Frozen Fun on The Local Level: Beat The Bitter 5K

A Frozen Festival

North Liberty’s 3rd annual Beat the Bitter 5k-ish Obstacle Run took place on the frozen tundra of Penn Meadows Park.  200 people gathered to take on the course which was put together by the North Liberty Betterment Group as part of a week-long winter games festival, which included curling, outdoor ice skating, snowmen building contests, ice carving and more.  Free coffee and hot chocolate were provided to keep runners and spectators warm before and after the race.Beat_The_Bitter_Winners

The Course

The temperature was right around 30 degrees at the start of the race providing some freezing cold air in the lungs without too much bitter cold on the face.  The course was set up with racers running around the perimeter of the city park, doing 3 laps.  Obstacles were to be run on the first and third laps and no obstacles on the second lap, so as to avoid any bottlenecks at obstacles for competitive runners.  With 9 obstacles on each of the first and third laps, the race felt obstacle dense.  When you finished one obstacle you could see the next one coming up in front of you.  With a total of 18 obstacles, you got more than you would on a tough mudder 5k.  The obstacles weren’t as hard or as big as a tough mudder but for the $20 entry fee, you definitely got your money’s worth.Beat_The_Bitter_Tires

The course started with the polar potholes, a grid of shin-high 2x4s that you had to high step through, then moved onto a set of 3-foot walls, and quickly into a short crawl through a rather large irrigation tube.  The obstacles became more difficult at this point with a climb over a six-foot hay bale and under a low crawl then a series of strength obstacles.


The heavy carry I thought showed a lot of creativity on the part of the organizers, utilizing the resources they had.  You had to pick up a 40 lb large rubber parking stop and carry it down and back 100 meters.  They were decently heavy and slightly awkward to carry with them bouncing around in your arms or over your shoulder. Almost immediately after the carry was a tire flip followed by the “Everest Death Zone” a plywood A-frame you needed to climb over. Beat_The_Bitter_Everest


Not far off was the third strength obstacle in only 0.3 miles, the Iditarod pull.  A sled-pull made from kids snow sleds laden with sandbags that we had to pull like dogs.  After this gauntlet of muscle burners, my legs were on fire.  The final obstacle was a balance run on old light posts before running a 1-mile lap with no obstacles and then doing it all over again before finishing.


The Bling

Every Finisher received a customized Beat the Bitter medal and the top three men and women got winter headbands as well.Beat_The_Bitter_Bling

Race Local

For being a small event of 200 runners put on by a local community enrichment group in a small town in eastern Iowa, this race went beyond my expectations.  I am extremely happy to see small local events embracing obstacle course racing.  There are always a million and three different 5ks that this or that local charity put on but there is a growing number adding some obstacles and by doing so, adding more fun to the “fun run.”  I will definitely be coming back to do this race next year (and maybe learn how to curl).


Photos courtesy of Justin Smith and Beat the Bitter

The Battlegrounds Sells Venue Rights to Tough Mudder

The Battlegrounds – Missouri’s premiere permanent obstacle course race venue will host one last race on May 19th  2018 before handing over the keys to their course to Tough Mudder.  The St. Louis area OCR venue has contracted with Tough Mudder to give the OCR giant exclusive rights to the venue for the next 5 years.   I recently caught up with race director Bob Holm to get more info.


It is my understanding that “The Battlegrounds” will host one final race in May before being turned over to Tough Mudder. Is that correct? 

Our May 19 race will, in fact, be our last one.  We are proud of all that we have accomplished since our inaugural race in 2012 (we started with just 361 runners and have most recently topped 3,000 participants.)  It’s been an amazing ride!

What will happen to the permanent obstacles that are built on the site such as The Battlegrounds classic, The Gauntlet?

Tough Mudder will have full access to all obstacles (including The Gauntlet), as well as the ability to incorporate all existing trails created by The Battlegrounds.

Will other OCR companies be able to use the venue or will it be exclusively Tough Mudder?  If so, what will happen to the previously scheduled Green Beret Challenge race which was to occur on June 16th 2018?

Our five-year commitment enables Tough Mudder to exclusively utilize the venue.  When this multi-year deal was recently signed, The Battlegrounds did not have a formal contract with the Green Beret Challenge.

Will the Battle Corp still exist and will OCR training events still be held at the venue?

The Battle Corp team is an amazingly tight family of runners that grew to 15 members strong.  We are currently working with Tough Mudder to explore any and all opportunities for our Battle Corp to represent their organization.  There will no longer be training events at the venue.

What were the key factors in the decision to sign a 5 year contract with Tough Mudder?

Throughout the years, The Battlegrounds grew on so many levels in terms of size and reputation.  We believe Tough Mudder was a logical choice because it allows a solid international company to take us to the next level.  The five-year commitment to Cedar Lake Cellars solidifies our location as a must-see destination in terms of newness and excitement.

What do you foresee happening after 5 years?

We anticipate growth…and more growth.  Missouri is positioned to become one of the largest Tough Mudder races in the United States.  We look forward to seeing where Tough Mudder takes us.

Are there any other details you can give me or that you think the OCR community should know?

This industry loves suspense and mystery.  All we can add is that there’s plenty of surprises ahead so stay tuned for an exciting adventure.


I also reached out to Battle Corp team captain Christopher Balven who had this to say about the change.

“Everyone on the Battle Corps Team are extremely thankful for the opportunity to represent one of the best permanent OCR venues in the US.  We enjoyed every race, we enjoyed meeting all the people who came out and experienced OCR for the first time there, and most of all we enjoyed becoming a family together.  Saying I am grateful for that is an understatement to the extreme.  It was incredible seeing the race grow from 350 or so racers in the beginning to what it is now.  I for one will be out on that course until the sun goes down on May 19.  I’ll leave a little piece of my heart out there before I move on to what lies ahead.”


This action has had some mixed reviews on social media and has filled me with many existential OCR feelings which I hope to address later but these are just the facts.

How To Race On A Budget



This past season I raced more than I had ever raced before and spent less on racing at the same time and you can too. We all know Obstacle Course Racing can get real expensive real quick but below are a few simple suggestions for lowering the cost of your OCR addiction.


Volunteer Volunteering

I volunteered at almost all of my races this past year and it was an amazing experience.  Everyone should volunteer at least once and see how the sausage is made, so to speak.

Most companies will give you a free race for volunteering your time, and if you are stationed at an obstacle you are mostly just a glorified cheerleader.  The only problem with volunteering is that some companies will only give you a free future race, which means you volunteer in the morning and race in the afternoon or possibly a future date.  If you want to race in the first heat of the day that can be a problem.

Most companies, however, are willing to work with you if you reach out to them.  Multiple companies that I contacted had me pay for my race up front and then reimbursed me after I completed my volunteer shift after I finished my race.  Conquer The Gauntlet simply took my Driver’s License and held onto it till the shift was over.  In addition to getting you a “free” or discounted (I’m looking at you Spartan and OCRWC) race, you should volunteer because it’s fun and necessary for any race to run.  (Stay tuned for my article on how to make the most your volunteer experience)



The largest cost of any race tends to be travel, and hotels are expensive.  You can defray your travel costs by camping.  Generally only $10-$15 bucks a night for a tent site at most state parks.  Let’s face it, we are OCR people, we like a challenge, we like mud, we like being outdoors, we should like camping. If you have an RV or a truck with a topper on the back and a mattress just park it at Wal-Mart for free.

If camping is not for you then look to Airbnb.  You can find entire apartments/houses for less than a hotel, or you can just rent a room in someone’s house.  I’ve stayed in rooms for as little as $25/night and gotten a room which was basically a hotel room off Airbnb for $38.00 which was far nicer than the “cheap” $50.00/night hotel rooms I’ve gotten in the past.    My favorite Airbnb which I’ve stayed at multiple times for races was a kid’s tree house in someone’s backyard and it was only $10/night and 20 mins from the venue.  Cheap places are out there my friends, all you have to do is look.


Race Local and Sign up early Calendar

If you really can’t or don’t want to volunteer there are probably a lot of great local races that aren’t that expensive and are probably a lot of fun.  Signing up early is always a great way to save some bucks too so plan ahead if you can.

Local and regional races are almost always going to be less expensive than the major brands out there (Spartan knows you want that 12XTrifecta and they’re gonna milk you for it and you’re gonna like it so STFU).

Local races can be hit or miss but the vast majority of local OCRs I’ve been to have been amazing.  If you are unsure about any OCR check out ORM’s race reviews and see what someone else thought about the last race.  A couple of the lower price national OCRs out there are: Terrain Race and Rugged Maniac.


Coupon Codes

If you sign up for a race without using a coupon code you are doing something wrong.  Almost every race except super small local races (and OCRWC) have coupon codes floating around out there.  Rarely should you pay full price.  Do some research, ask your OCR friends, search Google or I think there is a website that has race discount codes… I can’t remember but I think it’s called I’m not sure though.

If all else fails and you still need more dough to fund your OCR addiction you can always be like Matt B Davis and sell your old race medals.



Photo Credit: Justin Smith, The Battlegrounds, and Matt B Davis

From a pack a day to the world championships – My journey to OCRWC

In a few short days I will be competing in the Obstacle Course Racing World Championships and it has been an amazing and difficult journey getting to this point.  5 years ago I never would have imagined that I would be winning anything more than a video game let alone qualifying to compete in a world championship athletic event.

Just A Skinny Kid

I’ve always been the skinny kid, I never participated in sports in High School or College, never worked out.  The closest thing to an athletic activity I did was play disc golf, which generally involved drinking and smoking weed (not the most “athletic” drugs).  At age 18 I started smoking cigarettes and developed a pack a day habit which would last me almost 12 years.  I wasn’t happy, I hated that I smoked but it was just so hard to quit.   I had tried to quit many times but always failed, I felt defeated by my addiction.  There were so many things that I wanted to do but felt I couldn’t until I stopped smoking.  I wanted to be active I wanted to go to yoga classes but thought “you can’t do yoga if you are coughing every 5-10 minutes”.  I had the desire but I did not have the right attitude. Justin-Smoking

When I was 29 I had the opportunity to go to India with some good friends.  One week of our month in India was spent at an ashram on the banks of the Ganges, where we learned yoga and meditation.  I had hopes that at the ashram I would be able to not smoke. It wasn’t so.  But I learned there, next to that beautiful river, that failure does not mean defeat. I learned how to forgive, and to cultivate love for myself and others.

I Quit

When I got home I started a daily yoga and meditation practice, I started working out.  I wasn’t going to wait till I quit smoking to get in shape. I was going to make a plan and put my hand to the plow to create the necessary environment where I could accomplish my goals.  I wanted to quit before I turned 30 so one week before my 30th birthday with all of the love for myself and will power that I had cultivated over the past 6 months I quit.

I knew that I needed to rehab my lungs so I decided to try the number one cheapest cardiovascular exercise in the world, running. (I would later be dismayed about how not cheap it is to race OCR)  I remember my first run, it was on a treadmill.  I thought “I’ll just run 30 minutes, that will be good” after 7 minutes running at 5.5 mph I was gassed, got off the machine and thought I was going to puke.

I quickly discovered that treadmills are demons from hell that should only be used in times of great need.  Outside was where I belonged and I eventually started to be able to run 5k and thought it was time to do a race.

Enter the gateway drug to OCR – Warrior Dash.

I was such a mix of emotions going into my first mud run, and the biggest was doubt.  That doubt had power and I had a choice of how I would let that doubt affect me.  I could have let it take over and keep me from the race but I chose to face it and put in the training I thought necessary to overcome this new challenge.  I trained my ass off! I would go to the grade school by my house and run a lap around the building then do the monkey bars and run through the play structures, take another lap do some pullups, climb the jungle gym, do another lap, on and on. (I still do this because it’s fun and a great OCR workout) Physically I was ready but I didn’t know it.  The doubt was still there, my goal was just to finish.Justin-First-Warrior-Dash

The day of the race finally came and I was a mix of anxiety and excitement.  I was physically ready but completely unprepared (all of my clothes were cotton).  My first exposure as I pulled into the parking lot was of people drinking and smoking.  Smoking cigarettes! I was surprised, I was confused, I was appalled.  “how could all of these smokers run this “intense race”  My judgement was out of control.  As I got ready to run I saw people of every type, not just the lean athletic bodies I was expecting.  “Maybe I overestimated the difficulty of this race” More unnecessary judgement.  Then at the starting line for my heat was a woman well over 350 lbs, and my judgement melted away.  “This race may be more or less than you expected, but this woman who so many wouldn’t expect to be here is challenging herself with the exact same challenge that’s been scaring you for months.”  I realized that everyone at that race was there to challenge themselves, and I was quite the hypocrite to think negatively of those people smoking in the parking lot.  Maybe they are on a journey towards quitting and fitness is helping them just like it helped me.

New Challenges

The race was easier than I had made it out to be, but it was also way more fun than I thought.  I had been bitten by the OCR bug.  I couldn’t wait to do it again, I signed up for next year’s race once registration opened.  I loved it but after two years of warrior dash I felt I needed something more challenging.

I signed up for a Spartan sprint and again felt intimidated.  From all accounts Spartan was far more challenging than Warrior Dash and my intimidation and doubt fueled my training.  I joined a gym and upped my running regimen.  That 2016 Chicago sprint was the muddiest race I’ve ever seen and likely will ever see.  It was hard, it was a challenge, but it was also much easier than I had built it up to be in my head.  Having accomplished yet another new challenge I felt confident.  Justin-Spartan

It was time to compete

I signed up for a Savage Race even though I’d never ran a 10K, and I went to compete.  I was timid though and stayed in the middle of the start coral.  I held back since I’d never ran so far in a race.  I let my doubt get in the way of my performance that day.  I let slower runners be ahead of me and hold me back on obstacles where I could have gone so much faster.  Doubt may have fueled my training but it bit me in the ass on the course.  I was a mix of emotions, I knew I could have done better, but I knew I could learn from my mistakes, but above all I had so much fun!  I signed up for two local OCRs and the Spartan Beast in Breckenridge.  Each Race I gave myself a new challenge and pushed myself harder eventually taking 2nd place overall in my final local OCR of the year. Justin-Funny-Faces

Goal Time

I set a goal of competing at OCRWC and signed up for 5 qualifying races.  I was going to set myself up for success.  At Terrain Race 5k in Tucson I went back and forth between 3rd and 4th place for most of the race when a wrong turn with 1 obstacle left took me out of guaranteed spot.  I went from for sure qualification (maybe even pro) to uncertainty.  I felt sick, literally I thought I was going to puke.  I’d never put so much effort into a run before.  It took two days but I found out I got first in my age group and qualified.   Just 5 years removed from destroying my lungs and heart, I had qualified for a world championship event.Justin-Terrain

Overcome Your Obstacles

I know that everyone has adversity and obstacles in their life, whether it is smoking, losing weight etc.  Every obstacle we face in our lives comes with a choice though.  When you are faced with a new challenge and you have doubt, will you let that doubt weigh you down or will you let it fuel you?  Will you take it and use it to your advantage?

Too often we all think “I can’t do that until I do this” I need to lose weight before I can run a race, I don’t want to look like I don’t know what I’m doing at the gym.  We setup unnecessary obstacles (not the fun ones we all love) in front of our goals when all we have to do is keep moving forward, and we will reach our goal eventually.  Don’t wait until “the right time” to make improvements in your life.  The “right time” is right now.  It may not be the convenient time but it’s the right time to start making the changes you want to see.  I know that I can accomplish whatever I put my mind to.  And I know you can to if you give your all.


In Conclusion I just want to share the meditation that helped me learn to love and forgive myself.  Imagine yourself as a child and repeat these words to your child-self

May you be well
May you be happy
May you be healthy
May you feel loved
I love you

And give your child-self a hug.

Thanks for reading.  I hope to see some of you at OCRWC and other future races.

Be Well.


Justin Smith


Photos Courtesy of: Justin Smith, Warrior Dash, Spartan Race, Terrain Race

The Battlegrounds Fall 2017 Review – Fast fun in Wine Country


Overall this is an extremely fun fast paced course.  With only 276 ft of elevation gain The Battlegrounds is a “runner’s course,” but it is obstacle dense.  33 Obstacles packed into a 5-mile course or 29 over the 5K course. For those of you who speak Spartan, that’s a beast’s worth of obstacles in a sprint distance.

When I first saw the course map I had wished that the extra 2 miles on the 5-mile course had more obstacles (I always want more obstacles). But while running the race I never thought “man I’ve been running for so long, when is the next obstacle.”  The spacing was good and I really liked how the course was backloaded with obstacles.


The obstacles were a great mix of classic OCR standards and fun “mud run” type obstacles including a giant waterslide, and a few long runs through a creek. Noticeably lacking were grip strength type obstacles such as Monkey bars and other hanging obstacles. There was a short 8 or 10-foot pipe traverse, and “the gauntlet,” a unique obstacle to the battlegrounds with 6 different lanes.


You can choose any lane and some are much easier/harder than others.  Some lanes are heavy on grip strength and others more rely on balance, making sure you pick the right lane for you is key to success and speed through the obstacle.  As far as brute strength obstacles go there were really only two; a tire flip and a wreckbag carry.

The terrain doesn’t have many hills so to make the wreckbag carry more difficult you were required to carry the bag over and under a series of walls.  My favorite obstacle by far was the perilous pontoon bridge. A long chain of 4.5-foot square pontoons stretched across a pond. The pontoons rock and bounce and jostle on the water as you maneuver over them. My core has never been used so much while running, I felt like I had done 30 sit-ups after getting back on solid ground.


This was probably the greatest venue I have ever seen from a spectator’s standpoint.  19 out of 33 Obstacles were easily viewed.  That means that your friends and family not participating could watch you do over half the course, far more than any other venue out there.

In making the obstacles even easier to see there is a giant tower that spectators could climb and see the course in 360 degrees.  While you have to be 18 to participate in the race there was a large kid’s area with a big mud pit to splash around in, balance obstacles, walls, tires and other obstacles for the kids to play on.

Did I mention this race is held at a winery? Because it is, which means if you want something a little more sophisticated than a Miller Lite you can have a glass of Merlot, Riesling, or Pinot Grigio.  In addition to the wine Kor Complex a St Louis area obstacle/parkour gym, and sponsor of the race, brought out a salmon ladder to the festival area that anyone could try and earn a free open gym session if they got up a few rungs.


I was really impressed by the Photographers at this race. They are really amazing, they don’t just sit in one spot and take the same picture of each racer, they are looking around for the best angle, the best shot.  While volunteering at the May race I got to talk with a few of the photogs and they are very passionate about their photography.  Not everyone may get an epic picture and you may not know where they will be all the time, as they move around a bunch, but they do get some amazing shots.


The race shirt alone sets this race apart from any other OCR I’ve been to or heard about.  Chances are you have lots of race shirts (you might even have 3+ of the same shirt) but I bet they are all short sleeved, and they are all at least 50% cotton.  The Battlegrounds really set themselves apart by giving participants a long sleeved 100% polyester shirt. A great fall running shirt for a great fall race.


In conclusion, I wish they would add 1 or 2 more, longer hanging “monkey bar” style obstacles, but overall I think this is an awesome race that I would gladly do again and very much recommend.  It was a great course with good people and the best finisher shirt in OCR.


All photos courtesy of The Battlegrounds, Justin Smith, and John Kelly Photos


Conquer The Gauntlet Iowa: The Good, The Bad, and the Awesomely Difficult

This was my first Conquer the Gauntlet and I’d heard a lot about it, especially the difficulty of the obstacles, which made me put this race on my must-do list for this year’s race season.

The Good

This is a family owned, family run, race series and feels that way.  The festival area had plenty of room and plenty of places to sit, but not a whole lot of things other than people cheering on runners, warming up or getting a beer, and talking about the brutal race they just conquered. All of the staff I met were the friendliest people you could imagine, and they all genuinely cared about making this race awesome.

The starting line speech kept with the “local” family feel.  Conquer the Gauntlet didn’t hire Coach Payne or some other hype man for some ridiculous sum.  One of the staff in the bed of a truck yelled out the rules for certain obstacles, told us it was “complete it or lose your belt, no burpees, no body-builders.  “We do obstacles, not exercises!” We walked up to the start line, got a count down, and then we were off.  No hype man needed.Conquer-The-Gauntlet-Iowa-Slackline

The course was mostly flat with some small hills at the end and one short steep climb out of the creek.  The obstacles were no joke, they were the hardest set of obstacles I’ve faced at any OCR.  Most obstacles were grip strength/body weight oriented and some rather challenging balance obstacles including a slackline.  Only three obstacles relied on brute strength, one of which was an interesting take on the sled pull.  A crank pulling a 150-pound sled towards you then you had to drag the sled by hand back to its starting position.   Conquer-The-Gauntlet-Iowa-Crank-It-Up


The Bad

While the obstacles were amazing, there were a few problems, the Z-beam (which was made of 3 ten foot 2x6s set up on the narrow side at right angles to each other) had 4 lanes but were not secured properly when I went through. Only two lanes were open due to the 2×6’s having fallen over on the other two lanes.  The volunteer said that someone was coming to fix it asap.

I was in the first elite heat in the middle of the pack at that time, so there was a minimal build-up of people waiting.  The only other negative about the race would be that the Conquer The Gauntlet website said that all competitors would get a “too-fit shaker bottle” but Too-Fit didn’t show up to the event. I’ve seen this happen at other events and I can’t blame Conquer The Gauntlet for a sponsor not showing up.


The Awesomely Difficult

One word – Pegatron – A beastly horizontal peg board.  The first section has foot holds then the foot holds disappear and you have to rely on grip and shoulders and core to carry you across the gap.  I have a horizontal peg board in my basement at home which I can do pretty well.  This board was much different.

The holes are spaced wide enough that you have to go up and down rows making you use more of your muscles than if you could move across a single row.  The pegs were an eighth inch smaller than the holes making the pegs fit into the holes easily but also making it easy for the pegs to slip right out and put you in the dirt if you didn’t put enough weight on them.

Coming into Pegatron I was toward the front of the pack of elites but fell behind as it took 5 tries to finally get it.  I saw more people throw down their elite belts than I saw beat the obstacle.  Conquer The Gauntlet says it only has a 19% success rate.  It is an amazing obstacle and I loved that CTG has the guts to put in obstacles most people won’t beat and will give even the elite athletes a run for their money.


More of the Awesomely Difficult

Conquer The Gauntlet had three other extremely challenging obstacles. Stairway to heaven, a set of stairs your climb from underneath much like the devil steps in American Ninja Warrior. This is another obstacle I have at home which turned out quite different on the race course, but these steps are steep with gaps of over a foot between each step.  Placed not too far after Pegatron and a brute strength obstacle, forearms were still burning but the sight of the nasty green water below gave me the strength to conquer it.  They followed this with a rope climb just a few feet away.Conquer-The-Gauntlet-Iowa-Stairway-To-Heaven

At the end of the race, you were greeted by an 8-foot wall. This would be no problem, except after that 8-foot wall was another, and another and another and one more for good measure. Then it was time for some monkey bars. These aren’t your typical monkey bars.  Yes, they are setup in an ascending/descending formation like so many other race series.  The tricky bit though is that every other bar was not fixed and spun when you grabbed it and transferred your weight. The monkey bars are usually a very easy obstacle for me, but going up these was certainly challenging.  Volunteering after my race I got to witness countless people hit the water after grabbing those spinning bars.Conquer-The-Gauntlet-Iowa-Monkey-Bars


All in all, this was an amazing race that I will absolutely do again (in a heartbeat) and would recommend to every OCR enthusiast out there.  If you live within the touring range of Conquer The Gauntlet this should be a must-do race.  If you don’t live in the area that CTG goes, I suggest you sign up early and make some travel plans.  They may not have huge endorsement deals or fancy multi-race marketing schemes but Conquer The Gauntlet has challenging, innovative obstacles and they put on one hell of a brutal race.



All photos courtesy of Conquer The Gauntlet and Run and Shoot Freelance Collective