Written By: Katie Purcell
Spartan Race athletes around the USA are gearing up for the beginning of another race season: which is currently scheduled to kick off on February 26 in Jacksonville, FL.
...But in 2021, the vibe is decidedly different.
It seems crazy to look back and realize that at this time last year, the COVID-19 virus was something that most Americans had *barely* heard of. It wasn't yet cause for concern among athletes, who were eagerly anticipating races in the upcoming months. And none of us could have predicted that within just a few weeks, OCR-as-we-know-it would essentially be "cancelled" for the rest of 2020 (...along with a lot of other things).
Fast forward to now: Spartan has assured us that they are "back" for the 2021 race season in full force -- albeit with some changes to Race Day procedures -- in an effort to mitigate the spread of the virus.
And while some events that had previously been scheduled for before Jacksonville have already been cancelled or postponed, many Spartans remain hopeful that races will happen more consistently for the rest of the year.
Regardless of the details, one thing is for sure: any events that do take place in 2021 are going to look -- and feel! -- unlike anything we've experienced from Spartan in years past.
Some of the more drastic changes may be difficult to adjust to. And some of the new stuff might be confusing...or annoying...or both. But there also may be distinct advantages -- in the form of opportunities to get ahead -- for the athlete who knows where to look.
Take a spin through, and then share YOUR thoughts: how do you picture this season playing out? What potential opportunities or issues do you think will influence Spartan Race -- and OCR in general -- in 2021?
A glance around the venue on Race Day is gonna look a whole lot different in 2021...and I'm not just talking about the new rules and regulations that Spartan has planned in an effort to slow the spread of the virus.
Just a few weeks after finally introducing their long-anticipated concept of a "gated" Elite Wave, Spartan was essentially forced to put the program on hold: and allow athletes who had fit the qualifying criteria for 2020 to "roll over" their qualification into the 2021 race season.
Considering the vast range of training (...or not...) that athletes have been doing during their time away from racing: who will come out "on top" in 2021 is anyone's guess -- and might come down as much to how well athletes have been able to adapt their training as to anything else. Moreover, It's likely that a bunch of "Race Day Regulars" will be missing from the events altogether (at least for a little while) for any of a myriad of reasons: some COVID-related, and some not.
On the COVID- side: some athletes will likely start the season by going the "play it safe" route for a little while due to lingering health concerns (if not for themselves, then maybe for family members or "at-risk" household members, etc.). Other athletes may have found new pursuits during the course of the pandemic that have sparked their interest (I, for one, have recently become fascinated by Pack Burro Racing ...but I digress!).
And sadly, some athlete situations have changed so much that Spartan entry fees are no longer feasible. Many have been forced to shift priorities and resources: in response to updated demands on factors like time management, childcare needs, or unemployment concerns throughout the pandemic.
...But COVID is not the sole factor putting the financial *squeeze* on the athletes who used to attend multiple events per month in seasons past. Several noticeable -- and noticeably consistent -- increases in pricing have essentially "priced out" some of Spartan's most loyal and enthusiastic athletes. some of the die-hard, familiar "Race Day faces" can no longer afford to purchase a Season Pass...and sometimes not even they can continue to justify driving multiple hours to a venue every weekend (especially when the events themselves have also become markedly shorter in distance -- even as they have increased in price).
Race Day Volunteering is no longer the "Golden Ticket" for defraying race costs that it once was, either. With the "race credits" that volunteers can earn on Race Day becoming increasingly difficult to redeem (and with the addition of restrictions for how they can be used...and now that they are each worth significantly less to begin with...), having a Spartan Race to look forward to every weekend will no longer be a sustainable reality for many athletes who were "Race Day staples" in seasons past.
The social aspect of racing is also likely to take a massive hit this year, which may ultimately perpetuate the issue.
...Trust me: I know how much everyone misses racing...and how excited we all feel to get back out there on Race Day. But with all the social-distancing measures in place -- plus beloved "Race Day Buddies" not being at the venue to hang out with on Race Weekend -- it's likely that at least a few athletes will begin to have second thoughts.
...Because if one of the main reasons why so many athletes love Spartan is to do something fun/healthy/crazy...with people who are as crazy as they are (and who they only see on Race Day because everyone congregates from all over)
...but then they find out that all those fun/healthy/crazy friends won't be there...then what's the point??
...At least, that's what I am anticipating. Which is why that is my first prediction...along with the first opportunity:
At every Spartan Race since the Dawn Of Time, there have been individuals who have believed it was their moral imperative to aid Race Officials: in upholding the integrity of the Penalty Burpees being performed at obstacles.
To these individuals, it has never mattered whether the athletes they were "calling out" were running in the Elite wave, or in an Age Group wave, or just in the Open wave with friends. Because rules are rules. Not to mention, the only honorable way to claim you have finished a Spartan Race is to complete it with "integrity..." and they were there to make sure you did just that.
...Most of you have probably guessed by now that I am referring to the "Burpee Police," but for anyone who is unfamiliar, it looks something like the image below. They will 100% be present at 2021 events (social distancing or not)...and we will probably even end up having to come up with a new name for them...to reflect their elevated sense of self-righteousness/rule-following superiority, in the face of such uncertain times.
...Just picture it: we've got a perfect storm of...
💪 Athletes who have been doing Spartan events for multiple years: but who may not be up-to-date with more recent rule changes.
Then add on top of that...💪 During the 2019 season Spartan acquired both the Warrior Dash and Tough Mudder OCR brands: leaving many of those brand loyalists feeling frustrated, disappointed, and maybe even a little bit bitter. Add those people to the mix on Race Day, and the pre-existing differences in OCR-ideology between brands might clash and make it even more confusing to navigate updated Race Day rules.
Plus... 💪 There is always a natural "tension" between "new" Spartans and "veteran" Spartans -- which will only be amplified with the Race Day experience being so radically different than before.
...And let's not forget...💪 The Race Day rules/regulations sometimes differ between the different Waves (for example, Elite racers are held to a different standard for obstacle completion than Open racers), and they could also be changing at any time: from event to event -- and across state lines -- depending on what's going on with COVID.
So like...that's a lot of moving pieces, in a constantly-shifting situation.
To make matters more confusing, searching the Spartan site for clarification on changes to Race Day rules yields wildly different information (a selection of articles I found can be seen below):
...That's 6 different explanations of COVID-era Spartan rules...with several directly competing pieces of information...and no real indicator of which is most up-to-date.
Honest mistakes/rule misunderstandings happen even in the best of times -- and even to some of the top Elites (...remember when Ryan Woods was DQ'd at the Jackson race in 2019 for accidentally touching the metal on the A-Frame?) So if it was ever important to keep up with specific rule details before this season, it's definitely going to be crucial in 2021.
Additionally, the "Spartan Rules Of Competition" document is clear that it is the sole responsibility of the athlete to ensure they understand each rule at it pertains to them...making it that much more important that you are clear on what you have to know when it's your time to race.
Your safest "bet" will be to double-...or triple-...or even quadruple-check any last-minute COVID-specific event changes on Race Day before you head to the Start Line. Then once you're there you won't have to worry about second-guessing yourself, or getting thrown off by overzealous race hecklers, or risking getting smacked with an accidental penalty/DQ.
At the time when COVID hit, Spartan had become such a dominating force in the OCR industry that it had become increasingly difficult for other brands to compete. Smaller races (like the ones with only a few hundred participants...which might be hosting only a handful of events each year...within a relatively limited geographic area) were often lost in the noise of the Spartan hype; or, they might have trouble getting adequate registration numbers on a date that competed with the date of a Spartan event.
But the game has changed. Fewer participants might be one of the greatest advantages that an OCR can have right now...and the awkward "COVID-adjustment period" Spartan is about to enter will provide an unparalleled opportunity for other brands to step into the limelight.
A few factors in particular are most central to creating this opportunity space; what happens next will depend on athlete reactions to: Spartan's ability to meet Race Day expectations...vs. a growing interest in seeing what "the other guy" has to offer.
The first advantage that a "smaller" race company (i.e., one that caps participants in the "hundreds") might have: they're not going to need to make the same drastic changes to their Race Day that Spartan will. For example, they probably don't need to actively discourage athletes from hanging out/socializing at the venue... whereas Spartan is only allowing athletes to even be at the venue for a short time -- and it's not long enough to allow for much of the "community vibe" that so many athletes cite as a main reason why they race.
On the flip side: because a typical Spartan event has so many people, any alterations they'll be making to accommodate to COVID restrictions will undoubtedly affect the Race Day atmosphere and dynamics.
Secondly, a smaller race with significantly fewer athletes per event also (usually) means less overhead per event: another distinct advantage over Spartan in this case.
At its current size and scope, a Spartan event will (likely) cost much more to host compared to a smaller race...meaning Spartan also requires more registrations (or higher entry fees -- or both) just to "break even." But unfortunately, when current state regulations force Spartan to shrink an event's capacity, there's not really a corresponding "shrink" in the overhead Spartan needs to shell out in order to host the event.
Suffice it to say, Spartan is going to have to jump through some major hoops to be able to continue hosting events: both in terms of meeting COVID-era requirements on a national and local level, and in terms of navigating massive pivots in their operations -- while still toeing the line between keeping their customers satisfied, and not going broke in the process.
If any changes are interpreted as too much of a departure from the Spartan Race Day norm, some athletes might be convinced to look elsewhere: in search of an alternative OCR that isn't making as many compromises on their experience.
...What does this mean for you? Well, that depends on what you're looking for! If you are a die-hard Spartan, then more athletes racing elsewhere just means more space on the course -- and in the rankings! -- for you.
If you are interested in trying something different/seeing what else is out there: this could be a good opportunity to get some variety, experience how other races do things, and to support a small/local business. Not to mention, it's always pretty cool to try out different kinds of obstacles: it can be a cool change of pace and switching things up helps with your overall technique!
Ultimately, the concept of athletes trying out other races creates a good opportunity for all OCR athletes. It introduces competition into the market, which in turn ensures that all OCR brands bring their "A Game" to meet whatever needs the customer feels are most important.
...What do YOU think is gonna go down in Spartan Race -- and OCR in general -- in 2021?
Share in the comments below...would love to hear your thoughts!!
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For now, I am just hopeful and excited to get back to Spartan racing. Since 2017, I have been setting my time off calendar around Spartan Races, and I have no regrets, but it doesn’t leave time to experience other events. Fortunately, for 2021, I am not spending new money, just using what I spent for 2020. The Spartan changes will affect my experience in 2021 and so will government regulations. I am not in Jacksonville because, I can’t quarantine upon return to NY. It will remain to be seen, what this will mean for Vegas and Montana. NJ in the spring is out, what will happen to Boston, Ohio, Palmerton, and the rest? It is just a big guess. My plan is to just to keep training to be ready.
My motivation to race Spartans has always been to race. The camaraderie has always been great, but that was never driven by the big gathering at the festival. It was mostly in the smaller interactions and the time spent with my kids, but of course, I do miss the race family.