Evan Gracey never intended to become an obstacle designer. He worked in contracting and construction, and went to school for architecture and engineering. Mike Morris never planned to be Spartan’s Vice President of Production. Garfield Griffiths used to organize music festivals and now organizes Spartan races. Jason Barnes worked in retail management before getting burned out.
Now they are all part of the team behind the Spartan Race courses you run and the obstacles you love (and hate).
“It’s the greatest job in the world,” says Griffiths. Even though our designers are constantly traveling, and working an event can be more tiring than racing one.
To design effective obstacles, it takes part science and part art, says Morris.
How Spartan Obstacles Are Designed: The History
Back in the day when the team was small, they'd dismantle every single obstacle themselves and pack it into a moving van and two shipping containers. But as Spartan grew that no longer became practical. Now there are over 200 races all over the world and obstacles have to be designed to make sense in both Sweden and Alabama.
Obstacles were also designed sometimes just because of what material was available and what made sense. For example, says Gracey, they once planned on having people jump from log to log, but it wasn’t working the way they wanted—logs kept flipping. Instead, they realized there were chains available on a farm site. They cut the logs in pieces and attached the chains. Viola! A heavy carry was born.
How Spartan Obstacles Are Designed Today
These days, the process of getting an idea from someone’s head out onto the race course is multi-layered and detailed, and must take a lot of factors into consideration. Coming up with a new obstacle starts by answering on a few questions:
- Is this something that can be easily replicated with simple instructions in different locations and countries?
- Is it clear how to do the obstacle and safe for thousands of athletes?
- Is it consistent with the Spartan brand?
- (And let’s be real: Is it going to look awesome on social media?)
“How can we challenge people in a new way, but with something that isn’t totally intimidating?” says Gracey. The idea is to create obstacles that athletes can practice and improve on with time, but that aren’t impossible. Basically, racers want to feel it’s rewarding and not too frustrating.
OCR Design: The Creative Process
It’s a tough balance to design the perfect obstacle, and something the design team takes very seriously. Before you ever get to a race course, everything goes through a very detailed process:
- A new obstacle first gets brainstormed, then designed online and rendered in 3D. Gracey then mocks up a sample and runs all the calculations for load and force. (The team always builds to the most stringent safety regulations.)
- It then goes through a review with additional input from the team, who all test it out themselves.
- Then, they build out a sample at a test event—often in the festival area of a two-weekend race, many times in Palmerton, PA or Tuxedo, NY. This allows them to build out obstacles and watch how athletes cope.
- Once obstacles are finalized, they’re added to the race circuit. There are specifications for every race distance on which obstacles must be included and which are optional, in addition to specifications about where and how far apart to put obstacles on the course. (The idea being to avoid having athletes wait around too early in the course.)
- Spartan scouts event venues one year before a race. Three months before, it conducts site visits and drafts the course. That draft design is then evaluated thoroughly by the team, who make tweaks and plan logistics.
How Spartan Obstacles Are Designed: The Feedback Process
Everyone constantly listens to feedback and adjusts as needed. (Even new obstacles freshly rolled out often have changes and additions added over time.)
“You learn so much just sitting and watching [athletes tackle] an obstacle,” says Gracey. But the key is planning ahead for safety, and all the various ways people will try to conquer the obstacle, for better or worse. Basically, if people are able to do something, they will. They’ll move safety mats, jump from extreme heights, flip over the cargo nets—all of which are bad ideas. And after thousands of athletes go through an obstacle, anything that can go wrong will, so you have to plan ahead.
For example, at one point, the team developed ladders on a swivel. They tested them, built samples, tested further. Then, they put them into a test event, except it was so late in the race that people were too tired to climb back down. They started literally jumping off from ridiculous heights and hurting themselves. The swivel ladders were immediately nixed and never made it out to the race courses.
Or zip lines, for example. Gracey says he would love to do zip lines, but there’s just no way to design them where people won’t find a way to hurt themselves. The first thing everyone wants to do is run and jump onto it. And if a handful of guys testing the prototype can break it, then thousands of athletes definitely will.
With Obstacle Design, Simple Is Key
That’s why obstacles have to be designed to be easily understood and simple to set up in snow or rain or hurricane winds. They have to be replicable and, with the push for the Olympics, athletically focused. It’d be a lot more fun, jokes Gracey, if he stand on the course and explain how each obstacle works to every single athlete.
The most important thing to remember? An enormous amount of work and thought goes into every race course design. So trust it. “Things are set up that way for a reason,” he says.
Of course, our Spartan design team is always looking for new ideas, though. That’s why they venture onto courses and speak to athletes. And why Gracey asked a kids' school class for their input—marshmallow guns were a favorite. What are your ideas for new obstacles? Email firstname.lastname@example.org