The physical and mental challenges of obstacle racing are great, and they test every aspect of your fitness.
I took part in my first Tough Mudder event knowing exactly what I was getting myself into. I had trained and prepared myself as much as possible and I was ready to have a fun day of teamwork and getting dirty. What I didn’t know or prepare for was what that the weather was going to turn on us—drastically! The sun went away, the rain came, the wind began to blow, and then finally it started snowing on us. At one point I was so cold that when I jumped into the icy water, in the obstacle known as the Arctic Enema, I didn’t really notice any temperature difference at all.
Our teeth were chattering but we were still smiling, laughing, and high-fiving like crazy - so it couldn't have been all bad.
Many times during that event I wished that I was on the set of American Ninja Warrior obstacle TV show, where everyone seems warm and (mostly) dry. Despite the fact that our teeth were chattering down at the finish line while we were getting cleaned up by hosing ourselves down, we were still smiling, laughing, and high-fiving like crazy—so it couldn't have been all bad.
What is an Obstacle Course Race?
Obstacle course races (or OCR for short)—like the Spartan, Tough Mudder, and Warrior Dash—have been sweeping the nation for a few years now. From 20,000 participants in its 2010 debut year, the Tough Mudder alone has had 2 million participants to date. There are more than 60 Spartan races every year in the USA alone, and if you have heard the ads on this podcast, you will know that they boast five million people in their obstacle loving community.
Obstacle racing, in a nutshell, is an event where you must overcome various physical challenges between which you make forward progress on foot. The physical challenges (or obstacles) include climbing over walls, carrying heavy objects, traversing bodies of water, crawling under barbed wire, jumping through fire, and more. Since the creation of these races is rooted in the military, it’s no surprise that many obstacles are similar to those you see in Army movies where the hero is going through basic training (and either failing hilariously or succeeding heartwarmingly). But over the years the obstacles have become more and more unique, and they now pretty much all test endurance, strength, speed, mobility, grit, and mental toughness.
The OCR races vary in distance and difficulty level, combining trail running, road running, and cross country running in distances ranging from 1-mile arena sprint events to 26.2+ mile “death races”! Some of them are staged in the middle of a nice flat field, while others (like the one I did) take place on an out-of-season ski hill.
Where ever or whoever was first to come up with the idea, I am pretty sure every kid in history has set up some sort of obstacle course in their backyard.
OCR is still a relatively new sport and word has it that the U.K.’s Tough Guy race was first created in the 1980s, as was the Camp Pendleton Mud Run in San Diego. But these events didn’t really take off in North America until around 2010. Some say that the roots of these races go as far back as the Ancient Olympic Pentathlon, which included five events consisting of a short running race, Javelin throw, Discus throw, Long jump, and finishing with a wrestling match.
Whereever it originated and whoever was first to come up with the idea, I am pretty sure every kid in history has set up some sort of obstacle course in their backyard and ran themselves and their friends through it. And if the popularity of these races is any indication, we are all still just big kids playing in the mud and climbing the neighbor’s fence.
The Obstacle Events
Let’s start with the race that I did back on that snowy day in September. (Yes, I live in Canada). Tough Mudders are not really races per se because there is no timer. It is instead a non-competitive challenge where teamwork is encouraged and often required. For me, there was no way I was going to be able to pull myself up the wall of mud in front of me, without a boost from the bottom and a hand from the top. And of course, I took my turn boosting and pulling, when the time came.
On the other end of the spectrum, Spartan races are more about competition than teamwork. There is a timer and unless you brought along some helpful and non-competitive friends, you are on your own. They also pride themselves on the spartan-esque “no frills” obstacles that look as though you could have purchased them at the local hardware store.
Warrior Dash, on the other hand, is apparently simply an active excuse to party. Finishers get fuzzy warrior hats and are greeted with greasy turkey legs and beer in the finisher's area. Along with the awards for speed, there is also an award for the craziest costume.