I’ve taken a little bit of extra time since the Acre Breaker Adventure Race in Manheim, PA in order to offer a fair and thorough review for the benefit of both event organizers and those who may wish to run this race in the future. It’s often difficult to accurately compare a local race experience with the national events that we use as our measuring stick for quality.

In a word, the Acre Breaker was…perplexing.

First, it is important to note that Acre Breaker is the product of the strength and conditioning program of Spooky Nook Sports. If you happen to live in the mid-Atlantic region or have a child that participates in sports you probably have heard of “The Nook.” It’s a massive 700,000 square foot facility with more than 50 acres of surrounding fields that make it the largest and most innovative sports complex in the country. Visit any day of the year and you’ll find clubs, leagues, and tournaments occupying the place. It’s even got a hotel and restaurant integrated into the facility for teams and families visiting on tournament weekends.

Needless to say, that level of professionalism creates expectations that everything The Nook offers meet a certain standard. That’s why perplexing is such an important word in this review.

What Worked:

As we often share, the little things are important in the event experience, and here – especially for a local race – Spooky Nook delivered. The parking and shuttle to the course were easy and convenient. At $35, the race was affordable and the swag was appropriate. (The little plastic beer mug was a nice touch!) The staff was friendly and helpful. Even the wash-up station was well conceived, with a platform to stand on rather than the bare ground, enabling one to get fairly clean post-race. There was no bag
check, but it didn’t seem to bother anyone to leave their bag on the ground near the post-race snacks.

It’s Pennsylvania, so the course was built on rolling farmland, offering plenty of elevation changes, side hills and both packed-earth and sloppy, creek-side trails. The obstacles themselves were a blend of traditional climbing elements and carries, with some other sequences that focused on strength and balance. For example, the up-hill, water-filled barrel roll was an interesting “obstacle” to encounter mid-race. Believe it or not, the pushing uphill is way easier than controlling the barrel coming back down
the hill. Similarly, the 60-yard, freezing-cold fording of Chiques Creek (followed by a climb up a rocky 25-foot incline) provided some jelly-legged fun and the most “extreme” of all the challenges.

As an experience, those parts of the course made the trip worthwhile.

What Didn’t Work:

Again, it would be easier to forgive certain missteps in a local race setting were it not for Spooky Nook’s overall performance in other areas of its operation.

Several of the obstacles were a bit…unsafe. “Chain-Link Fence” required participants to laterally scale a chain-link fence for a short distance. Without a knowledgeable volunteer nearby to remind, and no pre-race instructions for that obstacle, there were no clear directions. Multiple participants cut their hands on the top of the fence because they were unsure of the “proper” or “intended” way to proceed. That should be an easy fix for next time around.

Other obstacles also straddled the line between creative and unsafe, such as the “Guard Shack High Jack” that required racers to climb over the metal skeleton of an abandoned guard shack/duck blind. As one veteran Spartan racer noted, the guard shack was full of “sharp and pointies” that were likely to hurt a less experienced runner.

Similarly, the balance challenge known as “Beams” that consisted of traversing three steel I-beams while carrying a weighted gas can was novel – but a potentially treacherous obstacle nevertheless for anyone who was unskilled.

The greatest setback of the day however, was the last-minute cancellation of the competitive wave. While the event didn’t have thousands of participants, there were 40-50 people who had registered for a competitive wave over a 4-mile course. Or at least that was what was advertised. About 10 minutes before the race, it was announced near the starting area that there was no competitive portion and that none of the waves were being timed.

A collective murmur of “What do you mean there is not a competitive wave?” washed over the group. I’m not sure what prompted the change to all open, untimed waves (or the shortening of the course to about 2.6 miles) but it was a bit unpopular with those assembled and ready to start.

And really, I don’t think it was about the lack of a competitive wave at all. It was about the feeling of falling victim to a “bait and switch.” If there was not to be a competitive wave, that probably would have been fine with most participants. It was the way the information was delivered at the start line that was problematic.

And for the record… Joe Nardo finished first among the men, and Kelly Quiles was the top female finisher. They’re both dedicated and exciting racers who had fun, even if it wasn’t “official.”

Overall

I think the Acre Breaker has the potential to be something really unique and worthy of adding to my (and your) racing calendar each year. It’s small and quirky and totally Central PA in all the good ways. But, if the folks at Spooky Nook want to grow the race into its full potential as perhaps a regional draw, I believe they need to make some decisions about how to invest both time and money to make it more“Nook-like,” in order to deliver an experience that is consistent with its other programs and facilities.