Inside Look at Spartan Race Big Bear Winner Johnny Luna-Lima

Courtesy of Johnny Luna-Lima

Johnny Luna-Lima finished up the barbed-wire crawl, jogged toward the finish line, leaped up in the air and let out a ferocious double fist pump in celebration. He had just won the fourth race in the Spartan US National Series at Big Bear Lake, California, on a rugged and unrelenting mountain with steep climbs and blazing descents. He gave a few aw-shucks interviews and soaked in the adoration from those close by, but it was clear to everyone watching that this guy was making a statement. This win was no fluke, and he’s arguably one of the favorites to win the World Championship in Lake Tahoe this September.

If you were shocked by the results of the Big Bear Beast, then you haven’t been following the sport closely enough. Lima has been putting in quality work for a few years now and has a truly balanced and holistic approach to endurance athletics. (This season he has finished 7th, 14th, 4th, and 1st in the National Series races.)

Johnny grew up playing competitive soccer at the age of four – and didn’t stop until he was 19. He had aspirations of becoming a professional soccer player and worked tirelessly at the pursuit of his dream. (This is a thread that runs through all of his pursuits.) A younger Lima trained two hours a day, honing skills and building a strong fitness engine. It’s easy to get burned out on one particular sport, though, and after high school, it was time to try something new. His dad is a marathoner, so he watched closely as his mentor pursued long-distance races over many years. Johnny eventually took a crack at a half marathon his senior year of high school and ran a very impressive 1:20!

The talent was there, but he had developed many overuse injuries – everything from stress fractures to muscle strains – and kept getting hurt during his early 20s. Here was a young kid who ate clean, kept his running volume low, and looked after himself – and he still couldn’t avoid the injury bug.

Instead of being stubborn and banging his head against the wall– like many talented athletes tend to do– Johnny decided to pivot a bit.  He went to visit with Dr. Justin Brink at Premier Spine and Sport in San Jose, California on numerous occasions, and slowly learned that in order for the human body to work well and sustain high stress over a long period of time, he had to have all the bases covered. That might sound a tad generalized, but for him, this meant seeking out the expertise of a few coaches.

Enter elite OCR athlete Ian Hosek and multi-faceted specialist Taylor Kruse. To have Johnny tell it, each coach serves a specific purpose for him. “Think of Ian as being the engineer who tunes an engine to be able to move quickly and efficiently,” he told me in a recent interview. “Taylor is the mechanic that makes sure the car’s wheels are rolling smoothly; the brakes are working and that the engine can cool off well.”

Hosek has an insatiable work ethic and a desire to learn more about running, so he was a great fit for Lima’s lifestyle. He has taught Johnny how to train smart to attain his desired level of fitness. “[Ian] programs his run training according to heart rate zones, which for me is important since I do not come from a running background; this is helping me bridge the learning curve that comes with running.”

Then, Lima realized he wanted to find someone who shared a similar mindset with him regarding the movement of the human body and keeping it healthy and balanced long term—or as he put it much more succinctly, “the diversification of stress and movement the body needs in order to function well.”

Kruse comes with a breadth of knowledge in this area, and although he’s hiding out in the White Mountains of New Hampshire and not a household name, he’s a smart guy who brings a lot to the table for any elite or standard athlete. Hearing Lima talk about this crucial piece of the puzzle was very illuminating. He really cares about this shit and it shows.

“The body is meant to move constantly in a wide variety of directions with different loads,” Lima went on. “Embody that and integrate that into your training and I promise you will be a healthier and happier human being.”

Kruse has helped him take care of the body in many different ways, including mobility and strength exercises that keep his feet, ankles, knees, and hips happy. Durability, as he’s learned at a very young age, is not a given. He will balance out his training with running on varied terrains in addition to climbing and scrambling adventures. This is a life-long pursuit, so he’s doing great at making it an enjoyable process.

He told me he meditates daily as well, which is a practice many elite athletes adhere to. (I can just picture him sitting in the mountains, Headspace or Calm playing in his ears, setting the stage for a busy day to come.)

Lima currently resides in Boulder, Colorado, which he described as a “mecca for training.” Whether he wants to run steep technical trails, flat sections, or just climb easily in the beautiful Colorado Mountains, he has it all at his disposal.  His two favorite cross-training methods are Skimo in the winter and mountain biking in the summer.

“I train so that I can move through the mountains and explore,” he told me. “The fitter I am the quicker I can move through the mountains. I’d say that’s what really motivates me to train. Racing is a great way to test you and keep yourself honest and learn more about yourself… plus I enjoy it and am super competitive!”

The refreshing aspect is that, like his running coach Hosek, he wants to continue to learn more and more about endurance sports and his body within that arena. He currently lives with Andy Wackers, a pro-Nike Trail runner, who just finished eighth in the US 25k road running championships and has a 63-min half marathon PR. Running with a guy like that twice a week only enhances his ability to train smart and learn more about the sport.  He looks up to and admires Atkins, Jon Albon, and Kilian Jornet and Ryan Woods, all mountain-running legends that dominate in their respective sports and also have balanced training regimens that they’ve turned into a way of life. Woods, in particular, has been very helpful to Lima over the years, selflessly lending him advice and hard-earned wisdom.

The win at Big Bear was no temporary blip on the radar, and it’s exciting to see where Lima goes from here. Whether it’s taking down the beast at Tahoe, or toeing the line with the best Sky Runners in the world this year across seas, he’s built an amazingly coherent and studied approach. “My career as an athlete is a work in progress and is just beginning, what is working for me now may change in the future. I by no means have everything figured out and I am still learning a lot about how to train, my body, running and racing. I am excited to see what else is in store for me!”

Gladiator Assault Challenge 2019

GAC-group

Local Charm

Gladiator Assault Challenge is a local mud run put on every year outside of Ames, Iowa.  For being a small, local race, it has quite a large attendance number with heats of runners going off every 20 minutes from 8 am till noon for 2 days.  There was a DJ pumping out tunes and getting people hyped and ready for the race. Being a local race, some frills were left out such as bibs, and timing chips. (which I agree would be completely unnecessary for this race). But what it lacked it made up for with all the benefits of local-race charm. The parking and bag check was free, the atmosphere was friendly and down to earth, and the volunteers/staff while few and far between were ultra-positive and dedicated to making sure everyone was having a good time.  You were even greeted with a free beer right in the finish chute, and brand new this year they hired photographers for free race photos. And the winners were given bad-ass handmade wooden swords as trophies.

GAC-Prize

No one told me that this race was on a ski hill!

This is the Midwest we don’t have mountains we have gentle rolling hills… except sometimes we have big steep hills and we put up little chair lifts and ski down them, and sometimes when there isn’t any snow we set up obstacles on those hills and run ‘em.  I had no idea till I showed up what exactly my quads and calves were in for, over 1K ft of elevation gain on very steep slopes, not including the 150 ft vertical climb from the spectator area to the start line at the top of the chair lift.  For some perspective, a typical Midwest race has around 200 ft of vert.

GAC-Start

The Course

The race offered two race distances a 5K or 10K option.  According to my GPS, the 5K was actually 2.5 miles and the 10K was only 5 miles, I’m not sure but from looking at previous course videos it seemed that a portion of the course that involved running through the creek may have been cut due to weather-related issues.  Most of the obstacles (20) were on the 5K course leaving more running on the full gladiator course, going up and down steep hills.

GAC-Start-Hill

Obstacles

The number one obstacle at Gladiator Assault Challenge 2019 was mud, mud and more mud, combined with the steep slopes this made for some precarious running and some really fun slipping and sliding down the hills.

GAC-Fall

Most of the obstacles were terrain based with some big climbs assisted by a rope or the “Plinko” obstacle going down a precipitous descent where you bounced from one small tree to another to keep you from tumbling down the hill.  Thankfully the heavy carry was actually on flat ground, while the barbed wire crawl was on one of the nasty hills (have I mentioned how steep the hills were yet?)

GAC-Crawl

95% of all the obstacles could be completed by everyone running making this a very family friendly event, and there were plenty of families in attendance.  My favorite obstacle had to be the cage crawl which got you super muddy just before your final push to the finish line.

GAC-fence

I would like to see some obstacle improvement though.  Of the 30 obstacles, there was only 1 grip obstacle which had you traverse a set of monkey bars while your lower half was submerged in water.

GAC-Monkey

While the water provided some resistance and slowed movement it also provided buoyancy making the traverse easier.

Final Thoughts

I really enjoyed this race and I would not hesitate to do it again. Everyone I talked to was having a great time, from the OCR vets to the first-time mud runners. Gladiator Assault Challenge has been adding new obstacles every year and seems dedicated to putting on a quality event.  Two thumbs up!

GAC-Thumbs

(I know, those aren’t thumbs)

 

Photos Courtesy of Justin Smith and DE Hodges Photography

The Resurrection

 In the country woods and farmland outside of St. Louis lies the remnants of what was an obstacle racing battlefield from days gone by. The old Battlegrounds course on property of Cedar Lake Cellars Winery still stands as a reminder of many great experiences to those who’ve raced its fast flat terrain. A venue where one minor tactical error could cost you two to three spots of placement. The final Battlegrounds race took place in May of 2018 and those events will never be forgotten, but in its ashes, another has risen!

 August of 2018 marked the first time Tough Mudder brought their version of an event to the Battlegrounds site. To say what took place was piss-poor would be an understatement. In fact, Missouri wasn’t the only event in which Tough Mudder showed a lack-luster performance in 2018. The issues became so bad that the company replaced CEO Will Dean and has promised that 2019 will mark the return of the “Classic Tough Mudder” that we all grew to love over the years. Yeah, yeah, we’ve heard that song and dance before… right before Battle Frog closed its doors for good. I actually wasn’t able to attend the MO Tough Mudder last year because the brilliant minds at the 2018 TMHQ scheduled it during the North American OCR Championships (NORAM), a race in which many of us had already committed to racing; so I’m going to be honest, I signed up for the 2019 Missouri Tough Mudder to test the waters of this “new/ revamped” Tough Mudder (TM). Sure I needed an event to attain the Tougher Mudder portion of my 2019 Holy Grail, but I wanted to see if TM had changed its ways and if they would be able to improve upon the experience I’d come to expect at The Battlegrounds course.

 Tough Mudder didn’t start off on the right foot with me for this event to say the least. I’d hoped on interviewing their Race Director and having him give ORM viewers a social media preview a day or two prior to the event to help hype things up but TMHQ declined??? Yes, that’s right; they declined free publicity from ORM for an upcoming event. I mean who does that? My immediate thought was, “you bastards better not screw this up again or I am going to crucify you in my post-event review!!!”

 If you started reading this looking for a blow-by-blow, obstacle-by-obstacle race review you can stop right now and go back to perusing your Facebook News Feed because this is not that type of review. This is the story of a resurrection! The rebirth of both Tough Mudder and of the awesome Battlegrounds/Cedar Lake Cellars venue.

Like a Phoenix rising from the ashes, the fantastic Tough Mudder experience has returned and with it yet another day of fun at The Battlegrounds! I mean how can you not be entertained at an event that has Coach Mudder himself, Kyle Railton, as its MC and takes place next door to a beautiful winery?

When TMHQ has it going they can put on a party like it’s nobody’s business and they had that place kicking from the time we arrived for check-in at 6:45 am until my girlfriend and I left the winery at around 4 pm. Mudder Village had the music rocking, zorb racing, a Salmon ladder as well as other fun challenges like giant Jenga and Corn Hole and a lot more. Oh, and what’s an amazing Tough Mudder event without a major obstacle opening at around 12:00? Ok well, this one was at like 12:30 pm instead of midnight and obstacle was open to both participants AND Mudder Village visitors! The Torpedo Launchers, as it’s known at the Battlegrounds, is a 100 foot long, 25-foot high water slide that sends you careening into a 12-foot pool at up to 30 mph. This was an absolutely perfect attraction on an 85 degree Missouri day!

 

 Overall the staff at TM had the event running smoothly. The check-in process was quick and painless. The participant “load in” made the starting of each wave easy without much confusion, and for the Tougher wave the lack of a professional timing system really didn’t have any effect on the racers. TM simply had a person at the finish line recording bib numbers and writing down times much the way Rugged Maniac and Warrior Dash do it. Basically, everything surrounding the placement of the racers was seamless on site. However, the person entering the information into Tough Mudder’s website made a gaffe as they listed the Female Tougher winner, Kelly Williams, as coming in 2nd… Which was clearly not the case at the race as everyone there knew the order when it came to podium time. Even this aspect was much more organized than in previous years. I finished 3rd at the 2017 TM Chicago and they didn’t even have a podium nor did they take any top three finisher pics which was frustrating.

 One of the big issues people had with the event at this venue last year was TM’s lack of thought put into the actual course. They basically just used the Battlegrounds five-mile course and implemented their infamous “double loop” design which led to ridiculous backups at obstacles and, from what I understand, left participants with overall “meh” feeling about their experience after it was complete. This was not the case at all this year as far as course design goes. In fact, I’ve been racing and implementing boot camps at this site for years and I saw parts of the property I didn’t even know existed. The race director also did a good job of obstacle placement with the intention of limiting some of the obstacle delays. For example, knowing Everest often has long backups he placed two of the new obstacles, Black/Pink Widow and Texas Hold’em along with Block Ness one right after another following Everest to try to keep the people moving after they finished the wall.

 All of this being said, the event was not all sunshine and rainbows! For instance, somehow, even with that thoughtful design order there ended up being three log jams in a row with Everest as well as those two new obstacles and leaving very few people to help each other at Block Ness… How the heck that happened I have no idea! I can only guess that people were skipping the long lines at one only to get stuck at the next one. There were also a few issues that arose during the Tougher wave due to TMHQ’s lack of defined rules on some of the obstacles like, for example, what a racer needs to do if he/she arrives at the Hero Carry without a partner to carry? Also, what do you do if an obstacle that needs a penalty loop but there isn’t one provided like at say Entrapment? These are questions that should be answered in the pre-race briefing if they aren’t on the rules sent to the athletes prior to the race but adequate directions were not provided.  

 

 In the end, the issues listed above didn’t overly detract from what was, in my opinion, a fantastic event. Tough Mudder seems to have their act back together and to be focused on what made them so popular which is providing an awesome overall experience with people helping people conquer the course with mud, sweat, and tears. Those participants can then follow that up with a beer or even a few in a carnival style atmosphere in Mudder Village where the participants, as well as the spectators, can continue building memories. Those of us who’ve raced at this venue so many times before can now chalk another one up in our badassery log and look forward to yet another magnificent mudder experience in 2020.

Welcome back!!!

Atlanta Ragnar Trail 2019

“The road to the top is a lonely one,” is some of the absolute worst running advice I have ever received. If you look at some of the top performers, you can see that they surround themselves with some equally passionate, loving, and crazy people. These people believe in the TEAM, and with that love, the team is able to travel farther than most. Many of you most likely run alone, and surrounding yourself with passionate people can be hard (because to be honest, most of your friends probably think you’re crazy). If only there was an easy way to find an opportunity to find people who understand your crazy… That opportunity is Ragnar Trail.

What is Ragnar Trail?

Imagine this: you have a campsite, it’s three o’clock in the morning, and you’re surrounded by 7 of your friends who all collectively smell like a rotting shoe. You’re totally sticky, who knows why, and you look around at your friends and just smile. This is Ragnar.

Okay, maybe that’s not entirely what Ragnar is. But, pretty close.

When you come to Ragnar Trail, there are 8 people on a team total. You can arrive either on Thursday or Friday morning to set up your campsite. Brace yourself and prepare to get cozy– you may rest up there a bit.

With Ragnar Trail, there are three trails that you are going to run. There is a green loop, a yellow loop, and a red loop. All of the loops are assigned a color based on relative difficulty–surely, you can guess which one is the easiest, and which is the more challenging.

When you get started, your first runner is going to run the green loop. Then, your second runner runs the yellow loop, third runs red, fourth runs green, and you keep going until every single runner has run each of the three loops.

Easy right?

Sure, if you don’t like to sleep much!

The thing is, total, the Ragnar is well over 100 miles. That means, in order to complete the entire course as a team, you guys will be running for at least 17:00:00 straight. In other words, not only are you running but at some point during this glorious adventure, you are going to be running trails in the middle of the night.

Now, I know what you’re thinking, and that’s probably that there is no way in Hell your friends are not going to be into it. If you haven’t met enough people through OCR who will love being crazy with you, you’re in luck. There are many teams who go onto Facebook who BEG for more runners. So, if you don’t know anyone, buckle up, and prepare to get friendly!

Atmosphere

Part of the reason that I love Ragnar so much is the atmosphere. Here, you are ENCOURAGED to go bananas. In addition to looking at team times, Ragnar staff is also looking for the best team theme. Our team theme was the Hot TaMILES, and we decked out in chilli pepper temporary tattoos and hats. My personal favorite theme that I saw was a team called “The Knights of the Buffet Table.” Walking around the campsites, there were tons of campsites that were decorated. So, although it’s a tough challenge, you definitely do not have to worry about people taking themselves too seriously here.

 

If camping isn’t quite your thing, Ragnar offers a “glamping” package. I have no idea how much extra it costs, and what all it entails (I think you have access to trailer bathrooms as opposed to port-o-Johns; fancy!). Glamping is for the runner who is there for the sport, but doesn’t exactly feel like pitching a tent. The Atlanta site is also right across the street from a hotel, so you better believe we saw people walking on in that direction at the end of the event.

(Since I don’t know much about glamping, you can click here for more information)

 

Village

 

To be out there for a full day and night would be pretty boring if there was nothing to do. Luckily, Ragnar has thought of this ahead of time!

Aside from the campsite is the village. In the village, there are several different activities for you to do while you are not running. You can partake in mid-day yoga classes, enjoy a soothing massage, sit in some of those inflatable leg things, watch movies, make s’mores, and so much more! Each team will also have a dinner meal ticket (I’ve gone the last two years, and the last two years the meal has been lasagna), and access to a few food trucks.

They post the schedule of events ahead of time for you to be able to take advantage of all of the shenanigans. Coffee, hot chocolate, and hot water are also provided. Just make sure that you bring cash, your own mug, and your own yoga mat!

The Race Itself

When you register for Ragnar, you have to put in an approximate pace for yourself so that Ragnar staff can provide you a start time based off of your projected abilities. My team was given the 3:00 start time.

Green Loop

At about 2:45, I started making my way toward the start line. It is advised that you head that way about 15 minutes before your team’s start.

One thing that I appreciate about Ragnar is that they do what they can to spread people out on the courses as much as possible. By the time I hit the line, there were only 16 people who were going to start at the same time as me. The race director started calling to us “WHO’S HYDRATED?!” A bunch of us cheered. Then they called, “WHO IS CARRYING ELECTROLYTES?” and significantly fewer people cheered.

Now, it’s the Georgia Horse Park in the middle of the day in April. It was 85 degrees and 80% humidity, making it extremely difficult to breathe. I can only imagine the fate of those poor souls who didn’t hydrate.

The green loop has a deceptively quick first mile. Most people I talked to said they had a fabulous first-mile time, and, not going to lie, I was pretty happy with mine. The trails start really wide, the yellow loop turns right while the red loop and green loop turn left. Then, the green loop veers right into the woods while the red loop carries on. Like I mentioned earlier, the first mile of the approximately 4.2-mile course is on a really wide trail. There is a lot of space to pass people, and it really is a lot of fun.

A little less than a mile and a half in, you run up a hill and the wider trail narrows into a single-track trail. There are several places where the path widened enough for you to be able to pass someone but to say it was wide would be ambitious. The hills rolled and rolled; which is to be expected, considering the trails were actually part of the Olympic Mountain Biking Trails from 1996. The Green Loop was actually part of the “beginner” mountain bike trail.

Now, considering the green loop was the beginner loop, the hills were rolling, but the terrain was not too technical. As long as you watched your step, it was almost a solid guarantee to leave the green trail with both ankles intact.

The only downside to these trails were some of the bridges that were built. Now, the big, important ones were covered in some sort of cover, so they were fine. For the most part, the little bridges that were provided to aid in difficult spots were fairly bouncy and had quite a bit of space in between boards. If I saw that there was space on the side to run on the ground and not on the bridge, you better believe I took it.

In the last mile and a half of the green loop actually intertwines with the yellow loop, so for a while there, it fares to be pretty twisty. There are several signs throughout the entire run, which I noticed for the Green Loop especially, seemed to be pretty spot-on, according to my GPS watch. The Ragnar team provided “mile-ish left!” signs, and from then on out the course really opens up, so it’s easy to open up your gate as well.

Transition

Transitioning in between runners is a really big question that people have. My team was super prepared, so we were able to guess roughly the amount of time it would take for each runner to complete their leg. Before you can make your way into the transition tent, you have to wait outside of the tent. Race directors do this so there aren’t all 200 teams inside the tent at once. When your runner hits the Quarter Mile to Go marker, your team name will show up on the screen outside of the tent. Once your name is on the screen, you check in with the volunteer standing at the transition, and you make your way in.

Team bibs are tied to a very lightweight belt. The belts have a clip, so when it’s time to swap runners, you just unclip the belt and hand it off.

Yellow Loop

Ah, the yellow loop. The yellow loop is actually the intermediate Olympic mountain biking trail. The yellow loop caused more stress for people than the red loop did. This trail contained the most technical of paths. A challenging aspect of the frequent, inclined, hair-pin turned made it difficult to maintain a consistent pace throughout the run.

One thing that Ragnar does when creating their courses is that they place a lot of signs. I get lost pretty easily, but I find their courses pretty easy to follow; even at night. They have some signs that are there to give you direction (obviously), which is helpful. Those signs are reflective, so if you ever feel like there is a chance you may be lost, just wiggle your flashlight around until something shines back at you. Ragnar has some signs that say funny little nothings (my personal favorite says, “to pee, or not to pee, that is the question”). But, the sign that I am most appreciative for are the “caution” signs. They have small signs that just look like exclamation points that say caution in areas where the roots may be very prevalent, there are dips in the trail, or where there may be an exceptionally bouncy bridge.

The caution signs were the most prevalent on the yellow trail.

In terms of difficulty, when it is not merged with the green loop, I would not say that the yellow trail is especially difficult. Mostly there were dips and turns, uphills, and downhills, that all keep you very occupied. As long as you paid special attention to where the roots were in relation to your feet, you made it out of there a-okay.

When the yellow loop met up with the green loop, it provides an opportunity to meet up with some runners who you hadn’t seen before. On this portion of the trail, this is where I thought there was the most sportsmanship than I’d seen on the entire course.

Red Loop

The red loop is a favorite for many of the runners. Once you took off from the transition tent, you run a little way, and then turn left along with the green loop. When the green loop turns into the woods, you keep going. Eventually, you end up at tunnels. Once you run through the tunnels, you will eventually come to the rocks.

The rocks get very slippery when they are wet. Even worse, is it can be difficult to navigate if you are stuck running the red loop during the night time. Most of the rock surface has drops and dips, that, if you’re not careful, can really catch you off guard.

This has been my second Ragnar, and through both, I have run the red loop at night. My friends who have run it during the day say that this trail is the most beautiful. About halfway through the rocks, you can look off to the side and see a nice lake off to the side.

Once you finally make your way through the rocks, you end up on a trail. The trail is wider than single track but had many rocks and little inclines that you need to be wary about. Luckily, Ragnar does well with indicating when there are going to be dangerous zones ahead, using the caution signs that were previously mentioned… In the upcoming area, brace yourself for impact!

The red trail loops back around, so you have to run back over the rocks and through the tunnel. But, rather than run back to the transition tent, you have to loop around the village in order to get through to the transition tent. This was fine because it’s flatter terrain, but running right past the port-o-Johns and the campsite was NOT FUN! Especially when it is late and you are trying to finish!

The 8th runner finishes on the red loop, and then it is on to the finish!

Finish

When the last runner of your relay runs their final stretch of the red loop, your entire team jumps in and finishes the relay together.

Ragnar is not necessarily a competitive event. It’s exciting to see how your team ranks against others, but you won’t win anything for doing well. Instead, you just bring your bib and belt over to a tent to collect your medals. And, when you get your medals, you put them all together in order to make a phrase!

Take Aways

Ragnar is a much different type of event than most of the other races that you are probably accustomed to. This event is not about trying to be the best but taking a chance at something that well, seems very dangerous, and using that new experience to learn something new about yourself. It’s about bonding with people around you who understand you and ALL of your craziness. Ragnar is a silly event that people get excited for; making costumes, building exciting campsites, and appreciating one another. It’s an event to make you happy and bond with others.

Tips

  • Sleep when you can! Your runs are going to be several hours apart, and you absolutely will need the rest to make sure that you are safe on the course.
  • Plan ahead: get with your teammates ahead of time and do what you can to plan who is bringing what.
  • Try to only bring what you need. Remember, you’re going to have to clean it all up eventually. When it’s time to clean up, trust me, you aren’t going to want to.
  • Think you’re hydrated? Drink more. And don’t rely on drinking water alone. You are going to need electrolytes, and calories, to power through what lies ahead.
  • Plan to take advantage of some of the activities that are offered in the village. Make the most of your weekend! You just may want to bring cash and a mug.

Green Beret Challenge: Wicked Trail Race ATL 2019

Wicked Ballas Rope Climb

Introduction

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. When it comes to putting on events, Mark Ballas never fails to put on something that is out of the ordinary. So, when GBC announced that they would be doing a trail race, called Wicked Trail, I knew it would be a race not to miss.

The Wicked Trail race offers two different types of races. There is a 5k and a 10k “wicked.” In the description on  Mark’s Website, the 5k appeals to the standard trail runner. The 10k “wicked” option appeals to Obstacle Course Racers, advertising more difficult terrain, which includes hills so steep that you may require a rope to ascend. And of course, Mark is known for making races that are, for lack of better words, painful, so you may have other challenges that cannot be described.

Wicked Map

 

Festival Area

This race was in the same location as the Green Beret Challenge Operators last year and the XII Hour Endurance Event. Knowing this venue, I knew going early on there are hills. I’m also very fortunate that I am familiar with the location of this venue, because it can be a tad bit difficult to locate. The location of this race is actually next to the designated address, which can catch you a little off-guard if you’re not familiar with it. The address provided is actually for a friend of Mark’s house, and the trails follow behind it. So you have to drive through the man’s yard and past the house in order to get to the actual venue.

Parking, as always, is a breeze.  There were a few volunteers who were there to collect money from parking ($5 per car) and direct drivers. No parking issues presented themselves. Everything flowed very smoothly.

Wicked Festival

There was a slight line at the check-in table, but man, those volunteers do not mess around. They greet you kindly, and then give you the wristband that coordinates with the time you start, then send you on your way as quickly as possible. For instance, I ran at 8:10, so my wristband was yellow, while my friends started at 8:20, and their wristbands were green. Those that ran the 5k had pink wristbands. We were provided the start times via e-mail and Facebook groups several days prior to the event. Mark noticed there was a mistake in the original times, and it was all adjusted within about 30 minutes and re-sent.

As always, Jarian Rich, aka Jambo was there to provide entertainment. A week of not feeling well left us with a gliterless beard, but the enthusiasm level remained just as high as ever. He had a DJ stand up right next to the start line, and you were able to hear him from a fair distance away.

Past the DJ stand, if you keep walking, you can find where the GORMR group set up their tent by the lake. The e-mail sent out earlier in the week that the Wicked was going to be a BYOB event. So many people, myself included, brought in lawn chairs and coolers to accompany them.

Wicked Race Lake

Course

Might I start this section by saying, holy cow, this was way tougher than I thought it would be.

The 5k runners took off promptly at 8:00, and then it was time for my age group to hit the start line.

As always, we were greeted by Jambo’s enthusiasm. He was getting people to cheer on the start line, and get amped up to run. Since I was visibly nervous, he asked me if I ran the Operator’s Course last year. When I said yes, he assured me that it was going to be a run of that course, but backwards.

“Awesome,” I thought to myself, “that means that there are going to be two big climbs. I can handle that.”

Boy, was I wrong.

At exactly 8:10, as specified by the e-mail sent off earlier in the week, we were off.

Just as Jambo had suggested, we started by running around the lake, which was backwards to last year’s Operators course. It started off flat, nice, and easy. Once we made it around the corner, I saw a friend of mine, who was running in the 5k division. After I told her good job, I noticed that right there, probably 400 meters into the race, was the first climb of the day. I looked to see if my friend was still there, and recognized that the 5k runners would be making this ascend, too. I realized right there, that I probably would not hit the time goal that I had set for myself.

Once it flattened out, it was on to single track trails, which allowed to make up time as much as possible by opening up stride. However, that didn’t last very long, before another big climb, and then a long descend. This descend had really loose dirt- to the point that I thought if I hadn’t found several trees to hang on to, I probably would have slipped and fallen. Definitely one where you would need to slow down on. It wouldn’t be hard to slide down, as long as you have a decent amount of balance. I probably would have ended up rolling down like Andy Sandburg in Hot Rod.

Sooner than later, we ended up at a dirt biking track. This was the same dirt biking track that we completed with the yoke carry during the 12 hour endurance event. Although climbing through the numerous, steep, short hills seemed much easier by comparison, I swear Mark made them steeper. There were a few of those short hills that were so steep, that I caught myself using my hands to climb these hills. This portion of the race was nice though, because it was still early on enough in the race where you could see others, and be able to compare where you are in terms of placing. And, here, since you could see others, it was much easier to cheer others on.

Then it was time for another long, trucking ascent. This was one that I did not remember from either of the previous events that I had completed at this same course. My legs started to feel heavy, we had already made several climbs within the first two miles, and I knew others felt the same way. At this point, I was running completely alone in the woods. This race wasn’t going to just be about physical capabilities, but mental ones as well. Luckily, I’m sure Mark anticipated this, and I noticed that the number of blue arrows that were pointing became more and more prevalent. There was a slight run in an area that was taped off, but the trail itself was not marked. Basically, we were running on a trail that was still covered in leaves, rather than distinguished by a dirt path. It eventually opened up.

I believe that at about this point, Mark drove by me on his ATV. With a big smile on his face he said, “are you having fun?” and followed me for a little bit down another, less vicious, hill.

At the bottom of the hill, there was a run, with a few fallen trees as hurdles, and after awhile, it seemed as though the trail just completely stopped. I looked to the right, and the path was unmarked, but not with the intention of us running through it, unlike the other unmarked but marked trail that was mentioned earlier. I looked on the left, and I saw a pipe that lead into a creek. Clearly, we’re not running in there.

Then I remembered, wait a second, this is a race from Mark Ballas, we’re definitely going in that creek, and turned left without hesitation.

As soon as you headed through the creek, there were several little red flags indicating that you were headed in the right direction. The creek twisted and turned, no turn without greeting from either a tiny red flag or a blue arrow spray painted in the sand. This creek lasted what felt like 600 meters.

At one point, the creek continued, but a blue arrow indicated a sharp, right turn up a hill. I looked at the hill with wide eyes, seeing that it was so steep, I’d have to crawl up it. Then I noticed that there was a rope supplied for us, so we could use this to help pull us up. You could say it was like a mid-course trail slip wall.

I grabbed the rope, and heard a woman cheering. I looked up and saw GBC Pro Team member Rachel Watters. She sat the race out, and instead volunteered on course, taking pictures and directing runners.

She directed me toward a different hill with a rope, but this time, the rope helped us descend the hill. This was kind of weird, but exciting, especially because at the bottom of this hill was a short drop. After this, it was back to running in the creek.

Rope Hill

Once out of the creek, it was back to running. We ended up with a straighter, flatter run, which allowed to make up some time. About this time, Mark drove by on his ATV again.

“Are you still having fun?” He asked, still smiling.

Laughing, I said “I almost got lost!”

His eyes widened. He asked me where. When I told him it was at the beginning creek, he immediately started heading in that direction. A clear indication that he prioritizes safety of his athletes.

Sooner than later, I could hear Jambo’s music playing in the distance. Because I hadn’t seen any mile markers throughout the race, I assumed that we were getting close to the finish line.

I was wrong…again. We still had about 2 miles left.

However, the brutality of the massive hill climbs had about finished. There were a few left, but none were nearly as bad as the ones that were in the first two miles of the race. Some of the trails were slanted, which made me think of a friend of mine’s comment before the race, stating that she was going to focus on maintaining good running form throughout the run. I laughed, because I knew there was absolutely no way to focus on great form during this. Rather, just focusing on keeping both of your ankles intact.

We looped around a familiar piece of the course; a marshy path of grass near the finish. Although it wasn’t around the lake, the area feels swampy, and, since it is entirely in the sun, it makes the humidity feel like 400%.

After that, was another water station, and then trudging from some of the muckiest mud we’d seen all day. I saw my friend who was running the 5k, and I reminded her that the medal that she was going to receive was definitely one earned, not given.

After a while in this area, Jambo’s music got louder, and we made it back to the parking lot.

Hooray!!

…Except again, this is a race from Mark Ballas, and was definitely a cop-out. There was a slight sign with an arrow pointing us to the right, even though the final stretch was to the left. We had to circle around the field. It was just a flat patch of grass, with tread through to make it easier to navigate. The hard part was over. Now, it was just to pick up leg speed, and not let the sun beating on you change your attitude. Once you hit the final stretch, it was on to the finish line, where Jambo was waiting, to congratulate every single runner who finished.

Wicked Finish

Awards

Awards were done after the race, once it was assured that most of the runners had finished the race. The awards were presented near the finish line, with Jambo leading the command. The 5k awards were presented as top 3 overall in gender. The 10k “wicked” awards were presented as age group awards, with no separate awards for overall winners. Winners of these categories were given a separate medal. There were no differences between the 5k or 10k medals.

Wicked Winners

Thoughts

One thing I’d like to specify about the Wicked Trail race is that although it is run by Green Beret Challenge, it is not an obstacle race. It is a somewhat sadistic trail race that incorporates obstacles that are already there through nature. Also, those dang hills are the biggest obstacle out there. Mark used a lot of difficult terrain which included many trees that were knocked over, and other things in order to make things interesting. So, although you can expect it to be difficult, you cannot expect to see some of the hand-built obstacles that Green Beret Challenge is known for (thank God for no yoke!). This also means that it is not going to be as costly to run, so it does not cost nearly as much to participate in the Wicked Trail than most OCR races. So, if you’re looking to challenge yourself, but can’t pull off the $100+ per race fee, you may  want to consider running in the Wicked.

Another thing I would like to mention is that Mark Ballas puts these on with not much help. That being said, I am always appreciative for the dedication that he demonstrates in all of his events. It rained quite a bit leading up to this race. Unfortunately, several of the blue arrows that Mark had spray painted the day before the race were washed away, so, to ensure safety, he went out and completely re-marked the course. Every runner returned from this course safely. The only injury I saw out there was a scrape that got some dirt in it, which was immediately tended to when the athlete returned. It was also noted that there were several changes made to the course, that Mark decided would be more interesting, while he was out making adjustments. So although the course map had been released prior to the race, it ended up being a bit more windy than we anticipated. See how my Garmin captured the race by looking at the picture below!

Wicked Strava

I would say the only thing that I would have improved from this course would be the lack of mile markers. Considering I know I like to know where I am on course, and although I think that having a marker on every mile would take away from some of the excitement, it would be nice to see one or two on the course.

I am very thankful that Mark added in the 5k option for this race. Although it was more difficult than I was imagining it would be, I am glad he added it. This allowed for a good friend of mine, who is trying to get a start into fitness and running, to participate and see what I do. It was the first time that one of my non-race friends was able to meet with my race friends, and I’m really encouraged, and looking forward to letting more of my friends know about these in the future.

Wicked Friends

Although this race was difficult, and I’m sure that I confused some of the order of events in my recap, I would definitely plan on doing it again. I would recommend this event to anyone who is willing to get a little bit out of their comfort zone. I am hoping that with future races, Mark brings this series to interesting places, so that we can have some beautiful views at the top of these extensive climbs. My advice to you is this; if you plan on completing a Wicked Trail event, do not neglect your hill training, or you can expect to have your butt handed to you. If you are on this course, and you keep your head up, and stay motivated throughout, I know that you will have a successful adventure!

Guardian Battle

The Guardian Battle, the second installment of a yearlong three-race series, was held at White Birch Park in Hazlewood, Missouri on May 4th.

This series was designed by veteran racers along with help from the local park district, which gave unique access to facilities that are making this a one of a kind race series. GB used the grounds in and around the city’s water park, which in my opinion, was a stroke of genius. Yes, I did say in the city’s water park as the water slides and lazy river were filled and turned on for the event even though the park opening was still weeks away.

GB boasted the best festivity area for a small race ever as the local, multi-level fitness center on-site was opened up for athletes to use throughout the day. Plenty of bathrooms and gym equipment were available and I took advantage of this unique access by hopping on the recumbent bike to help warm up. Free parking and pictures were included along with your day long pool pass and at no time during the race was a lifeguard going to yell at you for running.
Guardian provided chip timing but sent their racers out in a new way by releasing groups of 3 athletes out at a time, staggered 3 minutes apart. This proved to be an excellent way of keeping logjams at obstacles to a minimum. The race itself began by sending competitors out from the parking lot and into the water park where the stairs provided the first opportunity for that dreaded lactic acid build up.

A low crawl at the top of the stairs forced athletes duck walk before being sent down to the deep end. That would be the deep end of the dry, Olympic sized swimming pool as GB hung ropes down from the diving area making for a very different looking rope climb.

Immediately following your not-very-refreshing dip in the pool an athlete faced the death bag haul. These soul-sucking bags were made by placing a sandbag into each leg of a pair of blue jeans and sewn together. These were made even heavier by being soaking wet from the rain the night before. A racer had to find a way to carry this awkward sack up and down a flight of steps three times, oh did I forget to mention the steps were two feet tall? Yikes! I hope you saved a little grip strength as the floating walls, consisting of two floaters separated by a rope, were right around the corner.
Your pool day fun was not quite over yet as GB sent racers up a few flights of stairs for a chance to fly down one of the two water slides. The cold water fun didn’t end there though as volunteers directed you towards the lazy river where you trekked against the waist deep current set to full power. This was not as easy as it looked, but GB provided lifeguards just in case you got swept away.

After crawling out of the coolness that you had become accustomed to, the course led out of the water park where a short jog ensued through a mowed grass lot, eventually ending up at a wreckbag station. Athletes then hoisted those wreckbags onto their shoulders for another short jog, this one with walls and an A-frame to traverse along the way.

After dropping off the old bag it was on to the GB rig, a low crawl, short wall, and a super fun warped wall were added along the route there. The rig configuration went like this: 3 rings transitioned to a horizontal board with rock climbing holds ending with 3 suspended balls, which proved to be a great grip and body control tester. Once finished, racers were sent back towards the festival area where after a short cement block carry athletes tested their agility with some free running through the skate park. The heavy tractor tire flip was placed right outside the skate park and signaled the end of the obstacles in this location.
Guardian Battle now made use of the local woods by sending racers down a winding path made slick by the recent rains. The sloppy track made for slow going on the bucket and tire carry situated in this section. Luckily this section of the course was short making the time spent picking yourself up from another fall manageable. A series of 4 different carries greeted racers as they made their way back to home base. The Atlas Stone, Anvil drag and carry, along with the yoke carry and tire drag were all placed back to back in this suckfest quartet.

Finally, the end was in site and only a series of 3 wall traverses of varying sizes and a low crawl remained as the previous smackdown took whatever you had left out of you. At just under 3 miles I found the course to be pretty challenging yet extremely fun. The use of the water park was a great idea and added obstacles that haven’t been thrown at you before. You really got to hand it to the course designers for thinking outside the box as they certainly give you plenty of bang for your buck here.

If any of this sounds like something you’d enjoy then you’re in luck as the third race in the Guardian Battle series is set for this fall!