Emily Downey, Country Manager, Japan Spartan Race
executive impact

Join the Spartan Race and change your life

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By Chris Betros

Get ready to push your body to the limit on Oct 21-22. That’s when Spartan, the world’s most popular obstacle course race, takes place in Japan for the second time this year, after a highly successful popular debut in May.

Over 5,000 people took place in the inaugural May race. Spartan Race Japan Country Manager Emily Downey says she expects up to 10,000 to take part in the next races which will be held over two days at Sagamiko Pleasure Forest in Kanagawa Prefecture.

Spartan Race was started in the mountains of the U.S. state of Vermont by adventure racer Joe DeSena, and this year, 240 races will be held in 35 countries. Spartan is not your everyday running race - expect to run, climb, push, pull, throw and crawl through walls, hills, trees, mud, barbed wire and other challenging but fun obstacles.

Japan got its first look at the Spartans last December in the form of the Agoge race when 26 international Spartans went full throttle from the heart of Tokyo to Kyoto. They fought through the maze that is Tokyo, took on the brutal practice of the famed Marathon Monks, raced to the top of a skyscraper and endured freezing cold nights on a mountain from Dec 8-11. The term Agoge derives from an ancient Greek series of physical challenges that tested the strength of young Spartan warriors.

DeSena had been looking to bring Spartan to Japan for some time. Last September, he met Downey, herself an avid obstacle race veteran, and within 30 minutes, plans were made for the first race to be held in May this year.

With its brand partner Reebok, Spartan Race is innovating obstacle racing on a global scale. There are three categories, each escalating in distance, obstacle count and challenge level. They are the Spartan Sprint (5 km+/20+ obstacles), the Spartan Super (10+ kms/ 25+ obstacles) and Spartan Beast (20+ kms/ 30+ obstacles). Courses are riddled with signature obstacles: mud, barbed wire, walls, rope and fire. If you complete all three race categories in one calendar year, you become part of the coveted TRIFECTA tribe. There is also a children’s race, which will be held in Japan in October. These races, are for kids aged 5-12 who run/walk for 1.5 kms in distance, emphasizing teamwork, fun and, of course, getting muddy.

Downey, who has been in Japan for 16 years, said Japanese have enthusiastically taken to the Spartan races. She says it is a life-altering experience. If you think you can’t do it, you’re wrong, she says. Get to the starting line and show yourself what you are capable of, just take the first step and the rest will follow.

Japan Today hears more about the Spartan race from Downey.

How did you get involved in the Spartan Races?

Well, I have been in Japan for 16 years. I dabbled in teaching and many years in publishing, before getting involved in a smaller brand of obstacle course racing (OCR). It was a concept that didn’t exist in Japan. Because I had three years experience with obstacle course running in Japan, I was virtually the only non-Japanese person known for that in Tokyo.

The global CEO of this brand, Joe DeSena, contacted me after being in town for three days last September. We met and within 30 minutes, we had planned our first race. That’s probably the fastest activation of a Spartan race in history.

I told him we could do a race in spring if we could get a Japanese partner. We already had Reebok as our global brand partner. We needed a local operating partner and we tied up with Xross Sports Marketing which is owned by Xebio Holdings, the largest sports retailer in the country.

Other obstacle race brands have failed in Japan. How confident were you that Spartan would succeed?

In Japan, the first brand to market usually fails. It doesn’t matter what industry it is. But it opens the door. The second and third to market see the open door, come in and make it wider. That’s what happened here. I was with Warrior Dash and that is what got me to believe in OCR and that it could succeed in Japan. What they did not have — and what we do have — is accelarated and dedicated digital marketing through our large partners. Spartan’s philosophy is that 50% of the investment must go to advertising and media for the local market. In our case, it’s very simple — digital activation through Facebook, Instagram, Twitter. Without that, we would never have sold out our first race, and we are about to sell out our second race weekend in October.

Tell us about the races.

We have the basic 5+km sprint, which we started with in May. It was 7 kms with 22 obstacles. Our next race has to be a sprint and a longer race to bring back the participants who did the first race. That is over 10 kms and is called a Super. The third is the Beast and is around 21 kms with 30 obstacles. It is the most difficult of the three, testing not only your endurance, perseverance and grit, but also your mind. The Beast will arrive in Japan in 2018 with a full Trifecta calendar year.

Do you change any of the obstacles for Japan?

No, there is one set of obstacles standard across all markets. The Japanese are not weak. We have a 98% finish rate but you do need to train to optimize your race time - as all our races are timed for global comparison across age and gender .

In May, what percentage of racers were Japanese?

About 85% were Japanese. The rest were from the U.S., Philippines, Australia and about 30 other nationalities. On race day, people were surprised by that statistic.

What is the age range?

Our oldest participant globally is about 81. In Japan, we had one racer in his late 60s. For the children’s race, they are aged 5-12. They have miniature versions of the adults’ obstacles. We have already had many families sign up for the October races.

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You said before that taking part in a Spartan race can be a life-changing experience. What do you mean?

The person who crosses the finish line will be very different from the one who starts the race. It is the key to our brand. The biggest obstacle on every course is yourself, your mind, which for most people is driven by fear. The Spartan brand creates purposeful fear and gives you an opportunity to overcome that. Many people think they can’t do it but once they start, adrenaline takes over. The survival animal in us comes out and when you’re sitting on top of that high obstacle and know that if you let go, you could get hurt, in your mind, you hold on for your life. Each time you do that, you feel dread. If you do that 10 times over 5 kms, you conquer that fear.

If you can’t get over an obstacle, we ask you to stop and do 30 burpees (a quick up-and-down move) which is used as a time penalty. It is designed to slow you down and make you accountable for missing an obstacle. This way - no matter your ability - you will complete the race.

No mishaps in May?

None. We had two doctors and five nurses on site. This is a standard requirement at our races globally . No one crosses the line crying, other than tears of joy and relief at having completed and faced their fears. Actually, we are far safer than a marathon. Many novices who haven’t trained, do marathons and they never do it again because it nearly kills them.

What about preparation?

We have set up training places. You can train for free every Saturday with the Tokyo Spartans. You can go to Spartan classes at Tipness gyms across the country, too, as well as selected Crossfit boxes

So what was the feedback after the May race?

We sent out a survey and got 600 replies. Of those, 99% said they would do it again. So far, about 88% of sign-ups for the October races are returnees. They get a special medal if they do all three races. Our feedback was overwhelmingly positive - people just loved it and we have garnered a fanatical following already.

The most enjoyable obstacle that people go for time and time again is the barbed wire crawl. They just go nuts especially if it is muddy and wet. Japanese women loved it, which many of the naysayers said they wouldn’t.

The hardest obstacle technically is the Hercules hoist and is about lifting a massive sand bag that is as heavy as most people’s body weights. About half fail this obstacle on the first attempt and it makes them want to come back to overcome it.

By the way, besides the three races, I notice you have the Death Race. What is that?

The Death Race was the original Spartan race held on Joe’s farm in the States. He likes that kind of crazy stuff. But now that Spartan has become a huge company, he changed the name. The modern-day death race in Japan is called the Agoge. We held one in Japan last December. It was a 72-hour run with quite a high drop-out level. It was done mainly for branding, ahead of our debut in May.

What is your business model?

The business model is ticket sales. They start at 11,000 yen and go to 19,000 yen, depending on the category and race distance.

What do you do on race day?

Although I’m an obstacle course racer myself, I cannot race on race day. When the course is set up, my team and I run the event on Friday to test the obstacles. On the last race day in May, I was working on two hours sleep a night during race set-up week. Spartan employees have to be superhuman. On race day, we have to manage up to 200 staff and volunteers and make sure every single facet is taken care of for over 5,000 racers.

What are your future plans?

In Japan, we will double the number of races each year as the market grows. This year, two race weekends, and next year, we plan eight race days over four weekends — in February, late May and then October and December.

Is Spartan Race involved in any charities?

In America, we have an NPO, the Spartan Foundation, to help disadvantaged children. But most people do their own fundraising for whatever they believe in. We have had a lot of breast cancer survivors participate in races. They publish on social media and raise their own funds.

For more information on how to take part in the Oct 21-22 Spartan Races, visit http://www.spartanrace.jp/en/race/detail/3296/overview or find us on Facebook at Spartan Race Japan.

© Japan Today

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