Snub fuels McCoy’s love for F.I.T. Challenge 5K
Cumberland obstacle course among best in country
NORTH ATTLEBORO – Robb McCoy sat at a Route 1 coffee shop trying to explain how he recently became one of the most renowned obstacle course race directors in the nation.
As it turned out, it all stemmed from a just-plain-rotten weekend in early 2013.
“I don’t know,” laughed the 38-yearold North Attleboro resident, who when not organizing the award-winning F.I.T. Challenge, a mind- and body-testing, five-kilometer event now held every April and November at Cumberland’s Diamond Hill State Park, is a history teacher at Norton (Mass.) High School.
He hesitated, then began his fascinating story.
“Here’s how it happened: I wanted to become the next Attleboro High varsity football coach,” he stated. “I spent the 2012 season with (head coach) Kevin Deschenes, and he told me he was retiring, so I figured I’d apply for the job. I knew Kevin was backing me because of my experience.”
McCoy had served as an assistant or head coach at a variety of schools, including his alma maters, Bishop Feehan and Assumption College (he excelled as an athlete at both), not to mention Durfee High, Norwich University and Curry College, so figured he had as a good a resume as any to win the Blue Bombardiers’ job.
“I remember it was a Friday night, at about 5 p.m. on Jan. 24,” he recalled vivdly. “I received a phone call from the Attleboro athletic director, Mark Houle. He told me I wouldn’t be hired, that it all came down to wins and losses; to me, it meant he was saying I wasn’t a winner. I found that mind-boggling, as I was the head coach that brought Feehan a Super Bowl championship. I’ve got three rings from there.
“At Norton, I took over a team that went 2-9, and – three years later – we went to the Division 4 Super Bowl at Gillette Stadium (before losing to Arlington Catholic).
“The next day, Saturday, (Jan. 25), I was going to do the Blizzard Blast OCR in Lowell, so I drove up, but I was still pretty (miffed),” he added. “I was having a pity party; I was really hurt. Anyway, I finished the race and really enjoyed it, so I sought out the OCR director to ask him questions about how he organized it.
“He blew me off, which upset me more. As I drove back down, that’s when I decided I’d do my own OCR. I had done a lot of other races before. I figured I could organize one if I had some help.”
He contacted Cumberland Park & Recreation Director Mike Crawley, and also met with Rick Valliant, who’s in charge of the annual Haunted Hill fete at Diamond Hill Park every Halloween.
“I had done a race there called the Reviver Challenge, and I knew Mike was involved, so I reached out to him; he’s one of the nicest people you’d ever want to meet,” he said. “I told Mike about my idea, and he said, ‘Awesome.’ He thought it would be a great way to feature the park and help Cumberland promote more events there.
“The three of us became close, so we decided to put it in motion.”
On Dec. 27, after McCoy had participated in a yoga class, he checked his cellphone, as was the norm, and discovered he had dozens of texts congratulating him.
“I didn’t know what they were for, until I kept reading,” he grinned.
His F.I.T. (an acronym for Fortitude, Integrity and Toughness) Challenge had been selected in a national poll under the auspices of Atlanta-based Mud Run Guide, the leading OCR industry’s media/public relations outlet in the United States, as a winner in four separate categories.
Among them: The Best Small OCR Series; and runners-up in the Best North American Series, Best New Obstacle (appropriately entitled “Destroyer 2.0”) and Best Race Director.
“The people at Mud Run Guide take nominations from anybody – competitors, race directors, fans – around the country,” he mentioned. “They put together a ballot, and anybody can vote.
“I knew Mud Run Guide was having a Facebook Live event that evening (of Dec. 27), but I was doing yoga,” he added. “I saw a lot of texts saying ‘I can’t believe it!’ and ‘Great job!’ and I was astonished. I know I never nominated our series, but apparently others had.
“I was most surprised with the Best North American Series runner-up honor. I mean, we had beaten some of the big boys in the industry, like Tough Mudder, the Warrior Dash and the Spartan Race; they have those all over the country and the world. Those are the ones everybody knows about.
“I thought, ‘Here we are, the little guy from tiny Cumberland, R.I., and we’re ranked at or near the top in a lot of impressive categories!’ I was ecstatic.
“It just goes to show you what you can accomplish when you feel someone doubts what you can do.”
“I was most surprised with the Best North American Series runner-up honor. I mean, we had beaten some of the big boys in the industry, like Tough Mudder, the Warrior Dash and the Spartan Race; they have those all over the country and the world. Those are the ones everybody knows about.”
– North Attleboro’s Robb McCoy
McCoy played football and ran track and field at Feehan, graduating in 1997, then became a four-year starter at Assumption while majoring in history.
He earned his Bachelor’s in 1991, and immediately became an assistant at Norwich (in Northfield, Vt.) in the spring of 2002. After that, he chose to return to Assumption to coach, then moved on to teach and coach at Bishop Feehan.
In 2006, he went to Norton to teach history and mentor the varsity grid team, and has been there ever since.
As for his first foray into obstacle course racing, that came sort of by accident back in 2012.
“I had been a trainer at a fitness club in North Attleboro, and a female client wanted me to train her for the Warrior Dash,” McCoy stated. “She told me, ‘If I can reach all of these goals you’ve given me, you’re going to do it with me.’ I just said, ‘You bet.’
“The Warrior Dash was an entrylevel, five-kilometer OCR held in Thompson, Conn., and I thought it was fun,” he continued. “It was a great alternative to just plain ol’ road racing because it was held on trails, and you had to overcome obstacles.”
Following his bitter disappointment from being “blown off” twice, and once he had developed and fine-tuned all of the details that go with operating his own OCR, he held his first in August 2013, then assembled his initial true test, naming it the “F.I.T. Force Challenge, the following October.
“It was a 5K with 25 obstacles, including walls, cargo nets, rope climbs, monkey bars, things like that,” he said. “We spread them throughout the park, so participants had to deal with not only those, but the terrain as well.
“We drew about 600 people, then we held the next one in April 2015; that was the F.I.T. Epic OCR,” he added. “I knew right away we had a gem of a venue. I had been competing at assorted races all over the nation, and I just knew this one could provide as challenging a shortcourse OCR that you could find.
“We tweaked the course a little for the Epic to make it more difficult; I didn’t want it to get boring for the competitors. We ended up with over 1,100 folks try that one.”
McCoy has held such OCRs every April and November since 2014, but added more fun and less harrowing events earlier this year. Among them four trail runs with themes: one for St. Patrick’s Day, then three more (appropriately nicknamed the “TrailFecta) for Halloween, Thanksgiving and Christmas.
Each took place at the Cumberland Monastery, home of the Cumberland High cross-country squads.
“We had 3,073 competitors at our six events; all told, since we started in August 2013, we’ve drawn over 9,000,” he said proudly.
In 2014, McCoy and his fellow organizers received the Global Achievement Award by the Joslins Diabetes Center for “leadership and dedication to a world without diabetes.” The reason: The April event that year financially and spiritually supported Joslins’ work.
“We’ve also donated over $25,000 to numerous charities, and we conduct a food drive within our Thanksgiving trail race and a toy drive for Homeless Children’s shelters at our Christmas race,” he indicated.
Those 2016 Mun Run Guide laurels were preceded by a pair the year before, including Best Small Series runner-up; and Best New Obstacle runner-up (with the “Destroyer”).
When asked how he named his OCR, McCoy chuckled.
“When I was in high school, our track coach was Bob L’Homme, and he always said we had to live by three words: Character, Courage and Toughness,” he said. “What we wanted for a name was something fitness-related, but also something that symbolized what we’re all about it. I thought about what Bob used to say, so came up with some a similar phrase.
“We wanted a catchy name; if you notice, we don’t have the word ‘race’ in the name because not every individual is there to race,” he continued. “It’s like a marathon or triathlon; some people just want to overcome or conquer their individual goals and challenges.”
He indicated the biggest demographic for F.I.T. Challenge events are those men and women ages 24-45, but “we’ve also attracted a 70-year-old woman, amputees, middle- and high-school kids, etc. My nine-year-old daughter completed the course two years ago, and my five-year-old son is going to run in April.
“We attract people from all over the country,” he added. “This year, we’ll have three coming in from Canada … People do it to challenge themselves, but there’s also great camaraderie; everyone there is to achieve something they thought maybe they couldn’t. Everyone is encouraged to go at their own pace.
“That’s why we offer an elite wave, with completion of all obstacles a must; a standard open wave; then a multi-lap option wave, where participants try to complete as many laps as they can in five hours. We also have a designated kids’ course, naturally with age-appropriate obstacles. That’s run by our sponsor, PursuEventures.”
Last April, McCoy introduced the “Destroyer 2.0” to his course. In essence, it’s a 12-foot inverted (or half-diamond-shaped) wall where challengers must leap up, catch a long, horizontal bar and muscle their way up onto a sloping “roof.” Once that’s completed, they must either jump from the opposite side or step their way down, much like a rock-climbing wall.
“I’m not surprised that made the Mud Run Guide poll’s runner-up award,” McCoy laughed. “It’s a beast.
“Being named the runner-up for Best Race Director feels awesome,” he added. “A lot has happened over the past three years, and I’d say it’s because of how we describe our challenge: Fortitude, Integrity, Toughness. All I need is someone to tell me I’m not a winner, or not worth the time, and I’ll do something with it.”
As he continued, it was easy to see he wasn’t only talking about his work as the creator of “F.I.T. Challenge.
“I know my coaching style; I’m tough and demanding, just like my high school coaches were, guys like Paul O’Boy and Jack Peavy with football, and Bob L’Homme, Ed Gagnon, Leo Charron, Matt Lanagan.
“I’m a product of all that I learned from them; they helped me develop those traits. That’s how I’ve coached in the past. It’s not a style everyone likes, but I’m a yeller. I’m intense, but we’re going to win, that’s a given.”
He hesitated once more, smiled, then offered, “Of course, we don’t operate these events that way. It’s much more congenial, all about one overcoming fears, or doing things they didn’t think they could do. It gives me a lot of satisfaction because we’re running this the right way. It helps people stay healthy, or become healthier, and strive to accomplish new challenges.
“I know our community – people from Cumberland, Lincoln, Woonsocket, Pawtucket, Burrillville, and others from faraway places – have embraced us, and it’s incredible. It’s beyond my wildest dreams. You know, I received a text after our April (2016) race from a guy named Donald Benjamin from West Long Branch, N.J., and it blew me away.
“He wrote, ‘(It’s) possibly the best OCR I’ve ever done. Everything about it showed you and your staff went the extra mile in all aspects. If you guys had the resources that the big guys have, you’d be the No. 1 OCR in the country, no question.’
“Let’s put it this way: Criticism motivates me.”
The next F.I.T. Challenge will take place on Saturday, April 8 at Diamond Hill State Park, beginning at 8 a.m. Registration fees vary, though are between $69-89. Anyone interested in entering can do so by visiting www.fitchallenge.org. More information is available by e-mailing email@example.com.