This Is Sparta

We look at how technology is shaping marathon running


Marathons and long distance endurance events are increasingly seen as too easy. Athletes are looking at more and more ways to push themselves beyond the limit. After all, once you have done a marathon or an iron man where is there to go? A second one?

These were the thoughts of Joseph De Sena, the founder of Spartan Race.

Having been an extreme athlete for a long time, he wanted more. He wanted a challenge beyond simply running, cycling or swimming for a long time. He wanted something that pushed people to the limits of physical endurance and he wanted to make it a sport rather than just an individual event.

This was how Spartan race was born in 2001, as a race that was beyond the physical traits needed for traditional endurance races. Tackling obstacles such as crawling under barbed wire, running through electrical wires and climbing over huge walls, the race brings endurance to a new level.

In 2012 Spartan Race won the 'Best Obstacle Race' from outside magazine and has seen a rapid expansion since it's inception.

One of the main reasons behind the huge success is through the use of technologies, the ability to track runners and even utilising new media technologies to help market the races.

I spoke to Joseph about the growth of the company and how he has seen the use of technologies change the way that it is perceived.

Joseph's main reasoning behind the use of technology is that makes it more of a sport than many of the competitors in the same space. The ability to track timings of individuals then compare across geographies, demographics and other variations gives spartan race a far more competitive feel than other events.

Joseph wanted to make Spartan race a sport rather than other obstacle course races that he describes as 'like going to a birthday party'. Spartan race is far more individual focussed than competitors like Tough Mudder or Colour Race, both of which are far more team and fun focussed. Joseph was keen to emphasise that this was not the point of Spartan race.

He wanted to create an event that was far more focussed on what humans originally did, crawling, jumping, running, climbing. Bringing this into the 21st century and making it competitive has allowed him to achieve this with great success and his eventual goal is to improve the health of people.

One of the ways that this is done is through simply measuring weight. One of the participant aspects that is measured is pre and post Spartan Race. This kind of technology use allows people to set a goal using what is essentially just basic weight input.

Speaking to Richard Cook, who is the head of course design in the UK, he also told me about the innovative use of technology in course design and layout.

Using video technology has allowed the courses to be designed with increased accuracy and fluidity. Many of the runners wear cameras as well as the course being recorded in a wider capacity. Richard can then go back through this footage to analyse choke points or where obstacles are the wrong distance apart.

It also allows Richard to not only pinpoint choke points, but look back at footage to analyse why they occur and adapt the course accordingly in the future.

This alone does not explain the success of the races though.

One of the aspects of the technology used in the race as a multi-purpose mechanism is both for tracking and marketing. Through the use of RFID chips, runners can be tracked for timing, allowing accurate timings to be taken and rankings to be announced. They also provide a considerable advantage in terms of marketing.

Through the use of these chips, videos and photos can automatically be taken during obstacles and sent to the competitor. Richard points out to me that it is very important that they keep all of this free and easily sharable. People want others to know about their exploits at Spartan run and so when this media is sent to them, it is uploaded to Facebook and shared with all their friends, complete with Spartan Race branding.

This kind of exposure and use of technology for both sporting and marketing purposes has had considerable success for Spartan Race and has allowed them to become the company that they are.

The combination of easily shareable and exciting content (think mid air photos whilst jumping burning logs) with a fierce competitive streak seems to have created a perfect storm for the organisers and could pave the way for extreme events worldwide. 


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