By Pete Williams
LAKE WALES, Fla. – We thought this would be the year the bubble burst for Warrior Dash, the entry-level 5K obstacle mud run with the easy course, costumed runners, fuzzy warrior helmet prize, and raucous post-race party.
With Tough Mudder and especially Spartan Race angling for the more competitive athletes and numerous other events sprouting up to take a piece of the action, it seemed like Warrior Dash might be the next Muddy Buddy, a too-easy race that would fade into third-tier race irrelevance.
But if the 9,000 or so athletes that showed up here at the 421.6-acre Triple Canopy Ranch — which, by the way, can be yours for $3.2 million – are any indication, there still are quite a few folks looking for their inaugural mud run experience.
We’ll use the term “run” loosely as we came across numerous people walking a mile into the course. Warrior Dash isn’t known for its tough obstacles and race organizers eliminated a few from last year’s course, including a minor swim challenge through chilly water. At times the biggest obstacle was navigating around the many walkers from previous waves clogging the course.
With waves of 500-plus people, Warrior designed the course to break up the crowd, kicking off the race with essentially a one-mile run broken up by a couple minor obstacles: a cargo net crawl and a series of four wall climbs. Balance beams were a big part of this year’s Warrior Dash, including one clever challenge where cold water (this was Feb. 2, after all) was poured on you from above.
Warrior’s best obstacle, a towering combination wall/cargo net that appeared near the end of the course, generated backups of 20 to 30 minutes. I left with a friend in the 1:00 wave and skipped the obstacle while he waited. I finished at 1:26, got back in line for the 1:30 wave, ran past the backed up obstacle again as he finally got through, and we finished at the same time – 1:57.
Warrior Dash, owned by Chicago-based Red Frog Events, does many things better than anyone, including attracting the youngest and most gender-balanced demographic. Even with 9,000 people coming off a two-lane road into Triple Canopy, there were no parking backups. Packet pickup and (free) bag check are always a breeze. The fuzzy helmet is always a crowd pleaser. After delivering the best obstacle race T-shirt of 2012, Warrior is the early leader again with a soft, fitted shirt – a lighter gray than last year. They added the best post-race photo op: a massive Warrior Dash logo perfect for positioning a team on. And in what might be an obstacle racing first, Warrior actually had real showers set up.
Tough Mudder has upgraded its post-race party, but Warrior remains the leader in that category, too, which makes sense for an event that can seem more like a Renaissance Festival with a brief race as a sideshow. Speaking of window dressing, Warrior Dash does a terrific job with its black-and-red branding throughout the main party area, though you’d never know whom the race belonged to out on the course.
If Warrior Dash managed to maintain last year’s numbers, which were 9,000 over two days, it’s an impressive accomplishment in a flooded market. When Warrior made its Florida debut here two years ago, there were few races. At least three Florida-based events – Savage Race, Highlander, and Mud Crusade – grew out of that 2011 Warrior when participants thought they could do it better.
Savage and Superhero Scramble chartered planes to fly advertising over Triple Canopy Ranch. There’s far more competition than in 2011, though we found it curious that only Mud Endeavor and American Mud Race papered cars with flyers – as opposed to a dozen or so events last year.
Maybe online marketing is working for everyone. Warrior Dash offered deep discounts to those who registered early and in recent weeks national tours such as Spartan Race and Rugged Maniac have gone the Living Social route to boost numbers at some of their events.
Nobody will accuse Warrior Dash of being the toughest race in the field. But like any crowded market, it’s often the product that delivers the best customer service and overall experience that’s the most popular.
For many people, especially novice and not-so-serious runners, that event is Warrior Dash.