The Fit Nation special with all 8 races will air on Saturday, Nov. 19 at 2:30 p.m. ET.
Obstacle course racing has its roots in military training
More Americans competed in "non-traditional" races recently than in marathons, half-marathons
Of the 444 competitors at the Quebec Ultra Beast, only 68 crossed the finish line
Doesn’t life throw enough obstacles our way that we don’t need to go seeking more?
But the thing about obstacles is that when you overcome them, you’re usually better for it. Stronger. Smarter. More prepared for the next one.
Obstacle course racing (OCR) – running punctuated by challenges such as scaling walls, crawling under barbed wire, climbing ropes, swimming in mud and jumping over fire – “represents the trials we face in life,” said Miguel Medina y Cruz Portillo, 28, who has competed professionally in more than 50 such races and reached the winners’ podium in 10 of them.
“The way we face those obstacles is how we face adversity,” he explained. “This sport has given me the ability to be comfortable with being uncomfortable. I don’t fear adversity now. I feel I can overcome anything, especially with a good attitude.”
Before OCR became popular enough to have its own abbreviation, it was primarily a method for training soldiers, going back to the 1800s and galvanized by two world wars and the Boy Scouts.
Children universally love building obstacle courses in their homes and outside, a trait that may speak to something deeper about us. We are, after all, one of the few animals that play. And when we play, we learn.
The toughest trend you’ll ever love
About 3 million of those children in the US have grown up to participate in thousands of organized “non-traditional” races, according to industry sources. That’s still a lot of men and women seeking out the opportunity to challenge themselves through terrain thfat is sometimes as punishing as the obstacles, all intended to induce failure.
OCR is now a global multimillion-dollar business. In just the past six years, several companies have emerged to meet the demand for what is essentially an intense, marathon-length, adult school field day.
The biggest three organizers are Tough Mudder, Spartan Race and Warrior Dash. They all began about 2010, with Spartan the most focused on endurance and winning by time. Their forefather was the Tough Guy, a public obstacle course in Wolverhampton, England, created by a former British soldier in 1987.
The founder of the Tough Mudder races, Will Dean, predicted that “more people will be doing obstacle races and mud runs than will be doing traditional marathons and half-marathons,” according to Running USA, a nonprofit organization devoted to improving the status and experience of racing in the United States. And his prediction has been true since 2013, even if the level of participation in such “non-traditional” racing may have peaked that year. One major OCR organizer, BattleFrog, suspended all its upcoming races after low turnout. But the industry could rebound by overcoming its obstacle of poor recidivism.
Along with pushing yourself to your limits and the pure novelty of the sport, part of the appeal of competitive OCR is that the diversity of obstacles, combined with running, can even the playing field. You may be a fast runner, for example, but lose ground when it comes time to dragging a tractor tire.
But what ultimately wins the race is endurance, especially for extra-long events, such as the Spartan Ultra Beast.
‘I am Spartan’
Among the organized OCR options, Spartan races are the most popular in terms of events (170 in 25 countries this year) and participants (1 million last year) of all skill levels. In addition to the US races it designs and organizes, Spartan will usually license its international races. Those non-US Spartan races adhere to the company’s brand, product and safety guidelines, and the company provides oversight, guidance and support.
The first races were created by adventure racer Joe De Sena in the mountains of Vermont, where he designed an obstacle course in Burlington, not far from his farm. Like the Kevin Costner character in “Field of Dreams,” he built it, and they came. Soon after, Spartan Race was was holding events across the country.
Spartan racing can feel like more than a sport. The most passionate competitors have created a community and live the lifestyle, adopt the nutrition program, read the digital magazine and buy the books and gear.
Of course, the historic Spartans are primarily known for their military strength and discipline. Spartan boys were raised to be soldiers and toughened by deprivation of basic needs. The ultimate disgrace for a Spartan was surrender, a philosophy that endures today among the tribe of OCRers who sometimes spray-paint the Spartan Race helmet logo on their cut pecs and abs.
Some of the races command 10,000 souls or more, all embodying grit and determination, whether they are first-timers or pros. And at the start of each race, an announcer traditionally asks the crowd, “Who am I?” The yelled response is “I am Spartan!” followed by the war cry “AROO! AROO! AROO!”
Racers have a code articulated by the company in axioms such as “Spartans push their minds and bodies to their limits” and “Spartans prove themselves through actions, not words” and “Spartans live every day as if it were their last.”
Those are all good mantras for these athletes as they push past their own mental and physical limits on a Spartan Sprint (at least 3 miles and 20 obstacles), Super (8 or more miles and at least 25 obstacles), Beast (12-plus miles, 30-plus obstacles) or Ultra Beast (double the numbers of the Beast).
Spartan races are growing into other countries, including China this year. They take place in locations such as parks, stadiums, forests, farms and ski mountains. They even include their own rite of passage: a 60-hour endurance survivalist course called Agoge, after the ancient Spartans’ compulsory training regimen. The modern version includes building and sleeping in shelters, making fire, learning which plants are safe to eat in the wild and performing land navigation with and without instruments.
It all boils down to “pushing yourself past your comfort zone,” explained Norm Koch, a Spartan Race designer who got his start creating skiing terrain parks. He makes sure licensee races are challenging enough that the local infrastructure can support them and that they have low impact environmentally. Koch is so love-hated by devout Spartan competitors, there’s a Facebook group called “EFFNORM,” with more than 2,000 followers.
The Ultra Beast in Quebec this year took place over 28 miles, through 40 obstacles, running roughly 17 times up and down Mont Owl’s Head ski resort, about an hour and half east of Montreal.
The setting is stunning. From the top, you see green mountains and blue lakes. Rounding the top of a ski lift, one runner broke out into song: “The hills are alive, with the sound of muuuuusiiiic!”
Fit Nation: Spartan Ultra Beast
The race had 444 participants and included signature Spartan obstacles such as the inverted wall, the 20-foot-high rope climb, the slip ramp, a “Hercules Hoist” of sand (105 pounds for men, 75 for women) on a pulley system and throwing a spear 25 feet.
Failure to complete any obstacle resulted in 30 burpees, strictly enforced by volunteers. The spear throw has such a high rate of failure (you get only one shot) that it’s basically a burpee station.
As the packs spread out and the mountain filled up with competitors all over, some seemed giddy, others determined and many miserable. The fastest time was more than eight hours, with some competitors finishing well past sundown, wearing headlamps to find their way. Of the 444 racers, only 68 crossed the finish line.
It’s more than a race; it’s a lifestyle
Training for OCR is multi-disciplined. Athletes need to cover long-distance running, weight training and then specific skills related to obstacles, such as rope climbing, carrying heavy objects and swinging from rings.
“Any way you slice it, when it comes to galvanizing the whole man – building your strength, stamina, agility, confidence, and all-around toughness – no training tool truly compares,” wrote Brett and Kate McKay on the website the Art of Manliness.
Basically, nearly any sustained physical activity will help with training. Medina y Cruz Portillo adds variety to his training, including trail running, yoga, bouldering (climbing smaller rocks rather a cliff), pull-ups, Spin classes and backpacking with heavy packs. OCR athletes who have space and the budget will build mini obstacle courses in their backyards.
Koch said Spartan racers have a tendency to infuse their lives with opportunities to add activity: eschewing elevators for stairs and parking on the far side of the lot to force longer walks. Koch himself avoids soft drinks and coffee and rarely drinks alcohol. “Spartan is my lifestyle,” he said.
Newcomers should ease into the sport with shorter or less competitive races. Warrior Dashes have no penalties for skipping obstacles, and Spartan Sprints are designed for first-timers. Both are roughly 5Ks, and the entrance fees are usually under $100. There are many other options for OCRs, some cheaper, but given that the sport has little regulation, it may be prudent to stick with more established providers.
There is not a lot of gear required for OCR. Reebok and New Balance are among the manufacturers jumping on the trend to make “OCR shoes,” distinguished by added tread (good for climbing) and good drainage (for water obstacles). Many have small runner backpacks that hold water containers and protein snacks – both key to race days, as water can be in short supply on courses and caloric intake needs to be greater than output for fuel.
Some OCRers use compression socks and arm sleeves to protect the skin on some obstacles. There are also books on the topic, including De Sena’s “Spartan Fit!” which includes recipe and meal planning, and “Ultimate Obstacle Race Training” by Brett Stewart.
There aren’t any public data on injuries from OCR events, but trails, jumps, inclines and the obstacles themselves create opportunities for twisted ankles, shoulder strain and pulled muscles. Bad form or poor training can cause repetitive stress, given the length of the races, as well. That said, unlike in most purely running races, there is less emphasis on speed, and many OCR participants take their time. In general, OCR athletes should compete defensively, staying alert to potential hazards.
“Take it slow, listen to your body and reach out to the community for advice” on social networks, Medina y Cruz Portillo suggested to those new to the sport. “And learn to enjoy it.”
Don’t underestimate the mental benefits of OCR, either. It’s a great sport for kicking yourself out of a rut and giving yourself a personal victory, said Koch. “The only worry is just what’s in front of you. You need to know your true north, stay on the path, stay focused.”
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Yes, we have many obstacles in life, but for most of us, they aren’t physical ones. We sit all day at work, watch TV on our couches, take vacations where we sit on the beach. For anyone compelled to not be so soft, OCRs are the antidote to all of it.