Category Archives: Running

Running and Life Lessons from Forrest Gump

By Pete Williams

Gump-posterSunday marks the 20th anniversary of the release of “Forrest Gump,” the iconic, Oscar-winning film that established Tom Hanks as perhaps America’s most beloved actor.

Sure, he won an Academy Award for his role in “Philadelphia” the year before and his performance in “A League of Their Own” in 1992 might rank as his most underrated. But Forrest Gump finally transitioned Hanks, at 37, from ‘80s comedies into a top-of-the-A-list leading man.

When we look at the growth of running in the last 20 years, nobody played a bigger role than Forrest Gump. He wasn’t responsible for the initial boom in running in the late 1970s. That was movie fiction, unlike his influence on Elvis Presley, John Lennon, and Watergate, of course. But Gump did trigger the mid-1990s running explosion usually attributed to Oprah Winfrey.

It was Oprah, after all, who in 1994 ran the Marine Corps Marathon in 4 hours, 29 minutes, inspiring countless folks who figured if Oprah could do it, well, so could they. But Oprah ran past many of the Washington landmarks seen in “Forrest Gump” nearly five months after the movie’s release. By then, “Run, Forrest, Run,” had become the phrase of the year, with thousands taking up running, like Forrest, “for no particular reason.”

Oprah didn’t stick with running, though her 4:29, which seemed modest 20 years ago is a more impressive showing now that so many more people compete in marathons and median times have gone up by 25 or so minutes according to Running in the USA, which tracks such stats. (Median marathon time for women in 1995 was 4:15 as opposed to 4:42 in 2013).

Forrest, meanwhile, keeps running and running on screen, where he’ll be re-released later this year. He’s forever 37 – or 31, really, since Hanks’ younger brother, Jim, served as double for some of the coast-to-coast running scenes featuring a bearded Forrest in his Nike Cortez shoes.

According to Running in the USA, the number of marathon finishers has grown from 293,000 in 1995 to 541,000. That’s only a fraction of the running industry, which includes ultra runs, trail runs, obstacle races, themed runs, and countless 5K races, none of which even offered online registration in July of 1994.

Channeling Forrest Gump at a 5K in 2011

Channeling Forrest Gump at a 5K in 2011

I’ve always felt a kinship with Hanks. At 12, people told me I looked like him, which I wasn’t sure how to take considering Hanks was dressing in drag on “Bosom Buddies” at the time. In 1994, I went as Forrest Gump for Halloween, winning two costume contests, and the white suit, blue plaid shirt, and sneakers still is my go-to outfit when I can’t come up with other Halloween attire. I’ve even run a 5K dressed as Forrest Gump.

I’ve probably watched “Forrest Gump” thirty times and still cry when Lieutenant Dan shows up at Forrest and Jenny’s wedding with his titanium “magic” legs. (Hanks recently said he cries at that point, too.)

There are so many lessons from “Forrest Gump” and not just for running:

MIX IN SOME INTERVALS: Sure, Forrest slogged across the country for more than three years at presumably the same modest pace. Many runners use this template, aiming to run longer rather than faster.

But Forrest was a fast runner. He burst out of his childhood leg braces to outrun bullies and soon was running everywhere at a breakneck pace. In high school, he found another gear to outrun those same bullies, now driving a pick-up, and parlayed that into a University of Alabama football scholarship, where he was an All-American return man. (Most underrated actor in “Forrest Gump?” Sonny Schroyer, who played Bear Bryant after starring as Enos on “The Dukes of Hazzard.” Now there’s an actor with some range.)

Forrest running at typical brisk pace.

Forrest running at typical brisk pace.

Forrest learned how to run fast first, kicking it up a notch further in Vietnam, and then extended his distance, ultimately running coast-to-coast several times.

The lesson? Focus on running fast and the distance will naturally follow.

NO TECH NEEDED: “Forrest Gump” had an impressive soundtrack and as Forrest runs across the country dealing with Jenny’s most recent departure we hear Jackson Browne (“Running on Empty”), the Doobie Brothers (“It Keeps You Runnin’”) and Bob Seger (“Against the Wind”).

Not a bad runner’s playlist for 1980 or so, though Forrest ran without technology. That’s because there wasn’t any. The bulky Sony Walkman had just been introduced, though not really available, and few people tracked heart rate, up-to-the-second mileage or pace for the rest of the decade.

Instead, Forrest – like other runners of that era – focused on his mind, body, and the breathtaking scenery he was passing.

“Like that mountain lake,” he explained to Jenny later. “It was so clear. It looked like there were two skies one on top of the other. And then in the desert, when the sun comes up, I couldn’t tell where heaven stopped and the earth began. It’s so beautiful.”

FOCUS: Forrest didn’t have technology and other digital distraction. Instead, he applied a laser focus to whatever he pursued, whether it was cleaning his rifle, rescuing fallen soldiers, keeping his eye on the pingpong ball, following Bubba’s shrimp business plan, running, or cutting grass.

Though the movie didn’t take place in 1994, it came out not long before the Internet arrived and changed our lives forever. We’re supposed to be smarter than Forrest Gump, though these days nobody can stay focused on anything. How much could we accomplish by applying a Gump-like focus to our lives?

Gump-running2As his fellow soldier taught him about pingpong: “No matter what happens, never, ever take your eye off the ball.”

MOW LAWNS (OR SOMETHING SIMILAR): Like a lot of Generation X guys, I learned a lot about life by mowing lawns. It taught time management, entrepreneurial skills, the value of physical labor, and even some basic engine maintenance. Pre-teen and teenage boys no longer mow lawns and that’s a shame since they miss out on this experience, which includes seeing the beautiful result of your work in a freshly groomed lawn. Forrest Gump understood this, which is why even after becoming a multimillionaire he spent his days mowing lawns, cutting the high school football field for free. When he was running across America and the newscaster referred to him as a “gardener from Greenbow, Alabama,” you got the impression he’d be proud of that title.

GumpShoesTALK TO YOUR NEIGHBOR: Forrest met the love of his life (Jenny) and his best good friend and would-be business partner (Bubba) by talking to people on the bus. I know several married couples that met on airplanes as well as folks who have landed jobs and built business relationships by striking up conversations on planes, trains, and subways. It’s easier to live in a digital cocoon, but there’s huge upside to being friendly. Maybe the bigger takeaway is to be more like Jenny and Bubba and offer a seat rather than hope you get more space to yourself.

EXECUTE THE PIVOT: Forrest went from All-American football star to war hero to pingpong celebrity to shrimp entrepreneur to running icon by building upon his past successes. Sure, his life was all about serendipity, but he leveraged relationships (Bubba, Lt. Dan), his success in one field (pingpong), and hard work to generate the $25,000 start-up capital and build the Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. into a household name.

FIND YOUR OWN PERSPECTIVE ON RELIGION: Forrest wasn’t a particularly religious guy. He prayed for shrimp, joining the choir at the Four Square Baptist Church, and made a sizable donation to the church after the Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. took off. Forrest is a compassionate man who spends time thinking about destiny and Lt. Dan’s relationship with the man upstairs. For the most part, though, he just lives life by the golden rule.

Lt. Dan: “Have you found Jesus yet, Gump?”
Forrest: “I didn’t know I was supposed to be looking for him, sir.”

I’ve used that line several times when people come to my door pitching religion.

GumpShrimpGET A GOOD INVESTMENT ADVISOR: After he made a fortune as a shrimpin’ boat captain, Forrest turned to Lt. Dan, who “got me invested in some kind of fruit company.” We see an image of Forrest pulling a letter out of the mailbox from Apple Computer. It was good for a laugh on July 6, 1994. If only we had known.

Actually, if you went home from the theater that day – or pretty much any day for the next decade – and invested $30,000 in what is now Apple Inc., it would be worth roughly $2 million today. If only we had known.

LOOK OUT FOR MINI-ME: Forrest learned what all parents come to understand about children. You will end up with at least one kid who is an exaggerated version of you, showing more talent for your skills (i.e. pingpong) and replicating your head tilt to the left and other quirks.

Those kids will bring great joy and laughter to your lives.

And they will be smarter than you.

 

 

 

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The “Waterman Triathlon”

By Pete Williams

HelgaSUP2We’ve often thought it would be a great idea to stage a triathlon involving swimming, stand-up paddleboarding, and beach running. It would crown the king and queen of the beach, the true waterman.

We don’t know of such an event yet. But this Saturday at St. Pete Beach, there might be an even better endurance sports combo. At 7 a.m., there’s the Dash N Splash Beach Aquathon at Pass-a-Grille Beach. This second-annual event consists of a 2-mile beach run, a 600-yard swim in the Gulf of Mexico, and a 1-mile run.

At 9 a.m, just 2.25 miles north in front of The Alden Suites Hotel, is the second-annual Florida Cup stand-up paddleboard race. This event already has become one of North America’s premier SUP races, with more than 200 paddlers expected for a weekend-long paddlefest.

A young competitor at the Dash N Splash in St. Pete in May

A young competitor at the Dash N Splash in St. Pete in 2013

Like most SUP events, especially those held at St. Pete Beach, parking is at a premium and getting your boards from the parking lot to the beach can be a challenge. (Though race director Bruce Denson and his staff have those details covered.)

Still, if you want to make the logistics easier and become a true waterman, park at Pass-a-Grille Beach for the Dash N Splash. You’ll have a short walk with your board to the beach. Compete in the Dash N Splash at 7, finish by 7:45 (or earlier) and then hop on your board and paddle north to the start of the Florida Cup race, beating the crowds and parking.

IMG_7923You’ll miss the awards ceremony for the Dash N Splash and you’ll need to have waterproof cases for your keys and presumably phone, along with some sort of backpack, but you can arrive in style and in time for the 10-mile Florida Cup elite race (9 a.m.) and plenty of time for the 3-mile open race (9:15 a.m.) In fact, you should be able to make it for the 8:30 captain’s meeting.

We love how only in Florida can you attempt crazy endurance sports doubleheaders like this. We’ve done two sprint triathlons in one day, two obstacle races in a day, and a triathlon and an obstacle race in the same day. But this would be a first.

Who is ready to become a true waterman?

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Race of the Week: Florida Challenge Half Marathon & 5K Trail Runs

By Pete Williams

When it comes to trail running, Florida is underrated. Sure, the Sunshine State might lack hilly terrain and high altitude, but there is no shortage of challenging trails through breathtaking scenery.

That’s what makes the 11th annual Florida Challenge Half Marathon & 5K Trail Run on Sunday, Jan. 26 at 8 a.m. one of our favorite races. Held at beautiful Alafia River State Park, just east of Tampa, it’s perfectly situated on the race calendar before triathlon season and amid a crowded road race calendar. It’s rated one of the top trail runs in the country, with hillier trails than you’d expect.

It’s also one of the better values in Florida endurance sports. Race-day registration is just $35 for the 5K and $45 for the half marathon (early sign-up rates were even lower). At a time when it costs $80 to pound the asphalt and pavement of a road half-marathon, that’s a bargain.

History: Race debuted in 2004 and is one of a number of popular off-road running events put on by Tampa Races, which also stages the Picnic Island summer adventure run series, along with the XTerra Florida Trail Run series.

Format: The Florida Challenge is a 13.1 mile and a 5K trail run on beginner and intermediate single track trails. The half marathon starts at 8 a.m. and the 5K a half hour later.

Amenities: Long-sleeve T-shirts, custom awards for top finishers, catered post-race food.

Cost: Online registration closing Jan. 23. Race-day registration available – $35 for 5K, $45 for half marathon.

 

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9 Biggest Trends/Stories in Endurance Sports in 2013

By Pete Williams

Obstacle racing gets more intense.

Obstacle racing gets more intense.

When we launched Endurance Sports Florida nearly three years ago, we could not have imagined that this booming field still had lots of room for growth. Back in January of 2011, obstacle racing still was flying under the radar. Stand-up paddleboarding was a regional phenomenon and nobody had coined the term “theme race.”

These days, the market for all things endurance sports is flooded. No matter where you live, there are numerous opportunities to compete every weekend. In Florida, it’s impossible to find fewer than six endurance sports events within a 45-minute drive any weekend of the year, especially in 2013 with Christmas falling on a Wednesday.

The Sunshine State remains the epicenter for all things endurance sports. The hub might be Benderson Park, a sprawling rowing/swimming/paddling/triathlon complex going up in stages in Sarasota.

With that in mind, here are the top 9 stories/trends in the industry from 2013.

A young competitor at the Dash N Splash in St. Pete in May

A young competitor at the Dash N Splash in St. Pete in May

No. 9 – OPEN WATER SWIMMING: These competitions have existed for years, but there’s suddenly increased interest. Maybe it’s because the roads have gotten crowded (and dangerous) with all of the runners and cyclists, to say nothing of motorists focused on their smart phones. Maybe it’s because swimmers are realizing it’s a lot more fun than training in the pool. Maybe it’s because competitive youth swimmers (above) discovered they can get out of the pool and beat 90 percent of adult recreational swimmers in open water. Maybe it’s because many triathletes didn’t learn to swim as adults and want to put their skills to use as often as possible.

FLORIDA CONNECTION: Diana Nyad brought attention to open-water swimming in September by becoming the first to complete the treacherous Cuba-to-Key West swim without a shark cage. In January, 15-year-old Becca Mann won the Frogman Swim, the 5K trip in chilly waters from St. Pete to Tampa. Mann, now 16, hopes to reach the Olympics in 2016 in both open-water swimming and pool events. Anyone who has seen her train and compete for the Clearwater Aquatic Team knows this is a distinct possibility.

ArmstrongIronmanNo. 8 – LANCE ARMSTRONG CONFESSES: It seemed like such a foregone conclusion to all but his most ardent supporters that Lance Armstrong cheated his way to seven Tour de France victories that it’s easy to forget that his confession to Oprah Winfrey actually happened in 2013, back in January. It seems much longer ago. Lawsuits have piled up, sponsors bolted, and Lance even had to part ways with Livestrong. Since Armstrong can’t compete in sanctioned events, he’s not even allowed to enter triathlons, though Chris McCormack has challenged him to a one-on-one tri smackdown.

FLORIDA CONNECTION: The Tampa-based World Triathlon Corp. trumpeted its partnership with Armstrong only to look foolish when he was charged with doping in 2012. So vast was Armstrong’s deception that we’re left to wonder if he even raced clean on the triathlon front and whether his Ironman 70.3 win in Haines City in 2012 was legitimate. Surely, he raced clean there, right? Oprah didn’t ask.

RockRollHalfNo. 7 – NATIONAL EVENTS STRUGGLE IN FLORIDA: So often we see a national race promoter come to Florida and assume the masses will show up. After all, we have great year-round weather and hordes of athletes. Unfortunately, race promoters underestimate the number of established, affordable local events we have. Florida athletes are savvy customers with no patience for overpromising, overpricing, and underdelivering. That’s why it was no surprise that Competitor Group pulled its Rock ‘n’ Roll St. Pete event after another disappointing turnout in January. Tough Mudder, which had a traffic-related debacle in Sarasota in December of 2012, saw attendance plunge for events in Homestead (March) and Palatka (May). Even Spartan Race officials, who never seem to back down from a challenge, quietly canceled a proposed Spartan Beast event at Little Everglades Ranch for 2014. Ironman continues to sell out its Ironman Florida race in Panama City in a matter of minutes a year in advance, though that’s essentially a home event for the Tampa-based WTC. Warning to out-of-state promoters: Past performance elsewhere does not guarantee future return here and promoters can and do lose money.

Paddlers compete last month at Benderson Park in Sarasota.

Paddlers compete at Benderson Park in Sarasota in August.

No. 6 – SUP — UP AND UP: You know a sport is thriving when it seems every interview with a 24-year-old actress/model/singer mentions how she recently discovered stand-up paddleboarding. SUP has become the new yoga or Pilates, which makes sense since it works the body in a similar fashion and there’s now a cottage industry of SUP/yoga and SUP/Pilates classes. Surf Expo, which comes to the Orange County Convention Center each January and September, might as well be called SUP Expo. SUP board manufacturers have taken over the OCCC floor and the Thursday board demo day at a nearby watersports facility has become a highlight of the event for many.

FLORIDA CONNECTION: Besides SUP, er, Surf Expo in Orlando, the Florida Cup has become one of the sport’s premier events after just two years. St. Pete lawyer and avid paddler Bruce Denson has built a late May weekend event in Pinellas County that belongs in the same discussion as the Carolina Cup and perhaps one day soon the Battle of the Paddle in California. The Miramar Beach-based YOLO Board has become a major player in the competitive board manufacturing industry. Then there’s Dunedin’s Karen Mirlenbrink, who is a YOLO Board athlete, a race promoter (Shark Bite Challenge), and a SUP Pilates instructor — basically the Queen of all SUP.

PumpRun2No.5 – THE SPORT OF FITNESS: CrossFit and endurance sports traditionally were polar opposites. CrossFit tended to attract the gym rat demographic while runners never touched the weights. But once Spartan Race and Tough Mudder began actively courting the CrossFit crowd in 2011, the two met in the middle. You’ll still see groups from CrossFit boxes tackle obstacle races, though these days you’re more likely to see them enter CrossFit-style competitions or hybrid events such as the Pump N Run, a Tampa event (above) where athletes bench-pressed all of most of their weight and based on their performance deducted time from a subsequent 5K run. We’re not sure where all this is evolving, but it’s an interesting trend to watch.

FLORIDA CONNECTION: In addition to the Tampa Pump N Run, hosted by Tampa trainer Whit Lasseter in November, CrossFit box owners Clint and Maci Lowery stage regular obstacle races from their Sweat Factory facility in Minneola (near Clermont), which is adjacent to a running trail.

TriGroupNo. 4 – MARKET SATURATION – Back in 2005-07, we hosted a Friday afternoon fitness radio show that featured a brief segment previewing the weekend’s endurance events in Central Florida. The segment took about five minutes. These days it no doubt could fill a half hour and not just because of SUP races, obstacle events, and theme runs that didn’t exist back then. The number of triathlons and road running events has perhaps quadrupled and while that’s generally a good thing, it has diluted many races and created others hosted by organizers who have no business doing so. Triathlon seems to have peeked in popularity in 2011 after a decade of unbridled growth. Our theory is that some would-be triathletes instead turn to obstacle racing or CrossFit, where there’s no need to buy an expensive bike or learn to swim. But while there seems to be the same number of triathletes, there are more triathlons. As for running, it’s impossible in many markets to drive on a Saturday morning without being slowed by race road closures. What’s next? We’re guessing more road runners and obstacle racers will find the happy medium with trail running, which is easier on the body, generally offers a more pleasant race experience, and is often the best value in endurance sports. Which means, of course, that we’ll see a ton of trail races.

FLORIDA CONNECTION: It seems like ages ago when the St. Anthony’s Triathlon in St. Petersburg sold out in a few hours in December. These days, it’s possible to register the day before the late-April event. This year St. Anthony’s is hoping to stop the attendance decline by offering a sprint distance to go with the traditional international race.

FlavorRun3No.3 – THEMES, THEMES, and MORE THEMES: We’re not sure if color runs, beer runs, zombie runs, and all of the rest are endurance events or merely festivals with jogging and walking involved. But there’s no denying the impact. The Color Run, which debuted in January 2012 with 6,000 runners in Phoenix is now partnered with sports colossus IMG and stages more than 100 runs annually worldwide. The untimed Color Run, in which white-clad runners pass through stations where they’re doused with colored powder, has inspired numerous knockoffs, including the Florida-based Flavor Run. Most athletes walk or slowly run the events, which are great fun for kids.

FLORIDA CONNECTION: Like every other endurance sports category, Florida leads the nation in themed races. The Color Run alone has five Florida events scheduled in 2014 before Mother’s Day with more to come.

JenCalendarNo. 2OBSTACLE RACE SHAKEOUT – With a new obstacle race popping up seemingly ever week, it was only a matter of time before races started crashing in spectacular fashion. Mud runs have a bucket-list, post-the-Facebook-photo quality to them and events quickly have discovered it’s difficult to draw repeat customers. The zombie-themed Run for Your Lives endured the true death the day before Halloween. More surprising was the demise of Hero Rush, the Maryland-based, firefighter-themed obstacle race that we considered the best produced obstacle event of 2012. It flamed out in August, a victim of growing too big too fast. Who will survive? We’re betting on the races that position themselves as competitions rather than muddy office team-building exercises, which tend to attract the one-and-done crowd. That’s why we’re bullish on events such as the Mile of Pain/Battle Dash, sort of an outdoor version of American Ninja Warrior produced by Central Florida’s Rock On Adventures. Ditto for Spartan Race, which still trails the untimed, team-oriented Tough Mudder in popularity. With Spartan’s every-athlete-for-himself (or herself) format, new national sponsors such as Reebok, a recent one-hour special on NBC Sports Network, and races of three distances that include events in sports venues, we’re betting on King Leonidas and the gang.

FLORIDA CONNECTION: Hero Rush folded shortly before scheduled events in Ocala and South Florida. Through some poor scheduling (or perhaps intended) Tough Mudder and Spartan Race will go head to head in South Florida during the April 12-13, 2014 weekend. Spartan Race also brings its sports venue edition to Florida for the first time with a Spartan Sprint race at Tampa’s Raymond James Stadium in February.

BostonStrongNo.1 – BOSTON STRONG – The Boston Marathon was the biggest endurance sports story of the year for all the wrong reasons. Two pressure cooker bombs exploded near the finish line of the storied race on April 15, killing three people and injuring hundreds of others. The violence drew attention to the vulnerability of endurance events, which take place in wide-open settings, unlike sports competitions in enclosed venues. Runners and non-runners across the nation rallied to stage support runs and raise money for the victims. The Boston Red Sox surprising run to a World Series title further helped the healing process.

FLORIDA CONNECTION: An FBI agent shot and killed Ibragim Todashev, a friend of suspected bomber Tamerlan Tsarnaev, in Todashev’s Orlando apartment in the early hours of May 22 after a violent confrontation. A Florida prosecutor is expected to release a report of his investigation into the shooting early next year. On a positive note, numerous Florida runners have qualified for the 2014 Boston Marathon, which promises to be the most watched, most secure marathon ever.

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Becoming a ‘Dirty Girl’

By Pete Williams

IMG_6907Corrie Seabrook, (right) a University of South Florida mass communications student who is interning with EnduranceSportsFlorida.com and our sister site, ObstacleFit.com, reviewed Saturday’s Dirty Girl Adventure Run at Little Everglades Ranch in Dade City.

You can read Corrie’s report on Dirty Girl HERE.

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Want to Dominate Obstacle Races? Get Obstacle Fit

ObstacleFit3Obstacle Fit, a new training program e-book to prepare for obstacle races and get in the best shape of your life, is now available.

Written by Pete Williams, editor of EnduranceSportsFlorida.com and an avid obstacle racer, Obstacle Fit is your complete training program to run fast, conquer challenges, and discover your inner Spartan, Mudder, or Warrior.

Williams is a certified personal trainer by the National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM) and the co-author of a number of prominent fitness books. Obstacle Fit is currently available for just $4.24 at Amazon.com and BarnesandNoble.com.

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Warrior Goes Long with Iron Warrior Dash

By Pete Williams

WarriorDash2012aWarrior Dash, the first obstacle mud run to attract more than 10,000 participants to a single event, announced today a longer version of its popular entry-level 5K race. The move comes at a time when more athletes are shifting to Spartan Race, Tough Mudder and longer, more challenging obstacle events.

Touted as the “most intense obstacle race,” Iron Warrior Dash will debut March 13 in Smithville, Texas, which is between Houston, Austin, and San Antonio, and feature 26 obstacles spread over a course of “15 to 20 miles of ruthless terrain and best-in-class obstacles,” though the three announced events range from 15 to 15.6 miles.

The two other races will take place April 13 in Douglasville, Ga. (near Atlanta) and on Sept. 21 in Michigan. Though there are no Florida locations, a press release issued today promised additional venues to be announced in the spring. The April 13 event could steal some thunder from the Savage Race, which takes place the same day at Little Everglades Ranch, just north of Tampa in Pasco County.

warriordash2012cIn July of 2009, Chicago entrepreneur Joe Reynolds, then 29, debuted Warrior Dash, a 3-mile muddy obstacle race and raucous post-race party, giving finishers one free beer and a fuzzy viking hat that looked like something Fred Flintstone might wear.

Warrior Dash was an outgrowth of the Great Urban Race series Reynolds had created two years earlier after watching an episode of “The Amazing Race.” Warrior Dash has scaled more quickly and this year attracted more than 500,000 participants to 50 events in the United States, Canada, and Australia, accounting for most of the $65 million in revenue that Reynolds’ Red Frog Events will generate from entry fees and sponsor deals with Miller Coors, Reebok, and Monster Energy.

Though Warrior Dash, which returns to Lake Wales, Fla., on Feb. 2, is one of the shorter and easier obstacle races, it attracts an equal number of men and women, with an average age of 30. Most races, including Tough Mudder and Spartan Race, tilt 70 to 80 percent male.

“Being an attainable goal opens up us up to a very wide demographic,” Munirah McNeely, Warrior Dash’s chief innovation officer, told SportsBusiness Journal recently.  “It’s something for young people to do with friends other than just hanging out or going to a concert.”

Warrior Dash debuted eight months before Tough Mudder and 10 months before Spartan Race. Warrior is known for its smooth operations but has seen attendance at some events drop off this year as many obstacle racers seek greater challenges than the modest 5K Warrior Dash.

Tough Mudder, though plagued with traffic issues this fall at events in Maryland and here in Florida, has duplicated Warrior’s lively post-race party scene while providing a more challenging course of 10 to 12 miles, mocking Warrior Dash with a sign at the 3-mile mark reading “Warrior Dash Finish Line.”

WarriorDashGroupAt 15 to 15.6 miles, Iron Warrior will be comparable in distance to Tough Mudder and the Spartan Beast, the 15-mile version of Spartan Race. Entry fees, which range from $105 to $205, are similar to the other events.

Obstacle races have soared in popularity over the last 18 months, with dozens of new events created around the country, most at the entry-level 3-to-5 mile distance to attract the most participants. Since many of those people tend to be one-and-done, bucket-list, casual athletes who do it for the novelty, we feel the longer-term play is at the greater distance as obstacle racing develops into more of a competitive sport.

We’re guessing Warrior Dash, with its experience, bankroll, and legions of Millennial-aged employees who tirelessly work events, has the power to take on Tough Mudder and Spartan at the longer distance.

We’re also curious to see if the World Triathlon Corp., which always is aggressive in protecting its Ironman brand, will go after Red Frog for using Iron Warrior. WTC only has the trademark on Ironman as it pertains to triathlon, but always is aggressive pursuing anyone using Iron in the title of an endurance event.

Of course, that’s usually when a new promoter enters the game. It will be interesting to see if WTC is willing to take on someone its own size.

Then again, given the struggles of WTC this year and the success of Warrior Dash, Red Frog might have leaped over Ironman in terms of size.

(Read our review of the 2012 Warrior Dash at Lake Wales, Fla.)

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Tough Mudder: Growing Pains

By Pete Williams

TMTampa2013bSARASOTA – By now athletes know what to expect from Tough Mudder. There will be a well-organized event of 11 to 12 miles of physical and Fear Factor-style obstacles, adequate water stops, free post-race refreshments, and even a sharp Under Armour T-shirt.

Since Will Dean took a Harvard Business School project and turned it into Tough Mudder in March of 2010, it has grown into a global phenomenon that will draw more than 500,000 participants and gross $70 million this year.

No company in American business has better harnessed social media, especially Facebook. Tough Mudder now includes major sponsors such as Under Armour, EAS, Bic, and Dos Equis. Dean says Tough Mudder will draw 1 million participants in 2013 and there no doubt are at least that many people still angling to post Timeline photos of themselves smiling, exhausted, and wearing the signature orange finisher’s headband.

Tough Mudder always has been something of the Woodstock of sports with its big crowds of young people, mud, silliness, and rural locations not unlike Max Yasgur’s farm. In recent months, the analogy has become too appropriate. Traffic delays of four-plus hours, first near Frederick, Md., in September and on Saturday here getting to the Hi Hat Ranch off I-75, have raised the question of whether Tough Mudder has become too big to be staged at off-road venues connected to interstates by two-lane roads.

Climbing a wall to get to the starting line

Climbing a wall to get to the starting line

In March, Tough Mudder will host its first South Florida event at the Homestead-Miami Speedway, a facility accustomed to welcoming gatherings of 70,000 people. Dan Weinberg, Tough Mudder’s director of strategic partnerships, said two weeks ago that the speedway was chosen because of its vast infrastructure, parking, and experience handling large crowds.

With Tough Mudder routinely attracting 25,000 people over two days, we’re guessing we’ll see the event move into similar large venues. Weinberg said Tough Mudder already is looking at other NASCAR facilities. That could make it more of challenge to replicate the backwoods formula that has become arguably the most effective in the obstacle mud run industry.

Spartan Race, with its 30-Burpee penalties for failed obstacle attempts, three race distances, and more competitive mentality, remains the more challenging event. Unlike Tough Mudder, which does not track results or even distribute timing chips, Spartan is billed as an actual race and does a better job coming up with challenges unique to each race venue.

Best race emcee anywhere

Best race emcee anywhere

But Tough Mudder proved again this weekend why it provides the best overall race-day experience for the masses and for that Warrior Dash, the other major national player on the obstacle race scene, with a more modest 5K race, should be worried. In an industry known for being chintzy with refreshments, T-shirts and other race window dressing, Tough Mudder delivers big-time.

There’s the no-line registration area, free bag check, and several hundred port-a-potties. There’s the memorable pre-race briefing with an emcee who is part comedian and part motivational speaker, sort of a cross between Chris Rock and Tony Robbins. There are the frequent water stops with bananas and packets of gel “chomps.” There’s the finish chute with Dos Equis backpacks and all-you-can-grab Clif bars and EAS recovery drink packets. (EAS ready-to-drink products are available at a nearby tent).

TMTampa2013fThere’s a black Under Armour tech shirt (women’s sizes, too), replacing the unisex, gray, cotton shirts Tough Mudder provided previously. Instead of a concert-shirt style race tour calendar on the back, there’s now the Tough Mudder pre-race pledge recited pre-race. (“I put teamwork and camaraderie before my course time. I do not whine – kids whine,” etc.)

There’s a Dos Equis keg toss, with those who can hoist an empty keg far enough winning a second free beer to go with the one received for finishing. There’s a live band most of the day and a massive merchandise tent doing brisk sales, perhaps the biggest testament to the Tough Mudder marketing machine.

Tough Mudder's Mount Everest

Tough Mudder’s Mount Everest

The course itself remains challenging, but in talking to fellow veterans of last year’s Tough Mudder Florida debut at Little Everglades Ranch in Pasco County, the consensus was that it felt easier. Maybe it’s because we’ve now done so many other races, some of which have replicated Tough Mudder’s signature “Arctic Enema” ice plunge, “Mount Everest” half-pipe lunge, and “Walk the Plank” jump of 10-12 feet into water. Maybe it’s because Tough Mudder’s notorious race-ending, 10,000-volt “Electroshock Therapy” doesn’t usually deliver much of a current. (Not that we’re complaining, though.) Maybe it’s because the claustrophobia-inducing “Trench Warfare” crawl through freshly-dug tunnels doesn’t seem as uncomfortable as the pitch-black labyrinth of the firefighter-themed Hero Rush event.

Or maybe it’s because this year’s course did not feature as many different obstacles as the 2011 edition. There were no cargo nets to climb or roll over, no hay bale pyramid to navigate, or even a balance beam. There was no peg board wall that required athletes to scale from side to side. And for a race that has fire in its logo, there was no fire to run through or jump over as there was last year at Little Everglades Ranch. Instead there were four or five near-identical marches up dirt and through water for several repetitions.

Tough Mudder still is new enough that most participants are first-timers. But for returning customers, some variety would be nice. It’s like attending a concert for a familiar band. You want to hear their signature tunes, but expect some new material. Tough Mudder, of course, must cart some of its obstacles all over the country, so there are limitations. That gives an advantage to some of the Florida-based races such as The Highlander and the Dirty Foot Adventure Run, which have permanent homes and can keep adding obstacles to existing courses.

Navigating the Funky Monkey

Navigating the Funky Monkey

The only major addition to this year’s Florida Tough Mudder, albeit a brutal one, was a 300-yard “Wounded Warrior” carry. Athletes grabbed partners and carried them piggy-back or fireman’s style 150 yards before switching off. I had the misfortune of arriving at this obstacle with only two of my kilt-clad Running Commando teammates, both of whom weigh 165-170 and were perfectly matched. I  ended up with a 190-pound partner, which probably explains why all 154 pounds of me are aching this morning.

Little Everglades was a better venue last year than Hi Hat and not just because of better traffic patterns. The scenic, well-manicured Pasco County ranch is accustomed to staging big events and, unlike Hi Hat, there’s more natural water. At Hi Hat, the “Hold Your Wood” log carry took you through the woods. At Little Everglades, athletes went through water for that and for other obstacles, such as a memorable 200-yard slog through waist-deep water where at times you’d sink further in the muck.

Tough Mudder spokesperson Jane Di Leo said earlier in the year that the event did not return to Little Everglades since it wanted to provide athletes with a variety of venues. Its first choice for the 2012 Tampa area event, Dirty Foot Adventures in Fort Meade, was nixed when Polk County, fearing traffic tie-ups, refused to issue a permit for an event of such magnitude. Dirty Foot has since held two successful smaller races of 1,000 or so athletes and will host on third on March 9.

The 5-mile Savage Race, which has emulated some of Tough Mudder’s business model, including a number of its obstacles, moved from Clermont to Little Everglades in October and will return on April 13. Savage flew a plane over Tough Mudder on Saturday pulling a banner pledging “more obstacles per mile.” We continue to be amazed at how many Tough Mudder competitors walk most of the course, so perhaps Savage’s less-running formula is a wise one. (Outside Magazine recently chronicled how Tough Mudder emulated Britain’s Tough Guy and how Savage emulated Tough Mudder.)

TMTampa2013aThen again, Tough Mudder’s longer course remains one of the more popular challenges in endurance sports, even for those who don’t wish to run all of it. We’re curious to see what location Tough Mudder chooses for its scheduled Tampa-area event on Nov. 2-3, 2013 since it’s hard to imagine Sarasota County issuing another permit for Hi Hat after this weekend’s traffic snarls.

We can’t think of a Central Florida venue like Homestead-Miami Speedway with multiple entrances and vast stretches of parking surrounded by hundreds of acres of undeveloped land, to say nothing of a vast man-made lake in the facility that can be incorporated into the course. Daytona International Speedway is surrounded by an airport, hotels, and commercial development.

No matter. We’re guessing Tough Mudder officials will figure that out in the next few months, further fueling the fastest-growing property in endurance sports.

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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.

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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)

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