This is Sparta! US extreme obstacle race comes to Manchester

The latest in a trend of extreme obstacle events, Spartan Race, promises to offer the most intense and gruelling challenge yet – but this ‘purposeful suffering’ just adds to the reward according to its creator.

Starting in the USA five years ago the brand now has almost one million participants at 130 events in 20 countries, and is coming to Manchester’s Heaton Park on the first weekend of July.

Similar to Tough Mudder, participants in the Spartan Race must negotiate a series of challenges that can involve climbing, jumping or swimming as they race around the course – with penalties incurred for failing to complete an obstacle.

MM caught up with the race’s co-founder and CEO of Spartan Race Joe De Sena to find out more about Spartan and what separates it from the competition.

He said: “The idea is that it’s a military style obstacle race. But it’s also lifestyle.

“It’s meant to purposefully break people down and then pick them back up and along the way, until they literally start to define their lives as Spartans.

“The feedback we get from around the globe is unbelievable, people truly are transformed. Whether they’re losing weight, getting healthy or have just found some new reason to live.”

If all this sounds a bit too hard-core for you then fear not, because although De Sena wants Spartan to eventually be an elite sport, his mission is also to engage ordinary people in a healthier lifestyle.

The Spartan Race began life over ten years ago when De Sena, a former Wall Street trader, started hosting the “Death Race” at his home in rural Vermont.

These ordeals would involve crossing hundreds of miles and would take place over days – they were about people surviving and completing the event rather than racing.

“I was putting on crazy races for over a decade and no one was showing up to them.

“In 2001 we had one in the British Virgin Islands – 350 miles in six days. We actually lost a guy and only found him on a deserted island eight days later. It’s exhilarating and fun to talk about but very few people would actually compete in those events.

“It occurred to me that if we made it so it wasn’t so insane, we could make it for the masses. So although the current Spartan races look insane to people I was putting on events that were crazier.”

Despite making his fortune in the dog-eat-dog world of finance De Sena insists there were more than just commercial reasons for widening the appeal of his obstacle course races, as he explained the ethos behind Spartan Race.

“We’re in tough shape as a species and we’re way too comfortable. In the US alone 300,000 people die just from sitting. We just sit too much, it’s become the new smoking.

“The numbers on obesity are staggering not just in the US but globally and here in the UK too.

“If you strip things away and make life a little harder, so it’s purposeful suffering, you start to appreciate the things you do have. So you come out of a Spartan race and all you want is water, food and shelter.”

The 46-year-old clearly has a strong motivational drive and he described his time on Wall Street as a sentence – he did his time and made his money – and now spends his working life travelling the globe promoting his fitness message.

He recently returned from putting soldiers through their paces at Fort Bragg, an American military base.

“I knew I could’ve either sat back and retired saying ‘I’d made it’ or I could do something really cool. And now I get emails every day from people saying they’d lost weight. I had a guy go from 696 lbs down to 260 lbs!”

Heaton Park will play host to two race distances over the weekend, with the Spartan Sprint at 5km and involving 15+ obstacles on Saturday July 4th and the Spartan Super with 20+ obstacles over 13km on July 5th.

Though the Tough Mudder race is probably better known in the North West, the Spartan Race CEO was keen to point out the differences in his obstacle racing brand.

“I would say, without taking a shot at them, they’re just not as authentic as us, and I don’t know if people will know that yet here in the UK.

“The approach they’ve always taken is towards bachelor parties, whereas we’re pretty serious.

“Our 5k event is the physical equivalent of their 12 mile race, they’re very focused on the party and the atmosphere and we’re very focus on getting this sport into the Olympics.”

The imagery of  Sparta also adds to the spectacle of De Sena’s race, with the signature challenge facing participants being the ‘Spear Throw’ – where racers must channel their inner ancient warrior and hurl a spear into a target.

De Sena: “It’s simple but yet difficult. It’s a skill we used to have as human beings but we’ve lost it. I love to watch someone’s face go from excitement to complete frustration after missing the throw.

“Spartans were very simplistic in nature. So from our goal of being a lifestyle that’s where we’re leaning towards, strip away some things out of your life, get rid of all those material things and return to basics.”

One of the concerns with pushing ordinary people to breaking point in pursuit of a lifestyle ideal is the safety of those taking part.

Spartan participants are required to sign a ‘death waiver’ that removes responsibility from the company for injuries or death caused by everything from fire and water to poisonous plants and animals.

While Spartan Race insist this is to protect from litigation rather than a real risk, it does raise questions about how far these kinds of extreme events can go before they represent an actual danger.

Last year rival brand Tough Mudder faced legal action after a 28-year-old man died in a race in West Virginia, apparently drowning in one of the water hazards.

Spartan Race have not had any losses of life at their courses and De Sena is confident in their ability to provide a safe but testing environment for racers.

“Whenever you put 10,000 people in a field there might be somebody who has a heart attack or something happens it’s just a law of numbers.

“But we take precautions; we treat it as a sport. We don’t electrocute people for the sake of it.”

De Sena’s ultimate dream is to get the sport recognised in the Olympics and he believes with steady global expansion and learning lessons from other racing sports like triathlon it could be a possibility.

“To be in an Olympic sport you need to be in 42 countries, and have a federation in each country so we’ve got a while yet.

“We’re hoping the Olympics moves to Boston in 2024, where our head offices are. Each new city is allowed to bring in an exhibition sport and if all the stars align then maybe.”

“We’ve got a core of athletes from all over the world. Our world championship was won by a Brit last year, so these guys are here and coming to these events.”

If you think you’ve got what it takes to beat the Spartan Race then you can still sign up for either the 5 or 13 km distances.

Participants are encouraged to sign up in teams with friends, family or work colleagues for the chance to seal the ultimate bragging rights.

There is provision for spectators as well as a kids race for those budding Spartan warriors.

Image courtesy of SpartanRaceTube via Youtube, with thanks.

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