My team “Family Jules”, consisting of the outstanding Team Captain Ryan Kent, and my wonderful teammates Julie Fults, Candace Appleton-Kuntz, and Joel Burrows raced in the episode broadcasted on July 7th. Below I will share my own personal point of view of the Spartan show’s casting and filming experience.
In case you have not caught our episode, it is available for streaming on NBC.com and Hulu. Some clips are also available on their Facebook page. On July 21st the finale goes down and I cannot wait to see the six teams competing!
Even though we did not advance to the finals, we did win our first heat in 1st place through will, determination, and teamwork. In our 2nd heat we stayed in the fight until the end and toughed it out against strong competition.
Proof of concept in Lake Tahoe
In 2015 I had learned through Facebook that casting for a Spartan Race TV show had started. Since I was still fairly new to competitive OCR, I did not even consider applying. Fast forward a few months: Once again on Facebook I saw that the Monday after the 2015 Spartan Race World Championships at Lake Tahoe (CA), a proof of concept for the TV show would be performed.
The purpose was to find out how obstacles, team composition, camera placement, race structure, etc. could be designed in a way that it would look best for TV. I was scheduled to run the coin holder elite heat for the Beast on Saturday and to run the Beast once again with Julie on Sunday. Attaching this “preview” of the show on Monday looked very appealing and easy to do… A few emails later, Julie and I were in. At the medical check we met Shaun and Jesse with their girlfriends Jessica and Kayla who would also participate in the test run. Shaun and Jesse would later go on to also compete on the TV Show as part of team “Sacramento Spartans”.
Short clips of the Tahoe proof of concept actually made it on to our episode, below for example you can see Mike King assist Julie to get to the dunk wall with the endless barbed wire in the background.
To keep this short: The 1mi course consisted of several obstacles left standing from the previous race weekend. Obstacles included the Tyrolean Traverse, A-frame cargo net, shield carry, barbed wire, low walls, dunk wall, slip wall, rope climb, log traverse, plus two other obstacles that were specially built and which I will not talk about (yet).
The proof of concept was in parts very very similar to what would later end up on the show, other things did not make an appearance or got changed significantly. Either way, it was a ton of fun and a unique opportunity that I enjoyed a lot. Hanging out with the great people there alone was definitely already worth spending an extra day at Lake Tahoe.
After the proof of concept was done I immediately followed up with the producers who had coordinated the test run: I wanted to be part of this! Julie right away thought of Candace and Joel as our teammates and a few text messages later they were also excited to get in on the application.
Via the application website we each filled out the million questions, some of them extremely personal and deep. Possibly saved some money on a psychotherapy session through doing so… At the end we were asked to submit an application video with certain requirements (e.g. talk about your teammates) which turned out to be even more time-consuming to create.
The Show: Overview
The show was filmed within a single week in December 2015 in Chattahoochee Hills, GA, not far from Atlanta. The weather ranged from foggy and wet to sunny and hot, of course the German got sun burnt while watching the other episodes getting filmed. The episodes were not filmed in the order as they appear on the show.
Shuttles were provided to bring the competing teams of the whole day to the venue very early while spectators could take later transportation to get there. Fortunately the shuttle ride only lasted about 20 minutes. With two full episodes being filmed per day, the group of people got quite large.
Competitors were then immediately given a walk-through of the course the morning of their competition, however, it was not clear which obstacles would be included in which race. Some would include the Hercules Hoist but not the rope climb or the other way around etc.
After the walk-through everyone was ushered in to a heating tent where people would either get ready or fall asleep, depending on how early their race was scheduled on the day.
Fun fact: For the case that one or multiple competitors got injured during a race, NBC had invited two full alternate teams who had to be on standby each and every day out on the race venue. Not so fun for those guys and personally I was surprised to see some great athletes being sidelined like this. Still, they were closer to being on the show than everyone else who applied and did not make it through casting at all.
If a team was not scheduled to compete that day, then they were usually busy attending B-Roll (or “hero”) filming. At the same lake we would cross on the rafts at a different location, we did our team and individual shoots which would be used for the team introductions or personal highlights. After this was done, there were team interviews being filmed where the whole team had to be available but members were interviewed only individually.
Since my team did run towards the end of the week, we had plenty of time to observe other teams compete against each other. Watching them would prove to provide incredibly valuable information for our own race strategy and tactics.
If you have noticed that some female competitors were wearing sports bras and short shorts and others did not: I wish you could have seen everyone’s faces when we got our uniforms! The men’s tank tops were more like short dresses and the girl’s sports bras were very…revealing. In the beginning the women were told they HAVE TO wear sports bras and if you know Candace you can imagine how well that worked out with her. I am pretty sure she made someone cry over the phone when she told them that there is no way she or Julie are going to wear those things. So they were told they would have the choice when we get to the costume check before the filming. As we arrive, suddenly there is no choice anymore… Fortunately we could figure out the situation and our girls got what they wanted – business as usual.
The production crew on site was great and since most of us were new to any sort of TV production we were really grateful for their help and patience (especially Peter, Cassidy, KellyAnn, Claire, Kate!)
The 1.8 mile course can be seen on the show at every episode so I will not go into too much detail here.
I see a lot of people making fun of the padding on top of the walls we had to climb and how “not Spartan” that is. Actually, the padding and the extra width of the wall (about 3 times as wide as a normal wall) made this obstacles much more challenging. The padding was slippery and sometimes wet, and the width of the wall made it impossible to wrap your fingers around the top.
Yes, you will not bruise yourself on those walls. However, you need much more strength and technique to scale them in the first place.
Another obstacle which was under-played was the log traverse. In theory you would simply need to hold on to the log and run with it across the wooden panels. In reality it was hard to wrap your arms around it and the walls were very very slippery. It also appeared as if the logs did not slide equally well in their rails. Since teams used different techniques on the obstacles this might have been caused due to different angles on the logs.
Between the second shield carry up the peg climb and the little creek jump up to the dunk walls, we had to climb over hurdles and jump over water trenches – three times in a row. While usually not much of an obstacle, at that point in the race everyone was redlining constantly for 15+ minutes. Apparently it did not look great on TV as everyone dragged themselves over these things so you do not see a lot of them on NBC. On the course map they were marked as “Hurdles” and can be seen in the picture below behind us.
Team Family Jules
Soooo about that team name… After several rounds of NBC asking us for suggestions we had agreed on “Globerunners”. Shortly after arriving though we were told that “Family Jules” would be our team name and that’s that. We had our fun with it, as did the commentators on the show (saying “It’s not what you think!”), but other teams got less lucky. Another fun fact: Even between the filming of the show and the broadcasting, some team names did get changed again – this time usually for the better though.
Julie and I had raced a lot together already but our team as a whole had never done a race of any kind together. Joel and Candace even met only at the hotel the day before the filming started.
They are both great athletes in their own regard, now it was all about putting the pieces together and perform as a team. Joel has an impressive endurance running resume and owns a gym (First Step Fitness) in Chicago, Candace is one of the strongest Dorito-devouring machines on the planet. Individually, everyone brought a lot to the table.
I want to highlight Ryan Kent who could not have been a better team captain. He truly was one of us throughout the whole experience, sharing his expertise, working with us to come up with a game plan instead of dictating one, and just being an all-around great guy. He even perfectly adjusted to the tough love Candace and Julie excel in, quickly designating him our team’s resident “pretty boy”.
NBC decided to highlight Julie and on one hand her struggle with making her athletic lifestyle work while living out of a suitcase and traveling all the time. On the other hand they made a big point out of her statement that you do not have to look like a typical athlete in order to be one.
They omitted that Julie has always been an athlete, playing team sports since she started high school and all the way through college, but the message is a strong one: It does not matter what you look like, it matters what you want to and can do! #likeagirl
Race: Heat 1
We were facing Team “Love and Basketball” and Team “Cornhuskers” first.
“Love and Basketball” were still the Round Lake Racers when we met them, named after the CrossFit gym they attend. The “Cornhuskers” had Shirtless Bob who made them team very visible for sure.
If anyone wonders why Candace did not jump right away: I took extra screenshots because you can clearly see her hand getting stuck between the handrail and the suspension wire – she looks at it as the log swings back. Not that anyone cares after that perfect form nose plug dismount!
When you click through the picture you might notice that I screwed my team on the totem climb: I did not climb up high enough to give Candace and Julie space because I thought I would help them conserve energy by picking up the flag further down the rope. Ooops.
We stayed in the fight the whole heat and at the slip wall we finally got to reap the benefits of obsessive planning and careful observation over the previous days. Everyone played their part perfectly and it was just beautiful to be part of that machinery.
Navigate using the yellow dots on top of the slideshow or the white arrows on the side of it.
Race: Heat 2
Now we were dealing with the “Comeback Kids” who won their heat and “Team K.O.” who got the wildcard spot after placing second in their heat.
Our claim to fame: Team Family Jules set the Hercules Hoist record with 14 seconds! Since we all knew we had much more strength and power than most teams we were very happy with how we handled this obstacle.
Someone at NBC found it necessary to put red circles around Julie whenever she got assistance – even though a lot of contestants needed assistance at the same places (e.g. first hill incline, walls).
Editing is very mighty in these shows. For example, “Team K.O.”‘s pro athlete Kadie York led her team with great effort through the course yet on the timber drop they made it appear as if she could not make it up the log. Don’t believe everything you see on TV, kids!
Another example is the shot at the slip wall where the “Comeback Kids” disappear up the wall just as “Team K.O.” emerges from the dunk wall. In reality there were several minutes in between and several people noticed that hay on the bottom of the slip wall magically vanished or appeared as the editing spliced different heats together.
Navigate using the yellow dots on top of the slideshow or the white arrows on the side of it.
Team Comeback Kids
Of course I cannot write about the show without writing about the people who beat us to the finale.
Everyone who had heard who is on Ian Deyerle’s team at the first day of filming immediately knew that something was different about his team’s composition.
You see, during the casting process several people were rejected as “team athletes” and instead told to apply as “team captains” since their race results were considered too elite. For example, I know of several people who were not permitted as team athletes because they had qualified for the Spartan Race World Championship and therefore “too elite”. Obviously there are only very few team captains and most of them were Spartan Pro Team members – so very slim chances of getting one of these spots. Generally, all teams seemed to consist out of a mix of athletes of different skill levels and/or age groups. With the exception of the Comeback Kids…
I invite everyone to look up members of all teams on www.athlinks.com and to compare their race results leading up to and including December 2015. Just as an example, my results show that I had managed a single Top 10 finish in a Spartan Race at that point in time. Every single member of Team Comeback Kids beats my race record with ease…
To be clear, nobody expected that all teams would be carefully balanced. However, it was very surprising to see only a single team consisting of top performers in the very thing that we are going to compete in.
Regardless, if anyone beats my time then he better have the greatest hair of all time! I mean look at that guy!
If they would have me back I would do it in an instant.
Of course it is not a purely athletic competition, of course the editing of earlier episodes was not great, of course the casting decisions left great athletes out, of course it is terribly disappointing for so many teams who got cut out of their episodes completely.
However, this is the first and only prime time major network TV show profiling Spartan Race and OCR without any gimmicks. Is it representative of competitive OCR as we experience it as athletes? No. But I have done the team competition at the OCR WC 2015 and it did not feel that much removed from that.
This was the first season of a show that hopefully will get picked up for renewal and the first season of everything that includes reality will never be completely polished and smooth. Clearly the producers have taken feedback into account and have made adjustments on the fly to improve even from week to week.
The shared glory and the shared woes of defeat are incredibly powerful. Only a fraction of that can be communicated through TV. On a personal level, this experience is something that I would not want to miss and cannot be replicated. As an athlete, where else can you face a slip wall like this?!
To anyone complaining about the personal stories and profiles: Spectators might be tuning in because the obstacle course might look appealing. But they stay tuned in because they can relate to the people running it and how the show makes them feel.
Making this passion of ours for OCR accessible to millions of people is what will ensure its persistence and its growth: Both are in our interest.
I applaud everyone who dared to apply for this show and put themselves out there. It is never a small thing to step out of the shadows of your little bubble/comfort zone but nothing is more rewarding.