Monthly Archives: November 2012

Gentlemen, Start Your Tough Mudder

By Pete Williams

Tough Mudder’s notorious ice plunge

Tough Mudder, the popular obstacle mud run, has staged events all over the world, typically in rural areas, ranches and at ski resorts in the summer months.

Now Tough Mudder is coming March 2-3 to Homestead-Miami Speedway, best known as the site for NASCAR’s season finale race, which was held on Sunday.

Tough Mudder has worked with other racetracks, including Raceway Park in Englishtown, N.J., an NHRA venue that hosted the “World’s Toughest Mudder” competition last weekend. In January, Tough Mudder will return for a second year to Phillip Island, a grand prix venue outside of Melbourne, Australia.

Dan Weinberg, Tough Mudder’s director of strategic partnerships, said Homestead-Miami Speedway was chosen because of its vast infrastructure, parking, and experience handling large crowds. Tough Mudder events have attracted up to 30,000 athletes over a two-day period, a fraction of the speedway’s 65,000-seat capacity.

“Racetracks are good fits for us from all aspects,” said Weinberg, who said Tough Mudder is exploring other NASCAR venues for U.S. events. “From parking to concessions to logistics, they make for a great overall fan and participant experience.”

Weinberg said the event layout was still being determined, but said it’s likely the course will go both inside and outside the venue, which is a 45-minute drive south from Miami and just over an hour from Fort Lauderdale. The track is a 1.5-mile oval and the infield includes a man-made lake big enough for swimming. In August of 2011, Homestead-Miami Speedway hosted Olympic-distance and sprint-distance triathlons consisting of a swim in the infield lake, transition in pit road, bike through Homestead, and a run around the golf cart path surrounding the track. The track is surrounded by vast stretches of parking lots and undeveloped areas.

Tough Mudder, at roughly 12 miles, requires only a fraction of that space. The bigger key to the event will be the infrastructure. Since debuting early in March of 2010, Tough Mudder has grown exponentially, with revenue of more than $70 million in 2012. With that has come growing pains, such as a September event near Washington D.C., where massive traffic back-ups and weather caused the cancellation of the event’s second day.

Here in Florida, Tough Mudder had to move its planned Tampa area event from Dirty Foot Adventures in Fort Meade after Polk County officials refused to issue a permit for a 20,000-person event. That event takes place next weekend (Dec. 1-2) at the Hi Hat Ranch in Sarasota.

The Homestead-Miami Speedway race will be Tough Mudder’s first Florida event beyond the greater Tampa Bay/Sarasota area. Tough Mudder debuted in the Sunshine State in December of 2011 at Little Everglades Ranch in Dade City and also has events planned for 2013 in Jacksonville (May 18-19) and at a to-be-determined Tampa site (Nov. 2-3).

Unlike Central Florida, with its many sprawling ranches and thousands of acres of undeveloped land, South Florida has fewer wide-open sites for obstacle races. This year, Spartan Race and Superhero Scramble debuted South Florida events at Oleta River State Park in North Miami. Spartan Race will return to that venue in Feb. 23-24, the weekend before Tough Mudder in Homestead. Superhero Scramble shifts to Amelia Earhart Park, also in Miami, for a Jan. 12 race.

Tough Mudder’s move to a larger sports venue is part of a recent industry trend. Last week Spartan Race staged an event at Boston’s Fenway Park, attracting 8,000 racers over two days to the storied baseball facility.

NASCAR’s Sprint Cup circuit will be in Phoenix the weekend of March 2-3, which will make it impossible for any drivers to participate in Tough Mudder at Homestead. Top drivers Jimmie Johnson and Kasey Kahne posted impressive times at a triathlon in Charleston in July, competing the morning after a NASCAR night race in Daytona Beach.

1 Comment

Filed under Races, Running

Pacifico – Stepping Up the SUP Race Experience

By Pete Williams

Start of Pacifico open race

ST. PETE BEACH – I heard footsteps. Make that splashes. For 77 minutes, I could not shake the paddler behind me at the second-annual Pacifico Paddle Challenge off St. Pete Beach on Saturday afternoon.

Were this a running event or triathlon, I probably would have let him pass. But there was money involved. Not much, just the $25 for third-place in the men’s stock board division of the 4-plus mile “elite” race, enough for me to understand how motivating a little cash can be in an athletic event.

And so I kept paddling. Hard. Stand-up paddling usually is a relaxing way to spend a leisurely afternoon. But when you’re hammering your core, pushing your lactate threshold, and trying to stay balanced on a 29.5-inch wide Yolo Ecotrainer, it’s a wonderful test of pain.

The four-lap technical course featured nine buoy terms per lap, each an opportunity to fall into an increasingly rough surf kicked up by afternoon winds. One fall is enough to lose 20 seconds.

I’ve often wondered why Shane “Waterboy” Webb and other organizers of SUP races feel the need to throw prize money into the mix. Does it attract more prominent athletes? Maybe. What I do know is it makes the race far more interesting for those of will never get any closer to being professionals – and those watching us.

Stand-up paddleboard racing might never be as big or as organized as road racing, triathlon, or obstacle mud racing. But as the second-annual Pacifico Paddle Challenge demonstrated here Saturday afternoon in front of the Postcard Inn, SUP racing is developing into a different race experience than other endurance sports.

Sure, there’s chip timing, T-shirts, various competitive divisions, race numbers, and post-race awards. But if you’re looking for an early-morning, to-the-minute itinerary that gets you home by 11 a.m. like running or triathlon, well, SUP racing might not always be for you.

The first of Pacifico’s four races was scheduled to start at 11 and got underway about 45 minutes later. The 2-plus mile open race was followed at 12:45 by a 4-plus mile elite race, a kids’ race and a relay event. Awards did not kick off until 5:30.

Transitioning – Battle of the Paddle style

And yet the late-morning, island-time mentality – which we’ve seen at other SUP races, too – seems to work for a sport that grew out of the Hawaii and California surf culture and the 125 or so racers and their guests didn’t seem to mind spending a full day (or weekend) around the Postcard Inn, especially with weather right out of a chamber of commerce video.

Webb and co-race director Grace Marcel again created a big-time race atmosphere, with a tent city of sponsors, an announcer’s booth and sound system perched atop scaffolding, 20-foot Pacifico beer inflatables, and a race format inspired by the Battle of the Paddle in California, which is to SUP what Ironman Kona is to triathlon.

On a weekend where the well-heeled Competitor Group debuted its TriRock triathlon amid little fanfare in Clearwater Beach, the Pacifico had perhaps the most big-time feel of any Tampa Bay endurance event. There was $5,000 in cash and prizes, numerous high-ticket raffle items, and the return of the best post-race spread of any endurance event we’ve attended: a pig roast.

SUP also has the best people-watching element of any endurance sport. Some believe SUP is the best workout ever created with its full-body, rotational movements and the way it challenges your balance, core and proprioception in a tough cardio workout. Exhibit A: the chiseled, jacked people you see at a SUP race.

Our friend Karen Mirlenbrink, an accomplished paddler and race director for the annual Shark Bite Challenge at Honeymoon Island, bowed out of the elite race after falling and cracking her board by landing on one side of her rear end. Talk about buns of steel. How many women can crack a board with their glutes? (Pretty good testimony for Karen’s business, Dunedin Pilates.) Unfortunately for me, Karen’s equally accomplished paddling husband decided to jump in the race in my stock board division and collect the $150 first-prize purse, which presumably goes toward Karen’s new board. (Second place received $50.)

Webb, the race director, spent a lot of time pre-race making sure everyone was familiar with the course, a technical, multi-buoy layout that required nine turns per lap — two laps for the open race, four for the elite. Such instructions seemed unnecessary since he provided a terrific pre-race video of the course, something we’d like to see triathlon and obstacle racing emulate.

We love the Battle-of-the-Paddle format, which requires racers to come to the beach after each lap, run 50 yards or so through a chute and then transition quickly back onto the board, which board caddies turn around and place into position. This is SUP’s answer to triathlon’s transition and perhaps gives a bit of advantage to those of us accustomed to the quick turnarounds of triathlon or obstacle racing.

Best post-race food anywhere

Last year I showed up for this event and won $75 by default as the only guy on a stock board — as opposed to a sleeker, faster race board — to complete the elite race. I wondered if prize money was necessary, especially since the $35,000 pot for the one-and-done U.S. Open of SUP in September of 2011 in Miami didn’t attract the crowds.

Last year, I only had to finish to collect cash. Lining up before the race, I could tell there were at least a half dozen guys on stock boards entered. When the horn sounded, two shot out well in front of me. I passed two others and settled into fourth. Early in the first lap, the guy in front of me fell on a buoy turn, giving me an opening to pass.

I spent the rest of the race holding him off. As we came to the beach for each transition, people cheered us on, producing a strange dynamic. As stock board racers, we were near the back of the pack. But as third-place contenders in our division, we still had a shot at money.

By the start of the fourth lap, my shoulders and back were barking. The surf was getting choppy and my opponent closer. On long straightaways, he took a lower path and soon I could see him out of the corner of my eye. If I fell, there was no way I’d regain my lead.

As we rounded the final buoy, he made one last push. All I had to do was get to shore first and run through the finish chute. I paddled as hard as I could to shore, leaped from the board, and chugged up the sand – winning by six seconds. Afterward, my new buddy — 38-year-old Bruce Jones – offered congratulations and mentioned that he quit smoking two years ago and only has been paddling since March. Clearly I have to step up my game.

Webb raised the entry fees of the race from a $45 pre-registration rate last year to $58 this year. That’s still an incredible value considering there were no online entry fees. Plus racers got to compete in a chip-timed event with tech T-shirts and a bonus four-person relay race. Then there was the pig roast and cash to the top three finishers in multiple divisions, including $700 apiece to the men’s and women’s elite winners.

Pacifico winnings

We can’t imagine Webb is making much money on these events. But he seems to be putting a long-term model in place to benefit as the sport grows — as opposed to obstacle races, many of which seem to be pushing the limits on how much they can charge and how little they can provide.

Heck, with multiple SUP races, a pig roast, and cash money involved, who can complain about a schedule that falls behind an hour? We’re guessing we’ll continue to see smaller SUP races spring up, traditional no-frills endurance events that start and finish early. But it’s hard not be bullish on the grander SUP race experience

It’s definitely worth building a weekend around.

6 Comments

Filed under Races, SUP

Hero Rush: No Mud, All Obstacle

By Pete Williams

Sliding start of Hero Rush

OCALA – Hero Rush did not feature monkey bars, balance beams, or cargo nets. There was no funky animal smell, all the more impressive considering the event was held at the Florida Horse Park. Heck, there wasn’t even mud.

And yet, the firefighter-themed obstacle race that staged nine events this year, including the season-ending, 4.7-mile race here Saturday in Central Florida, might be the best overall obstacle experience of the dozen I’ve done.

Perhaps no race – including the Big Three national circuits of Tough Mudder, Spartan Race, and Warrior Dash – does a better job of providing unique obstacles, athletic challenges, and Fear Factor-style discomfort wrapped in a highly-organized, impressively-branded package with no waiting anywhere, along with the most unique race start in the industry.

And in a business notorious for skimping on water and providing no free refreshments post-race, Hero Rush delivers adequate water stops and gives each athlete five dollars of “Hero Dinero” redeemable for food, along with a race bib printed with the name of the event and location. (The Dinero makes the typical $10 parking charge easier to swallow.)

We’ve wondered in recent months if obstacle racing is for real or if it’s just a fad. There’s no question it’s huge right now, drawing 2 million participants in 2012 and providing $50 million-plus in revenue for each of the three biggest race series.

Climbing out of ‘Basement Entrapped’

But there’s also a bucket-list element to these events. Most people tend to do one, enough to get a feel for the obstacles that are fairly similar across the board and to post the mandatory muddy photo on Facebook. The dirty little secret of most of these muddy events is that they’re not nearly as physically challenging as advertised, especially when athletes often end up stopping several times during the race to wait in line for obstacles to become available.

People use the terms “mud run” and “obstacle race” interchangeably, but there’s a difference. Joe Desena, creator of the Spartan Race, bristles when people call his race a mud run. He sees this as a competitive sport, no different than road racing or triathlon, not some untimed slog through the mud.

That’s why we’re betting the long-term survivors in this crowded category will be events like Spartan Race and Hero Rush, which place the emphasis on physical challenges and running, not dealing with one mud obstacle after another.

Hero Rush placed just 17 obstacles in its 4.7-mile course and that was a perfect number. Some events like to cram in as many challenges as possible and limit the running, but we believe the upside to these races long-term is that they test overall athleticism — strength, power, and endurance – – better than ultrarunning, triathlon, or even CrossFit. So they should have a combination of lots of running and strength challenges.

Emerging from ‘Hoarder’s Hell’

From the starting line, it’s clear Hero Rush is a different event. Athletes line up single-file behind one of four staircases. When the siren blares, they ascend about 12 feet and then shimmy down a fire pole. Since timing chips aren’t activated until they cross a touch pad beyond the poles, there’s no advantage to being first in line. (This manages to break up the crowd early and we encountered no wait at any obstacle.)

A different barbwire challenge

Hero Rush includes about 10 challenges unlike any in the industry. This being a firefighting-themed event, there were three obstacles in the dark. In “Mazed and Confused,” you entered a tunnel on hands and knees into the darkness, forced to feel your way through a labyrinth. For those of us prone to claustrophobia, this was brutal. After several dead ends, I finally saw daylight. But it wasn’t really daylight. Instead, it was thick smoke as you emerged under a tarp, which required another 10-yard stumble before clearing.

Foam Adventure

Perhaps the most creative obstacle was “Hoarder’s Hell,” which simulated a hoarder’s house on fire. Athletes climbed a ladder into a second-story structure. Navigating the darkness and smoke, they stumbled over boxes and who-knows-what-else before exiting on the other side for the climb down. “Foam Adventure” required athletes to tunnel through another labyrinth, this time through thick foam.

My favorite obstacle – Staying Alive: CPR Stop – came after what seemed like a mile-long run through the woods. (Hero Rush strung police tape around all trees on the course, making it impossible to get lost, by far the most well-marked course I’ve ever encountered). Upon exiting the woods, there was a clearing with about two dozen CPR dummies laid out wearing orange shirts. Athletes had to deliver 30 chest compressions before advancing, no small task after running a mile.

There were obstacles with walls and low-slung barbwire. But instead of leaping walls or tunneling through mud, the challenge was to drag two tires strung together, the equivalent of an unconscious person. Dragging “bodies” over walls, under barbwire, and through culverts was tough. Athletes had the option of pairing up to carry heavier tire-laden stretchers.

Toward the end came the “Towering Inferno,” requiring navigating a narrow cylinder up 15 feet with modest footholds as water rained down. That delivered the athlete to the top of a waterslide, which was followed by a waist-deep slog through a pool of water while kids blasted more water. From there it was a leap over a gauntlet of Duraflame logs to the finish.

We were glad to see the Florida Horse Park welcome Hero Rush, giving obstacle racing a second chance. The facility was rented in February for a now-defunct race that was a complete train wreck. The FHP hosts big-time equestrian events and Hero Rush managed to lay out its obstacles so athletes would not tread on the neatly-manicured horse courses. Hero Rush brought in 15 port-a-johns, but also had the FHP’s massive, permanent restrooms, which even featured showers.

Towering Inferno

Not that anyone needed one. Hero Rush did a great job keeping athletes out of the mud and thoroughly washed off at the end between the foam, water slide, and water gauntlet. I exchanged my $5 of Hero Dinero for a barbecue sandwich and mingled in a postrace area completely branded with Hero Rush.

We’ll deduct a few points for a pedestrian black T-shirt with the Hero Rush race calendar on the back, an unfortunate 1980s concert T-shirt look Spartan Race and Tough Mudder also prefer. But Hero Rush made up for it with a race map and a timetable for the day included in packets. I’m not big on post-race medals, but Hero Rush delivered here, too, with one of the sharper trinkets. That window dressing, along with race branding, the start, and attending to details like (free) bag checks, and no-wait registration, makes a difference.

Hero swag

Hero Rush was the first of two races I did on Saturday. After doing the 8:30 wave in Ocala, I drove an hour south to Brooksville for the 1:30 wave of the inaugural “Baddest Mud Run.” The crowds had dissipated by the time I arrived at the Hernando County Fairgrounds for what was billed as the “Dash for Cash” wave, with the top three men and women receiving prize money.

I finished third among men in a lightly-contested race, picking up $75 for my effort over a 3.5-mile course, which I guess technically makes me a professional obstacle racer. Unlike Hero Rush, the Baddest Mud Run was a constant slog through mud, over corral gates, downed trees, and tires, through creeks, and even a meandering run through a barn.

In short, it was a typical mud run. A good mud run, but one that felt less like an endurance test and more like dashing through a farm and around construction sites.

It’s an experience that’s gotten a bit tired this year as dozens of entrepreneurs, especially here in Florida, have sprung up looking to become the next Tough Mudder. Perhaps there’s still a huge market for people looking for the bucket-list mud run experience. But repeat customers want a greater athletic challenge. If the obstacle race folks hope to continue luring customers away from road racing and triathlon, they might want to consider dialing down the mud and focusing more on the obstacles and the race.

 

(Listen to our Fitness Buff Show interview with Hero Rush race director Stuart Kaul HERE)

5 Comments

Filed under Races, Running