Monday, May 22, 2017

2017 Austin Spartan Race SUPER Review

     As enterprises grow in success and popularity, they naturally expand their following, attract new participants, and enjoy widened exposure. They also must contend with the evolving expectations of those that have become so used to their business model as to expect smoother experiences with each new encounter. This last weekend I observed interesting dynamics at play when participating in the Spartan Race SUPER, held in Burnet, TX (west of Austin), in the Texas hill country. I have written race reviews before, scoring the race company and their performance. In this piece I will include my observations of participants as well.

     Spartan Race (SR) continues to be the leader in Obstacle Course Racing (OCR), a recreational industry that has grown at an unprecedented pace. Many companies has come and gone with the creation of this business niché, with some having national prominence and other remaining localized in their regional markets (i.e. Tough Mudder has had national brand success, while Thunder Dash remains specific to the Texas hill country). The documentary "Rise of the Sufferfests" can be found on iTunes, and it seeks to do justice to some attempt at explaining the popularity of this exploding sport. Far from a mere "mud run," OCR includes tasks and obstacles that challenge the entire body, along with the will, the attitude, and the determination to overcome personal limitations and apprehensions of various types. Claustrophobic? Here's a culvert to crawl through. Acrophobic? Climb this two story tall cargo netting. Think you're a quick runner? Carry this heavy object up the hill. Think you're strong because of your gym weights? A few miles on uneven ground through the hills can bring the much needed humility. Total fitness and attitude calibration are the name of the game.

     For many (myself included), OCR long ago became far more than mere recreation or an excuse to exercise. It became a living analogy to so many of life's struggles, that participating in them ranks up with some of the other personal disciplines people use to hone the spirit and enliven the soul. It's not mere exercise any more than fasting is mere dieting. Strength of the inner person occurs along with the adversities found in difficult events like this, and the thought is: If I sign up to overcome challenges like these, perhaps it's training me to better face the challenges of life that I didn't sign up for. 

     I ran my first Spartan Race in 2013, and was quickly hooked. Since then I've participated in over twenty Spartan Races and other OCRs, often volunteering as well in order to pay for my registration in what can be an admittedly expensive pastime. Having seen the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, I can safely say that my observations of these events is based on experience; both comparative and longitudinal. Over the years I've developed some categories for evaluating each event, and I'll apply them to the "Austin" Spartan Race held in Burnet, TX on May 20th. 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)."

     At the outset, it must be shared that Spartan Race had deviated from the setup at Reveille Peak Ranch that they had fashioned in years past. This change affected all areas of the event, both in enhancing the experience and creating new challenges. High praise goes to Spartan Race for being willing to make such a change at all. Change involves risk. While it avoids boredom and predictability, it also generates new difficulties.

Staff - My experience with Spartan staff has been a history of professionalism and efficiency. Certain challenges arose with this race, tough, that can be noted here, without it having tarnished the entire experience. For volunteer check-in, at 0530 Saturday morning, we were told that for this race it had been decided that volunteers could not both volunteer and race the same day. This was contrary to not only the volunteer confirmation email received days before, but to the policy maintained for all the years of Spartan Race leading up to this. Because of my affection for Spartan Race, it gave me no pleasure to witness the near mutiny that was about to unfold before my eyes as volunteers in line began murmuring that this policy change now defeated the reason for being their at all. Faced with the possibility of holding this event without volunteers at all, the staff called their superiors for clarification. Because of the quick reversal of the policy (averting their abandonment), I now believe this was more likely miscommunication between staff than an actual policy change. Nevertheless, even with these early hiccups, professionalism prevailed among staff that graciously assigned us to the finish line (my favorite place to work at the course!). Our immediate supervisor ("Matt"), was brand new to the company, and it was my pleasure to bring him up to speed on the SR ethos and what we needed to accomplish in that area. I must admit, as a Spartan volunteer "veteran," I sometimes might presume too much in taking the lead. In this case though, it helped smooth the operation.
Staff score: 17 points

Logistics - The change in venue setup (still at Reveille Peak Ranch as with previous years, but at an entirely different section of the ranch this time) created opportunities for course creativity. In previous years, parking and festival areas were separated by over a mile, with buses and trailers used to haul participants between them. The inconvenience of that had long since become an expectation and we just knew that our walk to the bus stop would be followed by a short ride to the festival area, and that returning to our vehicle following the race (or retrieving forgotten items midday) would have the same barrier. This year, however, parking and festival area were in the same area (no buses!). This was a tremendous benefit. In addition, when an unexpected storm arose (creating legitimate safety issues), SR could advise participants to "return to your vehicles" since parking was so near.

     *[A word about the weather] Over the years, Spartan Race has successfully walked the fine line between holding a tough event while keeping racer safety paramount. Others have not been so successful, with injuries occurring because of collapsed obstacles at Warrior Dash or even fatalities at Tough Mudder. When a freak storm arose (not unheard of in the Texas hill country), nearby lightning required the temporary suspension of event activities (from obstacles on the course to computers at registration). SR has not "coddled" its racers (some of which can seem rather dainty nowadays), but lightning and other serious safety threats (like extreme heat in Temecula, CA a couple of years ago) will trigger safety protocols that any responsible company will already have in place. In defense of SR, they have to err on the side of caution for things as serious as lightning strikes within one mile of the course. On the other hand, many participants were Texas regulars that know how such weather can be gone as quickly as it came, so many ignored the admonishment to "return to your vehicles." Yes, this annoyed some SR staff, but we knew we assumed the risk for staying nearby the registration tent to continue the check-in process once operations resumed shortly. I will say though, I observed some rather ugly human behavior among the crowd, and the growth of SR's popularity has both attracted new participants that need to learn to "Spartan Up!" as it relates to the challenges of entering the event, as well as some long time Spartans that have seemingly "gone soft" in terms of the smooth process they expect now, lacking patience with even the slightest of inconveniences (tsk tsk!).

In all, from parking direction to volunteer coordination, from food and shirt supplies to safety protocols (even water stations were thoughtfully frequent on the course!), adapting to challenging conditions that arose, SR was still pretty good "on the fly." Some online whiners on social media notwithstanding, the Saturday SUPER (the SPRINT was held on Sunday, but I was not in attendance then), was nicely organized and carried off well.
Logistics score: 18 points

Obstacles - SR introduced new obstacles for this course that I've not encountered before. Some of which focused on upper body strength, for which I'll need to train much, MUCH more if I can expect more of the same in the future. The sandbags were much heavier than previous years, replacing the "pancake" with heavier, more awkward sandbags that were a challenge to lift and balance. Not enough can be said, though, for the genius of constructing the barbed wire crawl over several hills of rolling mud (but dried dirt in the late afternoon; perhaps a running firehose spray could have enhanced that). It created an epic and tough experience that slowed our progress and sapped the energy (exactly what it's supposed to do!). Later in the afternoon, the dunk wall had lost quite a bit of its water, so that it wasn't necessary to "dunk" under the water to duck under the wall (which sort of defeats the obstacle name). The new obstacles offset those deficiencies though, making a good overall challenge.
Obstacles score: 18 points

Trail - Reveille Peak Ranch is a lovely venue, and it's almost impossible to have a boring trail there. However, because of the predictability quotient within the last few years of SRs held there, this year could have suffered such a fate. Because of the location change, however, it had the opposite effect. Exciting and long, this was a super SUPER! The uneven terrain, the winding pathways, the scenic views... rocks, and cactus, and hills...ON MY! SR outdid themselves, with the trail direction taking on backcountry roads, over structures that arched above driveways, through dense forest and unexpected thickets. The trail designer was really on their game.
Trail score: 20 points

Festival area - Because of the setup change, the festival area was significantly different from previous years at Reveille Peak Ranch. Before, the large pavilion and nearby lake was a welcome gathering place and backdrop. This year those were not available. That was the trade off for the convenience of parking near the festival area. While the pavilion and lake were missed, the festival area was as thoughtfully laid out as any other SR I've been to. The elongated festival shape, however, created some issues that I had noticed before at other times: (1) restrooms were at the far end of the longer festival shape, seemingly creating quite a trek with you're "doing the dance," or (2) the elongated festival shape created seeming "dead space" where vendors and gathering places (such as the Biggest Team tent) were not within ear-shot of the main stage music or announcing. Having said that, however, it appeared they had even more gathering tents and more vendors than ever before, with several obstacles (not just the finish line sequence) next to the festival area so that spectators could cheer on racers and take photos. The challenges were a fair trade, though, for the change of trail design that relocated the festival area.
Festival score: 18 points

     A final score of 91 would still warrant an A- according to the standard grading scale at my university. Did SR encounter challenges because of weather and a different setup? Of course! But the problems were either overcome, or offset by the other advantages that arose. Some may think my scoring biased because of my longstanding, and unapologetic loyalty to Spartan Race (my 2014 "open letter" to Spartan Race conveys sentiments I still hold), but indeed they've developed a track record with my family and me that carries significant weight. Some of the critiques I've seen on social media already seem written by those forgetting these events are (1) an outdoor sport, or (2) conducted by companies that MUST make money to continue holding them (we've already seen many OCRs rise and fall in the short lifespan of this sport). In light of the personal adversities we encountered (injuries to both person and property) over the weekend, the entire trip proved an "endurance test" that challenged the attitude and the resolve to "Spartan Up!" and push through to make epic memories. Spartan Race serves as a living analogy to life and perseverance - even during the trip to get to the event itself and return safely home - and I'm glad they're successful enough to keep going. I look forward to many more to come.