Toughest Mudder South Race Review

In today’s OCR landscape, there is a plethora of events featuring numerous different course lengths and difficulties to suit every taste.  However, the more hardcore crowd who enjoys pushing themselves for multiple hours through endless obstacles was dealt a tough blow last year when BattleFrog shuttered operations.  Their BattleFrog Extreme (BFX) option allowed racers to complete as many laps of the standard 5 mile circuit from 8 am to 3 pm and were a favorite among the ultra OCR enthusiast crowd.  Tough Mudder clearly saw this opportunity to seize that market segment and announced the first ever Toughest Mudder Series.  These events would be 8 hours taking place from 12-8 am, competitive with prize money, broadcast on CBS, and feature a 2 course layout with unique obstacles.  The inaugural event in Los Angeles last month was hailed a smashing success by competitors and media alike.  Therefore, I was keen to check out if Tough Mudder Head Quarters (TMHQ) could duplicate the same triumph at the second stop in Atlanta – let’s hope for Godfather Part 2 and not 2 Fast 2 Furious.

As with any great sequel, the setting is critical and Bouckaert Farms seemed to fit the bill.  This 8,000 acre equestrian park is teeming with gentle pastures, lakes, and woodlands along a 12 mile stretch of the Chattahoochee River.  The road leading up to the event site was well marked and an electronic road construction sign was placed at the site entrance.  Two options were offered for parking – premium for $30 (could only be purchased in advance) right beside Mudder village and standard for $20 ($10 in advance).  Standard parking required a decent 15 minute walk which was quite a task when toting all the gear and nutrition needed for an 8 hour event.  Mudder Village was set up inside the equestrian competition venue with registration setup at the main gate.  Drop zones for pit stops left a lot to be desired though as they were located inside the equestrian horse stalls.   While TMHQ did make good on their promise to provide a 2 by 4 foot covered area, these stalls were narrow and had a very tight entrance.  Undeterred, participants eventually crowded into the starting corral to receive their final briefing.

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TMHQ officials covered primary rules and course specifics before handing over the mic to their hype man, Sean Corvelle.  The Tough Mudder pledge was recited, a few chants were uttered, and the official start was issued promptly at 12:00 am.  Channeling the spirits of the thoroughbreds which normally graced the grounds, participants charged out of the corral onto the first loop.  The first lap is described as a “Sprint Lap” with only some of the 12 obstacles being open.  This allows the field to thin and prevent back logging on obstacles.  There is also a standalone award for the first male and female to complete the first lap.  However, it seemed a large portion of the field went out at a pace more suited for a 2 hour race and would come to regret that decision later in the night.

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The first mile of loop number one led away from Mudder Village and directly into the surrounding forest for a nice technical section of trail running.  Nestled amidst the Georgia pines was the first obstacle, Berlin Walls, which would showcase a devious twist from the race directors – a double obstacle.  There are normally two flat 8 foot walls participants must scale, but the course was doubled back after successful completion to conquer two more (total of 4 walls).  Even better still, the second set had an added horizontal shelf at the top which made that set much more difficult and strength intensive.  Little did we know, TMHQ would utilize this sneaky technique on other upcoming obstacles throughout the event.

After some more trail running, the forest opened up to Pyramid Scheme which was tweaked for this individual event into a slippery (water pit at the base), slanted wall with a rope assist.  Shortly after, mudders encountered the first decent hill at 1.5 miles into the course that gained approximately 100 feet at a 20% incline.  The path turned at the summit and would meander along the river front for the next 2.5 miles.  Along the way, some of the more mundane obstacles would be met including Devil’s Beard (cargo net crawl), Hold Your Wood (log carry), Lumberjacked (horizontal logs to jump over), and Bale Bonds (hay bale climb).  The relaxing jaunt through the foggy meadow abruptly came to an end with the emergence of a beast, the Block Ness Monster!  Teamwork was a necessity because these slick, rotating barriers were heavy and situated in deep water.

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With heart rates raised and muscles pumped, the path would only get harder from here.  Skidmarked, an 8 foot slanted wall (towards athlete), was hiding only a few hundred yards around the corner.  This lead directly into Kiss the Mud 2.0 (barb wire crawl) and Mud Mile 2.0.  Muddy mounds are not normally an obstacle people fear with most barely remembering them post race, but this is Toughest Mudder!  Mud Mile 2.0 was by far the hardest and most energy consuming obstacle on loop one.  These mounds were tall with no hand / foot holds and the water pits were deep with no ability to launch upwards.  Competitors united to push and pull each other over the 10 slick mounds at a brutally sluggish rate.  The hard work was rewarded with two additional obstacles before the finish – Pitfall (variable depth water crossing) and Everest 2.0 (half pipe with rope assist).

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Challengers would complete this same course as many times as they could until between 3:45 – 4:00 am when TMHQ would begin routing people to the second loop for the remaining 4 hours.  Obstacles on the first loop all closed around 3:30 am to usher all runners to the second loop as quickly as possible.  Loop one could definitely be summarized as teamwork based with no single obstacle causing a high rate of failure and was aimed at sapping leg strength.  Loop two, on the other hand, would be much more individual focused and require upper body / grip strength plus obstacle proficiency.

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Waiting conveniently atop the first hill was Balls to the Wall, the 16 foot vertical wall with a rope attached at its peak.  No time to rest though because down the other side of the hill ran you into Augustus Gloop.  This was comprised of wading thru a water pit and directly up a vertical tube as more water rushed in from above.  After being thoroughly soaked, TMHQ decided to be funny and place the shockingly (pun intended) tricky Operation.  Similar to the children’s game of old, a metal pole had to be placed thru an electrified opening to grab a small ring hanging flush against a backstop.  Successful completion moved you directly into another double obstacle section, Stage 5 Clinger and Reach Around.  If you were not feeling the burn by now, a modified King of Swingers (no bell, replaced with cargo net to Tyrolean traverse over the water pit) was a short distance away to push your muscles to the limit.  All of this came before the 2 mile mark of loop two!

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Fortunately, the obstacle density was scaled back after this point with longer running sections.  Arctic Enema the Rebirth would be next up after a half mile jog to cool any burning forearms and really shock the system.  Another half mile stretch was waiting to warm participants’ core temperature just in time for another log carry, Hold Your Wood Dos, and Funky Monkey the Revolution.  The first half was the same upward sloping monkey bars as previous years, but the remainder had been revamped to include a series of revolving wheels.  Thick fog from the humid Southern air provided a nice coating of dew for added enjoyment.  The remaining two miles of the course was fairly subdued with a 200 foot hill climb, Ladder to Hell (simple up and over), Quagmire (thick mud pit), double obstacle – Birth Canal and Black Hole (low crawls under fluid filled canvas), and lastly Kong (5 gym rings suspended 30 feet in the air).

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No new laps could be started after 7:45 am and a 30 minute grace period was provided to finish any current lap.  Any athletes still not finished at 8:30 am were pulled from the course and transported back to Mudder Village.  This would not count as a DNF, just no partial credit would be given for that last lap.  When it was all said and done, your top men were Ryan Atkins (1st – 50 miles), Ryan Woods (2nd – 45 miles), and Luke Bosek (3rd – 45 miles).  On the women’s side, the top performers were Lindsay Webster (1st – 45 miles), Allison Tai (2nd – 40 miles), and Alex Roudayna (3rd – 35 miles).  Currently in the lead for annual mileage are Ryan Atkins (100 miles) and Lindsay Webster (85 miles).  The next stop for Toughest will be across the pond in the United Kingdom.

So did Tough Mudder successfully pull off their Godfather sequel?  Based off the 500 maniacs (this author included) who paid hard earned money to torture themselves for 8 hours, it would seem TMHQ made us an offer we couldn’t refuse.  The courses were comprised of technical running with enough hills to keep it interesting, but not daunting.  Obstacles were well placed, challenging, and contained surprising alterations like doubled versions.  It was a very polished event as one would expect from one of the most well established OCR companies.  Perhaps the only unanswered question will be how these events translate into the CBS broadcast later this summer.  To paraphrase Michael Corleone, “We know it’s you, Tough Mudder.  So don’t break our hearts!”

OCR World Championships (OCRWC) 2016: Race Recap

The third annual OCR World Championships (OCRWC) took place over this last weekend at the Blue Mountains Resort near Collingwood, Ontario, Canada.  After taking place at the King’s Domain permanent obstacle course in Oregonia, Ohio the first two years, moving the race to another country truly made it feel like a more international event.  Race creators would also be tasked with building a complete course from scratch as this venue primarily functioned as a ski destination.  The organizers could not have asked for better conditions on Friday and Saturday as the trees were in full color-change mode along with a sun filled 45-70 Fahrenheit temperature.  Parking and spectators were once again free of charge this year plus a well laid out vendor area right in the center of the ski resort lodging.  An added bonus was free ski lift rides for athletes and their support teams to truly take in the natural beauty atop the Blue Mountains as they cascaded down into the Georgian Bay.

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New this year was the addition of the 3K short course championship ran on Friday which turned out to be an amazing event.  The order of heats for this event was reversed from standard with the master’s participants heading out first, competitive athletes second, and the professionals last.  This proved very successful because it allowed both 3K participants plus those still traveling that morning to the venue for packet pickup to view the entire professional competition.  Using a rolling start format, athletes would stay close to the bottom of the mountains and face 15 obstacles.  The men’s pro race, in particular, was extremely close with Hunter McIntyre and Ryan Atkins battling back and forth the entire course.  These athletes were running sub 5-minute mile pace through the running sections and conquering obstacles with reckless abandon.  Hunter, unfortunately, slipped at the end of the Urban Sky obstacle allowing Ryan to cross the finish line in first place.  On a side note, Hunter was later disqualified entirely for missing a bell at one of the earlier obstacles, but it was still an excellent viewing spectacle.  2nd and 3rd for the men ended up being Jon Albon and Viktor Alexy.  On the women’s side, Lindsay Webster took top honors by a healthy2-minutee margin with Karin Karlsson and Hanneke Dannhauser rounding out the podium.

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The main event took place on Saturday where athletes from 42 countries would tackle the 15k (9.3 miles) long course comprised of 48 manufactured obstacles in conjunction with the natural terrain and elevation of the ski slopes.  Undeterred, athletes gathered in the starting corral under the start banner adorned with flags from across the world and listened to Coach Pain give an impassioned pre race speech.  Once the “GO” command was given, hundreds of participants attacked the slight uphill start through the crowd of spectators and green smoke onto some small hurdles.  All the excitement of the first flat quarter mile quickly faded as the course turned sharply up the “Happy Valley” ski slope.  Turns out the ascent was not the worst of the worries because halfway up the slope loomed an ill placed warped wall.  Being placed right after a muddy water run-off and in the shade still covered with fresh dew resulted in an immediate bottleneck.  Exacerbating the issue was the fact that 200+ elites were in the midst of fighting for early race position and unwilling to provide ample space to one another for a proper approach.  It was pure chaos with no race staff there to assist in providing order and absolutely allowed the first runners to gain a serious time advantage.

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Eventually, athletes were able to negotiate the bottleneck and continue up the ascent totaling 600 feet in the first mile.  Upon reaching the summit and questioning the reason one would willingly sign up for such an event, participants were greeted with a breathtaking scene.  A six foot wall stretched across the entire trail width and beautiful blue water meeting a cloudless azure sky was all that could be seen lurking behind.  From there the course routed us around to the top of the slopes through some low crawls and an assortment of walls to scale before forcing us down a 700 foot descent.  Along the way, Savage Race Pipe Dreams and Toughest Dragon Back made an appearance.  Slated next on the obstacle list was a new offering from Platinum Rig called the Samurai which consisted of vertical poles one must traverse.  However, athletes arrived to the structure only to find it taped off and not part of the 15k event even though it was used during the previous days 3k race.  This was rather disappointing, but there was no time to dwell on the reasoning as the trail provided a steep 500 foot ascent and then descent.  At the bottom was the original Platinum Rig which was nestled in the center of the busy festival area providing prime spectator viewing.

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A quick dash over the decorative waterfall and up a small incline took participants to the dreaded 50 pound sandbag carry that was slated to be a full half mile up the steep “Tranquility” ski slope.  Once again, the race organizers had unexpectedly made last minute changes to the course and the carry was the same distance as the 3k event or roughly half the planned length.  This was still a tough carry at 200 feet ascent/descent on 40%+ gradient, but somewhat unsatisfactory after mentally preparing for the anticipated longer version.  Perhaps the race director felt it was too difficult since it was immediately followed by a 700 foot ascent directly through the tree lined slope boundary.  While climbing, racers encountered an eight foot wall, barbed wire crawl, and cargo net crawl.

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There was little time to celebrate or catch a breath as a new variation of Skull Valley was looming right at the peak.  This year’s version consisted of the same skull handholds on one side of a suspended beam transitioning into four ropes with foot assist knots and finishing with more skull handholds on alternating sides of the suspended beam.  The deep skull handholds and the knotted ropes made this obstacle very manageable compared to the more difficult 2015 version.

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Completion led directly into Platinum Rig # 2 which was being dubbed Platinum Rig Mini as the entire structure stood only six feet.  The actual portions of the rig that participants were allowed to touch during the traverse were a mere three to four feet!  This was a great twist on a classic obstacle which required athletes use core strength and body control as they snaked their way across the assembly without touching the ground.  Feet were permitted on this configuration as opposed to the standard rig.

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After a quick drink at the hydration station and a glance from the scenic ski lift summit, it was back to single track running through more beautiful fall foliage.  The journey would take entrants through a weaver, over-unders, Dead End Race warped wall, and quarter pipe all leading up to Conquer the Guantlet’s Stairway to Heaven.  This obstacle was cleverly placed at the tallest point along the course overlooking the entire Blue Mountain village and making competitors literally climb into the sky.  A 400 foot descent was up next with natural obstacles along with a rudimentary 50 pound sandbag hoist.  There was a final 300 foot ascent thrown in for good measure to fully sap the last bit of leg strength before heading entirely into the main festival area.  The finishing sequence of obstacles were Dead End Race Monkey Business, sternum checker, suspended boards, Skyline, Urban Sky, and a finish ramp wall.  Urban Sky was particularly fun which featured spinning wheels at various angles with a transition into a rotating spiral monkey bar type apparatus.

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When it was all said and done, UK’s Jon Albon (currently living in Norway) repeated as male pro Champion for a third straight year followed by Canada’s own Ryan Atkins and Conor Hancock also from the UK.  For the women, Canada’s Lindsay Webster claimed the title with Nicole Mericle of the USA and Karin Karsson of Sweden rounding out the top three.  Full results are available online.

From an elite perspective, the obstacles were very well laid out, but not overly difficult so this course definitely favored the more proficient mountain runners.  It was clear the race organizers wanted a higher success rate during the age group waves which is a balancing act every event tries to strike.  The now defunct US based BattleFrog Series used a clever multi-tiered difficulty system and Europe’s Toughest Series has a short, challenging option as well as a longer, easier alternative.  It would be interesting to see if these strategies could be incorporated into next year’s event.  At the end of the day, this was still a world class event that brought together the entire OCR community in one glorious setting for a very memorable weekend.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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BattleFrog: Inaugural Louisville Race – 2016 Recap

Being an OCR enthusiast from Kentucky typically means lots of travel to attend events.  BattleFrog (BF) finally visited the Bluegrass State last weekend, and I was as ecstatic as a teenage girl at a Taylor Swift concert.  After a lackluster Chicago event two weeks previous, I was hoping BF was keen to “Shake It Off” and get back to the challenging series we have come to expect.  Having the legendary “Beard” back as race director gave me great confidence this would be the case.

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General Butler State Resort Park nestled in the rolling hills of Carrollton, KY 45 minutes east of Louisville was the event venue.  Not only is the park located a mere 2 miles off I-71, the event parking was directly at the main entrance making for one of the easier morning commutes.  Parking fee was the standard $10 and the festival area was a short 200-meter walk away.  As usual, the registration process was well staffed and participants entered through the merchandise tent to the music-filled festival area.

With the clock striking 7 am and the sun creeping higher in the sky, Elites began crowding into the starting corral.  The “Beard” reviewed the rules, Coach Pain provided the motivation, a few Hooyah’s were chanted, and we were off.  Like thoroughbreds at Churchill Downs, participants charged towards a sharp left turn only 50 meters away causing an early bottleneck.  The course then stretched alongside the highway and provided some rudimentary O.U.T obstacles leading up to the 4-foot wall.

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The straight, wide running path then turned into the dense woods and shrunk to more single track racing.  General Butler State Park has many well-groomed trails and BF succeeded in using none of them.  The next three miles would take us directly through the untamed forest, creeks, and ravines providing extremely technical terrain.  The metaphorical and literal pinnacle of the natural terrain was Mount Battlefrog which towered 200 feet in only 300 meters kicking up to a 35% gradient.  Complimenting the natural obstacles along the way were man-made obstacles such as Ramp Wall, Spider Web, Monkey Bars, and a short Jerry Can Carry.

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After three miles of technical running, the last two miles of the course was an upper body/grip strength assault of 14 obstacles.  These included 60 Degrees, Wreck Bag Carry, Wedge Wall, 8-foot Wall, Platinum Rig, Tip of the Spear, and 12-foot Rope Wall.  The thick morning dew during the Elite heat made this sequence even more challenging (not to mention the second lap).  Athletes attempting to conquer the course later in the day would be facing them in the sweltering 95 degree heat.  The finish line was a welcomed sight after this course.

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Podium finishers for the male Elites were Ian Hosek, Alex Stephens, and Jamie McCart and the female Elites were Laura Hunt, Heather Moss, and Jen Kohlbeck.   Greg Bugher, Glenn Nakamura, and Josh McDaniel took the top spots for the Master’s male Elites while Maria Tornudd was the sole female Master’s Elite finisher.  A few brave souls endured the Kentucky heat all day for BF Xtreme (BFX) with Michael Bell and Jennifer Hawkins taking home the coveted trident.

BattleFrog has established themselves as one of the more challenging OCR series and that was solidified with Louisville’s course.  More importantly, there was fun to be had on this course no matter what skill level you entered the starting corral.  BattleFrog’s tiered obstacle system with novice, intermediate, and elite options provided everyone a chance to feel accomplished.  To paraphrase Stephen Foster’s famous state song, the sun shined bright on my old Kentucky home.

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Photo Credits: BattleFrog Series