Spartan hosted the first race since COVID-19 hit, and the industry is watching

Danny Emerman
Yahoo Sports Contributor

Since the coronavirus outbreak hit the United States in mid-March, no endurance sport has held a mass-participation event. Until last weekend in Jacksonville, Florida. 

On June 13, 1,400 athletes monkey bar-swung, spear threw and barbed wire-crawled their way through a five-kilometer obstacle course. The race was hosted by Spartan, which holds over 250 events in 40 countries annually as the biggest endurance brand in the world. 

“It was epic,” Spartan founder and CEO Joe De Sena told Yahoo Sports. 

Spartan’s 5K obstacle course race represents a major milestone for the endurance sports industry, which has been largely paused by COVID-19. The event took place in front of no fans with a significantly reduced capacity and several safety measures. Race officials say last weekend’s event can serve as a model for competition in the COVID-19 age.

“A lot of events came out to see how we did it. I think they can learn how to do it safely, how to do it properly, and that we can actually have events,” De Sena said. 

The CDC has recommended against gatherings that are difficult to remain physically distant, and the growing consensus is that COVID-19 most often spreads in close, interpersonal interactions through transmitted respiratory droplets. 

In Florida, the pandemic that has taken the lives of over 115,000 Americans, is still very real. The state announced 3,207 additional cases on Thursday morning, a daily record since testing began. In the five days between the race and Thursday, there were at least 184 COVID-19 deaths in Florida, according to the Washington Post. The five-day stretch from exactly a month ago reported 218 deaths. 

De Sena doesn’t yet know if any Jacksonville race participant has contracted the virus. He said Spartan plans to send a survey to competitors in three to four weeks, but Head of Global Brand Communications Jonathan Fine later contradicted him in an email, writing “while we don’t have plans to distribute anything right now, we do have written protocols in place to address how we will follow up in response to any reported COVID-19 risks.” 

An athlete competing during the Spartan Race U.S. Championship Series: "Golden State Classic" obstacle course race (OCR) at Toro Park in 2017 in Salinas, California. (C Flanigan/Getty Images for Spartan)

Asked if positive tests from the race are a concern, De Sena said they’re more of a reality.

“Listen, we couldn’t have had a better setup than what I saw,” De Sena said. “We couldn’t have done anything better. So now let’s see what happens.”

The safety protocols

In a typical Spartan event, hundreds of racers would sprint shoulder-to-shoulder. But in last Saturday’s race, the heats were reduced from about 300 to 24 people at a time and staggered every five minutes to maintain social distancing. 

Before anyone congregated at the starting line, all participants had to record a temperature below 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit. Every Spartan staff member had to test negative for COVID-19 prior to the event, but racers weren’t tested. They also weren’t quarantined, but did have to sign a form declaring they hadn’t been exposed to anyone with the coronavirus in the past two weeks. 

To avoid extended periods of loitering, athletes had to enter and leave the venue no more than 30 minutes before starting and 30 minutes after finishing. A video was also sent out to all participants prior to the event outlining health guidelines. 

Some traditional obstacles were also removed for safety reasons.

“I was a bit concerned that it wouldn’t feel like a legit Spartan race. By putting all these procedures and policies in place and taking all the precautions, that it would lose its luster. That it would take away what makes Spartan so great. But I was pleasantly surprised,” De Sena said. 

Throughout the course, staffers had to wear face masks and maintain at least six feet of distance. In addition, hand sanitizer stations were placed at each obstacle and on-site registration was eliminated to minimize contact and human interaction. 

Spartan didn’t track if the participants came from out of state to compete, but De Sena said he knows several who were from states bordering Florida. De Sena and his family drove down from Vermont to attend the race, stopping at gyms, stores and beaches along the way. 

“Our event was 100 times safer than what I saw down the entire coast,” De Sena said. “In other words, if you went into a grocery store, or you went into a hardware store, you went into a boardwalk, oh my f------ God. Where were the protocols and procedures there?” 

For every race, runners sign a waiver because the courses are dangerous. “You’re not laying naked watching Netflix,” De Sena said. For the Jacksonville event, the waivers included language about COVID-19, which is becoming more common in sports. 

Endurance sports coalition

Like almost every industry, the endurance sports field was hit hard by COVID-19. Events across the country shut down or went virtual, which hurt organizations as well as participants and charities. De Sena estimates Spartan’s business was down at least 85 percent during the three-month hiatus.

“Try ripping all your teeth out with pliers,” De Sena said. “Let me know how that feels. That’s what it feels like.”

In April, Spartan helped create a grassroots coalition to lobby Congress and the White House for relief. The group, which now includes around 800 organizations, also features USA Cycling, USA Triathlon and IRONMAN.

The coalition’s news release said endurance sports is a $3 billion industry that accounts for 50,000 annual events and 500,000 jobs. The coalition wants Washington to realize the mental and physical health value that comes with fitness, and De Sena said they need help to keep the industry alive. 

“My personal feeling is this is a pandemic we’re going to live with forever,” De Sena said. “It’s not something we’re just going to wake up one day and it’s gone. We’re just going to have to get used to it like we do about cancer and diabetes and obesity, and we’re going to have to be smart. But we can’t stop living our lives.”

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