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Highlander III – Mud, Mud, and More Mud

By Pete Williams

WINTER GARDEN – Somewhere in the second mile of Saturday’s Highlander Adventure Run, slogging through waist-deep, black, barnyard-smelling mud yet again, I began to wonder which direction the booming obstacle race category is headed.

Is it progressing more toward the obstacle race (Spartan Race) model or the mud run (Tough Mudder) experience?

The difference might not be noticeable if you haven’t done a number of these events in the last year. It’s been just 11 months since the last Highlander was staged and it’s remarkable how much the category has evolved, and not just in the countless number of events that have sprung up in the Sunshine State. There were nine flyers for upcoming races left on my windshield.

Jonny Simpkins and Wendy Carson of Rock On Adventures have done a terrific job growing The Highlander Run and I lost track of the many obstacles and challenges around the six-mile course at the YMCA Roper Ranch. They’ve taken advantage of making the property their permanent home and it showed.

Rock On did have some water issues, which Simpkins was quick to point out in person post-race and by apologizing profusely online. They ran out of drinking water on the course and water for the post-race showers, which was to have come from clean well water. That malfunctioned, leaving athletes to shower with dirty water from one of the water obstacles.

Simpkins has pledged that won’t happen again and has earned the benefit of the doubt for putting together another solid race (along with the Yak-a-Thon, Monster Bash Dash, and the TGIF Twilight 5K) that included beautiful light-blue Tultex T-shirts, organized registration, no parking fees, a cool kids race, and perhaps the best combination of obstacles we’ve seen yet.

There were multiple sand bag carries, a tire carry, zipline, 12-foot leap into water, monkey bars, rope climbs, numerous walls, going over and around trees, and a few creative touches that seemed right out of the county fair: running/jumping in a burlap sack and walking bent over on wooden shoes attached with short rope handles.

It was hard to avoid the county fair smell, of course, and we can’t recall an event with so many mud crossings and crawlings. The most challenging was carrying a sandbag through waist deep mud for 30 yards, a death slog made even more difficult if you weren’t wearing toe shoes.

Which brings us back to the obstacle race/mud run debate. There’s no question mud is a main attraction to these events. That’s what produces the money-shot Facebook photos that have driven this category ever since Tough Mudder and Warrior Dash broke out early in 2010. Long before those races, Muddy Buddy delivered a similar experience with its race-ending under-barbwire crawl to the finish line.

But if you’re looking to run fast (or relatively fast, anyway), getting bogged down in mud more than a couple times can get frustrating. Joe Desena, creator of Spartan Race, is quick to point out that his event is not a mud run and, indeed, Spartan generally only has one or two mud-related obstacles in its events. (Of the dozen events I’ve done, nothing has kicked my ass like Spartan, though that has a lot to do with 30-Burpee penalties.)

Desena thinks obstacle racing will evolve into a competitive sport, perhaps even an Olympic one, but he thinks it’s about the physical challenge. Tough Mudder founder Will Dean, who tends to throw more mud into the mix, sees it as a group bonding experience and does not issue timing chips or even score the race.

Which is it? It’s both, of course, and perhaps Highlander managed to be all things to all people.

For now, more mud is the better marketing strategy to lure first-time participants. Tough Mudder, after all, draws more athletes than Spartan Race.

There’s a happy medium and for that look no further than Wipeout. Races might want to think about focusing less on mud and more on water. Last year’s Highlander was held at a different property and Simpkins, who owns an irrigation company, put those skills to good work with a rapid-fire series of obstacles at the end through water that wasn’t that muddy. There were more water obstacles and lakes worked into the mix and a killer 150-foot water slide at the finish line. There was no need to shower before you got home; the mud was washed off already.

The Dirty Foot Adventure Run two weeks ago had only a couple truly muddy obstacles and a 150-yard, race-ending swim to clean you off, though even Dirty Foot fell prey to the Fear Factor mud/muck marketing emphasis with a slog through some nasty slime that didn’t come off quickly.

It’s a fine line to walk and, for now, it seems more mud/muck is the answer. There are a lot of first-time events coming to Florida in the next six weeks, most with “Mud” or “Mudder” in their title. So we’re likely to see even more mud. But we’re guessing the longer term play will be more about obstacles and racing and less about getting stuck in the mud.

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Gearing up for Highlander

By Pete Williams

WINTER GARDEN – The inaugural TGIF Twilight 5K here Friday night was a preview of what will be a four-race, Friday night summer series next summer, sort of Orlando’s answer to the longstanding Picnic Island trilogy in Tampa.

The TGIF was a tweak on the same obstacle-laden course used by Rock On Adventures for its Monster Bash Dash in May (minus the zombies) and part of the Yak-a-Thon race in July. That’s a good thing. Rock On’s Jonny Simpkins created the popular Highlander Run last year, staging it twice in Bartow, but has moved it to the sprawling Roper Ranch, which has become the home of a year-long series of endurance challenges.

Events such as the Monster Bash, which returns in October for Halloween, along with the paddle-bike-run Yak-a-Thon and TGIF, have served as tuneups of sorts for The Highlander. Simpkins, who has a background in motocross and as the owner of an irrigation company, has been able to spend months building obstacles, which will remain in place indefinitely. That gives him a bit of an advantage over some races that switch locations or, at the very least, must construct their courses in a matter of weeks.

Athletes who ran TGIF got to test a few Highlander obstacles after the race. Those included a 12-foot platform and plunge into water and a zipline. They also got a look at some monstrous tire and wall obstacles.

It’s hard to believe, given the number of obstacle races that have debuted in Florida this year, that it’s been only 10 months since the last Highlander race. It seems much longer. Remarkably, nobody has tried to duplicate Rock On’s winning formula that includes not charging for parking and providing soft, fitted, Tultex T-shirts that athletes actually will want to wear. (They gave out another for the TGIF).

Like Picnic Island, the TGIF provided custom awards to the top 30 male and top 30 female finishers – glasses featuring the race logo. Also like Picnic Island, the race attracted a younger demographic that seemed to enjoy hanging out after the race ended. We’re guessing more than a few will return for Highlander III, which takes place on Saturday, Sept. 22.

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Yakking up the YAKathon

By Pete Williams

Typical bike terrain at the Yak-a-Thon

CLERMONT – Maybe it was the kayak segment, the 90-degree heat, the brutal six-mile bike slog through a rolling cow pasture or a 5K run with just enough obstacles.

Whatever the reason, this morning’s debut of the “YAKathon,” a tough kayak-mountain bike-run through the Roper Ranch here just west of Orlando, may have found the happy medium between obstacle racing and triathlon.

Jonny Simpkins and Wendy Carson, who launched their Rock On Adventures company last year with the popular Highlander Adventure Run, have pledged to come up with events that depart from the obstacle run bandwagon that everyone seems intent on jumping onto.

So while they’re bringing back The Highlander for a third edition on Sept. 22, moving to the Roper Ranch from last year’s Bartow venue, they’re also coming up with things like the YAKathon, which was unlike anything we’ve attempted.

It began within a half-mile run to the water, where athletes either jumped in one of a flotilla of rental kayaks provided or into one of their own they staged earlier in the morning. The run was just enough to separate the pack – there were six waves of 50, one each half hour beginning at 8 a.m. – to avoid a bottleneck at the launch.

I raced with two of my kilt-clad Running Commando teammates and didn’t think I’d be the only stand-up paddleboarder in the race. It was an interesting experiment to see how a SUP rider fared against a lake full of kayakers over a one-mile loop. The thinking is that kayakers have an advantage with a two-sided paddle; sort of like Darth Maul and his double-bladed light saber matched up against Obi Wan Kenobi.

Plenty of obstacles on the 5K run course

But I maintained my position in the water and even had a few people suggest I had an advantage, even though my movement was restricted because – and I’m embarrassed to say this – I was wearing a (required) life jacket on a board for the first time in nearly two years of paddling. Personal flotation devices are a sore subject among paddleboarders, who see SUP as more like surfing. In reality, the Coast Guard is right to declare paddleboards vessels and require life jackets and I soon will be purchasing one of the inflatable waist PFDs that will save my life without restricting motion.

It helped that I was paddling my fast YOLO Predator race board, which I could yank out of the water and haul back to transition more quickly than the kayakers could lift their boats. On the other hand, they paddled in shoes and I lost time taking my shoes off in transition before getting on the board and putting them back on before running a half-mile back to the bikes.

Perhaps Vibram Five Fingers would have been the happy medium, though I hate to think what it would have been like pedaling 6.2 miles in them. Simpkins and his crew mowed a path through the pastures and I’ve never been on a better marked course in any off-road race, with hundreds of red directional arrows. But navigating a bike over rolling terrain consisting mostly of grass over sand was challenging. The closest thing to a hard surface was an occasional brief grassy strip of packed-down dirt.

Part of a gauntlet of obstacles over the last 200 yards

In theory, the YAKathon was comparable to a sprint triathlon, though I’ve never felt more sluggish getting off a bike and heading out on a 5K run. Simpkins took us out on a reverse version of the course he laid out for the Monster Bash Dash 5K, the zombie-themed run he debuted in May and will bring back Oct. 27. There were countless minor obstacles – low-lying branches, fences, 3-4 foot walls, and a series of obstacles over the last 200 yards.

I finished in 1:42:13, which is 30-35 minutes slower than a sprint triathlon time. I cramped up on the run, something that only happens in longer triathlons. There were plenty of water stops, but I didn’t take my pre-race hydration seriously enough.

Lesson learned. The YAKathon is a serious challenge, one non-swimmers and triathletes will enjoy. We’re pumped to see what Simpkins and Carson come up with for The Highlander in September. By hosting all of their events in one sprawling venue convenient to Tampa and Orlando, they can overlap courses and obstacles, giving them something of a homefield advantage.

Rock On Adventures was among the first to give out the soft, fitted Tultex T-shirts, and they delivered another a great shirt to go with a promising race.

We’re looking forward to next year.

 

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Triathlon alternative: the ‘YAKathon’

By Pete Williams

Part of the Roper Ranch ‘YAKathon’ course

Jonny Simpkins is a big fan of kayaking. As the race director for such popular events as The Highlander adventure run, he hears from a lot of would-be triathletes who are intimidated by swimming.

So he created the YAKathon adventure race, which debuts Saturday (July 14) at the Roper Ranch in Clermont. Instead of swimming, athletes will kayak nearly a mile before biking off road 6.2 miles and finish by trail running roughly three miles. They’ll also run an additional mile since the transition area/start and kayak launch are about a half-mile apart.

Athletes can bring their own kayaks or use one of the 50 that will be provided. Simpkins says those of us who want to bring a stand-up paddleboard instead of kayaking are welcome to do so. A field of 250 or so is expected. (Athletes go off in waves so there will be plenty of kayaks.)

“I like putting on different races and I’m hearing from both triathletes and people interested in adventure racing,” Simpkins says. “It’s going to be tough, but it’s also going to be a lot of fun.”

Simpkins has a background in motocross racing and endurance sports. He’s also owned an irrigation company for years. Those were good qualifications to launch Rock On Adventures, which debuted last year with The Highlander, one of the more popular Florida-based adventure runs.

Simpkins staged The Highlander twice at a facility in Bartow but opted to move to the Roper Ranch and expand his offerings to include the Yakathon and the zombie-themed Monster Bash Dash, which debuted in May and will be back on Oct. 27. The third edition of The Highlander takes place at Roper Ranch on Sept. 22.

By using the same sprawling property for all of his events, Simpkins can overlap some of the courses. The run leg for the YAKathon, for instance, will incorporate some of the Monster Bash Dash course, including some of that race’s minor obstacles. A recent tornado took down a couple of trees on the course, which add to the challenge.

The YAKathon begins at 8 a.m. with waves of 50 every half hour. Simpkins recommends participants bring plenty of water and two pairs of shoes in case they get wet during the kayak leg. Like a triathlon, athletes will have a transition area where they can set up bikes, water, food, towels, and changes of shoes. He says most athletes will take about two hours.

“With just 250 athletes, this will be a very well-organized event that I think athletes really are going to enjoy,” Simpkins says. “Endurance athletes are always looking for something new and I’d be surprised if we didn’t have double the field next year.”

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Surviving the Monster Bash Dash

By Pete Williams

Dealing with the Grim Reaper

WINTER GARDEN, Fla. – The inaugural Monster Bash Dash seemed a bit out of place here in Central Florida in late May. Zombies and monsters were positioned throughout the woodsy 5K course laid out over the Roper Ranch, giving it a bit of Halloween feel despite the steamy temperatures.

Rock On Adventures, the Clermont-based event promoters who created the successful Highlander Run last year, staged the Monster Bash Dash to give Floridians a taste of what made Run for Your Lives popular. That event attracted more than 10,000 people near Baltimore last year, a week before Halloween. (Run for Your Lives has become a national circuit this year, with a race on Nov. 17 in Clermont at Revolution Off Road, which twice hosted the Savage Race.)

Rock On had professional face painters on hand to take care of the dozens of monsters, who hid in palmetto, behind trees, and whatever other brush they could find. Athletes wore belts with two flags on their hips, which monsters lunged for the athletes attempted to go through obstacles.

My 9-year-old and I ran the daylight 6 p.m. wave, which probably didn’t give us the full monster experience, though we had a great time. Our wave was modest since most people opted for waves at 8 p.m. or later, which took place in the dark — headlamps mandatory. We only made it halfway through with our flags. At that point, we served as blockers for a 12-year-old running alongside us, though he didn’t make it to the end either.

The obstacles were mostly things hanging from trees, along with branches, and that’s where many of the monsters lurked. There also were haunted houses and a few walls, but mostly the obstacles were dodging the monsters themselves. The challenge was to speed up through the obstacles to dodge the monsters, who would pursue.

I like the concept and can see how it would do even better during Halloween season. Race director Jonny Simpkins says he’ll limit the event next time to after-dark waves. Simpkins said he and his staff pre-ran the event at 1 a.m. while setting up the course and “you didn’t even need monsters at that point. It’s pretty spooky out there.”

We were very impressed with the two Highlander obstacle races Simpkins and his better half Wendy Carson put on last year. The third one will be Sept. 22, also at the Roper Ranch. That venue also will host Rock On’s other adventures: the Yakathon (bike-kayak-run) on July 14, the cops-and-robbers themed Hot Pursuit 5K (Aug. 11), and a Halloween-time edition of the Monster Bash Dash (date TBA).

Simpkins has a background in both endurance sports and motocross racing and is the owner of an irrigation company. There are a number of things Rock On does better than anyone. They were the first to issue Tultex T-shirts, those soft, fitted, poly-cotton blend shirts that are a huge upgrade from cotton and even preferable to tech. The Monster Bash T-shirts came in two versions, one for survivors, one for the “walking dead.”

Rock On always takes kids into account, whether it’s staging kids races, having kids games and activities or simply by not making beer a focal point of the event. Rock On also does not charge for parking for participants. Perhaps that charge is reflected in the entry fee, but athletes seem to appreciate not getting nickel and dimed.

Simpkins has encouraged other obstacle race directors to adhere to high standards and a number of them were on hand helping with the Monster Bash. Given a few trainwrecks we’ve seen in this booming field, where it seems everyone is trying to get a piece of the action, some industry standards are welcome.

We’ll be excited to take on the Monster Bash again around Halloween.

Rock On.

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Race of the Week: The Highlander

By Pete Williams

Lots of mud at the Highlander

It’s not easy standing out in the cluttered, competitive field of obstacle mud runs. As we chronicled last week, there now are 17 companies promoting 22 such events this year – and that’s just in Florida.

Jonny Simpkins didn’t even decide to stage a race until competing in the Warrior Dash in Lake Wales in January. But his Highlander race, which debuts on Saturday (July 23) in Bartow, might just be the dark-horse hit of 2011.

Simpkins, who has a long background in both endurance sports and motocross racing, has found a unique piece of property, a tract of several thousand acres that’s never been used for endurance events – just a few off-road motocross events. There’s plenty of water and, in an unusual Florida twist, terrain of varying elevations.

Simpkins says the race, put on by his Rock On Adventures company, will be challenging enough but not overly difficult. One difference between the Highlander and other races is that the obstacles aren’t temporary; Simpkins has permission to leave them up for a proposed second race in October. That means the obstacles can be more substantive than those presented by some of the national obstacle run tours that have rolled through the Sunshine State this year.

Where rubber meets the rock

Plus, the event is billed as more of a family event. Spectators can see more than 75 percent of the 3-mile and 6-mile courses from raised terrain and take free hayrides to witness the rest of it. Plus the event will coincide with the Highland Games, a celebration of Celtic culture featuring bagpipes, kilts, and the type of endeavors you might see in strongman competitions.

“I didn’t want to put on just another fire-jumping, beer-drinking mud race,” Simpkins says. “I want to be know as the Highlander – a fun Scottish-themed event that you’re not afraid to bring your family to. There’s nothing wrong with beer-drinking races – and we have beer – but that’s not the emphasis.”

Name of Race: The Highlander

History: Debuts on Saturday, July 23, 2011 in Bartow

Debut July 23

Format: Three-mile and six-mile obstacle runs consisting of man-made and natural obstacles of mud and stone, dirt and water.

Amenities: T-shirts (with registration), lots of food and beverages available for purchase.

Signature Feature: Steep 150-foot waterslide plunge into muddy water

Projected Turnout: 500-plus

Cost: Very affordable compared to others in the category for (now expired) early bird registration, which started at $45. Race still a good value at $70 for the three-miler or $75 for the six-miler. Online registration ends today (July 18). Race day registration available.

Sign-Up: Online HERE

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