(Coming Soon: Click Here To Download The PDF Version Of The Spartan Ultra 2019 Findings & Key Insights, Presented By Fierce Gear OCR - for easy access anytime, & to quickly swap back and forth between venue snapshots!)
The Spartan Race Ultra event is one of the most unique endurance events in the obstacle course race world. It's intense and unlike any other physical challenge you are likely to have encountered, and it truly demands that you, the athlete, level up to be able to complete it and walk away with that Finisher medal.
And yet despite being one of the most difficult challenges that most First-Timers have have ever encountered, there is a shockingly small amount of information actually published by Spartan about what the Ultra even is - what to expect, how to prepare, how it differs from other Spartan events, etc. Many who are interested in an Ultra are left to learn more about the event on their own and then to compound matters: much of the content that is currently available is, unfortunately, rather narrow-minded (think: "do it this way, or else," with no explanation).
One of the most frequently discussed topics in the Spartan Ultra groups involves that crucial piece of information on the top of any Ultra-hopeful's list of questions: "How long does a Spartan Race Ultra Beast take?" or "What's the average finish time for a Spartan Ultra?" ...because people want to know how fast they've got to be able to get through the course to avoid course cutoff times. (For those who do not know, the Ultra course has various "cutoff times," indicated in the Athlete Guide sent out by Spartan the week before the race. The "cutoff times" indicate specific obstacles on the course that athletes must have completed by a certain time of day, as a way to ensure the pacing of the Ultra athletes. If an athlete does not make it to a cutoff point by the assigned time, they receive a DNF and cannot complete the course).
Clearly, this is terrifying. and there is no official data posted to give people any kind of answer for what the average finishing time of an Ultra should be, or what average pace per mile would be enough, etc.
What follows is all of the (publicly available) 2019 Spartan Ultra Finisher data, for all ultra events in the 2019 season that occurred within the Continental USA (plus Hawaii). I hope you enjoy reviewing it as much as I enjoyed putting it together, and that you find it helpful, relevant, and valuable as you make your future race plans.
🔥 Data from Spartan Race Ultra events in 2019 that took place in the USA including the following locations: New Jersey, Ohio, Colorado, Hawaii, Vermont (a.k.a., "Killington"), Lake Tahoe (the 2019 Spartan Race World Championship Weekend), Texas (a.k.a., "Dallas"), Southern California (a.k.a., "SoCal"), North Carolina (a.k.a., "Carolinas"), and Central California (a.k.a., "Central CA")
🔥 Averages of Finisher Time: split up to examine each venue in-detail, average finish time overall (i.e., across all ultra venues examined), and split into categories or waves/"subgroups"
🔥 General insights/observations and possible links/explanations (e.g., abc could be an indicator of xyz...to point out similarities vs. differences between venues or subgroups
🔥 Categories: Gender (i.e., Men vs. Women), Competitive Wave (i.e., Elite vs. Age Group vs. Open)
🔥 Subgroups: Elite Men, Elite Women, Age Group Men, Age Group Women, Open Men, Open Women
🔥 DNF Rate: this would obviously be REALLY helpful to know, but at the time of posting there is no way to accurately/reliably calculate this information. To be able to determine the DNF rate, I would have to have access to the numbers of how many athletes registered for (or, more accurately, started) an event, to be able to calculate what % of them completed the event.
🔥 *Average Pace/Mile: This information sheds valuable light onto level of "difficulty" of a course: because two venues can have the same average finish time but one might be flatter and longer, vs. the other that is shorter and more hilly. In a future update I will be crowdsourcing data regarding distance of each venue and using that to calculate a rough estimate of Average Pace/Mile
🔥 Elevation Gain*: As above, this information has also not been publicly posted by Spartan Race, and will be crowdsourced/added in the future.
🔥 Number of Obstacles*: As above, this information has also not been publicly posted by Spartan Race, and will be crowdsourced/added in the future. For now, the generic "60+" (the number that the Spartan Race site lists on its description of the Ultra) is shown as a placeholder for obstacle count.
The finisher times for all Ultras used in this report are publicly available on Spartan.com . Head to the "Results+Photos" tab and you will be able to go through each individual ultra event, and then sort each event by Wave and Gender, and then put all that data into an Excel spreadsheet like I did...row by row. (Yes, that is the level of love I have for you all and that is the amount of crazy I am.)
It is all listed out in hours:minutes (with the exception of Top Finish Times, where I included the seconds as well). So "8:20" indicates 8 hours and 20 minutes. The numbers are all averages of the results from that event, meaning in the image below the average finish time for Men was 11:56 and the average finish time for Women was 12:19.
In the Tahoe data (where I did include average pace/mile because the official distance was published by Spartan), :20 indicates an average pace of 20 minutes/mile.
There is a distinct difference between highest number of Finishers and highest % of Finishers, and this report favors the latter. For example: to determine which venue might be a good choice for First-Timers wanting to compete in the Open Wave, the % will tell us the proportion of Finishers who ran in the Open Wave which is more helpful than just the number, which doesn't give the context or "big picture."
Case in point: in New Jersey there were 458 athletes who finished in the Open Wave - the highest number of Open finishers at any event! However there were 833 finishers total, meaning only 55% of the NJ finishers were Open Wave athletes. By contrast the Ohio event only had 302 finishers in the Open Wave, but out of the total 488 Finishers that is 62%...meaning there were proportionally more Open Finishers at Ohio and it might be a more favorable event for a First-Time ultra hopeful.
As mentioned, this report (and any findings/insights/recommendations) is based on the 2019 Spartan Race Ultras in the USA and includes data from the following locations: New Jersey, Ohio, Colorado, Hawaii, Vermont, Lake Tahoe*, Dallas, SoCal, Carolinas, and Central CA. (*2019 Spartan Race World Championship weekend).
*Due to extensive damage to the reliability of the data, the Tahoe Ultra has been excluded from any inclusive average calculations or recommendations.
Arguably one of the most favored (and feared!) ultra venues, New Jersey had the highest Finisher number in 2019...and almost twice as many Finishers as the average (456). It also had the highest number of Women Finishers and and Open Finishers (but not the highest proportion out of Total Finishers, when compared to other venues.) There were 27 Elite Women which is the highest number of any venue by far (and nearly 3x the average number of Elite Women, across all the ultra venues!), however Elite Women were still only 3% of the Total Finishers.
Looking at the "spread" of finish times, the difference in average finish time between Elite and Age Group was the smallest in New Jersey compared to all other ultra venues in 2019: the difference between the average finish time of Elite vs. Age Group was 14 minutes in New Jersey, compared to the average difference in finish time of 1 hour and 35 minutes across all 2019 USA Ultra venues.
Notably, NJ was also the only venue where AG Men outpaced Elite Men.
Course Notes: Mountainous.
Widely regarded as a primarily "flat" course (a.k.a., a "Runner's Course"), the Ohio venue had one of the fastest average finish times in 2019. The patterns in finish time paint an interesting picture. On one hand it was the "fastest" ultra venue in 2019 for both Elite Men and for AG Men, but it also had some huge differences in finish time: it saw the largest spread between Men vs. Women when compared to the average ultra venue, and the largest spread between Elite vs. Open when compared to the average ultra venue.
Ohio presents good opportunities for both placement and for completion. In terms of completion: it had one of the highest proportions of Open Finishers (62%, vs. avg. 56%), and one of the higher proportions of Female Finishers (21% vs. avg. 20%)...making it a good option for First-Timers or Women who might be feeling intimidated and prefer a venue with more women.
For Placement there could be an opportunity for AG Women: there were only 20 at Ohio (4% of the Total Finishers), and they finished in an average of 11:19 (vs. 12:14 for Women Overall and 10:12 for the Course Average).
Course Notes: Regarded as mostly "flat" and a "Runner's Course."
The Colorado Ultra doesn't seem to stand out much at this level of analysis - it is pretty "middle of the road" on all metrics examined, but there are a few interesting points to note:
Colorado had the lowest number of Finishers in the continental United States: the 316 finishers were fewer than half the finishers compared to the venue high (at New Jersey with 833), and also many fewer than the overall average Finisher number (456). This low Finisher number could be explained by a multitude of reasons: if athletes felt the venue was too difficult to travel to geographically vs. other ultra venues, there may have been fewer athletes who even registered for it in the first place. Or the conditions may have caused a higher DNF rate: the Colorado venue was located at 8k' elevation, which could have a negative affect on athletes' ability to perform if they were unprepared for the different oxygen levels at that altitude. Most likely, the low Finisher number is due to a combination of the two.
Colorado had one of the highest proportions of Elite Men (15% vs. the average of 10% across all venues), but otherwise it does not stand out in any meaningful way regarding the Finisher number of any of the subgroups. The average finish time of 10:48 is also on par with the average across venues (11:00).
Course Notes: Venue at approximately 8k’ elevation – high enough to negatively affect the performance of athletes unfamiliar with the conditions.
Hawaii has the smallest number of Finishers – by a considerable margin – but this is likely because it's one of the most difficult venues for most Ultra participants to travel to. Because of the difficulty involved in getting there it is likely that the data is skewed, and unfortunately therefore doesn't tell us much about the course compared to the other ultra venues. (Put another way: since it's such a pain for a lot of people to get to, with the limited data available we can't know who was actually willing and able to make the trip: was it a bunch of casual athletes who wanted to go on a vacation to Hawaii, and just used the race as an excuse to go? Or would a venue like this draw a more serious/competitive level of athlete, because they are willing to make the long trip in pursuit of a possible higher ranking? We can't know what the mix of casual/serious athletes there was, so we can't know if it's a similar enough mix to be able to compare it to a more typical ultra venue, like the ones in the continental U.S.A.)
There is not much that stands out in the stats of this race, and even less so when we take into account that the athletes there might not be representative of the mix of athletes at a typical Ultra. There was a slightly smaller proportion of Open Finishers vs. the average across venues (45% vs. 56%), and the biggest spread in finish time between Elite vs. AG when compared to the average across all venues (2:14 vs. avg. 1:35).
A Placement Opportunity may exist for Elite Men, but the story is definitely not clear: the proportion of Elite Men at Hawaii was similar to the average across all ultra venues (10% vs. 9%)...but the avg. Elite Men finish time at Hawaii was slower than the average across venues (Hawaii Elite Men avg. was 9:57 vs. 9:35 across all venues). In addition to being slightly slower than the avg. Elite Men wave, in Hawaii there were only 18 in the Elite Men wave, vs. the avg. (across all venues) 43 Elite Men. In situations like this one, a single person switching between the AG and Elite wave - and bringing their finish time with them to affect the overall average - could have a big impact! Hence: our conclusion that a Placement Opportunity might exist in Elite Men.
Course Notes: The humidity/heat can present a sizeable challenge to athletes who are unprepared or unaccustomed to the conditions.
Ahhh, Killington. Located in Spartan Race's home state of Vermont, it is one venue that is as feared as it is admired among the Ultra community. With only 328 finishers VT had one of the smallest Finisher numbers, along with Colorado (316), SoCal (326), and outlier Hawaii (180).
The results suggest that this race lived up to its reputation. With an average finish time of 13:12 Killington was the "slowest" venue by a wide margin: not just overall but also within each subgroup examined (see table below).
There was also a much smaller proportion of Women Finishers and Open Finishers compared to the average across all venues: 11% of the Killington Finishers were Women vs. the average 20% across all venues, and only 27% of all Killington Finishers were in the Open category vs. 56% average across all venues. With only 35 Women (vs. average 91 across venues) and 87 in the Open category (vs. average 257), this could indicate that Killington might not be the best choice for a First-Time Ultra participant.
On the flip side, Elite Men and AG Men were over-represented at Killington compared to their typical showing across all venues: 16% of Killington Finishers were Elite Men (vs. average 10%), and a full 50% of Killington Finishers were AG Men (vs. average 29%).
The definitive explanation for why Killington has such small Finisher numbers, (especially proportionally, within Women and Open subgroups) is unclear: especially when taking into account that location-wise it is a relatively convenient venue for many Ultra-hopefuls to travel to. It's possible that Killington's intimidating reputation caused registration numbers to be lower in the first place, and also possible that the DNF rate could have been high.
One more interesting note: Killington had one of the smallest spreads in finish time between Elite vs. AG (35 minutes vs. avg. 1:35), and the smallest spread of Elite vs. Open (52 minutes vs. avg. 2:22). This pattern is also seen at the NJ venue, and if Killington's challenging reputation convinced some athletes to not register, it's possible that the small spreads at both venues are because the athletes who were brave enough to register, were prepared for an extreme physical challenge, and so the fitness/skill level of athletes was higher across the board. (said another way: the logic is that you should be at certain level of fitness to even consider Killington, so the people who do it are...on the whole...more fit on average: so the gaps in their finish time is smaller. Versus at other ultra venues - especially the ones people assume are "easy", there might be more athletes tempted to register before they are in good enough condition to attempt an ultra.)
There could be a Placement Opportunity for Elite Women: it was the slowest venue for this subgroup by a wide margin (with a finish time of 13:19 vs. avg. 9:47 across all ultra venues), and because there were only 8 Elite Women Finishers, each athlete can potentially have a huge impact on results.
Course Notes: This venue is well-known for its elevation gain: there is a section of the course literally referred to as the "Death March."
The 2019 Lake Tahoe Spartan World Championships weekend had some extreme and unpredictable weather changes which drastically altered the results of the Ultra. Many athletes were delayed on course due to adverse conditions, and then descended the mountain from wherever they were (without completing obstacles) to finish. Others completed differing numbers of obstacles. Some participants were disqualified completely, while others were not.
Events like this happen in the sport of obstacle course racing: it is unfortunate, but to be expected. That being said, because this data is clearly unreliable, it has been excluded from any calculations/considerations going into findings/insights/key takeaways in this report. The individual event data is shown only on the image above, because I knew people would want to see it regardless.
Also as explained above, average pace/mile was calculated for this event because Spartan published an official distance measurement. Spartan also published the obstacle count for the Ultra, so that has been included as well.
In a stark contrast to the VT Ultra just one month earlier, the Dallas Ultra has some patterns that are virtually opposite.
Firstly, it is a great venue for the novice or First-Time Ultra. It had 670 Finishers which is one of the highest numbers of any venue, and both the Women and Open categories were a bigger proportion of the Finishers when compared to the average across all ultra venues (for Women there were 157, or 23% of Total Finishers, vs. 91, or 20% average across venues; for Open there were 451, 67% vs. 257, 56%). To put that into greater context: the average USA ultra in 2019 had 456 Finishers in total: the Dallas Ultra had 451 Finishers in the Open Category alone.
With nearly one-quarter of the Finishers being Women and nearly 70% of Finishers in the Open category, Dallas is definitely one of the top picks for a First-Time Ultra hopeful.
By contrast Elite and AG Finishers were underrepresented at this race compared to the average across ultra venues, particularly the Elite Men (at Dallas there were 29 Elite Men, 4% of Total Finishers vs. avg. 43, 10% across all ultra venues).
However, select subgroups had proportionally fewer Finishers but a faster average finish time (for that subgroup) compared to the average finish time for that subgroup across all ultra venues. AG Men at Dallas were only 23% of Total Finishers vs. the average across venues of 29%, but the finish time for AG Men at Dallas was 9:46 vs. the average 10:44 finish time for AG Men across all venues. This suggests that there might be a Placement Opportunity for AG Men at Dallas: for those fast enough to catch it!
Course Notes: Regarded as mostly "flat" and a "Runner's Course."
At 326 Finishers, SoCal was one of the less populated Ultras (with the low, outlier of Hawaii at 180, then Colorado with 316, vs. avg. 456 across all ultra venues). The proportions of subgroup finishers was on par with the 2019 season averages across all subgroups, making it similar in makeup to Colorado (although Colorado had more Elite Men: 15% vs. 7% at SoCal vs. avg. 10%, and Colorado had less AG Men: 21% vs. 28% vs. avg. 29%).
However in terms of average finish time SoCal is the most similar to the Carolinas event: across all subgroups.
One interesting note is that SoCal had one of the smallest spreads in finish time between Elite Men vs. AG Men: Elite Men at SoCal were 23, or 7% of Total Finishers, with a finish time of 9:16 vs. AG Men 91, 28%, 10:06 (a difference of 49 minutes), compared to the average spread in finish time between Elite Men and AG Men of 1:08.
Course Notes: Rolling hills (with some brief, but steep, inclines), Dusty/Sandy with some "loose" terrain.
With a total of 603 Finishers, The Carolinas venue is another great choice for a First-Time Ultra. It had the second highest proportion of Open Finishers (64%, vs. the high of 67% at Dallas and the average of 56% across all venues), and "fast" finish times for Open Finishers compared to other venues: specifically for Open Women (average finish time 11:37, vs. low at Dallas with 11:34, vs. average of 12:24 across all venues).
Aside from these insights, the Carolinas venue was more-or-less in alignment with averages across the other metrics measured.
Course Notes*: Flat & “fast” course with moderate hills (*Heavy rainfall in 2019 caused slippery, mudslide-like conditions.)
With 360 Total Finishers, the Central CA Ultra saw only a few more finishers than the SoCal Ultra (where total finishers were 326) just a couple months prior. It tied with Dallas for the highest proportion of Women Finishers (both had 23%, vs. 20% average).
The proportion of Open Finishers was slightly below average (53% vs. the average of 56%) but Central CA is still recommended as a good choice for a First-Time Ultra: largely due to the fact that the finish time of 9:55 makes it the "fastest" ultra of 2019 (along with Dallas 9:56, vs. avg. 11:00 across venues).
There is a Potential Placement Opportunity for Elite Women: particularly those who excel at speed over long distances. Central CA had one of the fastest finish times for Elite Women across all venues (8:03, vs. low at Dallas of 7:56 vs. avg. 9:47). With only 7 individuals in the Elite Women wave, each Finisher can make a huge difference!
Course Notes: Lots of little hills, but mostly flat.
That's all for now...WHAT DO YOU THINK?? What surprised you? What do you want to dig deeper on? Does this change the way you think about the Ultra?
In addition to chipping away at the blog series/mega-resource called "7 Steps To Ultra Success: How To Prepare For The Spartan Race Ultra," next up in the pipeline is a short-but-sweet quiz called something like, "Help! Which Spartan Race Ultra Should I Try??" which will use this data: to help anyone quickly and easily sort through the Ultras and decide which venue(s) might be the best fit for their race goals!
As more info is collected and added to the database (e.g., Average Pace/Mile, Elevation Gain), we'll be able to take another look with a "fresh" perspective, to see what details might be added to the overall Ultra story. This might in turn affect the "Key Insights" or recommendations...so be sure to check back! If you want to ensure you are kept in the loop each time we update, sign up for the Fierce Gear OCR email list and you'll get a notification right to your inbox, allowing you to be one of the first to know what's going on :)
Where possible/reasonable, I also plan to add data comparing venues year-over-year, to show how a venue may have changed over the years (and shed some light onto the question of "Which year was the Killington Ultra the hardest?").
I like how you think. Shoot me an email FierceGearOCR@gmail.com and let me know what you would like to see! Also, there may be future opportunities for access to another "level" of insider information for a small fee: I'll be sure to keep you posted!