Spartan wrapped up a highly successful season last weekend with the Windsor Sprint and Beast weekend. There’s an awful lot to talk about when it comes to their turnaround of what have been quite a variable few years of races, but before we get down to the muddier details, leeeet’s just quickly talk about that parking situation.
It is inevitable in our temperate climate that some fields are wet, muddy and difficult to get out of. This is, however, the first time I’ve seen people have to be towed in to the car park. The towing and rescue vehicles being on hand was testament to decent planning, but I can’t help thinking that it all wasn’t just an accident waiting to happen, especially with parking attendants forcing vehicles to stop on slick mud to take payment when they could have had the forethought to fortify the standing area with decent matting, or just take payment after cars were parked.
This rather questionable organisation lead to quite the backlog for registration, and drivers were confused and agitated. This sort of thing was bound to put people into a grumpy mind set before the race had even begun, and nobody wants it to be the focus of any carefully planned event. So, to get it out of the way: getting in and out of the event was difficult, led to wave times being missed, and caused a logjam out on the duel carriageway. It wasn’t ideal. It’s probably safe to say that Spartan is fully aware that this is damaging to people’s lasting impression of the season closer.
Right. On to the stuff we’re really here for.
With registration out of the way, the event village was as smooth as you might expect. Spartan Phil had rightly taken up his platform, and racers seemed genuinely pleased to have him strutting his stuff again. He’s an icon, and we wouldn’t like to see a race kicked off in any other way. Big props to Spartan for listening to the masses and bringing back this rebel rousing little rascal.
And what of the races? Well, Saturday’s Beast Elites set off at a roaring pace, but like so many of us that followed, they unfortunately hit a series of bottlenecks, and a queue to get through a single storm drain. I’m not usually a fan of a big long run at the off, but it’s necessary to break up the field to prevent jams at obstacles, and try as they did to speed off, there are only so many elite athletes you can fit in a single concrete tube in a timely fashion. I know this scuppered the race for some, but I also know that Spartan can, and have done better on this score.
Taking a slice out of a slightly different part of Windsor, namely Bagshot, saw the route pick through some really beautiful forest trails. I love forest trails. At times, bouncing over the spongy floors of towering woodlands could make you feel like you were on another planet – the only indication that you were in a race came from the rather spectral tapes hanging from trees, gently guiding you on your way. It would have been quite easy to become disorientated in the repetitive scenes created by walls of tree trunks, but focus had to be maintained, because the forest floor was awash with stumps and branches ready to fox the most agile of runners. I truly love terrain like this; crashing through the undergrowth and running as though you are being chased is very freeing, but even I grew tired of it at points.
The terrain is nobody’s fault really though, it was a flat, and therefore fast course, so the challenge had to come from weaving in and out of the trees, popping out into occasional clearings. At these moments, you could catch glimpses of racers ahead and behind you on a sort of woven ladder, leading you further from the event village, which held the main concentration of obstacles and spectators.
At times, all you could hear, aside from the padding of your feet on the sprung earth, were the sound of distant bells, which either meant that you were in an M. Night Shyamalan film, or that an obstacle loomed up ahead. I welcomed the tolling of these bells, and was really pleased to see a good selection of obstacles.
I did think though, that for a Beast, this race should probably have been more, well, beastly. It felt a little more like a sample platter of Spartan obstacles rather than a serious test of endurance. Don’t get me wrong, the race boasted some GREAT obstacles, but something that really inspired me at the Super was just how technical and creative the carries and crawls were – and they remain the very essence of Spartan punishment. A few of the carries in this Beast were over before they had started. Perhaps the terrain wasn’t there to allow for more of this, but for the last Beast of the season, I’d have liked to have seen it ramped up for the occasion.
And so, to the Sprint.
I have always thought that when it comes to your trifecta, the Sprint is to be enjoyed, the Super is to be raced and the Beast is to be endured. The Sprint was therefore PERFECTLY pitched. It was fun, punchy and included a good set of obstacles that challenged both experienced and new racers. It also had the added ‘benefit’ of being on the Sunday, so that the squishy forest trails had become gloop lagoons, which added an element of difficulty and hilarity, depending on whether you felt bad for whoever lost shoes in them.
There was a good balance of running versus time spent on obstacles, with very little queuing, so long as you managed to crash through the first half a kilometre before being bogged down in…well, a bog. The atmosphere was brilliant, and I think it’s fair to say that the UK team are very good at putting on a punchy race after some patchy years.
Marshals were cheery, if a little confused; some were pushing penalties hard, and some just wanted us to take a leaf out of Cyndi Lauper’s book and have fun, so it may be worth Spartan looking at the uniformity of rule enforcement in open waves (do or do not, or maybe just try). That’s probably an article that’s done to death, so let’s not go there today.
All in all, I’m very excited to see that Spartan are learning from the pitfalls of previous races, and their staffing and organisation have (on the whole) improved the racing experience massively. There are several ducks that still need to be lined up in an orderly fashion, but I do think that the parking blip from the weekend, and some uninspiring terrain may unfairly skew memories of what has been one of the best UK seasons in Spartan Racing. Their villages, shirts, medals are still impressive, their dedication to development of the sport is to be commended, and they're still investing in safe but exciting obstacles. They’re listening, they’re going places, and they’re taking us with them.
I for one will definitely be on the start line of more Spartan Races next year, because I’m genuinely excited about what they’re doing within obstacle racing Worldwide. Now we have both the Ultra Beast and Hurricane Heats over here, it looks like Spartan is going to be catering to a massive demographic ranging from the greenest of novices to the certifiably insane endurance monsters.
Certainly with more uniformity and support, I can only see them flourishing, and I want to be there for that.
Thanks to Epic Action Imagery for photographs.