Category Archives: Race Recaps

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.

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.



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.



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.

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.










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.



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.






Savage Race: Ready to Go National (April 13, 2013)

By Pete Williams

Savage2013DADE CITY, Fla. – The fourth edition of the Savage Race proved that this Florida-based obstacle event does a lot of things well. Perhaps more than any other obstacle race, it attracts a younger, gender-balanced demographic with an event not as demanding as Spartan Race but certainly challenging enough.

The one knock on Savage Race, which drew about 10,000 to Little Everglades Ranch here on Saturday, is that it’s a shorter Tough Mudder, which is fine if you’ve never done the most high-profile event in the industry or have no intention of doing so. Since debuting in August of 2011 in Clermont, Savage Race has adapted many of Tough Mudder’s signature obstacles, including an ice plunge, electroshock crawl, 12-foot leap into water, and a run up a half pipe.

There’s nothing wrong with that, of course. Tough Mudder founder Will Dean, after all, studied the British “Tough Guy” event as a Harvard Business School project and pretty much copied the blueprint. So for Tough Mudder to say Savage aped Tough Mudder sort of reminds us of when Hooters sued Winghouse for trademark infringement.

IMG_7562aWinghouse won that battle when the courts ruled you couldn’t trademark hot busty women serving chicken wings. And so it is that you can’t trademark obstacles, though Tough Mudder did exert enough leverage to inspire Savage to change its color scheme from orange to blue and re-do an initial website that bore a striking resemblance to Tough Mudder’s.

Perhaps the best thing Savage Race did was move into a venue Tough Mudder abandoned. Little Everglades Ranch, the scenic, well-manicured, 2,050-acre property in Pasco County, is the best site we’ve encountered in Florida for obstacle racing. With multiple access points from the highway, a convenient location to major metro areas (Tampa, Orlando), acres and acres of parking, and a festival footprint already in place from hosting major steeplechase and high school cross country events, Little Everglades offers something of a turnkey operation for obstacle course promoters. No wonder it’s the first stop race organizers make when coming in from out of state.

Dirty Girl held a 2,000-woman race here in February and Spartan Race will be coming here late this fall. Tough Mudder held a wildly-successful event here in December of 2011, attracting nearly 20,000 over two days, before making the poor decision not to return, staging a traffic-marred event in Sarasota in December and a lightly-attended race in Homestead last month.

Missing from first two Savage Races

Missing from first two Savage Races

Savage Race, meanwhile, has grown its numbers by hosting out of Little Everglades, first in October. We missed that race, having done the first two events in Clermont, but there was a sense of deja vu harkening back to the 2011 Tough Mudder event here.

It wasn’t just the venue or the similar signature obstacles. Others were in the exact same place as Tough Mudder, including a log carry through a pond and a backward, supine crawl along a wire through water. Great obstacles, to be sure, but it only contributed to the Tough Mudder feel. The walls were shorter (though plentiful), the electroshock was turned down compared to recent Tough Mudder events (not that we’re complaining), and Savage, ironically, eliminated its own most challenging obstacle from its former race venue in Clermont.

IMG_7589aThat was a 150-yard swim toward the end of the course. When Savage debuted in August of 2011, we thought this differentiated the event a great deal. Athletes could attempt the swim or take a five-minute penalty and do 30 Burpees. When Savage returned to Clermont in March of 2012, it shortened the swim and placed ropes and floats all over the swim course, again offering the Burpee option for those still uncomfortable with the water.

Perhaps Little Everglades does not have a sufficient body of water. Perhaps liability is a concern. Perhaps there are too many people like me who do not learn to swim properly until later in life. Perhaps Savage did not want to be at a market disadvantage as the only obstacle race requiring a swim – or at least sort of requiring one.

Savage markets its race as “more obstacles per mile,” so if you want to do a Tough Mudder in 6.7 miles instead of 12, Savage is your race. But we’d still like to see more obstacles that we’ve never seen, especially at Tough Mudder. Admittedly, that’s becoming increasingly difficult in a flooded marketplace, no pun intended. But we’ve seen races like Hero Rush and even the Florida-based Hog Wild Mud Run come up with some creative new material.

IMG_7573aSavage does have Thor’s Grundle, a crawl under submerged upright boards. It does combine the half-pipe (Colossus) with a backside that’s the best waterslide in the industry. Its Sawtooth (monkey) Bars are also the best in OCR, with an A-frame format broken up by a jog in the middle, producing an up-down-up-down challenge.


Savage2013aSavage also has a big-event feel, with a massive registration area that handles traffic well, merchandise tent, and event branding all over the course, right down to the army of volunteers in Savage Race T-shirts. We wish Savage still provided on-site race maps — something Tough Mudder seems to have copied from Savage Race, ironically – but can understand eliminating that expense, especially in the digital age. It seems to have minimized wait times at obstacles, even in later waves. Savage also continues to go with Tultex T-shirts, something we wish more endurance races of all sorts would follow. Its post-race party seems to keep people hanging around as long as any obstacle event with the possible exception of Warrior Dash. And it’s worth noting that, depending on when you register, Savage Race can be 30 to 50 percent cheaper than Tough Mudder.

Bottom line? Savage Race is a terrific, all-around value that manages to be all things to all athletes. Next month it moves out of Florida for the first time with an event in Georgia, followed later this year with races in Ohio, Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Texas, along with a return visit to Little Everglades in October.

SavageLogoWe’ll see how Savage Race’s compressed Tough Mudder-like event will sell outside of the Sunshine State, especially at venues that might not rival Little Everglades in terms of location or amenities.

Maybe the business model of offering a shorter, more affordable race that offers all of the challenges of Tough Mudder will capture a broader demographic of athletes not interested in running 12 miles.

After all, it has played well in Florida and it would not be a surprise to see it take off elsewhere.