Author Archives: Pete Williams

Highlander V: Ready for ‘Battle’ (Sept. 21, 2013)

By Pete Williams

Highlander2WINTER 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.

Highlander3Today the three Battle Dash courses figured prominently in The Highlander races – even the one-mile kids’ race tackled by more than a hundred youngsters.

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.

Highlander4Not 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.

HighlanderIt 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.

The Benefits of Not Getting a Trophy

By Pete Williams

Motivated by a plaque

Motivated by a plaque

When I was in fourth grade in Richmond, Va., my Little League baseball team went undefeated in the regular season, cruised into the finals of the playoffs, and promptly choked away the championship.

After the game, league officials placed a table at home plate for the awards. Our team lined up along the third base line, the winners along first. The champions received large trophies. We got plaques.

Small, cheesy plaques.

I hated that plaque. I hated how we choked. I wanted to remember that feeling and how I never wanted to feel that way again. So I nailed the plaque up in my bedroom in the one place I’d have to look at it every day – next to the light switch.

Not only did I have to look at it, I constantly had to adjust the damn plaque and frequently pick it up off the floor. Because that plaque, like all plaques, had that useless groove for hanging that never works. So every week or two I’d reach for the light switch and knock down the plaque. Like George Bailey and his broken banister knob, I’d curse and put it back in place.

About a year and a half later we moved to Northern Virginia. I put the plaque up next to the light switch in my new room. Two years later, my Little League team won the championship. We were relentless. We owned the ten-run rule. This time we got the big trophies and the other guys got plaques.

Still I kept that plaque by the light switch for another five years until I left for college. That damn plaque was a great motivator. As I left my room every morning, it reminded me never to let up, never to provide anything short of my best effort.

As I exited my room for the last time before departing for college, I flicked the switch and, once again, down came the plaque. This time I tossed it in the trash.

I owe at least part of whatever modest success I’ve achieved to that dumb second-place plaque for the 1979 Bickford Athletics.

Enough already!

Enough already!

Today’s second-place kids don’t get plaques. They get trophies. So do the 11th place finishers, for that matter. Like Gaylord Focker and his “Wall of Gaylord” shrine of eighth-place wrestling medals, today’s kids get awards just for showing up.

We’ve lowered the bar for achievement. In today’s Wall Street Journal, Kevin Helliker writes about “The Slowest Generation.” It seems the Gaylord Fockers who grew up getting participation trophies are now fueling the growth of events like The Color Run and many obstacle races, untimed events where everyone gets a medal.

Running USA spokesman Ryan Lamppa, noting that there are health benefits to running at any pace, tells The Journal: “Many new runners come from a mind-set where everyone gets a medal and it’s good enough just to finish.”

Spartan Race founder Joe Desena, one of our favorite folks to interview, is at his outspoken best talking to The Journal, likening to “communism” events that promote “hand-holding over competition.”

“How well is that everybody-gets-a-trophy mentality working in our schools?” Desena asks The Journal.

Desena also brings up a pet peeve of ours – that the promotion of untimed events and “teamwork” is just an excuse to save the cost of timing.

She'll get a medal.

She’ll get a medal.

“If you can pull the wool over your customers’ eyes and convince them that communism is better, you can drop at least $40,000 to your bottom line every race,” he told The Journal.

I’m not sure such races are promoting communism. But Desena, a 44-year-old guy who made a fortune on Wall Street and once raced 12 Ironman triathlons in one year, knows a little about achievement.

There’s something to be said for getting off the couch and running – or walking – in any event. But after that initial step, shouldn’t the goal be to be the best – or at least your best? There’s a contingent of obstacle racers who rate events based on the quality of a finisher’s medal.

I don’t want more finisher’s medals or awards unless I complete an event that exceeds three hours or requires at least 10 miles of running. Earlier this month, I competed in a sprint triathlon, one of several events I’ve done multiple times since taking up triathlon six years ago. I have picked up no awards, which typically are given to the top three or top five in each age group. This particular event, a well-organized race held on a chamber-of-commerce perfect morning, gave finisher’s medals.

It was the first time anyone could recall a sprint triathlon handing out finisher’s medals.

Look, there’s something to be said for finishing a sprint triathlon – for the first time. But at a certain point isn’t it ridiculous to give awards just for showing up to a 5K theme run? We can blame the mud runs for this, of course.

Finishing among the top five in an age group of 50 or 60 at a triathlon isn’t much of an accomplishment. But at least it’s something – a milestone I have yet to reach in 44 triathlons. At this most recent race, I finished sixth in my age group, something I’ve done several times. I’ve yet to collect one of the typical cheesy awards given at triathlons, one I would have thought went out of style back in the 1980s.

Yep, once again I’m motivated by a freakin’ plaque.

I used to worry about the mountains of ribbons and medals our sons — ages 10 and 8 — already have collected for various swimming and running events. Is it all so watered down that none of it matters?

Back in May, our 10-year-old finished second in his age group in a Dash-N-Splash event consisting of a 2-mile run, a 600-yard open-water swim, and a 1-mile run. The winner was a foot taller and looked 18, but whatever.

The other day I noticed our son has that 2nd place plaque – yes, plaque – separated from his other awards on the center of his dresser.

The next Dash-N-Splash is one week away.

Rock On Adventures: Moving Toward ‘Primetime’

By Pete Williams

Battle Dash race course

Battle Dash race course

Jonny Simpkins believes the future of obstacle racing lies somewhere between American Ninja Warrior and the Hare Scramble races he once competed in as a motorcycle racer.

 

Simpkins, 50, creator of the popular Highlander Adventure Run, will continue to stage his signature event at the Roper Ranch in Winter Garden, Fla. More than 1,500 athletes are expected for the fifth edition of The Highlander, which takes place on Sept. 21 with 3-mile, 6-mile, and kids races.

We’ve been big fans of The Highlander ever since its 2011 debut. Simpkins and his longtime girlfriend, Wendy Carson, have staged many memorable races under their Rock On Adventures company, included the grueling 11.4-mile “Intimidator” and the “Yak-a-thon,” an unusual kayak-mountain bike-run challenge.

Unlike most promoters, Rock On does not charge for spectators or parking. The company also provides soft fitted Tultex T-shirts that athletes actually want to wear, kids races, and a true family atmosphere, complete with stuff for kids to do.

HighlanderLogoSimpkins was among the first to stage an obstacle race in Florida and has watched as countless others have emerged, to the point where there’s now at least one OCR event virtually every weekend of the year.

It’s hard to reinvent the wheel or the tire, monkey bars, or balance beam, for that matter. Rock On has been as creative as anyone and will include a whopping 100 obstacles for Highlander 5.

Simpkins, whose background is in installing irrigation systems, has the luxury of leasing property from an owner who allows him to leave his obstacles up permanently.

But instead of adding more or crazier obstacles indefinitely, Simpkins is tweaking the OCR format with the “Mile of Pain” and “Battle Dash,” both of which have debuted in recent months to rave reviews. Rock On will stage both on the same day – Nov. 9.

Carson, Simpkins

Carson, Simpkins

During the “Mile of Pain,” athletes face 27 obstacles, including mud, over a one-mile course. Small groups of athletes leave in heats so there’s no backup on the course.

With the “Battle Dash,” athletes compete Ninja Warrior-style in a pair of 200-yard, U-shaped courses, one red, the other white. There are qualifying heats with the top eight in each skill class — expert (A), intermediate (B), and beginners/newbies (C) — advancing to the finals. There’s even a separate course for kids (ages 5 to 8 and ages 9 to 11). There’s Battle Dash prize money, too.

If it sounds like it’s made for spectators and TV, well, that’s just the point. Though OCR events typically charge for spectators – some up to $40 – they’re not spectator friendly. With courses spread out for miles over often wooded areas, friends and family members often can view only a fraction of the venue.

IMG_7147With the Battle Dash and Mile of Pain, spectators can see the entire course, which gives the events more of a competitive feel. Simpkins even provides a running commentary on the race, perched on a platform above the competition with a microphone. (Simpkins says he will continue not to charge for spectators for now, but might in the future.)

The events feel more like stadium competitions than wide-open obstacle races.

“With Supercross events, you’re so close to the action it can be a little scary,” Simpkins says. “I believe this is where we’re heading. People want more competition and the spectators want something that’s more exciting. Right now they’re bored.”

Since Rock On Adventures launched, a number of races have come and gone. Hero Rush, the firefigther-themed event, recently folded. Other Florida-based races have expanded beyond the Sunshine State with varying degrees of success.

Simpkins has stayed put in Winter Garden, focusing on the next evolution of OCR, which could involve stadiums, lights, and cameras.

“People want to be more a part of the action, both athletes and spectators,” he says. “I think we’ve hit on something with this Battle Dash.”

 

 

Flavor (of the Month?) Run (Aug. 17, 2013)

By Pete Williams

FlavorRun3TAMPA – Whenever a popular running event emerges, it’s only a matter of time before the knockoffs follow.

It was only 19 months ago that The Color Run debuted in Phoenix, dousing white-clad runners with colored powder along a 5K course. In February, Color Run founder Travis Snyder partnered with IMG, the sports conglomerate that itself was placed on the market by its private equity owners this week, according to The Wall Street Journal.

IMG has expanded The Color Runs series to a whopping 130 U.S. cities for 2013, a rate of growth unmatched even by the likes of Tough Mudder and Warrior Dash.

Then again, The Color “Run,” along with knockoffs like this morning’s inaugural “Flavor Run” at the Florida State Fairgrounds, is not an obstacle race, unless you count running through a half dozen stations with volunteers throwing powder as obstacles.

But we include the powder runs here since they attract a similar demographic and thus might cut into the OCR pie. Powder runs, like many 5K mud runs, tend to draw a younger, more female field than regular road races. Women tend to be more inclined to enter theme races together, dress in costume or matching gear, and post Facebook photos of themselves covered in mud or powder.

FlavorRun2Just as obstacle races tend to attract more walkers than triathlons or road races, powder runs tend to be mostly walkers — and overwhelmingly female. We’re guessing today’s Flavor Run was 85 percent female and more than half walkers. The race was untimed, but the top finisher (a woman) crossed the line in 20 minutes, with the second-place runner finishing about a minute later.

The Color Run attracted 15,000 runners to St. Petersburg in December and almost as many to the Florida State Fairgrounds in May. Today’s event drew about 1,500. It was a solid first-time effort by the promoters, who provided Tultex T-shirts, post-race medals, and plenty of colored powder, which supposedly had more of a fruity taste than that used by The Color Run.

Still, that’s a modest turnout compared to The Color Run, especially considering many bought a Living Social deal for the Flavor Run for $38.

FlavorRun4Warrior Dash and Tough Mudder have inspired countless OCR imitators. But at least in obstacle racing, it’s possible to come up with different wrinkles for obstacles. Even the Orlando-based Savage Race, which basically copied Tough Mudder, shrunk the Tough Mudder course from 12 miles to less than six and does a brisk business with its “more obstacles per mile” concept.

It’s more challenging to put a different spin on a powder run, especially when The Color Run has grown to the point where it now puts on six events per weekend all over the country. Obstacle racing tends to have a bucket-list vibe for many runners, who enter one event for the novelty of getting muddy and never return.

We’re guessing that’s even more true for powder runs. They’re fun, but once the dust settles, participants will move on to something else.

 

 

 


 

 

 

 

 

 

The Sweat Factory: CrossFit Meets Obstacle Training

By Pete Williams

Clint Lowery (right) coaching at The Sweat Factory

Clint Lowery (right) coaching at The Sweat Factory

MINNEOLA, Fla. – Maci and Clint Lowery thought they were ready. Longtime triathletes, marathoners, and ultra-distance racers, they entered a few obstacle races last year and couldn’t believe how gassed they were after a few simple challenges.

The Lowerys weren’t weakling runners struggling to carry a log or pull themselves over a wall. She’s a firefighter and he’s a paramedic. She’s played in professional women’s football leagues. Both have backgrounds in strength training and the lean, camera-ready physiques to prove it. (Maci appears on the cover of our book Obstacle Fit, crawling under barbwire.)

It’s not like the Lowerys struggled to finish the obstacle races. But they weren’t accustomed to being pushed so hard for a relatively short 5K or 6-mile course.

“We’re used to being able to run forever,” says Maci, a six-time marathon finisher. “But two races and we were just gassed.”

Maci already was looking for a different training regimen to prepare for football, which at the moment is in hiatus. Clint, a three-time Ironman finisher who lost 35 pounds during the popular late ’90s ‘Body for Life” program, is always up for a new challenge. Together they discovered CrossFit, perhaps the biggest fitness phenomenon of the last five years. But rather than just joining a box, they created one, purchasing a personal fitness studio in March and transforming it into “The Sweat Factory,” an official CrossFit affiliate.

Maci carries Clint through The Highlander Adventure Run.

Maci carries Clint during The Highlander Adventure Run in September.

CrossFit has aligned itself closely with obstacle racing since it shares a similar demographic: athletes in their late 20s to early 40s looking for a more challenging, group-fitness experience and sense of community. But many CrossFit boxes place little emphasis on running. CrossFitters typically power through obstacles during races, but struggle with the running, especially in longer events.

That’s where The Sweat Factory is different. At first glance, it’s a modest (though well-equipped), 1,500-square-foot endcap unit in a strip mall/office park right off of US Highway 27 on the border of Clermont and Minneola. Some of that square footage includes an outdoor deck they added.

But the game changer, besides the couple’s background in endurance sports, is that The Sweat Factory is adjacent to a bike/running trail that goes on for miles in either direction. That enables the Lowerys, both CrossFit-certified coaches, to prescribe runs of a quarter-mile, half-mile or even longer into a typical CrossFit workout of the day (WOD).

SweatFactory2The trail goes in one direction for a mile and a half to a waterfront park. That makes for a perfect 3-mile loop that the Lowerys have used to create their own obstacle course featuring Burpees and push-ups in the lake, tire pulls on the beach, and various stations along the way, including a half mile of jump squats while carrying a medicine ball uphill.

The winner of the inaugural 5K last month was an Ironman finisher who navigated the loop in 28 minutes and said it was the toughest 5K he’d ever done. Like the other athletes, he had to jump 20 times in a bounce house before reaching the finish line.

“Sounds easy until you do it at the end of a race,” Clint says.

It’s early Friday morning and Clint is standing on the deck, which along with nearby pull-up bars still has that freshly-built look. There are tires of all sizes, along with sandbags, a pile of sand, sledgehammers, and 5-gallon orange buckets. “It’s amazing how much of this comes from Home Depot,” he says.

SweatFactoryMaci is inside coaching a group through a WOD consisting of Spartan pushups, sit-ups, ring dips, jumping rope, and other fun. In less than six months they’ve built a membership of 160 with little marketing beyond Facebook, a website, and word-of-mouth.

Not bad considering they projected it would take a year to draw 100 members and they now must compete with a newer box a half-mile away. And definitely impressive considering they maintain the typical full-time schedules of first responders, working 24-hour shifts followed by 48 hours off.

On this morning, they’ve come directly from a shift. They’ll work through the morning classes, go home to handle paperwork and other gym-related matters, and then return for classes from 5 to 8 p.m. They’ve hired several other coaches, including a firefighting-couple that typically works opposite shifts at the station. “It’s been a crazy six months,” Maci says.

More than 6,000 CrossFit boxes have popped up on every corner of America, even in this sleepy northwest Orlando suburb best known in the endurance world as the home of a USA Triathlon national training center.

Obstacle training, Maci says, is one differentiating factor for The Sweat Factory. When the Lowerys surveyed prospective members about what they were looking for in a box, everyone checked the obstacle racing box. The Sweat Factory plans to field a large team for a Monster Challenges obstacle event on Sept. 14 in Clermont.

Maci coaching at The Cross Factory

Maci coaching at The Cross Factory

No doubt they’ll be prepared. The Sweat Factory WODs show athletes how to recover quickly from obstacles and keep running. Clint created the programming, which includes interval training, tempo runs, and other lactate threshold work.

“Most boxes don’t run as much as we do,” Maci says. “That attracts a lot of people and might keep a few away. But that’s part of our background and it makes sense to incorporate it.”

Clint has Sweat Factory members keep track of their three-rep max for various Olympic lifts. “CrossFit is known for getting people extremely ripped, but not always stronger,” he says. “This way they can see how they’re also gaining strength.”

Clint says The Sweat Factory could move to a bigger location, but would prefer to stay near the running trail. There’s a grassy field behind the strip mall where they plan to build obstacles, including walls. They easily could expand by taking down a wall if they can convince their neighbor – a church group that only meets on Sundays when The Sweat Factory is closed – to move.

SweatFactory7For now they’ll continue with perhaps the most creative slate of programming of any CrossFit box. There will be a firefighter-themed WOD with all Lake County fire departments on Oct. 12 at the Lake Tech Institute of Public Safety, with proceeds going toward the families of the 19 firefighters who perished recently in Arizona.

The Sweat Factory also will host another obstacle-themed 5K on Aug. 26 at 6:30 p.m., with a party to follow.

“Regular gyms can be so intimidating,” Maci says. “We’re able to mix CrossFit with the obstacle element and people are just having a blast with it.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

MLB All-Star Game Program Features Spartan Race

By Pete Williams

Spartan Race at Fenway Park (Photo Courtesy Nuvision Action Image)

Spartan Race at Fenway Park (Photo Courtesy Nuvision Action Image)

We recently wrote a story on Spartan Race partnering with Major League Baseball to stage Spartan Sprint races at MLB ballparks. What began last November with a Spartan Sprint at Boston’s Fenway Park has grown into a series with events at New York’s Citi Field, Milwaukee’s Miller Park, and Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia.

You can read that story by clicking here: SpartanASG

Mud Endeavor: Saturday Night Lights (July 20, 2013)

By Pete Williams

MudEndeavorlogoDADE CITY, Fla. – By now it’s nearly impossible to come up with a different wrinkle for an obstacle mud run. Every angle and obstacle has been done, to the point where races start to blend together, a mix of mud, wall climbs, tires, and BYOB refreshments.

The latest edition of Mud Endeavor didn’t reinvent the OCR wheel, but by holding the event in the evening under the lights at the Pasco County Fairgrounds on Saturday, it provided a remarkably different experience.

We were skeptical of whether Randy Yoho and his crew could produce a memorable run at a venue best known in the OCR world for hosting the modest 2.3-mile “5K” Mud Crusade in April 2012. Yoho, who has a background in motocross promotions, has staged two well-received races in Brooksville – and will host a third there in October – but the smaller Pasco property presents some layout challenges.

Yoho said in the days leading up to the race that some of his larger obstacles would not work at the Fairgrounds and he relied mostly on wooden walls, tires, cargo nets, and an up-and-down opening mile of motocross mud churned up by the last month of heavy rains. Like Mud Crusade, he built a waterslide in the same spot and took runners through the grassy fields not used for parking.

But unlike Mud Crusade, he put the Fairgrounds’ barns to use, using pulsing music and fog machines to create a surprisingly authentic run-through-the-nightclub vibe, certainly a first in OCR. At one point, runners entered a crawl space in the fog only to find themselves in four inches of ice water, a clever variation on other icy obstacles.

Yoho issued perhaps the best T-shirts we’ve seen, orange Gildan Softstyle numbers with nothing on the back. We’re big fans of Tultex, the soft fitted shirts that grew popular late in 2011, but the preshrunk Gildan (65 percent poly, 35 percent cotton) seem more fitted and substantive, yet just as soft. Yoho also sprung for chip timing for all waves, which is becoming increasingly unusual. Between the chips and shirts, we can forgive water-trickle showers and no post-race bottled water, though there were at least three water stops on the 5K course.

For what the Fairgrounds lacks in acreage, it makes up for in other areas. With permanent speakers atop permanent light towers – Yoho brought in additional lighting for the outlying areas – Mud Endeavor had the best sound system in an industry known for ear-ringing audio.

Yoho might be onto something with the night format race. It’s cooler – literally and figuratively – especially with light rains that produced some breathtaking rainbows as runners competed in the twilight under the lights. OCR demographics trend younger than triathlon and road racing; this isn’t a crowd that wants to start at 7 a.m. By moving the first wave to 7 p.m., and releasing runners roughly every half hour until 10 p.m., Mud Endeavor created both a party atmosphere and a more temperature-friendly event.

We took off in the 7:40 wave and though the light towers were on, they weren’t necessary by the time we finished the 5K course at 8:15. Kudos to the winner who slogged through all that ankle-deep muck in 22 minutes.

Athletes in Florida already have evening race options such as the Picnic Island Adventure Run in Tampa and next weekend’s Twilight Triathlon in Crystal River. Here’s hoping Mud Endeavor will return to the Pasco County Fairgrounds.

After Saturday, it appears obstacle racing is ready for prime time.

 

 

My Chipotle Diet

By Pete Williams

PeteRunningChipotle Mexican Grill is celebrating its 20th anniversary on Saturday by kicking off a contest that awards winners with a burrito a week for the next 20 years.

That’s 1,040 burritos or almost as many as I’ve consumed since 2005.

That was the year Chipotle came to the Tampa Bay area and as the chain has grown – to 1,450 restaurants and counting – it has opened outlets increasingly closer to my home. These days, I only have to travel five minutes to what previous was a KFC.

Chipotle (CMG as its known on Wall Street and, full disclosure, I’m a shareholder) has changed the concept of fast food and, perhaps, the way America eats.

I’ve dropped 20 pounds since 2005, going from 175 to 155 – 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.

Steve Ells, who launched Chipotle on July 13, 1993 in Denver with the help of an $85,000 loan from his father, had gone to culinary school and planned one day to open a high-end restaurant. He figured it was more financially prudent to first launch an eatery with mass appeal, applying gourmet touches to the burrito restaurant formula he had seen in San Francisco.

Making tasty, relatively inexpensive food served fast likely would have been enough for Chipotle to succeed. But Ells insisted on providing “Food with Integrity,” 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 probably wouldn’t be eating at Chipotle much were it not for Verstegen, with whom I’ve had the honor of writing five books. (Our sixth, Every Day is Game Day, comes out in December). Mark’s program has changed my life, and he also introduced me to Chipotle in Phoenix in 2002 when we began work on our first book, Core Performance.

Chipotle has its detractors, to be sure. The food is salty and the taste isn’t for everyone. Plus, you’re not going to lose weight or lean out eating at Chipotle if you do not train and/or consume certain Chipotle ingredients.

Here’s how – and why – it works for me:

ChipotleMealCONVENIENCE: The biggest misnomer about Chipotle is that it was founded or once a subsidiary of McDonald’s. Not true. Ells did take a massive infusion of McDonald’s cash in the early days to fund Chipotle’s meteoric growth, but retained control and didn’t allow McDonald’s to influence his vision. When Chipotle went public in 2006, McDonald’s cashed out and walked away.

But Chipotle is like McDonald’s when it comes to fast service. The only difference is that Chipotle is actually healthy food. Morgan Spurlock famously ate at McDonald’s every day for one month and nearly died. I eat at Chipotle 15-20 times every month and have gotten into the best shape of my life.

I’m not alone. Chipotle is often packed and the funny thing is that people who eat there tend to be in better shape than the general public. Heck, the stereotype of the chubby, donut-eating cop is disappearing in part because of Chipotle’s half-off policy for law enforcement personnel.

I’ve had many business lunches at Chipotle. Even with the lines, it’s possible to get in and our far quicker than at a sit-down restaurant.

ShopHouse2Eating healthy on the road is always a challenge but it’s increasingly easy to find a Chipotle nearby. Now that Ells is expanding his Shophouse Southeast Asian Kitchen concept, an Asian-themed restaurant modeled after the Chipotle formula, it will get easier.

COST/VALUE: Chipotle isn’t inexpensive. But it’s a great value. A burrito with water from the soda fountain costs roughly $9. You’re getting nutrient-dense food mostly free of antibiotics and hormones. Eating right is a little more expensive, but always worth it.

STRATEGIC ORDERING: You are what you put in the shopping cart. A person’s physical appearance is usually a reflection of what’s in their cart at the grocery store. I’ve noticed the same phenomenon watching people at Chipotle, where it’s easy to load up on too many calories.

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).

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 endurance athlete.

Fueled by Chipotle

Fueled by Chipotle

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.

Why no dairy? No matter how much you emphasize light cheese or a little sour cream at Chipotle, they’ll give you too much. Plus, I gave up dairy (other than whey protein) several years ago. Jack LaLanne never consumed dairy, stressing that humans are the only species to consume milk (let alone from another species) beyond the suckling stage. Jack still was doing badass athletic things when he died in 2011 at the age of 96, so he has some credibility there.

Ordering half chicken and half carnitas is for variety but also because you tend to get a little more meat than ordering just one.

ChipotleCvilleYou’d think more restaurants would take a food-with-integrity cue from Chipotle, which gets its meats from family farms as opposed to scary factory operations. Taco Bell officials recently started talking smack about how they will introduce a similar menu. That’s unlikely to make a difference since the 3 a.m. drive-thru crowd doesn’t place a premium on whether its munchies come from sustainable sources. Nor is Taco Bell likely to provide it.

I keep thinking I’ll get sick of Chipotle, which despite its few ingredients has thousands of combinations. Hopefully I won’t have to wait too long for a Shophouse to come to Tampa Bay. In the meantime, I’m hoping to win the 20th-anniversary “Adventurrito” contest, which will give me a burrito a week through 2033.

It probably won’t be enough.

 

 

 

 

Tough Mudder “Jacksonville” – Florida Fatigue (May 19, 2013)

By Pete Williams

TMJVilleEverestPALATKA, Fla. – If a Tough Mudder is held in the forest and only 3,500 runners show up, does it still make an impact?

We’ll let the local economists figure that one out. This much we know: After drawing more than 15,000 to its inaugural Florida event in December of 2011, Tough Mudder has seen its numbers cut in half twice – to 7,500 at Homestead Miami Speedway in March and now 3,500 this weekend, including what couldn’t have been more than 1,200 runners today at the Hog Waller Mud Bog.

The market for obstacle mud runs is saturated, especially in Florida, but Tough Mudder hasn’t helped its cause in the Sunshine State. The Brooklyn-based company should have stuck with its original Florida site, Dade City’s Little Everglades Ranch, which might be the best venue in the state. Instead Tough Mudder toyed with Dirty Foot Adventures in Polk County last year before moving to Sarasota’s Hi Hat Ranch for last December’s event, a modest 10-mile course marred by traffic delays of up to three hours.

TMJvillePineWe liked today’s venue, a 750-acre pine plantation with a clearing in the middle used for off-road 4×4 racing. Runners spent more time in mud and muddy water than in any of the five Tough Mudders I’ve done. There was one half-mile stretch in thick calf-deep mud that got a bit scary. As part of the first of just three waves, I found myself alone in the muck, wondering what might happen if an alligator or one of the property’s namesake wild hogs sprung from the palmetto.

The problem with the Hog Waller location – and this is a typical mud run organizing mistake – is that it’s not far from everywhere but not close to anything. Though billed as Tough Mudder “Jacksonville,” Palatka is about 90 minutes from most of J’ville and more than two hours from Tampa. It’s not far from Gainesville but, alas, the student Gators are home for the summer.

Tough Mudder trotted out all of its signature obstacles among the 20 it staged, including the Arctic Enema, Funky Monkey, Mount Everest half pipe, and race-ending Electroshock Therapy. The “Cage Crawl,” the on-your-back, claustrophobia-inducing challenge through water under chainlink fence that we saw for the first time in Phoenix in February, returned, though we were disappointed not to see “Just the Tip,” a clever horizontal wall obstacle that appeared in March in Homestead.

Walk the Plank, the 12-foot leap into water that during a race in West Virginia last month accounted for the first fatality in Tough Mudder history, also returned. There was “Strong Swimmers Only” signage leading up to the obstacle and noticeably absent were the “You Signed a Death Waiver” signs usually posted along the course.

After doing Tough Mudder in February at a former General Motors proving ground near Phoenix and at the Homestead Miami Speedway in March, we’ve found Tough Mudder puts forth more effort on its obstacles when its not working out in the woods. The diversity of obstacles was far better on the racetracks. Admittedly, it’s tough staging in the forest. Then again, Hog Waller is a major timber operation with plenty of interior roads.

Shock, shock and more shock

Shock, shock and more shock

Our biggest beef with Tough Mudder is that it’s now all about the electroshock. In 2011, there was only the race-ending Electroshock Therapy, where most athletes felt little. By the end of last year, a second electric obstacle was added but the jolts still modest. But the three events I’ve done in 2013 have gotten progressively more intense. During today’s Electric Eel, the 40-foot crawl through water underneath electrically-charged wires, I took at least a dozen major tasings, including one to the back of the head that left me loopy for the next half mile.

I’m all for a little Fear Factor in my obstacle race, but it’s getting ridiculous. At least today’s Tough Mudder didn’t throw in “Dark Lightning,” where athletes crawl through pitch-black underground tunnels with wires hanging from the ceiling. This, of course, is the signature feature of the British Tough Guy event, the race that Will Dean studied as a Harvard Business School project and pretty much copied for Tough Mudder.

Speaking of copying, since Tough Mudder didn’t introduce anything new this weekend, we’re wondering what the Savage Race will do for new material. Savage, of course, is the Winghouse to Tough Mudder’s Hooters, compressing the 12-mile Tough Mudder into a six-mile course – or 4.5 miles at Savage’s most recent affair near Atlanta.

Savage has succeeded with its more-obstacles-per-mile strategy since many athletes have no interest in tackling a 12-mile course. Actually, today’s Tough Mudder was only about 11 miles and even that was a stretch. Athletes exited the woods at the 10-mile mark and then were looped around the main festival area to go through the Funky Monkey, Mount Everest and Electroshock Therapy, all lumped together.

TMJVilleBarsPerhaps the oddest part of today’s event was the lack of people, including spectators. Because of the woods, sandy terrain, and long stretches of running, I went periods of up to 10 minutes without seeing anyone. As part of the lead pack in the first wave, I not only never encounter a line, I was the only person at an obstacle on several occasions, including Mount Everest. (Good thing I was able to make it without assistance.) The guy in front of me at the Wounded Warrior alternating-piggyback carry had to wait a minute for me to show up. (As usual, I got the worse end of that deal, carrying a 185-pound dude who only had to sling my 155 pounds around.)

Such isolation is not unusual at smaller, local mud races but not at Tough Mudder. We’re wondering if Tough Mudder will scale back its Florida events for 2014 or even go to one-day affairs like some Spartan Race events. It’s also worth asking if Tough Mudder is having its Muddy Buddy moment in the Sunshine State. Muddy Buddy thrived for years in Florida until other local events sprung up and national competitors like Tough Mudder and Warrior Dash arrived. After Muddy Buddy drew modest crowds in Orlando and Miami in 2011, it pulled out of Florida and scaled down from 18 to eight events nationally.

Of course, Florida is like no other state when it comes to obstacle racing, with several dozen local races. Tough Mudder still draws legions globally and in most of North America, parts of which it’s only now hitting for the first time.

toughmudderlogoLocal race organizers must not worry too much about Tough Mudder anymore. There were no planes flying banners overhead on Sunday. And I can’t remember the last endurance race of any sort I went to and didn’t find a single race flyer on my windshield afterward.

Unlike Spartan Race, Tough Mudder has not revealed specific dates for 2014 events. It will return to Florida on Nov. 2-3 for Tough Mudder “Tampa” in River Ranch, Fla., another no-man’s part of the state that’s not especially close to anything – and 90 minutes from Tampa.

River Ranch could be another Palatka. Or perhaps because Tough Mudder has staged three Florida events in five and a half months, what it really needs is the six-month break.