Adventure

Obstacle course races are coming back later in the year. Dan Cooper speaks to the best in the business to find out what it takes to prepare for them. 

Having progressed from flint arrowheads to fancy haptic wearables, there’s a prevailing notion that throughout the course of history, technology has steadily improved the human condition. And yet, there’s an emerging pattern of thought that suggests our reliance on technology is betraying the very essence of what makes us human: our fundamental abilities to communicate, to think, to feel, to move. Is it any wonder, then, that since the turn of the century, an increasing number of us have been ditching the trappings of the modern world to blaze the same trails as our ancestors?

Wading through icy water, leaping through flames and navigating dizzying heights – in a world where technology has rendered us increasingly passive, more and more people are seeking out the sorts of threats that we have spent millennia trying to escape. To tackle the sort of obstacles that reconnect  us with our primal selves, reminding us fundamentally of who we are and what we are built for.

Enter then, the world of obstacle course racing, known more commonly as OCR. Hailed by its supporters as the fastest-growing sport in the world, OCR certainly has the numbers over the past decade to bolster its claim. With global participation thought to be around 20 million participants, revenue ever-increasing, payouts growing to as much as $20,000 per race to support professional athletes at the top of the sport, and widespread clamour for OCR to feature at the Olympic Games, the sport has never been stronger.

“It makes a great sport for racing competitively, pushing the boundaries of what you can do.”

Tough upbringing

Look up OCR online and you’ll most likely encounter a glossy kaleidoscope of Instagram-friendly images promoting the sport; the harnessing of social media has been key to OCR’s booming growth, especially in America. However, the true home of the sport is far more unassuming. At a simple horse sanctuary in South Staffordshire, UK, the inaugural Tough Guy was staged in 1987. Billy Wilson (affectionately known by OCR enthusiasts as Mr Mouse), a former British Army Grenadier Guard, broke away from the growing marathon scene, realising that to truly challenge one’s limits, distance alone could not suffice. As he puts it, “Athletics was stuck in bureaucracy. They [the original Tough Guy competitors] needed what toughened me. Would they hide or shy? My years in Guards Camp [military training], every day was a rude awakening, doing rough and ready assault courses and wading through rivers.”

Longtime OCR devotee Jason Richards was at that first Tough Guy. “I didn’t know what to expect,” he remembers. “It was like a brutal cross-country, with slaloms and mud and a few obstacles. I do remember one obstacle that was just bales of hay, 20 or 30 feet [six to nine metres] tall.”

For Jonathan Albon, a six-time OCR world champion, both of the sport’s strands – amateur and professional – offer distinct appeal. “There are definitely two different factions,” he says. “You can go and do it, test yourself alongside friends, help each other and have fun. But then it also does make a great sport for racing competitively, pushing the boundaries of what you can do. It’s great to do because it offers whole-body fitness.”

Choose a Challenge

Tough Mudder

Five or 16 kilometres of mud and obstacles. Many of the obstacles are designed to play on common human fears – such as fire, water, heights and electricity. The first Tough Mudder was held in the
US in 2010. By 2016, more than three million people worldwide had competed
in an event. toughmudder.com.au 

Reebok Spartan

Reebok Spartan Race is the first of its kind to have global rankings. The event
is a timed series featuring more than 130 races around the world annually, with three core races of escalating distances, obstacle count and difficulty that culminate in a World Championship Finale.
spartanrace.com 

But with images of OCR runners wielding spears (as in the Spartan events) or running electrified gauntlets splashed over social media, there are those among the trail-running community who label some of OCR’s more “photogenic” events as the preserve of so-called “weekend warriors”, arguing that they’re an overpriced way to experience what they do all of the time. Albon disagrees: “There is a big difference between trail running and OCR. It’s a different thing to be able to grit through. I know it’s an expensive way to put yourself through a load of pain, but there’s something about getting cut up, dragging yourself over stuff and under stuff, getting freezing cold but living through it. Now when I go for trail or road runs, they’re the easiest thing ever: all you have to do is put one foot in front of the other. It makes running a marathon seem simple.”

Drawn to discomfort

Whatever your thoughts, the popularity of OCR is undeniable. And while each event adopts a different form of branding, ultimately it’s the uniqueness of their courses and how fearsome their obstacles are perceived to be that draws in the thrill-seekers.

James Appleton is a three-time Tough Guy champion who has since competed in OCR across the globe. For him, a true OCR experience needs to offer real challenge and variety to test the body and mind: “There are events setting up around the world that are paper-thin – a few 12-feet [3.5m] walls, a fire jump, a rope climb – but it needs to be more epic, rather than just marketed well.

It’s not just about getting photos that make you look like Rambo with a couple of fire jumps.” Wilson, as the sport’s founder, is equally scathing of “Disney-style” events, citing the “winter ice and snow” as essential ingredients, as well as claiming that the permanent installation of his obstacles allow them to be built to a more fearsome specification, with some, he states, having never been bested. “Our assaults are built permanently and are truly frightening and fearsome,” says Wilson. “There are still two that nobody has ever completed: The Berlin Wall’ [built for Jackass star Bam Margera] and Stair Diving: a 4.5m paradise tree and net climb with a diving forward roll as the way down. No-one has completed these.”

Pain prep

If even seasoned daredevils like Margera can’t complete some of the death-defying feats required to conquer a course, what chance is there for the rest of us? According to Albon – who also happens to be an International Skyrunning world champ – it’s all about preparation.

“It’s generally important to have an all-round fit and healthy lifestyle,” he says. “Running is good, but then so is cross-training, cycling and skiing, to give yourself a good aerobic base. I do general strength training, which helps with the running, but then also a little extra for the upper body – not too much, though, as you don’t want unnecessary bulk.

You want to be like a rock climber who can run. I do rock climbing and bouldering two or three times a week, which really helps with grip strength.”

Whatever level or style of training you adopt, Albon recommends working on some simple, key elements. “The most important aspect is the running,” he says. “But you also want to have a strong core and work on grip strength, as obstacles requiring that are becoming more frequent. Finally, expose yourself to uncomfortable situations, like running with wet clothes on and with stones in your shoes. You’re going to have to get used to it – forget your perfect playlist and your comfy trainers.”

The future is bright for obstacle course racing, but Albon is cautious about diluting the purity of the sport  just to engage potential TV audiences, eager for visual spectacle: “I don’t want to see standardised courses or ninja-style obstacles just because they’re fun to watch on TV. I want to keep some of the trail running, mud and normal obstacles, while still making the sport more widely known. For me, it’s the perfect form of fitness.”