Tag Archives: Rock On Adventures

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 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.

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.”



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.




Jonny Simpkins: The Unlikely Obstacle Race Promoter

By Corrie Seabrook

SimpkinsIn just two years, Jonny Simpkins has gone from being the owner of an irrigation company to an organizer of major obstacle racing events.

Simpkins, 50, is owner of Rock On Adventures, which rapidly has become a player in the competitive world of obstacle race promoting. Not bad for a guy whose closest foray into endurance sports for many years was motorcycle racing.

The Davenport, Florida, native, who now lives in Orlando, dominated the sport as a teenager and event at age 37 finished third in all of Florida.

“If it didn’t have a motor, I wasn’t on it,” says Simpkins, who with his usual wraparound sunglasses bears a passing resemblance to the late Dale Earnhardt, without the surly attitude.

Simpkins’ oldest brother, Tim “Superman” Simpkins was an avid runner. For every race, he dressed in all sorts of costumes. He became known as Superman because that was his favorite outfit to wear during competitions. At age 46, Tim passed away from lung cancer. In honor of his brother, Simpkins decided to run a race.

Athletes navigate a challenge at Highlander III in September.

Athletes climb an obstacle at Highlander in September.

Simpson marvels at his unlikely transition.

“Tim’s laughing when he looks down on me seeing me getting 1,500 people to run when he couldn’t get me to run a mile,” Simpkins says.

His first race was the Warrior Dash in January 2011 in Lake Wales, Fla. It was the first major obstacle race series to come to the Sunshine State. As Simpkins took in the sights and sounds of the event, he thought, “I can get land to put on a race.”

Having already owned a business for so many years, Simpkins looked at the logistics of creating fitness events. He and his longtime girlfriend, Wendy Carson, spent much of the next six months handing out thousands of yellow race card flyers the size of business cards at races throughout Central Florida to promote “The Highlander Adventure Run.”

HighlanderJumpThe race debuted in Bartow, Fla., in July of 2011 and returned to that venue three months later for Highlander II. The events were an immediate hit. Simpkins put his irrigation skills to work, creating numerous water obstacles. There was a live band, a kids’ race, and bagpipe players to round out the Celtic theme. Unlike most endurance races that hand out baggie T-shirts cluttered with sponsor logos, Simpkins delivered soft, fitted Tultex T-shirts with only a few sponsor emblems.

Athletes loved the Dover property, but Simpkins wanted a permanent home where he could set up obstacles permanently, a venue more centrally located to athletes throughout Central Florida. Last year he set up shop near Orlando at Roper Ranch.

By then, The Highlander had become “Rock On Adventures,” a company that put a new spin on obstacle racing. Simpkins made the company purely family friendly. He recognized that the major racing organizations were missing two things.

“One, kids are the future and a lot of parents want to include their kids, and two, they are missing the spectators,” Simpkins said.

Highlander2In order to fill that gap in the fitness world, Simpkins created events for children and spectators alike. He understood that if kids grow up participating in these races, they would be inclined to continue into adulthood. Unlike other race directors, Simpkins did not charge for spectators or for parking, encouraging non-participants to come out and witness the spectacle.

“As soon as they pull in to the property they can see all of the obstacles because they stand out in bright blue,” Simpkins said.

He also has given the viewers a few obstacles to conquer while they wait for their friends and families to finish. There are mini-obstacles such as the Ninja Steps and the Boulder Dash, with more to come. This underutilized approach of including these two groups – kids and spectators – at racing events has set Rock On apart from its competitors.

Carson, Simpkins

Carson, Simpkins

This year alone, Simpkins will put on 16 races, including two more Highlander events, the zombie-themed Monster Bash Dash, and a second-annual YAKathon, a spin on triathlon involving kayaking, mountain biking, and running.Highlander IV, which takes place March 16, will have a whopping 50-plus obstacles. There also are plans for “The Extreme Intimidator,” a longer version of the Highlander, in July.

Rock On has expanded its races to appeal to a variety of athletes. The organization’s themed events allow participants to dress up, run in fear, and hope to not get caught. Events such as Hot Pursuit 5K which features jail cells, criminals and cops and the Running Dead 5K have captured the eyes of fitness lovers and the media.

Simpkins even hosts Geocaching events called “Rock the Booty,” which are scavenger hunts that have participants find treasures by using GPS coordinates. The difference between Rock the Booty and typical Geocaching events is that Simpkins put trinkets in the box as opposed to codes.

These events are “starting to appeal to people because there’s nothing else quite like it,” Simpkins said.

HighlanderTiresSimpkins not only runs Rock on Adventures with Carson, but also offers help to other race directors, frequently working other events on his off-road vehicle. He is working on a new wrinkle on obstacle racing he’ll announce within the next two months.

“It will completely change how obstacle races are done,” Simpkins said.

Simpkins also has found time to dial up his own training. He runs in Orlando with Track Shack, completing track workouts two days a week and one long run. His personal goal is to run a 5K in 20 minutes or less.

Simpkins’ goal for the company has always been to get families off the couch and later expand throughout Florida and into Georgia.

“We’re like the tortoise in The Tortoise and the Hare,” he said. “We are slowly getting there and expanding.”


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.”

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

Highlander III: Mud, Mud, and More Mud (Sept. 22, 2012)

By Pete Williams

WINTER GARDEN, Fla. – (Published Sept. 24, 2012) – Somewhere in the second mile of Saturday’s Highlander Adventure Run, slogging through waist-deep, black, barnyard-smelling mud yet again, I began to wonder which direction the booming obstacle race category is headed.

The zipline was one of several new Highlander obstacles

The zipline was one of several new Highlander obstacles

Is it progressing more toward the obstacle race (Spartan Race) model or the mud run (Tough Mudder) experience?

The difference might not be noticeable if you haven’t done a number of these events in the last year. It’s been just 11 months since the last Highlander was staged and it’s remarkable how much the category has evolved, and not just in the countless number of events that have sprung up in the Sunshine State. There were nine flyers for upcoming races left on my windshield.

HighlanderTiresJonny Simpkins and Wendy Carson of Rock On Adventures have done a terrific job growing The Highlander Run and I lost track of the many obstacles and challenges around the six-mile course at the YMCA Roper Ranch. They’ve taken advantage of making the property their permanent home and it showed.

Rock On did have some water issues, which Simpkins was quick to point out in person post-race and by apologizing profusely online. They ran out of drinking water on the course and water for the post-race showers, which was to have come from clean well water. That malfunctioned, leaving athletes to shower with dirty water from one of the water obstacles.

Simpkins has pledged that won’t happen again and has earned the benefit of the doubt for putting together another solid race (along with the Yak-a-Thon, Monster Bash Dash, and the TGIF Twilight 5K) that included beautiful light-blue Tultex T-shirts, organized registration, no parking fees, a cool kids race, and perhaps the best combination of obstacles we’ve seen yet.

Walking the plank

Walking the plank

There were multiple sand bag carries, a tire carry, zipline, 12-foot leap into water, monkey bars, rope climbs, numerous walls, going over and around trees, and a few creative touches that seemed right out of the county fair: running/jumping in a burlap sack and walking bent over on wooden shoes attached with short rope handles.

It was hard to avoid the county fair smell, of course, and we can’t recall an event with so many mud crossings and crawlings. The most challenging was carrying a sandbag through waist deep mud for 30 yards, a death slog made even more difficult if you weren’t wearing toe shoes.

Which brings us back to the obstacle race/mud run debate. There’s no question mud is a main attraction to these events. That’s what produces the money-shot Facebook photos that have driven this category ever since Tough Mudder and Warrior Dash broke out early in 2010. Long before those races, Muddy Buddy delivered a similar experience with its race-ending under-barbwire crawl to the finish line.

But if you’re looking to run fast (or relatively fast, anyway), getting bogged down in mud more than a couple times can get frustrating. Joe Desena, creator of Spartan Race, is quick to point out that his event is not a mud run and, indeed, Spartan generally only has one or two mud-related obstacles in its events. (Of the dozen events I’ve done, nothing has kicked my ass like Spartan, though that has a lot to do with 30-Burpee penalties.)

Desena thinks obstacle racing will evolve into a competitive sport, perhaps even an Olympic one, but he thinks it’s about the physical challenge. Tough Mudder founder Will Dean, who tends to throw more mud into the mix, sees it as a group bonding experience and does not issue timing chips or even score the race.

Which is it? It’s both, of course, and perhaps Highlander managed to be all things to all people.

For now, more mud is the better marketing strategy to lure first-time participants. Tough Mudder, after all, draws more athletes than Spartan Race.

Still smiling after all that mud

Still smiling after all that mud

There’s a happy medium and for that look no further than Wipeout. Races might want to think about focusing less on mud and more on water. Last year’s Highlander was held at a different property and Simpkins, who owns an irrigation company, put those skills to good work with a rapid-fire series of obstacles at the end through water that wasn’t that muddy. There were more water obstacles and lakes worked into the mix and a killer 150-foot water slide at the finish line. There was no need to shower before you got home; the mud was washed off already.

HighlanderLogo4The Dirty Foot Adventure Run two weeks ago had only a couple truly muddy obstacles and a 150-yard, race-ending swim to clean you off, though even Dirty Foot fell prey to the Fear Factor mud/muck marketing emphasis with a slog through some nasty slime that didn’t come off quickly.

It’s a fine line to walk and, for now, it seems more mud/muck is the answer. There are a lot of first-time events coming to Florida in the next six weeks, most with “Mud” or “Mudder” in their title. So we’re likely to see even more mud. But we’re guessing the longer term play will be more about obstacles and racing and less about getting stuck in the mud.

Yakking up the Yakathon (July 14, 2012)

By Pete Williams

CLERMONT, Fla. – (Published July 14, 2012) – Maybe it was the kayak segment, the 90-degree heat, the brutal six-mile bike slog through a rolling cow pasture or a 5K run with just enough obstacles.

The run leg of the Yakathon included plenty of obstacles

The run leg of the Yakathon included plenty of obstacles

Whatever the reason, this morning’s debut of the “YAKathon,” a tough kayak-mountain bike-run through the Roper Ranch here just west of Orlando, may have found the happy medium between obstacle racing and triathlon.

Jonny Simpkins and Wendy Carson, who launched their Rock On Adventures company last year with the popular Highlander Adventure Run, have pledged to come up with events that depart from the obstacle run bandwagon that everyone seems intent on jumping onto.

YakathonSo while they’re bringing back The Highlander for a third edition on Sept. 22, moving to the Roper Ranch from last year’s Bartow venue, they’re also coming up with things like the YAKathon, which was unlike anything we’ve attempted.

It began within a half-mile run to the water, where athletes either jumped in one of a flotilla of rental kayaks provided or into one of their own they staged earlier in the morning. The run was just enough to separate the pack – there were six waves of 50, one each half hour beginning at 8 a.m. – to avoid a bottleneck at the launch.


I raced with two of my kilt-clad Running Commando teammates and didn’t think I’d be the only stand-up paddleboarder in the race. It was an interesting experiment to see how a SUP rider fared against a lake full of kayakers over a one-mile loop. The thinking is that kayakers have an advantage with a two-sided paddle; sort of like Darth Maul and his double-bladed light saber matched up against Obi Wan Kenobi.

But I maintained my position in the water and even had a few people suggest I had an advantage, even though my movement was restricted because – and I’m embarrassed to say this – I was wearing a (required) life jacket on a board for the first time in nearly two years of paddling. Personal flotation devices are a sore subject among paddleboarders, who see SUP as more like surfing. In reality, the Coast Guard is right to declare paddleboards vessels and require life jackets and I soon will be purchasing one of the inflatable waist PFDs that will save my life without restricting motion.

It helped that I was paddling my fast YOLO Predator race board, which I could yank out of the water and haul back to transition more quickly than the kayakers could lift their boats. On the other hand, they paddled in shoes and I lost time taking my shoes off in transition before getting on the board and putting them back on before running a half-mile back to the bikes.

Perhaps Vibram Five Fingers would have been the happy medium, though I hate to think what it would have been like pedaling 6.2 miles in them. Simpkins and his crew mowed a path through the pastures and I’ve never been on a better marked course in any off-road race, with hundreds of red directional arrows. But navigating a bike over rolling terrain consisting mostly of grass over sand was challenging. The closest thing to a hard surface was an occasional brief grassy strip of packed-down dirt.

In theory, the YAKathon was comparable to a sprint triathlon, though I’ve never felt more sluggish getting off a bike and heading out on a 5K run. Simpkins took us out on a reverse version of the course he laid out for the Monster Bash Dash 5K, the zombie-themed run he debuted in May and will bring back Oct. 27. There were countless minor obstacles – low-lying branches, fences, 3-4 foot walls, and a series of obstacles over the last 200 yards.

Yakathon4I finished in 1:42:13, which is 30-35 minutes slower than a sprint triathlon time. I cramped up on the run, something that only happens in longer triathlons. There were plenty of water stops, but I didn’t take my pre-race hydration seriously enough.

Lesson learned. The YAKathon is a serious challenge, one non-swimmers and triathletes will enjoy. We’re pumped to see what Simpkins and Carson come up with for The Highlander in September. By hosting all of their events in one sprawling venue convenient to Tampa and Orlando, they can overlap courses and obstacles, giving them something of a homefield advantage.

Rock On Adventures was among the first to give out the soft, fitted Tultex T-shirts, and they delivered another a great shirt to go with a promising race.

We’re looking forward to next year.