Obstacle races enjoy participation rates that other running series can only dream about. Spartan Race alone is nearing 40 events this year, and expects to attract 750,000 people. These intrepid souls will cross the finish line with scrapes and bruises, and great stories of what they did on the weekend that they can tell everyone they know
- “Spartans, the time to face the beast is near!”
- Serendipity, coincidence and hypothermia
- The race that just keeps growing
- 'Word of mouth is our best form of viral promoting'
- An escape from the everyday
- No off-season
- Which race to choose?
- Fire, barbed wire and pain
- Spartan's waiver says ‘You may die’
- You’ll be smiling when you tell your friends about it the next day
“Spartans, the time to face the beast is near!”
Hundreds of participants stand at the feet of a man wearing a brass helmet and a flowing purple robe. “Spartans, the time to face the beast is near!” He shouts the Spartan Race battle cry: “Aroo!” Everyone in the crowd yells back with conviction. The race begins with a smoke bomb, kicking off the five-kilometre event at a rock quarry near Milton, Ontario. Men, women, young, old—we charge up a rocky hill, heft a car tire over our shoulders as we run up and down a grassy slope, throw spears at a target, jump over logs that are on fire, crawl under barbed wire, and lug huge plastic buckets filled with water through the quarry’s pond, legs soaking wet, covered in mud. Those who fail to complete one of the course’s 15 or so obstacles have to do burpees—a gruelling exercise that requires you to drop into a squat position, kick your feet out into a plank, pull them back in and stand up while your abs scream—which are often just as punishing as the challenges. Many competitors are so exhausted by the time they get to the penultimate obstacle near the end of the course—pulling themselves up a wooden slope with a rope—that they collapse on the other side, sliding into the dirt, some face-first. Like everyone else, they pick themselves up and run the last 20 metres or so to the finish line, past two ripped men wielding padded jousting sticks to smack or trip people. One last, punishing indignity before it’s all over. My group of friends meets near the finish line. All of us are cut, filthy, doubled over and gasping for breath. We all agree we would definitely shell out another $55 to do it again. “We’re catering to that inner animalistic nature that we have,” says Montreal’s Selica Sevigny, who co-founded Spartan Race in 2009 with her partner, Richard Lee, and Joseph Desena. “We’re very sophisticated, but if we were all thrown back in the woods and had to survive, we have that in us, it’s an instinct, and I think we’re tapping in to that instinct.” Sevigny says that part of the appeal of Spartan Race is also the tongue-in-cheek theatrics. One man at the event near Toronto last June ran the race wearing chain mail.
Serendipity, coincidence and hypothermia
How a 27-year-old former production assistant for Global Television helped create one of the largest obstacle-race companies in the world is a matter of serendipity, coincidence and hypothermia. Sevigny and Lee, a native of Britain and a former Royal Marine, were hiking the Appalachian trail in the spring of 2009. When they arrived in Pittsfield, Vermont, the couple met Desena, who had been operating the Death Race event there since 2005. Desena, who made a small fortune as a Wall Street trader before moving to Pittsfield, invited Sevigny and Lee to participate in the race, a gruelling 24-hour, 40-mile event that puts endurance athletes through maximum physical and mental stress. Obstacles can include anything from chopping wood for two hours, to building a fire, to hefting 14-kilogram rocks for five hours. Or, after 20 hours, in a state of exhaustion, having to memorize a Bible verse and then repeat it, after hiking to the top of a mountain. Up to 200 endurance athletes enter the race. On average, only 15% will finish. Lee, who had completed an Ironman, won the Death Race event in 2009. Sevigny was the last woman standing after 10 hours, but hypothermia meant she was unable to finish. Determined to do better, she returned to Vermont to compete in the winter Death Race. She finished third overall. “When you finish something like that, first you go, ‘Oh my god, I can’t believe I’m still alive.’ And secondly you go, ‘Wow, I just did this. What else can I do now? What else am I capable of?’ That sense of accomplishment is what really inspired Richard and I to create a race that is more accessible.”
The race that just keeps growing
With Desena agreeing to come on board and provide financial support, Spartan Race held its first event in Burlington, Vermont, in 2010. The field was capped at 750 people. Since then, Spartan Race has enjoyed the kind of participation rates that other race events can only dream of. The company held six other competitions in its first year, attracting a total of 11,000 people. Last year, Spartan Race held 25 events that brought in 250,000 participants. This year, it is just shy of 40 events on the calendar that are expected to attract 750,000 participants. In Canada, the Spartan Race lineup this year includes Vancouver, Ottawa, Montreal, Toronto, Calgary and Squamish, B.C. There are also events in the United Kingdom, including London, Cambridge and Edinburgh, as well as several throughout the United States. By next year, the company will be a truly global phenomenon, with races already confirmed for Mexico, India, Hong Kong, Australia, New Zealand, France and Germany. Once Spartan Race gains a foothold in a new territory, growth is practically a certainty thanks to word-of-mouth advertising from Spartan racers who finish events with scrapes, bruises and a great story that they tell anyone who will listen. “Pretty much what we can guarantee is that if we put an event on, in year two it’s going to triple in size,” Lee says.
'Word of mouth is our best form of viral promoting'
The success of Spartan Race has made it one of the three biggest obstacle race series in North America, along with Tough Mudder and Warrior Dash, both of which recently entered the Canadian market. These companies don’t just have customers; they have devotees. Spartan Race’s Facebook page has more than one million fans, while Tough Mudder’s boasts more than two million. The Boston and New York City marathons, the most prestigious road-running events in the world, have just over 100,000 combined. People who do obstacle races like to talk about doing obstacle races. “Word of mouth is our best form of viral promoting,” Sevigny says. Social media is also an important marketing tool for these companies, and they are increasingly placing ads throughout the Internet to spread the word. Many people who have run a five- or 10-kilometre race, or perhaps a marathon or an Ironman, are looking for new, often unpredictable fitness challenges, Lee says. The sport has also dovetailed with the growing interest in strenuous, hard-core forms of exercise such as Crossfit. Guy Livingstone, the co-founder of New York-based Tough Mudder, which bills itself as “probably the toughest event on the planet,” says obstacle races have taken off because they offer an antidote to so much of our lives. “People increasingly just need an escape from the corporate world where most of them spend their 9-to-5, five days a week, in front of the computer.”
An escape from the everyday
Providing office drones with the chance to embrace their inner Spartan is no easy feat, however. It takes a minimum of eight months to plan an event, Sevigny says. Spartan Race employs about 70 people at its offices in the U.K., Vermont and Calgary. Those employees, most of whom are independent contractors doing short-term seasonal work, cover every area of the business: sponsorships, festival area management, risk assessment, marketing, merchandising, public relations and human resources. Every day is filled with a new challenge, Sevigny says: searching for new venues, booking, ordering, planning lodgings, building new obstacles, poring over merchandising plans. “There is so much work. People have no idea how many hours we all put in before the race even happens,” she says.
And while obstacle races may seem like just a summer phenomenon to many Canadians, since that’s the only time they are held here, the obstacle event machine keeps chugging all year long, holding competitions in the winter months in the southern and southwestern U.S. “We don’t really have an off-season,” says Livingstone. “We’ve always got events going on, but there’s plenty of pre-planning that we’re getting on with all of the time.” None of the obstacle-race companies wish to disclose exactly how much it costs to stage an event, but they will say this: It’s not cheap. “Costs are high,” Livingstone says. Says Sevigny: “The events cost more than you can imagine. ...Our focus is rapid expansion. We are investing heavily in the event production rather than worrying about drawing a huge profit right now. We are dealers and our drug is exercise, and we are getting as many people as possible hooked.” Tough Mudder currently has about 60 full-time employees. While events are co-ordinated largely from New York—a challenge with a global reach that includes a recent course in Australia, which attracted more than 21,000 participants—by next year, Tough Mudder expects to establish satellite offices in London, Sydney and Melbourne. More obstacle race companies are launching to fill the demand of weekend warriors looking to get their butts kicked, and the big three are vastly expanding their number of annual events. Warrior Dash will hold about 60 events this year, 30 more than in 2011, and the company projects more than a million people will participate. And with these companies entering the Canadian market—Warrior Dash, owned and operated by Chicago’s Red Frog Events, held its first race here last year, while Tough Mudder’s first event in Canada will take place in Vancouver in June—eventually the demand curve will dip, if not plunge. But in the face of growth rates that are bulging like one of Arnie’s biceps, none of the sport’s three biggest players claims to be worried about the competition. In fact, all of them say they are different enough from one another that there really is no competition to begin with.
Which race to choose?
The events put on by Spartan Race, Tough Mudder and Warrior Dash certainly are distinct. Tough Mudder courses are 16-to-20 kilometres long, with obstacles that prize teamwork—such as a high wall that participants can only get over if someone else gives them a boost. They don’t even call it a race, or keep time, for that matter. Only about 78% of entrants finish Tough Mudder events. Warrior Dash, by comparison, is more for partygoers. Around five kilometres long, it’s still no walk in the park, and it invites participants to “push their limits and celebrate with music, beer and Warrior helmets.” If a frat boy was going to do an obstacle run, he would do Warrior Dash. “It’s more about the party than the athletic component,” Sevigny says. (They may say they’re not worried about the competition, but they do like trash-talking. Says Tough Mudder’s Livingstone: “We put on a premium event and our costs are significantly higher than any of the would-be competitors. Our obstacles are way bigger and cooler, so they cost significantly more.”) The allure of Spartan Race is that it offers three different events, each with varying levels of difficulty. Everyone can complete a Spartan Sprint, which is five kilometres long and has approximately 25 obstacles. The Super Spartan, at just under 13 kilometres and more than 35 obstacles, is more challenging. And only very hardy athletes will be able to complete the Spartan Beast, which is 19 kilometres long, or longer, and has more than 50 obstacles. Unlike its rivals, Spartan Race does not tell competitors what obstacles they’ll encounter prior to events, so you never know what’s going to be around the next corner.
Fire, barbed wire and pain
Joshua Fry, a 28-year-old membership consultant at GoodLife Fitness in Ottawa, did his first Spartan Race in Canada’s capital city in June, 2011, after hearing about it from a friend. “Holy crap, did I get my butt kicked. But then I loved it,” he says. It wasn’t just the butt-kicking, it was the race’s sense of community. “It’s this automatic bond where if you’re a Spartan Racer, it doesn’t matter where you’re from, you’re a Spartan,” says Fry, who met his girlfriend at a Spartan Race in New York and has flown to Texas to compete in one of the events. Fry’s favourite obstacle was a 45-metre rope he had to climb across in Texas. “I have these huge rope burns from it, these huge scars,” he says. Cherilee Garofano, a personal trainer and nutrition consultant in Toronto, did her first Spartan Race last year when she was two months pregnant. She did the event with a group of her clients. “Most hated me during the training, and when we finished, everyone said, ‘That was amazing! That was so much fun!’ ” The youngest person to complete a Spartan Race was 15 (you have to be 15 to enter); the oldest was 73. The gender split among participants is 60/40, male to female, Sevigny says, adding that one reason they selected the name Spartan Race was because women in Spartan culture were so empowered. To broaden the appeal even further, Spartan Race will have a “tamer” event for children ages 5 and up at every race this year. “Now it’s a full family event,” Sevigny says, promising that the kids won’t encounter any barbed wire. Adults can count on some recurring items, including fire, barbed wire and pain. As difficult as these challenges may be, the worst injury suffered to date by a Spartan Racer is a broken ankle. But the sport has seen far worse injuries and even two deaths. Last year, a 28-year-old man died after suffering heat stroke at a Warrior Dash in Kansas City, Missouri. Another man at the same event collapsed with a 108-degree temperature, and died two weeks later when doctors were unable to treat a subsequent infection. A college student in Michigan was paralyzed from the chest down when he landed the wrong way after diving into a mud pit at a Warrior Dash last fall. While it is not known whether an excess of partying contributed to this accident, all Warrior Dash participants must sign a waiver stating they agree not to consume alcohol prior to the event. And a Warrior Dash race director said that safety is of the highest importance to the company.
Spartan's waiver says ‘You may die’
Every obstacle-event company stresses there are dangers involved in participating. Given those dangers, and how relatively new and hard to understand these events are compared with a marathon (a road-running distance, it should be noted, that has seen many participants die over the years), getting insurance has been a challenge. “We have an airtight waiver. It even says, ‘You may die’ on it,” Sevigny says. Spartan also has an emergency medical team on site at each race, and courses are designed so that any injured person can be brought back to the medical tent within minutes. And while obstacles are designed to be challenging, none is created to be unreasonably dangerous. “People are paying us for a service, and the service should not kill you,” Sevigny says. Spartan Race has such a low injury rate, and enough people have participated by now to spread the word about safety, that the potential dangers are hardly the company’s biggest challenge—far from it. With massive participation rates that are climbing each year, the challenge now for Spartan Race is meeting the logistical demands of putting on larger and larger events. “The hardest thing is finding a venue that can grow with us now,” Sevigny says. Try finding terrain suitable for an obstacle race that comes with parking for 25,000 people. It’s not easy. There’s also the challenge of ensuring the sport remains sustainable instead of something people do once just to say they did it, but will never do again. “We don’t want to be a fad,” he says. To avoid that, Spartan Race will have to maintain a balance between challenging yet accessible exercise and the theatrical, often jokey elements that can make some participants laugh at what they’re doing even as they’re struggling up a rope wall.
You’ll be smiling when you tell your friends about it the next day
The races for children will help popularize the events, if only by making them seem a little less daunting, which is the case for marathons and triathlons in recent years. So, too, will events that are so absurdly difficult, so over the top, they will certainly help fuel the word-of-mouth phenomenon. This year, Lee says, Spartan Race is planning a special one-off event: a 42-kilometre race with 150 different challenges and six ascents of the mountains in Killington, Vermont. “It’s going to be effectively climbing Everest in elevation change while completing a marathon while competing in 150 obstacles,” Lee says. “We’ve got some fantastic obstacles this year,” says Lee, including nine-metre balance beams over water and electric shock obstacles. To come up with those obstacles, Lee and his team have one side of their brains busy thinking about ways to challenge balance and strength, while another side is inspired by what you might find if you mixed a military training ground with gym class, with a wacky Japanese game show thrown in for good measure. “We love the show Wipeout,” Lee says. “We go out in the woods and play and see what we can create, and see what’s physically demanding but also what’s achievable.” You may curse those words while you are grunting and heaving through one of the challenges, but you’ll be smiling when you tell your friends about it the next day.