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Featured Review: Spartan Race – MA Sprint 2016

wings_boneless12Buffalo Wild Wings is cool. I always get my boneless honey BBQ wings, and they’re the same, anywhere I go. Tasty, in a little cardboard tray, with sensory overload on TV. I get a Sam Adams with it, but sometimes I live dangerously and make a break from the normal, and get a Blue Moon. Bit of variety never hurt, right?

When I travel for work though, or when I’m taking friends and visiting family out … then I go to the local brew pub and get the duck bacon grilled cheese, or their seasonal lobster roll. Or the hole in the wall breakfast diner with pancakes bigger than my head. For a date night, I go to a slightly more upscale place, and get a daily special, and pick something from their craft beer menu – sometimes, I even let them make the suggestion for me.

Hungry yet?

header1Spartan Race is Buffalo Wild Wings. For the past several years you’ve been able to show up and get a consistently good, familiar product. “Comfort racing”, if you will.

The local OCR scene in New England is your breakfast diner, or your brew pub, or your high end local restaurant you take your wife on a date night, and dress up (i.e.: don’t wear a race shirt). Constantly changing, constantly varied, something for everyone – except, sometimes, the floor is a bit sticky. Always interesting, always pushing the boundaries. Always trying harder.

With than analogy aside (Thanks, Jess!)

bostonnotreally
We’re back at Carter and Stevens farm. Our first of three trips this 2016 OCR season, although I live close enough I go there for ice cream every now and then.

This trip was for the Spartan Race – Sprint edition. For many, the first step into the OCR world, and on the road to their first trifecta. For others, an annual tradition. I had figured out that this would be my 7th year at the “Boston” Sprint (non of which have been close to Boston). The festival hadn’t really changed much (the start line moved though), and after a few visits last year, the whole place felt very comfortable an familiar.

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Lets talk about what they did right.

– ALL parking was off site this year. Volunteers, vendors – everyone. Fortunately, the bus service was flawless, with porta potties in the parking lot for those with long drives. As much as getting shuttle busses sucks – they are a fact of life these days – as was the $10 parking fee. As much as I really dislike getting shuttles, I never waited more than a couple of minutes to get rolling, and it was a short drive on both days.

IMG_1631– Check-in was – again – flawless. We hadn’t received waivers in our inbox, so they needed filling out. Packet located, and through in minutes. My wife used the spectator check-in with our son later on in the day – no reported problems. I checked in as a spectator on Sunday with no hassle or delays.

– Festival – easy to navigate. Condensed enough that it always felt lively, but rarely too crowded. We had secured Biggest Team tent for the weekend, and this was centrally located, next to the brick oven pizza and beer. Our biggest team ceremony went off mostly without a hitch once a photographer was located, and we picked up our first stack of 2016 Biggest Team patches and our Biggest Team award (it went home with Shaina, who has been a member of the team, and team Ambassador since the very early days – enjoy it, Shaina!). Sundays wet award was a little damper, and more subdued.

– HUGE props to the kids course folks! My 7yo covered 3.5 miles of Kids Course racing – and had the time of his life! 5 laps!

– Carter and Stevens farm – our host – amazing food all day. From brick oven pizza to bbq. All kinds of frozen treats. Later in the day, BBQ and a band at their roadside shack. No worries about bringing your own bottles or food in either. They are impeccable hosts!

Lets talk about the negatives.

13310541_10207877345646060_3202760165645387003_n– Coors Lite as the only beer option? Come on …

– No pre-race email. In fact, only one, single mention of the Boston event on Spartan’s social media in the week leading to the race. They had another big race going on in Monterey, with all their elite points and media and such. If you pay attention to such things (and I do), then the Boston event – their oldest event – was definitely ignored by HQ this year. When it comes to HQ support, Boston felt like the “B” race this weekend – it showed, and I’m sure it was frustrating for the staff.

– The hoist – what the hell happened to the pulleys on this one? That was the single most challenging hoist I’ve ever done – and any dude under 200lbs was out. of. luck. Debate rages if it was pulleys, rope, weight … I’ve done enough of these things at enough venues, and the three I tried all had stiff pulleys.

– The course was simply too long for a Sprint. Call it “extra miles” or “more than you paid for” all you like, but it was very close to the 2015 Super in distance and route – and that screws the people who signed up for a “3+ mile” event.

13015160_10207877450528682_7283562115954167976_nNow – if this is your first year of Spartan Race, or maybe even your first race – then you were treated to a solid series of obstacles that ranged from terrain (potholes, mud, trail, mud etc) and man made, signature Spartan obstacles – rope climbs, hoists, heavy carries, spear throw, climbing and similar things. You probably enjoyed them just fine, and I am NOT trying to take that away from you. I enjoyed them, just fine too. I had a great time. I think they do good obstacles. But …

If you did the 2015 races – the obstacles probably felt very familiar. Same if you ran in 2014. And 2013. In fact, there have been so few changes in the obstacle catalogue Spartan brings to these races in my 7 years at the “Boston” Sprint, it’s ridiculous. This is the leading OCR company out there. They won “most innovative” in Mud Run Guide’s 2015 awards, which is possible the most ironic award they could have won. They have the best people and staff – who are without fail the most enthusiastic, passionate people you could want to meet, the most active fans and the biggest community following them – and no one can produce and deploy a new obstacle or three? (I mean, of course they can – but for some reason, the powers that be at Spartan won’t let it happen).

13330908_10207877495049795_68444540252962917_nWhy is this? Whats the deal? Spartan have taken their returning customers – the fan base – for granted. Everyone shows up, year after year, race after race looking for their next piece in the trifecta, their next delta – or to run with their buddies in their annual tradition event – and Spartan doesn’t have to change a single thing. Why change their secret sauce, when people keep coming back for their honey BBQ boneless wings, year after year?

What they want, are the newbies. People they can suck into the Spartan world, and the Spartan life style. People who haven’t gotten sick of saying “aroo” yet, and who haven’t realized that in three or four years – nothing will change at the race, but they will have changed …

Fortunately, this wasn’t a day for me to throw myself at obstacles and physical challenges. This was a frequently hilarious, casual slow walk through the woods with some of the best people in the world – people for who I will put up with a repeat of previous years course – because it’s not about the obstacles at Spartan. For me, or for them.

I come to Spartan for the people. New people finding our community for the first time, old friends I’ve run with for a few years now. I enjoy their course layout well enough, but obstacles and penalties and aroo aroo aroo and blah blah blah?

I’ll eat at my local – thank you.12004019_10204658842499101_169475202809688060_n

(last story)

I was doubled up, holding onto a fence post, gasping for breath, it was so funny.

Our team of four – Josh, Jessica, Steve and myself had started in the 9:15am NES team wave, and trotted through to the first obstacle – a couple of large round hay bails. We were laughing, joking and generally having a good time, and approaching the obstacle, when Steve took off, sprinting ahead of our short group, clearly going for a running leap over the top.

When he tripped – instead of a graceful leap over the top, he took a head first tumble into the front of the giant hay bail, which didn’t even have the decency to move.

I’m glad he wasn’t hurt, because I was genuinely helpless with laugher for a good ten minutes.

Anyway – I promised I’d tell that story. You’re welcome, Steve.

Oh, and the Hurricane Heat looked pretty badass too. Back on form? Hopefully someone leaves us a review.

Do you have an opinion on this race? Leave us a review!

http://www.newenglandspahtens.com/community-reviews/

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Featured Review: Spartan Race, MA Sprint 2015

Editors note: Thank you to Sandy for handling this featured review for us!

11930801_906095589478788_106736280221920448_oblockIt’s always interesting to have different events at the same location. After the Spartan Super was held at Carter & Stevens Farm back in June, we heard a lot of complaints about the venue. Many thought it was no good because there isn’t much elevation change. Others thought it was too short. Some complained about the inevitable animal smells. Amazing what a difference can be made, at the same location, and even by the same company! Whereas the Super was a foul out, the Sprint comes in as a grand slam.
The New England Spahtens came out in force for the Spartan Sprint at Barre, MA. Between the two days, we had almost 450 registered with the team, plus countless volunteers who raced the same weekend and therefore didn’t hit the 14 day cut-off to be included in the biggest team numbers. patchAll told, I’m sure we were over 500 strong. Spartan has been taking care of their biggest teams this year and we were awarded the beautiful Biggest Team block both Saturday and Sunday. In addition, each person on the list was entitled to free bag check, one free spectator entry, and a Biggest Team patch. The ceremony at the sound stage was pretty lackluster, but that may have been due to some last minute changes in the staff. Either way, we received our prize and had our picture taken and it was time to race.

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Carter & Stevens Farm is perfect for a Sprint distance event. This one showed up on most GPS trackers between 5.3 and 5.6 miles. Spartan hinted at 4.8 prior, so the total distance sounds about right once you factor in Spartan miles (they don’t tend to add the distances of carries, only the distances between obstacles.)

11887564_10153638374758338_3065366746468968929_o

11951737_905571309531216_7529193523994251248_oAs far as obstacles go, I counted 25. If you treat the O-U-T (over, under, through) walls and the wall series (8’, 7’, 6’) individually, that count jumps to 29. Personally, I’m all about the obstacles, so this was wonderful for me. All their standard obstacles were there, including walls, atlas stone, monkey bars, pancake and bucket carries, and the slip wall. In addition, they had the Clif Multi-Bar Rig, a Farmer’s Log Carry, and the new interpretation of the Traverse Wall called the Z Wall. My favorite innovation of the day was on The Bridge. Instead of walking across planks at the top, they had stretched a cargo net made of strapping over the void. Personally, I LOVED that! I was able to walk across while some others I saw chose to crawl or roll. It allowed you to approach the obstacle at a different level than others around you.

11908935_905573092864371_4153837855920901506_oEvery obstacle I saw was extremely well built. I saw nothing loose, nothing wobbly, etc. By late Sunday, the hay bales of the spear throw were starting to fall apart, but short of replacing them with new ones, I don’t think there was anything to be done about that. I heard after the fact that one of the ropes on the slip wall was loose, but this was not something I actually witnessed. The obstacles were a good mix of strength and technique. The carries and weighted obstacles such as the hoist trended on the heavy side. Many were relegated to burpees at the hoist because they just couldn’t get the bag to move. I like it when there is a balance between athletes – heavier athletes tend to do well on the hoist and heavy carries, while lighter athletes tend to breeze through the monkey bars and the rope climb. It’s difficult to be good at both without working really hard and that’s the way it should be in my opinion. 11879022_905572539531093_1898205234343736982_oThe only obstacle that I take any umbrage with is the Rig. This is a difficult obstacle for the majority of the field. In this race, it was a long pole followed by three knotted ropes followed by five rings – not easy for the vast majority of the 13,000 racers during the weekend. My disappointment comes because they decided that this already difficult obstacle needed to be made even more difficult by making the third rope significantly shorter and higher up than the other two. I may be wrong, but this seems a lot like Spartan laughing in the faces of many who are strong, but not quite strong enough. I do realize that it is the athletes’ responsibility to train harder, but would it have been so terrible to just make all three ropes the same length? 

On the course, Spartan did a good job of keeping you guessing. Even though the course passed itself several times, you could never see it, only hear that people were just on the other side of a stand of trees or some such. This kept everything fresh and exciting. They could have just done switchbacks in a large field, but they didn’t. I appreciate that. It takes a lot better planning to accomplish, but the end result is worth it.
Spartan did well on the logistics of the race as well. I did not ride the shuttle bus, but heard from many that it was smooth with little to no waiting and friendly efficient drivers. Apparently, the seats were dirty on the ride back, but I think that is to be expected! Registration was easy and smooth, as was the free spectator sign in. I also did not use the bag check, but heard that it was also painless. Go up, give your name, free bag check for those on the Biggest Team list, $5 for everyone else. I heard that the showers ran out of water on Saturday afternoon for a while and that Spartan had to get another truck delivery of water. Unfortunately, this negatively affected a chunk of racers. Whereas I believe that Spartan should have back up water standing by in case, I also think that some people treat the water as infinitely available and waste a lot washing their clothes and shoes. I think we should educate people that it is a rinse station, not a shower station and they should be conservative with their use. I also think there should be a back up just in case.

festivalrigThe festival area for this race was top notch. Never have I seen so many different things to do at a race. For the athletic, they had a Spartan Rig set up with contests periodically, a slack line, a couple of pull up bars, a few ropes to climb, and a company called Mobile Fitness Equipment who basically had a full gym in a small shipping container. For those looking to purchase stuff, Panasonic, TomTom, Trigger-Pin, and the Spartan Merchandise tents were all there. Food was offered from three different vendors – Carter & Stevens had their own stand open with sandwiches, corn on the cob, and ice cream; Firefly’s was there with BBQ, burgers, salads, and fresh fruit; and Heal Thee Smoothees had, you guessed it, smoothies. farmposterIt was great to see the healthy options available! Spartan had Shock Top beer available for the free bear tickets, but there also was water, Gatorade, lemonade, mint lemonade, basil lemonade, and ice tea available for non-drinkers and those underage. Finally, Organic Valley had their milk protein recovery shakes. Each runner got their choice of vanilla or chocolate at the finish line along with water, a banana, and a Clif Builder Bar. For those wanting more, they could visit the Organic Valley booth and pick up drinks and coupons for $1.25 off. The Mobile Locker Co was onsite to offer everyone an alternative to the once in/once out bag check. You could rent a locker for the day and have unlimited access to your belongings. Lockers were available in four sizes for varying costs.

Overall, I think Spartan knocked this one out of the park. The course was good. The obstacles were varied and well built. The logistics ran smoothly.  

We’d love to hear your opinion. Please take a few minutes to complete your own review at http://www.newenglandspahtens.com/submit-a-race-review/.

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Rebel Race in the Rearview

When I was in the Army I saw a t-shirt that said “Happiness is Fort Bliss in the rearview mirror.”  This statement pretty much covers my thoughts on the Rebel Race.

Rebel Race has a polished website and registration page.  They for all appearances look like a well organized race, worthy of the cost of the race and their place in the OCR community.  Putting an “S” on your chest does not make you Superman however.  Rebel Race registrations start at $50 and top out at $85 and about $20 more respectively if you choose to do the 15k version.  I’m not sure how many people raced this weekend but the only people who got their money’s worth were the folks at Rebel Race.

Every story needs a beginning so I will simply start mine at the parking lot.  Kimble Farm, an actual working farm in Haverhill, MA is located just above the Merrimack River.  Honestly you really couldn’t ask for a more scenic location.  When I arrived at 10am they had staff working the single file queue to get in and were collecting the now standard $10 parking fee.  I feel the parking must have been run by Kimble Farm staff, who host multiple events at this location, because these were the only organized people at the venue.  Parking was ample at this time and multiple staff members on hand were directing cars efficiently.

And then it all fell apart.  Changed and ready to go, this not being my first OCR, I headed to registration.  I had to make a registration transfer and couldn’t do it online so I went looking for an information tent.  I’m still looking for it.  However I met some NE Spahtens and jumped into the chaos which was the registration tents.  Like most things it wasn’t as bad as it appeared; it was about a 20 minute wait but people queued pleasantly.  Arriving at a nice volunteer she seemed to understand what I was needing to do.  However, I feel all she did was take my email print out and hand me the bib, t-shirt and rebel bag (which will become a Spartan training sandbag covered in duct tape).  At no point was I asked for a waiver.  I so should have gotten hurt!

The starting line.  Large start box, tight little timing line to go over.  A choke point and wait right at the beginning?  Not good.  The opening flat stretch is actually billed as 1 of the 26 obstacles: “Sergeants Sprint”.  Really, flat open ground is an obstacle?  So here is a list of other “obstacles”  which were marked with good, professionally done signage.  In no particular order:  Run Backwards, Fire Drill (roll on the ground for no apparent reason), Creepy creek (a muddy portion of a trail), Shuttle Run (run sideways), Drop and give me 10; Push-ups, leg lifts and some other exercise, Military Mud Pit;  Never even saw this one, Mystery???(yep still a mystery to all of us)  None of these had a volunteer directing you or even informing you that this was in fact an obstacle.  Just a small 2 foot by 16 inch sign.  Again a really great looking Kinkos sign.

So, those were the headscratching obstacles.  Next come the frustrating obstacles.  Slip and slide was easily a 20 minute wait to go down a slip and slide.  The cattle just queued up and waited.  NE Spahtens however were not waiting.  We cut across to the next obstacle but we’re Spartans so we burpee’d!  Some other racers joined us, and this is where Spahtens led the way.  The other racers who joined us just started knocking out burpees.  Eventually, one asked a Rebel volunteer how many they had to do.  The Rebel volunteer was clearly still suffering from the shock and awesomeness of NE Spahtens and had no answer.  At the end of mine I looked at the other racer and told her “You don’t have to do any, were just crazy.”  Clearly confused, she laughed but stopped and moved on.  She’s ready for Spartan Race she just doesn’t know it yet.  Another headscratcher was Prison Break, the single, 6 foot wide wall that was supposed to be covered in barbed wire causing you to go under.  Well, most of the very little barbed wire was missing so most people just stepped through the wall. On top of that was the verbiage which alluded to being cautious about the possibility of sodomy while doing the obstacle. Don’t drop the soap when you bend over. Really?  Is that necessary?

Now let’s take a look at the clearly dangerous obstacles.  Monkey bars. Broken crossmembers, missing hand holds, unstable construction.  Tyrolean traverse.  This one was clearly the worst out of them all.  First, there were four ropes of 5/8 inch diameter yellow polypro rope.  This is the cheapest line available.  It’s weak and has little tensile strength for endurance.  The traverse was about 30 feet and the line was raised about 11 feet above the ditch, which was a rocky ravine filled with large hay bales.  Not fluffy decorative hay ride bales but large dense feed bales.  They have about as much give as concrete.  Unfortunately while the NE Spahtens were waiting at this obstacle (which was also an unmanned water station with runners pouring their own water) not one but two people fell from this obstacle.  One was knocked out cold from the fall and the other had the rope catastrophically fail and collapse sending him to the ground and then to the Emergency Room with what appeared to be a fractured wrist.  We like racing and personally, I have an aversion to hospitals, so this ended up being the 2nd “skipped” obstacle.

So you might ask was there anything good at Rebel Race?  Yes, the venue.  A rolling farm with lots of hills really good for a cross-country run.  The weather.  The NE Spahtens to run with.  Obstacles?  They had a well done spider web.  Thoughtfully designed and constructed.  Solidly fastened to the trees to endure thousands of runners without collapsing.  Under and Over pipes in a small water filled ditch.  That water was cold and you really did have to get fully submerged.  Drain pipe crawl, simple and not very exciting, but fun.  And last, an uphill tire field to high step.  The last little stretch to the finish line had obstacles no more than 10 feet in length that were designed and constructed by a local Cub Scout troop.  The fire pit to jump over was smaller then the holiday fires I light in my fireplace.  Finally, the finish line was another unstaffed area that had our “dog-tag” survivor key chain.  If it wasn’t for other NE Spahtens who had finished before us (one of whom who took 1st place over all) we wouldn’t have even known they were there.  They were unceremoniously tossed on a table between the bananas and the water and still in their factory shipped plastic bags.

Rebel Race ran 3 races in 2011:  New York, DC and Indiana.  In 2012 they list 10 races, all sold out.  But as of this writing, the last 2 races in 2012 are coming soon.  I see nothing for 2013.  Their races start around $50 and tap out at $85 for the 5k and $70 to $105 for the 15k which is simply 3 laps of the 5k.  Without insight into the company, its organization, or how it’s run, I have to give this race a solid 2 out of 10.  I wouldn’t recommend this as an intro to Obstacle Course Racing because to do so may turn people away from other races of quality.  For return on investment, it’s a 0.  For swag, I give it a 1.  For organization at the festival area, it’s a 5?  Their web presence would lead you to believe they are a large professionally run organization.  Their product does not.  Rebel Race does not belong in the same arena with TM, Spartan Race, or even Warrior Dash.  They charge the same amount as other events and nowhere near deliver.  If they dropped their price point to max out at $35, invested a little more in the quality of the obstacles that they did do well, don’t advertise natural course features as obstacles, and dropped the body weight exercises entirely they might recover and become a worthwhile race.  Not an Obstacle Course Race but an adventure, mud, fun run.

If you’re reading this, this is why NE Spahtens was formed.  Anything, no matter how bad, can be fun as long as you’re with good friends.  I got to meet up with old Spahtens and new Spahtens.  Some I have raced and trained with and some I have only met online.  We will continue to run races and review them as openly and honestly as possible.  We will do this to ensure that everyone has an opportunity to salvage a great time even from a bad race.

-editors note – modifed for spelling/grammer 🙂