By Pete Williams
It was one of the biggest endurance events in Central Florida history, a smooth, well-received event that signaled the boom in obstacle mud racing.
Much has changed since December of 2011. Tough Mudder still puts on a terrific show. Its 11.5-mile event here at the Homestead Miami Speedway Saturday and Sunday was the best of the four Tough Mudders we’ve done, including last week’s Tough Mudder Arizona near Phoenix.
Some suggest obstacle course racing is just a fad and, if that’s the case, we might look back at 9:12 a.m. on Sunday, March 3 as the point where the industry officially became saturated, at least in Florida. That’s when a Tough Mudder announcer urged all athletes to get to the starting line for the “last wave of the day at 9:30.”
Wow. Just two waves needed to handle what looked like a total of just 1,500 runners for Sunday. This after The Miami Herald reported a crowd of 4,200 for Saturday.
Attracting nearly 6,000 athletes for any event is impressive, though far below what Tough Mudder typically draws. Homestead Miami Speedway proved to be an awesome venue for obstacle course racing. Tough Mudder used the infield, the track, and the endless grass-and-gravel parking lots to to create the best course and combination of challenges we’ve come across in any obstacle event to date.
There were the signature challenges, such as the “Arctic Enema,” which came after a 1-mile run to kick off the event out of pit road. (Thankfully running along the banked oval was not required.) There was the “Walk The Plank” drop into 12 feet of water and the run up the “Everest” half pipe.
There was the “Electric Eel,” which rapidly is becoming the most feared challenge in obstacle racing. After barely turning on the electricity in its two previous Florida events, Tough Mudder went full throttle over the weekend. It was impossible not to be painfully jolted a dozen times in the 40-foot crawl. I’d much rather do 30 Burpees than deal with the Electric Eel, though that’s not an option at Tough Mudder. (Actually, athletes are encouraged to skip any obstacle they’re uncomfortable with.)
Tough Mudder also has added some cool challenges, presumably to freshen its brand and to raise the bar for those races that have copied the obstacles listed above. There’s the “Cage Crawl,” an on-your-back slog through water with your ears submerged and only your face against chain-link fence. There’s “Just the Tip,” a lateral fingertip maneuver along wood of various heights, and “Hangin’ Tough,” which requires navigating across five rings. Failing “Just the Tip” or “Hangin’ Tough” resulted in a plunge into water.
Tough Mudder, unlike Spartan Race, generally does not create site-specific obstacles, preferring to plop down its challenges wherever they fit. But this time Tough Mudder added “Drag Queen,” where athletes pulled two heavy tires in a 200-yard loop. Not terribly original, but the tires looked like actual used rubber that came out of the Speedway. It’s quite possible we were dragging Jimmie Johnson and Danica Patrick memorabilia. Athletes also had to navigate the “Devil’s Beard,” a cargo net placed on the outside of the track’s first turn, providing a rare uphill challenge in Florida.
Tough Mudder always has the best window dressing of any event, with its orange branding everywhere and sponsor activation. We were disappointed that the usual emcee, the Chris Rock/Tony Robbins guy, was not in attendance. He deserved a weekend off, presumably, after working Phoenix last week.
Traffic was noooo problem getting into Homestead Miami Speedway, which is accustomed to tens of thousands of NASCAR fans. Police blocked off most of the dozen or so parking entrances to keep drivers from entering parts of the course.
Running as part of the modest crowd on Sunday, I found it refreshing to encounter no lines at obstacles (even in the second and final wave). That’s good for athletes, not so good for Tough Mudder.
Why the lower attendance? Here are a few theories:
THE SARASOTA EVENT: We know plenty of athletes still annoyed at the traffic delays of up to four hours encountered at Tough Mudder Tampa in Sarasota in December. The course was just 10 miles long, the electroshock was turned off, and Tough Mudder did not come close to replicating its initial Florida event at Little Everglades Ranch, where it should have returned in 2012. We know plenty of avid Florida obstacle racers who swore off Tough Mudder after that. We hear Tough Mudder is looking at Little Everglades for its November event, but now that the Pasco facility hosts multiple Savage Races and seems to be the venue of choice for female-only mud runs, will it take Tough Mudder back?
TOUGH SOUTH FLORIDA MARKET: South Florida is a fickle market for sports. Just ask the Miami Marlins. Or the folks at Homestead Miami Speedway, who have a difficult time selling out the modest (by NASCAR standards) 65,000-seat facility for the season-finale race in November. It’s also a tough sell for endurance sports. Competitor Group’s Muddy Buddy race drew poorly during its two years at Zoo Miami (2010-2011) before the obstacle race boom of 2012. Ironman has struggled to build a major event in South Florida. Homestead Miami Speedway is a terrific venue, but it’s a long drive from parts of Broward and Palm Beach counties, let alone elsewhere in the state.
OBSTACLE RACE SATURATION: Tough Mudder scheduled the Homestead event the week after its leading competitor (Spartan Race) appeared at Miami’s Oleta River State Park, where it has established a late-February foothold since 2011. Athletes this year already have had a chance to do the growing Superhero Scramble (also in Miami) and the Warrior Dash (in Lake Wales), along with numerous other events throughout the state. The Merrell Down & Dirty papered cars with flyers for its May 5 race at Zoo Miami. That might be a tough sell.
Of course, there’s also Tough Mudder saturation in Florida. This event came just 90 days after Sarasota. There will be another Tough Mudder May 18-19 east of Jacksonville, and the Tampa area event Nov. 2-3, venue TBA.
Florida, unlike most states, has a number of popular established local events, such as Superhero, Savage Race, The Highlander, and the Dirty Foot Adventure Run. That makes it harder for national events to roll into the Sunshine State; athletes here can race all year long, for less money. In recent weeks, national circuits such as Rugged Maniac, Warrior Dash, and Dirty Girl all generated Florida numbers lower than expected.
It’s no different than running or triathlon. Competitor’s Rock & Roll Half Marathon is a big deal in most parts of the country, but not as much in Florida, where it’s possible to find three or four 13.1-mile races in the state each weekend all winter long. Ditto for triathlon. Ironman, which is based in Tampa, gave up on its 70.3 championship event in its backyard of Clearwater, moving it to Vegas after five years.
Bottom line: It’s difficult to thrive in the most competitive race market in the country, especially against countless local promoters who only work in Florida.
TOUGH MUDDER’s BUCKET LIST MENTALITY: Sure, Tough Mudder has repeat customers. Thousands of them. But there’s more of a one-and-done, bucket list mentality to a run that is not timed and marketed as a team-building event. Get the headband, post the Facebook photo, and move on to the next big thing. Spartan Race, with its smaller numbers, is positioning itself at the center of a growing sport of obstacle racing. We know more people who travel the country doing Spartan Races than Tough Mudders.
Of course, Tough Mudder stages its highly-competitive “World’s Toughest Mudder” and has a huge lead on Spartan Race in international markets, where Tough Mudder has drawn up to 60,000 for two-day events in Australia. It’s also worth noting that Florida is a unique market. Tough Mudder, which did $70 million last year, only now is scheduling first-time events in much of the country this year.
We’re guessing Tough Mudder will execute another pivot to continue to maintain and grow its position against Spartan Race in this competitive mud war. Freshening obstacles is a good start. So is picking venues like Homestead that ensure there won’t be the Woodstock-like traffic tie-ups of last year’s Sarasota and Maryland races.
As for Florida, here’s an idea for 2014. Take a page from NASCAR and make Homestead the venue for the year-end World’s Toughest Mudder. With a racetrack, it’s only a natural to have athletes go around the course for 24 hours. There’s plenty of parking, places to set up camps, and room for unlimited spectators. Who wouldn’t want to come to Miami the first week of December?
Have Homestead market the event during its late-November NASCAR finale. (Then again, there’s not much crossover demographic there. I’m pretty sure I was the only person running yesterday who has been to five NASCAR races in Homestead.)
Like NASCAR, have an early-season event in Florida, perhaps in February near Tampa. Hold no others in the Sunshine State until the World’s Toughest Mudder at Homestead in December of 2014.
Do that and athletes might just race to Homestead to be a part of it.