BattleFrog New Jersey: Something for Everyone

BattleFrog returned to the Tri-State New Jersey area this past Saturday with an 8k Obstacle Course Race to brag about. BattleFrog has previously used the overplayed Englishtown, NJ venue but this time opted for the wooded trails and lakes that the Mount Allamuchy Scout Reservation in Stanhope, NJ had to offer, and it did not disappoint.

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The majority of the course was composed of double-track, you read right DOUBLE not single-track, technical trails through the woods. The forest provided dense shade through most of the course, which was a welcome feature on a hot and sunny June day. The major benefit of true wooded trails is that they provide undulating terrain for some elevation gain and tricky footwork in the form of roots, rocks, and uneven dirt. The downside is that technical terrain often comes paired with a trail that is only one person wide, making it hard to offer up open passing lanes for the competitors and first-timers alike. This is an often overlooked feature that allows those gunning for the podium to feel competitive and comfortable while also allowing for self-conscious slower runners to move at their own speed and not be concerned if they are holding others up. What BattleFrog managed to find in this venue was technical terrain combined with room to pass, almost without exception. There were also some gravel roads, and a few lakes and marshes thrown in for good measure. I cannot possibly say enough good things about this venue and BattleFrog’s use of it. But maybe widen the Normandy Jacks mud crawl next time, okay?

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The facilities offered were also top notch to include seamless parking, shuttles, and registration. This course also boasted the world’s cleanest porta potties, water stops every mile on course, friendly and enthusiastic volunteers and staff, plus one of the best pump-up speeches (with some PT to boot for the BFX runners) given by Coach Pain. For the swag and memorabilia lovers: photographers were a plenty, the medals being earned are bad-ass, and the t-shirts were super comfy. However, my only major complaint with the whole day was logistical: the location of the BFX tent. Typically the tent is located just off the cut-through from the Finish line to the Start line and semi-secluded from the buzz of the festival area. This time it had to be accessed by cutting across the festival and often found it was mistaken as a hangout area for spectators. If the tent was moved to the less accessible side of the festival near the cut through, BattleFrog would have earned perfect scores in New Jersey.

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One thing that rang true through the entire event is that BattleFrog is the ultimate race series for just about anyone. The race brand has built-in so many options that no matter your experience or preference, from newbie to elite to endurance OCR athlete, you will find what you are looking for at BattleFrog. The first option comes at race sign-up, and has been a signature of BattleFrog for years in offering 3 race types: open 8k, mandatory obstacle completion elite 16k, or as many laps as possible in BFX. There is a race format for everyone offered.

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Next, within the race itself, most obstacles now offer 3 different level of difficulty. I think this change has opened the appeal to inexperienced and casual racers by offering an unintimidating setup where you can work at your own level, and strive to be better next race. BattleFrog is well known throughout the business as one of the most physically demanding race forms in both elite and BFX, yet still manages to be approachable. Ultimately, with all the options, your build your own race flavor.  It brought me great joy as an Xtreme racer, to chat with 3 generations of women running together on course, with Grandma leading the pack. BattleFrog is keeping the effort going to expand the footprint of Obstacle Course Racing, as exemplified by this.

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Spartan Race Tuxedo NY Sprint 2016: The Bottleneck

Spartan Race returned to Tuxedo, NY this past weekend. This Sprint is one of Spartan Race’s most popular race venues, reflected by the fact that they offer 4 race days, over two weekends, as opposed to the usual 1-2 day event. Spartan pulls from the densely populated New York City commuter region to attract new racers, and keep once-annual and addict racers coming back year-after-year (or day-after-day). It is probably a safe assumption that Spartan Race makes a large profit, based on a single build and teardown for two weekend’s worth of revenue. High volume of participants is the name of the game for Spartan, and this location is a prime example. However, Spartan needs to up their game in a big way, to keep up with the throughput that a high attendance race produces.

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Spartan Race responded towide-spread complains about obstacle and water backups after last year’s Vermont Beast with new wristbands with start times printed on them to reduce racers jumping waves, and a competitive heat to give people an opportunity to run the course without as much backup while avoiding clogging the elite heats. It is clear after Tuxedo, that these measures were not enough and/or appropriate.

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First, let’s talk about the barbed wire crawl. Tuxedo’s trademark has become the uphill, rocky, insanely long barbed wire crawl from hell. It is difficult. It hurts. It makes people bleed, as proof from the bloody rocks. It is going to slow people down. And when the path is only wide enough for 6-8 people (crawling, not rolling) is a giant bottleneck. If the obstacle was simply made at least twice as wide, there would be no issue. The course designers ensured the crawl was miserable, and succeeded. However, having to lay or kneel on large sharp gravel (because you are waiting on the person in front of you, who is waiting on the person in front of them, and so on…) gets to be uncomfortable and certainly decreases the fun factor significantly. My estimate is that it took me 10 minutes to creep/pause/repeat along the rocky 50ish-yard length of the barbed wire crawl, and the overwhelming crowd consensus deemed that an unacceptable pace.

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At another point in the course, Staff and Volunteers were holding up anyone passing on the course. Runners were instructed that they had to wait to continue on because there was a bottleneck leading up to the vertical cargo, less than 100 feet ahead. So a mass of 75+ spartans waited to pass 10-20 at a time, to then wait again at the obstacle, only steps beyond. This is another case where an obstacle that could accommodate more racers at once (twice as wide) would solve the problem. And two separate, yet shorter, waits for the same obstacle does not make it any less annoying.

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Along with the obstacle backups, there was also a significant, and typical, amount of slowing due to technical single-track trails, that Spartan loves to mix in whenever they can. And if all this didn’t convince you that Spartan was unprepared or the volume of attendees: just look in the porta-potties, let’s just say I’m glad I was there for day 1 of 4. I do have to give them credit, as the logistics for parking, registration, water stations, medals, finisher swag, and pictures all ran efficiently and seemed to be properly staffed.

In the end, the Tuxedo Sprint was another event where Spartan needs to spend the fraction of time and money to make some of the more cumbersome obstacles appropriate for the masses in order to keep those customers coming back for more.
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Tough Mudder Philly 2016 and the Blockness Monster Debate

Tough Mudder Philly 2016 Course Overview

This past weekend, Tough Mudder returned to Planation Field in the “Philly” area for the second time. This venue offers plenty of rolling hills to make the terrain challenging yet not absolutely brutal. The location also features lots of hilly open fields with a good mix of wooded trails and river beds, along with a couple extra 1-2 foot walls along the course, courtesy of the equestrian facilities on site. The parking is located off site on Saturday, unless you pay to upgrade to onsite VIP parking, but Tough Mudder under promises and over delivers in this area with an advertised 30 minute bus ride, which turned out to be 15 minutes or less. Nobody enjoys parking off site, but Tough Mudder made it a breeze in this case.  Same thing goes for Registration and the Festival Area: everything was efficient, clearly marked, and accessible, with friendly staff and volunteers along the way to help.

The weather at Philly/Poconos Tough Mudder has historically been uncomfortable, from the over 100 degree temps in summer 2016 to windy and in the 40s in fall 2015. This weekend, the weather was not as extreme as either of those cases but with temps in the high 50s, constant drizzle, and a bit of wind, it took a little more grit to bear through.

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The course started off with some rolling hills through fields, and after just over a mile the first obstacle was one Berlin Wall. After another half mile, Mudders got their first opportunity to get wet and muddy at Shawshanked, a low barb wire crawl to an upward incline corrugated tube with a drop into a pit of muddy water below. A short jog later was Pitfall, which includes walking a big mud/water pit with purposefully uneven terrain below the surface. After some creek beds and wooded trails was Balls to the Wall, conveniently placed after shoes were nice and muddy, so upper body strength was well tested.

Next up, were two obstacles that force you to live the pledge line, “I help my fellow Mudder complete the course”: Pyramid Scheme and Blockness Monster. Pyramid Scheme is taller and steeper than ever, where you must climb on top of teammates in order to ascend a slick inclined wall. The crowd favorite, Blockness Monster, requires coordinated teamwork to rotate large floating blocks on a spit, to rotate Mudders over the top. Both of these epitomize Tough Mudder by making teamwork vital, providing a physical challenge, and inducing ear to ear smiles. More on Blockness later…

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Kiss of Mud, the classic barbed wire crawl, provided a head to toe covering of soupy mud, then Hold Your Wood reinforced teamwork again by forcing you to team-carry a heavy log over and through two walls, placed along a loop of rolling hills. The next obstacle had two different pegboard ascent options: Liberator, which is a traditional two-track incline pegboard with footholds placed immediately to both sides, for the first timers, or Backstabber, which is a single-peg/single-lane with footholds wide apart and well off the ground, for the legionnaires. This was followed by navigation under heavy cargo nets laid on the ground, named Devil’s Beard, and a climb over several levels of hay wheels, at King of the Mountain.

A longer section of wooded trails led you to another Berlin Wall, where you could see Artic Enema upcoming. After taking an ice bath there, the course skirted the perimeter of the venue and tasked you with carrying a follow Mudder for a short distance and then trading tasks, at Hero Carry. The after some of the steeper hills of the course, participants tackled a wet and slippery Everest in the rain. Teams were utilizing 3-foot segments of rope to dangle down for extra grip, and I could not decipher whether this technique was helping or doing quite the opposite, but I applaud the inventiveness of whoever it was that supplied them.

Next was another climb over hay wheels, at Bale Bonds, followed by a medium steep climb up a hill to Ladder to Hell where participants faced their fear of heights and climbed a frame with large slats and descended the other side. The Tough Mudder classic, Mud Mile, followed which consisted of pits taller than some participants with little to no foot/hand holds again acting as a forcing function for teamwork. At last there was an opportunity to rinse off at cage crawl and rain man, where mud people entered the water, and pulled themselves along a cage about 8 inches over the water pit, where they came out less muddy on the other side. Funky Monkey was slightly harder than usual given the chilly and wet conditions, but Birth Canal that followed had a higher clearance than normal which was a welcome change for those who have perfected the low crawl.

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In the final stretch, first was King of the Swingers. It looks as if TMHQ has gotten the kinks out of this obstacle and it works reliably at this point (kudos since few OCR brands take the time to build and maintain an obstacle with so many literal moving parts) and I believe the bell was located further out than the 2015 season, as very few were able to induce that sweet ringing sound. Second to last was the inverted wall, Skidmarked. Before the finish first timers were sent into the infamous Electroshock Therapy and legionaires were given the choice to get shocked or jump off a platform onto a giant airbag in the form of Frequent Flyers Club.

At the finish line, mudders were awarded their hard-earned headbands, a finisher t-shirt, and a cold beer (and a 10x headband for me). Overall, this was a course that aligns with the standard expected from Tough Mudder, founded in being challenging yet approachable for the average obstacle course racer, with an emphasis on teamwork.

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BLOCKNESS MONSTER: the Pros and Cons

As promised earlier in the article, I have more to say about Blockness Monster (formerly known as Roll the Dice, to World’s Toughest Mudder 2015 veterans). Philly was my first Tough Mudder since I participated in WTM 2015 and I was psyched to get a turn at this obstacle again. As I mentioned earlier, this is a quintessential Tough Mudder obstacle, which embodies everything the brand is known for, and it is a ton of fun. In fact, I was so excited for it that I stayed at the obstacle for over an hour helping and giving tips to fellow Mudders, most who had never seen it in action before. Being there for such an extended period of time, I got to see that it isn’t as smooth an operation as I expected. For the first half hour everything was seamless, people were having a blast, working together, and my arms felt like jelly… I was a happy lady.

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Over the second half hour that I was there, the second block started to experience issues: one side of the spit would come unhinged and the block would start to float away.  This happened 4 times before I decided to move on and finish the course. Time to fix it varied between 2 and 10 minutes, and the obstacle shut down during that time period. Some Mudders were left waiting between the blocks (seen in the picture), some bypassed the obstacle, and others helped the staff by lifting the block back in place from within the water and turning wrenches to re-secure it. Oddly enough, the whole series of events seemed to embody the Tough Mudder nature since the participants jumped right in and worked as a team with the staff to get the obstacles back up and running. In contrast to other OCRs where I’ve seen people complain and throw fits when obstacles go out of commission, people offered their help. It was truly refreshing to see.

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But the real question is, is Blockness worth the hassle? Given the complexity of the build of the obstacle, since it has moving parts that are influenced by the people using it and the water levels, I am sure it is not easily maintained. There is also the risk of bad PR by having obstacles shut down. I did not perceive any imminent safety risk, but I know TMHQ is always keeping those factors in mind as well. All cons of an unreliable obstacle. But I am on team keep Blockness! As mentioned earlier, it is a crowd favorite. There is something special about working with friends and strangers alike to complete a physical task, plus this one results in a fun ride and spin over the top. I think it may take time and tinkering to perfect the design to make it consistently reliable, much like the maturation of King of the Swingers, but in my opinion, it will be worth it in the end. I hope to see Blockness as a staple in Tough Mudders for a long time going forward.