Tag Archives: Tough Mudder

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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SportsBusiness Journal Examines Obstacle Racing

By Pete Williams

Over the years I’ve written frequently for Street & Smith’s SportsBusiness Journal, which is a must-read for those who work in the business of sports.

I had not written for SBJ in several years but earlier this month they asked me to write a story taking a look at the booming growth in obstacle racing. The story is not available online, but you can take a look at a PDF of the piece, which appears in this week’s issue.

Front page/start of SportsBusiness Journal story

Inside magazine/remainder of SportsBusiness Journal story

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An Interview with Tough Mudder Founder Will Dean

By Pete Williams

Tough Mudder’s infamous ice plunge

We recently interviewed Tough Mudder founder Will Dean for a story on the growth of obstacle racing that will appear in next week’s edition of SportsBusiness Journal.

We spoke to more than a dozen people for that story. Dean talked at length about Tough Mudder and the future of this growing endurance sports category. Since only a few of those quotes were part of the SBJ story, we thought we’d include more of the interview here.

Dean, 31, might be the modern version of Fred Smith, the billionaire founder of FedEx who as a student at Yale in the early 1960s received little reaction from his professors after writing a paper proposing an overnight delivery service.

In 2009, Dean’s Harvard Business School professors thought his project for an event that would become Tough Mudder was unrealistic. These days Dean, who once worked as a civilian counter-terrorism officer in Great Britain, heads up the hottest race property in the endurance world. This year the Brooklyn-based Tough Mudder will attract 470,000 participants to its 35 events  and generate $70 million, including six-figure deals with a dozen sponsors. Dean says revenue will double in 2013.

Crawling under charged wires in Colorado (Photos by Dmitry Gudkov)

Tough Mudder, which only debuted in March of 2010, is not a race but a challenge. Athletes are encouraged to participate as a team in the 12-mile, off-road course, which includes obstacles that challenge the mind as much as the body. There are plenty of walls and ropes, but the event is best known for its dumpster of ice water, its electrically-charged gauntlet of wires, and its signature orange finisher’s headband.

Tough Mudder exploded at the same time Facebook became ubiquitous and that’s no coincidence. Dean says Tough Mudder has been Facebook’s No.1 advertiser, having spent millions on the social networking site. If you’ve spent any time on Facebook, you’ve no doubt seen pictures of muddy friends in their orange headbands. In many ways, Tough Mudder and its competitors such as Spartan Race and Warrior Dash have become the new triathlon, the Monday morning water cooler or Facebook bragging rights.

Tough Mudder, which debuted in Florida last year at Little Everglades Ranch in Pasco County near Tampa, returns to the Sunshine State Dec. 1-2 at the Hi Hat Ranch in Sarasota.

Here’s our interview with Dean:

Q: How big can this obstacle mud category grow?

A: In my mind you have really three distinct obstacle racing events. It’s like looking at road racing and putting 10K and marathon in the same group. They’re clearly quite different. Marathon is a category. Obstacle race is a pretty wide category. We would actively choose to exclude ourselves from the obstacle race group. There are no prizes at Tough Mudder; it’s not timed. There are no medals and the focus is on teamwork and camaraderie and lots of people helping each other. There are really few people treating it as a race.

Navigating the balance beam at Tough Mudder Georgia (Photos by Dmitry Gudkov)

There’s also Warrior Dash, which is a fantastic concept and absolutely no way am I belittling them. They’ve had phenomenal success, very smart guys. Great company culture, but they use the term “race” loosely. They’re as much about enjoying the post-race fun, having some beer and listening to music. I’m not saying anything controversial when I say that for most people in reasonable shape, Warrior Dash is not a very onerous event. It takes 20 or 30 minutes for most people. You spend more time in the post-race party than the event itself. Then you have Spartan Race, a very different business model than ours and doing very well but clearly an obstacle race

Q: What’s fueling interest in these events?

A: First, from a fitness perspective, the shift to functional fitness with P90X and CrossFit.  At Tough Mudder, we’ve positioned ourselves, if there is a category, at the high end of that. We expend a phenomenal amount of money on obstacle innovation and construction. I’m pretty confident that our budgets are significantly higher than the other muddy obstacle course challenges out there.

Running through fire at Tough Mudder Indiana/Illinois in June (Photos by Dmitry Gudkov)

People come for the obstacles, but it’s about creating a whole integrated user experience. It’s really a whole weekend concept and that speaks to the second thing, which I believe in very strongly: Experience is the new luxury good. Not just in the endurance space. People talk about what restaurant they’ve eaten at, climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro, bungee jumping, whatever. That’s far more important than what sort of iPhone you have and I think we’ve captured that.

One thing I realized early is that when people do their first marathon, they talk about how they hit the wall at mile 20 or mile 22 and how some person they’ve never met comes along and they run it in together. They talk about how meaningful that is for them, that shared experience and the bonding that comes with that.

At Tough Mudder, we try to create a variety of obstacles that test you in different ways. Regardless of your body type, shape and fitness, there will be something that will get you outside your comfort zone. We try to create that moment every 10 minutes, that moment of intense bonding on the course. I’m not a sociologist, but with Tough Mudder you realize that even though we live and work in a world where we’re surrounded by people, we really don’t have much meaningful interaction with people. Here in New York, we specialize in avoiding eye contact with each other on the subway or getting out of the car. There’s this irony that all this social networking gets us connected with more people but on the other hand it gets in the way of more meaningful connections.

Tough Mudder encourages teamwork, like at the Mt. Everest half pipe, shown here from the Indiana/Illinois event in June

At Tough Mudder, we created this very earnest, sincere, frankly kind of irreverent event that’s not a race, one that doesn’t take itself too seriously. We position ourselves as the opposite of the Ironman culture. You can help someone if they want assistance. Tough Mudder is about conquering your own Everest and being proud of what you’ve achieved. For some people it’s about getting around the course in an hour and 45 minutes and for other people it’s just about doing it.

Looking at the industry, Warrior Dash is in the fun mud run space. Tough Mudder is the tough obstacle course challenge and Spartan Race is about an integrated racing experience. And while superficially they look similar – we all have mud and walls – they’re three very different events and value propositions. People often ask me if Spartan Race is a competitor and I say not at all. It’s good for us in exactly the same way that for Boston that New York exists and vice versa in the marathon space. Tough Mudder is and always will be an event that’s about more than just the obstacles. People will call it a race because we have a start and a finish line and water stations in between that make it look like a race but that’s not what we aspire to do.

Monkey bars at Tough Mudder Florida last December

It’s this whole weekend experience where guys – and it is 80 percent men – get together for a weekend away and it’s almost a bachelor party for a lot of people. Tough Mudder is tough and it beats you up, but if you’re in good shape you’ll finish Tough Mudder and still walk to the bar that evening. You see a lot of people wearing their headbands to bars after and that speaks to the experience component of it.

Q: Your Harvard Business School professors didn’t think too much of Tough Mudder. What made you think it would work?

A: The vast majority of my professors said, “How are you going to sell a race that’s not a race?” You’re going to have huge liability issues and it will be a real challenge trying to scale this event. Business school professors are very intelligent people but it’s hard to imagine something that doesn’t exist. And a lot of (professors) struggled to envision a world where people would spend this amount of money on an event like this.

At the time I was in my late twenties doing triathlons and marathons and all people would ask is what my time was. That was the only metric. I’ve done races where people were screaming at me to get out of the way, especially in triathlons. I remember asking for help to get my wetsuit off in a triathlon and a guy said he couldn’t. It would have taken all of three seconds. It’s not like this is your profession. There’s no prize money at stake.

Dealing with iced barbwire in Pennsylvania in April (Photos by Dmitry Gudkov)

I believe there’s no such thing as a good business idea; there’s just good business execution and that comes down to having good people on the team. It all comes down to understanding what problem you can solve and why. I was this guy in my late twenties who enjoyed staying healthy, but I had a full-time job and I couldn’t spend lots of time in the gym. I wanted an event I could focus my training on that required more than aerobic fitness and I wasn’t looking for it to be a race. I knew I wasn’t alone in thinking that way. A lot of professors said it was a bad idea and that I should take a job with a large management consulting firm but I think you have to believe you’re an entrepreneur even if everyone else in the world is telling you that the baby you’re holding is ugly. You have to believe that it’s not.

Confined spaces and darkness are always part of Tough Mudder (Photos by Dmitry Gudkov)

Q: How do you address the liability issue?

A: Any activity is potentially high risk. It’s about building world-class systems and we’re very proud that nearly half a million people will do our events this year – after more than 150,000 last year – and we’ve had no fatalities. Statistically, over the course of any day at home watching TV, at least one of that many people might have had a heart attack.

Tough Mudder is about getting you out of your comfort zone. The adrenaline is pumping when you’re jumping into a dumpster full of ice, but it’s a somewhat controlled environment. And in some ways it’s like a high ropes course. You can say that if you fall it doesn’t matter because the harness is going to catch you after three feet. But your brain doesn’t think that way. What it sees is that, ‘Wow I’m 50 feet up here and if I fall I’m screwed.” One of our concerns is that there are hundreds of smaller events popping up. From a commercial perspective, having them do well is good for us. If the Des Moines Marathon does well, it’s good for Boston. But there’s always the danger of putting a lot of new players into the market. You have people who might not be aware of best safety practices. Tough Mudder has spent a lot of money working with the relevant safety people here and overseas to see that we meet and exceed safety standards. We have a $50 million general liability policy with Lloyd’s of London and we have to meet standards. It’s a big cost for us, but the far greater cost is providing all of the safety stuff, including 100-plus personnel at any event. We have ambulances, local hospitals briefed, and Medevac helicopters in place at more remote events.

Q: How has Tough Mudder drawn so many sponsors?

A: The days of being able to drop a lot of money on NBC and reach men in their 20s and 30s are gone. They’re looking for ways to engage with me. It’s a challenge and that’s why you see Super Bowl commercials selling for what they are. We’ve had 1,100 people have the Tough Mudder logo tattooed on them and that speaks to the engagement people have.

Tough Mudder is a real life Fight Club. You have obstacle racing, but Tough Mudder is this beast in an off itself. We have very high levels of Facebook engagement. If you look at our major sponsors – Bic, Under Armour, EAS, Dos Equis – they know there are lots of places with 20,000 or more people in one place. A stadium, sports event, wherever. But where else can you have this many people with a clear purpose in mind? They’re not just thinking about a game for two hours, but thinking of this experience for weeks leading up to it and they have real pride. They’ll wear the headband to work. Brands realize that we have something really unique, a fantastic activation program.

Log carry during Tough Mudder Pennsylvania in April (Photos by Dmitry Gudkov)

Q: How fast is Tough Mudder growing?

A: We’re hoping for a million participants in 2013. We’ll be at $70 million this year and that should double next year. We have a 50,000 square foot warehouse in Brooklyn and six 53-foot trailers. That will double next year. We also have warehouses in the UK, Canada, and Australia. It’s like a traveling circus. For a typical event, we’ll have 10 to 15 of our headquarters-based staff and another 200 staff plus volunteers. At out Sydney (Australia) event (Sept. 22-23) we’ll have 40,000 participants and easily could have had 70,000 if we did not have to cut it off because of the venue’s capacity.

Q: It sounds like Tough Mudder is huge in Australia.

A: Earlier this year we had an event in Melbourne. I touched down at the airport, having never been to Australia. The immigration officials assumed I was from Great Britain, but I said I lived in New York and worked for Tough Mudder. When I mentioned I was the CEO, all these immigration officials came over. Many were doing the event that weekend. It’s all still amazing to me because if you look at the original business plan, which I have new employees read, we projected 7,500 people competing in year four. Now we’re heading into year four and will hit one million.


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Dirty Foot II – More Obstacles, More Muck

By Pete Williams

Dirty Foot mystery goo

FORT MEADE – The second edition of the Dirty Foot Adventure Run could be a preview of the next evolution of obstacle racing. Race director Geno Stopowenko added to the degree of difficulty of the 6.4-mile course, inserting five creative obstacles that required navigating through moving culverts, rappelling down ropes of up to 12 feet, and climbing between walls.

Only 400 or so athletes showed for the second Dirty Foot race in 90 days and we’re not about to complain about that. Not on a day when 15,000 athletes in the Washington D.C. area reportedly got stuck in Tough Mudder traffic for up to six hours.

Here in Florida, we’re guessing organizers such as Dirty Foot will find a profitable niche by hosting smaller events on their own property where obstacles can be left up permanently. Since hosting 900 athletes for a well-received debut Dirty Foot race on June 8, Stopowenko and his staff spent the last 90 days adding new obstacles unlike any we’ve seen.

Those included the “Head Hunter,” where athletes climbed a rope, navigated a short culvert tunnel and rappelled down a rope. For the “Back Bender,” athletes went through a small door and found themselves between walls. They scaled footholds up 10 feet and rappelled down another rope. Then there was the “Swinging Culverts,” hanging culverts on an incline that moved as the runners went through; a volunteer gave the culverts an added push.

“We pride ourselves on coming up with challenging obstacles that no one else has thought of,” Stopowenko says.

Dirty Foot “Back Breaker”

We’ve seen a trend toward more technical courses featuring less running and more challenging obstacles. Stopowenko says he’s trying to provide an added challenge for those who want it (sort of the Spartan Race model). For those who don’t, teamwork is encouraged (the Tough Mudder formula).

Dirty Foot II also provided perhaps the gnarliest obstacle we’ve come across. After hearing complaints about his 100-yard crawl under wire on a tarp through crushed watermelons, Stopowenko replaced the fruit with a thick, white, gooey substance that some speculated was engine grease or, well, something else.

“We do have a lot of cows,” Stopowenko joked.

Actually, the substance is not automotive and completely non-toxic, though a bit of a challenge to wash out. Stopowenko told us what it is, but asked that we not reveal it to prevent other races from copying it.

The course again featured a race-ending leap from a 12-foot platform into a small pond and a 150-yard swim to the finish, with a tow rope provided for those who needed it. Between the added obstacles and a longer course (6.4 miles as opposed to 6.1 in June), finish times were longer; I needed an additional seven minutes.

Given the distance of the race and the relatively low cost for obstacle races – $44 to $65 depending on registration, along with $10 per car parking – Dirty Foot is one of the better values in the industry, though we’re guessing gas prices approaching $4 a gallon make it a challenge to draw athletes to an area that’s not far from everywhere, but not especially close to anywhere.

Near the finish

Dirty Foot was to have hosted Tough Mudder in December before the event moved to Sarasota when Polk County officials denied a permit over traffic and noise concerns. Such a decision could look prudent after Tough Mudder’s traffic issues today near Frederick, Maryland, where its first D.C.-area event was reportedly marred by traffic tie-ups of up to six hours.

Stopowenko says he still believes a Tough Mudder at Dirty Foot would have gone off without a hitch since there’s nothing but groves and ranches – and no stoplights – for 10 miles approaching the property, which would have helped traffic flow. And it’s unlikely Tough Mudder would have drawn 34,000 athletes (as they did in Maryland this weekend) to Central Florida, where there are obstacle races most every weekend.

But after leasing the property to the one-and-done Iron Crusader race last fall, Stopowenko and his staff have proven themselves capable of putting on quality events. Stopowenko says he’ll stage another race in February or March and is toying with the idea of a shorter course on Saturday and a longer, more technical event of up to 8 miles on Sunday.

We’re looking forward to that.

All except the grease, anyway.


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Going Inside the Box

By Pete Williams

There’s a popular perception of CrossFit, the bare-bones fitness craze that has swept the nation in the last three years. Think lean, ripped, tattooed Millennials grinding their way through intense anaerobic sessions in sweaty Spartan “boxes” lasting as little as 10 minutes. Lots of Olympic lifting, Burpees, and cheating – er “kipping” – pullups.

Running? That seems like it has little to do with CrossFit.

T.J. Murphy, a longtime endurance athlete and journalist who joined us today on The Fitness Buff Show, says that’s pretty much the view of CrossFit he had 15 months ago when he stumbled into a CrossFit “box” in Los Angeles. Newly-divorced, 47, and suffering from a litany of injuries from 15 years of heavy endurance training, Murphy was willing to try anything.

What he found, as chronicled in his terrific new book Inside the Box: How CrossFit Shredded the Rules, Stripped Down the Gym, and Rebuilt My Body, is that a lot of the popular perceptions of CrossFit are inaccurate. CrossFit coaches spend a lot of time identifying and helping athletes correct muscle imbalances and ease athletes into the program so they don’t blow out a joint performing a deadlift of overhead squat. CrossFit places a heavy emphasis on nutrition, advocating a hybrid plan of Paleo and The Zone Diet. As for the kipping pullups, even the most skeptical trainers see the value in them for developing core strength.

Murphy’s book chronicles his own journey into CrossFit and how ex-gymnast Greg Glassman built a loose empire of 4,000 CrossFit affiliates (up from just 13 in 2005) based on the notion that “constantly varying” workouts of short duration and high intensity that prepare athletes for any physical challenge imaginable are the best way to train.

CrossFitters are notorious for disliking running. Though CrossFit has a sister program, CrossFit Endurance, most CF disciples seem content to focus on body-sculpting WODs that stay inside the box. Even though Tough Mudder and Spartan Race closely align themselves with CrossFit, some CrossFitters struggle with the distance of longer obstacle races.

That’s not to say CrossFit can’t be good training for endurance sports. Quite the contrary. We’ve found the obstacle race training sessions very effective at CrossFit affiliate TNL Tampa, where trainer Eric Stratman includes runs ranging from 400 meters to 2 miles into a typical obstacle training WOD on Saturday mornings.

Murphy, now 48, thought he needed knee replacement surgery in the summer of 2011, but plans to return to running now that CrossFit has corrected his muscle imbalances, eliminated his back pain, and left him feeling energized in the morning rather than like a creaky old man getting out of bed. He’s going to apply CrossFit to his marathon and triathlon training, figuring the efficient nature of CF will enable him to get faster while logging far fewer miles.

Though there now seems to be a CrossFit box in every office park in America, we’re guessing CrossFit will only get bigger – especially as endurance athletes discover the value of getting inside the box.

Listen to our Fitness Buff interview with T.J. Murphy HERE.

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Spartan Race Coming to Fenway Park

By Pete Williams

Guarding the Spartan Race finish line

Spartan Race, the grueling obstacle race series featuring penalties of 30 Burpees for each challenge not completed, is taking its show to Fenway Park, the historic, 100-year-old home of the Boston Red Sox.

Spartan Race typically sets up in remote areas, staging events of between 3 and 12 miles and consisting of 15 to 25 obstacles. The Fenway Park event will be a one-mile time trial taking place entirely within the ballpark on Nov. 17.

Unlike other obstacle events, Spartan Race does not provide course information beforehand. Joe DeSena, the creator of Spartan Race, would say that Fenway’s signature feature, the Green Monster left field wall, will come into play.

DeSena, who is friends with former Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein, says he was contacted by the Red Sox to put on the race, the team’s latest foray into non-baseball events. For about 30 years beginning in 1973, Fenway Park was used exclusively for baseball. Since 2003, the Sox have staged everything from Bruce Springsteen and Rolling Stones concerts to the NHL’s Winter Classic.

Though the Fenway version of the Spartan Race is just one mile long, it’s priced like a regular Spartan event – or a Red Sox game. It’s a whopping $110 to register through June 17 and escalates to $150 through Nov. 9. DeSena says the event is likely to sell out by Aug. 1, with 10,000 competitors expected to participate in what likely will end up being extended over two days.

Thirty Burpees – Standard Spartan Race penalty

Even spectator tickets cost a whopping $40.

“You go to Starbucks for breakfast you end up spending forty bucks,” DeSena says.

DeSena, a Queens native who grew up a New York Yankees fan, made a small fortune on Wall Street before moving to Pittsfield, Vermont, where he operates a small resort hotel. An avid endurance athlete who once completed 12 Ironman triathlons in a year, he created the Spartan Death Race in 2005 because he believed Ironman and other ultra-distance events did not present a big enough challenge.

Athletes competing in The Death Race, held annually in Pittsfield in mid-June, do not know how long the event will take place, what it will entail, or even the exact starting time. Last year’s event kicked off with competitors deadlifting rocks for six hours. The event had a religious theme and at one point athletes carried logs on their backs for 24 hours. The Death Race continued for 45 hours before DeSena called it with just 35 of the 155 athletes remaining.

The Spartan Race, launched in 2010, is a scaled-down version of The Death Race consisting of the Spartan Sprint (3-mile), Super Spartan (8-mile), and Spartan Beast (12-mile plus) events. Athletes typically haul heavy objects such as five-gallon buckets of gravel, drag concrete blocks, climb walls, flip tires, and run a race-ending gauntlet of guys dressed as 300 Spartan warriors wielding double-sided mallets.

Athletes also must perform challenges relating to the host property. At a Virginia event last summer at a paintball facility, athletes had to dodge gunfire and successfully hit a target from 10 yards away.

Spartans…Prepare for glory!

Failure to do so earned the athlete 30 Burpees, the standard penalty for not completing challenges. Athletes typically do three or four sets of Burpees, which makes Spartan Race arguably tougher than other events in the category, including Tough Mudder, which do not issue penalties.

Tough Mudder, like Spartan Race, debuted in 2010 and now hosts dozens of events worldwide. Each series is likely to clear $50 million in revenue this year. Unlike Spartan Race, which issues timing chips and awards points in a year-long race series, Tough Mudder does not market its events as competitions but team-building exercises.

Boston’s average high temperature for November is 52 degrees with a low of 38. DeSena said the cold and threat of ice and snow will only add to the Spartan challenge. The Fenway Park race could be the first of several ballpark Spartan Races, though athletes in Central Florida should not get excited about a Tropicana Field event.

“We put on very unique events, the only truly competitive events and fans of the Red Sox are pretty competitive people,” DeSena says. “We want to do more of these – but only in the best of the best stadiums.”

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Savage Race Heads to Little Everglades for Fall Race

By Pete Williams

In March, Savage Race attracted more than 5,000 athletes, including ESPN anchor Stuart Scott (above/photos courtesy Savage Race)

Savage Race, the popular Florida-based mud run that adopted several of Tough Mudder’s obstacles for its race in March, now will use a venue Tough Mudder had great success with in 2011.

Little Everglades Ranch, which drew nearly 20,000 participants over two days in December for the inaugural Florida edition of Tough Mudder, will host what will be the third edition of Savage Race on Oct. 20. Little Everglades is located in Pasco County in Dade City, more convenient to Tampa than the Clermont site Savage Race used in March and for its first race last August.

Savage Race is the most successful of the Florida-based mud runs, drawing more than 5,000 participants in March. Building on the success of its first race in 2011, Savage Race in March expanded its course to nearly 5 miles and added several obstacles similar to those of Tough Mudder, including a “Shriveled Richard” ice plunge like Tough Mudder’s Chernobyl Jacuzzi, and a 10-foot leap off of “Davy Jones’ Locker” into a lake.

Sam Abbitt, the co-founder of Savage Race, says the intent has never been to mimic Tough Mudder. He points out that Tough Mudder stresses camaraderie and a non-race format. Savage Race, on the other hand, is a chip-timed event with awards to top finishers. Savage Race packs about the same number of obstacles – roughly two dozen – into a course less than half the length of Tough Mudder.

“A lot of races have similar obstacles but we’ve done a lot to differentiate ourselves from other races,” Abbitt says. “We call our race a race and give you more obstacles per mile so you spend more time on the obstacles and less time running.”

Tough Mudder’s decision in February to move the 2012 event away from Little Everglades was a surprise, though a Tough Mudder official said at the time the race series likes to vary its venues. Tough Mudder will take place Dec. 1-2 in Fort Meade at Dirty Foot Adventures, which will host its own event, the inaugural Dirty Foot Adventure Run, on June 9.

Abbitt said Savage Race moved to Little Everglades because it had outgrown its Clermont location, where a lack of parking had become an issue. Though the Little Everglades property, which hosts major equestrian and high school cross country events, can host long races such as the 12-mile Tough Mudder, Abbitt says he does not plan to expand Savage Race beyond six miles.

A number of Florida-based mud runs have sprung up in the last two years to challenge national event series such as Tough Mudder, Warrior Dash, and Spartan Race, all of which have built eight-figure businesses in a short period, staging dozens of events around the world. Savage Race seems the most likely to grow beyond the Sunshine State.

Abbitt says Savage Race will expand beyond Florida in 2013, with dates planned in Maryland, Georgia, North Carolina, and Texas.

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Goruck Challenge: Embracing the Suck

By Pete Williams

TAMPA – They assembled in the waning hours of Good Friday along a windy stretch of Tampa Bay at the end of Bayshore Boulevard called Ballast Point Park.

Thirty-two athletes clad in black, mostly in their thirties but ranging in age from early twenties to late forties – 20 men and 12 women – gathered in the parking lot packing the rucks they would hump for the next 8 to 10 hours, possibly more, as they got a taste of Special Operations training. The Goruck Challenge, created by 30-year-old Jason McCarthy as a way to promote his $295 rucksacks modeled after the ones he used in the Middle East as a Green Beret, quietly has overtaken Tough Mudder, Spartan Race, and probably even Ironman to become the most challenging event in endurance sports.

That’s because participants must fill their packs with water bladders, supplies, and bricks: six if you weigh more than 150 pounds, four if you weigh less. The rucks rarely come off during the event. “I trained my ass off to get down to 148,” says one male competitor, who has brought along a scale in case he needs to produce evidence.

His colleagues use the scale to weigh their packs. One six-brick pack comes in at 44.5 pounds, the next at 30. Apparently there’s a big difference between regular bricks and “patio” bricks.

This group is the 143rd “class” to take the Goruck Challenge since it debuted in September of 2010 and the event now moves all over the world. McCarthy and his fellow eight cadre have military backgrounds, most as Green Berets, but the Goruck experience is as much Fight Club as military.

Even after 18 months, the event still flies under the radar. Tampa is a hotbed of endurance sports – triathlon, obstacle racing, trail and road running – but Class 143 consists mostly of members of a CrossFit gym who drove over from Lakeland. Goruck has a Web site – actually two, one for the challenge, one for the ruck – but there is no advertising. Even the cadre retain the shroud of mystery from their Special Forces days.

Cadre "Lou"

At 11:55 p.m. I get a text. “I’m in the silver Jeep Liberty. You here?”

The cadre is among the athletes but yet invisible, setting the tone for the evening. He’s letting me hang with the group for the night as a journalist. As I approach the driver’s side window, it becomes clear his name – Lou – probably is an alias, perhaps left over from his Special Forces days. He’s a dead ringer for Lou Diamond Phillips, a 6-foot-4, Rock of Gibraltar version, and his age and ethnicity are impossible to peg.

Classes begin at 10 p.m. or, like this one, 1 a.m. Nobody knows how long it will last or what exactly it will entail, though the GRC almost always involves carrying tree trunks and telephone poles. Long distances. You will get wet. Often.

It sucks. “They will learn to embrace the suck,” Lou tells me, getting out of the Liberty. “You have to focus on the task at hand, not the next 10 or 14 hours or you will fail.”

For this joyride entrants pay between $120 and $160 depending on how far in advance they register. The official Goruck packs – the GR1 is recommended – costs $295, though participants can bring whatever pack they want at their own peril. About half go for the GR1.

At 1:11 a.m. Lou appoints a team leader. This guy will relay Lou’s missions and keep his finger on the pulse of the group. Mike has the group fall out into the “PT Pit” in four lines of eight, then eight lines of four. Lou walks around, inspecting open packs.

“Do not call me sir,” Lou says. “I’m Lou. I work for a living. I have 18 years in Special Operations, two years with Wounded Warrior and a Ph.D in chaos. I’ve traveled the world thanks to the U.S. Army. Is that understood?”

“Yes, Lou!”

Crab walking to the water

“If you have to go to the bathroom, go now. Only go somewhere with a battle buddy. Your safety is my primary concern. You may not think so, but I’ll be evaluating you constantly. We’re not out here to crush you. There’s no training value to that. You will get out of your comfort zone but your safety is my utmost concern.”

Lou paces slowly. “Bags will never touch the ground. Bags touch the ground, bad shit happens. Don’t try to be an individual. Be an individual, bad shit happens. Milton Bradley calls me for fucking games.” More pacing. “Most importantly, have fun. Smile. It’s not that bad. I only have you for 12 to 14 hours. Cadre did it for three weeks just to get into Special Ops. So smile, embrace the suck, and you’ll have fun.”

At 1:29 a.m., Lou tells the group to put their packs on. Flags, including the one the group must carry for the duration, snap in the wind whipping off Tampa Bay. The group is facing the water, just 20 yards away, but there’s a dock 100 yards to their right through the parking lot. Lou orders them to the dock and into the water.

One minute later, they’re back in formation. Twenty push-ups and back into the water. The next hour is spent shuttling back and forth to the dock. Flutter kicks, more push-ups, mountain climbers. Crab walking to the water, bear crawling back. The packs never come off. Lou never raises his voice, but his nicotine baritone expresses disgust with every effort.

At one point, Lou asks, “Who’s familiar with monkey fuckers?”

Remarkably, two hands go up. The guys come to the front of the class and demonstrate a deep squat, grab-your-ankles move that looks like, well, it doesn’t meet with Lou’s approval anyway. “You guys suck. Thirty count monkey fuckers.”

Back to the water and then more mountain climbers. “Everyone, drink water,” Lou says. “Team leader, it’s up to you to monitor water. When you get low, let me know. Now back in the water. All I want to see are heads.”

More trips into the surf, crab walking and bear crawling. An additional 25-pound pack is shuffled among the group, the mandatory additional team weight that must be carried. GRC 143 has filled its team pack with cans of beer. Lou approves. Lou loves beer. It’s one of the few things Lou will outwardly approve of all night. Lou dislikes moving slowly, indecision, drunks, and a certain breed of man.

“I’m on a quest this year to save the American male from the European invasion,” Lou announces shortly before 2 a.m. “Be on the lookout tonight for men in Spandex and tight jeans. Our No.1 rule is to always look cool. Men in Spandex?” Lou pauses, shaking his head. “Nobody wants to see your junk.”

More crab walking back to the surf. The rucks are shuffled to the chest for crab walks. “We’re building six-pack abs, getting you ready for beach season,” Lou says. “Some of you are thinking of paying for the fucking Brazilian Butt Lift. Now you won’t have to.”

At 2:10, Lou assigns the group a mission. There’s a nuclear submarine under the dock that must be retrieved. Actually it’s a hunk of tree with jagged branches. The group pulls it out quickly and returns to the PT Pit for a 20-count set of military presses with the rucks. More push-ups and water.

“Anyone cold?” Lou asks.

“Yes, Lou!”


Lou has the group pair up with partners of comparable size. It’s time for the fireman’s carry, a tough move in normal circumstances, let alone cold, wet, tired, and wearing a pack.

The women execute it well and head to the surf. Two pairs of men go down hard. Packs smack and heads hit asphalt. The buddy carry exercise ends as Lou orders everyone into the surf. This time they stay a while, huddled together for warmth. “If you have to pee, go now,” someone says.

It’s 2:28 a.m. Lou summons six of the largest guys. Beyond the dock is a six-foot length of railroad tie. It’s a downed pilot that must be transported to Tampa’s SoHo District about eight miles away. While the six get a handle on the pilot, Lou lights a cigarette and orders the rest of the group out of the water.

“Mass together and take advantage of the body heat,” Lou says. “There’s nothing sexual going on; you all stink. Someone’s getting a rise out of this, you’ve got issues.”

At 2:35 comes the first casualty. A guy has tweaked a chronic right knee injury. A buddy offers to drive him home. The group is down to 30.

Ten minutes later, the group finally leaves Ballast Point Park, running down Bayshore. They have 30 minutes to get the downed pilot to SoHo. The six guys up front have the railroad tie in a litter of sorts, but they can’t hold it for long. Another group of six moves up to take the pilot.

“We’re jogging, not walking,” Lou says. “You want to walk, do Warrior Dash.”

Lou miscalculates the time necessary to get to SoHo. No matter. Not his problem.  The next two hours are spent crawling up Bayshore, often literally. Lou moves the group onto the grassy median strip and onto their bellies. The front six push the pilot. Each group lasts about 20 yards before moving to the back. Shadows fall over Bayshore from streetlights and the accent lights of mansions.

They pass a sign: easterisnear.com. Twenty-one hours, actually.

Lou takes note of the group commando-crawling up the Bayshore grass in two columns. They’ve grown close, literally, with 18 men and 12 women remaining. “Some of you don’t have a good view,” Lou says. “Oh well. Some of you have a good view. You’re welcome.”

At 3:48, Lou asks if anybody knows the depth of the water off Bayshore. A brick comes out of a pack and is lowered. Unfortunately for the group, it’s only two feet deep. Lou orders everyone over Bayshore’s Corinthian column wall and into the water. This doesn’t happen quickly enough and soon the group is getting an even better/worse view of one another, aligned ankle-to-shoulder on the sidewalk for inchworm push-ups.

“You didn’t take a course of action,” Lou says. “Let’s see if we can light a fire under your ass and make shit happen. This is what happens when we don’t act as a team and get scared over two feet of water.”

At 4:10, the group is in the water, walking single file along the wall up Bayshore – quietly. They’re behind enemy lines now.

Lou walks along the sidewalk and lights another cigarette. “They’re smiling, which is good,” he says. “They’re learning to embrace the suck and how you have to have a sense of humor. The mind controls the body, not vice versa. I love the sense of accomplishment people get out of this and that’s one of the major things they take out of it.”

The group is doing well, Lou says, but breakdowns in communication typically take place around 5 a.m. when sleep deprivation really kicks in and athletes completely lose track of time. (Watches and cell phones are not allowed.)

At 4:30 the group approaches a staircase out of the water. Not an option. They must lift everyone over the wall, which they accomplish quickly. As a reward, and to warm-up, they do 15 push-ups.

Two women and a guy run by. “What are you guys doing out here?” the guy asks.

“It’s the Goruck Challenge,” Lou says, in a tone that suggests the crazy ones are the ones up at 4:30 on Saturday to go for a jog. He shakes his head as they fade into the darkness. “Good luck training for the 5K.”

At 4:46, they finally arrive at Howard Ave. Mike is relieved of his team leader duties after nearly four hours and gets a round of applause as Angie, a petite blonde takes over. Another change comes as they must carry their rucks – no use of shoulder straps.

By 5:15, they’re in the Bern’s Steakhouse parking garage. “This is a weird place for a parking garage,” Lou says, struggling to grasp that the white warehouse-looking building across the street actually is one of America’s finest restaurants. Lou orders the group up the five flights of stairs. Each time down, they’re challenged to guess Lou’s age. Three times back up.

Finally, at 5:58 a.m, a pitstop at a SoHo convenience store. Water bottles are refilled, additional snacks purchased, restrooms used. “What are you guys, a flash mob?” somebody asks.

“It’s the Goruck Challenge,” Lou says.

The Inchworm Push-Up

Heading down Platt Street at 6:35 a.m., Lou points out a downed telephone pole. It’s unclear how Goruck positions such items conveniently along the course. McCarthy and Lou are vague on how they prepare. Just another part of the Goruck mystery.

Smiling even though Bern's is closed

The group struggles to get a convenient handle on the log. The women are the issue. They’re plenty strong, but the height differential is throwing off the balance. It’s decided the girls will carry the guys’ packs as the guys deal with the log. They head down Plant Street toward downtown, log on one shoulder, periodically shifting shoulders in a three-count move that requires some choreography.

At 6:45, Lou drops to the ground and does 20 push-ups. No particular reason. In the last 90 minutes, he has consumed Budweiser, coffee, a Monster energy drink, and a number of cigarettes.

At 7:29, the sun is up and we’re in downtown Tampa. Lou lets the group ditch the log and it’s time for a group photo along Ashley Street. It’s also time to lose the writer/photographer. I had set up a 10 a.m. group training session at Dirty Foot Adventures in Fort Meade, site of both the Dirty Foot Adventure Run on June 9 and Tough Mudder in December.

Tough Mudder. That event suddenly didn’t look so tough. McCarthy and some of his Green Beret buddies went to one of the first Tough Mudders and field tested the Gorucks, weighted down with bricks, after drinking beer all night.

After I left, the group did countless lunges along the Tampa Riverwalk, advanced to the Florida Aquarium for another group photo and headed back to Bayshore, going back into the water. There were Indian drills where the person in back had to run to the front, and Lou’s dislike of the European male influence became a factor.

Men in Spandex or biker shorts were deemed threats and the group had to drop to a knee whenever one was spotted. If Lou saw the threat first, that meant casualties. The 12 guys had to fireman’s carry the women and the remaining eight guys had to carry all the packs – for nearly two miles.

The group eventually made it to MacDill Air Force Base and the memorial for special forces units before Lou declared it a day at 12:15 p.m.

Just five hours left to go!

Eleven hours and 15 minutes, covering more than 23 miles.

For their efforts, team members received 2×3 inch Goruck patches and some crazy memories of a guy who would disappear in his silver Jeep Liberty and reappear at Ballast Point Park later that evening for a 10 p.m. class.

Class 143 wouldn’t soon forget their night with Lou.

Or whoever the hell he is.

(Listen to Fitness Buff Show interview with Goruck Challenge founder Jason McCarthy)


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Tackling the Goruck Challenge

By Pete Williams

At 1 o’clock Saturday morning in downtown Tampa, a group of 80 to 100 people will begin a grueling, all-night physical challenge consisting of Burpees, push-ups, hauling logs, and non-stop running while wearing heavy-duty, military-grade backpacks containing four or six bricks apiece.

They will spend the next 8 to 10 hours covering 15 to 20 miles and the trip could take them virtually anywhere from Ybor City to MacDill Air Force Base. Watches and cell phones are not allowed. Headlamps and layers of clothing are required, though the latter is less of an issue in the Florida heat.

These people have nothing to do with the military, though the cadre accompanying them have Special Operations backgrounds, most as Green Berets. The participants have paid between $120 and $160 apiece to get a taste of Special Ops training, pushing their mental and physical limits, and serving as walking billboards for the backpacks they wear.

It’s all part of the Goruck Challenge, which began as a way for Jason McCarthy to market his $295 Goruck ruck sacks, high-end, indestructible backpacks modeled after the rucks he used as a Green Beret fighting in the Middle East.

The Goruck Challenge typically includes famous landmarks.

McCarthy, who graduated from The Bolles School in Jacksonville and recently earned an MBA at Georgetown, figured his U.S.-manufactured rucks would be difficult to market at that price point. He and some fellow Green Berets competed in one of the first Tough Mudder races in the weighted Gorucks. The gang had fun, but McCarthy figured he could create his own challenge that more closely mimicked Special Forces training.

Obstacle races give competitors the option of working together but there’s no choice in Goruck, where one cadre works with teams of up to 30 people. Each has a weighted backpack and teams must collectively haul additional weight. A typical challenge is carrying a 1,000-pound tree trunk for up to a half mile. Another staple is running Indian style, where the last person in line must sprint ahead and become the leader. If a team member can’t go on at any point, s/he must be carried.

“The rule that matters the most is that they work together,” McCarthy told us this week on The Fitness Buff Show. “For the individual it’s a rollercoaster. You give 1,000 percent for an hour, but maybe for the next hour you don’t have that stamina and that’s when your buddy has to pick you up and vice versa. It’s every bit a team event and showing their failures as an individual so they can see the power of working together. The challenge is a metaphor for life.”

The cadre are not drill sergeants but rather assign missions, appoint group leaders, and dole out penalties. McCarthy himself is among the eight cadre in the mix, though he won’t be in Tampa this weekend. With 62 events scheduled the rest of the year, some with multiple “classes” over the course of a weekend, McCarthy can’t make all of them, which include Florida stops in Orlando (May 19-20), Fort Lauderdale (Nov. 17-18), and Jacksonville (Nov. 24-25).

Getting wet is expected in Goruck.

The events typically stick around urban areas, but given their overnight scheduling don’t tend to disrupt traffic and only attract a few curious onlookers. The event has a 98 percent completion rate, but McCarthy says the non-finishers include a man who had completed six Ironman triathlons. A number of people return for multiple Gorucks, to the point where McCarthy has created Goruck Selection, a 48-hour-plus version of the Challenge designed to mimic the Special Forces Qualification Course.

“There’s a feeling  at the end of the challenge that you’ve accomplished something,” McCarthy says. “Camaraderie is so high in the military because you spend time being miserable with people and there’s no substitue for that. People want to see how they respond under mental and physical stress.”

Listen to our interview with Goruck Challenge creator Jason McCarthy

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Training for Triathlons via Obstacle Races

By Pete Williams

Triathlon and obstacle race training complement each other well, except when it comes to wardrobe.

Are obstacle races the new triathlons? Judging by the unbridled growth of Spartan Race, Tough Mudder, Warrior Dash, and other events at a time when interest in triathlon seems flat, that might be the case.

Perhaps the bigger question is whether obstacle racing is a more effective way to train than slogging it out via swim-bike-run, which can be repetitive, monotonous, and potentially damaging to the joints.

Last year I did fewer triathlons but completed six obstacle races. This year I’ve done three obstacle races (Warrior Dash, Spartan Race, Savage Race), although tri season has not started.

With the Escape from Fort DeSoto (April 14) and St. Anthony’s (April 29) triathlons rapidly approaching, it dawned on me Friday that I’m way behind on triathlon training. Aside from races, I’ve been on my bike just once since August and have been in a pool just four times since Halloween.

But I’ve done a lot of obstacle race training – integrated strength and interval running sessions that might be the most efficient way to train. I had a hunch that work had put me on track to be ready for next month’s triathlons. This past weekend would be an interesting case study.

On Saturday a dozen friends entrusted me with leading an obstacle race training session at Siesta Key Beach in Sarasota. I brought no equipment other than a few small cones to mark off distance. Anything else we’d have to find on the beach.

Here’s what I came up with, borrowing pieces from books I’ve had the honor of writing with Mark Verstegen and Brody Welte:

Warm-up (knee hugs, lateral lunges, drop lunges, butt kickers, leg throwdowns, donkey pulls)

5-10-5 shuttle run (3 times through)

1/4 mile run

Park bench routine (alternating pushups/dips) 12-10-8-4-2 (concrete slabs used instead of park bench)

1/4 mile run

Burpees (12)

300 yard run to volleyball net, simulating blocking on both sides

100 yard run

Park bench routine – 6-4-2

400 yard sprint to finish

We started around 11 a.m. and the heat added to the degree of difficulty, but since most obstacle races take place mid-day, that was appropriate. It was typical of a lot of workouts I’ve done during the last six months, a few of which I’ve chronicled on ABC Action News here in the Tampa Bay area.

On Sunday, I returned to my triathlon training group for the first time since November and just the second time in the last year. This is a group I struggle to keep up with on a good day and figured I’d get dropped early on the 30-mile ride because of the layoff.

Instead I hung on with no problem, took a stint pulling early in the ride, and managed a five-mile run after.

This doesn’t mean one form of training is necessarily better, though there’s a tendency in triathlon training to drift into long, slow distance training instead of more effective interval sessions. Obstacle race training forces you to stay on target.

Bottom line is variety is the most important element of any workout regimen.

That and having great friends as training partners.

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Filed under Running, Triathlon