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Spartan Race Returns: A Glimpse of Racing in a COVID-19 World?

The first large in-person race during the pandemic drew more than a 1,000 participants, had tons of hand sanitizer, and tried to keep participants socially spaced.

spartan race jacksonville
Courtesy of Spartan

Spartan obstacle course races are known to leave competitors physically spent and slathered in mud from head-to-toe, proudly worn like a hard-earned battle scar. The dirtier, the better. But in the era of COVID-19, with everything from locals 5Ks to the Boston Marathon canceled, how can an event as communal as a Spartan go on, let alone stay sanitary in a socially-distanced world?

Typically, Spartan events draw thousands of participants for their 5K Sprints with 20 obstacles, but the company made significant changes to its operations in order to create the first socially-distant Spartan this past Saturday at WW Motocross Park in Jacksonville, Florida. From eliminating spectators to slashing the number of total participants to nearly 1,400—a 70 percent reduction of typical race capacity—to removing some staple obstacles, this event may be a glimpse into the new reality of racing during COVID-19.

While competitors trained to master their first event in months, Spartan officials were facing an intimidating hurdle of their own: create a race that honored Centers for Disease Control and Prevention social distancing guidelines without sacrificing the iconic down-and-dirty feel of a Spartan race.

“There’s a lot of pressure, and I know there are a lot of eyes watching us,” said Mike Morris, vice president of production at Spartan. “We knew we had one chance to do this and to get this right.”

As one of the largest races to return since COVID-19, Spartan opted to be overly conservative in its safety measures, Morris said. That was especially needed because in the past week, the state of Florida has seen a new spike in positive COVID-19 cases, with more than 2,000 new cases reported in the state on both Friday and Saturday, according to the Florida Department of Health.

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So along with drastically reducing the number of participants, heat sizes were also cut down to less than 25 runners per heat instead of the typical 250, with waves being released every five minutes. Jonathan Fine, head of global brand communications, said every staff member (about 50) was tested for the coronavirus prior to the weekend’s events. The company also made some adjustments to the course, swapping out things like the sandbag carry and dunk wall. Race organizers also reduced the amount of lanes per obstacle to ensure athletes could stay 6 feet apart while crawling under barbed wire, tackling the Twister, or hoisting themselves over the wall climb.

spartan race jacksonville
Spartan participants wait in a socially-spaced line to tackle obstacles on the course.
Courtesy of Spartan

Given all the modifications, some Spartan regulars worried the course might be too easy, but it was no cakewalk, said Janice McDonald, a 37-year-old competitor from Orlando. Despite the absence of man-made water, there were plenty of natural water features thanks to the heavy downpour the night before. “There was a lot more water than anticipated, which made it harder,” McDonald said.

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Participants even started leveraging the COVID-19 changes to improve their performance. The unexpected Spartan Sprint savior? Hand sanitizer.

Officials placed hand sanitizer after each obstacle to encourage athletes to sanitize before moving on to the next one, but McDonald found the new addition also made her grip extra sticky when it dried, a godsend for challenges like the monkey bars and rope climb. Racers also received sealed water bottles at aid stations, which McDonald used to rinse off the mud caked to her hands.

spartan race jacksonville
A Spartan participant uses hand sanitizer between obstacles.
Courtesy of Spartan
spartan race jacksonville
The start of each wave was limited to less than 25 participants, and racers had to stay socially spaced.
Courtesy of Spartan

Spartan implemented a host of safety measures on their end—installing plexiglas at the check-in tents, having all participants go through a health screening with contactless temperature checks (a reading of 100.4 would have prevented a participant from entering), and requiring face masks for all volunteers and staff. However, some COVID-19 measures proved to be more difficult to enforce.

All attendees were supposed to park their cars about 10 feet from one another in the lot, but most people opted to park much closer. Competitors were encouraged to wear face masks, but they were a rare sight out on the course. Organizers also asked participants to refrain from high fives and hugs, but that was sometimes forgotten when the distinctive ring of the cowbell signaled the conquering of an obstacle. While hand sanitizer was encouraged between obstacles, areas with high touchpoints (like monkey bars) were not wiped down after every participant had completed the obstacle.

Some people felt like socially distancing came naturally at the Sprint. Chris Archer, a 32-year-old participant from Jacksonville, said the large, spread out venue made it easy to stay 6 feet apart without much effort, and despite fewer lanes, there wasn’t any congestion at the obstacles.

No matter the modifications, the diehard Spartans came out in droves. A crew of five drove 16 hours from Michigan and completed the Sprint in a sleep-deprived delirium.

Taryn Terrell came from just outside of New Orleans. She couldn’t wait any longer to get back to racing.

“I haven’t been able to do a race since February, and I live for them,” she said. The 35-year-old stuntwoman said she travels all over the country to compete, and her checklist is as much a part of her muscle memory as climbing the A-frame cargo net or clearing the hurdles. But when it came time to pack for Saturday’s event, Terrell blanked. With organized races on hiatus for so long, it was like she had never done one before.

COVID-19 or not, Terrell was desperate to shake off the dust, and she didn’t feel like she had to sacrifice her health to do it. Missing a few obstacles on the course and taking a moment to use hand sanitizer were small prices to pay to push her body to the limits again.

“This was the perfect way to scratch everybody’s itch, get out there and figure out a way to do it safely and so everybody feels comfortable,” she said.

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