Monthly Archives: December 2011

Top 10 Endurance Sports Florida Stories of 2011

By Pete Williams

Tough Mudder's infamous "Chernobyl Jacuzzi"

When we launched Endurance Sports Florida in January, we had a pretty good idea that running and triathlon would be a significant part of our coverage. We could not have anticipated the impact sports such as obstacle mud runs and stand-up paddleboarding would have in the Florida endurance world.

So as we look back at the Year in Florida Endurance Sports, it’s perhaps no surprise that the top 10 stories reflect the growth and diversity of an industry in a state that arguably has more endurance sports options than any in the country.

#10 – Introduction of the Tultex T-shirt

Fashion trend of 2011?

We’re not sure who first introduced (or resurrected) the idea of the soft, fitted, blended T-shirt this year, but we’re all for it. Two new obstacle mud runs – Highlander and Savage Race – gave them out, as did the Autumn Fest 5K in Safety Harbor. We even printed Tultex for the second-annual Caliente Bare Dare 5K in October. At a time when athletes are bored with cotton and tech, Tultex is a welcome addition. Anyone who thinks T-shirt related news does not belong in a stories-of-the-year list does not know endurance athletes.

#9 – Participation Up, Spectating Down

Spending more time at the beach

Maybe it’s because Florida’s professional and college football teams are all in the tank at the moment, but the continuing boom in endurance sports seems to coincide with a decline in interest in and attendance at big-time spectator sports. We have a theory on this, and it’s one that some college sports management class should investigate. When the economy went south in 2008, Floridians looked at their suddenly depleted finances and realized, “I’m paying how much for sports tickets? I need to take charge of my health and finances and if I’m going to pay $75 for a couple hours of entertainment, I want to have a sense of accomplishment about it. I want to come out of it feeling great physically, not like I just inhaled nasty processed food and expensive beer.”

Even the Tampa Bay Rays, who generally have played well since the economy crashed, have struggled to draw in this bad economy. But all areas of endurance sports have experienced spectacular growth. Is there a connection? Sure seems like it.

#8 Pasco County – Endurance Sports Mecca

Pasco County is known for many things: sprawling growth during the real estate boom, hot-air ballooning, sky-diving, nudist clubs, Jim Courier, Saddlebrook Resort. It’s had a foothold in the endurance sports world for years between the Longleaf Triathlon, Rattlesnake Run, and Dances with Dirt. Central Florida cyclists flock to San Antonio since it’s one of the few places in the area with hills and the Caliente Bare Dare 5K in Land O’Lakes is now two years old. But Pasco put itself on the endurance sports map in 2011 by landing Tough Mudder, which with nearly 20,000 athletes during a December weekend became the biggest endurance event ever in the greater Tampa Bay area. Don’t be surprised to see Pasco host more larger endurance events, especially with the proliferation of mud runs and a realization by the part of race directors that greater Tampa has more athletes than Orlando.

Eric Stratman of TNL Tampa leads a mud run training program

#7 – CrossFit: Meet Endurance

A year ago, you’d rarely see “CrossFit” and “endurance” in the same sentence. CrossFit athletes were viewed as bodybuilders with a bit of a gymnastics bent and the endurance crowd a bunch of spindly folks who never picked up a weight. But fueled in no small part by the obstacle mud run phenomenon, the two groups have met in the middle, recognizing that an integrated program of interval running and mix-it-up strength work might be the best formula for building a high-performance body, to say nothing of an attractive one. Obstacle mud runs such as Tough Mudder and Spartan Race have shrewdly aligned themselves with CrossFit programs, many of which like TNL Tampa now offer mud run-specific training programs. Runners and triathletes have embraced such training and the existing CrossFit demographic has discovered the benefits of interval running.

#6 Triathlon Dropoff?

Race directors around the state reported a 10 percent dropoff in entries this year. We’re not sure if that’s a reflection on the economy (unlikely if it didn’t happen in 2009-10), oversaturation of events (probably), or the popularity of newer endurance pastimes like obstacle mud runs and stand-up paddleboarding (possibly). Whatever the reason, the unbridled growth of triathlon in the last five years seems to be leveling off.

Triathlon: Still on the rise?

Triathlon is a sport with a high churn rate, dependent on a constant influx of newcomers. Mud runs, which don’t require bicycles or swim ability, are more accessible. And though endurance sports have been mostly recession proof in a state hit harder than most by the economy, there’s no question Florida’s slow economy is playing an impact.

We’re still bullish on triathlon, but as with any endurance sports category, competition in triathlon is fierce. The most ambitious newcomer is HITS, a group of equestrian promoters who will stage a national series – including events in Naples and Ocala – featuring triathlons of four distances (including iron) in the same weekend.

Just another sign that the triathlon pie, whether shrinking or not, will be carved into more pieces in 2012.

Florida SUP races draw pros like Annabel Anderson

#5 Stand-up Paddleboard Racing

A year ago, there were only a handful of “SUP” races in Florida. Now it’s possible to find one most every weekend from April through October. Until Brody Welte moved his StandUp Fitness operation from St. Pete to San Diego, we also had the YOLO Board Winter Race Series. Florida already leads the nation in putting on the most triathlons, marathons, and obstacle mud runs. Now it can claim the lead in SUP events. SUP racing still is a work in progress, however, remaining mostly under the radar. In September, Exclusive Sports Marketing drew just 65 athletes to South Beach for a race it billed as the “U.S. Open of SUP,” with a whopping $35,000 in prize money. Welte built some traction in two years with his Gulf Coast StandUp Paddleboard Championship in Madeira Beach and it will be interesting how he handles the event from the West Coast – of the country. Still, we’re bullish on SUP racing with its modest entry fees, occasional prize money, nice awards and solid post-race food.

#4 Ironman Gets Rusty?

Mixed year for Ironman

Sure, the World Triathlon Corp. still sells out its signature events, including Ironman Florida, in a matter of minutes. But does it seem like the Tampa-based WTC is wandering in the wilderness? Actually, WTC moved out of Disney’s Wilderness for the Ironman 70.3 event in 2012, relocating to Haines City. That’s just one of several head-scratching moves WTC made in 2011. We love Haines City (RIP Boardwalk and Baseball), but that doesn’t seem like the destination event like Disney. Then again, WTC couldn’t draw many athletes to Clearwater for its much-touted, season-ending, inaugural 5150 series event. WTC canceled the would-be Nov. 18 race in October when it couldn’t reach its modest expectations of 800 athletes, the latest sign that the 5150 concept is a misfire. WTC also seems to be chasing every endurance trend, including half-marathons and an aborted mud run series called Primal Challenge. Here in Florida, the St. Anthony’s Triathlon, now officially a WTC-affiliated 5150 event after a long history of sharing personnel, was marred by weather for the third straight year. If WTC was a stock – and don’t think that idea hasn’t been brought up by the private equity group no doubt wondering if they overpaid the Gills family in 2008 just weeks before the economy crashed – it would be Microsoft, still paying handsome dividends but viewed as stodgy and unable to come up with a new hit. Andrew Messick was hired in May as CEO, but thus far it’s business as usual with the M-dot.

#3 Half Marathons Gone Wild

It wasn’t that long ago that race directors had a tough time convincing the City of St. Petersburg that the market could support a half marathon. These days, it’s difficult to find a weekend between late October and mid-March in the Tampa Bay area without such a race. St. Pete, which added Competitor Group’s Rock ‘n’ Roll Half to the calendar for Feb. 12, now has four half marathons. The rest of the state, especially South Florida, also has capitalized on the half marathon phenomenon. We’re not big fans of half marathons, which seem to provide the least in terms of food, cool shirts, swag, and race experience for the money when compared to triathlons, mud runs, trail runs, and stand-up paddleboard races. But there’s no question the half marathon is the sweet spot of the current running boom.

#2 Obstacle Mud Runs

Conquering the Savage Race in August

As recently as 2009, the Muddy Buddy race at Disney’s Wide World of Sports over Mother’s Day weekend was pretty much the only obstacle mud run in Florida. This year, there were more than 40 and the schedule became so packed that Muddy Buddy scrapped its proposed year-end championship in Punta Gorda once Tough Mudder announced plans for its Dade City race the same December weekend. (Muddy Buddy fans still had a late-November race in Miami for the second straight year.)

We’ll see if “OMRs” have staying power or end up being just a fad. For now, they’re drawing runners bored with pounding the pavement, would-be triathletes who don’t want to buy a bike or learn to swim properly, and trail runners, along with the CrossFit and bootcamp crowds. Like running or triathlon, athletes can pick from easy races (Muddy Buddy, Warrior Dash) and difficult ones (Spartan Race, Tough Mudder). The lure of OMRs is challenging both your strength and endurance while acting ridiculous and rolling around like pigs. No wonder so many race directors are jumping into the mud pit.

#1 Tough Mudder

Conquering mud and barbwire at Little Everglades Ranch

As with Oscar-contending films released in December, there might be a tendency to overplay the impact of Tough Mudder’s Florida debut earlier this month. Then again, when nearly 20,000 athletes converged on Little Everglades Ranch in Pasco County, it was confirmation that 2011 was the Year of the Obstacle Mud Run.

Tough Mudder, the biggest OMR, has become the aspirational event for endurance athletes, who post their photos and finisher’s badges on Facebook and wear their campy orange headbands proudly. It’s become cooler to survive Tough Mudder’s Chernobyl Jacuzzi and Electroshock Therapy than complete a triathlon of any distance. And to think, Harvard Business School professors scoffed at Will Dean when he submitted Tough Mudder as a class project during his MBA program. Nobody, they said, would pay an average of $100 to get their butt kicked for two or three hours. Dean launched Tough Mudder in March of 2010, staged 14 races this year and has plans for 44 in 2012. He could clear $100 million in gross revenue, including sponsorship from the likes of Under Armour.

So how has your company fared the last two years?

We actually found Spartan Race more challenging with its 30-Burpee penalties, but there’s no question Tough Mudder is the leader in the category and is taking chunks of the running and triathlon pies. Tough Mudder already has announced a return to the Tampa area Dec. 1-2 and also has plans for 2012 events in Miami and Jacksonville, dates and locations TBA.

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ESF’s Pete Williams on ABC 28 Talking Elastic Power

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Elastic Power, posted with vodpod

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ESF’s Pete Williams on ABC 28 Talking Active Isolated Stretching

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The Ultimate Obstacle Mud Run

By Pete Williams

How would you build a mud run?

We’ve devoted a lot of space at Endurance Sports Florida to coverage of obstacle mud runs – 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 obstacle mud run staple

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).

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.

We'll have costumes and fire at "The Ultimate"

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.

Toughest obstacle?

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.

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.

We're adding paddling to obstacle mud runs

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.

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.

Hope your log floats

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.

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.

Walk the plank, swim 150 yards

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.

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.

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Tough Mudder: The Real Deal

By Pete Williams

Tough Mudder’s infamous Chernobyl Jacuzzi

DADE CITY – We wondered if Tough Mudder possibly could live up to expectations. It’s been nine months since the obstacle mud run announced plans to make its Florida debut in Pasco County this weekend and in the meantime more than two dozen runs have been staged in the Sunshine State, many for the first time.

But Tough Mudder, a Harvard business school project that debuted in March of 2010, showed why it’s the biggest, most imposing, and the most successful race series in the category, drawing a staggering 20,000 athletes over two days for its season-ending event at Little Everglades Ranch in Pasco County.

Veteran race directors say that’s a record for any endurance event in the greater Tampa Bay area, which is saying something given the volume of races we have here. This was the fifth different mud series I’ve done this year and while I’ve enjoyed them all, Tough Mudder stood out in a number of areas.

An easier Tough Mudder obstacle

For starters, it’s the longest at 11.5 miles. It has 28 official obstacles, not counting the endless parade of additional treks through mud and swamp of all depths and distances. Several obstacles were a little overrated, most notably the much-hyped, race-ending “Electroshock Therapy,” but others more than lived up to billing, especially the “Chernobyl Jacuzzi,” where athletes must jump into a giant dumpster packed with ice water – three pallets of ice per dumpster, according to officials – and wade 20 feet to the other side. A different event was billed as the “Ballshrinker,” but Chernobyl was as cold as I’ve ever felt from waist to knees.

The toughest part of Chernobyl was waiting for the people in front of you to get through, which was a recurring theme. With waves of 600 heading out every 20 minutes from 8 a.m. until 1:20 (on Saturday) and 11:20 (today), there were backups at most every obstacle, which is not uncommon at mud runs. Tough Mudder bills itself not as a race but as a team-oriented event and few seemed in any hurry to rush through it all.

Plus, it’s easier to do certain obstacles with help, especially climbing large wooden “Berlin Walls” and “Everest,” a half-pipe requiring a running start and a leap to the top. My favorites were the claustrophobia-inducing tubes and underground tunnels. Points also go to “Walk the Plank” – climbing 15-20 feet to a platform and jumping into more cold water – and “Hold Your Wood,” where you grab a large log and walk a 150 yard-loop through a waist-to-shoulder deep lake. (Loved the fake but realistic looking alligator.)

One obstacle featured bales of hay, about four-feet high, spaced about five feet apart. My group opted to leap over each bale but others thought broad jumping from one to the next was required. Clearly some people have been watching too much Wipeout.

Like most mud runs, Tough Mudder encourages teams to dress in costume and there were plenty of superheroes. With such an all-for-one attitude and leisurely pace, it was easy to meet new friends – and stumble upon old ones.

Climbing Everest

A few ambitious athletes hammered through the course, which was not chip timed or otherwise scored. The rest of us moved at a steady pace, handling the obstacles and enjoying the intense marketing wars between the various obstacle mud runs.

Both the Spartan Race and Savage Race hired airplanes to circle Little Everglades pulling banners touting their upcoming events. Tough Mudder reveled in its status as the longest and perhaps most challenging. Instead of a 3-mile marker, there was a huge banner that read “Warrior Dash Finish Line,” a dig at the national 5K mud run series that draws numbers rivaling that of Tough Mudder.

Tough Mudder, like Spartan Race, claims that only 80 percent of those who start finish the race. My guess is it’s more like 97 percent and the other 3 percent are those carted off with sprains and strains. Obstacle mud races want their events thought of as tough – and for people to train accordingly – but they also want repeat business, to say nothing of additional customers.

I was fortunate to compete as part of a talented five-person team of Pasco County officials and friends. Eric Keaton, John Malley and Charlie Scott brought military experience to Tough Mudder, which incidentally was designed by British Special Forces. Justyna Buszewski, our lone female and smallest competitor, had the easiest time negotiating many of the obstacles.

Tough Mudder won’t be the last national mud runs series to roll through Pasco County, which rapidly is becoming a destination for endurance sports between the popular Longleaf Triathlon, our own Caliente Bare Dare 5K, and numerous other races. Most mud runs have gravitated to greater Orlando and South Florida, but Pasco County has both the facilities and the proximity to the most Florida endurance athletes.

We’re most impressed with how Tough Mudder creates the bad-ass vibe better than anyone in the industry. Remarkably, dozens of athletes took advantage of free mohawks. Others went for the on-site Tough Mudder tattoo and nearly 100 percent of athletes followed through on what I at first thought was a joke: writing your five-digit race number on your forehead. The signature orange finisher’s headband is better than any medal. And I don’t know the name of the guy Tough Mudder uses as the pre-race emcee, but I want him at my next party.

Props also for numerous water stops.

Team Pasco celebrates

Tough Mudder also addressed my mud run pet peeve: inadequate post-race food. Sure, most of it was for sale, but you could load up in the finish chute on EAS Myoplex, Clif bars, energy drinks, and bananas. Volunteers all but encouraged you to use your race T-shirt – delivered at the finish – as a bag.

Tough Mudder, which staged 14 events this year, has announced plans for a whopping 44 races in 2012, including a return to the Tampa Bay area (Dec. 1-2) and dates to be announced for Jacksonville and Miami.

We’re wondered frequently on this site how many mud run events the industry can sustain and which events will last. At the moment, Tough Mudder looks like the leader in the mud pit.

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