ITHACA, N.Y. — The Ithaca Children’s Garden is gearing up for its annual messy and fun Tough Turtle challenge. Now in its seventh year, the event is packed with obstacles and is a key fundraiser for the public garden.

The Tough Turtle and Tough Turtle Jr. will take place Sept. 21 and feature more than 20 obstacles — including some new additions and events this year. Participants this year will sprint, crawl, climb, and boat their way through the obstacle course that goes along the Cayuga Waterfront and Black Diamond Trails. Registration is already underway, and people who want to participate are encouraged to sign up as soon as possible.

The Tough Turtle course is geared toward adults, but there is also a Tough Turtle Jr. for children 12 and under and events for all ages.

“It’s a lot of fun and people really challenge themselves in a lot of ways that maybe they weren’t expecting,” said Erin Marteal, executive director of the Ithaca Children’s Garden.

(Photo courtesy of Ithaca Children’s Garden)
(Photo courtesy of Ithaca Children’s Garden)

Marteal came up with the idea to host an obstacle course event in 2013 and it has since become their single biggest fundraiser. The name for the event was inspired by the garden’s iconic snapping turtle, Gaia, who sits in the heart of the garden. The event was started and continues as a way to raise awareness about the garden and build important operating funds, she said.

The 5K course contains all sorts of challenges, testing upper body strength, endurance, balance and sometimes teamwork. There are also some “bigger and better” additions this year. Though the obstacle course may sound daunting, it’s not a high-pressure event. People can take it at their own pace and skip obstacles if they want.

This year is poised to be the biggest event yet with some added obstacles and events.

Courtesy of Paddle-N-More, this year the course contains a kayaking challenge in Cayuga Inlet. There is also a “field day”-type event with games like tug-of-war, three-legged races, a water balloon toss, and an egg race. There will also be a dunk tank and bounce house. Following the race, there will be music, food from Collegetown Bagels and drinks from Liquid State Brewing Company.

People who take part in the challenge can feel good about the personal challenge while at the same time know they are helping the Ithaca Children’s Garden thrive, Marteal said.

Founded in 1999, the Ithaca Children’s Garden is a three-acre public garden where kids and people of all ages can experience nature, enjoyed by more than 70,000 visitors a year. It’s located at the south end of Cass Park on Route 89 at 121 Turtle Lane and open from dawn to dusk every all year.

Marteal said having public green space and a place to play is important for a healthy community. She said the garden provides a lot of education about growing safe and healthy food, taking measured risk and empowers children to lead their own play. The Tough Turtle is a key fundraiser for ICG, and she said a lot of what they do would not be possible without support from the community through the event. Since 2013, the obstacle course event has raised more than $265,000.

(Photo courtesy of Ithaca Children’s Garden)
(Photo courtesy of Ithaca Children’s Garden)

In the past, the garden has been recognized for its innovative “Hands-On-Nature Anarchy Zone,” and received the American Public Garden Association Program of Excellence Award in 2016.

“What we’re doing is quite innovative and folks across the country are starting to take note,” Marteal said. “But, first and foremost, we want it to be a space that serves the local community as a great model and when people participate in the Tough Turtle, that’s really what they’re supporting.”

Learn more about the Tough Turtle and Tough Turtle Jr. here. Registration is open here.

All images courtesy of Ithaca Children’s Garden.

Kelsey O'Connor

Kelsey O'Connor is the managing editor for the Ithaca Voice. Questions? Story tips? Contact her at and follow her on Twitter @bykelseyoconnor.