(“Review” of the Spartan Race Citi Field, from the persepctive of a many-time spectator…)
Spartan Race, as they usually do, put on another typically Spartan event. And I don’t mean this in a bad way–it was full of energy, full of excitement on and off the track. The obstacles themselves were, by all accounts, your expected-by-now set of well-designed, creative challenges.
You had your elites getting off early in the proceedings, out to try to better their own times or set new times for others to chase. You had your first-time Spartans, many with their own inspirational tales of strength, perseverance, and triumph, ecstatic to make it successfully across the finish line. In other words, you had your typical Spartan story.
And it was a gorgeous venue: the relatively new Citi Field in New York City (Queens), home of the Mets. Easily accessible and lots of parking to boot. A beautiful backdrop.
There was one overarching downside to Saturday’s proceedings, one which unfortunately seeped into almost every aspect of the overall experience, and one which will dominate this review:
There were simply too many racers allowed to compete for a one-day event in a confined venue.
My personal uh-oh moment came from the moment I ascended the stairs from the lobby up to the main concourse. My first reaction was not “another Spartan Race–yes!” but rather (and almost instantly) “Holy cow, there are *way* more people here than usual…”. That should have been a clue, as this isn’t typically my first reaction.
What did this mean for the spectators? Borderline chaos. As with Fenway, most of the stadium areas were roped off and therefore inaccessible to spectators. And in the accessible areas, there were (as with Fenway) natural chokepoints where spectators would mass–along the walls, along the rails next to events, high-altitude vantage points. With three times the number of racers, you had (at least) three times the number of people in the stands, all clamoring for the same, very limited chokepoint real estate. Unfortunately, the social behavior that you think would result *did* result: etiquette, respect, and tact went largely out the window, and it was every person for themselves to make sure they got “their” spot to see their loved ones or friends go by. To those of us who have been around a Spartan crowd or two, this was somewhat shocking and definitely sad. But again, with that many people–many (most?) of them new to the Spartan experience–crowd self-management was non-existent. Most of us “veterans” who managed to talk to each other by chance could only shake our heads and wonder what the hell was happening here–this wasn’t what we had come to expect from our Spartan crowd experience.
What did this mean for the racers? I did not race (obviously), but I talked firsthand with many of the racers (most of whom I knew, some of whom were just random strangers I engaged in conversation). And to a man, the response was the same: The lines at some of the obstacles were long. *Really* long. And numerous. Racers (the too-many racers) would jump from obstacle to obstacle in ever-increasing numbers as you got into the race, but because the racers in progress at the obstacle couldn’t get through them as fast as new racers were arriving, the queues stacked up. 5 minutes, 10 minutes at obstacles was not unheard of. It got so bad that numerous racers “burpeed out” of some of the obstacles, voluntarily electing to take the penalty not because of their failure or inability to tackle the object, but because waiting to take their turn would negatively impact their ability to finish in a timely manner. This, I’m guessing, should never *ever* happen during a race as a matter of course. But it did. A lot. I don’t recall hearing of many/any complaints from Fenway racers about obstacle delays; at Citi, this was definitely not the case.
Note: Apparently, those that got off early–say, in or before the 9:00 heat–had a much more pleasant race experience. More typically “Spartan-like”. But by 11:15–and I’ve heard much earlier, actually–the delays at the start line were extending to the near-hour range; the 11:15 heat didn’t finish going off til almost noon. This was due in part to the oversold number of racers, but was also due in part to the fact that there was apparently no enforcement of start times–multitudes of racers from later heats were moving themselves up to earlier heats unchecked; this explains why the late morning/midday heats were the worst of the lot, delay-wise at the start and throughout the course, for racers and why these delays tapered off as the day went on (though even later in the afternoon, on-course delays–though smaller–were still quite noticeable).
By Spartan’s own numbers, there were 10,037 official “results” from Saturday at Citi (and there were numerous people who ran multiple times unchipped, as there was no one actually checking at the start). This is simply an unacceptable number for such a venue; in fact, I would argue it would be a borderline unmanageable number for *any* Spartan venue. Compare this with last year’s race at Fenway: Again by Spartan’s own numbers, only 5,599 official results were tallied for the *two* days at Fenway combined (and the numbers were rigidly enforced at the starting line–no chip/bib, no race, period). Well over *three times*–almost *four* times–as many racers in a single day on average, and in a restricted-space venue such as Citi Field (or any baseball stadium) to boot. There is no other way to say this: This was a strategic error of the highest order on the part of the Spartan decision-makers who OK’ed this, and the aftermath was 100% predictable (and not just in hindsight–this could, should, and would have been readily apparent from the start).
Fortunately, this is an eminently fixable problem–assuming that those who make the decisions actually see this as a problem. I overheard more than one staffer (that is, someone with a staff pass hanging from his neck) make the claim that the increased number of racers was due to the fact that they couldn’t hold a second day on Sunday due to a Mets game. This is irrelevant and a borderline non-sequitur: If you can’t support more than X racers per day without negatively impacting the experience, then you limit it to X racers, and the rest are out of luck. The truth is that this reeked of a decision made by a business person, not one made by a racer who loves the sport.
I love the Spartan story. It is full of excitement and passion and untold personal triumphs. Spartan Race, at least based on my experiences with it up to now, gets a lot of leeway, simply because they have time and time again shown that they know how to put on the good show, both for the racers and the people who watch them.
And despite the apparently numerous gripes by me (though it’s really, again, only one gripe, but one with many facets), I genuinely had a very good day: The venue was gorgeous, the excitement and (dare I say it?) pageantry of Spartan was still there, and I still got to hang out with and cheer on numerous friends as they took on the challenge of Spartan Race anew.
But overall, it was like reading a favorite book one more time. Only this time, someone ripped out a few pages in the middle, scribbled something completely different, and by the time I finished, the ending didn’t make sense any longer.
And as a result, this particular translation of the story was the least satisfying of any Spartan Race I’ve been a part of, either as a racer or (much more often) as an avid follower. I would like to think that this was a very unfortunate but one-time aberration, and I will consider it as such–until it isn’t. No happy ending here, sorry. But the next book hasn’t been finished yet, so there’s still time for a good edit…