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.
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.