Obstacle course racing

It’s great to watch the joy with which young children throw themselves into mud. As any parent will know, kids seem to make an almost instinctual beeline to muddy puddles. Getting completely caked in dirt is a pure form of hedonism and a playful up-yours to the prim sterility of modern living. But as kids get older and start to play in more “sophisticated” ways, there are fewer opportunities to get feral in a mud-bath. Most of us adults are unable to remember the last time we did so. It seems a shame to deprive ourselves of such an innocent means of enjoyment and connection with nature.

Mud: fertilizer for the soul

There will be mud. Braden Fastier

Kids are anarchic athletes. They climb over, under and through pretty much anything they came across, lug about things that are heavy in proportion to their small frames, and have a core strength that would make a gymnast envious. In this way, kids are far more rounded athletes than adults, who tend to focus more on economy of effort and training repetitive motions rather than exploration of their environment and capabilities. It’s funny that while kids can get down and grimy without any kind of pretext, we adults need to find an excuse to do so. This may be one reason why mud runs and obstacle course races (OCR) are becoming popular these days. If is an official, sanctioned event, then we have permission to get our clothes dirty, right? Another for their success is the amazing camaraderie of these events.

What’s involved in an OCR

It needn’t be about competition. Entering as a team puts the focus on cooperation. Braden Fastier

OCR organizers generally keep the exact details of the race vague right up to the event to make it difficult to prepare. But you can take an educated guess at what will be involved and you won’t be far off. All OCRs are likely to incorporate the following:

  • Running – lots of it
  • Dragging weights – logs or tires
  • Carrying weights – sandbags, logs or other “companion” weights
  • Crawls – under nets and barbed wire; through tunnels, water, and mud
  • Climbing – over walls and A-frames; up cargo nets and ropes
  • Monkey bars
  • Mud

Tough Mudders is one of the most well-known brands in the OCR business. Here is a good breakdown of the main Tough Mudder obstacles. Other courses are likely to be simpler than this.

The 2017 Wairua Warriors OCR

You will get wet in an OCR. Chris Symes/Shuttersport Limited

It occurred to me that my training and play tend toward repetition and I spend my days in far too hygienic a state than is healthy. I also wanted to know how my fitness level would measure up against the eclectic demands of an OCR. So on a whim I entered an OCR put on by the Wairua Warriors, New Zealand’s first OCR Sports Club.

Given that I train regularly and identify as a “runner,” I thought that my fitness level would be more than adequate and I entered the 12 km option. Heck, I even went so far as to enter the Elite category.

Well, the day arrived and I rolled up to the registration desk. Here was my first red flag: While the race packs for the Open and Teams categories occupied three tables, the Elite race packs amounted to one solitary box in the corner. In fact, there were only 21 competitors in the elite male category out of a total of 600 in the entire event.

Climbing an A-frame. Braden Fastier

The race began with an opening war dance given by local Maori. This was impressive and got the adrenaline flowing. It also gave me the opportunity to size up the competition. In general, they seemed to be larger and more muscular than me. This is a contrast to trail run events where most people are thin to the point of being nothing but skin, bone and sinew. What was the same was their incredibly low body fat percentage. Second red flag. I felt out of shape and out of my depth and said as much to the guy next to me. “Don’t worry about it; just have fun,” he said with a grin and a shrug. Sage advice and applicable to all areas of life, I thought.

The race kicked off and as usual everybody sprinted and jostled for position. What followed was 12 km of suffering. There are lots of kinds of sporting events where people compete in enduring physical discomfort. What is unique about OCRs is that they manage to incorporate elements from most of these disciplines, and then add some for good measure. No wonder the military love them so much.
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The running was fine. Monkey bars posed no real issue. I was able to navigate balance and climbing obstacles relatively easily. What completely destroyed me was the sandbag carry. The sandbags were 35 kg, and it was all I could do to hoist one onto my shoulders, let alone climb a hill with it! This was the only point of the race where I genuinely entertained the thought of giving up. But instead of stopping, I allowed myself to keep slowing down until I found a pace that was sustainable. At times I was moving at a shuffle, leaving a wet trail of sweat and misery as I went. I dropped at least five places here.
Weighing more than half my body weight, I found the sandbag carry challenging. Evan Barnes/Shuttersport Limited

As I note above, the thing you should expect in an OCR is mud and wet. We crossed a river several times, ran upstream, and jumped into marshes, bogs, and specially-manufactured pits of mud. The crowd loved it, but I couldn’t figure out if they were cheering or jeering.

The only point where strategy seemed to come into play was on the obstacles that involved balance. If a competitor in the Elite category failed an obstacle, he or she had to do a penalty of 30 burpees. These take quite a while and lose you valuable time, but also completely drain your energy and sense of humor. It is well worth approaching these obstacles slowly and calmly to make sure you don’t fail and incur a penalty.
The winner was Brakken Kraker, a professional OCR racer on the Spartan Pro Team, who came in at 1:29:23. I came in at 2:06:28, 11th out of 21 elite male competitors. Not bad for a first attempt, but there is certainly scope for improvement. The next event is in the winter, and I will definitely be taking part.
Takeaway lessons:
  • Avoiding the penalty is worth losing a little time over. Take your time and collect yourself before attempting single-try obstacles that require balance or focus.
  • You will get soaked. Wear artificial fabrics – NOT cotton. This goes for everything including your top, shorts, underwear and socks.
  • By the end I was carrying quite a few pebbles in my shoes and even inside my ankle-high socks. I recommend knee-high running socks for a serious competitor.

So, have you ever taken part in an obstacle course race? How did you find it? How did you prepare? It seems to me the simplest form of preparation would be to go hang out at a play park for a few hours a week and mimic whatever the kids there are doing, but did you use a more systematic method!

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