Friday, April 1, 2016

Houston Spartan Race SPRINT Review

     Imagine my surprise when, following past race reviews, others would be sought by my peers. Obstacle Course Racing (OCR) has been a passion of mine since first discovering it in 2012. That was the year that my yearnings for athletic activities looked beyond the normal local 5K race for charity, and sought to interject a sense of adventure. A banner ad at the time intrigued me, which included a self-playing video clip of OCR legend Hobie Call jumping over fire, followed by the caption "Could a race change your life?" That was enough. I was instantly hooked as a "Spartan" and didn't even realize it. Spartan Race quickly became the go-to focus of a family wanting to increase our list of camaraderie and character building activities. We volunteered at the BEAST in Glen Rose, TX that year so as to earn our race registration for the following May where a SPRINT would be held in Burnet, TX. Our first exposure to Spartan Race was as volunteers, only later to actually run the course and fully understand how appropriate our passion had been. 

     That first race also introduced us to the larger world of OCR, the culture, personalities and ethos of it. In 2014-2015 we had opportunities to participate in several OCRs other than Spartan Race. I will tell you that our experiences with those OCR companies have left me quite content to simply fill my race calendar with Spartan races, unmotivated to attempt fitting others in. Either those others were in some way quite disappointing, or merely not spectacular enough to attempt fitting them in around the SRs that I already know I'll want to do. If it seems that my reviews are not entirely objective, at least I've disclosed my rationale. 

My race evaluation has come to include five categories of significance to me. The list is, of course, open to expansion, but these have been key areas according to my experience. The list described below is pasted from an earlier review

"Our evaluation score is based upon five categories or experience that we comment on to each other as we work as volunteers, run as racers together, and then later debrief about after the event. These five categories are:

  • Staff - Were the event staff friendly, professional and patient? Were they accommodating of needs for water, food or bathroom breaks? Did they make an effort to help us volunteer together? At registration, were they warm, welcoming and organized?
  • Logistics -  Did the event seem organized and well thought-out? Were sufficient materials brought to meet the attendance demand? How well were staff supplied with materials to perform their tasks (shirts, medals, radios, water, etc.)?
  • Obstacles - Were they well-constructed? Did they offer an athletic challenge? Did they need explanation or were they self-explanatory? Was there a penalty for failing the obstacle? Was it also safe while being difficult?
  • Trail - Was the course designed for a decent trail run? Did the outside venue (ranch, field, stadium, etc.) allow for the run itself to be part of the challenge with topographic variety (hills, canyons and plains)? 
  • Festival area - Was the atmosphere electric and exciting? Were examples of obstacles constructed for contests and practice? Were exhibits, vendors, restrooms, showers, start and finish lines laid out in a sensible way? Were start and finish line experiences exciting and satisfying

On each of the above categories we offer 0-20 points, resulting in an accumulated score out of 100 points (making a letter grade easy to calculate)."

     For the Houston Spartan Race SPRINT, we volunteered in the morning and raced in the afternoon after having been relieved of our duties at the end of our shift. This has largely been our repeated custom from the beginning. The result has been that at any given OCR, we get the perspective of a worker for the event before we are a participant. For the Houston Spartan SPRINT, I score each category below:

Staff - While I've yet to have a negative experience with Spartan Race staff, some races stand out more than others in terms of staff care. For the Houston SPRINT, not only were they their usual professional, gracious and helpful selves, but they did so in the face of unexpectedly challenging conditions. For several days before the race, heavy rains had soaked the race venue, leaving the planned parking area unworkable. Thus at the last minute, a new location was selected, and school buses were contracted to shuttle racers from the new site to the festival area. These logistical obstacles faced the staff mere hours before race day, yet not a single attitude was out of sorts as droves of participants and volunteers showed up late because of the changes they also were having to adjust to as well. Volunteer registration was relatively smooth despite the changes that had been foisted open the process. 

     I'll admit to being at somewhat of an advantage for having volunteered so often that, without much direction, those with me and I were able to march purposefully to our assigned area and begin working, meeting our staff contact at the finish line, without any other assistance. At the finish line, our staff contact moved about regularly to make sure people drank water, had the necessary snacks, and felt freedom to check out other areas when heavy waves of finishers weren't keeping us busy. When our volunteer shift came to a close, the staff member did not need to be reminded to relieve us. They were on top of it, and we were released with plenty of time to prepare for our own race. Staff Score: 20 points

Logistics - As was mentioned above, heavy rains had required a last minute, major shift in racer/volunteer entrance to the venue. Spartan Race sent out an email alerting of the change, and out party was able to adjust accordingly. We parked where instructed. The school buses that had been procured were not on scene at the announced time though, allowing some lag time for a considerable crowd of people waiting at the new parking location. Nevertheless, the buses did arrive in force and shuttle services remained steady after that. To describe the race venue (Lazy W Ranch in Hempstead, TX) as "muddy" from all the rain is an exercise in understatement. In many respects, this was an enhancement, but that will be described later. In terms of working the race, tables sank and threatened to topple supplies, with considerable ponds of standing water where venue traffic areas might have otherwise allowed people to congregate. 

     Photography continues to be an area where hiccups can arise. Because timing pads are sometimes situated distant from an auto-camera location, finding one's self in the repository of action shots can be challenging. Finding photos actually tagged to your timing chip is hit-or-miss. I found all of mine, and those my companions, by scrolling through every single picture time-stamped between our start and finish times. Another trade arises in the presence and skill of photographers. Without them, auto-cameras (such as GoPro), do not know to turn and snap a shot of each racer in a pack of friends. Thus actions shots are missing for some racers when a herd of muddy participants stampede across the timing pad or by the GoPro station. I understand its a trade though, for hiring more photographers costs money, and some find registration costs already eyebrow-raising. However, concerning photographers, it often appears that photographers that are hired have a time limit themselves. More abundant, and more detailed pictures can be found for racers earlier in the day. This is not merely for elite racers; open heats starting before noon have a greater collection of action shots than those starting later (oh say, in a volunteer's heat). The photographers leave before all racers have passed their area. This is just my perception. Logistics Score: 17 points

Obstacles - By far the greatest obstacle of this race was the mud. In this way, the open heat racers can boast a greater toughness and grit than any of the elites that finished this SPRINT in less than an hour. Yes, the elite racers had some mud and water with which to contend, but they certainly did NOT struggle against 4.2 miles of earthen purgatory affixing itself to one's body like an animated horde of demons from the mythic underworld. The barely viscous and unholy sludge ranged from ankle to waist deep for most of the course. This would be exhausting enough, but it also made each obstacle 143% more difficult. I have never struggled to get over 8ft walls before (with the exception of the BEAST in Glen Rose last Oct which had similar ground conditions), but in this case the ground would simply not release my feet. Teamwork was an absolute requirement. The teams might have been pre-planned by friends racing together, or the team may have been spontaneous as Spartans stopped to assist one another, but only teams could overcome these walls once the ground began to deny any jumping whatsoever. 

    The mud enhanced some obstacles to make them more of a challenge than ever before. In previous races, nailing the spear throw was aided by taking a few steps for momentum. The mud disallowed that. Fortunately, I still got it, but it required a different throwing strategy and the collection of burpee penitents nearby was greater than normal. Sand bag carry, gravel buckets, and the atlas carry all were transformed into something far more epic and daunting. There were no particularly noteworthy obstacles that differed form what has become standard for Spartan Races. There's a comfort in knowing that I've become familiar with these varying tests of skill, strength and endurance. Without the mud though, this might have been a rather unremarkable event (within the normal range of Spartan Race; which is itself excellent, challenging and fun). For my part, I failed at just one obstacle. At the end, the multi-rig assembly of bars, rings and ropes created a large burpee corral that needed wide expansion after racers began bunching up there. The multi-rig continues to be the "Bane" of my existence; and I WILL conquer it! Perhaps if it was near the front, like the monkey bars were, but instead it was at the end, after the mud demons has sapped all of the energy away. The obstacles were within normal range, not particularly creative; however, they do get a boost from the mud enhancement.  Obstacles Score: 18 points

Trail - Even more so than the obstacles, the trail benefitted from the advent of the apocalyptic mud in our score. Without it, the course would have been topographically underwhelming. I'm simply not used to a Spartan Race lacking any hills. Previous SRs for me have been in either the Texas hill country or the Sierra-Nevada near Lake Tahoe. I'm used to shouting my "AROO!" as a means of encouraging others trudging up a woeful incline, or in denial about my own exhaustion. This course's trail contained no such elevation changes. Were I among the elite racers, I might have been wondered what all the fuss was about, but after it had been pulverized by several thousand racers into moon dust (just add water!), the trail became a living thing bent on resisting your progress. Don't miss understand! The trail was beautiful, the ranch picturesque in many places and the water obstacles a joy, but the mud adds approximately 5 points to the overall level of satisfying difficultly, which Spartan Race could not have anticipated...Unless of course we include God among the Spartan staff performing course design. Trail Score: 18 points

Festival Area - As with the rest of the course, the mud was the star of the show. Imagine a rodeo arena being doused with six inches of water, then thoroughly tenderized with horses and cattle, then add some low depressions that fill up to create inconvenient lakes. None of this was the fault of Spartan Race, however it created a complete lack of anywhere to set your gear down or rest in the festival area. Seating has always been at a premium at OCRs of all types, but this was exceptional. A couple more hay bales here and there might have helped, or perhaps some plywood laid down for major foot traffic routes. Admittedly, those are my "armchair" suggestions, not fully appreciating what goes into those tasks. But enough about the mud already!

     The layout of the festival area was well planned. "Spartan Rigs" had practice obstacles for warming up or even competing for a free future race. All the booths and merchandising were well placed. There were adequate restrooms, and I experienced no lines or gross lack of maintenance for them. At other races, the "showers" (water pumped through hoses and nozzles) have suffered from intermittent pump operation, sometimes losing water pressure or stopping altogether; not so here. The equipment was well attended and no hiccups occurred. The D.J. kept the music upbeat and constant, and even made the announcement at one point that a dog had been left in a car and law enforcement was about to break into the car if the owner didn't see to it soon. Staff were ubiquitous and helpful in the festival area. It just took 10 minutes to walk from one end to the other because of the mud. 

     The announcing was adequate, but unremarkable. Previous announcers have created such an air of electricity and excitement at the starting line that you truly felt immersed in the adventure you were about to begin. I understand that some up and coming announcers need to be given a chance to really get into their groove, but there's a certain amount of talent for it that comes into play also. With examples like Dustin Dorough of Spartan Race, or Dewayne Anderson of Battle Frog Series, having raised the bar so high, OCRs do well to keep announcing as something they look to maintain high standards for in talent, excitement, charisma and delivery. Some have even suggested this deserves it's own category in OCR reviews. I'm not sure of that. For now I'll leave it as part of festival because start/finish line experiences are part of it. 

     To balance that out...finish line experience doesn't have announcing; it has fire. The fire jump is the last obstacle to overcome (it used to be gladiators in SR's early days) before the finish line. It contributes most to the excitement before getting the medal around your neck and completing the day's epic struggle. Note to Spartan Race: PLEASE don't let the fire die down! Depending on how often the staff stoked the fire jump, some racers leapt over glorious, Michael Bay sized flames, while others just had to skip over some smoldering coals. This affects both the excitement of the finish and the brag-worthy photos people want to make their Facebook profile pic later on as well. Festival Score: 17

     With an overall score of 90, this places the Houston Spartan Race SPRINT in the A-/B+ range, depending on how you divide the letter grades. I try to be objective, but admittedly Spartan Race is also like "family" after a fashion, and it's tough to critique "family." Nevertheless, because I'm so fond of Spartan Race, I'll share ways that possibly they could be even better. If you don't have that connection, you won't say anything; you'll just go somewhere else, claiming the "grass was greener" at the other race. Every Spartan Race is different, and I have no doubt that some of these challenges were unique to this venue and weather conditions. Having said all that, Spartan Race's strengths are very well executed, and I'm looking forward to many more. 

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