Over the last few years I have had several rants about Spartan’s use of burpees as a forfeit for failed obstacles. I know that some people are fed up with me polluting reviews and other articles with my strong views on the subject. I make no apology for that; I believe that something is seriously wrong and I refuse to be silenced. I'm not a stuborn man in general but I think that this issue really needs to be addressed. If you would like to criticise my opinion please read the following article carefully. Once you’ve done that, feel free to challenge me – discussion is the first step in getting situations like this resolved.
I’d like to stress up front that this is by no means intended to be an assassination of Spartan Race’s credibility. I want them to be considered an authentic competitive race as much as they do. This is a young sport, it’s understandable that we need to adapt and evolve when things aren’t working. I hope that those in Spartan's ranks read this and share it amongst their colleagues and treat it in the manner in which it is intended – constructive criticism from a fan that wants the best for their future.
The main point that I want to make is this:
If Spartan Race want to be considered a fair competition and, crucially, avoid unnecessary controversy they need to reconsider their usage of burpees as forfeits.
Spartan Race push the competitive element of their races more than most but, as far as I’m concerned, it’s a farce. I’ve raced practically every weekend for the last three years and there are many competitive races that I would consider fair. Unfortunately Spartan is not one of them.
The reason why I feel so strongly about that point is often misunderstood, so I’m going to try to be as clear as possible on this occasion.
I’m not lazy and I’m not whining
I have nothing against burpees as an exercise – in fact they are great for training. I am not afraid of hard work, pain or suffering. I have put my body and mind through hell over the last three years. 30 burpees are the least of my worries.
Why burpees don’t work as a forfeit
EVERY time I have completed a burpee forfeit at a Spartan Race (which is a lot of times), I have been overtaken by people who have not completed all of their reps (in a lot of cases not even close to the right number, and many times they have been skipped all together). I have had that in later waves and I’ve also faced it in the top 20 of the elite wave.
The common responses
I’ve had many responses to my rants in the past, including “SHUT UP and stop moaning on about this issue - people who fail deserve a forfeit”, which smacks of somebody who hasn’t actually read beyond my first sentence.
However, apart from a strong support for my opinions, other common responses include: “Those people are only cheating themselves” or: “Marshalls should do more to make sure people complete their reps”.
They’re good points, but I respectfully disagree with them. These aren’t the big issue here. It’s the system that’s broken. It is completely unmanageable.
Firstly, you just can’t trust everyone to be honest enough not to cheat themselves or others. In fact, I’m not even sure you can trust everyone to count to thirty when their pulse is racing, their body is in pain and there are distractions all around. I know I’ve struggled at times (which may be because I’m busy taking note of how many burpees everyone else is doing).
In response to the second point, marshalls will never be able to keep track of how many burpees everyone is doing unless there is one marshal for every failed racer. At an obstacle like the spear throw that would equal one marshal for EVERY racer (apart from an occasional few).
Why this bugs me so much
I don’t consider myself an “elite” racer, but boy can I be competitive. My position is very important to me, yet whenever I have completed a Spartan Race I feel like I have been done over. In fact last week I travelled half way around the world to COMPETE at Spartan Race Dubai (read my travel story and watch the video here) and I worked damn hard for the position I earned over 40 minutes of the race but, in an instant, at the spear throw, yet again, I was overtaken by people that I know didn’t do the correct number of burpee reps. I need to stress the following point, because it’s how I feel after every Spartan Race:
The position that I worked so hard for is now completely meaningless.
In addition to that, whenever I do elite coverage at Spartan Races there is controversy, mostly in relation to whether burpee forfeits should or shouldn’t have been given and, on a side point, what a disproportionately huge impact a set of burpees has on the results. So why do it to yourself Spartan? Why court controversy? I’d like to see a podium without there being underlying whispers of “ifs”, “ands” and “buts”.
Why does this problem arise?
I believe that 30 burpees is just too much. It takes a long time to complete 30 burpees, it’s very tiring and is completely disproportionate to the failure of the majority of obstacles. Most people, understandably, want to get on with their race; so more often than not they will do after 10 to 15 reps. I don’t blame them, not everyone is going to care about honour as much as you and me. I blame the broken system.
There would be no point me being so critical without being constructive. I really hope that Spartan take note of this because it is a simple issue to fix. In fact there are many solutions. Here are a few, in order of preference:
The ideal solution: Make the forfeit for the failure of an obstacle another obstacle. We have seen this executed perfectly at the Rat Race Dirty Weekend and Nuclear Races' monkey bars. As soon as you fall off of the Dirty Weekend bars you are directed into a gangway of exhausting barrier jumps. At Nuclear you are directed into a series of muddy ditches and cargo net crawls. In both cases progress is slower and more tiring in the alternatives, making them the perfect forfeit. The downside: From an organiser’s point of view there will need to be an alternative obstacle built at all of the common failure points. However, would a simple sandbag carry or crawl be so difficult to set up?
The simple solution: Make every obstacle “must do”. At a lot of races you just “do” an obstacle. There is no option, there is no failure and there is no confusion. Look at The Nuts Challenge. It’s an incredibly tough course, where every obstacle must be completed. There are no gimmicks, no failing spear throws, no rules about how you should carry a bucket. If you reduce rules and reduce confusion you will reduce controversy and make the competition fairer. The downside: Some of Spartan’s key obstacles will need to be dropped or adapted.
Make the forfeit more proportionate: As a last resort option, if Spartan must give bupree forfeits, they should make the number proportionate to the failure of the obstacle. I believe that part of the reason why so many people don’t complete their full allocation of burpees is that 30 is just too many. It takes too long and is too big a challenge. When comparing it to the length of time and effort it takes to throw a spear, or even complete a set of monkey bars, it’s not even in the same ball park. If you were to make the forfeit 10 burpees I guarantee that the vast majority of people would actually complete them. I can already hear many of you saying “where’s the challenge in that” and “10 isn’t enough” BUT at least by doing that the playing field will be levelled because everyone will be doing the same forfeit (not some people 10 and some people 30, which is how it is now). I also believe that 10 burpees is a proportionate forfeit – it will be slower and more tiring than completing any of Spartan’s obstacles.
A crazy space-aged solution: Okay, this isn’t realistic but I’ll voice it anyway. There could be electronic burpee stations with a button that you have to jump up and press and a digital display that counts the number of times that you push the button. That would work but would is obviously be a huge investment.
The final solution: Don’t class yourself as a competitive event. I have no issue with burpee forfeits in an event that’s not competitive. They could call themselves “A challenge and not a race”… but something tells me that’s not going to happen. 🙂
There you have it Spartan Race. Sorry for rocking the boat… again. Feel free to ignore everything I say but if things stay how they are I will never consider you to be a competitive race and I will continue to get more and more frustrated by the unnecessary controversy that you are bringing on yourself.