Rugged Maniac has been a staple of mud runs since its launch in 2010, and one I've attended in AZ for 4 of the last 5 years. This event has grown consistently in both customer satisfaction, brand awareness, and number of venues across the USA. Co-founders Brad and Rob appearing on Shark Tank and getting $1.75 million in investment from Dallas Mavericks' owner Mark Cuban. On the Shark Tank blog, they share that since Mr. Cuban's investment, profits have more than doubled from $4.2 to $10.5 million, surpassing 200,000 runners.
Rugged Maniac's Ready for OCR Prime-Time
For nearly all of Rugged Maniac's 6 years of existence, they've lived in the shadow of the “bigger” races, specifically Spartan Race, Tough Mudder, and Warrior Dash. Last year, in this article, I threw Tough Mudder out of the “Big 3 OCRs” based on very specific, data-intensive, scientific criteria, and elevated Rugged Maniac to the #3 spot. You don't survive swimming with the “sharks” by being timid or uncompetitive, and early this year Brad and Rob challenged me to look at the numbers and decide for myself whether Rugged Maniac or Warrior Dash should start (or end?) 2016 in the #2 spot. Over the past 4+ years I've developed some strong friendships in both RM and WD offices in Chicago and Boston, so for two Saturdays in April, Rugged Maniac and Warrior Dash will battle it out in Arizona, and I'm keeping score. Rugged Maniac got the first swing on 4/3 (note: they are also returning to AZ on 11/5 to a new venue less than 1/2 mile away) and this will serve as my review. I'll be holding final judgement on the “Top 3 for 2016” later in the year, so there's plenty of time to listen to your input and possibly drag my lazy butt to more than 1 or 2 of each event.
Rugged on the Raceway
Have I described the most inauspiciously boring race venue possible? Yes? Good. Then what Rugged Maniac managed to do here is nothing short of amazing.
You can only do so much with a flat, ugly slab of land next to a highway, and this venue is about as boring and blah as you could possibly get. If I dropped you off at this venue blindfolded, you'd be hard-pressed to describe Phoenix (actually Chandler, AZ) as a beautiful place. Sandwiched between the gazillion-lane Interstate 10 and a oval-shaped racing lake (yes, somehow that's a thing) there's a gravel parking lot, a motocross dirt track, a winding racetrack, and more gravel and dirt. Have I described the most inauspiciously boring race venue possible? Yes? Good. Then what Rugged Maniac managed to do here is nothing short of amazing; making this ugly plot of blerfy terrain as exciting as a ton of other OCRs out there in fantastic locales with scenic and challenging venues. Why? The 25+ obstacles and attention to detail.
Run From the Gun
I had a conversation with several of the Mud Run Guide staff a week or so ago regarding what pumps us up for a race; most picked Sean, Dustin, Mike T, or Coach Pain to really get their blood flowing, but I prefer some music, a few choice words, and a countdown. Period. Rugged gets you to the line without incessant hype and gets you out on the course quickly – that's my kind of start. 50 yards in, the course makes an “S” turn under a cargo net through the middle their signature finish line obstacle; their Warped Wall and Particle Accelerator, which is by a great design; the start line and finish line are side-by-side. Actually, at least five obstacles are right by the spectator-friendly corral, and that's where the flat, open venue is of benefit; after parking you walk directly up to the registration, and the start/finish area, games, food, music, and stage are less than a football field away. Let's just say you'd have to work really hard to get lost, and even then a member of the red-shirted RM crew is easy enough to find to get you back on-track.
Speaking of on-track, after the chicane around the Warped Wall, athletes hurdle a Jersey barrier (no, not counted as an obstacle like some races do) and run about a quarter mile to the first set of obstacles, over tar, gravel, and dirt. This section totally sucks, but this is the only part of the venue where they really couldn't get too creative, and they make up for it pretty soon. Well, the first obstacle kinda sucked too as in years past it was huge mounds of dirt with mud pits that filled up sneakers and slowed everyone down. This year the mounds were there and bigger than ever, but were bone dry and ixnay on the udmay. Less than half a mile into the race and I let out an “uh-oh.” When races are missing water and mud on an obstacle where you expect water and mud, that means something went wrong…
We're in the Desert, After All
With that early mud missing, the extremely fast runners in the first wave weren't even remotely retarded by heavy feet and wet socks and built an abnormally large lead on the main pack that I was struggling to stay toward the front of if I had any hope matching my (top 10? I really don't remember) decent finish from last year. After 1 mile, my chance of being anywhere near the podium was dashed when I witnessed how far ahead the leaders were as they exited the dirt track before I even entered. I should also point out that the course was bone dry to this point, in previous years we'd been through the aforementioned series of mud pits and then ran a quarter of a mile along the edge of the oval boat racetrack. This year? Nada. What they did have early were some cool twists on the average 4′ wall that made me smile. I'd stop short of calling them brilliant, but they are a welcome and smart addition; you may just catch a glimpse of 'em in the video. I'm not going to describe them as they should be a surprise, and I'm going to keep a few obstacles out of the description for that exact purpose. Show up if you want to see 'em, nyah. (and BTW, a few of the new ones aren't even on Rugged's site)
Once the obstacles really got started, there was a quick barrage of agility obstacles. Coupled with the twist on the walls, and with some knowledge about the course that I gained later, it's apparent that Rugged Maniac's course designers are working hard to make all-around fitness required to complete all obstacles, and not just physical strength or stamina. Bravo.
Things were starting to get good, and then they got muddy – as in really, really, muddy. It seems all that water that was lacking in the first mile was lurking in the latter 2 miles, and they must've drained off half of Lake Pleasant to do it. Thick, soupy mud crawls under barbed wire were spread out on several parts of the course; just when you got the mud out of… wherever, you were crawling or swimming in the mud again. Once again, good show Rugged Maniac, there were a lot of water pits dug (and some were lined with plastic too) all over the damn course. Lots? Yes. Gratuitous use of mud pits in lieu of “real” obstacles? No. The spacing was great and there were some cool twists thrown in as a surprise (see the video) to make 'em fun and even challenging. One is downright hilarious, and the volunteers were hoarse from laughing when I re-ran the course later to take photos and play around on a few obstacles that I loved.
I mentioned “attention to detail” earlier, and it was clearly apparent in the festival area placement, the obstacle spacing, and the obstacle succession throughout the course. I really took notice of the attention to detail in the Trenches, the way they were laid out in a semi-circular pattern, how the width varied, how deep they were, and how many were cut. Yes, it's a simple thing, but many races just throw something like this into keep the obstacle count high and half-ass them, it was obvious the Rugged crew spent some time and actually planned these out.
Now This is Getting Really Good
2 miles in and I've only hit a half dozen obstacles; I already know the last 5 or 6 near the finish line from taking some photos before the race, my poor math tells me I'm about to run through a gadgillion more (remember, I said poor math) and RM didn't disappoint. You'll see the highlight of my day in the video and maybe the attached photo – it's called Bang a Gong. The only obstacle I failed the first time, and I wasn't alone. To call this one a surprise would be an understatement, all of the athletes queued up around me had either already failed once and returned or were waiting for someone to show them how it's done. On my first attempt, that wasn't me. Even though I had trained diligently under the tutelage of Brent & Kacy at Alpha Warrior, I still under-estimated the distance I needed to reach after hitting the mini-tramp and took a relative nose-dive in the deep, cold water. Actually, even if you *do* complete the obstacle, you're still in for a dip. I really didn't want to spoil this surprise, so I won't go into a lot of detail – it's fun and can be quite challenging if you're running in the first “elite” wave of the day, the one that you need to be chipped and finish in the top 15 male or female to qualify for the OCR World Championships, as it is moved closer a foot or more than it is for the rest of the waves, making it waaaay easier to complete, but still a lot of fun!
The rest of the course featured a few new obstacles, and some updates to existing Rugged Maniac favorites, most notably The Gauntlet; the huge inflatables are still swinging to knock you off, but your footing is less secure and you're now way more apt to finding the water than in previous years… so you better keep your momentum. Claustrophobia was extremely well-done, and 10 feet in you are in total darkness. Shortly thereafter another new obstacle gets your heart racing in a similar manner, but we'll leave that as a surprise.
The home stretch series of obstacles starts right after Frog Hop, the mound of earth you had to climb after completing the series of hops on floating containers blocked the view from the festival area, but Pyromaniac's 5 flaming hurdles were in full, blazing view along with Ringer, a couple more challenging (read as: the barbed wire was really low, and sharp!) mud crawls leading up the Warped Wall / Cargo Net / Particle Accelerator to the finish – all to the cheers of the festival area.
We got a chance to hang out with the race director Kaitlin Long and some other really helpful staff at registration (shout-out to Amy and Alex) and chatted about the bump in attendance this event has seen each of the 5 years here in Phoenix, and how excited she is for the return trip in the fall to set up in a new venue with some better terrain to play with!
Why Do I Care About Rugged Maniac?
I'm a race-whore; I love 'em all, big & small. In the past few months I've done 18(ish) miles at BFX in SoCal, 55k in Antelope Canyon, 7+ miles in Orlando at Savage Race, and I enjoyed this quick (well, my lame 36 minute attempt didn't set any records, and I ended up 21st overall, missing OCRWC qualifying by 6 spots. Bleh.) 5k course just as much as any of them.
I love that Rugged Maniac caters to beginners and experienced athletes. I love their attention to detail, and the creativity in new obstacles. I also love the fact that I can recommend the event to any of my friends and extended family online (3 million of you last year, holla!) and know that I'm sharing with them and their families an event where I know they'll have a good time.
Is it a particularly difficult course? Not really; the challenges are all doable and nothing too strength-intensive. If you aren't decent at swinging on rings, then you will probably fail Ringer. If you're not good at balance, there are 3 or 4 that may give you a hard time, especially The Gauntlet and Frog Hop. If you're afraid of dark, confined spaces there are a couple that may give you pause.
Can you do it? Absol-friggin-lutely.
And by the way; if you say (insert whiny voice here): “It's only a 5k, it's not that challenging” then sign up for the first wave and run harder. If it's still easy, you didn't run hard enough.
See you in November, Maniacs!
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