Over the past weekend, an incredibly epic event took place halfway around the world in China, Spartan Race's Agoge 003.  This was a once in a lifetime experience where athletes from around the world would meet to do one of the ultimate team building events in the world in one of the most exotic and scenic locations possible, on the “Wild Wall,” a section of the Great Wall of China normally closed to visitors.

When I first heard about this event, I was jealous of those who would be going and expected my brothers and sisters from Agoge 002 who attended to awe me with their tales of the event.  Unfortunately, this was not what showed up in my Facebook feed.  Instead, I heard stories of only 13 of 59 finishing, of ludicrously arbitrary methods of choosing who those finishers would be, and of the bitter taste this event left in the mouths of many participants.

This was followed by a video from Joe de Sena posted originally only on the private page for Agoge graduates (which has since been cross-posted to the Hurricane Heat page) explaining what happened.

In a nutshell, of the 59 who started, 46 made it through the full 60 hours and completed all tasks set before them.  From this group, the five women were separated out and given the wedges signifying completion of the event, along with five more to hand out to those guys they thought “most worthy.” The Krypteia handed out three more (other reports say seven), and everyone else was left empty-handed.

Joe explains in his video that these people outperformed everyone else, that “not everyone is entitled to a medal” and that “life isn't fair.” There are a few big problems that I have with this explanation and with the results.

Agoge is not the Death Race.  Let me repeat that.  Agoge is NOT the Death Race.  From my experience in class 002 and that of people who did class 001, it's all about team building, and coming together in unity to accomplish impossible tasks and help each other learn and grow.  Agoge is the apex part of the “Learning” trifecta in Spartan's Delta, along with Spartan X and the SGX program.  It is designed to be almost impossible to complete without a team mindset, placing others needs above your own periodically.

While changing the game and the criteria is entirely within his rights as the owner of Spartan Race, doing so at the end of a grueling endurance event that people sacrificed and spent thousands of dollars to get to, many in pursuit of Spartan's “Perfect Delta” marketing ploy, could at best be described as a dick move. It shows disdain and disregard for what are clearly some of their most ardent followers and best customers.  In fact, an email sent out to participants before the event clearly stated that if you complete all 60 hours, you WILL receive a finisher's wedge, along with an Agoge t-shirt and hoodie, so Spartan has also broken their word here.

This is a ridiculously hypocritical statement considering that Spartan Race has built its business on the fact that everyone who crosses the starting and finish lines at a race gets a medal, regardless of their performance on the course.

If people were indeed performing below par and unworthy of finishing, there are better ways of handling this.  Real-time hacks that have to be met or other performance goals that can separate those who were ready from those who weren't.  Heck – pick out 2 or 3 people who aren't pulling their weight or supporting their teams 10, 20, or 30 hours in and drop them as an example to everyone else.  I would rather be DNF'd a thousand times for legitimate reasons than think I'd done everything up to standard only to be turned away at the last moment.

This method of deciding who finished and who didn't was not only patently unfair (and blatantly sexist), but also appears designed to set participants against one another, and accusations have been flying about whether some people “deserved” it while others who may have contributed more were overlooked. This completely overturns the mindset that is supposed to be at the core of this type of event – that you succeed or fail as a team.


Now, at this point you might be thinking to yourself “But Chris, why do you even care?  You weren't there in China and are unaffected by the outcome.”

Well, aside from the fact that I gave the Agoge product a pretty ringing endorsement based on my experience in 002, it appears that they succeeded in their goals at that event too well.  We are all ONE team, and several people I consider my brothers and sisters are profoundly upset and disillusioned by the way things went down.  This is why many of the most vocal critics of these actions were graduates of Agoge 001 or 002.  We had a very positive, life-changing experience out there, and it breaks our hearts to see this happening to our friends.

But don't take my word for it. I reached out to many who were there to get their impressions, online and in private conversations.  Some were okay with how things played out; others clearly were not. Here are a few excerpts of what I've been sent so far (edited to remove some negative comments towards individuals, as I don't think they're particularly relevant or helpful).  Please note that whether someone received a finisher's token or were snubbed doesn't seem to have any real bearing on their reactions to the event.

…all girls got chosen to go get medals while the guys had to hold bags of dirt over our head.  Some couldn't do it so we had to squat and hold bags over our head for a long time.  Finally they let us stand up and that's when the girls got to choose who they wanted so they picked their 5 and then the krypteia picked theirs… I got picked for the wedge and went and got it thinking that everyone out there was going to get it as well…  Then people on my team told me they didn't get it and I started hearing more that didn't get it so then I started to get pissed because we finished as a team.  I couldn't have done it without them so now I'm done with Spartan Races for not being honorable or having any integrity.

Here's another opinion.

There were a lot of guys who helped teammates and everyone to finish and went above and beyond what was asked but did so in long hikes so not noticed except by teammates.  Others were vocal in front of Krypteia when it mattered… Now was it fair to single out the women?  No, that's sexist… Did they deserve the medal?  Hell yes… Did all the people who got the wedge deserve it more than others? Hell no…

And another…

Instead of euphoria and pride, most of the emotions Saturday night were confusion, shock, despair, and guilt…in various measure and combinations, by all participants. Had they followed precedent, it would've been a night of celebration. Had they communicated a change in protocol (before or during the event), a lot of the mess could've been avoided. There are ways to accomplish the same goal without holding your customers in contempt.

This next one hit me most powerfully.

I had an amazing experience…until the last hour. When we were told the five women were the finishers, I was sick. There was no way I could have succeeded without my team or without some of the people on other teams.

I didn’t do anything special that the other 33 people didn’t do. I also have some issues with awarding all of the women medals. Why the women? They had said it was because we performed so well, but I’m sure there were men who out performed me; there had to be. So even though I feel like I earned a medal (along with 46 other people), I feel like it was given only because I am a woman. I don’t want to receive something based on my gender; I want to receive it because I earned it as a person.

There were also other people who encouraged their teammates along the way in ways the Krypteia may not have been aware. These people made sure their team members had what they needed, they shared their food when others ran out, they offered words of encouragement and carried some of their physical load when they were unable. All of that, and these people were told they weren’t good enough. Telling these men who helped these women, and the other men who helped their teammates, they weren’t good enough seems like the wrong way to instill the ideal of teamwork.

Spartan’s motto is “Building Better People”. I don’t think you can push someone through 60 grueling hours of physically and mentally demanding accomplishments to then tell him or her they weren’t good enough and expect them come out a better person. People prepared for months, spent thousands of dollars on gear and travel for this adventure, and were prepared physically and mentally, as evident by their finish.  What Joe has done has broken some people. And I’m not sure some of those people can recover.

And finally, this one has a pretty solid analysis of where the real breakdowns occurred.

After some time to think about what went down at the end of the 60 hours of Agoge in China, there is only one real conclusion.  The Krypteia leadership failed. It was absolutely a failure in their part for not stepping up and making sure each and every one who made it to hour 60 earned a Finisher wedge to whatever new standard they came up with.

In the end, it’s about leadership. The whole selection of a few was just a cover up on how they could not deliver a successful training event. Agoge as we have known it is an event, not a competition to see who is the best of the best. Agoge is a test, to prove you are able to push yourself beyond your own expectations and limits. You are supposed to learn from it, and come out a better person. Not bitter, not questioning your abilities because someone passed judgement on you.

A leader is responsible for those under their charge, their success and failures. There is no gray area, you cannot only accept the successes and not the failures. It’s the risk you accept as a leader. In an organization, team or event, the ultimate responsibility falls on the leadership. It may not be fair, because you will have fuck ups or fall to Murphy’s Law, so you just adapt and make it work. The decision to declare only a few as finishers is absolute BS. There was a basic criterion, your (Agoge) passport; when every module within the 60 hours was passed and you finished.

I congratulate every person who crossed the 60-hour mark.  You are a Finisher, and I am sorry the Krypteia failed you.

In case it's not abundantly clear, these are NOT the kind of reactions you want at the end of a tough endurance event.  None of these people are newcomers to endurance; most are fellow Agoge graduates from earlier classes and have done a host of other arduous events and challenges.  These type of events are supposed to be about forming deep bonds through hardship and coming away amazed at what you were able to accomplish, and about what you found inside yourself.  For those who fail to meet the standards along the way, these events provide an opportunity for self-reflection and growth, and if done right, should fire the flames to evolve and make yourself better and stronger for next time.

The decisions made here, particularly surrounding the end of Agoge 003, have tainted all those involved and the brand itself.  I was looking forward to attending a future Agoge but will put those plans on hold until I find out what form these events will take.

There are many different events out there, and sometimes things don't go according to plan.  If Agoge 003 was a glitch that suffered from bad decision making on the ground or an overabundance of ego, then Spartan Race and the Agoge directors need to own up to that, work to make it right, and ensure that future events don't follow a similar path.  If this instead represents an “evolution” of the event, then I am sad to see an event that changed me disappear, and I am not a fan of what is taking its place.  Let's just forget about finisher wedges and start handing out plastic skulls again instead.


Article Update from MRG: 

Spartan seems to be listening to the feedback from China. This afternoon, Joe De Sena sent out an invite to past AGOGE participants today inviting them to a private meeting to discuss the past, present, and future of the AGOGE.

“The Agoge Global Meeting is an exclusive interactive session for prior Agoge participants where you'll have the opportunity to learn, ask questions, and get answers. A focal point will be the buzz that's happening right now after the conclusion of Agoge China.

Topics covered will include:

– The Spartan ethos / Agoge's role
– My life lessons at Spartan
– Agoge modules and teaching topics
– Medal decisions at Agoge China
– Participant feedback
– The future of Agoge
– Question & Answer session

To frame our discussion, I ask that you read the attached feedback from Agoge China participants and non-participants.”

After the meeting takes place we will continue to update this article as questions and concerns from Spartan Race are answered.

Update 10/25/16:

Chris Cow joined the conference call to have some of these questions answered. Find the update to the Agoge China Conference Call with Joe De Sena Here.

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