Spartan Race was set up in 2007, but it feels very much of the moment. Over the last 12 years, fitness has become a goal pursued by an ever-growing number of people regardless of gender, ethnicity or background.
It has spawned an industry thought to be worth nearly $100m in 2019 and countless Instagram influencers. It has also created communities of participants as well as a drive from big companies to ensure they have an active workforce.
“We disconnected the elevator in our office so people had to take the stairs,” says Joe De Sena, Founder and CEO, Spartan Race. “We’re big proponents of group challenges, community based challenges, or gamification in the office, and we’re finding that more and more companies are leaning on us to bring those ideas and techniques to help get their workforce healthy.”
The quest for fitness, coupled with the desire to push back against life lived through the veil of a smartphone screen, has amplified mass participation events like Spartan Race, which cater to a desire for a meaningful offline experience as much as they offer their competitors the chance to show off sporting prowess. Now the series is preparing for its first-ever in-stadium race in the UK - at Twickenham - adding another offering to its list of races.
Paradoxically, though, it’s partly through rich social media content and original feature-length documentaries that are helping to fuel the rise of the fitness industry and bring sponsors to mass participation events.
“Tim Cook created a great piece on training for a Spartan Race,” says De Sena. “He actually went up on stage during one of his Apple Watch presentations and presented a Spartan who was training for his Spartan Race using the watch and the individual he was presenting had had some health challenges but battled through. With that experience with Apple, it became clear that the way to do wonderful activations with partners was around creating rich media.”
The value it adds for partners isn’t the only reason storytelling has become such a big play on the digital channels of sport organisations. The power of a good story is true in all sectors, but there’s something about overcoming the odds in sport that seems to resonate further, and De Sena hints that this might be because people are inspired in a way they may not otherwise have been.
“We are a storytelling machine,” he says. “I get tens of thousands of emails from people and bump into people in airports and the first thing that people say to me - anyone, from a mum, a marine, a movie star - is ‘you changed my life, thank you’. And it’s all about this idea of giving them something hard and putting it on the calendar and that forces them to do the hard work in life. We all have unhealthy habits.”
Getting over those habits is arguably more difficult when there are so many other alternatives - “The only thing that people feel comfortable doing is watching Netflix naked,” according to De Sena - but encouraging those same people to do a Spartan Race goes beyond just asking them do show up to their local park for a jog.
“I think the fact that it is scary, that people do look the other way and say they can’t do it actually is what makes it as powerful as it is,” he says. “I come back to really rich media: you’ve got to get those game changers, those first movers to motivate others, you’ve got to gamify it in the office - friends bring friends.
“Without a goal - a race on the calendar or a goal where you’re trying to lose weight - without something very very tangible and has a detriment of failing you’re not going to succeed. No one’s going to succeed and if they did, their new year’s resolutions would be working, but they don’t. The only thing that works is having something hardcore, on the counter, with a gun pointed at your head. The number one human motivation is to avoid discomfort.
“Not everybody’s going to do a race, but it’s about a philosophy: we’ve got workout techniques, we’ve got nutrition ideas so we sprinkle Spartan in people’s lives even if they don’t show up for a race.
“Very few people - other than me and a few others - are waking up at 4.30am and putting themselves through a healthy routine unless they’ve something they’re training for.”
And yet, it seems people are responding. They may not be getting up at 4.30am to train for their Spartan Race this weekend, but they are signing up en masse: the Twickenham event is the brand’s first stadium event in the UK, but it is sold out.
“We’ve held events in the UK for nine years and have a loyal, growing community here, so the sell-out of our first Stadion series event at Twickenham speaks to both the strength of the brand and the strong heritage of the stadium. It shows there is definitely an appetite for the series in the region and we’re excited for the opportunity to expand it.
“I don’t play rugby myself but I’m a big fan and this is the spiritual home of rugby. We wanted something that was closer to a city centre and something that corporate could get involved in. We don’t make money in stadiums - we actually lose money - but it opens up the product to a new segment of people in an urban setting.
“So by coming to Twickenham, it’s opened up a whole new world for consumers. It’s easier to get to, they know they’re not going to be completely covered in mud come day’s end. They know they’re still going to do something hard. And if they happen to have a rugby fetish, they get that box checked off too.”
The 12-year-old brand might be well into its second decade of existence, but it now feels more relevant than ever.