OCR Training Across the Pond

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  • 30 Mar 2019
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Training Across the Pond

Lawrence J. Caldwell

March , 2019

Next time you come to the Northeast region of the United States where you can find literally hundreds of obstacle course races, you may also want to find a gym for pre-race tune ups.  The following is an abridged compilation of my reviews of training facilities in this area.  

South Jersey OCR

Nominated in 2015 and 2016 as Best OCR Training Facility, James Schissler’s South Jersey OCR is a stop worth making.  This is a man who makes good on his core values: “Lead by example.  Do what you say when you say you are going to do it. If you don’t, own up to it.  Do the right thing when nobody is watching.  We don't want to tell you about us, we want to SHOW you.”

James and his crew showed me and my friend John around what he called the “Clock of Death”.  Twelve workout stations featured various Wreck Bags that worked every part of our bodies.  This is what he called an easy day.  The gym was fully equipped with just about everything else you need for OCR training: walls, ropes, pegs, rigs, spears, balance beams, and of course, your own body weight.  James is a big believer in body weight training, especially running and anything else aerobic.

The Clock of Death

James is not a lone ranger.  His SJOCR team is right there with him at many events.  He had over one hundred participants at a Veteran’s WOD last year.  His was the third largest team in the nation.  His draw included online ads promising bling, food, and fun.  The man of his word delivered in full.


Team CREW OCR took first place

Getting to the XX RACE at iMETTLE is just two turns off I-76 in King of Prussia, PA. Finding it is as easy as following your nose. A huge bakery fronts the shared building. For some unknown reason, I chose to follow the alluring scent up front instead of the three guys running towards the back where iMETTLE resides. Instinct should have kicked in, I know. Follow the sweat trail, not the sugar trail. The problem is, there aren’t any other indoor OCR training gyms in our area. So this was uncharted territory.

Jhoon Chang, the owner, emphasized this point a lot. This is indoor OCR training. What you see on the course is what you’ll see here minus the mud, water, and terrain. That sounds like a pretty good deal to me. Everybody else there thought it was great too. I noted a large cadre of Philly Spartans, Spartan 4-0, and Crew team members there. Word is getting out.

Some of my Philly Spartan friends already come here every morning. One who is SGX certified just signed up to be on the training staff. 

The XX RACE also included a later session for the kids. Parents got a lot of up close and personal time with their kids, the obstacles, and one-on-one time with Coach Chang. He encourages parents to start their kids young at iMETTLE so they can learn athletic technique and form. The earlier they learn these muscle memories, the better chance they have of remaining injury free for life. XX RACEs happen twice a month at iMETTLE. Schedules are on line and Facebook. Signups and waivers are all automated via email.

iMETTLE offers training every day starting at 0500. It’s a 12,000 square-foot facility with an astroturf floor. Obstacles cover every bit of the floor, walls, ceiling, and parking lot out back. It’s jam packed with toys. I love it. Yesterday’s XX RACE was a 21 obstacle sweat fest, with 4+ miles of running. The course started with an obligatory climb over a six-foot wall into the starting corral. From there, obstacles tagged every body part. The easiest was the 25-yard low wire crawl. After that, things got tough. iMETTLE has two Platinum rigs that Chang likes to change up every day with different grips. Four warped walls stand in one corner and rise from about eight feet up to fourteen feet. Rope challenges include two 20-foot climbs and one 30-foot traverse. The walls have Herc hoists, peg boards, and a rock wall. On the high-tech end, there are three each of wind resistance bikes, rowing machines, and alpine ski machines.

In another room, there are some weight machines and a large seated film area. That caught my interest. Chang explained that many athletes come in with very poor form and technique, especially in running. He provides video analysis along with professional critique. He has some folks on staff with very impressive credentials who help clients in this unique way.

iMETTLE offers this level of coaching that I don’t hear about much in OCR. He’s got the right equipment, background, and a growing staff of certified professionals to help athletes of all levels reach their next levels. For anyone in the area or just stopping by on the way to the NJ Beast, Palmerton, or any of the dozens of other events in the tri-state area, iMETTLE is the ideal place to train and tune up. 

Local Gym

Last month I recapped the Memorial Beach Challenge race from Ocean City, NJ. One of the obstacle stations was built and manned by the team from Local Gym and Fitness. It was a triple threat obstacle with tires laid out on the sand for high knees followed by pull up bars capped off with a super low barbed wire crawl through the soft sand.

Pullups right after the tires

The gym is located at 9th and Asbury. You pass right by as they are one of the first businesses you encounter when you arrive on the island. I had the pleasure to work out with them for a solid week. This is the kind of gym that reminds you why you still workout on vacation.

The gym has four owners. I know Fritz Hastings. They are OC residents with over 100 years of combined experience in coaching. This is their second go at one of the first real gyms on the island. To me, a real gym is a sweat gym. No mirrors or chrome. This is where you see and hear iron pounding thick rubber mats. This is where champions are made. It’s clean. People sweat a lot here but they clean up after themselves. It’s cooled by cross ventilation between the open front doors and the rear bays plus a few fans placed here and there.

They have a ton of free weights and a few cable machines. The front room is lined with a handful of treadmills, stairmasters, rowing machines, ellipticals, and a Jacob’s Ladder. Upstairs is a padded floor for stretching, yoga, TRX, foam rolling, and a few heavy bags for boxing and MMA training. Four racks line the back walls for the serious lifters. There’s plenty of Rogue equipment and floor space for the bodyweight trainers like me.

Plenty of Rogue equipment here

But wait. There’s more. I told you the gym has a great location. Head out the door and run off the island. Then head back. It’s a five-mile loop across the causeway linking the island to the mainland with two immense bridge hills. I ran it twice this week with a nice refresher in the gym later in the day.

Madness by Mike

Mike leads a fitness class every week at the Retro Fitness in Berlin, NJ. A crew of eight, including me, showed up for an hour of sweat. Here’s what he said about it. “My goal as a leader in Fitness is to push people to the max. Get them to give their absolute best. Most of the platform workouts that I put together challenge the mind and the body. Building relationships with people you don’t know. And that’s what OCR is….”

My memories exactly. Mike and I got together about six years ago and here’s what I said about him back then. “So was Madness by Mike all it’s cracked up to be? You’ve seen the promos, videos, stills, and testimonies. Now it’s my turn. Mike showed me three new moves today. Killer moves. I took the most extreme he dished out. And I helped some other folks modify, form focus, and make incremental improvements they want and need. Mike said he can give me just about anything and I will try it. That was not always true. I started ABF very scared. Just ask my wife how tense I was. No more. The fear is gone. Because at the end, Mike and I teamed up just so we could push beyond the limit. That’s when the fun, the adrenaline, the amazing rush comes and makes me glad I got up to work out this morning. Madness is what you make it in your own mind and everybody at ABF know what that is like. I love it. Thank you for letting me be a part of it.”

Ball Slams break up the WOD madness

Mike started the gig at Retro because he was different. Retro is a pretty good gym. Lots of iron and steel. A huge monkey bar setup with TRX on the side. A good-sized turf section. That’s Mike’s hangout. That’s where the gym owner noticed this master’s division elite OCR athlete doing stuff nobody else did. He asked Mike if he would like to teach a class, help people with fitness goals, nutrition, and team building.

“Team” is the key word. Throughout the workout last night, Mike continually encouraged us to help our teammates. We paired off and set to work. By rep 100 or so, some started to lost focus. Coach Mike helped us stay sharp. By rep 300 when everyone felt smoked, he encouraged us to push through. He told us to encourage one another because we weren’t done yet. The shout outs and high fives started. Paired off individuals started turning into teammates. Mike was pleased.

The Endurance Factory

Lunch was kind of quiet, as was the ride to our next destination in Savage, MD - The Endurance Factory.  As I walked in and met owner/founder Ken Peluso, my mood changed and I was in my happy place for the afternoon.

The look and feel of the place took me back many years to when I started OCR at ABF Mud Run.  The gym is tucked into an industrial park.  It also reminded me of iMETTLE.  They are OCR training heavens.  All the basic stuff is there.  But the Endurance Factory has more.  They have some signature stuff, like Hubie Cushman’s Indian Mud Run hanging doors.  They have a Stairway to Heaven with skull grips.  On the left wall, there is a huge multi-rig.  On the right, a monstrous Rogue rig.  Out front is a 14-foot warped wall.  All around the gym are the other basics that we know and love for OCR training – buckets, bags, sleds, bars, you name it.

If you're going up, go backward!

His motivation for the sport is in helping others.  His decades of climbing and hockey background lent him a natural athleticism.  Back in those early days of OCR, it was easy to find others who were curious about this new sport.  He brought friends to races, taught them techniques, and stayed by their sides from start to finish.  At one Palmerton race, he endured six and a half hours of the Sprint course just to make sure his partner finished.  And when they did, it was hugs, high fives, and another happy racer hooked.

If you're going up, go with two feet!

While Ken is a certified SGX Coach and currently in training for his next level, he learns things from all over the OCR world.  He brings that knowledge into his gym and shares it with others.  His technique for single ring hand transfer was brilliant.  It really helped me a lot.  He learned it through necessity since he has some shoulder problems.  I do too.  This technique helps bypass that issue.

Ken Peluso’s Endurance Factory is the real deal.  He’s got the right stuff, the right hardware, the right background, and training.  He has a solid staff working with him.  Tiffany Palmer drives the morning 0-dark, thirty classes.  He’s got a great start with promotion on the local news channel.  He’s located in Savage, MD, just off I-95 near Ft. Meade, an ideal spot where he knows there are thousands of OCR athletes, close to race venues, and where word of mouth spreads fast about places like this where people want to go and become part of the success story of OCR.  Ken, you’ve earned a 5-for-5 rating from the OCRMudmaster.

Warrior Gym

Last weekend, I spent about six hours over two days interviewing, photographing, and attending the grand opening of the Warrior Gym in Mount Laurel, New Jersey.  It took that long because this place is huge.  As co-owners Brian Kane and Vito Lasprugato emphasized, Warrior Gym is a great big playground.

Inspired by the hit TV show American Ninja Warrior, this gym is themed like a jungle.  The central area looks like a rain forest with ninja trails on the jungle floor and more difficult ninja obstacles on the second level canopy.  The flexible structure allows for limitless, quick change configurations suitable for children and adults, from beginner to pro.

Two 15-foot warped walls challenged the adults in Isaac's VIP class

To the right is the Temple.  Looking right out of an Indiana Jones movie set, this multi-level parkour area invites you to try your skills on bars, walls, rails, and ramps.

This is what you see as you enter the gym and it just makes your jaw drop.  Brian and Vito spent two years designing this place to accomplish that wow factor.  But it’s not meant to be glitzy like chrome and mirror gyms.  Instead, it provides the look and feel of the ANW set so that people training here get used to the distractions of bright lights, exciting atmosphere, and other TV production enhancements.  Nearly a dozen veterans of the show attended the event and they all concurred.  Warrior Gym nails it.

The ninjas showed off their bar skills

The 30-foot climbing wall includes a bouldering, beginner, advanced, and no holds sections

Brian, Vito, and staff are all fully certified and college-educated in multiple disciplines required to ensure that Warrior Gym is safe, teaching excellent techniques, and training people of all ages and capabilities including adaptive athletes and military veterans.  Every new gym member will receive an individual assessment of their functional movement capabilities and goals.  They will progress using corrective strategies and reversal patterns while the coaches also document your achievements.

Brian and Vito have earned five stars out of five for a glorious execution and grand opening of this premium parkour and ninja gym.  Expect to see more good things from this pro team soon.  Tickets are available at www.warriorgyms.com and additional information is available at their Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/Gyms.Warrior/


Stepping into Otherworld OCR in Frederick, MD felt more like home than something not of this planet. Home because I spend a lot of time in that town for business travel. The cravings of this OCR addict just could not be satisfied by the hotel gym, playgrounds, or parks spread across this historic, mountainous land. Otherworld OCR did feel a bit extraterrestrial however. The first thing I saw was the skeletal frame of a huge Weaver. Peering through and beyond that I saw the stalactites and stalagmites of six (yes six!) monstrous Platinum Rig frames. Red, yellow, and black creatures dangled within from ropes, chains, and straps. To my left arose the fearsome, black, custom Otherworld logo painted Destroyer. Beyond that was a hill with a pile of steaming Wreck Bags and an adjustable vertical wall at its base. All this and more easily satisfied my urge for a true OCR training facility. Frederick, you are indeed fortunate.

The Weaver, Destroyer, and Platinum Rigs

If you fall, it's a one-way trip to Heaven!

The idea behind Otherworld is not just training but also competition. Tim wants to introduce what he calls league play to OCR. Small teams wind their way through the maze of obstacles, each one at least two-persons wide. Tim says this encourages a bit of contact between participants. Racers go side-by-side across the Weaver, Destroyer, Stairway to Heaven, Skull Valley, the Rigs, and more. The six-lane Rig is set up with two each for Beginner, Intermediate, and Advanced athletes.

For those desiring additional training, there is a large corner of iron. It’s loaded with York plates, bars, racks, and a spread of dumbbells. For a bit of automation, there are two ski machines, two rowing machines, and four Strive Fitness treadmills from another dimension. I’ve never seen anything like them. Strictly human-powered, ones’ footfalls on the bean-shaped track determined the speed. I ran a mile on them and quickly got the hang of it. Very comfortable, controllable, and crazy fun.

Training here is ideal because so many OCR venues are also located nearby including the Maryland Savage Race, multiple Spartan races, Bonefrog, Rugged Maniac, and Terrain Race. Take advantage of this training facility and close proximity to some of the best racing in the area by joining Otherworld as a Founding or Associate member. 

Jump, Climb, Extreme

The JCX course

Last week, kids, parents, and guys like me filtered in and out of Jump, Climb, Extreme (JCX) during open gym time. Roy Klein, my host, and owner of JCX, showed me the ropes in Frederick, Maryland.

Ninja courses humble me. That’s what draws me to them. I want to know the techniques and beat the obstacles. JCX has plenty of humbling stuff packed into their studio. I had piles of questions for Roy.

He gained his experience through a lifelong love of fitness. He served eight years in the Navy and was often the PT Instructor for his group. After an honorable discharge from the Service, he went into full-time work in IT. He also found enough time to train and qualify for American Ninja Warrior season 6. It was not just the Navy, work, and training that brought him to ANW. His daughter had leukemia. That experience led him to open JCX, a place where he can pass on his knowledge, passion, and encouragement to other families who beat cancer.

The gym is laid out like a course from end to end. The sturdy pipe frame holds floating ladders, multiple spinning Atomik grips, cargo netting, and all the other essential ninja obstacles. There are 10-foot and 14-foot warped walls, a spider wall, a pegboard and a ring ladder against the walls. If you choose not to run up the warped walls, there are wall-mounted pipes and campus grips to challenge you.

Roy showed me some of the techniques he uses to conquer those challenges. He breaks each move down into its fundamentals and builds from there. For example, while the salmon ladder looks like a fairly simple explosive pull-up, there can be more to it when the mental game confronts someone like me doing this thing for the first time. We started by going half way. That was enough to help me get a feel for how jarring this thing is. That begins to train the muscles to compensate so the memory sets in thereby overcoming the mental hesitation.

While forty inches of soft, foam rubber block doesn’t look like a big deal, in my mind, it looks like a 50-foot solid brick wall. It’s the same visual trick as jumping from one two-by-four on edge to another six feet away. You gotta stick the landing, especially when you change the game by doing the same thing six feet off the ground. The move doesn’t change. But the mental challenge of height has been added.

JCX has the right stuff to get you into a ninja. Roy has the right knowledge to help you get on ANW if that’s your direction. He even has the galley proofs for a new ANW book coming out soon. His review and input will be solid I’m sure.

Mud Run Guide thanks Roy Klein of JCX and presents him with a 5 of 5 rating.

Wallace Creek Fitness Center 

The Marine Corps Half-Marathon has been around for about 30 years.  To keep up with the latest sports trends, Marine Corps Community Services Lejeune-New River started organizing local obstacle course races.  Now they offer an east coast season-opening trifecta of races in what they call the USAA Grand Prix Series.  Beginning each February, they offer a 12K Endurance Challenge, followed by a March 5-mile Engineer Challenge, ending with a 5-mile Mud, Sweat, & Tears mud run in April.  If you signed up for all three early enough this year, you paid just $100, period.  No insurance, parking, or spectator costs.  Not to mention a-rockin' festival area, two free post-race beers, and lots of vendor food.

So how did we not hear about this great deal before now?  Beats me.  I stumbled upon it while working at Marine Corps Camp Lejeune.  I found out that civilians could work out in the new Wallace Creek Fitness Center.  Located just behind the MCX, this state-of-the-art, 120,000 square-foot facilities beckoned to me with its allure of real, solid, Marine Corps training.  It is a LEED certified Platinum facility, opened in 2013.  Built mostly from locally sourced materials, solar powered, and water reclamation highlight the reasons for that esteemed designation.

The gym is open to Marines, their families, and CAC-carrying civilians.  So yeah, they train there.  But the real combat training, of course, is outside.  And that’s not easy to forget.  Every day there was plenty of automatic gunfire and artillery rounds booming.  But inside the gym, it’s a world loaded with everything you need to train for the Grand Prix series and more.  This place packs a ton into that massive square footage and most of it is free.  Here it is:

Plenty of iron to move

Salt water lap pool.  A huge weight room.  Cardio machines everywhere including treadmills, stairmasters, ellipticals, and arm machines.  One row of treadmills included the awesome -3 to +30 degree inclines.  That row lined the inside of an upstairs five-lane track.  Each lap is 200 meters measured from the inside lane.  At turns one and four there are some pull-up barracks.  Looking over the rail of the track, there are two beautiful basketball courts.  One of them also has four 30-foot rope climbs and a bunch of pegboards on the sideline.  Rooms along the corridors offer things like yoga, TRX, cardio classes, and other functional fitness opportunities.  In the middle of the gym is a 30-foot climbing wall with 10 routes of varying difficulty.  The stairs to the upper level go through the middle of the climbing wall.  The locker rooms are loaded with oversized lockers (bring your own lock), showers, saunas, and lavatories.

All of that is free.  In addition, they offer other services like a really good smoothie bar, physical therapy, massage therapy headed up by the U. S. Olympic Bobsled Team trainer, and wellness and nutrition counseling.  Most of these are just a few bucks each and again offered to everybody.  All instructors are certified.

5-lane upstairs indoor track

Now if you want to get dirty and sweaty and work out with the Marines who wouldn’t be caught dead in such a pristine facility, there is another, older gym up the road.  Here you’ll find the HITT, the High-Intensity Tactical Training gym.  Emphasis on Tactical.  It’s free too, open to all, but frequented more by warfighters and people like me who think mud is cool.  They’ve got bars and rigs everywhere.  Big ass tires scattered all around the grounds.  That is more like it.

Take your pick.  The Marine Corps has what you need to get the job done.  Their job, when they’re not busy protecting us out in the field, is to put on a tremendous mud run race series.  Each one is a little different, designed for a different purpose.  The February 12K is a brutal terrain race.  Not a lot of obstacles other than the terrain.  Think Palmerton with lots of mud, scree, berms, water, and swamp.  When it warms up a bit in March, the Engineer Challenge comes along with a boatload of Marine engineer designed and built obstacles.  These are the same engineers and same obstacles the Marines use in their tactical training courses.  So you are in for a butt-whooping.  The trifecta finale comes in April with Mud, Sweat, & Tears.  Again it’s back to terrain, just more terrible than before.  Mud so thick it steals hundreds of shoes every year.  It will try to take your body too but so far, only broken souls have been left behind.

I rate the Wallace Creek Fitness Center a 5 for 5.  

Elevate Interval Fitness

David Magida has this thing about coming out of retirement to win Spartan Races.  Then he goes back into retirement.  Sort of.  When he is not the face and voice of Spartan Race on TV or live-feed, he is back home in Washington, D. C., where he owns and operates Elevate Interval Fitness.  Now that he podiumed his first race of the 2018 season, he may go back into hiding as he preps to open his third shop.

14th Street view

Two years later, it was my turn to show up at gym number two for some HIIT time.  That’s High-Intensity Interval Training.  That’s his specialty, his formula if you will, his secret to winning.  Lots of HIIT workouts and plenty of running is his routine for success.

I arrived early to spend some time chatting.  The gym is located in the 14th Street Corridor of the city.  It’s a beautiful neighborhood teeming with a history that’s worth a walk around its blocks.  Take in the signs, the parks, and the historical sites in this neighborhood, like the diner where Martin Luther King, Jr. planned his March on Washington or the Park that commemorates where Thomas Jefferson wanted to move the Prime Meridian of the planet, thus signifying the ultimate demise of the British Empire’s rule over this former colony.

The gym is compact but loaded with all that is needed to get HIIT hard.  The front section is a cushioned floor for bodyweight, TRX, dumbbell and kettlebell training.  The sidewall is a row of a dozen Woodway treadmills.  The back section is a row of Assault Elite air bikes and two rows of water rowing machines.  On the other side of the wall are the check-in, reception, restroom, shower, and locker area for the athletes.  Everything is very clean and well-maintained.  The staff is friendly and helpful.

600m on the Water Rowers right after the treadmill gives you full upper body work

Then it was time to get down to business.  David broke the athletes into two groups.  The first group started on the floor exercises while the latter group started on the treadmills.  David put on his microphone and cranked up the music.  As he demonstrated each move, we could clearly see them listed on the monitors around the gym.  We saw the exercise, number of reps or time, the recovery, and the changeover.

I started with the floor group.  We paired off and then one person started on the TRX while the other person got busy with the bodyweight and later dumbbells. Over the course of 25 minutes, we completed a series of partner training blocks, as well as various circuits and intervals. Halfway through class, with my strength and mobility completed, I got on the treadmill.  This three-part round started with a 4% incline at 5K pace for a quarter or third of a mile (varied based on skill level).  Then we grabbed Wreck Bags and took off again for an additional 0.15 miles.  Then we dropped the Bags and launched into a 600m row.  After that, we repeated the process, increasing the incline a few more degrees each round.  To cap it off, David added a bonus thanks to yours truly.

Anytime you’re in the D. C. area, I encourage you to work out with David Magida at Elevate Interval Fitness.  I give them a five-star Mud Run Guide rating.

4 Star Obstacles

4 Star Obstacles of Hagerstown, MD

That’s what 4 Star Obstacles in Hagerstown, MD is like.  This is the place where all the kids want to play.  They have the most toys.  Brian Cooper and Josh Ramsburg own and operate the ninja/parkour/OCR gym where everybody showed up this week when I stopped by for a visit.

A very flexible design – never the same course twice!

Very cool parkour designs

This gym is for all ages.  Classes and open times are offered for all age ranges.  I spent most of my afternoon with and young man named Tim who showed me a thing or two.  He’s a long-time member and trusted co-trainer.  Incredibly strong and nimble, he’s just coming into his prime.  

Brian and Josh enjoy designing awesome obstacle courses which they keep flexible so they can always up the challenge.  Brian also likes to involve his artistic talents in the gym. He designed the logo, artwork, and posters seen around the gym.  Tim proudly told me he is the star of this poster of Brian’s design.

Brian and Josh bring huge athletic and coaching talent as well.  Combined, they have over twenty years of experience and education in the ninja/parkour/OCR arts.  Add their certifications and numerous appearances on ANW and you have a first class location to train with top men in the profession.

The world is your playground.  If you travel a lot for business like I do, then do some homework before you leave so you know where to train while on the road.  Mud Run Guide lists 4 Star Obstacles along with hundreds of other ninja/parkour/OCR gyms around the country.

You can also find 4 Star Obstacles on Facebook and the Web.  Spring is here so get out and play at 4 Star Obstacles because Mud Run Guide rates them 5 for 5!

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