Obstacle Course Racing, or “Why do I keep doing this to myself?”

Tough Mudder, Toronto, Ontario (2016)

Let’s get this right out there at the beginning. Obstacle course racing is super-duper fun, but it’s not for everyone. You’ll know by the end of your first race if it’s your thing:

  • Are you riding an adrenaline high so intense that you want to jump up and down and hug and kiss everyone at the finish line? Did going back to work the Monday after the race feel like culture shock? If so, welcome to your tribe!
  • Are you too cold/too hot, muddy, wet, miserable, angry, hurting, and never want to see another ski-hill or obstacle for the rest of your life? Did you tell yourself you’re never doing this ever again? If so, maybe OCR’s not for you.
  • Are you too cold/too hot, muddy, wet, miserable, angry, hurting, never want to see another ski-hill or obstacle for the rest of your life, BUT it was still loads of fun and you can’t wait to see everyone again next week because you’ve  already booked your entire race season a year in advance? You’re an OCR racer already! Why haven’t I seen you at the starting line?

If you don’t know what OCR is, I’ll paint you a quick picture: imagine a ski-hill or some other recreational wilderness type place with trails…or things that might be trails…or just bush; that’ll work too. Mark off a course anywhere between 5 to 50+ kilometres (bonus points if you can somehow make it go up and down the same mountain three or more times and still keep the scenery interesting). Add to this bucolic scene a crap-ton of obstacles: high walls, slip-ramps, slides, ropes, monkey bars, rings, jumps, crawls, mud pits, and every variation imaginable of carry-this-heavy-thing. Finally, stir in a heady mixture of music, rousing pre-race speeches, adrenaline, fear, fun, comradery, kindness, sportsmanship, and a thousand-odd runners of all skill levels pushing themselves to their limits…and you have an obstacle course race.

Spartan, Tough Mudder, Mud Hero, Warrior Dash, and Savage Race are some of the more well-known races, but there are lots more. Quebec in particular boasts a huge number of local races such as Dead End Race (with its infamous Apocalypse option, which involves carrying a 25-30lb sandbag for at least half of a 12k race), Northman, and Course Xtreme.

Why do I do this to myself? That’s a question that isn’t as easy to answer as it would seem.

Easy answer: I race because I enjoy trail running, the atmosphere, the people, and the buzz. My first OCR was a now-defunct zombie-themed race called Run for Your Lives. I ran their inaugural event in Maryland, and to this day have trouble expressing the incredible combination of joy, fear, and exhilaration it invoked. I wanted to do it again right away. I never wanted to leave. Coming back to the ‘real world’ was a let-down.

Also, I like chips and cake, and running a long race is a VERY good excuse for an indulgence.

Run For Your Lives, Butler PA (2012)
After our first Spartan Beast (2015)

Harder answer: I race because there is a part of me that always wants to push harder, to go further; to see exactly how much I can ask of myself before my body fails. OCR, especially some of the longer endurance events, lets me do that. There’s nothing like the feeling of asking something of yourself that you didn’t think was possible, and then doing it. And yes, it hurts. It hurts while you’re doing it and it hurts after. And the next day you’ll be stiff, sore, bruised, and ten pounds lighter than you were when you started. But the next time you face something that scares you or pushes you out of your comfort zone, you’ll be able to look back and say ‘but I did that’.

After the South Carolina Spartan Ultra (2018) (50k and 60+ obstacles, for those who are wondering) If you can’t tell, I’m really really tired!

Have I DNF-ed? (That’s ‘Did Not Finish’, for the non-race crowd) Yes, once, and I don’t regret it; it was the right decision to make at the time. Have I injured myself, sworn, thrown-up, limped across the finish line, and/or cried? Oh yeah; all of the above, and all more than once. Do I still love the sport? Absolutely.

I’m not an elite racer; I consider myself to be a solid middle-of-the-road competitive age-ranger. But after 7 years of racing (3 competitively, with three World Championships under my belt, and a 2nd place finish in the 2017 Spartan Canada Competitive Series F40-44) I’ve done things that geeky, book-worm me never thought I could, and I want to keep going to see how much further I can push.

So will I keep racing? Absolutely…but…

As I get older and the injuries pile up (Post-Concussion Syndrome and an impinged nerve in my left shoulder making up the current crop) I’m starting to think about stepping away from competitive OCR and sticking to the fun races. I think, over the next few years, I’ll probably move gradually toward more long-distance trail running. Same chance to push myself, less chance of further injury (although trail running has its own hazards: I messed up my right knee during a 50K staged trail run three weeks before the 2016 Obstacle Racing World Championships). Stepping back a little is okay, because it’s all about balance. I want to enjoy racing. And as much as I like to push myself, I want to be able to enjoy the rewards too. Like cake!

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