Conquer The Gauntlet Iowa: The Good, The Bad, and the Awesomely Difficult

This was my first Conquer the Gauntlet and I’d heard a lot about it, especially the difficulty of the obstacles, which made me put this race on my must-do list for this year’s race season.

The Good

This is a family owned, family run, race series and feels that way.  The festival area had plenty of room and plenty of places to sit, but not a whole lot of things other than people cheering on runners, warming up or getting a beer, and talking about the brutal race they just conquered. All of the staff I met were the friendliest people you could imagine, and they all genuinely cared about making this race awesome.

The starting line speech kept with the “local” family feel.  Conquer the Gauntlet didn’t hire Coach Payne or some other hype man for some ridiculous sum.  One of the staff in the bed of a truck yelled out the rules for certain obstacles, told us it was “complete it or lose your belt, no burpees, no body-builders.  “We do obstacles, not exercises!” We walked up to the start line, got a count down, and then we were off.  No hype man needed.Conquer-The-Gauntlet-Iowa-Slackline

The course was mostly flat with some small hills at the end and one short steep climb out of the creek.  The obstacles were no joke, they were the hardest set of obstacles I’ve faced at any OCR.  Most obstacles were grip strength/body weight oriented and some rather challenging balance obstacles including a slackline.  Only three obstacles relied on brute strength, one of which was an interesting take on the sled pull.  A crank pulling a 150-pound sled towards you then you had to drag the sled by hand back to its starting position.   Conquer-The-Gauntlet-Iowa-Crank-It-Up

 

The Bad

While the obstacles were amazing, there were a few problems, the Z-beam (which was made of 3 ten foot 2x6s set up on the narrow side at right angles to each other) had 4 lanes but were not secured properly when I went through. Only two lanes were open due to the 2×6’s having fallen over on the other two lanes.  The volunteer said that someone was coming to fix it asap.

I was in the first elite heat in the middle of the pack at that time, so there was a minimal build-up of people waiting.  The only other negative about the race would be that the Conquer The Gauntlet website said that all competitors would get a “too-fit shaker bottle” but Too-Fit didn’t show up to the event. I’ve seen this happen at other events and I can’t blame Conquer The Gauntlet for a sponsor not showing up.

 

The Awesomely Difficult

One word – Pegatron – A beastly horizontal peg board.  The first section has foot holds then the foot holds disappear and you have to rely on grip and shoulders and core to carry you across the gap.  I have a horizontal peg board in my basement at home which I can do pretty well.  This board was much different.

The holes are spaced wide enough that you have to go up and down rows making you use more of your muscles than if you could move across a single row.  The pegs were an eighth inch smaller than the holes making the pegs fit into the holes easily but also making it easy for the pegs to slip right out and put you in the dirt if you didn’t put enough weight on them.

Coming into Pegatron I was toward the front of the pack of elites but fell behind as it took 5 tries to finally get it.  I saw more people throw down their elite belts than I saw beat the obstacle.  Conquer The Gauntlet says it only has a 19% success rate.  It is an amazing obstacle and I loved that CTG has the guts to put in obstacles most people won’t beat and will give even the elite athletes a run for their money.


Conquer-The-Gauntlet-Iowa-Pegatron

More of the Awesomely Difficult

Conquer The Gauntlet had three other extremely challenging obstacles. Stairway to heaven, a set of stairs your climb from underneath much like the devil steps in American Ninja Warrior. This is another obstacle I have at home which turned out quite different on the race course, but these steps are steep with gaps of over a foot between each step.  Placed not too far after Pegatron and a brute strength obstacle, forearms were still burning but the sight of the nasty green water below gave me the strength to conquer it.  They followed this with a rope climb just a few feet away.Conquer-The-Gauntlet-Iowa-Stairway-To-Heaven

At the end of the race, you were greeted by an 8-foot wall. This would be no problem, except after that 8-foot wall was another, and another and another and one more for good measure. Then it was time for some monkey bars. These aren’t your typical monkey bars.  Yes, they are setup in an ascending/descending formation like so many other race series.  The tricky bit though is that every other bar was not fixed and spun when you grabbed it and transferred your weight. The monkey bars are usually a very easy obstacle for me, but going up these was certainly challenging.  Volunteering after my race I got to witness countless people hit the water after grabbing those spinning bars.Conquer-The-Gauntlet-Iowa-Monkey-Bars

Conclusion

All in all, this was an amazing race that I will absolutely do again (in a heartbeat) and would recommend to every OCR enthusiast out there.  If you live within the touring range of Conquer The Gauntlet this should be a must-do race.  If you don’t live in the area that CTG goes, I suggest you sign up early and make some travel plans.  They may not have huge endorsement deals or fancy multi-race marketing schemes but Conquer The Gauntlet has challenging, innovative obstacles and they put on one hell of a brutal race.

 

 

All photos courtesy of Conquer The Gauntlet and Run and Shoot Freelance Collective

 

Conquer The Gauntlet (CTG) at West Georgia Mud Park, Tallapoosa, Georgia

Well, here goes nothing.   To frame the post, I have mental illness.  I was diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder in 2006 and have had several episodes before and after that year in which I have ended up getting hurt pretty bad.  I do take my medication as prescribed and lead a fairly healthy life.  So, here goes.   Upon the week of the race,  it was a week from hell.  It was my third month at my new nuisance wildlife removal job.  I work for Smart Solutions Wildlife Removal.  You can also view us at www.ratcontrolatlanta.com.  The Monday before the race, I found myself in a gentleman’s attic with a black rat snake.  He had seen it go in from the basement in the rear of the house and it had slithered its way to the front of the house to make its home.  I did not know the snake was in the attic.  Along my journey of finding the snake, I began setting rat traps in his attic.  Where there is a snake, there is food, hence, the rat traps.  So, I was setting the traps with a headlamp on, and the next thing I know, I am face to face with a 6-foot black rat snake.  Now let me tell you that I jumped back and grabbed a two by four that was situated nicely in the 5-foot high space I was crouched in.  I started screaming and hollering and tried to get the snake with the two by four.  I couldn’t wrangle him with the board and the snake slithered down into the wall near the chimney.  I was trying to decide what to do at that moment.  Go to the truck to get the snake pole or just try to go in the wall and get him. Well, let me tell you, my adrenaline was pumping and I went in after him.  The space was now less than a foot high, and I poked my head down the ceiling and there he was just hanging out.  I grabbed a piece of wire screen and a rat trap box and decided to try to get him in the box.  With the 2×4, I got his body and wrestled him by grabbing his tail and put him in the box.  It was not easy.  It was one of the hardest things I have ever done.  You can see the video of the released snake here.   So, nonetheless, it was a very stressful week and my first ever successful snake wrangle.  Furthermore, I fell off a ladder sometime during the week and bruised my tailbone.  OK sorry, I’m whining, back to the race.

I had heard about Conquer the Gauntlet (CTG) through Matt and was pretty intrigued by the name.  I looked it up and thought, WOW, that is really cool that it is owned and operated by a family.  Now I usually don’t have to pay for a lot of races because I work with Matt, however, for this one I wanted to pay to help the family.  So, I was stuck in my head all week whether I was going to do the race or not because I was stressed and slightly hurt and whether I was going to pay for the race or not.   Ultimately, I didn’t have enough money for the race and Matt talked me into doing it.  That being said, there were some other things going on during the week.  Like getting new underwear to test from Columbia, as well as some Under Armour sports glasses, by the way, are absolutely incredible for any outdoor sport.  The underwear are fabulous, almost as fantastic as Underwear For Men.  See my other reviews to see why.   Ultimately, I was overly stressed during the week and didn’t get enough sleep and was already having delusions.   I was excited about the race but overly excited I believe.

So I woke up to go to the race and threw all my stuff into my bag.  I met Matt halfway between our houses at the Dunkin Donuts where I jumped into his car because he was in a hurry to get to the race.  I was surprised to see Jackson and a nice big cup of iced coffee.  I hardly remember our drive over, other than giving Jackson half the egg sandwich that Matt gave me.  So, it was weird from the beginning.  I had no idea where we were going and where the race was.  Turns out Matt drives his Toyota Camry off road sometimes and we barreled the hill after we talked to the hick at the gate. Matt told me to move the ribbons so we could get through to the ORM tent so I did.  I was wearing my SAXX shorts and a Savage Race shirt.

Now to the mental illness, when we got there I was pretending like I was Ryan Woods because Matt was like, ok, now don’t talk to anyone, take my phone, and no, don’t do anything.  No, don’t do that.  I was pretending I was famous and that no one should see me.  These were really just delusions and grandiose, manic behavior.  I got out of the car and Jeff looked me square in the eye.  I wasn’t having happy thoughts.   I was scared and nervous since it was such a small, intense, and technical race. So, I starting running up and down the dirt road to warm up like a lot of runners do.  I was running a good amount.  I ran to the upside down cargo net called Belly of the Beast and back and then to the parking lot and back.  For some reason, when the loud gun shot went off I started running into the woods to go for a jog.  I really didn’t know that I was on the course trail, but I thought I could go for a jog while Matt and Jeff were doing their video.  Well, then I heard guys on my heals full steam ahead.  So I started running as fast as I could, down into the steep creek and jumped over the creek and up the steep hill.  The curve of the trail came around and I came to the first obstacle, the rope climb over Continental Divide.  It was easy as most obstacles at other races are for me.  This time that was not the case.  These obstacles are legit, and so are the athletes.  It is brutal and grueling.  The athletes are strong, have endurance, and and have lots of tattoos.  I felt like I fit in well, but was wrong, my head was not in it to win it, that is for sure.

Things started to go awry when I got to the large pond of water.  I was still running, warming up, and having fun.  I didn’t want to race anymore so I started heading back to see what Matt and Jeff were doing.  They were still filming. Matt was then ready to go so we started in the 0945 race slot.  I did the first few obstacles with him again and I was feeling ok.  Then, when we got done with the Rockies obstacle, things started to go downhill fast.  The next obstacle was Hammertime.  This is where I lost my shit.  I started to see old beer cans in the mud, broken lighters, and a whole heap of crap all over the ground.  I went and stood in the soupy mud at Hammertime and decided to slip out of my shoes while Matt was trying the obstacle and videoing people do it.  I thought it was ridiculous that it was an obstacle.  I started doing mud angels on the ground and acting like an idiot.  I didn’t think it was a big deal until I couldn’t find my shoes and started walking back to the finish.  Well, I felt I was burying those shoes.  And I really didn’t know why that would be an obstacle in any case.  I digress.  I didn’t think it was a bad idea until I started getting bit by ants and stepping on broken lighters and beer cans.  That place is a mess.  I was a lot farther in than I thought.  I ended up going backward through the course and jumping in the freezing cold water at  Stairway to Heaven, which I loved.  The water was so cold and refreshing.

That’s when a volunteer starting talking to me and I wondered off by myself.  I started crying.  I was hurt and upset about what was going on with me.  I was having another psychotic episode.  They are not fun.  They are scary.  I understand and relate to people who have PTSD.  It is not the same but both are so hard to deal with.  The race directors came and checked on me and brought me to the medic tent.  They gave me Benadryl, anti-itch cream, and water.  I thought it was all my fault for not paying for the race.  I was so upset I didn’t get to finish the race.  It was my first DNF other than Warrior Dash just because I didn’t want to stand in line.  On the way home I passed out in Matt’s car.  He was worried about me.  He had mentioned during my stressful week before the race that I go to Ridge View Institute to get some help.  I didn’t think it was a bad idea because I was having such a bad week.  Well, I had hit rock bottom.  Matt decided to take me to Ridge View, a very good psychiatric hospital in Smyrna, Georgia.  I will spare you the details of my stay at Ridge View.  However, I was able to heal and fully recover from a very difficult “Gauntlet” of a week.  My favorite obstacles were Stairway to Heaven, Cliffhanger, and Walls of Fury.  I am very upset with myself that I didn’t get to finish the rest of the obstacles.  I really wanted to have full strength for Pegatron, Great Wall of America, and Torpedo looked like so much fun.  This is one race I want to do again.  I would pay for it this time and tell anyone that loves obstacle racing to do it.  Just be careful.  It is dangerous.  People can get hurt and die from these races.  It’s fun until someone gets hurt.  Partake in obstacle races at your own risk.  Sometimes the reward is now worth the risk.   I might or might have been able to finish without having to get a white belt, but I know my mental fitness was tested 100% as well as my physical, emotional, and spiritual.  If you ever need to talk to someone, don’t be afraid to ask.  My number is 678-913-7217.  Now I know why Matt talks so much about his mental health.  It is very important.  Thank you to all veterans and to Conquer the Gauntlet for a 100% great race even though the venue was a little sketchy.   That being said, the bottom line is that the race directors, staff, and volunteers all made sure that everyone was safe and happy before, during, and after the race.  Happy obstacle racing!

Conquer The Gauntlet Louisville 2016 Race Recap

As with any competitive business, obstacle course companies spend a lot of money on marketing. It is a fact that a newly acquired customer is more likely to return to that company for the same service/product in the future versus another brand(s).  Therefore, the companies with bigger investment capital tend to dominate the business landscape while the smaller companies struggle to get their name in the public’s ear.  In the OCR industry, one of those smaller companies is Conquer The Gauntlet (CTG) operating predominantly in the Kansas/Oklahoma area.  Described as the “most extreme 4 miles on the planet”, positive news has been quickly spreading about this family owned and operated series.

One of the expansion locations for 2016 brought CTG to General Butler State Park 45 minutes northeast of Louisville, Kentucky which also played host to the BattleFrog series just 8 weeks ago (BattleFrog: Inaugural Louisville Race – 2016 Recap).  Parking was $10 and located right next to the registration/festival area.  Spectators only had to fork out $5 for full course access.  Participant bib numbers were supplied at a tent near the front entrance while timing chips were located at another tent location further into the festival area.  Volunteers provided clear instructions to that location, but it would have made more sense to have them located adjacent to each other.  Another slight concern was the presence of only six portable bathroom units which quickly resulted in moderately long lines.

With 8:00 am approaching, the elites were called to gather in the starting corral for the pre race briefing.  Races with mandatory obstacle completion use something athletes wear to signify they are still in the running for elite prizes.  For CTG, it was a cloth belt which was distributed at the start line.  Keeping that belt would require a lot of skill and mental fortitude with one of their obstacles claiming less than 2% successful completion percentage.  Temperatures were already creeping up near 80 degrees Fahrenheit and humidity stood at a palpable 90% so competitors were anxious to get started.   There was no extravagant motivational speech or elaborate ceremony, merely a simple gunshot to signify the race was on.

Conquer-The-Gauntlet-Louisville-2016-Start

Athletes were quick out of the starting corral as the course path lead directly into a wooded forest only 100 meters away.  Soggy conditions lurked behind the tree line thanks to thunderstorms the day before and the high humidity of the morning.  Athletes trudged through the mud, climbed up a hill, vaulted over an inverted wall, and then course opened up alongside a beautiful body of water.   CTG must have wanted us to get an up close view of this natural beauty because the course turned sharply left leading directly into the water.  Being so close to the start, it was similar to a triathlon scene with competitors swimming extremely close to one another.  While the swim was only a mere 30 meters in length with a maximum water depth of 8 feet, I was surprised to see no volunteers or emergency personnel stationed at the crossing.

Conquer-The-Gauntlet-Louisville-2016-Water

After doing our best Michael Phelps impressions, we exited the water and were immediately greeted with a 10 foot wall comprised of a few widely spaced, extremely small rock climbing holds.  This proved rather challenging and resulted in multiple attempts for many athletes to successfully complete.  Once over, the course allowed participants to stretch their legs with a running heavy section and a few lesser challenging obstacles such as over walls and a slack line traverse.  Especially fun was “Belly of the Beast” which is a cargo net descent using only the underside in which no part of your body can touch the ground until the bell at the end is rung.

Conquer-The-Gauntlet-Louisville-2016-Log-Carry

The running abruptly came to an end with a 16 foot rope climb and subsequent heavy log carry.  These logs were large in diameter and weighed approximately 50-60 pounds (male, female were lighter) with the carry covering a quarter mile in distance.  While the majority of the carry was mostly flat and open, the finishing sequence required athletes to ascend/descend a 100 foot hill boasting a calf shredding 30%+ gradient.  There was no time to recover from that effort as upper body obstacles continued around every corner.  One obstacle in particular was CTG’s signature obstacle, Stairway to Heaven, which will be featured at this year’s OCR World Championships.  The giant A Frame peaks at 17 feet high with an incline/decline of 55 degrees and athletes are not allowed to use their feet to aid them.

Conquer-The-Gauntlet-Louisville-2016-Stairway

After breaking a massive sweat during the obstacle dense section, a return to the scenic lake was welcomed.  However, this time would require swimming the entire 100 meter width using a much more fatigued body.  This time there were spotters at the end of the swim, but none of them appeared to be wearing suits to assist with any emergency situation.  While there was a small safety line, a few exhausted participants needed further assistance which was provided by fellow athletes already in the water.  A paddle boat was deployed later in the day to allow more timely assistance.

Conquer-The-Gauntlet-Louisville-2016-Rig

Participants exited the swim only to be greeted by the Tarzan Swing which is CTG’s version of a rig consisting of various hanging pieces.  What is normally a difficult obstacle became nearly impossible with wet conditions from the preceding swim.  Also, the pieces were hung using eye bolts with no stem attached directly to a quick release and metal chain.  The small size of the pieces and large gaps required a two handed approach which resulted in contact with the metal quick release and chain.  There were bloodied and jammed fingers as a result.  It seems longer eye bolts with an unthreaded stem would make more sense as it would alleviate the safety concern to participant’s hands without reducing the difficulty of the obstacle.  If you survived that test, you were rewarded with the infamous Pegatron; a lateral peg board one must traverse.

Conquer-The-Gauntlet-Louisville-2016-Pegatron

Podium finishers for the male Elites were PJ Granger, Cody Peyton, and Tyler Barrett while the female Elites were Ashley Samples, Brenna Calvert, and Sally Etherton.  CTG certainly delivered very difficult obstacles which will challenge even experienced OCR enthusiasts, but a few improvements could be made to the logistics and safety aspects.  The obstacles were probably too much of a challenge for more casual and new fans to OCR as the failure percentage in open waves was very high.  However, CTG seems to embrace providing a punishing course and maintaining a more regional series without dreams of massive nationwide expansion.  Those who want a new challenge or think that the current mainstream OCR series are becoming too easy should definitely add Conquer the Gauntlet to your schedules.

Conquer-The-Gauntlet-Louisville-2016-Finish