Looking to the Future of Obstacle Racing with Robert Coble

Looking to the Future of Obstacle Racing with Robert Coble

“The fear of the unknown is the best fear there is.” I heard this recently while watching the film 180 Degrees South. This applies to obstacle racing in so many ways. Before each race there is the wonder: What obstacles? What is the weather going to be like? What’s the terrain like? Spartan Races’ road to the Olympics has made many avid racers uneasy wondering if their beloved sport will become less of the unknown/unpredictable. There will be changes that will occur in the future in order to become more organized and help progress the sport in the right direction, but nothing to the extreme that which people have worried over. 

Robert Coble is the Athletic Director for Spartan Race. You have probably seen him on the course in his referee uniform watching over the elites at a race or two. He is the go-to man with any questions or discrepancies that occur in any race (involving the elite racers) anywhere in the world. He runs on a 24-hour clock and sleeps when he can. How is this possible? To him, it’s just a way of life that he started living years ago while working with athletes on the Tour de France/Pro-Tour level. 

WOR: How did you stumble upon Spartan Race?

Robert: I was a professional cyclist my whole life and we compete all over the world. I had come back from Tour of Uruguay and Juliana Sproles was doing an Ultra Beast in Vermont and we were going to go do that together and I figured I could treat it like a bike race and help her from the sidelines and she read that, “No”, you can only accept food help from people who are in the race. I then decided (behind every crazy man there is an insanely driven woman) she didn’t need help, but I would enter the race without a clue what to expect. I ended up having so much fun I raced the whole thing. It sort of evolved into us doing other races and I just noticed the potential of the sport.

WOR: What makes this sport have potential? 

Robert: It’s more unified. Many other race disciplines are run/promoted by somebody different at each event, and it’s hard to get it unified, and hard for athletes to get sponsorship, and the promoters don’t have resources to promote the sport or athletes as a whole. There is no reason for an individual promoter to spend money on promoting an athlete. For example, if the NFL wants to spend money on promoting an athlete it only benefits the NFL because every football game is the NFL. There are other great obstacle races other than Spartan Race, but the few that are sport oriented, also have many events, and can afford to promote the sport and athletes, not just their event.

WOR: What lead you to become the athletic director of Spartan Race?

Robert: I was talking with Joe DeSena and they were having troubles because they did offer prize money and athletes were showing up, but there was really no organization or rules. The athletes were attracted to the sport but because there was no oversight and once prize money is offered then it needs to be a little bit more professional and legitimate. 

WOR: So he just said, “you are the athletic director.”?

Robert: Not exactly, but I was basically doing the same thing with the pro-cycling. As the Director of Sportiff you need to know every rule and you have to hire professional athletes. You have to know athlete personalities and how to create the best outcome for athletes and the sport. You are half psychologist, half sport designer. That is just a broad question. 

WOR: What purpose did Joe want you to serve in this position? 

Robert: There are two goals: One, to change people’s lives, we say “get them off the couch” but really it’s pretty serious as the human race can’t evolve from needing to climb trees and cut firewood, to sitting in front of a computer in 3 generations. We all need this to be complete healthy productive humans.

Two, to create an Olympic sport that comprises all aspects of a complete athlete. Really, that is what the very first Olympics were, (I wasn’t there but I think a few of our founders were).

WOR: How long have you been the athletic director? 

Robert: Coming up on three years now. 

WOR: When you first started officiating what was it like making that presence on the course? 

Robert: That is a very small part of my position, so I didn’t start that right away. It was mostly developing this to become a pro-sport. I don’t want to take credit for that because everyone is working together to make this into a sport. I just have a lot more insight into it because other people get bogged down with how much plywood costs or liability of this or that. First, I developed this model so we can have professional athletes and they can be supported, and what they need to compete fairly, and that’s a big part of what I do.

I have raced 50 or 60 of these races myself. Sometimes running in the back or running with the women trying to see why it’s attracting so many new athletes and if we are making it into a professional sport, I don’t want to lose whatever it was that was attracting all these people. 

WOR: What were some of the conclusions you drew from your “research”? 

Robert: Part of what I saw was that, it really is just you and your shoes running out there and every time there is this real tendency for people to want to make rules for everything. There was a situation where we had “rolling mud”, which is, you probably have seen this. There is water, then mud, then water and people were jumping over the water. I forget what country it was, so they put officials out there to give people penalties for jumping over the water. The idea is, you make the water bigger so they can’t jump over it and now you don’t have to make a rule. You make the racers go that way. 

It sounds funny, but if you can design the whole course that way then the only thing to do is have a definable penalty for failing an obstacle. It is considered a race as long as there is a definable time or definable effort. Having the athletes repeat the obstacle is no longer a race because there isn’t a definable penalty. I have a little bit of a problem with these races that you keep trying the obstacles over and over again because, I can’t rank those athletes. The second fasted guy in the world could suddenly become 300th place, which means it’s not a race and it becomes something else. If we are on our way to the Olympics, that’s one of the requirements. Are you a race or a skill contest? 

WOR: For so long so many people have said that if we are going to the Olympics everything has to be the same. But, with obstacle racing the thrill of it, is the fact that all the courses are different. It doesn’t though because each country the Olympics is hosted in, the terrain varies. 

Robert: I keep wondering why everyone thinks everything has to be the same. Unless you are on a track no race is going to be the same. A cycling race, it could be in the mountains. We know what a marathon is but it doesn’t have to be a flat marathon. They like fast times and they usually do it that way, but a marathon is on streets. Mountain biking is probably the most drastic one. It’s different every time. A mountain bike cross country course could be on sand, in a jungle, it could be anything. They could say, this is an easy course so let’s make it this length. As long as we are a race and not a skill. Races are always random. 

WOR: And the burpees…

Robert: The burpee is nice and handy. It’s really easy to officiate and within a year we were able to get everyone to understand proper form to the extent that the penalty effort was applied fairly even if fatigue may make a burpee look haggard… at times.

WOR: Also, every failure obstacle has a camera to monitor the burpees. 

Robert: Yes, cameras help to officiate Burpees penalty or repetition obstacle. Counting to 30 or 20 or… under stress of a race has become an obstacle and a skill itself. I have a least one regular athlete that carries a hand counter to be sure he has done enough burpees to not be penalized.

WOR: Because you oversee the Spartan Pro-Team you have a deeper insight into rankings and what truly makes and elite obstacle racer. How do you rank obstacle racing athletes? 

Robert: That brings up the ranking system for each athlete. We have true world ranking, but most don’t know about it. Starting this next year, in order to get into the elite wave at high profile races they will have to be a certain rank to be in the elite wave. It’s just getting too crowded, other individual race sports have categories or rankings to get into the first prize money field. And, like you saw, the women get mixed in with the men. In the New Jersey race this year, Amelia passed 386 guys. They started 15 minutes later and she passed all but a few men. That’s not really fair that women will come up to the spear throw and all of them are taken. 

The idea is that, and it happens in a lot of sports, you are a certain category athlete. We have it set up for 3 categories. For a long time now we have had 3 different starts. This has been setting up this idea that we would have these requirements to get into the elite wave. It was meant for the NBC races at first. Every cycling, tri or other races have a certain requirement to get into the Category 1 or pro/elite race. So, we’ve been ranking every obstacle racer in the world for a couple years and they all have a handicap rating/ranking. 

WOR: This will only be for the NBC races, correct? 

Robert: It’s still early, but something like this is coming. It has not been hashed out yet, and it’s still being talked about. People run elite waves just to be able to run early. Ultimately, this interferes with the serious athletes making a living in Spartan Race; it also impacts television coverage when various skill levels are on the course at the same time.

There is change coming to the races and whether it occurs in 2016 or not, it will happen in order to create a stronger better race for the top athletes. The open heats will remain what they are, inspirational, timed, and individual accomplishment. But the terms “pro” and “elite” obstacle racer will not be used so loosely with this new standard if and when it is put into place. As for the Olympics, the fear of the unknown will remain and the excitement we feel standing at the start line will continue on for many years to come. 

(This was a mere 15 minutes of Robert’s and my 46 minute conversation. There might be a part II.)

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