Corn Fed Spartans — Never Leave a Spartan Behind

Drenched Corn Feds at the Sprint in Indiana in early July, 2016.

Running as part of a team is becoming an increasingly popular way for Spartans to meet new people, learn more about Spartan Race and conquer obstacles with friends.

If you don’t run as part of a team, you may have seen the “Biggest Team” tents, where various Spartans gather clad in their team’s logos or Facebook groups dedicated to racing teams.

One such team is the Corn Fed Spartans, a regular winner of the Biggest Team award with over 4,000 members in their Facebook group. Like many teams, the Corn Fed Spartans have expanded from one region, theirs is Indiana and the Midwest, to the entire country. A non-profit organization with a seven-member voting board, Corn Fed Spartans’ top priority is ensuring everyone completes the course.

“Corn Fed Spartans is a team of people who support each other,” says Cliff Cunningham, a Corn Fed Spartans board member on track to complete the year with four Spartan trifectas. “The people are not all great athletes, but they want to challenge themselves.”

Cunningham, 43, first started obstacle course racing as a competitor, running alone trying to beat others in his age group — like many other Spartans. (After all, it is a race.) It wasn’t long before Cunningham moved to the other side of Spartan racing, where finishing at all matters more than finishing first.

Cunningham meets Corn Fed

Cunningham and his nephew were at an obstacle course race in Indiana in the spring of 2013 aiding other racers when a woman approached him and suggested he look up Corn Fed Spartans and run with them.

The next weekend, Cunningham and his nephew met a group of Corn Fed Spartans, including Mark and Tracy Owens and Ryan and Sarah Fish. They made the duo “feel welcome instantly.”

“When we passed them randomly on the course, they were cheering us on,” Cunningham says. “I was sold on getting more involved so I joined the Facebook group and became active within it.”

The Corn Fed Guardian Heat

Formerly known as the “sweepers,” this team makes sure no Spartan gets left behind.

Officially a member of Corn Fed since 2013, Cunningham has gotten more involved over the years. He has become a board member and the organizer of a subgroup designed to make sure no Spartan gets left behind. The subgroup is called the Guardian Heat.

After first joining the team, Cunningham learned that “sweepers” were team members who would “pick up people that were struggling or make sure there were no other warriors on the course.” In 2014, the board pitched an idea to put together a large “sweeper team” with other Midwest racing teams for the Indianapolis Sprint.

“I loved the idea but it occurred to me and others that the term ‘sweeper’ is degrading because it sounded like we were referring to racers as trash,” Cunningham says. “I thought, ‘these people are not trash.’”

Fellow Corn Fed Spartan Damien Cooper came up with the “Guardian Heat” name for this crew, whose job would be to run in the back of the pack in the final heat of the day, helping stragglers over obstacles and encouraging them to finish the course. Cunningham even designed a shirt with a “Guardian Heat” logo.

He was now the Guardian of the Corn Fed Spartans.

“Spartan was great, and at the 2014 Indianapolis Sprint and Chicago Super and Sprint, we brought the final runners in and cleaned up the course, tearing the obstacles down as we went through,” Cunningham adds.

In addition to the official Guardian Heat, Spartan Volunteers who are also members of Corn Fed run the final heat and perform the same function.

At the end of the 2016 Chicago Super and Sprint, the race director went up to Cunningham and told him there were still two women and a man on the course. Cunningham and his group went back out to encourage them to finish.

“Within Corn Fed, we make sure everyone is taken care of so that no first-timer has a bad experience and that nobody who is injured or struggling is alone,” Cunningham says. “Plus, Corn Fed Spartans always crosses the finish line with people not on our team.”

A Corn Fed Future

In the future, Cunningham plans to hold collaborate with non-profit organization More Hearts Than Scars and the veteran-owned community Oscar Mike to learn better techniques for assisting less advanced or adaptive athletes on the course.

The reality of the situation is that while many people may want to help, only a few have the patience, knowledge or strength to actually do so. Out of the 4,000+ Corn Feds, about 25 will commit all of their time to helping others. With that said, Cunningham welcomes anyone to run with him at any race to keep people off the couch.

Cunningham has done 6–7 Spartan Sprints that have taken him more than 8.5 hours. The story that sticks with him most occurred at the 2014 Indianapolis Sprint, where while wearing a boot because he had broken his leg a month prior, led a 5’4” 300+ pound man through the course. The Spartan was afraid of heights and said there was no way he could climb over the 8-foot wall.

“When we got to the wall, he was physically and mentally exhausted and it took about 45 minutes for us to even get him to attempt the wall,” Cunningham recalls. “We got to the top of the wall but then he panicked, and he was holding my neck, inadvertently choking me. I told him, ‘You’re already at the top, you can go over or come back the way you came, whatever you do, you’re choking me right now and I’m going to pass out so if you don’t make a decision, we’re both going down the hard way.’”

The Spartan replied, “Well, I don’t want to hurt you,” and threw his other leg over the wall. When he got to the ground, he stood up tall and was ready to keep moving.

“That was the moment I decided this is where it’s at,” Cunningham says. “It takes a special breed to sacrifice every bit of your 100 percent for someone else’s 100 percent.”

Joining the “Family”

Every 2–3 weeks, the Corn Fed Spartans Facebook Group posts the following question: “What do you do for a living?” According to Cunningham, 85% of the members are in the service industry: firefighters, nurses, personable-type work that involving helping others.

Corn Fed Spartan member Willie Mangrum is a CNC Machinist, a manufacturing position that requires the precise production of metal parts for a variety of industries. Mangrum started competing in Spartan Race in 2013 as a way to get his mind off a divorce and to vent his frustration. He joined Corn Fed Spartans that same year.

“I saw Corn Fed Spartans helping everybody on the course and I thought it was a cool thing they were doing,” says Mangrum. “Corn Fed is more of a family: if there are people who are in need of help, we’ll stop running and stick with them until the end and try to encourage them throughout the course.”

A 39-year-old father of two, Mangrum runs trails 2–3 times a week and is training for his first half-marathon in October.

How does such a big team stick together?

Mangrum explains that members try to register under the Corn Fed Spartans Team at the same time. They then post their start times on Facebook and try to meet up at the start line to run.

Corn Fed are everywhere, too, according to Cunningham.

“Once you join the Facebook group, you become part of our family and we support you,” Cunningham says. “There’s not a Spartan Race in the U.S. without Corn Fed, and we will never leave the venue if one of ours is out on the course.”
A large gathering of Corn Feds at the Indiana Sprint — July 2016.