I’ve always been a fan of Rugged Maniac. As a brand, it doesn’t take itself too seriously—equally leaning into the tough-guy persona of OCR and the fun space of mud-runs. On one hand, its short course and smaller fields make it a popular event for elite racers. And, on the other, it is approachable and a great introduction for the first-timer.
This trip was my third consecutive year at the Maple Grove Raceway outside Reading, PA for the event. I’ve seen it mature and change. I’ve seen Rugged have moments of good, moments of greatness, and moments of straight-up bad. But as another race series ceased operations, the challenge for Rugged Maniac is to decide: what does it want to be?
What I loved…
For the last few years, the PA race has been slammed by torrential rains overnight that leave the course a mucky mess from the very beginning. Waking to overcast skies, a sultry fog and high humidity, I thought we were in for another sloppy day at the track.
One of the great things about the venue at Maple Grove is that the facility is a public event space. So unlike a horse farm, picnic area, or grassy field owned by a catering company, the Maple Grove team is used to directing traffic getting people where they need to be. Sometimes the small things, like parking, make the biggest differences, and the work from the paid staff of the racetrack is always a big plus.
Similarly, another good thing that Rugged does with its volunteers is to offer a special “Super Volunteer” designation to folks who are volunteering for a full day. Why is this worth mentioning? Because Super Volunteers tend to get placed in jobs like registration, where consistency is important and stay in them all day. Kudos to Rugged Events for getting this part right by not rotating new volunteers into the registration mix. This really helps avoid long lines and useless standing around.
Those who have raced at Maple Grove before no doubt recognized the layout. The course is flat and generally fast. The space between obstacles allows runners to get out and create some distance in a few areas, but in other places, the course uses the natural sloppiness to its advantage and keeps racers close together. Runners spent more time in the woods than ever this year, with obstacles like “Head Scratcher,” “Commando Crawl,” and “Off the Rails” tucked into a particularly muddy mile.
Of course, the classic obstacles like “Jump Start,” “Slippery Slope,” and “Full Tilt” were placed in the right places to offer the periodic athletic challenge to the course.
What I didn’t love…
Make no mistake, staging events like Rugged Maniac is hard work. The professional staff at any race has a grueling schedule both physically and mentally. And while I don’t have hard numbers to support this claim, I would imagine that the turnover in staff is fairly high, so for a series like Rugged Maniac to provide a consistent experience year after year is challenging. But as I said before, with nearly 10 years under its belt, it’s time for Rugged to determine what it wants to be especially in the wake of Warrior Dash’s unfortunate closure.
One place where I heard numerous complaints was from the elite heat, especially as it relates to timing. Several racers commented to me that the largely manual process of recording the top finishers needs to change. There was confusion among the event staff as to the finishing places of several runners in the top 10. As a qualifying race for the North American Obstacle Course Championships, many racers believe that chip timing is necessary – and they’d be willing to pay more money to have it.
For the “open racing” crowd, there were a few other parts of the experience that were lacking. The start line DJ, for instance, needs to be addressed. I know, you’re thinking, “that’s really where this guy is going to go with this review?” Unfortunately, yes.
One of the beautiful things about OCR events is that they are so accepting. Competitive athletes run alongside first-timers. Strangers help each other through challenging obstacles in the name of seeing people push through fears. And all sorts of body types are on display without shaming. So there’s no place for the hype man to denigrate people with special needs as part of his schtick. It just doesn’t need to happen. It doesn’t add anything, and it’s not funny. Talking about your nipples all day doesn’t add anything to the event either. And trust me, I’m no prude. I get the mud out of my shorts in the rinse station just like everyone else.
A more visible part of the event for the Rugged crew to address is how the experience declined throughout the day. For the second year in a row, obstacles were broken before the end of the day. “Feed the Beast” was down and deflated before the 12:00 wave left the gate. Course photographers were missing. I heard from several people who ran in afternoon waves that they were hoping to have their iconic photo of jumping over fire at “Pyromania,” only to realize that there was no one there to take the picture.
The Final Word
I love Rugged Maniac. It’s an event that I look forward to each year because it has some of the best people around. The participants are great. The course has a blend of fun and challenges. The same volunteers come back year after year and work hard. And the race experience is generally a good one.
But as the OCR phenomenon progresses through its adolescence, there are opportunities for brands like Rugged Maniac to solidify their position and secure their future by bringing their “A-game” every week.
Unfortunately, Rugged had a bad day in Pennsylvania this year, but I know they’ll come back improved next year. They’re too good not to.
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This author is part of the Mud Run Crew and received a free race entry in return for an independent review. All opinions are those of the author and were not influenced by the race sponsor or Mud Run Guide.