Takeaways from Spartan US National Series Jacksonville
Author: Peter Dobos
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- Nicole Mericle winning by a whopping 6:50 sends two messages. One: she is deadly on flat fast courses, which we all kinda knew already. Two: running a clean race in wet conditions shows that her obstacle game is one of the best in the field. That is a scary combination for the next couple of races. She’s going to be the odds-on favorite until we hit some mountains/ski hills, where the races tend to take longer than 1:08 and where big engines and mad descending skills matter more than pure pace. For me, the only soft spots in her game are big climbs and descents in races that go 1:30 or longer.
- Jacksonville was a bit of a mixed bag from Lindsay Webster, but when anything other than a win is considered underperforming it all needs to be kept in perspective. She absolutely has to get the spear yips taken care of and put behind her. It’s true that so far she can spot the field 30 burpees and still eke out a win as often as not, but it gives her zero room for error. With consistent targets finally implemented by Spartan, there is no excuse to not be hitting 8 out of 10 at the very least in the elite fields. I saw her practice the Beater on Friday (thanks for the video, Rose!) and it was a cakewalk for her and everyone else. Of course, that was fresh and in the dry, which just reinforces how important training specificity is in this sport. We didn’t have eyes on Beater for the race, but apparently, it destroyed the women as it had started raining by then. I think of the top 10 ladies only Nicole, Rose, and Alyssa got through it. All that being said, she still finished 2nd in likely the strongest and deepest women’s field to ever run a Spartan even though she had to crank out 60 burpees. This despite coming in very undertrained in terms of her running onto a course that didn’t play to her strengths- climbing and descending- at all. I’m pretty sure she’ll do okay the rest of the season, and she seemed happy with where she is to kick off the season.
- Welcome back, Rose Wetzel! The former top racer has clawed and fought her way back to the elite podium after having her baby (way to set her back 2 years there, Tim Sinnett). Before we get overly excited we need to note that this was a flat fast course, and Rose has better top-end running speed than any of the ladies, and probably 90% of the men’s elite field as well. Her Ninja background served her well as she ran a clean race, so that part of her game looks to be back close to 100%. This is early season form just into a new training cycle for her, so I expect her level to improve steadily throughout the season.
- Rebecca Hammond was on everyone’s radar for this race, and she did not disappoint. She has a solid middle distance collegiate track background and has managed to transition that to the trails, muck, hills, and mountains better than most runners coming into the sport. She clearly has the athleticism and raw strength required for most of the obstacles, and now just needs to refine and polish her techniques. She has managed to reach this elite level with relatively little dedicated training due to her medical school schedule. However, this is the end of her final year, so ladies, you need to watch out for Hammond even more in the second half of the season.
- Alyssa Hawley was a revelation and a relief for me at this race. For years she has been the women’s equivalent of Ryan Atkins: automatic on the obstacles. It became very clear watching this race unfold that she has, correctly IMHO, focused more on her running. It doesn’t seem to have compromised her obstacle prowess one iota, as she came in with a clean obstacle sheet and only 20 seconds behind Rose and Rebecca. Rain will always favor the racers who are super strong and consistent on the obstacles, and today was no exception. It will be interesting to see if her running pace continues to improve, and how it will translate into her performances once the vertical courses kick in.
- Three very strong runners I watched in this race were Faye Stenning, Nell Rojas, and Tia Reagan. Full disclosure: I had no idea who Tia was but it turns out she can crank out 16:07 for 5km, which makes her the Ryan Woods equivalent in the women’s field. Rojas has a 2:31 marathon to her name, which is all but world class, and she can handle obstacles as she proved in hitting the podium in the California Spartans, including beating out Nicole Mericle in one of them. Faye has a proven pedigree at the very top of women’s elite Spartan racing, although consistency year to year has so far eluded her. These are 3 ladies who would all have been in the top-5 (along with Nicole and Rea) if this had been a relatively flat and dry trail race. They all clearly have killer speed-endurance, but need to find ways to transfer more of it to the terrain and intermittent nature of OCR. Faye had that figured out seemingly, but I am not sure how the move to NYC has impacted her ability to train in an OCR-specific manner.
- Rea Kolbl Pra was a bit further back than I thought she’d be, but not much. Again, it’s early season, a flat course that doesn’t suit her at all, and the rain challenges her ever-improving obstacle skills. She was one grip away from getting through the Beater, showing impressive chicken-wing mastery. Had she cleared Beater and not flubbed her spear throw, she’d have been in a dead heat with Rose and Rebecca, which gives us an idea of where her running is at right now. Despite a disappointing looking 7th, this is still a very solid performance all things considered and we’ll be seeing her on the podium for sure in a couple of races.
- The slow-burn under-the-radar award goes to the ever-improving Leigh Anne Wasteney, who finished 6th just ahead of Rea. Her bib number was different from the other ladies, being s0009. I am guessing it means she’s not one of the Spartan pro team racers, but if anyone knows for certain then please comment – thank you. I imagine very few people recognize the name, and I only know the following because I looked it up. She finished 7th in the US Championship Series in 2017 and then 5th in the 2018 Series. Her 2018 season included a win at the Las Vegas Spartan Super and a 7th place finish at the Spartan North American Championships. She’ll be one to watch for sure.
- It’s a bit hard to gauge how tight the women’s field is through the top-10, as it started raining late in the race and anyone who hadn’t cleared Beater by then was almost certainly doing burpees. Also, Nicole’s big winning margin mucks up the numbers. The spread from 1st (Nicole) to 10th (Faye) was 13:15, which is a bit more than one would expect on a flat course of this length, but the rain starting mid-race was definitely a player in that.
- Ryan Kempson has confirmed that he’s the man to beat on any flattish course. His running speed was developed with OCR terrain in mind, as opposed to track and road runners who often struggle to translate their speed-endurance to the dodgy footing and variable terrain of OCR. With the likes of Atkins, Woods, and Kent chasing hard, he smoothly nailed all the obstacles, so that checkbox is ticked in a big way. He will be tough to beat in the next couple of races, and things for the rest of the field won’t get much easier when the Series goes vertical. With a commanding win in Vermont last year, this Ryan has shown he’s got climbing and descending legs to go with his flat speed.
- The inseparable bromance that is Ryan Atkins and Ryan Woods continues. They came into the finish obstacles in a dead heat and crossed the line in a literal photo finish reminiscent of Lindsay-Faye in Tahoe 2 years ago. The fact that Woods was able to hang with Atkins through most of the course (he didn’t have a lead, and in fact only caught Atkins at the spear throw) tells us his obstacle game is on point. The fact that Atkins could run with Woods on a pancake-flat course this early in the season in hot and muggy conditions when he’s been running in t-shirts in -6 C a couple of days ago and with very little running in his legs for the past 2 months should make everyone else afraid going forward. I don’t see either of these racers finishing outside of the top-5 at any of the Series races. In fact, if someone could get Atkins to run more like a runner than an athlete – as Kempson has managed to do – then it will raise the bar in the men’s field and he will be untouchable by anyone other than Jonathan Albon.
- Ryan Kent, Kirk Dewindt, Tyler Veerman, and Johnny Lunalima are guys to keep our eyes on. Ryan Kent has been up there knocking on podium placings and is part of the Holy Grail of OCR: the all-Ryan podium. Were the other three men one-hit wonders here? I doubt it, as OCR doesn’t lend itself to that. Will they be consistent enough to feature at the top of the points leaderboard towards the end of the series, especially with the shift to more vertical terrain? I for one am keen to find out.
- Batres and Yatsko were pre-race dark horses for top-5 and wound up 15th and 12th respectively. We don’t know what happened on the course, whether it was fitness or speed or obstacle issues. These are another couple of guys to keep track of as the Series progresses.
- A 6th place finish, 30 seconds off the extended podium may seem like a slow start for Robert Killian, but he’s likely had the shortest off-season of any of the top men. Word is that he also may or may not be nursing a bit of an injury. He’s a proven quantity in spades, so look for him to steadily improve and become a podium fixture as the season progresses. Whether or not it will be enough to be a main player in the overall Series is a bit doubtful, especially as he has stated that his main focus will be to peak for Tahoe in quest of his 2nd Spartan World Championship.
- Veejay Jones won the first two races of the season and beat some solid racers to do so. However, none of the main players for the points series were there, and Veejay didn’t make the trip out to Florida for the series opener. As such, it’s hard to know how he stacks up against the top-10. Given that his strength is running, this was a runners’ course, and that every race counts in the final standings, I am wondering if he picked up a niggle in the California races (hopefully not) or whether he is giving the series a pass this season.
- Ryan Woods has been DQ-ed post-race for using the center truss on the final A-Frame. I for one am a bit confused by the interpretation of the rule, since it was discussed by the commentators at 1:47:40 during the race coverage. This puts a massive dent in Woods’ shot at repeating his series win from last year. With this big fat zero on his scorecard, he’ll be hard pressed to make the top-5. This punishment is grossly disproportionate to any rule infraction that happened, and I for one am kinda heartbroken for Woodsy.
- Consistent targets for the spear throw is a long overdue no-brainer, so I was thrilled to see it finally implemented. Now they need to do the same thing with the spears themselves. No real Spartan would be caught dead using one of those flimsy DIY contraptions. As often as not you’d see racers having to stomp on them in an effort to get the point somewhat close to straight. Staying with the spears: what’s the deal with the tennis balls? Initially, all the spears had balls at the base of the point to prevent them from drilling too far into the target. In pretty short order all of those balls had been removed by racers. You can clearly see it in the long shots of the finishing area after the top men had finished, where the spear throw is in the foreground. I assume this wasn’t against the rules. Or maybe it was, but Spartan decided not to enforce it.
- It’s only a matter of time before someone gets seriously hacked up doing the barbed wire crawl. Ryan Woods got horribly wrapped up in it and then had to run through swamps and muck with several deep lacerations on his lower body. The risk of infection is very real, and I hope he comes out of it with nothing more than a few more sexy scars. In addition, there is the whole issue of blood-borne infections. In almost any sport, athletes who are cut and bleeding must be taken out of the field of play and patched up before being allowed to return to play, for the safety of their competitors. This became a big concern following the Greg Lougainis incident, in which he cut his head open on a dive at the Olympics, bled into the pool, and was later revealed to have been HIV positive at the time. I am pretty sure that strands of wire without the barbs would be just as effective. C’mon, man.
- Finally, the fact that the toughest obstacle for the elite men – by far – is the spear throw remains a lame-as-hell fact. Spartan doesn’t keep stats but I bet both Yancy Culp’s and Dennis Wayne Welch’s mortgages that if we looked at the obstacle failures of the top-15 elite men over the past 2-3 years the spear throw would have more failures than the next 3 hardest obstacles combined. This is as much a commentary on the lack of difficulty in the obstacles as it is a shot at Spartan’s equivalent of the 6-foot putt.
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