Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Rugged Maniac New Jersey Review Sunday July 14, 2013

I ran the first Rugged Maniac here at Raceway Park in 2011 in its inaugural year and it was ok.  If memory serves me correctly the trend at the time was all the newbies were touting the toughness of their events by claiming some type of inspiration or input from the military. Rugged Maniac was advertising that their obstacles were designed by Navy SEALs.  For the most part it was walls, a slide, some climbing and a bunch of mud. Nothing beyond stuff any entry level military recruit in the Army or the Marines would be able to complete but it sounded badass. I ran it alone and enjoyed the course for the money and remember saying that if the price was right I would do it again.  I couldn’t make the 2012 event because I was up at the Mount Snow Tough Mudder and this year my wife Heather was supposed to run it with some of her girlfriends but forgot about signing up until the price was out of comfort range.

Enter social media.  A fellow mud runner posted that a friend was selling two registrations and we jumped on it.  Now a lot of races don’t allow transfers but Rugged Maniac does, for a $10 fee.  On short notice we locked up some child care and headed out to Raceway Park, ready for Heather to experience her first real mud run.  (We had done one other one together but it was sooooo bad I cannot in good conscience count it.  If this review is well read I may make that my next one even though it was two years ago.  The world needs to know!)  


We arrived at the venue around 10:30, paid our ten bucks to park, and immediately felt the party vibe.  The band (TJ Kong & The Atomic Bomb) was jamming out, the beer was flowing and muddy finishers all wore huge smiles.  I saw people riding a mechanical bull, a first at a mud run for me! There was a bit of a line for registration but I have been so spoiled by Tough Mudder’s efficiency in this area that I’m not accustomed to seeing any wait.  The girl I spoke to said 8800 people were registered for Sunday alone so given that, the crowds were managed expertly in my opinion.  We were in line for all of five minutes and we had our bibs and finisher shirts in hand.  The volunteers/ staff ( not sure which) were friendly and efficient.  Bag check was free but since we were parked so close we opted just to put our stuff in the car.

Also noteworthy, Rugged Maniac offers chip timing for an additional fee.  I like this, as the additional cost is absorbed by only those who care about being timed.   I am quite accustomed to looking at the clock when I start and when I finish and finding the difference.  At a few events I’ve been handed a chip and given it right back.  I’m not risking a non-return fee over something I don’t even want.  I am not fast or in awesome shape so I am on the slower end of the spectrum and am more content knowing I finished in “about an hour” then I would be paying $25 to be able to see on a website that I did it in 1:01:34.  Nonetheless I think it is great that this option is offered as an add on for those who want it, though I would caution as with any OCR that if you are going for time you need to sign up early and run in the first wave to avoid bottlenecking.
There was also a tent where you could rent a headcam to record the race and have it edited.  Great idea and every event should offer this. I was chapped that I forgot my GoPro at home but we did this on really short notice so oh well.  There were plenty of photographers out on the course so I’m hoping we get some good pictures.

The shirts are great, they are a 60/40 cotton/poly blend in dark gray made by a company called CRONS.  The front says “I’m a Rugged Maniac!” and the back has the muscle dude race logo with the tagline “How Rugged are you?” and the website below it. I really liked their red 2011 shirt which had the venue and a silhouette of New Jersey on the back but I understand it is not cost effective to do location specific shirts and most of the big names in OCR have also moved away from this.  After all, unlike a marathon which happens once a year these guys are in a different city every weekend.  Maybe a 2013 tour schedule on the back would be nice, but I don’t do these things for the t-shirt so anyway the shirt was nice and really good quality.  Moving on…

There was a 5 foot wall to hop over to get to the start chute.  A borrowed idea, but effective nonetheless.  This being advertised as “the perfect balance between fun and physicality” there were all fitness levels here and for some participants going over that wall seemed a little daunting and was a wakeup call for what was about to come. It served its purpose for sure.  Heather, having spent several minutes staring wide eyed at the final obstacle (more on that later) was clearly nervous and hesitated at that start line wall but then she gritted her teeth and got over unassisted, a huge confidence booster for the mud run rookie.  I’m no physical specimen and I’m packing way too many extra pounds but having done dozens of these things I helped a few people and then hopped over easily.  The start line emcee didn’t have a whole lot to say but he sounded like a hired professional and after a few call and answers “I say Rugged, you say Maniac!” we were off. 

The course map can be found here  but the actual order of obstacles is nowhere near the map. Also, every company has different names for the same obstacles so I will just refer to them by their TM names where appropriate.  We kicked off with about a half mile of running around a hardball track then transitioned to the dirt motocross course and came across the first obstacle, two A frames to climb up and over.  Slight bottlenecking here but this is always the case at the shorter distance events. I believe the intent of the run was to spread the field out a bit but I didn’t see anybody bolt way ahead in our wave so we hit the first obstacle en masse.  I was happy to have the break honestly, as Heather and I were not doing it for time. We went up and over twice then headed into the woods where we encountered ankle to knee deep mud and a set of three five foot walls like the one at the start chute.  The field was beginning to thin so there was minimal wait here and I encouraged teamwork by helping some folks over.  If you have done these things before I feel it is your duty to help people out along the way and demonstrate proper mud run etiquette to the newbies.  At an event like Tough Mudder they really hammer that message home at the start (thank you Sean!) but at most of these events they really don’t and as a result participants often need to see strangers helping strangers before they feel comfortable doing the same.  Personally it is one of my favorite elements of obstacle racing and as ambassadors of the sport we need to lead by example and show ‘em how it’s done!  These obstacles weren’t terribly difficult to negotiate but that is just my perception. To others they may have seemed daunting and seeing that outstretched hand or hearing those words of encouragement  helped them.  That’s what it’s all about people.

After the walls we trudged through more “baby’s first diaper” mud and lots of welcome shade on this hot sunny day.  It was the only shade on the course and having done several events at this venue I always enjoy this stretch of woods.  We passed a few Rock Solid obstacles that were roped off and went through a field of hanging tires while high kneeing it football practice style through tires on the ground, then exited the treeline and came to the only water station at what I’m told was 1.2 miles in.  At that point I realized the majority of the obstacles were backloaded in the second half of the course and I was elated. I come to these things for the obstacles not the trail running, so the prospect of an obstacle every tenth of a mile or so was heaven.

It was hot and I was really paying attention to Heather more than anything else (she was hot too all covered in mud. But I digress.) and enjoying the moment so I may be slightly out of order here but  we left that water station and went right up a little motocross hill followed by a few more.  The sprinklers were on and I was loving the refreshment. These are the same stupid sprinklers that blast us with ice cold water during the fall TM’s but on this hot summer day they were on our side. We quickly came to the FIRST of two barbed wire crawls.  This was a lot of fun in that it started out flat, then went up a motocross hill with knotted ropes provided for assistance and leveled out across a plateau. I had to actually low crawl up the hill but on the flat parts I used the same log roll technique I’ve used for the last several TM’s where I lay sideways and just roll.  You get super muddy and pretty dizzy but save yourself a lot of scrapes depending on the terrain.  I first observed this technique at the 2011 World’s Toughest Mudder when I watched Junyong Pak use it to negotiate Electric Eel.  The barbed wire here was tall enough that you could crawl on your hands and knees but I never recommend that as you can get pretty cut up.  I suppose a bear crawl would’ve been possible but I prefer the log roll.  Hey whatever works.  I exited a little disoriented and turned around to look for Heather not realizing she was right by my side.  What a trooper! 

A couple more whoops, maybe 50 yards of track covered and we were at the slide.  I love how Rugged Maniac builds the slide on the top of a small hill to make for a fast ride.  This one looked steeper than the last RM I did and the volunteer advised me to go feet first, which I agreed to without much convincing.  Heather and I slid down holding hands and we flew into the drink with a huge splash. I loved this obstacle!  Because this was a track for dirtbike racing  there were bleachers for spectators to sit and watch the action, and all in all I would say this is an extremely spectator  friendly course, though we had none with us. Oh, by the way I forget to mention that spectators were allowed in for FREE.

We hit Boa Constrictor and I really liked their twist on it.  The drainage pipes were half as long as TM’s but extremely steep.  Ballpark I would say they were at a 60 degree angle and if I laid back and went feet first I would have slid down quite fast.  I went head first so I would be correctly oriented going back up and the ascent was just as steep.  There was a knotted rope in there to assist and it was needed by everyone.  Usually this requires a lot of wriggling and core strength, but this time around it was almost all upper body climbing.  It was harder than TMs version and a pleasant shakeup.  After here I believe we hit a tire carry.  The distance was short but it involved trudging through knee deep water/mud then going over a few log beams.  Most people were chucking the tire ahead of them and climbing over.  Most of the bigger tires were those big wide racing tires so I just sat it up and rolled it gently under the beams.  Work smarter not harder right?  We chased that with a rope climb up an inclined board. I have seen this at Warrior Dash and I believe it is the last obstacle at a Spartan Race. It looked much harder than it actually was.

Somewhere after this was Devil’s Beard, a cargo net slung low to the ground.  This one was somewhat secured by a wood frame.  People were low crawling through it until I told them it was a teamwork obstacle and showed them how to stand up and use their back to support the weight of the net.  It wasn’t really that heavy  but everyone agreed this was a much smarter way to negotiate it than low crawling while trying to deal with the net in your face.  Heather caught some nasty scrapes coming out of this one as there was maybe an inch of soft creamy mud mix on top of what felt like hard packed dirt and rocks. After this I think we did the second barbed wire crawl, which was in some pretty soupy mud and wrapped left 90 degrees, following the track.  Kudos for two nice long barbed wire crawls, and toward the end of this one the mud was so watery and loose  that I could actually float in it and just pull myself along. Yes, watery and loose doesn’t sound like something you want to be crawling through I know. Trust me it looked and smelled equally as appetizing. Maybe that’s why they call them MUD runs. The barbed wire crawl is a staple of these events, so I was pleased to see two of them and they were both more than just a simple low crawl. 

Exiting the crawl we used a sprinkler head to rinse the gunk off our face and hands.  This was definitely not naturally occurring mud, it had to have been some kind of mix. In the past I have been extremely critical of events I’ve completed that promised mud and delivered dust so I’m happy to say that all participants were good and muddy by this point.  I know at some point after that we did an obstacle they call Drowned Rat Maniac (described in #12 here.)  I recognized it as a version of Underwater Tunnels but everyone was going over  the barriers instead of under them and they were only held in place by small chains.  I went under in the muddy water just to keep it real but either way it wasn’t really difficult.  With my eyes all muddied up I stood up and faced the open stream of water coming from a nearby nozzle before realizing it was that same muddy water being cycled through. Oops.  I think after this was a series of tree stumps that we had to balance on.  It was three or four stumps and the volunteer was offering a hand as needed so nobody ate it. At other events I have seen people really get jacked up slipping off these logs and I am not about to ruin my mud run schedule over a stupid and preventable injury so I took it slow and steady and made it across easily, as did the missus.

The next  thing I remember is a fenced drainage culvert, maybe 100-150 meters long covered by fencing no more than four feet high.  Heather and I chose to squat down real low and duck walk most of it, though I did take a couple breaks and just crawl, it was a long stretch that really had my quads burning.  We popped out the other end and saw two walls, maybe ten feet tall.  I saw two big 4x4 wood boards horizontally across them to assist in climbing and thought it would be a cake walk but was surprised when I started climbing it.  The wood was extremely wet and muddy and the top had no handhold, as it was topped off with a wide flat piece of wood.  I’m so accustomed to traditional walls that I reached up expecting to grab the top of it and almost ate it when my hand slipped off.  There were footholds to climb down the other end. Having done it once the second wall was much easier.  I did sit at the top and help a few people up for which they were most grateful.  These walls like all the obstacles were very sturdily contructed and clearly built by people who knew what they were doing. If you have ever seen an obstacle fall apart or caught yourself on a nail sticking out like I have then you can really appreciate this.
There was also another set of two “walls” for lack of a better word, that were around 12 feet high.  To me they resembled a much smaller version  of TM’s Ladder To Hell, with more rungs.  Not at all difficult, but another obstacle nonetheless.  It felt like there were so many obstacles even though I believe the official count was 21 and I really am not sure I got them all in this review. Part of it is because I forgot my GoPro so I can’t go back and check, and the other part is they were so densely packed on the second half of the course.  If you are used to the longer OCR events then you know what it’s like sometimes running a 5k through the woods without a single obstacle.  Having that experience made this feel like Ninja Warrior by comparison, and I was loving it.
We went from the walls to Twinkle Toes which had a slight wait.  If I was alone I probably would have skipped it but since this was Heather’s first one we waited, I would say about 10-15 minutes total.  The boards were set over a pit of water and a bit wider than at TM.  They didn’t appear to be wobbling too much so I assumed it would be a cakewalk but when I started my traverse I quickly felt the wobble and fought to stay upright and make it across.  All in all I would guess I’m successful about 75% of the time on Twinkle Toes so I was glad not to fail on a scaled down version.  Heather also made it across with incredible determination and focus. She really impressed the hell out of me on this course!

After Twinkle Toes we did Dirty Ballerina.  For the uninitiated this is a series of water filled ditches with small patches of muddy ground between them.  The idea is to run and jump.  I’ve eaten it a few times on these and watched my buddy Jed tear a leg muscle doing this.  (Mile 1 of TM and still finished the course.  Attaboy!)  The distances were manageable and I made it across all of them without falling.  More importantly however, Heather froze up a little bit on this one and I was able to talk her through some of the longer jumps.  She made every jump and overcame her fear, in the process realizing she was capable of so much more than she realized prior to this day.  The power of obstacles.  We hit Trench Warfare, which had so much clearance you could walk through the water filled tunnels while hunched over.  They had two 90 degree bends in the middle but there was enough clearance so that it was never actually pitch black.

Then we were on to the home stretch, a few quick jumps over piles of flaming logs and on to the final obstacle.  This was another rope climb up an inclined board, a crawl up a cargo net between two cargo containers, and then a climb down wooden footholds.  The peak was two cargo containers high and Heather looked extremely intimidated by it at the start.  We waited a few minutes as it was pretty crowded and then got down to business.  I went first up the rope board, and the fact that we were covered in slick mud and grabbing a wet muddy rope made it a bit of a challenge to get up but I made it first shot. I then waited at the top a la Everest and helped Heather up.  She made it up and I shouted “Rugged Maniac!!” at the top of my lungs which elicited huge cheers from the crowd below. I then helped a few more maniacs up and after a few minutes we left to go get our beer.

We climbed up the net and down the back end at which point I picked up Heather, sat her up on my shoulders and ran her across the finish line smiling from ear to ear.  It was such a great course and I was so excited that we had done it together!  They had water, oranges and bananas waiting for us at the finish, then we hit the showers got changed and grabbed our beer. No lowbrow swill here, Rugged Maniac is sponsored by Harpoon so I got a cup of suds that I don’t remember what it was called but it tasted like Blue Moon.  The sponsors were kickass and the freebies were plentiful.  We left with four big bags of  Bear Naked Granola, a few Kind Bars, and enjoyed several samples of Naked smoothies.  Naked, Kind, Bear Naked, hmmmmmm.  Great choice of sponsors you sly dogs! 

I don’t intend to give these courses official ratings as there are way too many variables to encapsulate with a smile ABCDF or a 1-10 rating. About Rugged Maniac I will say that it is my favorite 5k obstacle run to date, due in part to the great mix and spacing of obstacles, fair price, awesome choice of venue, and excellent party atmosphere.  I’m glad to see they made the shift from trying to sound tough and badass to promoting themselves as a challenge, but more so a great time and a big muddy party.  I didn’t push the pace and I still finished feeling like I just did some real work. A lot of longer courses you finish and there isn’t really a party because everyone is completely wiped out.  Here there was plenty of energy and partying, along with great live music, great beer and an all-around vibe   that requires effort and planning to create. Logistically, I would say that registration, parking, showers, changing areas, etc were all clearly marked and efficiently run. If I were to offer any suggestions it would just be to continue to work on minimizing bottlenecking, which is almost unavoidable on a 5k course. Oh, and this is really on Harpoon, but I don’t want to see a tip jar in my face when I go to collect my free beer. Anything I buy I’m tipping on but I’m used to grabbing my own beer off the table at the end.  I’m not tipping someone for picking the cup up and handing it to me.  Oh, and the emcee needs to really fire up the crowd and set the mood at the start line.  He should be pumping up the crowd, giving vital info (what do you do if you get injured?) and sending each wave off in grand fashion. Tough Mudder’s  Sean Corvelle has really changed the face of what a start line emcee should be and in my opinion Rugged Maniac could really benefit from having a similar personality to kick things off in proper fashion.  In my opinion those are super minor things and I only mention them because no one is perfect and there is always room for improvement.  All in all they are nonissues.  As this sport grows exponentially other events are cashing in by charging more money for registration and parking, shoving you on a shuttle bus, charging you for bag check, and not really improving or innovating relative to all that extra dough they’re charging.

The people in charge at Rugged Maniac are students of the game.  They have clearly been following OCR closely and have adjusted their course and obstacles accordingly.  The obstacles are similar to other events without being clones, and they managed to successfully integrate some things which have been proven crowd pleasers with their own creativity and tweaks. This course is a massive upgrade of their 2011 event in the same location and I predict next year’s will be even better.  I would recommend this event to novices as well as veterans, and I can tell you that every single person I saw there was having a great time, both on the course and at the after party.  Now go find one near you and sign up!

Welcome To Dirty Bird Diary!

I've been involved in the sport now loosely referred to as obstacle racing since my first of several Camp Pendleton Mud Runs back in 2000.  I'll get into the evolution of my involvement in the sport later, but the Reader's Digest version is I moved back home to the East Coast after leaving active duty and I didn't hit the mud again until 2010. Now I pretty much hit an event a month. I've completed dozens of these events and I feel I owe it to myself to write about them to help preserve my memories of the experience and also to share my perspective with others.  The OCR community is now flooded with events, some of which are outstanding and some of which are nothing more than attempts to cash in on the craze without providing the goods.  If an event is worthwhile I want to spread the word so they thrive and survive. Conversely if they are the latter I want to save my fellow mud runners  from getting screwed like I did and dropping big bucks on mudless mud runs with “obstacles” like “Do ten pushups," or from signing up for an event based on awesome websites and social media ads that promise the world only to drastically under deliver on race day.  I am not on anybody’s payroll so I have no motivation for doing this other than a love of the proverbial game.