In a phone interview with Spartan’s founder, Joe De Sena, I asked him about the appeal of OCRs compared to traditional road racing. Basically, he said, OCRs are more fun than marathons. “Look, at the end of the day, most of us are extremely lazy and our modern environment allows us to be lazy. If someone wants to change that and feel good and go exercise, does a 26.2-mile run on pavement sound appealing?” De Sena asked. “In contrast, with [Spartan], it’s just badass and more fun. The imagery, the videos, it’s just more likely to rip someone off the couch.”
De Sena also believes that the longest OCRs are tougher than marathons, and help people get in better shape. “When I look at the starting line of a marathon, the human beings I see don’t look like they have maximized their potential,” De Sena told me. “But when I look at the human beings at the start of a Spartan championship race, it’s like, Wow, that’s the perfect body.”
De Sena obviously has his reasons for saying that, but others from the world of marathons might agree that it’s beneficial to mix some strength and agility training in with the intense endurance of distance running. In a profile in Runner’s World, Ryan Hall, the American record holder in the marathon with a time of 2:04:58, confessed that while he was at the peak of his marathon physique he felt weak and underdeveloped. Since retiring from competitive distance racing at the age of 33, Hall has added strength training to his routine, as well as 40 pounds of muscle (documented in a shirtless Twitter selfie). Hall remarked that he felt like strength training was “giving life to my body instead of taking it away.”
I reached out to dozens of OCR participants online to ask them about their race experiences and many echoed De Sena’s pronouncement that OCRs were more challenging than a marathon.
Daniel Norton, 41, a software engineer from Charlotte, North Carolina, is a former marathon runner who insists that his Spartan experience was far tougher than any marathon. Norton had a single word to describe what it was like to complete the Spartan Super race in Asheville, North Carolina, a course covering 10 miles and 29 obstacles spread out over the rugged terrain of a mountainside granite quarry: “grueling.”
“I saw several people just stop and sit down,” Norton said. “There were times I was desperate to do the same … but I certainly enjoyed the journey.”
The added challenge of an OCR, which may be a deterrent for some, is the thing that makes it appealing for others. Philip Wilson, a professor in the department of kinesiology at Brock University in Canada, says that variety can keep people motivated, even if the exercise is challenging.
“The notion of difficulty is tied to the perception of challenge that comes with the activity. It is a fine line. Too much difficulty and people feel like they are a failure and are likely to quit … too little difficulty and people likely find it monotonous and not stimulating,” Wilson said. “So, yes, challenge matters, and the research suggests it is all about how the person interprets the challenge and whether the challenge is optimal in relation to the person’s own capabilities or not that makes the difference in motivational terms.”