"Spartans, prepare for glory!" bellows a bearded man in a cape and helmet as he paces before more than 1,700 jittery aspiring warriors. "No retreat! No surrender! That is Spartan law. Remember to return with your shield—or on it!" Then he grunts—"Ah-roo!"—and a horde of adrenalized hoplites charges forth with abandon.
So begins the Brooklyn (N.Y.) installment of Spartan Race, a 5K sprint that's equal parts Medieval Times, American Gladiators, and corporate road race. Spartan Race is just one of the extreme adventure challenges growing in popularity among young professionals, particularly those in finance. The race is the creation of 27-year-old Brit Richard Lee, a former Royal Marine, and his girlfriend, Montrealer Selica Sevigny. Competitors, who pay entry fees between $50 and $70, make their way past a dozen obstacles—including a crawl under barbed wire and a leap through fire—planted throughout the race, which is currently making its inaugural tour through nine cities in Canada, the U.S., and Britain.
The first modern adventure race is generally considered to be the 1989 Raid Gauloises in New Zealand, in which competitors traversed great distances by snowshoeing, camel riding, and other equally practical means of conveyance. Television producer Mark Burnett, of Survivor fame, launched an offshoot in 1995, the Eco-Challenge. The event was aired by turns on MTV, ESPN, the Discovery Channel, and the USA Network for nine years. These races, along with the continuing popularity of extreme sports, have offered a third way for professionals seeking something more strenuous than company softball and less militaristic than paintball. Lee estimates that 60 percent of the more than 15,000 anticipated challengers this year are on corporate teams.
Spartan Race is hardly alone in its attempt to transport white-collar professionals back to heartier, dirtier times. In the Warrior Dash series—which has courses from Southern California to the Northeast—participants receive a horned "warrior helmet" reminiscent of Hägar the Horrible's. There's also the British Tough Guy race, the arduous Tough Mudder series that travels the U.S., and the two-person Muddy Buddy race. Their common ingredient? Mud. "Corporate life, and life as we know it today, is very comfortable," says Brian Duncanson, CEO of Spartan Race, which is a subsidiary of Peak Races. "People may think they have it hard, but it's nothing like how hard it used to be." Or so the theory goes.
Soil abounds in Brooklyn's Spartan Race. For more than three miles, racers overcome irregularly spaced hurdles, a 12-foot-high pile of wood and dirt, a horizontal climbing wall, an inclined ramp greased with shortening, and—just before the finish line—two bare-chested men with jousting sticks. It's messy, but is it really Spartan? "I'm a big fan of the movie 300, and we were looking for a symbol that represented ingenuity, bravery, strength, and the will to overcome adversity," says co-founder Sevigny. "The Spartans were renowned for that."
The six fastest finishers in Spartan Race—three male and three female—receive free admission to the forebodingly named Death Race, held in March and June in Pittsfield, Vt. The 24-hour-or-so 10-mile course pits racers against a series of bizarre surprise challenges intended to tax them mentally as much as physically. Before entry, participants are required to sign a waiver with the sobering line: "I may die."
Both the Spartan Race and Death Race are operated by parent company Peak Races, which is owned by Joseph Desena, 41, a former Wall Street banker and the current managing director of portfolio trading at Pittsfield (Vt.)-based financial adviser Collins Stewart. "Our best analogy to present our message is that we are all animals," Desena says. "Visualize this: You come home one day and your pet is watching Oprah, drinking a coffee, toenails painted, smoking a cigarette, and complaining that she needs a new mattress. Or you come home and that same dog just ran 22 miles chasing a bird, killed it, ate it raw, and drank some water. Which animal is the normal one?" Desena claims that entrance fees to the races allow Peak to "just about break even," but money seems secondary. "There is something greater to do than worry about maximum profit," he says. "Just ask Bernie Madoff."
New Yorker Stefanie Bishop, 27, vice-president for equity derivatives at brokerage firm Elevation, won the winter Death Race and finished first among women, and sixth overall, in the June event. (Spartan Race skews about two-thirds male; Death Race, which rigorously screens admissions and limits participation to 100, is even more testosterone-heavy.) To win, Bishop had to submerge herself in an ice-broken pond for 45 minutes and drink a gallon of milk. "One of the girls was lactose-intolerant," she recalls. "She put it down pretty quickly, but part of it came up."
Another bafflingly cruel Death Race task required Bishop to bushwhack through mountainous woods carrying a pack filled with $50 worth of pennies (about 28 lbs.), 10 lbs. of raw onions, and an 8-lb. Greek language primer (for later use in translating the sentence "The race is only a quarter over"). In the middle of the woods they were met by a crowned man who called himself the Onion King. Contestants were forced to chop up the onions in 1-in.-by-1-in. pieces, sort them into 1-lb. bags, and eat one bag. On the other side of the mountain, they had to eat another pound. It could have been worse: During the winter running of the race, contestants were given a sequence of eight two-and three-digit numbers to memorize. After running four miles, they had to recite it correctly—or else run back up the mountain.
Bored by triathlons, Bishop prefers wood chopping (she owns an ax) and snaking under her own barbed-wire course to doing time at the gym. She contends that adventure races have also expanded her business network. "By the time you finish, you might have a new group of friends and contacts," she says. "If I have a client who runs 5Ks but is not extreme, I'll encourage them, and I'll do it with them. They're always happy about it, and it's a bonding experience for us."
Ex-U.S. Marine Alex Fell, co-founder and drill instructor at Warrior Fitness Boot Camp in Manhattan, trained about 50 runners for this year's Spartan Race. "The majority of our clients are in finance," he says. "They have that type-A, real competitive personality; they want to see if they have what it takes to survive this kind of training." The recession may also explain the surging popularity of adventure races. Sara Rouf, an analyst at financial-services firm Stone & Youngberg, began training with Warrior Fitness after she lost her last job because of restructuring at JPMorgan Chase (JPM). "People who work in finance need to have some sort of hungry attack-mode challenge every day," she says of the laid-off bankers who've used newfound downtime to practice crawling beneath barbed wire.
On the sidelines of Spartan Race, Marines man a pull-up bar where Spartans can test their mettle. Anyone matching the strongest Marine's streak of 30 full-extension pull-ups receives a free T-shirt. No one comes close. In one area, at least, the Spartans return home in ignominy, and steel themselves for battle on Monday morning—in search of another form of glory.
Spartan Race is neither the only adventurous road race nor the weirdest. Here are other options for executives bored with their ellipticals.
Tough Guy: Perton, Staffordshire, England
Obstacles: Electricity, Fire, Water, Mud, Barbed Wire
Length: 7.5 miles (variable); 2010 winner finished in 1 hr., 19 min. Challenges: Scaling electric fences with twice the charge needed to stun a bull; descending rubber-covered hillside of "Viagra Falls" while being hosed by firemen; post-race British cuisine.
Tough Mudder: 14 locations throughout the U.S.
Obstacles: Fire, Water, Mud, Barbed Wire, Ice
Length: 7 to 12 miles; average time to complete is 2.5 hrs.
Challenges from the Bear Creek (Pa.) course: Traversing a swinging rope bridge directly over near-freezing water; scaling slick 12-ft.-high climbing walls; running around 4-ft.-high flames.
Canadian Death Race: Grand Cache, Alberta Canada
Obstacles: Water, Mud, Time
Length: 80 miles with 17,000 ft. of elevation change; 2010 winner finished in 12 hrs., 45 min.
Challenges: Running over and through pavement, gravel, creeks, a mud bog, cliffside trails, knee-deep water; conquering a 6,986-ft. mountain.