A multi-venue race can always make for a variable experience, and on the first weekend of a new season of any race, you’d be forgiven for thinking there may be registration hiccups, route marking irregularities or course bottlenecks to contend with. On a wet, misty Sunday, trundling down the M25, I did wonder what may be in store for us at the St Clere Sprint, but on arrival it was plain to see that the event was already living up to its pre-season hype, and any worries were unfounded. Spartan’s UK team is more solid than it's been in a while, and I’m pleased to report that IT SHOWS.
On Sunday afternoon, Mudstacle took a small group of less experienced runners on a coaching lap of the Sprint. While a 5k+ race might sound less intimidating to an OCR novice than the Super or Beast, the obstacles (and penalties) can still put off those who aren’t sure about their technique or ability to get through 30 burpees without throwing up. To get a good grounding in the different skills and strengths that are useful in OCR, you have to have a varied and interesting course, and that is exactly what Spartan delivered, in spades this weekend. That’s why it was the perfect race for confidence building for those that have tried a few entry level races and want to start upping their game and making their racing more efficient.
The Sprint wasn’t by any means a walk in the park; with the big bad, but highly innovative Twister still bumping up the burpee count for many, but it managed to be doable without destroying us (or the new recruits). Other obstacles that cropped up on course were the rings, Z walls, slippy A-frames and the trademark rope climbs and high walls. Interspersed with the very well spaced builds were the carries and drags that make a Spartan Race a feat of endurance.
The course kept a sting in its tail though; in the form of gloopy, sticky mud - the weather had taken a turn on Saturday night, and what was a balmy, clear Super the day before had melted into a mud bath for the Sprint. Luckily the rain abated in the afternoon when we were running, so the conditions were actually quite pleasant. Excellent use of terrain is starting to become a hallmark of this Spartan team, and long may it continue; of course, I hate the hills at the time, and I could do without trekking around hill switchbacks, but in retrospect, they’re a brilliant way to make the ground an obstacle in itself. The woodland trails are always enjoyable and ridiculous in equal measure, with the mud effectively turning the hillsides into slides by the end of the day. Safety did also seem key with the team, though; closing trails when they became too treacherous.
Waves were small and well spaced right up until 5pm, which is pretty new, as numbers often dwindle towards the end of the day. Spartan did this in a considered move to reduce on course congestion – something that always hangs in a trade off between ‘sociable’ start times. I had originally thought that starting waves as late as 5pm would be disastrous for the morale of runners, however seeing those waves set off, and not having experienced a great deal of queuing from registration throughout the course, I’m re-evaluating my stance on it. It's a good move, even if it does mean longer days for volunteers (who I hope had a nice day too). Smaller, regular waves seemed to really aid course flow, and though some food and drink vendors did close a little early, the vibe in the village was still quite good towards the bitter end. Volunteers were perky and helpful, and genuinely the only complaint that I had (and it’s a petty one) was that the new tee shirts are not as nice as in previous seasons. They’re tech material, not the smooth and snuggly, quality cotton I have come to know and love (and actually wear outside of races), and I not-so-secretly hope that this is a move they might reconsider.
Finally, let’s talk about that thing that can really ruin a good day – the drive out. Spartan came under some fire for an absolute shocker of a car-parking situation last year, and I’m happy to say that the organisation today was such an improvement. There were some delays getting in this afternoon, but since registration was easy, and the team so accommodating, it didn’t cause any problems for us. Though cars did get stuck, it certainly wasn’t for want of forethought– a metal track had been placed in the field, with matting in as many areas as possible. Response to stricken cars was reportedly very quick, and the parking marshals were much more on the ball than I have found them to be at other events. Nobody can make a field 100% safe for swift exits, but it was clear that real planning had gone in to the car parks today, which is a blessing when you’re a bit wet and sleepy.
In all, I think Spartan have set the bar incredibly high with their season opener, with what sounded like a vicious Super and an exciting, challenging and enjoyable Sprint.
Spartan is back, and stronger than ever; and if this weekend was a taste of what’s on offer this season, I’ll be biting off a whole chunk.
[All photos courtesy of Epic Action Imagery]