The Battlefrog saga continues! By now, if you’ve been around, the Battlefrog story is part of OCR folk lore. In the past year, they’ve gone from disruptors – putting on events of huge proportions, with epic obstacles, helicopter and Seal shows – to becoming a much smaller operation – shedding staff, obstacles, distance and more in the process.
New England finally got to see what the hoopla was all about this weekend – and the results? Well, keep reading.
2014 was their launch year. If you look up the word “aggressive” in the dictionary, there’s Battlefrog. They had huge budget, huge ambitions – and didn’t get the attendance at their races to support it. Why would they? They were new, and hadn’t built up credibility yet.
The first half of 2015 saw them try to address all that. Sundays were cancelled, the course distance dropped from 15k and 5k – to simply 8k, with an “Xtreme” option to do multiple laps. Staffing levels dropped too – including the very poorly timed firing of the sales team, just weeks before our race – meaning our local race manager, who many of us know and love, who’d been pushing for this race for many months now – was out of work. I won’t dwell on it, I know “it’s business” – but the timing couldn’t have been worse for a very important region, and customers noticed.
As the 2015 season started, reports from other regions were confusing. Signature obstacles were missing, or extremely dialed back. Some, like Tsunami, turned into downsized versions of their former selves. Reports of injuries, the medical team that works with many of the top OCRs pulling out – the writing appeared to be on the wall for Battlefrog. They were done. I fielded many questions about wether the New England event would even happen.
The message from HQ was clear though – Battlefrog was making all these unpleasant changes because they wanted to be around for the long haul. Someone, somewhere realized that “build it and they will come” doesn’t apply when you’re throwing around millions of dollars in a highly competitive and volatile market place. Downsizing, scaling back, becoming smaller and leaner simply had to happen. I applaud them, even if it wasn’t pretty.
But they are still struggling with a perception problem. There were people who had registered in 2014 – who had registered for a 15k event – who had registered for a brutal beat down of an obstacle course – who stood in the starting coral bemused that this wouldn’t be that race. Even as late as race day, there were people who hadn’t realized the course was not 15k any longer. The marketing of the elites, of super hard and brutally difficult obstacles, or RD’s who lay awake at night stroking their Beard thinking of ways to make runners cry – they lost average joes. The people who will make them successful – the “just off the couch” audience – the “I’m running with my gym buddies for fun” audience – they will be at the Spartan Sprint in a few weeks, because the perception is that Battlefrog is for the elites only.
Confusion on the price doesn’t help – the Field Team feels discouraged, discount codes for huge 40% discounts became normal, and groupon’s started showing up. That doesn’t inspire confidence, or make nice with the early bird registrations who now feel they paid too much.
HQ seems to get this. Talking to several staff on race day (who were all, without fail, incredibly attentive and friendly) they understood that while there is an extreme audience, and an elite audience, they can’t build an empire on them.
But – enough about what Battlefrog is, was, and wants to be – we, quite simply, were here for an obstacle course race, a day out with friends, and a fun time on a Saturday.
Carter and Stevens farm, our host for the second time this summer, was the venue. Barre, MA is a bit of a drive for many – but really no worse than Amesbury Sports Park – just in a different direction. It’s terrain is a nice change from the constant climbing of hills we get when we go to the mountains, and is relatively flat – technical trails can be uneven, and being a working cow farm, there are sometimes some interesting smells coming from the mud piles. Parking is off-site and someone cheaped out a bit on the buses, as they got horribly backed up later in the morning causing many people to miss the team wave. The Spartan Super didn’t have this problem – so there is a precedent set here.
Registration for Battlefrog is easily the slickest, quickest registration of any OCR. No waivers, no bib numbers – you talk to a nice volunteer with a laptop – they pull a packet out of a bin – put that packet number by your name and you’re done. I don’t know of anyway this could be simpler, easier or more of an example to the laborious process many others go through.
The festival was small – intimate is probably what they were going for, and for the most part, this worked just fine. Some odd placement of the tents in the vendor village meant you had to step over guide ropes to get through – and our good friends from Wreck Bag were there, with a couple of others. A well stocked merch tent, a good beer tent, Carter and Stevens handled the food, which was excellent again (try the pulled pork!), and our biggest team tent was slap bang in the middle of everything. A large – if very disorganized bag check, plenty of potties, a shower area with plenty of water trucks staged and changing tents.
We were the biggest team – with 335 registered NE Spahtens at close. Battlefrog had worked out a series of biggest team perks with us back in 2014 – and as we got closer, we worked with them to get these fulfilled as well as possible. “VIP” parking ended up being around 100 free passes to the remote lot, despite their being plenty of space on site in the end. A box of bracelets, buffs, free beer tickets, free bag check and 30% off merch codes found their way to me prior to the event, and I can’t extend a big enough thanks to Dennis and Louise for taking on the job of ensuring everyone who checked in with them got their stuff. Other perks, like a shirt and sleeves are going to be mailed out in the coming days / weeks for people who got their addresses logged. I assume as they grow, this process will be streamlined to be less work on everyone involved – and hopefully, less expensive for Battlefrog! The team tent was huge, and appreciated – and central – something many events fail to do, relegating their biggest fans and supporters to a distant corner. They also had a nice awards ceremony, where the elites, masters elites (go Team Synergy!) and biggest team awards were handed out. I had to speak in a mic, and hopefully didn’t sound too terrible, or say anything too dumb. The award, a nice normandy jack and plaque is pretty sweet too!
One very odd dropped ball in this process was a biggest team wave – for whatever reason, our team was scheduled to go out all over the place – which defeats much of the communal feel large communities cherish on a course – fortunately, BFHQ were flexible and found us a team wave time (thanks Ben!). Oddly, at the start line, they announced the coral was closing before much of the team had made it in – but again, BFHQ realized what was going on and intervened, ensuring we got to run together (thank Chris!).
Coach Payne was the motivator – and while I didn’t used to be a big fan of his style, his work at OCRWC changed my opinion, and he was on form this morning. Nicely done.
No blow by blow of the course for me – Nicole writes fantastically detailed reviews, and you can read hers here. For me – I *really* enjoyed 90% of this course. The walls were interesting, the jerry cans way more challenging than I had expected (thankfully, we only had to take one). I will note that the rope climb was tightly crowded together, suspended from a chain between two trees with little underneath to pad a bad fall – it wasn’t a particularly high one though, and posed little problem for me. The inverted wall was good – but the inverted ladder wall was better. The tall wall with a rope up it was a fun challenge, as the rope kept swinging to one side, sending me into the next “lane”. I really enjoyed some of the huge climbs – the massive “A” ladder was incredibly steep, and even my 6’ tall frame had a hard time coming down that one.
Wreck Bag carry with a small wall in the middle was fun – not too bad, as I’m fairly used to these kinds of carries by now, and the rolling mud “mounds of grounds” I’m now hearing smelled of coffee and included 500lbs of ground coffee beans in it. Totally missed that one on the day, and no clue what the goal of that would be.
Overall, a challenging, fun, achievable course I’d feel comfortable bringing a new runner to. Comparable to a regular Spartan Sprint in quality and design.
I’ll note four specifics though – the obstacle I know as gut check or sternum check. When I arrived, there was a lady on the ground, waiting on medics to carry her out. The entire frame was shifting every time someone jumped to the top bar, and there was nothing underneath to catch or pad you when you fell. Having successfully done this obstacle at a number of other events – and had one bad fall from this obstacle in the past (which was a no harm, no foul situation due to padding) – I decided discretion was the better part of valor and walked right on by it. If any obstacle that day could be described as dangerous, this was it.
Next up – the water slide known as Tsunami. Kill it. The old Tsunami was a signature obstacle. Epic in scale and size and difficultly. The quarter pipe to rope climb is now a fairly short ladder, and the huge slide to splash down pool is now a very narrow transition ledge, to slide to a mud bath. Instead of sheets of water to speed you down, a trickle from a hose was all you got. At least it was relegated to a back trail, and not on display. This needs to go away.
Tip of the Spear – the finale obstacle in New England. The entire finishers chute was built around three slanted walls, with rope, a runner board and more rope to traverse sideways. This was difficult, but had a high completion rate, something races need if they want to attract the average joe crowd. It also slowed people down, for a great photo finish – a nice touch.
The Rig. Ah, the rig. This is where Battlefrog’s previous “brutally hard” image shone through. Boasting that The Rig was the biggest square footage Rig anywhere, in the world – and with a very significant failure rate, this was the one obstacle I couldn’t complete that day. I don’t really know how to rate this one – is it a good thing that they have that one significantly tough obstacle that causes lots of failure, and provides room for participants to grow? Or is it a lone hold out from the old days, and needs to go away, to be replaced by something less evil? I’m on the fence. I struggle on these obstacles – even simple monkey bars at a Spartan can cause problems if they’re late in the race – but will removing it make the course “boring” ? I don’t know I can answer that.
Ultimately, I’ll re-iterate what I told the very attentive and interested staff on race day. The course was FUN. Not brutal. Tough enough that I feel it the next day, but not so tough I felt discouraged or frustrated. People genuinely had a good day out, myself included.
Battlefrog needs a reboot. The 2014 Battlefrog was killing itself quickly – under it’s heavy cash expenditure, it’s laser focus on elites and hardcore OCR enthusiasts – it was missing the mark with the average joes and janes. 2015 Battlefrog is moving in that direction, and the New England event showed that.
The big question is – can they do it in time to save itself?
At this point – Battlefrog HQ would LOVE for me to highly recommend you pre-register, or sign up early for the 2016 New England event, at a great price point even. I’ve had personal and sincere assurances of their longevity. 50% codes landed in our inboxes while this article was being written.
I think they’re making the right moves. I think they have a good product, that is on the verge of being a great product. I think they have a good venue, and 2015 established a great ground for them in this highly competitive region.
But OCR is nothing, if not volatile and fast moving. Things can change quickly. Venues can go away. Weather can affect event fortunes and prospects on a dime. Those are all things no race team can predict or control, and factors I consider *any* time I register for an event early. So should you.
Watch their next few events. Read reviews and reports, and remember that an OCR industry without solid, high quality event options and competition would be very dull indeed. Lets hope Battlefrog become part of that landscape for the long term.