The Beginners Guide to Obstacle Course Racing

It’s summer time.  That wonderful time of year where people finally shake of the dust of winter and head outdoors for fun and sun.  For most people that means lounging by the pool/lake/beach, with a grill and a cooler where you’re body can soak up the vitamin D and relax.  But for a special group of people summer means one thing above all else: Obstacle Course Racing.  No doubt as you’ve scrolled through your social media you’ve seen a friend, coworker, sponsored ad, or crazy cousin Dan posting photos of themselves straining, grunting, smiling, or flexing as they carry their mud covered body over what looks like a medieval torture device.  You see names like Spartan Beast, Tough Mudder, Warrior Dash, Bonefrog Challenge, or Savage Race and wonder if you need to be concerned for the mental health of your friend.  However perplexed you may be you find that you can’t just scroll past.  You have to look and as you do you think to yourself “Could I do that?”  The answer is “yes”, and here’s what you need to know to get started.

For those of us who have done them in the past we have a sick fascination with obstacle course races.  From the moment I did my first Warrior Dash with trash bags taped around my shoes (rookie move by the way, the bags never last the first 100 yards), I was hooked.  I’m by no means a what I would call a “pro”, but I’ve done my fair share of races and rarely fail to complete an obstacle.  Over the years I’ve learned a lot about myself and about how to be successful at obstacle course races.  As I’ve shared my pictures and race schedule to inspire and motivate others to race with me, I always come across the same group of questions.  So I thought I’d take a moment to answer a few of them.  If you’ve ever wanted to do it here are the top questions I answer of everyone who says “I want to do a race, but…”

Am I fit enough?

YES YOU ARE!  Obstacle course racing is like people who say the time isn’t right to have kids, buy a house, change jobs, etc.  “I’m not fit enough” is just an excuse.  I’ve seen every level of athlete on the obstacle courses and it doesn’t matter what race.  I’ve run with people among the fittest, fastest in the world and with those who have cerebral palsy, MS, ALS, amputees, etc.  Obstacle racing is about what the spirit is willing to do, not what the body is able.  What you need to know is understanding your physical limitations.  Not everyone can do a 14 mile race let alone an obstacle like “Funky Monkey”.  Look at the races and obstacles ahead of time.  You might not be ready for all of them yet, but don’t let that stop you.  At any race you can walk around it and as you do something will happen in your soul that says “I’m coming back next year to beat that”.  So, suck it up and do it and I guarantee you won’t regret it.

What should I expect?

Expect lots of mud, sweat, and tears.   You will get dirty, you will be sore the next day, and you will have some scrapes/bruises (and if I’m honest maybe a broken bone if you get reckless).  You can expect obstacles that will make you question your decision to cross the starting line.  Obstacles that challenge you physically (lots of monkey bars and climbing) and mentally (fear of heights, dark, water, or electrocution).  But even the most novice person is somewhat prepared for those things.  What you won’t expect and what I have come to love more than anything is the spirit of community that flows through the course.  OCR is a community of people looking to challenge themselves and encourage others to achieve something incredible.   The obstacles force you outside of your comfort zone and when those walls are broken down, so are walls between you and other people.  There’s no personal space on an obstacle course.  You will be cheered by every person you encounter.  They will push you and pull you emotionally and physically.  I will never forget one of my first races when a lady looked at me and yelled “hey, just grab something and push me over this thing”.

How should I train?

To be honest, an obstacle course race is not something you can buy a “Couch to 5K” book and be ready in 6 weeks.  Running on trails is vastly different from roads, but that’s not what you should be concerned about.  I’ve always considered myself an athlete and had done several half marathons before venturing into OCR.  What I was unprepared for was the work it would take my upper body.  It only took one race for me to realize a lot of pull ups were in my future.  But it doesn’t mean I needed to join a CrossFit gym.  It’s much simpler.  My recommendation is start your run/walk with some push-ups.  Plan your route so that you pass a playground; when you get there walk over to use the monkey bars.  Whether you can move across them, do pull ups, or just hang doesn’t matter, just use them.  When you finish your route, do some more push ups.  You’d be surprised how much that will do for your OCR prep.

What should I bring/wear?

OCR is no place to make a fashion statement, it’s form over function and no one is going to critique you.  What you want to remember is footwear is the most important thing.  You will slip and slide around, so have shoes that fit and lace up tight.  Those of us who do this regularly have special shoes with deep tread or cleats for traction.  Form fitted clothing is the best so it doesn’t get caught in barbed wire (yes, there’s barbed wire) and definitely NO COTTON.  You don’t want anything that will soak up mud or water and add weight to your journey.  Gloves are optional.  I personally don’t use them and don’t see many people on the course with them, but you won’t be alone if you do.  My experience is gloves get wet and slippery, so if all you care about is protecting your hands then use them.

Which race should I do?

This is the number one question I get asked.  Every race wants your business and is tempting in it’s own way.  But they are all different, so you should be aware of the differences no matter how subtle as you make your decision.   There are more and more races out there every year as demand increases.  What you need to be aware of though, is for your own safety stick to the mainstream races.  They have a reputation to uphold, so your safety is their priority even though you sign a waiver.  They don’t need an outbreak of e coli or an obstacle to collapse.  So I’ve listed the four most common below from easiest to most difficult beginners.

  1. Warrior Dash (5 km; 12-15 obstacles) – Warrior Dash holds a special place for me as my first obstacle course race and the gateway drug to my current OCR addiction.  Before the industry exploded Warrior Dash was the biggest and most well known race.  With a 5k distance and only 12-15 obstacles, I consider this the best race for true OCR beginners or anyone who just wants to dip their toe in the weekend mud run experience. The distance is just right and the terrain usually isn’t too tough.  The obstacles are a challenge, but nothing to fear and easily overcome with a little help.  It will test your will, but won’t break your spirit.
  2. Spartan Sprint (4-6 miles: 25 obstacles) – Spartan is the king of the OCR mountain right now partly because they have varying options for races.  So if you feel like the Warrior Dash was a cake walk, but don’t want to get too crazy, then the Spartan Sprint is right up your alley.  The distance varies based on the location so you won’t really know till you cross the finish line how far you go.  You will also be challenged physically more than any other race.  Particularly because Joe De Sena the president and creator, is an ultra-marathoner who believes in testing your limits.  So be prepared for monkey bars, sandbag carries, and climbing walls back to back.  Also, any obstacle you can’t complete gives you a penalty of 30 burpees.  (note: Spartan offers a 6-10 mile Super and 12+ mile Beast option for those who truly want to test their physical limits)
  3. Tough Mudder (10 miles; 25-30 obstacles) – Sure Tough Mudder is long and has a good number of obstacles, but the obstacles are designed with teamwork in mind so expect lots of helping hands.  What makes TM truly unique is how it will test you mentally.  First, unlike the other races, Tough Mudder is untimed meaning the only motivation moving you forward is your own willpower.  Next, many of the obstacles are designed around your fears.  Heights, electricity, dark, claustrophobia, freezing; honestly if they could find a way to make you crawl through spider webs or a pit of snakes they’d probably do it.  The nice thing is, any obstacle you don’t want to face will allow you to walk around it with no penalty. (note: Tough Mudder now offers a half and 5K option that would be excellent for beginners)
  4. Savage Race (6 miles; 25 obstacles) – Savage Race advertises itself as “the perfect distance and the best obstacles” and I’d agree, but that ad applies to those who spend regular time working out or running obstacle races.  This doesn’t mean you have to be super fit, but you need to understand what it takes to start and finish an obstacle course race before attempting it.  Compared with other races of similar distance like the Spartan Super or Bone Frog Challenge that will leave you exhausted, I’d say this is the porridge that’s just right.  It offers lot’s of challenging obstacles for hands, legs, arms, and back plus a distance that will make you feel accomplished but still able to walk the next day.

So there you have it.  No matter what level of fitness you’re at, there’s a race for you.  Try it once and I guarantee you’ll be hooked.  Share your questions or experiences in the comments.  Happy Racing.

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