Tag Archives: Highlander

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.



Highlander IV: More Challenges, More Mud (March 16, 2013)

By Pete Williams

IMG_7227WINTER GARDEN, Fla. – We’re still not sure if the obstacle race category is evolving more into a fitness challenge or a mud run. The organizers of the Highlander Adventure Run seem to be placing bets on both.

The distinction might seem minor, especially to the 1,500-plus who raced the fourth edition of The Highlander on a day that started at 40 degrees (for the 8 a.m. first wave) and was approaching 70 by the time the final group set out at 11:30.

Newcomers want mud, not just for the novelty but also for the requisite Facebook photos. For those folks, race organizers Jonny Simpkins and Wendy Carson over-delivered. There were three under-barbwire-through-mud crawls, at least a dozen mud pits and several places where it was hard not to get stuck in the muck. Perhaps not to the degree of Highlander III in September, when participants carried sand bags through waist-deep, black mud, but still as much mud as you’ll find anywhere.

IMG_7201We’ve done two Tough Mudders in the last month and neither 12-mile course produced as much mud as today’s six-mile Highlander (a three-mile option also was available). Tough Mudder, facing increasing competition from Spartan Race, which bills its event as a timed, obstacle challenge and not a mud run, has amped up its obstacles for 2013.

Here, too, The Highlander provided greater physical challenges. It helps that its parent company, Rock On Adventures, has found a permanent home here at the YMCA Roper Ranch near Orlando and can leave obstacles up, adding to them with each new race. The Rock On schedule now includes a year-round slate of events, including the kayak-bike-run “Yak-a-Thon” on May 4 and a July event called “The Intimidator” that’s being billed as The Highlander on steroids.

IMG_7148Even those of us who have done multiple Rock On events at the Roper Ranch got a few surprises starting in the first mile, which included a crawl through freshly-dug tunnels. No race offers more tall obstacles to climb, including a 15-foot rope hoist from waist-deep water to touch a beam, and a challenge that seemed like navigating between two upright Lincoln Logs (below). Both were new for 2013. Simpkins also seems to have borrowed a page from last month’s Hog Wild Mud Run near Tampa, creating an obstacle that combined reverse monkey bars with swinging between a half dozen ropes (left). Few managed to complete the entire challenge.

At times The Highlander can seem repetitious with its multiple barbwire crawls and three tire carries, but nobody will complain about a lack of challenges or too much uninterrupted running. No race does a better job using ditches and trees – both upright and downed ones – to create obstacles, which makes it nearly impossible to count all the challenges. The Highlander’s final mile is one of the best in the industry, with 10 obstacles that include a 12-foot plank jump into water, a zipline, tightrope walk, water slide, and, of course, a race-ending barbwire mud crawl.

IMG_7153Simpkins and Carson, who are not married but have been together more than a decade, have built quite a following in two years one customer at a time. From early in 2011 when they tirelessly distributed flyers at dozens of events to their first two Highlander races that year in Bartow, Fla., to the current schedule of more than a dozen races, it’s perhaps the best local Florida race story in the industry, especially now that it appears the Dirty Foot Adventure Run will not continue beyond last weekend’s third event.

Other Florida-based events such as Savage Race and the Superhero Scramble are expanding beyond the Sunshine State this year, looking to take on the likes of Tough Mudder, Spartan Race, Warrior Dash, and Hero Rush, all of which have managed to take their show around the country and even the world, setting up and tearing down quickly.

IMG_7147We’re guessing Rock On’s local focus will continue to work well in the highly-competitive Florida market, especially with free parking, no spectator fees, a kid’s race, fitted Tultex T-shirts, terrific medals, and an attention to detail. Simpkins, who previously ran an irrigation business, had some water issues in September, but today delivered 8-ounce bottles at each water stop, ample H20 for the post-race showers and, of course, more than enough hydration at all of the many mud obstacles.

This is a tough industry to strike the right balance between mud and obstacle. At least for now, Rock On is managing to be all things to all runners.




Gearing Up for Highlander (Sept. 2, 2012)

By Pete Williams

Yakathon4(Published Sept. 2, 2012)WINTER GARDEN, Fla. – The inaugural TGIF Twilight 5K here Friday night was a preview of what will be a four-race, Friday night summer series next summer, sort of Orlando’s answer to the longstanding Picnic Island trilogy in Tampa.

The TGIF was a tweak on the same obstacle-laden course used by Rock On Adventures for its Monster Bash Dash in May (minus the zombies) and part of the Yak-a-Thon race in July. That’s a good thing. Rock On’s Jonny Simpkins created the popular Highlander Run last year, staging it twice in Bartow, but has moved it to the sprawling Roper Ranch, which has become the home of a year-long series of endurance challenges.

Events such as the Monster Bash, which returns in October for Halloween, along with the paddle-bike-run Yak-a-Thon and TGIF, have served as tuneups of sorts for The Highlander. Simpkins, who has a background in motocross and as the owner of an irrigation company, has been able to spend months building obstacles, which will remain in place indefinitely. That gives him a bit of an advantage over some races that switch locations or, at the very least, must construct their courses in a matter of weeks.

Athletes who ran TGIF got to test a few Highlander obstacles after the race. Those included a 12-foot platform and plunge into water and a zipline. They also got a look at some monstrous tire and wall obstacles.

It’s hard to believe, given the number of obstacle races that have debuted in Florida this year, that it’s been only 10 months since the last Highlander race. It seems much longer. Remarkably, nobody has tried to duplicate Rock On’s winning formula that includes not charging for parking and providing soft, fitted, Tultex T-shirts that athletes actually will want to wear. (They gave out another for the TGIF).

Like Picnic Island, the TGIF provided custom awards to the top 30 male and top 30 female finishers – glasses featuring the race logo. Also like Picnic Island, the race attracted a younger demographic that seemed to enjoy hanging out after the race ended. We’re guessing more than a few will return for Highlander III, which takes place on Saturday, Sept. 22.

The “Yakathon” Adventure (July 9, 2012)

By Pete Williams

The Roper Ranch obstacle course

The Roper Ranch obstacle course

(Published July 9, 2012) – Jonny Simpkins is a big fan of kayaking. As the race director for such popular events as The Highlander adventure run, he hears from a lot of would-be triathletes who are intimidated by swimming.

So he created the YAKathon adventure race, which debuts Saturday (July 14) at the Roper Ranch in Clermont. Instead of swimming, athletes will kayak nearly a mile before biking off road 6.2 miles and finish by trail running roughly three miles. They’ll also run an additional mile since the transition area/start and kayak launch are about a half-mile apart.

Athletes can bring their own kayaks or use one of the 50 that will be provided. Simpkins says those of us who want to bring a stand-up paddleboard instead of kayaking are welcome to do so. A field of 250 or so is expected. (Athletes go off in waves so there will be plenty of kayaks.)

“I like putting on different races and I’m hearing from both triathletes and people interested in adventure racing,” Simpkins says. “It’s going to be tough, but it’s also going to be a lot of fun.”

Simpkins has a background in motocross racing and endurance sports. He’s also owned an irrigation company for years. Those were good qualifications to launch Rock On Adventures, which debuted last year with The Highlander, one of the more popular Florida-based adventure runs.

yakathonlogo_smSimpkins staged The Highlander twice at a facility in Bartow but opted to move to the Roper Ranch and expand his offerings to include the Yakathon and the zombie-themed Monster Bash Dash, which debuted in May and will be back on Oct. 27. The third edition of The Highlander takes place at Roper Ranch on Sept. 22.

By using the same sprawling property for all of his events, Simpkins can overlap some of the courses. The run leg for the YAKathon, for instance, will incorporate some of the Monster Bash Dash course, including some of that race’s minor obstacles. A recent tornado took down a couple of trees on the course, which add to the challenge.

The YAKathon begins at 8 a.m. with waves of 50 every half hour. Simpkins recommends participants bring plenty of water and two pairs of shoes in case they get wet during the kayak leg. Like a triathlon, athletes will have a transition area where they can set up bikes, water, food, towels, and changes of shoes. He says most athletes will take about two hours.

“With just 250 athletes, this will be a very well-organized event that I think athletes really are going to enjoy,” Simpkins says. “Endurance athletes are always looking for something new and I’d be surprised if we didn’t have double the field next year.”

The Ultimate Obstacle Race (Dec. 7, 2011)

Our ultimate obstacle race, unlike this Tough Mudder in Pennsylvania, would not include ice. (Photo courtesy Tough Mudder)

Our ultimate obstacle race, unlike this Tough Mudder in Pa., would not include ice. (Photo courtesy Tough Mudder)

By Pete Williams

(Published Dec. 7, 2011) – We’ve devoted a lot of space this year to coverage of obstacle races – and with good reason. Just two years ago, the category consisted of little more than the national Muddy Buddy race series and a few regional events.

In 2011, there were more than 30 events in Florida alone. National series such as Tough Mudder and Spartan Race have developed cult-like followings, to the point where each likely will gross more than $50 million in 2012. That’s amazing considering neither debuted until the spring of 2010. Tough Mudder staged 14 events this year and will put on 44 next year, some internationally. Spartan Race, a spin-off of the legendary Death Race in Vermont, is showing similar growth.

It seems every week another mud run is launched. Florida leads the nation in mud runs because of our year-round warm weather and huge population of endurance athletes accustomed to pushing their limits, acting silly, and wearing little.

Yesterday a friend suggested we launch a mud run series. That’s a lot to tackle and, besides, sooner or later there will be a shakeout in this category. But it got me thinking about what I would include in an obstacle mud run.

An ice plunge is a must

An ice plunge is a must

I competed in six events this year: Tough Mudder, Spartan Race, Savage Race, Highlander, and two Muddy Buddy races. I also attended the Spartan Death Race in Vermont, the toughest and perhaps most insane event on the planet. That’s only a fraction of the three dozen races around the country, but it’s a good representation of events in terms of size and degree of difficulty, especially here in the Sunshine State.

Golf writers are forever creating their fantasy 18-hole course, taking holes from Augusta, Pebble Beach, St. Andrews and other classic courses. Why not take the best of various mud runs and add a few of our ideas?

Here then is our Ultimate All-Star Obstacle Mud Run

DATE: Mid-November, 2012. That’s ideal weather here in Florida, which this year extended into early December for Tough Mudder. It could be cold in either instance, but we’re more likely to have that high-of-72 day in mid-November.

VENUE: We loved Little Everglades Ranch for Tough Mudder. The Clermont facility used by Savage Race also has its strengths and we liked the rolling terrain of the Bartow property Highlander used. We could go with any of them and there no doubt are other ranches and facilities that will jump into the mix for 2012 races. We’ll keep it closer to Tampa, preferably in Pasco County.

DISTANCE: Ten miles. A good round number not associated with any other race. It’s long enough to be challenging and include enough challenges.

OBSTACLES: Twenty. Anything more can become repetitious. This does not count the many shorter dashes through mud and swamp (a la Tough Mudder) or ducking under ropes and through mazes in the woods (Highlander).

We like weighted carries

We like weighted carries

RACE OR NO RACE? We like Tough Mudder’s team-oriented, finish-together philosophy, but we’re going to chip time this and implement time penalties for obstacles that can’t be completed. We’ll also provide bonus opportunities to slash minutes off your time.

COSTUMES? Absolutely. We’ve been known to encourage nude running, so anything goes here. We’ll take a page from Muddy Buddy and leave time for a pre-race costume judging with real prizes.

PRE-RACE: We liked the bagpipes at Highlander, but we have to go with the hilarious 10-minute pre-race instructions and pep talk given by the guy at Tough Mudder.

OBSTACLE #1 – This by necessity has to be something simple because the waves of athletes haven’t thinned out. The Highlander’s initial rapid-fire series of 20-foot dirt mounds goes here.

OBSTACLE #2 – We heard some complaints at Tough Mudder from the CrossFit crowd that the race didn’t require enough brute strength, WOD kind of stuff. Fair enough. After running a mile, we’re going to grab large rocks and perform non-stop squats for six minutes. Be glad this isn’t The Death Race. They had to do it for six hours.

OBSTACLE #3Muddy Buddy Miami had a wacky inflatable you plunged through head first. The danger, obviously intended, was coming through it face-planted into the rear end of the person in front of you. I lucked out with the woman in front of me but obviously this could have been a disaster, which is just the point.

OBSTACLE #4Tough Mudder’s Chernobyl Jacuzzi. Perhaps the most feared obstacle in the industry, it’s best to get this plunge into a dumpster full of ice water early, especially if you’ve got a bad taste in your mouth from the previous obstacle.

The mandatory mud barbwire crawl

The mandatory mud barbwire crawl

OBSTACLE #5 – It’s time for the mandatory commando crawl through mud under barbwire. Most every event has this but Spartan Race seems to have the best (or rather worst) combination of thick, manure-smelling mud and low-slung wire. Like the Spartan Race, this obstacle will be L-shaped, requiring a sharp turn.

OBSTACLE #6Tough Mudder’s Dirty Holes – a 150-yard slog through the swamp where you dip two feet with every other step. No, there are no gators here.

OBSTACLE #7 – Now that you’re shoes are hopelessly caked with mud, it’s time for the Balance Beam. We’ll use the Spartan Race zig-zagging version, short and just a foot off the ground. But we’ll also go with the Spartan Race penalty: Fall off the beam and do 30 Burpees.

OBSTACLE #8 – Get Paddled. The Savage Race had a stand-up paddleboard rental outfit giving free demos after the race at a lake along the course. We’re going to make it part of the race. Grab a board, along with a paddle, and navigate a four-buoy, half-mile course. (This does not count as part of the 10-mile distance.) If you fall of your board do 30 Burpees when you get back to shore.

The SUP obstacle

The SUP obstacle

OBSTACLE #9 – Climbing Walls. We liked Tough Mudder’s tall Berlin Walls that required most people to take a team approach to get over. But we’re going to go with Spartan Race’s shorter series of walls – 6-foot, 7-foot, 8-foot – and requirement that you go at it alone or face 30 Burpees. We’ll provide a peg for shorter women. Like the Spartan Race, we’ll also have volunteers stationed as hecklers. (Recommendation: Don’t wear tri shorts like I did.)

OBSTACLE #10 – Target practice. This is from the Spartan Race’s June event at a paintball field in Northern Virginia. Here you’ll crawl on your forearms under a thin tarp as a sniper with a machine gun pelts you with paintballs. Hey, these events are supposed to be inspired by the military, right?

OBSTACLE #11 – The Forrest Gump. We’re amazed nobody has incorporated our favorite endurance hero into an obstacle mud run. Now that you’ve come out from under fire, you have to grab either a 100-pound sack or a smaller fellow competitor and carry it fireman’s style 50 yards to the base of the lake. Run it back to where you started and head back to the lake, where you’ll find a table of chocolates and cases of Dr. Pepper. Ten minutes deducted from your time if you eat an entire box or drink nine Dr. Peppers.

OBSTACLE #12 – We’re going to spend some time in the water here. First you perform Tough Mudder’s Ballshrinker obstacle, where you pull yourself backward along a zipline while mostly emerged in water. After you get off the Ballshrinker, you dip under a series of Highlander-inspired nets to reach shore.

OBSTACLE #13 – We call this one Deliverance since you’ll be dealing with a log. Taking a page from this year’s Death Race, you’ll come back to shore, grab a log and throw it in the lake. (Don’t hit any of the Ballshrinker crowd.) Next we’re going to test your claustrophobia by crawling through narrow tubes. But don’t think Tough Mudder. We’re going through a muddy creek and under an actual road through a dark culvert a la the Death Race. When you get out, head back into the lake and find your log – or any log. If it’s not floating, it’s time to dive and find it.

The Savage rope ladder wall

The Savage rope ladder wall

OBSTACLE #14 – We’ve been out here more than an hour and have yet to climb a massive rope ladder wall. We like the one from Savage Race. We’ll also do the Highlander’s climb over a boulder lined with tires.

OBSTACLES #15-16: We’re combining Tough Mudder’s “Walk the Plank” (jump from a 15-foot platform) with the Savage Race’s 150-yard swim loop. You must walk the plank. If you can’t swim, you make a quick doggy-paddle to shore, perform 30 Burpees, and take a 10-minute penalty, along with information on enrolling in a Masters swim program. We’ll have an area to discard your shoes, either temporarily or permanently if you wish to do the rest of the race barefoot. Like Tough Mudder, we’ll donate them.

OBSTACLE #17: Rolling in the Hay. We’ll climb Tough Mudder’s massive hay bale pyramid. After that, it’s on to the Tough Mudder-inspired obstacle featuring five hay bales spaced four feet apart. You must complete this Wipeout-style, broadjumping between bales. Fall off? Thirty Burpees. We’ll also work the Spartan Race into this obstacle. Pick up a javelin and aim for that hay bale 20 feet away. If you miss, yep, 30 Burpees.

The Tough Mudder "ballshrinker," shown here in New England, is a crowd pleaser (Courtesy Tough Mudder)

The Tough Mudder “ballshrinker,” shown here in New England, is a crowd pleaser (Courtesy Tough Mudder)

OBSTACLE #18: Home stretch now as we leap over three rows of Savage Race-inspired lit Duraflame logs. (Thirty seconds off your time if you tossed your shoes at Walk the Plank). Time now to climb a hill; this might be Florida, but there’s actually a hill like this at Highlander. Run a short loop before climbing the Muddy Buddy wall and maneuvering through the mudpit.

OBSTACLES #19-20: You’re caked in mud but standing before you at the edge of a hill are the Spartan Race’s band of roided up meatheads dressed in crimson. They’re wielding mallets but it’s up to you to bull rush past them and plunge down the Highlander’s 150-foot waterslide. You pass under a giant finish-line inflatable arc and race clock before flopping into the temporary pool. One minute taken off your time for each Spartan you drag down with you.

Race Preview: The Highlander (July 18, 2011)

By Pete Williams

High land in Florida? You bet.

High land in Florida? You bet.

(Published July 18, 2011) – It’s not easy standing out in the cluttered, competitive field of obstacle mud runs. As we chronicled last week, there now are 17 companies promoting 22 such events this year – and that’s just in Florida.

Jonny Simpkins didn’t even decide to stage a race until competing in the Warrior Dash in Lake Wales in January. But his Highlander race, which debuts on Saturday (July 23) in Bartow, might just be the dark-horse hit of 2011.

Simpkins, who has a long background in both endurance sports and motocross racing, has found a unique piece of property, a tract of several thousand acres that’s never been used for endurance events – just a few off-road motocross events. There’s plenty of water and, in an unusual Florida twist, terrain of varying elevations.

Simpkins says the race, put on by his Rock On Adventures company, will be challenging enough but not overly difficult. One difference between the Highlander and other races is that the obstacles aren’t temporary; Simpkins has permission to leave them up for a proposed second race in October. That means the obstacles can be more substantive than those presented by some of the national obstacle run tours that have rolled through the Sunshine State this year.

Plus, the event is billed as more of a family event. Spectators can see more than 75 percent of the 3-mile and 6-mile courses from raised terrain and take free hayrides to witness the rest of it. Plus the event will coincide with the Highland Games, a celebration of Celtic culture featuring bagpipes, kilts, and the type of endeavors you might see in strongman competitions.

“I didn’t want to put on just another fire-jumping, beer-drinking mud race,” Simpkins says. “I want to be know as the Highlander – a fun Scottish-themed event that you’re not afraid to bring your family to. There’s nothing wrong with beer-drinking races – and we have beer – but that’s not the emphasis.”

HighlanderLogo2Name of Race: The Highlander

History: Debuts on Saturday, July 23, 2011 in Bartow

Format: Three-mile and six-mile obstacle runs consisting of man-made and natural obstacles of mud and stone, dirt and water.

Amenities: T-shirts (with registration), lots of food and beverages available for purchase.

Signature Feature: Steep 150-foot waterslide plunge into muddy water

Projected Turnout: 500-plus

Cost: Very affordable compared to others in the category for (now expired) early bird registration, which started at $45. Race still a good value at $70 for the three-miler or $75 for the six-miler. Online registration ends today (July 18). Race day registration available.

Sign-Up: Online HERE