Monday, March 30, 2015

Evaluation of Battle Frog Series OCR

     Having now become a family that habitually enjoys Obstacle Course Races (OCRs), we have correspondingly developed the instinct to evaluate them from our experience as both volunteers and racers. We form these opinions throughout the day and then later reflect (or “debrief”) about it on the drive home. During 2014, we participated in OCRs from several different OCR companies, both regional and national - including our beloved Spartan Race. The first OCR of our 2015 race season was Saturday. It was a Battle Frog Series OCR, designed with a Navy SEAL theme. As has been the case for each race we attend, we volunteered in the morning to earn our registration for racing on the course afterward. With major OCR companies like Battle Frog and Spartan Race offering free registration for volunteers, I don’t understand why anyone even has an OCR business model anymore whereby volunteers are offered “discounted registration.” Volunteers race free, or I’m not interested! But I digress.

     Our evaluation score is based upon five categories or experience that we comment on to each other as we work as volunteers, run as racers together, and then later debrief about after the event. These five categories are:

  • Staff - Were the event staff friendly, professional and patient? Were they accommodating of needs for water, food or bathroom breaks? Did they make an effort to help us volunteer together? At registration, were they warm, welcoming and organized?
  • Logistics -  Did the event seem organized and well thought-out? Were sufficient materials brought to meet the attendance demand? How well were staff supplied with materials to perform their tasks (shirts, medals, radios, water, etc.)?
  • Obstacles - Were they well-constructed? Did they offer an athletic challenge? Did they need explanation or were they self-explanatory? Was there a penalty for failing the obstacle? Was it also safe while being difficult?
  • Trail - Was the course designed for a decent trail run? Did the outside venue (ranch, field, stadium, etc.) allow for the run itself to be part of the challenge with topographic variety (hills, canyons and plains)?
  • Festival area - Was the atmosphere electric and exciting? Were examples of obstacles constructed for contests and practice? Were exhibits, vendors, restrooms, showers, start and finish lines laid out in a sensible way? Were start and finish line experiences exciting and satisfying?
     On each of the above categories we offer 0-20 points, resulting in an accumulated score out of 100 points (making a letter grade easy to calculate). For the Battle Frog Series OCR held in Houston on Saturday, March 28th in Houston, we offer the following evaluation.

Staff - Battle Frog is a new, upcoming, exciting, OCR company desiring to capitalize on the market developed by Spartan Race, Tough Mudder and other OCRs that have already paved the trail. The newness of their business generates some excitement all its own. In addition, the popularity they can immediately garner through films like “Act of Valor,” “Lone Survivor” and “American Sniper” (making the formerly “secret elite” Navy SEALs the new “Public Relations face” for the war effort) elevates their organizers to almost immediate “rockstar” status…and they know it. Our experience as volunteers was that it was our privilege to join them in their enterprise. The familiar experience of being thanked profusely for volunteering our time, supported with gentle supervision, and given clear directions to follow, with every attempt made to keep our party together, was greatly diminished.
       At BF our party was broken up into two groups: of the ten, eight stayed at registration while two (my daughter and I) went to the finish line to hand out medals for race finishers. This was not the greatest tragedy, but then I can only speak for the finish line experience and go on hearsay for the registration experience. In their case, I’m told that staff were friendly, but that they were not fed during their shift. For my part, our experience at the finish line was stressful. We were not fed either (just left to procure the water, bananas and energy bars we were supposed to hand out). Offering sandwiches may seem luxurious, but it’s been our experience in times volunteering elsewhere. In addition, we (myself and other volunteers at the finish line) were scolded regularly for handing out the wrong medal* to finishers (*more about this in “logistics”). The attitude we received from the staff contacts was not one of friendly direction, but instead one of impatient and stern blame for confusion that BF had crafted in their race design. While several staff members were about that seemed dressed as Navy SEALs (I have no idea which one were really such), not many engaged the volunteers and warmly made us feel included. On the “staff” score, we must give BF 14 out of 20 points.

Logistics - The BF organization seems well run on many levels. From quantities of medals and finisher shirts, to volunteer check in, much of the execution seemed to reveal good planning. Due to recent rains, it was necessary to relocate parking away from the venue, and a shuttle bus was used to convey people from parking to registration and back again. Heats started on time and sufficient water, bananas and energy bars were provided at the finish line. There was much to praise along that line.
       However, some significant issues arose that cannot be overlooked. I’m told from the volunteers in our party that at registration, the computers had frequent problems (I did not witness this, but pass along their report). At the finish line, I observed that because BF had chosen to offer two different races, yet have the same finish line for both, two medals were laid out (actually three, but we never encountered the BFX finishers during the morning volunteer shift). The course was laid out as a 8K course, so 15K elite racers simply had to bypass the finish line and complete a second lap. A volunteer was sent out to redirect elite racers away from the finish line to continue around it for their second lap. There were, however, instances when 15K racers mistakenly, due to confusion or exhaustion, came to the finish line and received a 15K medal prematurely, only to be told they had another lap to complete. Following this, the staff contact scolded us for not interviewing the exhausted racer, asking them if they had completed two laps or one. At such a critical juncture, why not place a staff person at that fork to direct racers more clearly? In addition, if 15K racers failed an obstacle and could not complete it, they lost their elite wrist band that placed them in competition. I suppose that’s a good strategy for determining if they finished the elite course of not, but that also makes them indistinguishable from 8K racers when several racers finish in short succession. It was well into the morning when we realized that while those with elite wrist bands definitely received the 15K medal, it was still unclear whether those that had done two laps but lacked the wrist band still got a 15K medal. Ugh! More scolding from the staff person would ensure, without clear direction. BF needed a more clear way to run two courses at once than was constructed. Because of this, for both racers and volunteers alike, we must award a score of 16 out of 20 points.

Obstacles - In nearly every instance, the obstacles were well designed, sturdy, creative and unique. This is, by far, where BF shined the brightest. In terms of ingenuity and difficulty, BF constructed obstacles designed to put the elite racers to the test, but also the open class racers found out that in many instances, ten “eight count body builders” were a welcome rescue from the discouragement of failure also. Frequently the forearms screamed curse words as we hung on for dear life, prayed intently that divine favor would somehow get us up to the last curved wall before the finish line. The final “Normandy” crawl was low and uneven, and a welcome challenge to cap off the course. Also, the placement of obstacles in wooded areas, making them a surprise to encounter on the course, was a nice touch indeed. High climbs over nets or beams were very high, such that those struggling with heights would have found them very spooky. For obstacles, we were all in agreement that BF deserves 20 out of 20 points.

Trail - The mud. The Mud! THE MUD! Battle Frog made very good use of a venue that offered little in terms of topography. The Rio Bravo Motorcross Park had slight hills and creeks and opportunities to ascend and descend for short stretches, but no significant mountains or deep valleys that produced grueling hiking opportunities. Nevertheless, BF constructed trails that challenged the racer as much as the environment could offer. The mud was definitely a major character of the trail. So many different textures of mud, consistencies and viscosities. From runny mud that could cover the body and camouflage Schwarzenegger from the Predator, to sticky clay that threatened to claim many shoes - and perhaps actually did so. Much of this mud certainly inhibited climbing the few significant inclines. My daughter and I laughed until our sides hurt trying to ascend an embankment leading up to a ten foot rope wall.
       BF made use of the motorcross track, naturally, which in some regard was a little less creative, but it worked. Some use was made of the water, but it was very brief. To extend the trail to a 8K distance, a portion was taken out along a canal. For the most part, the trail, though lacking significant rise and descend, was nicely planned out to offer the full variety that the ecology could summon. We believe it deserves 19 out of 20 points.

Festival area - Battle Frog receives high marks in this category also. Not only were the tents, vendors, stage and presentation areas well laid out, they had a full color map prominently displayed to lead racers and spectators alike to where they needed to go. Signs and flags were well marked. Restrooms were nearby, along with eating areas, and memorials for Navy SEALs. At some OCRs it’s not always easy finding a place to sit. Not so at BF, where plenteous picnic benches allowed seating and eating well within view of presentations and racing excitement. While I’ve shared about the finish line experience, the starting line experience far eclipses any negative taken from there. The announcer, “Coachpain Dewayne,” not only delivered a rousing starting preparatory talk, but even customized it for those at the starting line; mentioning my son, Joshua, that will begin his new life in the US Navy this summer. With bright colors, well designed structures, booths, inflatables, sample obstacles and abundant seating, we award BF 20 out of 20 points for festival area. Well done!

     With 89 out of 100 points, we believe this brings Battle Frog Series in Houston to a solid B+ according the letter grading in my educational arena. With different experiences with staff and baring logistical challenges, BF might have scored much higher. As a young company, these are some of the “kinks” that need to be worked out. We were grateful we were able to earn our registration by volunteering, and once on the course had nothing but praise for BF and the trail, the obstacles, the challenge and the fun. This was just our experience. To be fair, others might have had very different encounters. Overall, a good experience that we would sign up for again.

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