What is Obstacle Racing?

This list is two years old. An updated synopsis of the sport will be posted soon.

Changes of note:
Atlas Race no longer exists
Warrior Dash has ceased to hold its Championship Race
BattleFrog has closed down its races to focus on TV specials.

These days it seems like OCR, or obstacle course racing, comes up in almost every conversation I have.

Despite skyrocketing participation numbers and an increasing TV presence, the vast majority of the people I come into contact with aren’t aware of what it is. Those that do have only minimal knowledge of the sport. And that’s not a bad thing. We’re still in our fringe stage.

In order to describe the current state of the sport, we first need to take a very brief look back at some of the fitness trends that led to the creation of this one.

There have been (IMO) three real revolutions pertaining to fitness in the States. As you read through, notice that each of these movements largely reflected the general state of the country during that time period, and that each also went on to a spawn a professional version of its form of exercise. In true McCauley fashion, this list will be far from finished and not entirely accurate, but I wanted to get it thrown up before I left the country. Want to skip this part? Scroll down until you see bold lettering.

The first, which we’ll refer to as the general fitness revolution, was spearheaded by Jack Lalane. From the 30s on out Lalane stressed weight lifting, flexibility, avoidance of over-processed foods, and general well-being, all concepts relatively foreign to those who lived through the Great Depression.

Then the ’60s came, and with them, the jogging revolution. In 1966, Bill Bowerman, Oregon coach and head of Blue Ribbon Sports (later known as Nike) published a book entitled “Jogging”, which was filled with ideas Bowerman had gleaned from legendary coach Arthur Lydiard while spending time with him in New Zealand. The book sold over a million copies and influenced a new generation to get out and move. It also indirectly led to commercialism of road races, masters divisions, and ultimately the death of amateurism in track and field.

The advent of the 20th century brought with it a new fitness movement, that of the “Fun Fitness Revolution.” Movement no longer had to be purely linear or confined to the interior of a gym. Instead, it was let free. P90x, MMA, and Crossfit, among others, gained popularity. Cardio and circuit style training allowed people to work out with nothing more than a water bottle and a yoga mat. Crawling, climbing, and animal movements became common. Working out sometimes resembled “playing” like children. It was only a matter of time until someone stepped in to capitalize on the new trend.

OCR  (obstacle course racing) Origins 
In 1987 Uk’s “Tough Guy” began. The first army-inspired obstacle race involved swimming, crawling, and climbing on a brutal course, and is still going strong today. But it was only a matter of time until it made the jump across the pond. (Under somewhat nefarious circumstances, which I’ll go into in a later blog, but you can read all about here in the meantime).

The first large American race to utilize the obstacle course style format was Warrior Dash in 2009. Warrior emphasized hilly, running oriented courses with a party atmosphere.

In 2010 Tough Mudder and Spartan Race joined with races of their own. In 2015 these remain the big 3, with Battlefrog and Atlas Race attempting to join them.

Many other races have came and went along the way, including Hard Charge, SuperHero Scramble, and hundreds of variations on “Zombie Runs,” “Color Runs,” and obvious cash grabs like “Jog while we throw paint and chalk at you once or twice throughout a poorly set up course and then you can post pictures online after raving about how cool your life is.” (I’m struggling to find a link on that last one)

You see the thing is, if properly executed these races can make a killing. And it’s not just obstacle races. Lets look at the Boston Marathon prices and participation numbers. The race currently costs $255, or $347 for foreigners, and in 2013 50,000 people ran. We’re looking at $10-15 million in entry fees alone right there. (Math may be off, I’m an English major)

There’s big money to be made, and what we’re seeing is a movement by private equity firms to buy up road races and turn them into cash cows (Rock’n Roll, Disney series, etc.) Everyone wants in on the cash grab- various companies are making bank with services related to timing, online registration, gear, and in an increasingly social media oriented world, photos and documentation of races.

So everyone is attempting to host one of these races, but only a few are doing it right.

Who’s Racing OCR?
The majority of the sport’s elite racers come from running backgrounds. Most competed collegiality, most of them D-1 distance runners. Many than switched to trail running and marathons before getting involved with OCR.  These athletes boast impressive resumes. Former OCR World Champion Cody Moat is a 50 mile and US Trail Marathon Champ, Rose Wetzel-Sinnet has done big things on the track, Max King is a World Trail Champion and 8:30 steepler, 2:14 marathoner… These are very good runners who have managed to handle the strength aspects of Spartan Race.

But not all runners have been able to make the jump over. Some very big-time names have debuted to less than impressive results. To see an in-depth look at the sport’s top runners as of this past fall, click here.

Regardless of background, most racers have similar skill sets: They’re good hill-climbers, tough, coordinated/athletic, and have incredible strength-to-weight ratios.

Obstacle racing at its core is a sport of rebirth, so we also tend to see many racers that have gotten into sports later in life. Many of these make the jump from the Cross-fit or Ninja Warrior communities.

Warrior Dash and Tough Mudder market their races as fun runs, but they both have a “Championship” of sorts.

Warrior Dash held their inaugural championships this past year in which they gave out $100,000 in prizes. The substantial purse and lack of obstacles brought in some big name runners along with the top ocr racers in the world. Endurance champ and occasional ocr racer Max King walked away with the title, leading a sweep of obstacle racers in the top 6, as the pure runners struggled with the insane hills that comprised the course.

Tough Mudder holds their own sort of championship, the “World’s Toughest Mudder,” in which athletes complete as many laps of a course as possible in 24 hrs. Those who have won or done well are the who’s who of obstacle racing: Hobie Call (former world champ, “Michael Jordan” of the sport), Junyong Pak (endurance freak, recently ran a 3:12 marathon with a 40 pound weight vest on), Amelia Boone (biggest name in female racing), and Canadian Ryan Atkins (who currently has a strong case for best in the world).

Spartan Race holds an annual “World Championship” in Killington, Vermont. The course averages 12-16 miles and usually takes around 4 hours for the winners. Payouts are lower here, but the race still draws the best field of any championship. The UK’s Jon Albon won this race the past year, with Canadian Claude Godbout taking the title on the women’s side. Past winners have included Cody Moat, Hobie Call, and Amelia Boone (who missed this year’s race after having surgery, but made in incredible comeback just weeks later to win World’s Toughest Mudder)

This past year marked the first running of an “Independent” championship, the “OCR World Championships” which took place in Cincinnati, Ohio. The brainchild of Adrian Bijhanda, the inaugural 8 mile race had individual, team, and age group awards. It debuted to a great reception by the community and should only grow in the future. Jon Albon also won this race, with Ryan Atkins (2nd at this year’s Spartan World’s) once again taking 2nd.

So quick breakdowns of each for those of us ADD’rs who forget quickly:

Atlas Championship
-Good prize money
-Minimal obstacles
-Lots of professional runners
-Short race (5k)

World’s Toughest Mudder
-24 hrs
-Most difficult race
-Expect to be cold, wet, and probably DNF.

Spartan Championship
-Most prestigious race
-Endurance oriented
-Tons of climbing
-Ridiculously hard obstacles- course attempts to break competitors
-Switching to Lake Tahoe this year- expect altitude and climbing galore.

-Drug Testing
-Poised to make huge strides this year
-Lots of hills
-Should improve vastly in year two

Racing Series
Each event that Spartan Race puts on includes an “elite” heat, where racers compete for cash prizes. Spartan also sponsors a racing team which consists of some of the best obstacle racers in the United States. My brother began running for them 3 years ago, and this winter I was lucky enough to be offered a contract. This means airfare, shoes, and gear, among many other things.

While other races including Atlas and Battlefrog offer athlete sponsorships, Spartan is considered (at least by me) to be the Holy Grail.

A contract with Spartan doesn’t mean that a racer can’t race other events- the majority of the elites race Spartan Races, but even under contract are free to race at other Race’s venues. Think of OCR racing like Nascar or Track and Field- we’re free to follow the money to whatever races we’d like. Along the way we try to compete in enough of each race’s events to be eligible for their end of year prizes based on standings (like a points chase). This year both Spartan and Battlefrog will have a points chase.

Spartan Race consists of 3 different courses: Sprints (3-5 miles) Supers (5-8 miles) and Beasts (10-14 miles).

Stadium Sprints
My role with Spartan is as their stadium sprint specialist. Stadium sprints are shorter Spartan races ranging anywhere from 2.5-4.5 miles. They’re run in sports stadiums across the country. These include Fenway Park, Miller Park, AT&T park, and Honolulu stadium,among others. The average race consists of 20-30 obstacles ranging from heavy carries (Water jugs, rock filled buckets, sand bags, and atlas stones) to barbed wire crawls and box jumps. The running serves as a break between obstacles and consists of endless stairs and ramps. It’s a fast and furious (and extremely painful) variation on their outdoor sprint, essentially a 30 to 60 minute interval workout, and I’d highly recommend giving one a shot.

Spartan Essentials
Spartan has some constants that remain true regardless of venue or race type: Failable obstacles and burpees.

Every obstacle must be attempted, and if failed, 30 burpees must be completed. These can take you anywhere from 1:30- 5:00 depending on fitness level. Burpees fatigue the upper body and raise the heart rate, and burpees usually lead to more burpees, so the goal is to master the obstacles in order to minimize fatigue and time spent on course

Top four burpee-inducing obstacles:
Spear Throw- Spear must be thrown (and stick) into a hay bale.
Rope Climbs- Often hanging over water, these become slippery and difficult to grip.
Traverse wall- Essentially a rock climb sideways across a wall. Touching the ground or top of the wall gets you burpees.
Hoist- 70-115 lb bags must be pulled to the top of a pulley. They retain water, so if it has rained, you’re in a for a much heavier hoist. Some of the lighter runners have to consistently take a penalty on the hoist.

Throw in mud and fatigued arms and you can see why these grip oriented obstacles are so easy to fail.

For elites, a single failed obstacle can end their podium hopes. Supers and Beasts are long enough that racers can sometimes recover from burpees and still race well, but in sprints, especially stadium sprints, a failed obstacle is a death sentence.

You’re Almost Done Reading!
When I try to explain OCR in conversations, there eventually comes a point where one of two things happen: Either the person’s eyes glaze over from the influx of new information, or they give off the vibe that one way or another what we’re doing lacks legitimacy. It’s almost as if I had told them that I had decided to join the competitive balloon popping circuit. Its understandable. Fringe sports are often looked down upon by those who view with importance/ego what they themselves do. In fact, when my brother began doing these races, I viewed the sport in the same way.

But what if it were competitive balloon popping that I was doing? If you’re willing to be passionate and put in the work to be the best at what you do, any hobby can be rewarding.

The task itself takes a backseat to the journey it takes to get there.

And if your passion can finance a fun lifestyle full of travel and excitement, what’s to lose?

*Interested in giving obstacle racing a try? Head over to the Spartan Website and use the code “Memorial” for 40% off* 

One thought on “What is Obstacle Racing?

  1. Pingback: Episode 121 – McCauley Kraker | Obstacle Racing Media

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