By now you’ll have enjoyed Adam’s report on Spartan's 24 hour Icelandic extravaganza. You’re probably also wondering what possessed Spartan to attempt an event of this scale in a notoriously unforgiving landscape. After the event Adam had the chance to sit down and speak with David Watson VP Spartan Product and Mike Morris VP Spartan Production to ask them a few questions about the event.
Where did the Idea for a 24hr Spartan Race originate?
David Watson: CEO Joe De Sena. I distinctly remember the phone call. He said, “We’re going to Iceland.” It took a moment to soak in, but it didn’t surprise me because at Spartan we have the mind-set of taking ridiculously tough challenges head-on and constantly pushing ourselves to provide more rewarding and life changing race experiences for people. We go for the sort of stuff where most companies would be like “that’s impossible, forget it.”
Why was Iceland chosen to host the first Spartan 24hr?
Watson: A Spartan Race in freezing conditions, with 4 hours of daylight, snow, winds that flip cars and the Northern Lights overhead - it was a perfect location. This was more about putting on an epic ultra race in a stunning place as opposed to focusing on the 24hr format, which just happened to be a good fit. There are few places on earth that are as tough and beautiful as Iceland, and it also has an incredible history.
How was the format decided upon, did you look at how other 24hr events like WTM operate?
Watson: We set out to create something people would tell their grandkids about - something unique to Spartan. We have a very experienced team who have competed in all sorts of races over the years, from multi-day stage races to the big global adventure races and 100 milers, so we knew what elements we wanted in a race, particularly in terms of distance and level of challenge. The 24hr format suited since we wanted to go for more distance, and bring in some classic ultra-endurance racing elements that come along with the format, like crews and night racing. We also created some great new things, like the elite burpee zone, the punch cards after each lap, the 5km prologue through the village, and extremely strict rules around what it takes to be a finisher, which required tactical planning from competitors.
Mike Morris: After scouting the proposed course, we sat as a team and worked through each obstacle one at a time. Obstacles were chosen based on their difficulty, flow and location on course, accessibility, and safety as a result of the unpredictable terrain.
What were the challenges in organising an event in Iceland, how did this affect the course build? Is there anything you would do differently should Spartan return to Iceland?
Morris: Consider the challenge we faced. A foreign country, an island, brutal weather, crazy expensive and limited daylight. This impacted everything from venue selection (imagine not having the dome), racer capacity, build schedule, design, rules, staffing, and procurement (we rented all the fence available on the island and shipped in several containers from the United States). If there is anything that exceeded my expectations, it was my team’s performance. I already hold everyone in high regard, but this race proved how well they could adapt and work together in a new and challenging environment.
A: What was the cost of staging the event, is it the most expensive Spartan to date?
Watson: We stage some huge events around the world but this was one of our most expensive to date. Putting on an OCR event is one thing. Taking the Spartan show on the road to Iceland in mid-winter for 24 hours is a whole other level. The logistics involved in this were incredibly complex and expensive from production, to filming and media, to refereeing and more. That said, we’re coming back next year so expect us to take it up another notch.
Watson: Given the weather conditions and time of year we wanted our volunteers committed, particularly because we needed to rely on them to make this happen. Of course everyone gets their deposit back, it’s already happening now. We had an awesome turnout of volunteers; they were all incredible and tough people.
A: There was a change to the traditional Spartan format of burpee penalties with the introduction of penalty loops and mandatory obstacles alongside. How was this decision reached and are we likely to see this format adopted at other Spartan events?
Watson: Burpees are to Spartan as water is to the ocean. We used penalty loops on a few obstacles because making every obstacle have a burpee penalty in a 24hr format, in those insane conditions, would probably mean a 0% finish rate and a harder time officiating. I think we got the mix just right.
The course was incredible with some very challenging terrain especially during the adverse weather conditions during the race. At the briefing it was mentioned that there was a shorter course removing the major climb should conditions demand it, during the race did you ever consider switching due to safety concerns?
Morris: We had our staff and medical team members on the mountain throughout the entire race assessing the conditions. We were constantly checking to make sure the course was safe. We never made any decision to switch to the short course.
A: How was the Mandatory kit decided upon, and why was there a decision not to allow studs on a very icy course?
Watson: Spartan has a global team of very experienced professional medics and race directors, and so we knew what people would need to carry to stay safe in Iceland’s conditions. Metal studs are dangerous when climbing on and over metal (Bender, A-Frame and Vertical Cargo for example) and tear apart wooden obstacles like Olympus. It was icy in sections, but people who wore shoes with grippy tread, as we recommended, managed well.
Morris: 600 starters and 322 24-hr finishers.
A: There has been some discussion around the event village and lack of food options for pit crew and spectators, is there a reason it was sparse when compared to previous events?
Watson: Obviously, you’re not going to get a sushi train at 3am inside an inflatable dome in the mountains in Iceland. There was a pretty decent range of food including sausages and sauerkraut sandwiches, soup, Icelandic frozen yoghurt and other snacks. At times in the middle of the night the range was reduced since most of the spectators were coming back again in the morning. The competitors brought along all their own race nutrition in the transition area where there was hot water for making soup, noodles and things.
There were some issues with the live broadcast during the event with loss of drones and live standings not being available, what happened? Did the weather affect the timing mats and fixed cameras out on course?
Watson: If you watch the 3-show coverage we had tons of live footage from the course. We also showed what was happening live in terms of leaders and positions - there were times when the blizzard and gale force winds took out cameras but the team did an amazing job fixing them. Drones work well but when the wind is as strong as it was they can get taken out. Some of our timing equipment got hammered by the storms but the timing & results team had 3 backups, which they had to download and sort data manually for which is labour intensive, hence some of the delays at the end but the backups worked perfectly.
Post event there was confusion around the return transfers as these were initially scheduled for 2pm but were moved to 12:30pm, what was the reason for this?
Morris: Given it was our first time, we honestly didn’t know what to expect once noon hit. Would people hang out? Would they take naps? Would they want to leave immediately? We quickly realised watching the trend in outbound traffic that morning that racers wanted to pack up their gear and get back to their hotel ASAP for some rest. So, we adjusted on the fly and were able to get the buses in a bit earlier. It impacted the awards ceremony but we were more concerned with getting the majority of competitors back. We set out to create something memorable and very unique to Spartan, and I’d say it’s unanimous that we accomplished our goal.