By Pete Williams
WINTER GARDEN, Fla. – After staging seemingly every variation of off-road obstacle event over the last 18 months here at the Roper Ranch, Rock On Adventures can roll out as challenging a race as anyone in the industry.
Today’s fifth edition of Rock On’s signature event, the Highlander Adventure Run, included a staggering 100 obstacles in its six-mile version and about 70 in the three-mile rendition. That’s because Rock On’s Jonny Simpkins can leave his obstacles up permanently, adding some while twisting and turning the course in different directions.
As a result, today’s Highlander had a season-opening amusement park feel to it, even for those of us among the crowd of 1,350 or so who have done more laps around The Ranch that we can remember at this point. Certain obstacles, like signature rope climbs, tire walls, and mud crawls remain while others rotate out or even get replaced by more challenging fare. So while some of the course seemed familiar, even veteran Highlanders were left wondering from part of Simpkins’ twisted mind the new material sprung from.
Simpkins has spent the last few months concentrating on the “Battle Dash,” his answer to American Ninja Warrior. “Battle,” which debuted in July and returns in November, is a 150-yard course of about a dozen obstacles that pits two athletes against each other in heats. There’s a leaderboard, cash prizes, and presumably television coverage down the road.
We’ve always been puzzled why Rock On’s races have not drawn bigger numbers than other events, though 1,350 in today’s flooded mud run marked is impressive. Between the heavily obstacle-laden course, soft Tultex T-shirts (light green today), no spectator fees, a kid-friendly atmosphere that today included a bouncy house and mini obstacles, bottled water on the course, and great finisher’s medals, Rock On provides the best value in the industry. This before considering the unusual distinction of free parking, though today athletes were encouraged to make a donation to representatives from a worthy charity helping direct parking.
Maybe it’s because Rock On tried to do too many things, from a zombie run to summer trail runs to a kayak-bike-run “Yakathon” – all well-executed events, but perhaps a little too much distraction from the core product. Simpkins says from now on it will be pretty much just Battle Dash, its “Mile of Pain” companion, and The Highlander.
Not that all the other races were lost time. Rock On veterans recognize pieces of the Monster Bash Dash, Yakathon, and the Friday night summer trail runs. For today’s race, Simpkins created something that we’ve never seen at another race: a spectator bridge that itself was an obstacle.
Realizing that the course would cut through a main thoroughfare between parking and the registration area, Simpkins dug a channel under the path and laid logs over top. Spectators and athletes arriving for later waves had to walk over the logpath, getting a good view of athletes going underneath. It wasn’t particularly challenging but, hey, even the spectators had to suck it up and earn their keep. (Those needing special assistance were able to go another route.)
The spectator bridge is the type of detail that can be provided when you operate out of one venue and don’t have to worry about taking the show on the road the following month. At least two Florida-based mud runs that started roughly the same time as Rock On have taken their events national, with varying degrees of success, but Simpkins has resisted the urge, knowing full well that even one of the best-produced events, the firefighter-themed, Maryland-based Hero Rush, recently flamed out in bankruptcy after growing too big too fast.
It hasn’t even been three years since Simpkins and his longtime girlfriend, Wendy Carson, took a look at the Warrior Dash debut in Florida in January 2011 and figured they could do something better. Now it’s impossible to even track how many outfits are staging obstacle mud runs in Florida alone. Sixty, perhaps? We counted nine flyers on our windshield for upcoming races, none of them older than The Highlander. Five are first-time events and all promised to be the most extreme, the baddest, most “premium” or the most rocking good time.
It’s funny. Unlike other businesses, no one ever promises to provide the best value.
Rock On, it seems, owns that title.