By Pete Williams
WINTER GARDEN, Fla. – It’s been nearly five years since Jonny Simpkins attended a Florida obstacle race and decided he could put on a better one. Since launching his Rock On Adventures company with the Highlander Adventure Run early in 2011, he’s either directed or assisted with dozens of events, most taking place here at the Rock On Adventures Ranch, which he’s built into a permanent obstacle racing playground.
The 700-acre ROA Ranch, located just nine miles from Disney World, now is available for private rentals and Simpkins still will stage an occasional trail run. Simpkins also will work with obstacle race companies that want to hold an event here, as he has in the past. But this morning’s seventh edition of the Highlander Adventure Run, which drew about 450 athletes, will be the last full-scale obstacle race Simpkins himself will put on. That’s a shame because we’ve seen few events over the last five years that have offered as much value as The Highlander.
From the soft Tultex T-shirts Simpkins provided from the beginning to the Highlander medals to the Scottish-themed awards – beer steins to today’s top finishers – Rock On always has provided more swag than more well-heeled races. But it’s the course itself that always set Rock On apart. Simpkins, whose background is in the irrigation business, always has provided memorable water obstacles, along with a course thoroughly marked with thousands of irrigation flags.
Today’s Highlander finale was no exception. Athletes were encouraged to dress in a Superman theme, a tribute to Simpkins’ late older brother, Tim, who died of cancer in 2001 at the age of 46. The longtime endurance athlete liked to run in costume, long before it became trendy, and Superman attire was his favorite.
Today’s athletes, many dressed in appropriate Man of Steel garb, completed a 3.6-mile course that included a plank plunge, zipline over water and a course-ending waterslide constructed at a cost of $20,000 by the now-defunct Superhero Scramble, which leased the property for one of its last events. The Scramble, of course, was one of many races to start out of Florida with grand ambitions of going national only to fold.
Obstacle racing seems to have peaked in early 2013, and though the private equity-funded Spartan Race seems to have captured a consistent audience, the bucket-list, let’s-get-a-team-together crowd that fueled the growth of the meteoric growth of the industry for so long has moved on to other things. There’s still a core group of obstacle racers, to be sure, and today’s modest crowd was mostly lean athletes who ran the course. Gone are the legions of walkers and slow-moving groups of 20-40 that were commonplace as recently as two years ago.
From the beginning Simpkins was more about putting on a safe, quality event than capturing the easy dollars of the OCR fad. There were always kids races, no spectator fees, and parking that was either free or only a modest charitable contribution. Looking out over the sprawling fields of the ROA Ranch this morning, we remembered such awesome events as the Yak-a-Thon, a run-kayak-run-bike-run in sweltering July heat in 2012; the Monster Bash Dash, a zombie-themed race in early 2012 long before that fad grew tired; the Battle Dash and Mile of Pain, two America Ninja Warrior-style short courses; and numerous family fun days and trail runs. Simpkins built more than 100 permanent obstacles on the property and most were included in today’s race.
Orlando’s sprawling development is catching up with ROA Ranch, which just 18 months ago had little but undeveloped land separating it for two miles from the FL-429 toll road that makes the property a convenient trip from anywhere in Central Florida. Recently-installed subdivision roads now serve as a harbinger of development to come, perhaps all the more reason why ROA Ranch will remain a convenient OCR oasis in Central Florida.
So while today’s Highlander seemed like the end of an era, there was a sense that it was only a beginning, and not just because one young man proposed to his girlfriend after taking the plunge down the slide at the end of Highlander 7. Having worked or raced all seven Highlanders, we’re looking forward to the next incarnation of Rock On Adventures.
The ROA Grand Reopening kicks off with a free event day on Oct. 17.