In response to the COVID-19 outbreak, nearly all sports have been canceled. That goes for everything from your local 5K to the Tour de France and the Summer Olympics. But at least one event has decided that a global pandemic won’t get in the way of allowing athletes to test their mettle.
“If you’re too afraid to live a Spartan life due to a virus, then you’re already dead,” Joe De Sena, CEO of Spartan Race, told Obstacle Racing Media after announcing the return of the race on the company’s website and social media.
The distances of Spartan Races vary between three and thirty miles and require competitors to crawl through mud, climb over walls, and throw wooden spears into hay bales to reach the finish line. The first post-lockdown Spartan Race is scheduled for June 13 and 14 in Jacksonville, Florida, two weeks before the July 1 date De Sena originally chose back in April to mark the return of his events.
Florida has become one of the first states to ease restrictions put in place to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus, and as of May 4, residents were able to go to restaurants, retail shops, and beaches—albeit at limited capacity and within certain hours—even as health experts warn that the virus could see another resurgence later in the year.
De Sena, long a charismatic figure in the fitness world, told Obstacle Racing Media that his company has instituted a number of measures to “make a Spartan event safer than going grocery shopping, going to Starbucks, or going in an elevator.” Precautions include sanitization of common touch points such as check-in areas and toilets, mandatory face coverings for all staff (participants will be requested, but not required, to wear masks in the festival area when not on the course), smaller heats to add distance between athletes, and contactless temperature checks. De Sena expects the Jacksonville event to draw 4,000 competitors per day.
Like most other industries, endurance racing has been hit hard by the pandemic. In March, De Sena furloughed 75 percent of his staff after losing over $9 million in profits. The Endurance Sports Coalition, which, along with Spartan, includes brands like Ironman and USA Triathlon, normally has a $3 billion annual economic impact, most of which will be lost this year as races are postponed and vendors drop out. Some races, like Ironman, have transferred participants’ registration fees to events later in 2020 or 2021, while others have encouraged people to run virtual races, where they create their own, socially distanced courses. In an industry where the vast majority of businesses are small mom-and-pop operations, though, the pandemic could cause many companies to close their starting lines for good.
While some fans were excited to see the race return, Spartan took a beating on social media following its announcement. Former Spartan Race world champion Amelia Boone was one who disagreed with the decision. “To be honest, I did not think obstacle racing would be the first to come back, because everything is so high touch,” she told Outside. While Boone commends De Sena for the measures he’s implementing to make the race safer, such as eliminating sandbag obstacles or putting hand sanitizer before the monkey bars, Boone is still concerned about those traveling from other parts of Florida or out of state to compete. “It seems like its a personal decision whether or not to race, but in reality, we’re learning that the virus won’t just affect them,” she says, adding she’s not surprised to hear that De Sena, a longtime friend, was the first race director to step up and take the plunge. Still, she feels it’s too premature for her to compete right now. “I want more than anything for racing to come back,” she says, “but a Spartan Race happening like this is not a Spartan Race I want to do.”
In response to the backlash, De Sena posted a video on Instagram explaining his decision and controversial language, saying that those who live an unhealthy lifestyle are dying a slow death anyway, and that healthy people getting out and mixing with others is the only way to develop herd immunity—even though experts say this approach could lead to tens of thousands of more deaths, and still may not protect children or people with weaker immune systems.
“There’s only two ways out of this,” he says in the clip. “One, a vaccine. We might have to wait 6, 12, or 18 months, who knows how long, to get a vaccine. The other is herd immunity, where 60 to 70 percent of the population has to get the antibodies. Let’s start living, let’s eat healthy, let’s build an immunity for ourselves, for the rest of the country, for the rest of the world, so we’re not living in fear, in our houses, dying a slow death.”