Boston Business Journal
By Kyle Psaty, Special to the Journal
Every June, some of the world's top endurance athletes — long distance cyclists, ultra-marathoners and Ironman triathlon competitors — gather in Pittsfield, Vt., to take part in what is arguably the greatest competition of will, strength and stamina the world has ever known.
The competition has been dubbed the Death Race — a name that isn’t as much of an exaggeration as one might assume. The race lasts more than 48 hours, and takes place over a 40-mile course. Competitors must complete a series of both physical challenges (such as crawling through mud under barbed wire) and mental challenges (such as memorizing the names of the first 10 U.S. presidents, immediately after running 20 miles) in order to finish. (Click here to see a slideshow of photos from Spartan Race competitions.)
Less than 15 percent of competitors are able to finish in a typical year, and the company behind the event, Spartan Race, reports that it must hand pick competitors to keep injuries from getting out of hand.
“This year, about 1,600 racers applied. We accepted 400 of them. And about 300 will run the race,” said Spartan Race co-founder Joe DeSena.
Death Race is just one of 30 obstacle-race competitions which Spartan Race has scheduled for the U.S. this year, with an additional 30 scheduled internationally; events take place as far away as Japan and Australia. Some competitions have attracted more than 10,000 racers, including a race in Tuxedo, N.Y., earlier this month.
Founded in Vermont in 2010, Spartan Race brought its corporate offices to Framingham, Mass., last year. The move followed an investment in August by Raptor Consumer Partners, a Boston-based private equity firm founded by Boston Celtics minority owner Jim Pallotta (the amount of the investment wasn't disclosed). Spartan Race now employs 25 full-time.
In its competitions, Spartan Race aims to channel the never-say-die resilience of the ancient Spartans, the company says.
Racers must force themselves to overcome seemingly impossible odds over and over again, says Spartan Race president Lee Goss.
“This race and this emerging sport really leave a mark on you,” Goss said. “When you come to one of our races and you hit that first obstacle, there’s often a lot of hesitation … But by the time you get to the 25th obstacle, there is no hesitation. You might be out of gas, but you’re ready to try. We call that building a confidence reserve. When you leave the race and get back to the office, you carry that with you.”
Ultimately, the company has an internal goal to popularize healthy living by giving people something to strive for.
“The goal is to change people’s lives,” DeSena said. “When you enter into the Spartan World, it’s healthier eating. It’s much better exercise habits. It’s a much healthier lifestyle. The race is just a test that you’re living it.”
Spartan Race earns revenue by charging event participants an entry fee of about $100 per person, though corporate sponsorships are sold for everything from branding on event signage to the medals for top competitors. A corporate sponsorship from Reebok announced in January is helping with promotion and merchandising, says John Burns, a managing director at Raptor Consumer Partners and board member at Spartan Race.
Although a typical race costs hundreds of thousands to put on – time-keeping alone costs upwards of $25,000, according to DeSena – the biggest risk to the company is that the sport of obstacle racing will lose steam.
Spartan Race isn’t just marketing its own brand; it’s selling what Goss and DeSena call “functional fitness” and working to create the market for it – alongside (and competing with) other obstacle racing brands like Tough Mudder and Warrior Dash.
“If there’s a place where we have to be really well formulated, it’s on marketing the race," Goss said. "It’s particularly tough in the early stages when you have to educate people on what Spartan Race really is."
But Goss is optimistic, pointing to the creation of Ultimate Fighting Championship as evidence that there’s still room for new sports to be created.
Burns goes even further, saying that Spartan Race has a goal to make obstacle racing an Olympic sport. To do that, says Burns, Spartan Race has to gain global appeal.
“The thought here is to build a global sports entertainment platform,” he says. “To do that, we’ve got to control the races and the events and the standardization of that. We have to control the media rights. We’ve got to have merchandising. We have to have pro athletes. We have to have a training business. We have to have additional content.”
Spartan Race is aiming to build all those things, and fast, the company says. If all goes well, Spartan Race could have us all cheering for our favorite obstacle racer at the 2024 Olympics. And with local lawmakers currently pushing to make Boston the host city for those events, that could even happen right here in Beantown.
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