By Pete Williams
DADE 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.
Winghouse 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.
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.
That 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.
Savage 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.
Savage 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.
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.