing when you feel like giving up,” DeSena writes.  “It changes everything, because it recalibrates your frame of reference.”

Listen to our Fitness Buff Radio Show interview with Joe DeSena HERE.

Super Spartan Miami – Raising the Bar (April 12, 2014)

By Pete Williams

SpartanMiami6MIAMI – 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.

SpartanMiami3Throw 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.

SpartanMiami4There’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.

SpartanMiami5After 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.

SpartanMiamiTherein 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.

SpartanMiami2Spartan, 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.

SpartanMiami7Maybe. 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)

MLB All-Star Game Program Features Spartan Race

By Pete Williams

Spartan Race at Fenway Park (Photo Courtesy Nuvision Action Image)

Spartan Race at Fenway Park (Photo Courtesy Nuvision Action Image)

We recently wrote a story on Spartan Race partnering with Major League Baseball to stage Spartan Sprint races at MLB ballparks. What began last November with a Spartan Sprint at Boston’s Fenway Park has grown into a series with events at New York’s Citi Field, Milwaukee’s Miller Park, and Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia.

You can read that story by clicking here: SpartanASG

Obstacle Fit Profiles Spartan Fenway Park

By Pete Williams

spartan-fenway-sunday-promo-154We recently wrote a story for Major League Baseball’s Insiders Club magazine on Spartan Race staging events at MLB ballparks. (Click on MLBSpartanRace for details).

Spartan hosted its first ballpark event in November at Boston’s Fenway Park. On April 13, Spartan will visit New York’s Citi Field, home of the New York Mets and the 2013 All-Star Game. On Aug. 31, Spartan will host an event at Philadelphia’s Citizens Bank Park, home of the Phillies, and return to Fenway Park on Nov. 16.

Each event is a Spartan Sprint, roughly three miles, and takes athletes through the ballparks in time trial fashion. Unlike typical Spartan races, which feature mud and water obstacles, the ballpark events focus more on dry challenges. That’s because the baseball teams do not want their fields torn apart. Still, participants at the Boston event in November raved about the experience and the degree of difficulty.

You can read the MLB Insiders Club story here: MLBSpartanRace

The Ever-Changing Obstacle Course Racing Fee

By Pete Williams

IMG_6862One of the more puzzling, and at times frustrating, aspects of obstacle racing is figuring out the actual price to do a race.

There’s the race entry fee, which can vary by 50 percent depending on when you sign up. This isn’t much different than triathlon or road racing, however.

But then there are assorted other add-on fees unique to obstacle racing that at times leave athletes feeling like they’re buying a car – or at least a plane ticket. There’s parking, which almost always is $10 per vehicle. There’s the insurance fee ($10 to $14), which increasingly is broken out as a separate charge. And then there are Groupon and Living Social deals, sometimes last minute, that annoy those who signed up earlier for a larger fee.

One frustrated athlete posted the following on our EnduranceSportsFlorida website in response to a comment by Sam Abbitt, race director for the Savage Race.

Here’s Abbitt’s original comment:

“I do agree that the daily deals like Living Social and Groupon are TERRIBLE for the sport. They are bad for organizers, bad for participants, and generally make for an extremely watered-down event where the only people making any money are the daily deal providers. Participants should remember that they are going to get what they pay for. If you want a great race for the money, come try Savage Race. Yes it costs more than some other events, but we make it worth it. We focus on producing the best event experience possible for our participants – not on the lowest possible price.”

Here’s the reader’s response:

“Funny, I just signed up for a Savage Race and I got a different perspective. In the future I may only do it again if I get a Groupon or LivingSocial discount. (I just search the Internet and found Savage Race is offering a LivingSocial deal for one of their races). Their regular $79 or higher entry fee quickly increases with additional mandatory fees: $12 for insurance, $7 or $8 processing fee, $10 for parking out in the country. Funny how they feel it is appropriate to basically (add) on their cost of doing business as additional fees to their prices. How would you like it if when you checked out at Wal-mart they added a parking fee, an insurance fee, a credit card fee, and a cost of having a building fee? They have those costs, but they are factored into their prices. They like to treat their customers with respect instead of trying to game them into paying more. Why not just make the price the total price, so you don’t leave your customers feeling tricked or taken advantage of with all the “additional fees?” And you wonder why people go for Groupons? Because if you don’t you feel like an even bigger sucker after you see them offered and you already paid full price plus all the fees. Just my two cents…”

Abbitt’s response:

“Thanks for the message. Below is my response to your points.

1. Parking fees, insurance fees, processing, etc: Yes we charge for this stuff. We have to. These a-la-carte fees are legitimate costs that we have to pass on to the participant. If you want the kind of obstacles that we shell out the big bucks to build, that money has to come from somewhere. Our courses cost hundreds of thousands, our insurance is expensive, and we pay a big premium to get the best venues too. There are certainly less expensive events out there. We don’t pretend to be the cheapest. You compare us to Wal-Mart in your comment. We’re not the Wal-Mart of obstacle races.

SavageWall2. We don’t “game” people into paying more. In fact, we are very forthcoming about the cost of our events on our website. Look on our event page. It’s all there. Not to mention that the fees we charge are all pretty much industry standard stuff when you compare us to other events in our class.

3. We recently ran a Living Social offer in a new market. Living Social has changed their marketing format since I made my original post. They are now more willing to work with vendors and will negotiate deals that do not require race producers to LOSE money on sales. I did say that I would never use them before, but they’ve changed the way they do business so that it makes sense for us. Things change. The important thing is that we are able to manage it without ruining the integrity of our events because we don’t have the funds to finance a decent race.

Your analysis is unfair.

I think that this only fair comparison for our business is the event industry, not retail, where margins are often 100% or greater. More specifically, take a look at the obstacle racing industry.

Event Industry Overview

1) Almost all major events sold via online platforms with credit cards have to charge a processing fee. Look at sporting events, concerts, marathons, triathlons, and other major obstacle races. In this space, it’s an expectation of the customer to pay a fee like this. We are not dishonest about it. It’s plainly listed on our website and the fees are presented prior to purchase.

2) Most events have to charge for parking too. Look to major players in the categories I listed above and see what they are charging.

Savage20123) Insurance fees are unique to our industry. The major players in obstacle racing all charge for this, with the exception of Warrior Dash. Warrior Dash has smaller obstacles and presumably do not have to deal with the same insurance rates we have to pay. They do, however charge $20 for parking last I check. (Editor’s Note: Warrior Dash did advertise a $20 parking fee prior to its Florida event last month, but charged $10.) I’m guessing they do this to offset insurance cost. Again, the insurance fee is plainly listed just below our pricing schedule so that the customer may consider that when making the purchase.

4) Living Social deals are kind of a scary thing for promoters. Usually they are loss leaders, and the hope is that they will encourage their friends to come later. I’m opposed to using them in general, but sometimes it is necessary to kick off a buzz in a new market. The fair thing to do with a Living Social deal is to offer it EARLY so that people don’t feel like they are getting swindled later as you describe. We have only tried Living Social ONE TIME as a test, and we did not wait until the 11th hour to send it. Were you personally affected by our Living Social deal?

I think your characterization of our company is unfair. We are extremely customer oriented, and I take great pride in being an honest person and in creating a product that provides tremendous value to our customers. We do things like send out random thank you gifts to our loyal customers ALL THE TIME.

I’m sorry if you dislike our pricing structure, and we don’t really have the influence to rewrite those rules.

Just as an FYI, here’s a breakdown of some of the major obstacle race players pricing schedule as of this month:

Tough Mudder

Entry $95-180
Parking $10 to $20 depending on venue
Insurance $15
Processing 7.125%

Spartan Race

Entry $95-145
Parking – $10
Insurance – $14
Processing – 9.5%

Savage Race

Entry $79-109 (Florida)
Parking – $10 disclosed on site
Insurance – $12 disclosed on site
Fee – 5%+3 visible at checkout”

(End of Abbitt’s response)

HeroScaffoldFor many athletes, it’s not the cost of an obstacle race entry fee (which is significant), but all of the add-on costs as outlined above. The one many take issue with is parking. Would you be surprised to learn that obstacle races pay, at most, $30,000 to rent property for a weekend event that could gross in excess of $1 million? (In the case of Tough Mudder; most events gross far less.) In effect, they’re more than covering their rent money with parking.

I’ve never been to a triathlon that charged for parking, though a lot of triathlons have five-figure costs associated with shutting down roads. Triathlons take care of insurance costs by paying a nominal fee to USA Triathlon, which in turn requires all participating athletes to be USAT members. Obstacle racing does not have a governing body to provide similar insurance. We can see a day when there might be such an organization, but it’s hard to imagine an insurance provider offering coverage across the board the way USA Triathlon does for tris or USA Track and Field does for road racing. (The USATF insurance coverage specifically forbids obstacles in any USATF-sanctioned race.)

Hey, more power to obstacle races for, in effect, boosting income by breaking out the charges. It’s what the market will bear. We’re certainly not picking on Savage Race; they don’t do anything differently from Tough Mudder, Spartan Race, Warrior Dash, and everyone else.

DavyJonesStill, we’re betting that obstacle racing is soon going to become a buyer’s market, at least judging by the increasing number of Living Social deals we’re seeing, even from the likes of established tours such as Spartan Race and Rugged Maniac. A cottage industry has sprung up with obstacle-related websites partnering with races to offer coupon codes. The races kick back money to the sites each time the code is used.

With so many discount codes floating around, nobody ever expects to pay full price for an obstacle race no matter how early they register. As a result, the race directors break out more and more of the costs to make the base price look lower. It’s an endless cycle, one that gets more confusing all the time.

At the very least, this will be good for the customer. With no end to the number of events, nobody can sustain attendance and that will mean more competition for athletes. Perhaps they might even start providing free post-race refreshments like triathlons and road races.

Warrior Dash drew 9,000 to Lake Wales, Fla., last month, which was about the same as last year. But Warrior offered deep discounts early and presumably made less money. Dirty Girl drew a modest 2,000 or so to Dade City last weekend for its Florida debut. We’re wondering how Tough Mudder will do with three Florida events in 2013 when it had just one Florida event in 2012 – and that was just in December.

We’re bullish on obstacle racing, of course. But we’re also guessing the winners in this ever-competitive field will be the ones who provide the best value. And that likely will include slashing some of the add-on charges, including them in one lower base rate.



Today’s Workout – February 15, 2013

By Pete Williams

With baseball spring training camps opening this week, we thought it would be appropriate to have a baseball-themed workout today.

Granted, there’s nothing particularly strenuous about baseball spring training. But we can use a local baseball diamond to craft a terrific Obstacle Fit workout. Here’s how:

Head out to the grassy outfield for a Core warmup of lateral lunges (10 per side), knee hugs (10 per side), and backward lunges with a twist (10 per side).

Lateral lunge

Lateral lunge


Next, find one of the dugout benches and alternate between sets of 10 pushups and 10 dips, followed by 8 pushups and 8 dips. Then do sets of 6, 4, and 2.

Now head out to the left field foul pole. If your field does not have foul poles, then walk out to the left field corner. Sprint across the outfield to the right field foul pole (or where one would be). Drop and do 10 Burpees. Run at a slower pace back to the left field foul pole, drop and do 10 Burpees. Sprint back to the right field pole and do 10 Burpees.

Park bench pushups

Park bench pushups

Go back to the bench for another set of 10-8-6-4-2 dips. Then repeat the foul pole Burpee routine.

Continue workout for a total of 30, 45, or 60 minutes depending on where you are with your training.

This workout might be especially appropriate for Spartan Race, which this year will be hosting events at Citi Field, home of the New York Mets, and Citizens Bank Park, home of the Philadelphia Phillies.


Spartan Woman: Geishel Valverde

By Corrie Seabrook

Geishel Valverde moves quickly through the ice plunge.

Geishel Valverde moves quickly through the ice plunge.

Geishel Valverde believes she’s changing lives through obstacle racing – including her own – as a high-profile obstacle competitor and race manager of the upcoming Florida Super Spartan Race in Miami.

Valverde, a 34-year-old Nicaragua native who came to Miami at the age of 7, competed in cross country and track in high school, but set racing aside during her college years. She has worked for 13 years as a paralegal in the title insurance field, handling both residential and commercial properties.

Seeking a release from the drudgery of legal work, along with weightlifting routines that had become monotonous, Valverde began looking for something different. These days, she challenges herself through bootcamps, road and mountain biking, and boxing/kickboxing.

GeishelValverde2But what really piqued her interest was obstacle racing. She picked up an old pair of Nike Shox ill-suited for obstacle racing and competed in the first Spartan Race in South Florida in 2010. Her feet throbbed, but she was hooked. She had discovered a passion, immediately adjusting her nutrition and changing her workouts to continually shock her body to create the peak performance she needed to race competitively. In just seven months, she emerged with a new, lean, 5-foot-1 figure, dropping from 125 pounds to 107.

“I didn’t just do it for myself,” says Valverde, whose first name is pronounced “Giselle.” “I did it to motivate people to make a positive change in their lives and get out of their comfort zones.”

Valverde competed in the 2011 Muddy Buddy at Zoo Miami dressed as Wonder Woman and won the coed division. Last spring she became something of a breakout star of Florida obstacle racing. She raced in the competitive waves of Spartan Race at Oleta River State Park in Miami, finishing fourth. She was the second female finisher at the Tarzan’s Cup in Miami. At the Savage Race in Clermont in March, she took a time penalty for not swimming an obstacle but still managed to place in her age group

GeishelValverde3One of her constant fears is the water, having almost drowned as a kid. “One of my biggest challenges is conquering this fear,” she says. “By doing obstacle races, I confront this fear and feel a sense of living again. Every time I compete it’s a step closer to overcoming this daunting fear.”

She competes in both local and national races and gives back to the community by getting involved in 5K charity road races. With her chiseled physique, photographers have taken notice and she has appeared in ads for upcoming races.

Given her passion for obstacle racing, it was only a matter of time before she took on a more prominent role. She became the race manager for Spartan Race’s upcoming event in Miami on Feb. 23-24. She also created a Saturday trail run called EATA (Extreme All-Terrain Athletes) formed by her Team EATA.

GeishelValverdeThese trail runs were to introduce people to obstacle racing and provide training partners to those already racing. Now it is open to the community, to build friendships and generate motivation, as they perform circuit training and run the trails. “It’s a healthy addiction,” she says. “Our new friends have learned to love trail running and feel a sense of accomplishment whether they run for fun or training to compete. Either way, they keep coming back every Saturday.”

When asked for advice on training for a Spartan Race, Valverde suggests to “go have fun on your first race and live the experience. Just remember how you feel when you cross the finish line. At that moment you will realize if you did it for a sense of accomplishment or to compete.” She’s happy to refer people to gyms that host Spartan Race training.

Valverde, a self-described fitness fanatic, also enjoys photography and the arts. She hopes to expand her role with Spartan Race into additional marketing and public relations work, further marking her passion her work.

“I started doing it for fun,” she says. “It became a passion and now it’s a focus.”

Corrie Seabrook is a writer for ObstacleFit.com

Spartan Race Goes Big Time with Reebok

By Pete Williams

Photos courtesy Spartan Race/Nuvision Action Image

Photos courtesy Spartan Race/Nuvision Action Image

For much of the last year, Spartan Race founder Joe De Sena has argued that obstacle course racing is a legitimate sport for competitive athletes, not a casual mud run experience for the masses.

He’s bristled at his competitor Tough Mudder, scoffing at its untimed events and wondering why Tough Mudder has landed big-time sponsors such as Under Armour and EAS while Spartan – named Outside Magazine’s Best Obstacle Race of 2012 – has settled for lower-tier brands. This despite the feeling among many avid racers that Spartan is the most challenging event in the fastest-growing segment of endurance sports.

This morning De Sena, a Queens native who made his fortune on Wall Street, used the world’s biggest media market to promote obstacle racing and announce a multi-year deal between Spartan Race and shoe manufacturer Reebok. The agreement was announced prior to a traffic-stopping Spartan Race event in Times Square.

TXSprint2011The partnership includes title sponsorship, which makes the event now the Reebok Spartan Race. The race will be featured in the brand’s upcoming marketing campaign and Reebok will develop a range of products created for the demands of obstacle racing. The line will be available in the fall.

The deal should raise the profile of obstacle course racing, but we’re surprised De Sena gave up title sponsorship. This is, after all, the Spartan Race, and it’s tough to imagine King Leonidas giving someone else top billing. CrossFit, which has partnered with Reebok and has embraced obstacle racing – even though its mostly anaerobic, non-running program isn’t necessarily the best preparation – has resisted being called anything but CrossFit.

We wonder, too, what will happen if the deal is not extended once it ends. Will Spartan go the way of Muddy Buddy or even Ironman, with a new title sponsor every three years?

SROW_CM_6707For now, it beats having “Dial for Men” banners plastered at Spartan Race events, which was the case last year, with the soap sponsor giving the events a cheesy “Meet the Spartans” vibe. Then again, it wasn’t that long ago when Reebok was synonymous with leg warmers and step aerobics. Not exactly the badass, barbarian feel we’ve grown accustomed to from Spartan Race.

Under Armour, Tough Mudder’s partner, seems like a better fit with obstacle racing. But we’re guessing the Reebok/Spartan deal is more comprehensive and certainly more lucrative. Reebok once was considered a challenger to Nike, but since its purchase by adidas in 2005 often has seemed like a forgotten subsidiary. The Spartan deal might do as much for Reebok as it will for De Sena’s business, which is probably what the adidas folks had in mind.

Whatever the impact, it speaks volumes about how quickly De Sena, a legendary endurance athlete himself, has grown his brand. What began as a small, under-the-radar event called the Death Race in the hills of Vermont in 2005 expanded into the Spartan Race series in 2010, growing to 35 events last year and 60 this year.

spartan-fenway-sunday-promo-150De Sena financed the growth himself until August, when Boston’s Raptor Consumer Partners, a growth equity firm, invested in his business. Spartan does not reveal its finances, but De Sena said last fall that “we’re right there” when asked to compare Spartan to Tough Mudder’s stated 2012 revenue of $70 million.

Lost in the Reebok deal news was the formal announcement of a Spartan Race event April 13 at New York’s Citi Field, home of the New York Mets. Spartan drew rave reviews from the 8,000 athletes who competed in a November race at Boston’s Fenway Park. The “Tri-State NY Spartan Sprint at Citi Field,”  will consist of a three-mile course around Citi Field, which is adjacent to LaGuardia Airport.

De Sena has said Spartan is looking to do additional events in major sports venues. In November at Fenway Park, the storied home of the Boston Red Sox, athletes lugged 50-pound bags of sand through the outfield bleachers, jumped over barriers along the concourse level, hauled 35-gallon jugs of water up stairs near Gate D, navigated a cargo net wall constructed on the outfield warning track, and completed two dozen other obstacles.

spartan-fenway-sunday-promo-126Red Sox officials did not allow Spartan Race to alter the field, which meant there was no mud. Nor could athletes climb such famous landmarks as the Green Monster, the Pesky Pole, or even the wall scaled by a live teddy bear in the recent movie “Ted.”

Still, athletes raved about the Fenway experience. Veteran obstacle racers said it was at least as challenging as typical Spartan sprint-distance events. The event also attracted baseball fans who competed in their first obstacle races.

“To run up and down the Green Monster seats and carry a 50-60 pound sandbag on my back up the stadium steps at least 10 times was insane, but very cool,” said Ann Marie Sheridan, 33, who owns a personal training business in Newton, Mass. “Plus it brought up strong memories of going to the park as a kid with my dad.”

spartan-fenway-sunday-promo-70Citi Field, which opened in 2009, does not have the long history of the 100-year-old Fenway Park. Still, the event should draw well from the New York market. This morning, Spartan Race staged “The Spartan Race Times Square Challenge.” Athletes scaled a 7-foot wall, carry 75-pound sandbags, navigated a corrugated pipe full of icy water, and crawled through mud under barbwire.

Spartan Race generally is regarded as the most difficult of the many obstacle events that have emerged in the last three years. Spartan issues penalties of 30 Burpees to athletes who cannot complete obstacles. Unlike Tough Mudder and other untimed events that stress teamwork and camaraderie, Spartan is marketed as an individual competition and includes four distances: the 3-mile Spartan Sprint, the 8-plus mile Super Spartan, the 12-plus mile Spartan Beast, and the notorious Spartan Death Race, an untimed affair that last year lasted for 65 hours.

On April 13, the Mets will be in the midst of an 11-day roadtrip. The Mets and crosstown New York Yankees typically spend much of the first weeks of the season away since mid-April weather in the Northeast can be chilly.

spartan-fenway-sunday-promo-154De Sena, whose Spartan Death Race is considered among the toughest challenges in endurance sports, thrives on adding to the degree of difficulty and no doubt would prefer cooler temperatures. Starting at 8 a.m., waves of 200 athletes will be released every 15 minutes.

Registration for the Spartan event at Citi Field is $110 through Feb. 13 and escalates to $135. Spectators are free, but must reserve seats. And in an industry known for charging for parking, athletes will have the option of not paying to drive to Citi Field.

They can take the subway.

Read our coverage of the 2012 Miami Super Spartan Race HERE.

Read our coverage of the 2011 Spartan Death Race HERE.

Read our coverage of the 2011 Virginia Spartan Sprint HERE.

Listen to our 2/25/12 interview with Spartan Race founder Joe De Sena HERE.


Warrior Goes Long with Iron Warrior Dash (Dec. 20, 2012)

By Pete Williams

WarriorDashESF2(Published Dec. 20, 2012) – Warrior Dash, the first obstacle mud run to attract more than 10,000 participants to a single event, announced today a longer version of its popular entry-level 5K race. The move comes at a time when more athletes are shifting to Spartan Race, Tough Mudder and longer, more challenging obstacle events.

Touted as the “most intense obstacle race,” Iron Warrior Dash will debut March 13 in Smithville, Texas, which is between Houston, Austin, and San Antonio, and feature 26 obstacles spread over a course of “15 to 20 miles of ruthless terrain and best-in-class obstacles,” though the three announced events range from 15 to 15.6 miles.

The two other races will take place April 13 in Douglasville, Ga. (near Atlanta) and on Sept. 21 in Michigan. Though there are no Florida locations, a press release issued today promised additional venues to be announced in the spring. The April 13 event could steal some thunder from the Savage Race, which takes place the same day at Little Everglades Ranch, just north of Tampa in Pasco County.

In July of 2009, Chicago entrepreneur Joe Reynolds, then 29, debuted Warrior Dash, a 3-mile muddy obstacle race and raucous post-race party, giving finishers one free beer and a fuzzy viking hat that looked like something Fred Flintstone might wear.

WarriorDash2012Warrior Dash was an outgrowth of the Great Urban Race series Reynolds had created two years earlier after watching an episode of “The Amazing Race.” Warrior Dash has scaled more quickly and this year attracted more than 500,000 participants to 50 events in the United States, Canada, and Australia, accounting for most of the $65 million in revenue that Reynolds’ Red Frog Events will generate from entry fees and sponsor deals with Miller Coors, Reebok, and Monster Energy.

Though Warrior Dash, which returns to Lake Wales, Fla., on Feb. 2, is one of the shorter and easier obstacle races, it attracts an equal number of men and women, with an average age of 30. Most races, including Tough Mudder and Spartan Race, tilt 70 to 80 percent male.

“Being an attainable goal opens up us up to a very wide demographic,” Munirah McNeely, Warrior Dash’s chief innovation officer, told SportsBusiness Journal recently.  “It’s something for young people to do with friends other than just hanging out or going to a concert.”

Warrior Dash debuted eight months before Tough Mudder and 10 months before Spartan Race. Warrior is known for its smooth operations but has seen attendance at some events drop off this year as many obstacle racers seek greater challenges than the modest 5K Warrior Dash.

Tough Mudder, though plagued with traffic issues this fall at events in Maryland and here in Florida, has duplicated Warrior’s lively post-race party scene while providing a more challenging course of 10 to 12 miles, mocking Warrior Dash with a sign at the 3-mile mark reading “Warrior Dash Finish Line.”

WarriorDashGroupAt 15 to 15.6 miles, Iron Warrior will be comparable in distance to Tough Mudder and the Spartan Beast, the 15-mile version of Spartan Race. Entry fees, which range from $105 to $205, are similar to the other events.

Obstacle races have soared in popularity over the last 18 months, with dozens of new events created around the country, most at the entry-level 3-to-5 mile distance to attract the most participants. Since many of those people tend to be one-and-done, bucket-list, casual athletes who do it for the novelty, we feel the longer-term play is at the greater distance as obstacle racing develops into more of a competitive sport.

We’re guessing Warrior Dash, with its experience, bankroll, and legions of Millennial-aged employees who tirelessly work events, has the power to take on Tough Mudder and Spartan at the longer distance.

We’re also curious to see if the World Triathlon Corp., which always is aggressive in protecting its Ironman brand, will go after Red Frog for using Iron Warrior. WTC only has the trademark on Ironman as it pertains to triathlon, but always is aggressive pursuing anyone using Iron in the title of an endurance event.

Of course, that’s usually when a new promoter enters the game. It will be interesting to see if WTC is willing to take on someone its own size.

Then again, given the struggles of WTC this year and the success of Warrior Dash, Red Frog might have leaped over Ironman in terms of size.

(Read our review of the 2012 Warrior Dash at Lake Wales, Fla.)

An Interview with Tough Mudder Founder Will Dean (Sept. 18, 2012)

By Pete Williams

(Published Sept. 18, 2012) – We recently interviewed Tough Mudder founder Will Dean for a story on the growth of obstacle racing that will appear in next week’s edition of SportsBusiness Journal.

Running through fire at Tough Mudder Indiana/Illinois in June (Photos by Dmitry Gudkov)

Running through fire at Tough Mudder Indiana/Illinois in June (Photos by Dmitry Gudkov)

We spoke to more than a dozen people for that story. Dean talked at length about Tough Mudder and the future of this growing endurance sports category. Since only a few of those quotes were part of the SBJ story, we thought we’d include more of the interview here.

Dean, 31, might be the modern version of Fred Smith, the billionaire founder of FedEx who as a student at Yale in the early 1960s received little reaction from his professors after writing a paper proposing an overnight delivery service.

ToughMudderAZIn 2009, Dean’s Harvard Business School professors thought his project for an event that would become Tough Mudder was unrealistic. These days Dean, who once worked as a civilian counter-terrorism officer in Great Britain, heads up the hottest race property in the endurance world. This year the Brooklyn-based Tough Mudder will attract 470,000 participants to its 35 events  and generate $70 million, including six-figure deals with a dozen sponsors. Dean says revenue will double in 2013.

Tough Mudder, which only debuted in March of 2010, is not a race but a challenge. Athletes are encouraged to participate as a team in the 12-mile, off-road course, which includes obstacles that challenge the mind as much as the body. There are plenty of walls and ropes, but the event is best known for its dumpster of ice water, its electrically-charged gauntlet of wires, and its signature orange finisher’s headband.

Tough Mudder exploded at the same time Facebook became ubiquitous and that’s no coincidence. Dean says Tough Mudder has been Facebook’s No.1 advertiser, having spent millions on the social networking site. If you’ve spent any time on Facebook, you’ve no doubt seen pictures of muddy friends in their orange headbands. In many ways, Tough Mudder and its competitors such as Spartan Race and Warrior Dash have become the new triathlon, the Monday morning water cooler or Facebook bragging rights.

Crawling under charged wires in Colorado (Photos by Dmitry Gudkov)

Crawling under charged wires in Colorado (Photos by Dmitry Gudkov)

Tough Mudder, which debuted in Florida last year at Little Everglades Ranch in Pasco County near Tampa, returns to the Sunshine State Dec. 1-2 at the Hi Hat Ranch in Sarasota.

Here’s our interview with Dean:

Q: How big can this obstacle mud category grow?

A: In my mind you have really three distinct obstacle racing events. It’s like looking at road racing and putting 10K and marathon in the same group. They’re clearly quite different. Marathon is a category. Obstacle race is a pretty wide category. We would actively choose to exclude ourselves from the obstacle race group. There are no prizes at Tough Mudder; it’s not timed. There are no medals and the focus is on teamwork and camaraderie and lots of people helping each other. There are really few people treating it as a race.

ToughMudderVancouver2There’s also Warrior Dash, which is a fantastic concept and absolutely no way am I belittling them. They’ve had phenomenal success, very smart guys. Great company culture, but they use the term “race” loosely. They’re as much about enjoying the post-race fun, having some beer and listening to music. I’m not saying anything controversial when I say that for most people in reasonable shape, Warrior Dash is not a very onerous event. It takes 20 or 30 minutes for most people. You spend more time in the post-race party than the event itself. Then you have Spartan Race, a very different business model than ours and doing very well but clearly an obstacle race

Q: What’s fueling interest in these events?

A: First, from a fitness perspective, the shift to functional fitness with P90X and CrossFit.  At Tough Mudder, we’ve positioned ourselves, if there is a category, at the high end of that. We expend a phenomenal amount of money on obstacle innovation and construction. I’m pretty confident that our budgets are significantly higher than the other muddy obstacle course challenges out there.

People come for the obstacles, but it’s about creating a whole integrated user experience. It’s really a whole weekend concept and that speaks to the second thing, which I believe in very strongly: Experience is the new luxury good. Not just in the endurance space. People talk about what restaurant they’ve eaten at, climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro, bungee jumping, whatever. That’s far more important than what sort of iPhone you have and I think we’ve captured that.

One thing I realized early is that when people do their first marathon, they talk about how they hit the wall at mile 20 or mile 22 and how some person they’ve never met comes along and they run it in together. They talk about how meaningful that is for them, that shared experience and the bonding that comes with that.

Navigating the balance beam at Tough Mudder Georgia (Photos by Dmitry Gudkov)

Navigating the balance beam at Tough Mudder Georgia (Photos by Dmitry Gudkov)

At Tough Mudder, we try to create a variety of obstacles that test you in different ways. Regardless of your body type, shape and fitness, there will be something that will get you outside your comfort zone. We try to create that moment every 10 minutes, that moment of intense bonding on the course. I’m not a sociologist, but with Tough Mudder you realize that even though we live and work in a world where we’re surrounded by people, we really don’t have much meaningful interaction with people. Here in New York, we specialize in avoiding eye contact with each other on the subway or getting out of the car. There’s this irony that all this social networking gets us connected with more people but on the other hand it gets in the way of more meaningful connections.

At Tough Mudder, we created this very earnest, sincere, frankly kind of irreverent event that’s not a race, one that doesn’t take itself too seriously. We position ourselves as the opposite of the Ironman culture. You can help someone if they want assistance. Tough Mudder is about conquering your own Everest and being proud of what you’ve achieved. For some people it’s about getting around the course in an hour and 45 minutes and for other people it’s just about doing it.

Log carry during Tough Mudder Pennsylvania in April (Photos by Dmitry Gudkov)

Log carry during Tough Mudder Pennsylvania in April (Photos by Dmitry Gudkov)

Looking at the industry, Warrior Dash is in the fun mud run space. Tough Mudder is the tough obstacle course challenge and Spartan Race is about an integrated racing experience. And while superficially they look similar – we all have mud and walls – they’re three very different events and value propositions. People often ask me if Spartan Race is a competitor and I say not at all. It’s good for us in exactly the same way that for Boston that New York exists and vice versa in the marathon space. Tough Mudder is and always will be an event that’s about more than just the obstacles. People will call it a race because we have a start and a finish line and water stations in between that make it look like a race but that’s not what we aspire to do.

Monkey Bars at Tough Mudder Florida last December

Monkey Bars at Tough Mudder Florida last December

It’s this whole weekend experience where guys – and it is 80 percent men – get together for a weekend away and it’s almost a bachelor party for a lot of people. Tough Mudder is tough and it beats you up, but if you’re in good shape you’ll finish Tough Mudder and still walk to the bar that evening. You see a lot of people wearing their headbands to bars after and that speaks to the experience component of it.

Q: Your Harvard Business School professors didn’t think too much of Tough Mudder. What made you think it would work?

A: The vast majority of my professors said, “How are you going to sell a race that’s not a race?” You’re going to have huge liability issues and it will be a real challenge trying to scale this event. Business school professors are very intelligent people but it’s hard to imagine something that doesn’t exist. And a lot of (professors) struggled to envision a world where people would spend this amount of money on an event like this.

At the time I was in my late twenties doing triathlons and marathons and all people would ask is what my time was. That was the only metric. I’ve done races where people were screaming at me to get out of the way, especially in triathlons. I remember asking for help to get my wetsuit off in a triathlon and a guy said he couldn’t. It would have taken all of three seconds. It’s not like this is your profession. There’s no prize money at stake.

Dealing with iced barbwire in Pennsylvania in April (Photos by Dmitry Gudkov)

Dealing with iced barbwire in Pennsylvania in April (Photos by Dmitry Gudkov)

I believe there’s no such thing as a good business idea; there’s just good business execution and that comes down to having good people on the team. It all comes down to understanding what problem you can solve and why. I was this guy in my late twenties who enjoyed staying healthy, but I had a full-time job and I couldn’t spend lots of time in the gym. I wanted an event I could focus my training on that required more than aerobic fitness and I wasn’t looking for it to be a race. I knew I wasn’t alone in thinking that way. A lot of professors said it was a bad idea and that I should take a job with a large management consulting firm but I think you have to believe you’re an entrepreneur even if everyone else in the world is telling you that the baby you’re holding is ugly. You have to believe that it’s not.

Q: How do you address the liability issue?

Confined spaces and darkness are always part of Tough Mudder (Photos by Dmitry Gudkov)

Confined spaces and darkness are always part of Tough Mudder (Photos by Dmitry Gudkov)

A: Any activity is potentially high risk. It’s about building world-class systems and we’re very proud that nearly half a million people will do our events this year – after more than 150,000 last year – and we’ve had no fatalities. Statistically, over the course of any day at home watching TV, at least one of that many people might have had a heart attack.

toughmudderlogoTough Mudder is about getting you out of your comfort zone. The adrenaline is pumping when you’re jumping into a dumpster full of ice, but it’s a somewhat controlled environment. And in some ways it’s like a high ropes course. You can say that if you fall it doesn’t matter because the harness is going to catch you after three feet. But your brain doesn’t think that way. What it sees is that, ‘Wow I’m 50 feet up here and if I fall I’m screwed.” One of our concerns is that there are hundreds of smaller events popping up. From a commercial perspective, having them do well is good for us. If the Des Moines Marathon does well, it’s good for Boston. But there’s always the danger of putting a lot of new players into the market. You have people who might not be aware of best safety practices. Tough Mudder has spent a lot of money working with the relevant safety people here and overseas to see that we meet and exceed safety standards. We have a $50 million general liability policy with Lloyd’s of London and we have to meet standards. It’s a big cost for us, but the far greater cost is providing all of the safety stuff, including 100-plus personnel at any event. We have ambulances, local hospitals briefed, and Medevac helicopters in place at more remote events.

ToughMudderVancouverQ: How has Tough Mudder drawn so many sponsors?

A: The days of being able to drop a lot of money on NBC and reach men in their 20s and 30s are gone. They’re looking for ways to engage with me. It’s a challenge and that’s why you see Super Bowl commercials selling for what they are. We’ve had 1,100 people have the Tough Mudder logo tattooed on them and that speaks to the engagement people have.

Tough Mudder is a real life Fight Club. You have obstacle racing, but Tough Mudder is this beast in an off itself. We have very high levels of Facebook engagement. If you look at our major sponsors – Bic, Under Armour, EAS, Dos Equis – they know there are lots of places with 20,000 or more people in one place. A stadium, sports event, wherever. But where else can you have this many people with a clear purpose in mind? They’re not just thinking about a game for two hours, but thinking of this experience for weeks leading up to it and they have real pride. They’ll wear the headband to work. Brands realize that we have something really unique, a fantastic activation program.

Q: How fast is Tough Mudder growing?

A: We’re hoping for a million participants in 2013. We’ll be at $70 million this year and that should double next year. We have a 50,000 square foot warehouse in Brooklyn and six 53-foot trailers. That will double next year. We also have warehouses in the UK, Canada, and Australia. It’s like a traveling circus. For a typical event, we’ll have 10 to 15 of our headquarters-based staff and another 200 staff plus volunteers. At out Sydney (Australia) event (Sept. 22-23) we’ll have 40,000 participants and easily could have had 70,000 if we did not have to cut it off because of the venue’s capacity.

ToughMudderNEQ: It sounds like Tough Mudder is huge in Australia.

A: Earlier this year we had an event in Melbourne. I touched down at the airport, having never been to Australia. The immigration officials assumed I was from Great Britain, but I said I lived in New York and worked for Tough Mudder. When I mentioned I was the CEO, all these immigration officials came over. Many were doing the event that weekend. It’s all still amazing to me because if you look at the original business plan, which I have new employees read, we projected 7,500 people competing in year four. Now we’re heading into year four and will hit one million.