By Pete Williams
TAMPA – Joe De Sena believes obstacle racing is a competitive sport, not a beer festival in the mud. Judging by today’s Spartan Race event here at Raymond James Stadium, Spartan is the new leader in the obstacle category, however we define it.
It wasn’t that long ago that Spartan seemed like another fledgling operation throwing races together in a field. These days, it’s a well-oiled professional machine. From the smooth traffic flow on the course and in the parking lot to the black-and-red Spartan signage blanketing the event to the premium medal and swag, Spartan now comes across as a major sports business that, indeed, has added big-name sponsors and private equity investors in the last year.
Then there’s the course itself. De Sena, the Spartan founder, bristles as the term “mud run,” believing that mud shouldn’t be the main draw of an event. There was opportunity to get dirty at today’s “Spartan Sprint Special Ops,” to be sure, but that was mostly limited to a crawl through dirt under barbwire the length of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers football field (grass removed for the winter).
Spartan has had good luck with races staged at Major League Baseball venues such as Boston’s Fenway Park and New York’s Citi Field, but those events were limited mostly to the confines of the buildings with the baseball diamonds off limits.
But with Raymond James Stadium surrounded by vast grassy parking lots, Spartan could produce a hybrid event – its third overall race of 2014 – that combined the best of a sports venue race and a regular Spartan affair. That meant the second half of the 3.5-mile course was on the field or outside the stadium, incorporating a number of Spartan’s signature obstacles, including the spear throw, rope climb, and fire leap.
There also was the traditional concrete block hoist with a rope pulley and a newer event: carrying a 60-pound boulder (lighter for women) 10 yards, dropping for five burpees, and returning the boulder 10 yards.
Spartan also incorporated the football theme, requiring athletes to toss a foam football 15 yards into a bank of trashcans positioned in the endzone. The athletes mirrored the Tampa Bay Buccaneers historic quarterback troubles, with the vast majority missing the target and taking a 30-burpee penalty.
There are only so many creative ways to run people through a stadium, but Spartan positioned enough walls, obstacles, and stair climbs to make things interesting. Athletes had to carry heavy sandbags through the upper deck, penguin-walk stairs wearing ankle bands, and step over numerous railings separating sections of seating.
The 30-burpee penalty, which distinguishes Spartan Race from typical help-your-fellow-athlete events, loomed large. We took three penalties for failing to stick the spear throw, convert the quarterback toss, or navigate the horizontal peg wall.
The event got underway at 8 a.m. under dark skies with the first wave of athletes addressed by Admiral William McRaven, head of U.S. Special Operations Command at nearby Macdill Air Force Base. This will be the first of several military-themed Spartan events.
Raymond James Stadium proved the perfect location for an obstacle race and not just because it’s the rare venue located within a major market, not an hour out of town. Spartan organizers used the ticket windows for packet pickup and parking lots accustomed to crowds of 60,000 easily accommodated 6,000, even with the northern lots taken out by the racecourse.
We’d like to see more events at major sports venues in Florida, which unlike the rest of the country have grassy parking lots. We thought Tough Mudder’s best race was its event a year ago at Homestead Miami Speedway, which though not as centrally located as Raymond James Stadium provided many of the same advantages. Alas, Tough Mudder, forever searching for a consistent Florida venue, is not returning to Homestead.
Spartan has made numerous upgrades to the window dressing of its events. Gone are the black cotton T-shirts with a race calendar on the back that looked like 1980s concert T-shirts. Spartan now issues gray, fitted Gildan Softstyle shirts, arguably the best in the industry outside of the folks at Rock On Adventures.
We’re not big on medals, but Spartan now has the best in the business. Athletes at today’s event received not only a commemorative Spartan Special Ops event medal with the date (as opposed to generic medals issued in every city) but also a pie-shaped Spartan Sprint medal that can be combined with a Super Spartan and Spartan Beast medal to form a 2014 Trifecta medal. Athletes also received a black Spartan headband with their race numbers, a badass look suitable for everyday workout use (and no doubt a dig at the garish orange Tough Mudder finisher’s headbands typically worn only immediately after the event.)
After this morning’s Spartan event, we found a dozen postcard flyers for future races on our windshield. Those events, at fields across Central Florida, will continue to battle for a share of the crowded mud run market.
When it comes to obstacle racing, however, Spartan has gone Major League, and perhaps now is in a league by itself.