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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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Filed under Races, Running, SUP, Swimming, Triathlon

The Amazing Story of Matt Miller

By Pete Williams

Matt Miller had no business surviving a bicycle accident in November 2008. The 20-year-old University of Virginia student and triathlete collided with an oncoming Porsche along the Blue Ridge Parkway, smashing into the vehicle with his face.

He broke every bone in his face, essentially lost all of his teeth, and experienced severe brain trauma. Remarkably, the first person on the scene was an anesthesiologist, who knew how to position his head. That was the first of a series of fortunate circumstances that got him alive to the University of Virginia hospital, where doctors gave him little chance of surviving 72 hours, at least without permanent brain damage.

Instead, Miller walked out of the hospital in 25 days, scored a 95 on a makeup physics exam with a class average of 65, and two years later completed Ironman Cozumel in a top 10 percent time of 10:30 — during his first semester of medical school, no less.

As an undergraduate, he shadowed a doctor at the University of Virginia hospital. His family’s medical background goes back to his maternal great, great grandfather, a Civil War surgeon and Virginia graduate.

If Matt Miller’s story was a work of fiction, it would seem too farfetched. That might explain why Michael Vitez, a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer who chronicled Miller’s recovery for The Philadelphia Inquirer, was rejected by fifteen New York book publishers who no doubt are waiting for the next Kardashian book proposal.

Thankfully, Vitez decided to self-publish the book via CreateSpace.com and the result, The Road Back: A Journey of Grace and Grit, is an adrenaline-charged book that I read in one sitting after downloading Monday morning. Vitez won a Pulitzer for a series of stories on five people as they dealt with the end of their lives. He also wrote a book called Rocky stories, spending a year interviewing people who ran the “Rocky steps” at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Those themes resonate in The Road Back, where Miller’s family spends three agonizing days wondering if he’s going to make it. Miller even has a shy, pretty girlfriend, Emily, who for weeks spends nights at his hospital bedside even as his face is mangled far beyond anything Rocky endured. (The two are still together, fellow medical students at the University of Pennsylvania, and, well, we won’t spoil the ending.)

Miller, a walk-on swimmer at the University of Virginia who quit the team after one year to focus on triathlon, showed a superhuman tolerance for pain and proving medical experts wrong. He was studying his physics texts in bed within days of emerging from major brain trauma. He found a way to consume nearly 4,000 calories a day with his jaw wired shut and underwent eight root canals in one day with minimal painkillers. While still in the hospital, he got his former swim coach Mark Bernardino’s calves burning as they walked stairwells together.

Vitez, a University of Virginia graduate who in the late 1970s edited a Cavalier Daily student newspaper staff that included classmate Katie Couric, learned of Miller’s story early in 2009 while playing poker with a co-worker of Miller’s father. A gifted storyteller, Vitez soon was in Charlottesville chronicling Miller’s recovery and marveling like everyone else at his upbeat personality.

Perhaps the most poignant moment in the book is when someone finally handed Miller a mirror in the hospital. He just shrugged at the sight of his disfigured face that would require many more surgeries.

“Beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” says Vitez, who joined us on The Fitness Buff Show. “I sent a draft of the book to my agent and she sent it back. She didn’t believe it and told me to go back and talk to him some more. She thought there must have been a point where he was devastated and I wasn’t going deep enough. And I went back and asked again and again, but I found that Matt felt that as long as his girlfriend was with him and that there was no hesitation on her part, that he was fine. He said, ‘I’m a vain guy. I used to be upset about a pimple on my face. It’s not that I don’t care how I look, but I’m up thinking and walking, living my life, and Emily was still in love with me and the rest didn’t matter.'”

Three months after the accident, Miller jumped into a pool for the first time, swam a 100 free in 59 seconds, and vowed to do an Ironman triathlon. He started with the Charlottesville Half Marathon, posting a 1:27:28 – 10th among the 436 men entered. In the fall of 2009, he finished 28th among the 2,500 competitors in the Nation’s Triathlon in Washington.

Most cyclists and triathletes can recall every detail of bicycle accidents and struggle not to think of them while riding. Miller, who remembers nothing of his crash, scared his family and girlfriend by getting back in the saddle – of his repaired bike no less – agreeing to wear a motorcycle-like helmet and ride on roads without automobile traffic.

Miller completed Ironman Cozumel among the top 10 percent of the field and vowed to do another – after medical school. He still competes in shorter triathlons and other races. Over the weekend he completed the 10-mile Broad Street Run in Philadelphia in 59:26, a pace just under a 6-minute mile.

Not bad for a guy wrapping up his second year of medical school.

Vitez says he still struggles to explain how Miller got through the ordeal with such an upbeat personality.

“I think he put his family through such a horror that he was determined not to complain or let anything slow down his recovery out of respect and love for Emily and his family since he had caused them such pain,” he said. “There are such great qualities in this kid and it was a thrill to share it.”

(To hear an interview with Michael Vitez, author of The Road Back, click HERE)

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Filed under Fitness Buff Show Radio, Triathlon

One-on-One with Ironman Chief Andrew Messick

By Pete Williams

WTC CEO Andrew Messick

TAMPA – When Andrew Messick spoke to the Triathlon America trade organization last month, the CEO of the World Triathlon Corp., parent company of Ironman, prefaced his address with “I come in peace.”

It was a reference to Ironman’s historically stormy relationship with the sport’s governing bodies, race directors, sponsors, media, and even the athletes themselves. Under the company’s former leadership of eye surgeon owners James and Pit Gills, and former CEO Ben Fertic, the company developed a reputation of being secretive at best, arrogant and tone-deaf at worst.

Messick, installed as CEO last May by the Providence Equity Partners’ Group that purchased WTC from the Gills family in September of 2008 just days before the Lehman Brothers bankruptcy triggered the recession, has spent his first year mending fences and boosting a brand that for all of its financial success remains under the radar in the sports world.

A two-time Ironman finisher, the 48-year-old Messick came to WTC after four years as president of AEG Sports, where he oversaw such iconic endurance events as the Amgen Tour of California cycling race and the Bay to Breakers running event. That followed a seven-year stint working for the NBA.

We never had any luck getting an audience with the previous WTC regime, even when writing stories on the growth of triathlon and Ironman in 2007 for The New Year Times and SportsBusiness Journal. So we were pleasantly surprised when Messick accepted our offer to have an hour-long conversation about all things Ironman at the WTC offices in Tampa on Tuesday.

EnduranceSportsFlorida: Were you surprised at how disliked WTC was among triathletes?

Andrew Messick:No, because in my former life I was a lousy age grouper (from 2004-2006) when I was racing a lot. I had a clear point of view of how WTC was perceived even then. I did Ironman Canada and Ironman Lake Placid and those were great races, races that had soul and great community and people who were happy you were there. Even then people didn’t like WTC and it wasn’t clear to me exactly why, but that perception existed and there was the usual things you would see on message boards. “WTC didn’t care about athletes,” the usual stuff. It’s been there a long time and I knew it would be one of those things that would require effort, energy, and attention. It’s frustrating to a lot of people in this organization. People don’t acknowledge how much work and effort goes into the athlete experience. It’s easy for people to just assume that all the stuff that happens at a race – registration working, volunteers are there, having swim/bike/run courses that are safe – that all of that miraculously happens. It’s WTC people who do all that. I don’t think WTC as a company ever spent very much time focused on talking to athletes. The folks that used to run the place didn’t feel like they had any obligation to communicate to their customers, which I don’t agree with. I would much rather communicate and have disagreements now and then than never say anything, which is kind of what used to happen. There was a culture around here of you do what you think is right, you announce it, but you don’t explain why and eventually people will get over it. That’s not the way I was taught to do things.

Messick at Ironman Melbourne last month (Photo courtesy http://www.FinisherPix.com).

 

ESF: How much progress have you made on that front?

AM: We’re getting there. Whenever you’re running anything, you’re faced with lots of decisions and you have to choose.  Either we’re going to keep the way we do Kona qualification the same or we’re not and that’s a decision. Keeping it the way it is perpetuates the things that don’t work and it also perpetuates the things that do work. Changing it introduces new ideas and thinking but also upsets the status quo. No matter what you do there’s a choice involved. We’ve got super-smart, super-motivated athletes who do our races and there’s a super high level of engagement. If you explain what you’re trying to do and why you made the choices you did, by and large people understand. Not everyone will agree with you, but at least people understand why you did it and they don’t think you made a decision in a vacuum or made a decision without consulting any of the other shareholders and stakeholders. Understanding why you did something is very important and I don’t think we did a very good job historically of doing that. We’d say, here’s the new procedure and that’s it.

ESF: You’ve talked about expanding the Ironman customer base from 66,000 athletes annually to 150,000, and also bringing more races into the mix. Are you suggesting getting involved in races of shorter distances?

AM: We’re really good as an organization at producing – not necessarily destination races – but sort of the key races on athletes’ calendars. That’s what we’re good at. I was in Galveston (Texas for the Ironman 70.3) this past weekend and Melbourne (Australia) the weekend before. Those are great events, expensive, highly produced events that are the key races for our athletes that year. And we have a cost structure that is really designed to be able to deliver those kinds of events. I don’t think we have a cost structure that’s designed to deliver the Olympic distance. You can charge a premium for fulls, for 70.3s. It’s harder to charge a premium for Olympic distance events. Athletes want an event that’s at a certain price point and the Olympic distance race that’s more than $100 – there’s a lot of resistance to that. One of the things the 5150 experience taught us last year is that if you’re going to charge a lot more than $100, what is the additional value added? And if you can’t provide that, it’s a hard sell. So we’re in the process of trying to figure out if we can deliver the level of service of a 70.3 and an Ironman at an Olympic distance race at a price point that works for our consumers.

ESF: So this is the year to figure that out?

AM: Yeah. We’re a premium brand. BMWs struggle to hit Volkswagen price points. There’s nothing wrong with Volkswagens. I love ‘em; I’ve driven them my whole life. But you have to have a Volkswagen business system to make Volkswagens. We have a BMW business system to make BMWs.

Ironman athletes haven't always been at peace with WTC.

ESF: You have Iron Girl and IronKids. Are they in the same category as 5150 or is that a different conversation?

AM: That’s a different conversation. Iron Girl and IronKids are very different animals. With Iron Kids, we have a good partnership with HyVee, and HyVee supports our Midwestern Iron Kids series. We have a strong skew to the midwest. Most of our non-Hyvee Iron Kids races are attached to existing events. We leverage the fact that we’ve got a 70.3 in Boulder and we have a staff, team and infrastructure so there’s a ton of things we don’t have to replicate. Without a partner like HyVee, it would be pretty hard for us to have separate standalone IronKids events because it’s a low price point. With Iron Girl, we’ve got 16 North American events this year and we have a separate operational marketing and management team and they live the Iron Girl brand and that’s different from beginning to end in terms of what we deliver and how.

ESF: There seemed to be a point last year where Ironman was chasing every popular endurance trend such as half marathons and mud runs with Primal Challenge, which you canceled before it started. Was there a concern that you were getting away from your core business?

AM: I think that we may have lost sight a little bit of what we do and what we’re uniquely good at. We’re uniquely good at long distance triathlon, creating these very hard, very important, life-changing events for our athletes and I worry that by focusing on other stuff, we run the risk of not being as good as we need to at our bread and butter, the core of our business. We don’t have as many 5150s this year. We don’t have Primal Challenge. We don’t have our own timing business anymore. There’s a whole series of things we were getting into that in my mind took our eye off achieving real excellence at the things we need to be excellent at and that’s creating these extraordinary athlete experiences. Ironman Canada and Ironman Lake Placid changed my life. As an age grouper, training for those events, being part of the Ironman community, and crossing that finish line – it indelibly marked me like it does for a lot of our athletes. This organization is fiercely protective of that experience for our athletes and we need to make sure we stay laser focused on creating great races and treating our athletes the way they need to be treated and making sure the journey of our athletes is as good as it can be. To be that focused you have to be pretty systematic about getting rid of distractions. We had a lot of distractions and still have a lot of distractions. But we have fewer than we had nine months ago and we’ll have fewer a year from now.

ESF: What if you purchased a race registration site? Would that be a distraction or would that fit with your business model?

AM: That’s a big question for us. Active has been a great partner of ours for a long time. But at the same time there’s lots of other registration solutions out there and it’s clear we need to have more versatility in terms of what happens when athletes sign up and the ease of athlete sign-up and how we manage these incredible spikes in demand. It’s a complex set of choices we’re trying to figure out right now in terms of the whole race registration process. We need to have a better solution for our athletes and figure out what we’re going to do to handle demand. Melbourne sold out in less than five minutes a week ago. We’ve always had this situation for our races. Ironman Florida sold out in 11 minutes, Arizona in six or seven minutes. Our full Ironman races are selling out really quickly. Somewhere in the next year is a real serious conversation about what’s the fairest thing for our athletes. Is it at noon Eastern Time, Active registration opens and the fastest guys on the mouse get it? That’s fair if you live in the U.S. maybe but if you live in Australia and it’s three in the morning, I’m not sure that’s fair. I’m not sure it’s fair for people who are at work. There’s a whole question of how you handle demand and our registration partner is an important part of that. Is it a sign-up, a lottery, first in, best-dressed, which is how we do it today? Should there be an advantage to those who did it last year, to those who do more races with us? There’s a whole bunch of ways you can go and so we need to be pretty thoughtful in the next year about how that whole thing comes together.

ESF: Could you go the route of buying a system like Competitor did?

AM: The RaceIt system that Competitor has is a really good one. It’s designed for race registration and a lot of the problems we have. The system isn’t fully built out yet and it hasn’t been fully beta tested for all this stuff, for the unique things we have. To the best of my knowledge there aren’t any other systems, with the exception of concert systems, that have the kind of super high immediate demand. Trying to register thousands of athletes in three or four minutes creates a unique set of challenges.

The always dramatic Ironman swim start. Ready for increased television exposure?

ESF: What was your own Ironman experience like?

AM: I did Ironman Canada in 2005 (time of 12:34) and Lake Placid in 2006 (11:07). I did Canada with a broken arm, which is not recommended and completely blew up on the run. I did the Boston Marathon in 3:09 in 2006 and I don’t think I did a single mile at Canada in less than 11 minutes. I started cramping coming off Yellow Lake  (bike course) and my Ironman Canada run was 5:24. I’d walk 100 yards, jog 100 yards, just five and a half hours of severe pain. I had crashed my bike five days before in Central Park on my last tune-up ride. Someone stepped out in front of me, I went over the handlebars and had a radial head fracture in my elbow. The doctor said there was no risk of it getting worse unless I crashed again. So it was just a pain management exercise. I had played rugby and wore a rugby mouthpiece during the swim, which was very painful. What I hadn’t planed for was that I usually reach for bottles with my right arm (on the bike), and couldn’t do so because it was broke. I could only reach with my left, which screwed up my nutrition and I started cramping. That was my first Ironman experience. Lake Placid was the makeup race.

What impact will the biggest name in endurance sports have on triathlon? (Photo courtesy of http://www.FinisherPix.com)

ESF: You spent seven years (2000-2007) working for the NBA, which perhaps more than any other league leveraged its brand around superstars. How important is it to build bigger names in triathlon?

AM: Triathlon is unique in that its beating heart isn’t pro athletes; it’s age groupers. That makes it different than most other sports. When you go to an NBA game, you’re going to see Kobe Bryant or LeBron James or back in the day Michael, Magic, Larry, or Dr. J. People sign up for Ironman Lake Placid to do Ironman Lake Placid; it’s their journey. That said, there’s a huge opportunity for us to use pro athletes to talk more broadly about our sport, to increase awareness of our sport, to talk about the benefits, the things that triathlon uniquely delivers in terms of quality of life, setting goals. All of those are broader messages and benefits that our lifestyle promotes. Our pros are super smart, articulate, and motivated and by and large there hasn’t been the kind of connection between the company and professional athletes that you’d like. One of the big insights for me was seeing how disconnected pro athletes are from the rest of the business compared to cycling, running, or the NBA. It’s a huge untapped opportunity and I think we can do much better with our pros to build better relationships, to have them be stronger, more powerful advocates for our races and the sport and for us in return, to give them a better platform to make a living and attract sponsors. There’s an integration that hasn’t occurred, but we’re making progress and it will take some time. That was one of my bigger surprises, how much professional athletes weren’t integrated into what we do.

ESF: So how do you integrate them more into the company?

AM: When we go and pitch a sponsorship to Company X, we don’t do anything with our professionals. We don’t introduce our pro athletes to companies; we should. When we’re pitching an automotive company, we don’t say we have four pro athletes you should put under contract, and we’ll guarantee that you have six days a year for athletes A, B, or C. They can go to the regional dealer meeting in Tucson and talk to a group of your dealers about setting goals, working toward objectives, and telling their stories. Those types of things are really powerful and yet we’ve never viewed professional athletes as an asset. By doing that, you can introduce your athletes to important companies and they become ambassadors for you. So there’s really low hanging fruit there that we’re only now becoming organized enough to capture.

ESF: Do you need a dominant performer like Mark Allen or Dave Scott to emerge?

AM: Stars help in every sport and having people who have the ability and the charisma to take a sport off the sports page – or in our case to take the sport out of the endemic media – and get broader distribution is helpful. If you look at what Tiger Woods did for golf or what Magic, Michael and those guys did for basketball, those are transformative personalities. Look at Lance Armstrong and cycling in terms of television ratings, interest in the sport, and bikes sold. No question it’s helpful.

Armstrong considers the run his weakest leg of triathlon. (Photo courtesy www.FinisherPix.com)

ESF: Speaking of Lance Armstrong, if he’s only a top 10 finisher and not a contender in Ironman races, does that lessen the impact he has in triathlon?

AM: If you’d told anybody two months ago that Lance Armstrong at the age of 40 will go pro, finish top 10 in his first two (70.3) races and go under 3:55 in both of them, people would have said you’re out of your mind. Or if you flip-flopped Panama and Galveston and he went seventh in his first race and second in his second, we’re talking about an entirely different story. He came off the bike first in Galveston, was fourth until mile 12 (of the run) and like a lot of people who race, he had a bad last mile. It happens. It’s going to be exciting to see what happens, in Haines City (Fla.) and Nice and later in the year. It’s a great opportunity to get people focused on the sport of triathlon, people who wouldn’t ordinary be interested.

ESF: People love the NBC Kona package and watch Ironman races online. Obviously there are logistical challenges to broadcasting triathlon on television. But in 2012 shouldn’t there be live coverage of Ironman events somewhere on TV?

AM: We won’t have live television in 2012. We’re live online everywhere in the world. Our production and product is getting better. We’re seeing increases in traffic and viewership. We had more than 250,000 watching (Galveston 70.3) on Sunday and there are a lot of TV shows that don’t get that many watching. Whether it will be on TV or not, that’s hard. From a production/logistical perspective, it’s super challenging and we need a pretty compelling reason to do it. The races are long. You need big windows and you need to be on a network that has broad distribution and that’s not easy.

ESF: Is there anything in your NBC contract that precludes it?

AM: No. Between Universal Sports and NBC, contractually we’ve got the right to do all kinds of stuff. Whether NBC is going to create a multi-hour television window for us, I know the answer to that.

ESF: What about any of its sister networks?

AM: It’s a conversation but not one for 2012. For 2012, we’ll continue to have a strong relationship. Universal Sports will broadcast recaps of our races. Kona will be on NBC and we will have a live package that will get better over time that will largely be focused on our site (Ironman.com), not UniversalSports.com.

ESF: How important is it for Ironman to get more mainstream media coverage?

AM: I think it’s really important and what we have to do is find stories that mainstream media finds compelling enough to cover and without stars it’s really hard. There’s a lot of competition for writers’ time and column inches and you need to have a compelling story to tell and we’re trying every day to do that.

ESF: Can you answer the off-asked trademark question regarding Ironman and Iron Man? Is it simply that WTC owns the trademark as it applies to triathlon and Marvel owns everything else?

AM: It’s more complex than that. We’ve got areas where we can play and they can play. There are things we can and can’t do and things they can and can’t do. It works and has been heavily negotiated over many years.

Tough Mudder: Competitor or Complementary?

ESF: Obstacle races such as Tough Mudder and Spartan Race are drawing huge numbers of people looking for a life-changing accomplishment. Do you view them as competition?

AM: I don’t think so. I haven’t been presented with any evidence that suggests someone wakes up and says, “I’m going to do Tough Mudder or an Ironman 70.3.” If anything I think it’s good for us. Ultimately, the more people who are out racing and competing in events – and I feel the same way about the Rock ‘N Roll marathon series – the more people eventually will move into our wheelhouse. The real base of the pyramid is signing up for events, whether it’s a local 5K or Tough Mudder. Getting people into the process of signing up and preparing for an event, doing a race and finishing, puts people on the way. The broader the base of participants, the broader the base who find their way to our events. We’re at the very top of the pyramid in that, if you’re a marathoner, someone doing Gran Fondos, or a competitive swimmer, at some point, Ironman is in the back of your head. If you’ve had a transformational life experience – you’ve had a heart attack and recovered or lost 50 pounds and you attribute it to achieving your goal – even if it’s only a 5K, you start thinking of your next goal and we’re part of that.

ESF: You’re a Southern California guy. Triathlon has strong ties to that region. There’s no longer anything tying Ironman to the Tampa Bay area. Do you plan to stay here long term?

AM: We’re about to expand to the other side of this floor and will have the whole floor. There’s a lot of other things to be focusing on right now. We’ve been in Tampa a long time; the staff is from Tampa and I have no plans to leave Tampa. I sold the house in Los Angeles. It’s been a really busy eight months and it will be a really busy next year. When I think of all the things we have to do and priorities and all the stuff that needs to happen, there’s a ton of mission critical stuff we have to tackle. That’s not mission critical. We’re fine here and have no plans to move.

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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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Super Bowl Triathlon Training

By Pete Williams

Members of the Timex Multisport Team get the pro treatment.

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – It’s not the life of a Super Bowl champion, but the life of a sponsored triathlete is pretty good deal.

Actually, here at the Timex Performance Center, home to the New York Giants and to this week’s annual gathering of the Timex Multisport Team, it’s tough to tell the difference.

Eli Manning, Justin Tuck and the gang aren’t around, but 50 top Ironman triathletes have convened for three days of tests, training, meetings, and, most importantly, swag distribution.

It’s nice being mistaken for one of the gang, something that never happened when I covered the NFL. I’m just a sprint triathlete here covering the three-day event, but still get to hang with Team Timex as they eat in the Giants dining room, use their training facilities, meet in their position conference rooms, and even get a taste for having a big-time locker room.

This morning, the Giants locker room staff replaced players’ nameplates with those of the triathletes, who opened Thule backpacks stuffed with race kits, tri shorts, bibs, cycling jerseys, race belts, and assorted swim products. It’s just a fraction of the swag the athletes will get over the course of the year.

Giants staff gave strict instructions not to touch any player stuff, guidance I didn’t need after spending way too much of my life hanging around locker rooms waiting to interview athletes. Many of the triathletes didn’t recognize many names other than Manning. This is a group, after all, that goes to bed early and spends weekends training and competing themselves.

Fourteen researchers from the University of Connecticut’s Korey Stringer Institute are on hand to measure sweat and salt loss during intense training. I underwent a 45-minute session this afternoon and the preliminary results, much to my surprise, were that I don’t sweat that much.

The researchers will have more definitive data tomorrow morning, but the initial theory is that since I train in a warmer climate (Florida), it takes more heat to get me sweating profusely.

I also sat in on a Timex product development meeting. A dozen triathletes offered suggestions on everything from design to GPS, heart rate monitors and a lot of technical stuff that went over my head.

Simple suggestion someone brought up that I’ve always wondered: Why can’t we measure heart rate from the wrist rather than a cumbersome chest strap that’s forever falling off?

Apparently we can – and Timex is working on it.

The juxtaposition of the Giants and triathlon make for some interesting moments. Giants head coach Tom Coughlin is legendary for setting clocks five minutes ahead. That means clocks at the Timex Performance Center are never correct.

The Timex product development meeting took place in the defensive line conference room and the whiteboard still included photos, notes, and inside jokes representing Tuck, Chris Canty, Jason Pierre-Paul and others. At one point before my sweat session, a member of the Stringer team had me lie down in the linebackers meeting room to get a resting heart rate.

Then I hammered out a 45-minute workout in the Giants weight room, feeling less like a sportswriter and more like a pro athlete.

At least a pro triathlete.

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Will TriRock Work in Clearwater?

By Pete Williams

Racing Clearwater's bridges

It’s been quite a start to 2012 for Competitor Group and its endurance sports properties in Florida.

Two weeks ago, the San Diego-based publisher and event promoter pulled its Muddy Buddy series out of Florida, part of a downsizing to just eight events for the bike-and-run event for 2012. Competitor had considered moving its popular Orlando Muddy Buddy race to Pasco County after Disney booted outside endurance sports promoters from the Magic Cashbox, but decided to go with more proven markets, at least for 2012.

This week, runners participating in Competitor’s inaugural Rock ‘n’ Roll Half Marathon in St. Petersburg on Sunday realized they must pay $15 to park at Tropicana Field to pick up their race packets and another $15 on race day unless they make less convenient arrangements. That’s part of a complicated relationship between Competitor, the City of St. Pete, and the Tampa Bay Rays, but mostly a product of the cushy deal St. Pete Mayor Bill Foster gave Competitor.

But when it comes to sucking up to endurance sports conglomerates and giving away the keys to the city, nobody does it better than Clearwater Mayor Frank Hibbard, who after getting little in return for the city’s six-year investment with the World Triathlon Corporation to put on five Ironman 70.3 races and cancel a 5150 event, signed on this week to host a November event in Competitor’s TriRock triathlon series.

The inaugural TriRock Clearwater will take place November 11, the same weekend Ironman canceled its inaugural 5150 event last year due to low registration and the same weekend Ironman staged its year-end 70.3 championship from 2006-2010. That event, which attracted few spectators and little media coverage, generated headlines mostly for tying up 56 miles of traffic in Florida’s most densely populated county.

The Tampa-based World Triathlon Corp. relocated the 70.3 event to Nevada for 2011 and thanked Clearwater on the way out by not printing “Clearwater” on a single piece of merchandise for the 2010 event. In October, WTC canceled its inaugural 5150 season-ending event in Clearwater just three weeks before the race when it could not reach its modest goal of 800 participants.

Race director Philip LaHaye wondered at the time if Clearwater could “support a bigger production, $150-per-person race” at the end of the season.

Competitor’s entry fees for TriRock, which features sprint-distance and Olympic-length triathlons, rank among the highest in the industry. The sprint distance costs $100 through Sept. 10 and escalates to $150. The Olympic distance costs between $140 and $180 depending on when the athlete registers. This does not include the RaceIt.com online registration fee, which also goes to Competitor, which purchased the Virginia-based online registration company in August.

No word on parking arrangements and fees but they were not an issue during Ironman’s 70.3 events out of Clearwater Beach, which featured roughly 2,000 triathletes per race.

Competitor is banking on athletes paying a premium for enjoying rock bands along the course, much like they do for the Rock ‘n’ Roll marathon series. The company’s Web site bills TriRock as featuring a “rocking competition, complete with live bands along the swim, bike and run courses, followed by a post-race party and concert.”

The TriRock series debuted last year with races in Annapolis, Md., Seattle, San Diego, and Gettysburg, Pa. This year’s schedule starts in New York on May 5 and includes races in Annapolis, Seattle, Austin, and San Diego.

Competitor expects 1,000 athletes for the Clearwater event, which starts with a swim in the water off Clearwater Beach. Such modest expectations make sense for a city that, for whatever reason, has struggled to build traction around the booming sport. In addition to Ironman’s mixed results, the Sand Key Triathlon initially folded last year after a seven-year run. A new promoter took over the event, postponed it from September to Feb. 25 and this week announced its cancellation.

The Morton Plant Mease Triathlon, a sprint-distance event held like the Sand Key Triathlon at Sand Key Park just south of Clearwater Beach, debuted in 2006 and is scheduled for June 24.

 

 

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Top 10 Endurance Sports Florida Stories of 2011

By Pete Williams

Tough Mudder's infamous "Chernobyl Jacuzzi"

When we launched Endurance Sports Florida in January, we had a pretty good idea that running and triathlon would be a significant part of our coverage. We could not have anticipated the impact sports such as obstacle mud runs and stand-up paddleboarding would have in the Florida endurance world.

So as we look back at the Year in Florida Endurance Sports, it’s perhaps no surprise that the top 10 stories reflect the growth and diversity of an industry in a state that arguably has more endurance sports options than any in the country.

#10 – Introduction of the Tultex T-shirt

Fashion trend of 2011?

We’re not sure who first introduced (or resurrected) the idea of the soft, fitted, blended T-shirt this year, but we’re all for it. Two new obstacle mud runs – Highlander and Savage Race – gave them out, as did the Autumn Fest 5K in Safety Harbor. We even printed Tultex for the second-annual Caliente Bare Dare 5K in October. At a time when athletes are bored with cotton and tech, Tultex is a welcome addition. Anyone who thinks T-shirt related news does not belong in a stories-of-the-year list does not know endurance athletes.

#9 – Participation Up, Spectating Down

Spending more time at the beach

Maybe it’s because Florida’s professional and college football teams are all in the tank at the moment, but the continuing boom in endurance sports seems to coincide with a decline in interest in and attendance at big-time spectator sports. We have a theory on this, and it’s one that some college sports management class should investigate. When the economy went south in 2008, Floridians looked at their suddenly depleted finances and realized, “I’m paying how much for sports tickets? I need to take charge of my health and finances and if I’m going to pay $75 for a couple hours of entertainment, I want to have a sense of accomplishment about it. I want to come out of it feeling great physically, not like I just inhaled nasty processed food and expensive beer.”

Even the Tampa Bay Rays, who generally have played well since the economy crashed, have struggled to draw in this bad economy. But all areas of endurance sports have experienced spectacular growth. Is there a connection? Sure seems like it.

#8 Pasco County – Endurance Sports Mecca

Pasco County is known for many things: sprawling growth during the real estate boom, hot-air ballooning, sky-diving, nudist clubs, Jim Courier, Saddlebrook Resort. It’s had a foothold in the endurance sports world for years between the Longleaf Triathlon, Rattlesnake Run, and Dances with Dirt. Central Florida cyclists flock to San Antonio since it’s one of the few places in the area with hills and the Caliente Bare Dare 5K in Land O’Lakes is now two years old. But Pasco put itself on the endurance sports map in 2011 by landing Tough Mudder, which with nearly 20,000 athletes during a December weekend became the biggest endurance event ever in the greater Tampa Bay area. Don’t be surprised to see Pasco host more larger endurance events, especially with the proliferation of mud runs and a realization by the part of race directors that greater Tampa has more athletes than Orlando.

Eric Stratman of TNL Tampa leads a mud run training program

#7 – CrossFit: Meet Endurance

A year ago, you’d rarely see “CrossFit” and “endurance” in the same sentence. CrossFit athletes were viewed as bodybuilders with a bit of a gymnastics bent and the endurance crowd a bunch of spindly folks who never picked up a weight. But fueled in no small part by the obstacle mud run phenomenon, the two groups have met in the middle, recognizing that an integrated program of interval running and mix-it-up strength work might be the best formula for building a high-performance body, to say nothing of an attractive one. Obstacle mud runs such as Tough Mudder and Spartan Race have shrewdly aligned themselves with CrossFit programs, many of which like TNL Tampa now offer mud run-specific training programs. Runners and triathletes have embraced such training and the existing CrossFit demographic has discovered the benefits of interval running.

#6 Triathlon Dropoff?

Race directors around the state reported a 10 percent dropoff in entries this year. We’re not sure if that’s a reflection on the economy (unlikely if it didn’t happen in 2009-10), oversaturation of events (probably), or the popularity of newer endurance pastimes like obstacle mud runs and stand-up paddleboarding (possibly). Whatever the reason, the unbridled growth of triathlon in the last five years seems to be leveling off.

Triathlon: Still on the rise?

Triathlon is a sport with a high churn rate, dependent on a constant influx of newcomers. Mud runs, which don’t require bicycles or swim ability, are more accessible. And though endurance sports have been mostly recession proof in a state hit harder than most by the economy, there’s no question Florida’s slow economy is playing an impact.

We’re still bullish on triathlon, but as with any endurance sports category, competition in triathlon is fierce. The most ambitious newcomer is HITS, a group of equestrian promoters who will stage a national series – including events in Naples and Ocala – featuring triathlons of four distances (including iron) in the same weekend.

Just another sign that the triathlon pie, whether shrinking or not, will be carved into more pieces in 2012.

Florida SUP races draw pros like Annabel Anderson

#5 Stand-up Paddleboard Racing

A year ago, there were only a handful of “SUP” races in Florida. Now it’s possible to find one most every weekend from April through October. Until Brody Welte moved his StandUp Fitness operation from St. Pete to San Diego, we also had the YOLO Board Winter Race Series. Florida already leads the nation in putting on the most triathlons, marathons, and obstacle mud runs. Now it can claim the lead in SUP events. SUP racing still is a work in progress, however, remaining mostly under the radar. In September, Exclusive Sports Marketing drew just 65 athletes to South Beach for a race it billed as the “U.S. Open of SUP,” with a whopping $35,000 in prize money. Welte built some traction in two years with his Gulf Coast StandUp Paddleboard Championship in Madeira Beach and it will be interesting how he handles the event from the West Coast – of the country. Still, we’re bullish on SUP racing with its modest entry fees, occasional prize money, nice awards and solid post-race food.

#4 Ironman Gets Rusty?

Mixed year for Ironman

Sure, the World Triathlon Corp. still sells out its signature events, including Ironman Florida, in a matter of minutes. But does it seem like the Tampa-based WTC is wandering in the wilderness? Actually, WTC moved out of Disney’s Wilderness for the Ironman 70.3 event in 2012, relocating to Haines City. That’s just one of several head-scratching moves WTC made in 2011. We love Haines City (RIP Boardwalk and Baseball), but that doesn’t seem like the destination event like Disney. Then again, WTC couldn’t draw many athletes to Clearwater for its much-touted, season-ending, inaugural 5150 series event. WTC canceled the would-be Nov. 18 race in October when it couldn’t reach its modest expectations of 800 athletes, the latest sign that the 5150 concept is a misfire. WTC also seems to be chasing every endurance trend, including half-marathons and an aborted mud run series called Primal Challenge. Here in Florida, the St. Anthony’s Triathlon, now officially a WTC-affiliated 5150 event after a long history of sharing personnel, was marred by weather for the third straight year. If WTC was a stock – and don’t think that idea hasn’t been brought up by the private equity group no doubt wondering if they overpaid the Gills family in 2008 just weeks before the economy crashed – it would be Microsoft, still paying handsome dividends but viewed as stodgy and unable to come up with a new hit. Andrew Messick was hired in May as CEO, but thus far it’s business as usual with the M-dot.

#3 Half Marathons Gone Wild

It wasn’t that long ago that race directors had a tough time convincing the City of St. Petersburg that the market could support a half marathon. These days, it’s difficult to find a weekend between late October and mid-March in the Tampa Bay area without such a race. St. Pete, which added Competitor Group’s Rock ‘n’ Roll Half to the calendar for Feb. 12, now has four half marathons. The rest of the state, especially South Florida, also has capitalized on the half marathon phenomenon. We’re not big fans of half marathons, which seem to provide the least in terms of food, cool shirts, swag, and race experience for the money when compared to triathlons, mud runs, trail runs, and stand-up paddleboard races. But there’s no question the half marathon is the sweet spot of the current running boom.

#2 Obstacle Mud Runs

Conquering the Savage Race in August

As recently as 2009, the Muddy Buddy race at Disney’s Wide World of Sports over Mother’s Day weekend was pretty much the only obstacle mud run in Florida. This year, there were more than 40 and the schedule became so packed that Muddy Buddy scrapped its proposed year-end championship in Punta Gorda once Tough Mudder announced plans for its Dade City race the same December weekend. (Muddy Buddy fans still had a late-November race in Miami for the second straight year.)

We’ll see if “OMRs” have staying power or end up being just a fad. For now, they’re drawing runners bored with pounding the pavement, would-be triathletes who don’t want to buy a bike or learn to swim properly, and trail runners, along with the CrossFit and bootcamp crowds. Like running or triathlon, athletes can pick from easy races (Muddy Buddy, Warrior Dash) and difficult ones (Spartan Race, Tough Mudder). The lure of OMRs is challenging both your strength and endurance while acting ridiculous and rolling around like pigs. No wonder so many race directors are jumping into the mud pit.

#1 Tough Mudder

Conquering mud and barbwire at Little Everglades Ranch

As with Oscar-contending films released in December, there might be a tendency to overplay the impact of Tough Mudder’s Florida debut earlier this month. Then again, when nearly 20,000 athletes converged on Little Everglades Ranch in Pasco County, it was confirmation that 2011 was the Year of the Obstacle Mud Run.

Tough Mudder, the biggest OMR, has become the aspirational event for endurance athletes, who post their photos and finisher’s badges on Facebook and wear their campy orange headbands proudly. It’s become cooler to survive Tough Mudder’s Chernobyl Jacuzzi and Electroshock Therapy than complete a triathlon of any distance. And to think, Harvard Business School professors scoffed at Will Dean when he submitted Tough Mudder as a class project during his MBA program. Nobody, they said, would pay an average of $100 to get their butt kicked for two or three hours. Dean launched Tough Mudder in March of 2010, staged 14 races this year and has plans for 44 in 2012. He could clear $100 million in gross revenue, including sponsorship from the likes of Under Armour.

So how has your company fared the last two years?

We actually found Spartan Race more challenging with its 30-Burpee penalties, but there’s no question Tough Mudder is the leader in the category and is taking chunks of the running and triathlon pies. Tough Mudder already has announced a return to the Tampa area Dec. 1-2 and also has plans for 2012 events in Miami and Jacksonville, dates and locations TBA.

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