Author Archives: Pete Williams

Highlander VII: Out with a Bang (Sept. 26, 2015)

By Pete Williams

Taking the plunge; they got engaged moments later

Taking the plunge; they got engaged moments later

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.

SimpkinsFrom 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.

Highlander7aToday’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.

IMG_7227From 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.

Highlander3So 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.

Tough Mudder 2.0

By Pete Williams

Crawling under charged wires in Colorado (Photos by Dmitry Gudkov)

Electric Eel: Retired by Tough Mudder for 2015

Ever since Tough Mudder exploded onto the endurance sports scene in 2011 – after a modest slate of events in 2010 – it always has seemed more Fear Factor than physical challenge.

Sure, it’s a 10-12 mile course with plenty of obstacles requiring strength and stamina. But more often it’s about electric shock, plunging into a Dumpster full of ice water, jumping from 15-foot platforms into water, or navigating claustrophobic spaces. When last we left Tough Mudder in May of 2013, after a stretch of three races in three months and five dating back to late 2011, it seemed the only trick left up Tough Mudder’s sleeve was adding more electric shock obstacles – and cranking up the voltage.

The problem with a Fear Factor-style event is that it tends to inspire a one-and-done mentality rather than repeat customers. It didn’t help that Tough Mudder was a rip-off of the British Tough Guy event – Mudder founder Will Dean basically stole the idea under the guise of studying it for a Harvard MBA project and later paid Tough Guy a reported $750,000 to settle.  Nor did it help that the Florida-based Savage Race stole everything from Tough Mudder, compressing the course into a six-mile version for those who found excessive running too strenuous. Savage changed its colors and website under threat of legal action from Tough Mudder (How dare you copy something we copied!) but Savage remains Tough Mudder Lite when it comes to obstacles.

ToughMudderAZThat means we’ll likely soon see Savage Race ape some of the new Tough Mudder obstacles, which TM vice president Alex Patterson calls “Tough Mudder 2.0.”

The idea, Patterson says, is to make the event 20 percent more challenging every year. Which means it should be twice as challenging after five years. Many of the new obstacles will be drawn from the “World’s Toughest Mudder,” the year-end, 24-hour version of Tough Mudder.

“Tough Mudder is meant to be a mix of both mental and physical challenges,” Patterson says. “Unlike, say, a CrossFit gym where you get just the physical aspect, Tough Mudder is supposed to be a physical fitness test but also one of toughness, and some of that is electroshock, a Dumpster of ice, crawling through space that makes you claustrophobic. But we don’t want to be characterized as Fear Factor or Jackass. It’s not just about electroshock.”

The “Electric Eel,” the more painful of Tough Mudder’s two electroshock obstacles, apparently is no more. But Tough Mudder has drawn much attention for its new “Cry Baby” obstacle, which will use a tear gas-like substance that Patterson says is a mix of water, citric acid and fog juice. “It will make you tear up, cry, get red in the face, cough a bit, and then you come out on the other side,” Patterson says. “In 30 seconds you’ll be back to normal.”

Running through fire at Tough Mudder Indiana/Illinois in June (Photos by Dmitry Gudkov)

Running through fire at Tough Mudder Indiana in 2013

There also will be a “Ring of Fire” obstacle where participants ascend a platform 35 feet in the air, slide down a pole through gas flames – you’ll feel the flames on your legs apparently – before plunging into water. In “Birth Canal,” athletes will crawl under a plastic liner through a mushy, watery substance dyed red.

“If you have claustrophobia issues, this will be tough,” Patterson said.

We like how Tough Mudder always is a great team-building exercise, perhaps still the best for office groups and large contingents of friends of varying athletic levels. Spartan Race, with its timed, every-athlete-for-himself format, likely will attract more repeat competitors. But Tough Mudder has established its niche.

Tough Mudder plans more than 50 events worldwide for 2015. Its U.S. schedule kicks off on March 7 in Milton, Fla., not far from Pensacola.

 

The Return of Dirty Foot

By Pete Williams

DirtyFoot2015When obstacle racing exploded in popularity in 2012, one of the more memorable races to appear on the scene was the Dirty Foot Adventure Run.

Though held well off the beaten path, deep in Florida’s Polk County, Dirty Foot provided a well-organized, six-mile event with original obstacles, no backups, and a 14-foot, walk-the-plank plunge into a pond at the end of the race that washed off all of the mud and muck, which included a slog through crushed watermelons. (A photo shot at the Dirty Foot race became the cover of our Obstacle Fit book.)

After three terrific races, Dirty Foot went away as the Polk County property owners opted to get out of the obstacle business, just as it was heating up. That’s a shame since Dirty Foot had built several permanent obstacles on site and had one of the industry’s most professional and tireless race directors in Geno Stopowenko.

Dirty Foot again will provide plenty of muddy obstacles as it did in 2012.

Dirty Foot again will provide plenty of muddy obstacles.

Fortunately for obstacle racers, Stopowenko and Dirty Foot will be back March 21 with the new “Dirty Foot Mud Run,” which will feature 30 obstacles at a more manageable distance (4.5 miles). It’s in a more convenient location: Hardee Lakes Park, a well-manicured county facility just an hour from Sarasota, Orlando or Tampa in Bowling Green, Fla., that looks like something out of a chamber of commerce brochure.

The 1,200-acre park features four lakes. None will come into play for the race, though Stopowenko says there will be the 14-foot water plunge. The county is building the obstacles and taking an active role in the race, using it to showcase the park and perhaps lure other events.

“They want to give more attention to the park, which is among the most beautiful in the state of Florida,” Stopowenko says.

Hardee Lakes Park - Bowling Green, Fla. - site of the Dirty Foot Mud Run

Hardee Lakes Park – Bowling Green, Fla.

Obstacles will include a 12-foot rock wall, three huge cargo nets, and variations on familiar obstacles involving culverts and telephone posts.

“It’s just a matter of getting creative,” Stopowenko says. “We’re going to leave some of these obstacles up for normal park visitors.”

Since it’s a county park, Hardee Lakes has numerous bathrooms with shower facilities scattered throughout the property. That means racers will be able to take real hot showers after the event – as opposed to dealing with hoses and driving home still in need of further washing. There are no spectator fees and parking is just $5 – less than that of many county parks in Florida. There’s even overnight camping available.

Unlike the previous incarnation of Dirty Foot, where runners spent much of the course running through wooded areas, the new Dirty Foot will be mostly on grass out in the open – and very spectator friendly.

DirtyFoot2015bStopowenko says the facility is big enough to put on four races, meaning the course likely will change over time. There’s enough parking for the biggest races. And since it’s a county park, there’s legitimate parking – no traipsing through muddy cow pastures as with some mud runs.

“I truly believe this park was made for mud runs,” says Stopowenko, who has worked for more than two years on bringing Dirty Foot back. “It’s going to be one of the premier races in the industry.”

Dirty Foot registration can be found HERE.

Ready to Spartan Up?

By Pete Williams

SpartanUpCoverWe already knew Joe DeSena was a legendary endurance sports badass, the guy who did 12 Ironmans in one year and who in a one-week span conquered the Vermont 100, Lake Placid Ironman, and Badwater. We knew a decade ago he created the Death Race, the no-set-time-limit event that brought a couple hundred athletes to Vermont for three or four consecutive days of mental and physical pounding, as well as the more accessible and widespread Spartan Race, now a worldwide series.

What we didn’t know was how DeSena got there. And while his just-published book Spartan Up is an effective get-off-your-ass, cut-the-crap, don’t-be-normal motivational book, it’s at its best as a memoir.

Who knew, for instance, that DeSena made his first fortune – he made his second on Wall Street – building swimming pools for anyone in New York’s five families of organized crime looking to take a dip? (His childhood next-door neighbor belonged to the Bonnano crime family.) Who knew that DeSena responded to rejection from Cornell University by showing up on campus in Ithaca every day until they eventually let him in? Or that he met his future wife in the transition of a triathlon, following her out on the run while still in a wetsuit? Or that he lost a casino bet to his future wife, a former Penn State soccer captain, after three weeks of dating and has a tattoo to show for it? Or that he nearly lost his left leg in a 2003 car accident?

SpartanMiami6We knew DeSena, now 45, was a little different in June 2011. That’s when we showed up to compete in a fledgling operation called The Spartan Race, which was putting an event on at a paintball field in Northern Virginia. Just three miles, it was an ass kicker with all of the now-signatures lifts, climbs, carries, spear throws, 30-burpee penalties, and challenges tailor-made to the course (getting shot at by a paintball sniper, having to hit a target with a paintball gun or do 30 burpees). Back then, DeSena stationed hecklers at obstacles (Dude, you’re not really wearing Spandex?) and patrolled the course himself doling out encouragement or grief as needed. We’ve since done three more, including two Miami Super Spartans, and training for a Spartan Beast in October.

It took DeSena and Spartan a while to distance themselves from more well-heeled events that drew bigger crowds to what are glorified Woodstock events with running. These days, it’s Spartan Race with private equity investment, national sponsors, and a loyal group of hardcore followers looking to push their bodies by overcoming the unforeseen as opposed to the paint-by-numbers racing of marathon, triathlon, and themed runs.

SpartanMiami4Therein lies the core message of DeSena’s book: Challenge yourself. Suffer. Deal with the unexpected. Get uncomfortable. Change your frame of reference. Doing 12 Ironman triathlons in one year seemed simple since he already had done eight 10-day endurance events. Push yourself through one unforeseen obstacle after another and you’ll no longer pitch a fit over the stresses of ordinary life.

DeSena has made no secret of his disdain for other races, though his competitors are not listed by name in Spartan Up. “Each (Spartan) obstacle includes an athletic element, a requirement for all of our courses,” he writes. “We don’t shock people with electric wires or place obstacles designed purely for a cheap thrill. We run competitions, not an amusement park.”

Spartan Up also is a pretty good parenting guide. DeSena hates helicopter parenting, trophies for showing up, and fast food. (He gives props to Whole Foods and Chipotle.) Think your kid is a badass? “I was walking in the mountains of Vermont with three of my kids, ages four to seven,” DeSena writes, “and near the four-hour mark, they started complaining.”

SpartanMiami3No whining, kids. Spartan Up! DeSena uses the story to illustrate a point. If the kids were accustomed to hiking eight hours, four hours wouldn’t be such a big deal. His sons, ages 7 and 5, speak fluent Mandarin Chinese because the DeSenas insist that their kids speak two languages. His four-year-old daughter has done sets of 300 burpees.

DeSena gives some training tips – apparently that will be the focus of his already in-the-works next book – but the biggest advice is to get off the couch and Spartan Up already.

SpartanMiami2“The use of our body is a privilege, one that millions of people forget, neglect and forfeit,” he writes. “Too many forget what enjoying life really means. And before they know it, carpe diem, Latin for seize the day, turns into mea culpa. Latin for my bad.”

DeSena has been offering $25 Spartan Race discounts to anyone who buys the book, which makes the book a freebie. I’ve done dozens of obstacle races and the Spartans were the only ones I considered quitting. But I Spartaned Up. “Nothing tops the feeling of continuing when you feel like giving up,” DeSena writes.  “It changes everything, because it recalibrates your frame of reference.”

Listen to our Fitness Buff Radio Show interview with Joe DeSena HERE.


Super Spartan Miami – Raising the Bar (April 12, 2014)

By Pete Williams

SpartanMiami6MIAMI – To see the current edition of the Super Spartan Race, it’s hard to believe it’s the same event that appeared here at the Oleta River State Park just two years ago.

That race was tough, but Spartan Race has dialed it up a notch to attract mostly hardcore athletes, creating a punishing, ass-kicking course over 8.5 miles, moving the date from mid-February to mid-April to add to the degree of difficulty with increased South Florida heat.

But the biggest difference is the window dressing. Two years ago, Spartan came across as just another fledgling endurance sports operation. There was little branding, lame black T-shirts that looked like 1980s concert rags, little sponsorship other than a cheesy “Dial for Men” partnership, and post-race refreshment that consisted of half a banana and a Dixie cup of tap water.

What a difference Reebok sponsorship, private equity investment, and the relentless drive of Spartan founder Joe De Sena can make. Saturday’s event was blanketed with black-and-red Reebok Spartan branding, from wind flags to obstacles wrapped in signage to literally miles of Spartan Race barrier tape lining the running paths throughout Oleta’s slash pine forests.

SpartanMiami3Throw in a tent city of sponsors, sharp fitted T-shirts, post-race refreshment that included the Core Power recovery drink, full bananas, and Clif Builder bars (a sponsorship that apparently has been swiped from arch rival Tough Mudder) and Spartan now comes across as a big-time endurance sports property.

But what makes the event is what Spartan is not. De Sena, an accomplished endurance athlete himself, has worked to distance his event from teamwork-style mud runs and the type of Fear Factor-style obstacles that Tough Mudder provides.

That means no water slides, plank jumps, claustrophobia-inducing tunnels, or electroshock. Just a relentless parade of ass-kicking, back-wrenching, cramp-inducing physical assaults that weeds out all but the most well-prepared athletes. Then there’s the mandatory 30-Burpee penalty for failing to complete any obstacle successfully.

SpartanMiami4There’s a tendency to say Spartan is more CrossFittish than other obstacle events. But we don’t know of too many CrossFit boxes that require 8.5 miles of running a month, let alone a day. No obstacle event better combines running, strength, and endurance demands.

We’ve done about 40 obstacle races and can’t recall ever seeing so many people doubled over with cramps. Spartan upped the number of water stops to four for this race, but we were glad we raced for the first time ever with a Camelbak hydration system. By the time our wave left at 10:15 it already was 80 degrees. Even with a course that included miles of shaded running in the woods, that was tough.

Though not as brutal as the obstacles, which seemed to be laid out in increasing order of difficulty. The first few miles were familiar — a half-mile slog through waist-deep water, a 30-yard swim (lifeguards, tow ropes, and life jackets available for those in need), monkey bars (interesting wrinkle with nets instead of bars, which were easier to grasp but tougher on the hands), and plenty of wooden walls.

SpartanMiami5After a twisting, meandering 5K trail stretch with a few obstacle breaks, the real punishment began. There was an up-and-downhill five-gallon bucket of gravel carry for 100 yards that left many competitors struggling in frustration. (The key was not to stop, suffering through the pain. Once you stop, it’s tough to pick the bucket back up.) This was followed shortly by Spartan’s 80-pound concrete boulder carry (slightly less for women), and another 100-yard carry, this time with sandbags. There was a dash across stumps that needed to be done American Ninja Warrior style to avoid a fall (and 30-Burpee penalty), the familiar horizontal pegboard crossing (which I’ve still never completed, 30 Burpees for me), and a new brutal tire drag-and-pull obstacle.

Spartan kept the sandbag hoist for mile seven and finished with the familiar gauntlet of final mile obstacles, including the spear throw (miss, 30 Burpees), rope climb, and barbwire mud crawl. There were no Spartan warriors wielding rubber mallets guarding the finish line, perhaps because athletes were so beaten down or because the novelty has grown tired.

SpartanMiamiTherein lies one of Spartan’s strengths — continually refreshing its product. Tough Mudder, forever switching locations and dates, held an event somewhere in the Everglades the same weekend. TM announced last week that it’s projecting $100 million for 2014 and we have no doubt that’s true, as its untimed, team-oriented marketing has proven successful. But Tough Mudder seems to constantly be searching for new obstacles as it tries to be all-inclusive, to say nothing of dealing with parking, traffic, and the out-of-the-way location issues.

De Sena doesn’t seem to care how challenging he makes things. Though he’ll never admit it, he does care about Tough Mudder, which explains how he’s out-Muddered them on the marketing front. He now has better sponsors, better T-shirts, and better headbands (you know a headband is cool when you see women wearing Spartan bands in the gym, unlike Tough Mudder’s garish orange headbands that only Curly Neal could appreciate).

How big has Spartan grown? The Miami event was only Spartan’s second-biggest event of the weekend, with thousands flocking to New York’s Citi Field for a second-annual Spartan Sprint at the home of the Mets. The trailer to the new 300 movie prequel is featured on the Spartan website.

SpartanMiami2Spartan, like a good retailer or real estate agent, has claimed the best real estate locations, whether it’s a gorgeous state park in the middle of Miami, Tampa’s Raymond James Stadium, or some of America’s finest baseball facilities.

We just wish Spartan hadn’t bailed on plans to hold a late-2014 Spartan Beast event at Little Everglades Ranch in Pasco County, just north of Tampa. Spartan apparently believed the obstacle market was too flooded to support another big obstacle event.

SpartanMiami7Maybe. Then again, Spartan is delivering more value than anyone in the category at this point. And it’s “Spartan Trifecta” challenge is growing in popularity. Athletes need to complete a Spartan Sprint (3 miles), a Super Spartan (8 to 10) and Spartan Beast (12 to 15) in a calendar year to complete the Trifecta. At each event, athletes get a medal and a second pie-shaped magnetized metal third (left) that with the other two form the Spartan trifecta.

Florida athletes who have completed the Special Ops Spartan Sprint in Tampa in February and this weekend’s Super Spartan at Oleta River must venture to South Carolina in October (or further) to complete a Beast and a trifecta. That might not have looked very attractive a year ago.

But Spartan not only has created a worthy challenge. It’s made it worth the trip.

(See other Spartan Race reviews HERE)

Highlander VI: Value Added OCR (March 15, 2014)

By Pete Williams

HighlanderWINTER GARDEN, Fla. – It’s been more than three years since Jonny Simpkins raced the first Warrior Dash in Florida and figured he could put on something better. Since then, he and his longtime girlfriend, Wendy Carson, have put on two dozen or so races and training sessions, mostly here at the Roper Ranch near Orlando.

Today’s sixth-edition of their signature event, The Highlander Adventure Run, showed why it’s the best of the Florida-based obstacle races and better than some of the well-funded national tours. By using the same property each event, Simpkins and his Rock On Adventures have left obstacles in place and created new ones, occasionally taking old ones down for more exciting models. In that sense, it’s like a favorite amusement park that keeps adding more rides and upgrading others.

And it will soon get even better. Simpkins recently struck a deal with the organizers of the Superhero Scramble to host their May 10 event at the Roper Ranch. Superhero will leave some of their more prominent, expensive obstacles in place for the next Rock On race.

Highlander2We lost count of how many dozens of obstacles were packed into the 3-mile and 6-mile Highlander races that about 900 runners navigated this morning and we’ve done most every race Simpkins has hosted. We didn’t actually race today, though, wanting instead to help behind the scenes and get a better feel for the logistical challenges of staging an OCR event.

We’ve assisted at triathlons and road races and staged a few 5K events ourselves. But an obstacle race adds so many more variables: water challenges, post-race showers, and obstacles that require lifeguards or, at the very least, staffers to direct traffic.

Simpkins assigned me to irrigation detail and it was my job to keep generators gassed, pumps pumping, and constant water pressure to four or five areas that needed to stay muddy. That’s a tall task, especially considering Simpkins owns an irrigation company and I, well, usually hire someone to fix my broken sprinkler heads.

But because Simpkins is so effective at this day job, I merely had to monitor the irrigation, occasionally adjust valves, and refuel generators. Still, it’s another of the many personnel needs an obstacle race presents that athletes probably don’t consider when factoring the cost of an event.

Highlander4Unlike most obstacle races, Rock On does not charge for parking, which is just a short walk to the starting line. The company provides fitted Tultex T-shirts, nice medals, and hands-down the best kids’ race in OCR, which has been true since the first Highlander in 2011. The few obstacle races that offer kids heats provide just 100 or 200 yards with little more than a mud crawl. Today’s Highlander kids’ race was a full 1.25 miles of the adult course.

Simpkins says he’s going to scale back his schedule of events and limit the entries to the remaining ones, including The Highlander, to eliminate the headaches of race-day registration. He’ll also continue to stage informal training days at the Roper Ranch and, no doubt, continue to tweak one of the best obstacle courses in OCR.

With so many endurance events across all platforms – road running, trail running, triathlon, obstacle racing, and even stand-up paddleboarding – we’re seeing numbers start to fall across the board. It’s not that there’s less interest; it’s just the pie is divided up among more events. Those that survive, like any industry, will be the ones that deliver the best value.

When it comes to obstacle course racing, few deliver like Rock On Adventures.

 

 

Spartan Special Ops: Major League OCR (Feb. 15, 2014)

By Pete Williams

An athlete battles to the finish on Saturday.

An athlete battles to the finish on Saturday.

TAMPA – Joe De Sena believes obstacle racing is a competitive sport, not a beer festival in the mud. Judging by today’s Spartan Race event here at Raymond James Stadium, Spartan is the new leader in the obstacle category, however we define it.

It wasn’t that long ago that Spartan seemed like another fledgling operation throwing races together in a field. These days, it’s a well-oiled professional machine. From the smooth traffic flow on the course and in the parking lot to the black-and-red Spartan signage blanketing the event to the premium medal and swag, Spartan now comes across as a major sports business that, indeed, has added big-name sponsors and private equity investors in the last year.

Raymond James configured for obstacle racing (courtesy Spartan Race).

Raymond James configured for obstacle racing (courtesy Spartan Race).

Then there’s the course itself. De Sena, the Spartan founder, bristles as the term “mud run,” believing that mud shouldn’t be the main draw of an event. There was opportunity to get dirty at today’s “Spartan Sprint Special Ops,” to be sure, but that was mostly limited to a crawl through dirt under barbwire the length of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers football field (grass removed for the winter).

Spartan has had good luck with races staged at Major League Baseball venues such as Boston’s Fenway Park and New York’s Citi Field, but those events were limited mostly to the confines of the buildings with the baseball diamonds off limits.

But with Raymond James Stadium surrounded by vast grassy parking lots, Spartan could produce a hybrid event – its third overall race of 2014 – that combined the best of a sports venue race and a regular Spartan affair. That meant the second half of the 3.5-mile course was on the field or outside the stadium, incorporating a number of Spartan’s signature obstacles, including the spear throw, rope climb, and fire leap.

There also was the traditional concrete block hoist with a rope pulley and a newer event: carrying a 60-pound boulder (lighter for women) 10 yards, dropping for five burpees, and returning the boulder 10 yards.

Matt "Ultrabeast" Dolitsky reaches the top of the rope climb.

Matt “Ultrabeast” Dolitsky reaches the top of the rope climb.

Spartan also incorporated the football theme, requiring athletes to toss a foam football 15 yards into a bank of trashcans positioned in the endzone. The athletes mirrored the Tampa Bay Buccaneers historic quarterback troubles, with the vast majority missing the target and taking a 30-burpee penalty.

There are only so many creative ways to run people through a stadium, but Spartan positioned enough walls, obstacles, and stair climbs to make things interesting. Athletes had to carry heavy sandbags through the upper deck, penguin-walk stairs wearing ankle bands, and step over numerous railings separating sections of seating.

The 30-burpee penalty, which distinguishes Spartan Race from typical help-your-fellow-athlete events, loomed large. We took three penalties for failing to stick the spear throw, convert the quarterback toss, or navigate the horizontal peg wall.

The event got underway at 8 a.m. under dark skies with the first wave of athletes addressed by Admiral William McRaven, head of U.S. Special Operations Command at nearby Macdill Air Force Base. This will be the first of several military-themed Spartan events.

Not your typical Spartan Race (photo courtesy James Green).

Not your typical Spartan Race (photo courtesy James Green).

Raymond James Stadium proved the perfect location for an obstacle race and not just because it’s the rare venue located within a major market, not an hour out of town. Spartan organizers used the ticket windows for packet pickup and parking lots accustomed to crowds of 60,000 easily accommodated 6,000, even with the northern lots taken out by the racecourse.

We’d like to see more events at major sports venues in Florida, which unlike the rest of the country have grassy parking lots. We thought Tough Mudder’s best race was its event a year ago at Homestead Miami Speedway, which though not as centrally located as Raymond James Stadium provided many of the same advantages. Alas, Tough Mudder, forever searching for a consistent Florida venue, is not returning to Homestead.

Spartan has made numerous upgrades to the window dressing of its events. Gone are the black cotton T-shirts with a race calendar on the back that looked like 1980s concert T-shirts. Spartan now issues gray, fitted Gildan Softstyle shirts, arguably the best in the industry outside of the folks at Rock On Adventures.

Spartan Special Ops hardware

Spartan Special Ops hardware

We’re not big on medals, but Spartan now has the best in the business. Athletes at today’s event received not only a commemorative Spartan Special Ops event medal with the date (as opposed to generic medals issued in every city) but also a pie-shaped Spartan Sprint medal that can be combined with a Super Spartan and Spartan Beast medal to form a 2014 Trifecta medal. Athletes also received a black Spartan headband with their race numbers, a badass look suitable for everyday workout use (and no doubt a dig at the garish orange Tough Mudder finisher’s headbands typically worn only immediately after the event.)

After this morning’s Spartan event, we found a dozen postcard flyers for future races on our windshield. Those events, at fields across Central Florida, will continue to battle for a share of the crowded mud run market.

When it comes to obstacle racing, however, Spartan has gone Major League, and perhaps now is in a league by itself.

 

 

Spartan Race Meets Special Ops

By Pete Williams

Workers construct a barbwire crawl the length of the Raymond James football field.

Workers construct a barbwire crawl the length of the Raymond James football field.

TAMPA – The latest incarnation of the Reebok Spartan Race will have a distinctive military feel. Tomorrow’s  “Spartan Sprint Special Ops 2014,” held at Raymond James Stadium here not far from U.S. Special Operations Command, will include appearances from top military brass, paratroopers, military equipment from private collections, and a few badass special operators for whom competing will be something of a light workout.

For all of the talk about how obstacle mud runs mimic military training, the Spartan Race might be the one that comes closest to delivering. Joe De Sena, who debuted the Spartan Race in 2010, sees the event as a fierce competition with stiff penalties (30 burpees) for any obstacle not completed and worthy of the tradition of King Leonidas and his legendary band of 300.

That tends to scare away the type of corporate team-building groups that Tough Mudder and other untimed events draw. Which explains why Spartan is expecting a relatively modest 6,000 competitors to attend the most conveniently-located obstacle race ever held in Florida, smack dab in the middle of Tampa at the home of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on a morning when the New York Yankees will open Derek Jeter’s final spring training across the street.

An athlete prepares for the spear throw for tomorrow's Spartan Race, part of which takes place in the shadow of Steinbrenner Field.

An athlete prepares for the spear throw for tomorrow’s Spartan Race, part of which takes place in the shadow of Steinbrenner Field.

Spartan Race has staged events at several baseball facilities, including Boston’s Fenway Park, New York’s Citi Field, and Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia. Those races, though well attended, had more of a CrossFit Games feel to them since Spartan could not tear up the fields and was mostly limited to staging inside the stadiums.

That meant lots of climbing grandstands and running along concrete concourses. There will be some of that at Raymond James tomorrow – the first race at an NFL facility – as athletes will navigate three of the four concrete ramps and tackle challenges on two concourse levels, part of an 18-obstacle course spread over 3.5 miles. (Though a pedestrian overpass connects the property to the Yankees spring training home at Steinbrenner Field, the Bronx Bombers’ first workout made it impossible to make the Spartan Race a baseball-football affair.)

Much of the race will take place outside in the grassy parking lots north of Raymond James Stadium, including Spartan’s signature gauntlet of race-ending obstacles, including the spear throw, rope climb, and final dash past mallet-wielding Spartans. With grass removed from the stadium for the winter, Spartan was able to construct a barbwire mud crawl the length of the football field.

All of which makes the Tampa race something of a hybrid event for Spartan, closer to a traditional Spartan Race than the in-stadium baseball events, and more of a military-style competition.

Not your usual concourse obstacles at a Bucs game.

Not your usual concourse obstacles at a Bucs game.

Two years ago, U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM), based at Tampa’s Macdill Air Force Base, began looking to work with an event that might rival the Marine Corps Marathon. Though there’s no official relationship between SOCOM and Spartan Race, there’s some interaction.

Col. Tim Nye, a recently-retired SOCOM public affairs officer, now serves as Spartan’s military liaison officer and is helping plan races near other U.S. military bases.

“People are making a connection between obstacle races and the military in terms of health, fitness, and teamwork and that’s good,” Nye said today, overlooking the field as workers applied the finishing touches. “But with the proliferation of events, the question becomes what qualifies you to put on a race like this? Can you put it on and push people without breaking them? There’s a need in the industry for some standardization and the military is all about what the standards are and following them.”

Spartan athletes must scale a rope and ring a bell -- or face a 30-burpee penalty.

Spartan athletes must scale a rope and ring a bell — or face a 30-burpee penalty.

Spartan Race has come a long way since we tackled our first Spartan event at a paintball facility in Northern Virginia in June of 2011. Back then, it was a bare-bones, truly spartan affair lacking the window dressing of a major traveling national production. As recently as April 2012, Spartan’s biggest sponsor was Dial for Men (deodorant), which gave events a cheesy “Meet the Spartans” vibe.

These days, the Vermont-based Spartan Race has private equity backing, major corporate sponsors such as Reebok, an ambitious worldwide schedule of events at multiple distances, an NBC Sports television special, and an upcoming book. Driving it all has been DeSena, 45, who made a fortune on Wall Street, once completed a dozen Ironman triathlons in one year, and has made no secret of his desire to get Americans off the couch and his distaste for rival Tough Mudder’s untimed, non-competitive format. He bristles as the phrase “mud run,” viewing obstacle racing as a sport worthy of inclusion in the Olympics. (Indeed, with the exception of the barbwire crawl and a possible fall from the rope climb, there’s no mud in tomorrow’s affair.)

This all-steel depiction of two soldiers by Tampa artist Dominique Martinez will be on display at the race.

This all-steel depiction of two soldiers by Tampa artist Dominique Martinez will be on display at the race.

This morning, Spartan set up shop in the shadow of the Yankees and Buccaneers, two of the wealthiest franchises in sports. Dozens of workers wore red and black Spartan gear, blending in with the Raymond James and Buccaneers branding.

The workers rolled out chain link fencing and Reebok Spartan-branded signage, set up a huge Spartan souvenir tent, and prepared for both 6,000 Spartans and De Sena’s latest aggressive push into the world of professional sports.

 

 

 

Speed + Power = Future of Racing? (Nov. 10, 2013)

By Pete Williams

The Battle Dash men's winner navigates the final rungs of the course. (Photo courtesy Rock on Adventures)

The Mile of Pain men’s winner navigates the final rungs of the course. (Photo courtesy Rock on Adventures)

The world of endurance sports is an ever changing place. These days, it’s even difficult to pinpoint the definition. It wasn’t that long ago that endurance sports was running, cycling, and triathlon. In recent years, the category has added obstacle course racing and stand-up paddleboarding.

CrossFit, though mostly an anaerobic endeavor, seemed to belong in there somewhere. After all, obstacle course events such as Spartan Race and Tough Mudder aligned themselves closely with CrossFit, though it often seemed like more of a marketing ploy than common ground. CrossFit, after all, usually involves little running.

Everyone, it seems, is looking to create the best test of speed and power. Some point to American Ninja Warrior, though even that seems more like a contest of power and gymnastics ability. CrossFit WODs have inspired all manner of related competitions. And while such events are grueling, they lack any sort of running/aerobic component.

Which brings us to two events that took place under the radar in Central Florida over the weekend – the Mile of Pain/Battle Dash and the Tampa Bay Pump N Run 5K.

The Mile of Pain/Battle Dash is the creation of Jonny Simpkins, who in 2011 launched Rock On Adventures after watching the Warrior Dash debut in Florida. Simpkins, who owns an irrigation company, figured he could create something better.

Athletes got creative tackling the Battle Dash. (Courtesy Rock On Adventures).

Athletes got creative tackling the Battle Dash. (Courtesy Rock On Adventures).

His Highlander Adventure Run has proven to be just that, and he’s also come up with other unique events at his permanent home at the YMCA Roper Ranch near Orlando such as the “Yak-a-Thon” a run-kayak-mountain bike-run competition.

The Mile of Pain/Battle Dash, which debuted earlier this year and returned on Saturday, blends the best of American Ninja Warrior and obstacle course racing. The Mile of Pain consists of a whopping 32 obstacles. Athletes leave in 10-minute waves, 10 people at a time, and tackle roughly 3/4 of a mile of walls, climbs, crawls, and obstacles before arriving at the “Battle Dash,” sort of an outdoors version of American Ninja Warrior. There athletes must complete a U-shaped course of climbs, tire flips, rope climbs, and balance beams before staggering to the finish.

The top time Saturday for the Mile of Pain was 12:30, though most competitors took around 20 minutes. Many did not finish officially since failure to complete an obstacle, as on American Ninja Warrior, removed the athlete from the competition. (Simpkins offered $1,700 in prize money, split among the male and female winners of the Mile of Pain and Battle Dash.)

For the Battle Dash, competitors lined up nine at a time and tackled the event together. The obstacles were wide enough to allow such maneuvering and the U-shaped course allowed spectators to walk the course as the athletes progressed, with most taking between 2 and 5 minutes. Simpkins, who has a background in Supercross racing, envisions a stadium set-up complete with bleachers and lights, perhaps even television coverage. He seems well on his way at Rock On Adventures.

Eric Hall, owner of AWOL Sports Performance, benches Sunday. (Courtesy Tampa Bay Pump N Run 5K).

Eric Hall, owner of AWOL Sports Performance, benches at the Tampa Bay Pump N Run (Courtesy Racehawk).

In Tampa on Sunday, trainer Whit Lasseter debuted the Tampa Bay Pump N Run 5K, a version of similar events that have sprung up recently in the Northeast. For the Tampa Bay event, athletes bench pressed some portion of their weight depending on age and gender. Men benched between 70 percent and 100 percent of their weight depending on age and women between 40 and 70 percent. For each rep, athletes subtracted 30 seconds off their 5K, which took place a half hour later.

After athletes weighed in, they proceeded to one of six benches, where referees/spotters judged their repetitions. Of the 150 or so athletes competing, seven completed 30 reps, the maximum allowed. The event seemed to favor wiry little guys in their 40s, who were required to bench 90 percent of their weight. A 150-pounder for instance, could bench 135 – a bar with a pair of 45-pound disks, a familiar set-up for anyone who has spent time in the gym. (Though I fit the profile, I had to sit out with a pec tear suffered while training.)

PumpRunWith about 15 runners finishing the 5K under 19 minutes, there were adjusted “times” as low as 2:30. Perhaps not coincidentally, some of the same athletes finished high on the leader boards at both the Mile of Pain/Battle Dash and Tampa Bay Pump N Run 5K.

It was an impressive showing all around. Consider that at the NFL combine, young football players bench press 225 pounds. Very few can bench 225 for 30 reps, even though most players weigh more than 225. Some of the Pump N Run crowd has more relative power.

In the end, isn’t that what all athletes are trying to obtain – the most speed and strength relative to body weight? If so, don’t be surprised if events such as the Mile of Pain/Battle Dash and the Tampa Bay Pump N Run 5K become one of the popular fitness trends of 2014.

 

 

My Chipotle Diet II – Small Size Me

By Pete Williams

Chipotle Diet for Halloween

Chipotle Diet for Halloween

In 2003, Morgan Spurlock ate every meal for a month at McDonald’s. He consumed nothing else and did not work out or train. He gained 25 pounds and by the end of the month suffered from liver dysfunction and depression.

Spurlock’s journey, chronicled in the documentary Supersize Me, demonstrated what happens when you consume nothing but high-fat, processed food for a month.

For the last few years, I’ve eaten at Chipotle Mexican Grill roughly 15 to 20 times a month. Chipotle should never be compared to McDonald’s. Yes, the food is served fast and McDonald’s once invested a ton of money in Chipotle. But the Golden Arches did not create Chipotle. Steve Ells did in 1993 and though the Colorado chef took money from McDonald’s, he never took direction from the company. When Chipotle went public in 2006, McDonald’s cashed out and walked away.

Unlike the processed McDonald’s food, Chipotle operates under a “Food with Integrity” philosophy, using whenever possible meat from animals raised without the use of antibiotics or added hormones, dairy from cows raised without the use of synthetic hormones, and sourcing organic and local produce when practical.

I’ve dropped 20 pounds since starting to eat regularly at Chipotle in 2005, going from 175 to 155, a large shirt to a small, a 33-inch waist to a 30, and while there are multiple reasons (obstacle racing, triathlon, stand-up paddleboarding, green smoothies, and writing Core Performance fitness books with Mark Verstegen), the common thread has been eating roughly four times a week at Chipotle.

ChipotleCvilleIn July, I wrote about my experience eating at Chipotle, which began in 2002 when Verstegen introduced me to the chain in Phoenix. (Chipotle did not arrive in the Tampa Bay area where I live until 2005). Mark and I have eaten at Chipotle frequently when working on books, including our sixth (Every Day is Game Day), which comes out in January.

I wondered what might happen if I pulled a semi-Spurlock and ate at Chipotle at least once every day for a month. Would I gain weight? Lose more weight? Get sick of the food?

Last night, Halloween, I completed my 31-day, everyday Chipotle Diet. I lost four pounds, going from 155 to 151. I ate at Chipotle at least once a day and on four occasions consumed both lunch and dinner there. (Rumor has it Chipotle is considering offering breakfast and hopefully it will expand its Asian-themed Shophouse Southeast Asian Kitchen concept to Florida soon.)

I picked October to add to the degree of difficulty. It’s 31 days and includes Halloween, which now consists of two party weekends before the actual event itself. The month also includes my birthday and that of my nephew, who celebrated with a chocolate mousse-filled cake from Costco. October also includes two triathlons on my calendar with incredible post-race spreads. (I only worked the events this year, instead of racing them, adding to the challenge.)

ShopHouse2You can’t order just anything at Chipotle and lose weight. My typical burrito, according to ChipotleCalorieCalculator.com, weighs in at 650 calories, with 46 grams of protein and 66 grams of carbs. That’s relatively modest, certainly right for a 155-pound – make that 151-pound – endurance athlete.

Here’s my usual order: burrito bowl with one scoop of brown rice, fajita peppers, black beans, half chicken and half carnitas, mild and medium salsas, guacamole and lettuce. Sometimes I substitute hot salsa for medium. Sometimes I’ll go with no meat. Sometimes I just order a bowl of chicken.

Here’s what I don’t order: tortilla (290 calories and 44 grams of empty carbs), white rice, pinto beans, steak, barbacoa, corn salsa, or dairy products (cheese, sour cream).

Were I to put the same burrito on a tortilla with cheese and sour cream, however, I would end up with an 1,160-calorie, foil-wrapped, 112-carb bomb with a whopping 2,710 mg of sodium – more than the 2,300 mg daily allowance recommended by the U.S. Health and Human Services.

My burrito has 1,920 mg of sodium, still a concern but at least lower.

ChipotleMealLast night, in between rounds of trick-or-treating with the kids, we ate dinner at Chipotle, which offered $3 burritos to those in costume as part of an annual Halloween charity fundraiser. I ordered my usual. The place was so jammed with teenagers in costume that the server behind the glass knocked out my burrito – as well as those of our sons – before I got to the counter.

You know you eat at Chipotle a lot when you can order without pointing or speaking. (My wife, who eats there occasionally, had to order conventionally.)

So my 31 days at Chipotle is over. Unlike Spurlock, I don’t need medical attention. I feel great, ready to tackle work challenges and the next races on the calendar.

And I still love the food. Heck, I’ll probably have lunch there today.