On the Benefits of OCR – Part 1

Yesterday I completed one of my fitness milestones (resolutions? goals?) for the 2017–finishing the Spartan Super obstacle course race.

This Spartan Super was an 8.4 mile race with 24 obstacles across beautiful shrubby desert terrain.  We ran up and down chalky hills, navigated dry creek beds, and enjoyed vibrantly green(!) vistas of the desert landscape from ridge tops.  Of course, we also clambered (or vaulted) over 8ft walls, rolled under barbed wire, waded through mud, jumped through fire, shimmied up ropes, carried sandbags and buckets full of rocks, threw javelins, and burpee’d our way through any obstacles we couldn’t pass normally.

OCR (obstacle course racing) and Crossfit were my gateway drugs into fitness, so I’d like to list some of the benefits and life lessons learned from this race:

1.  Never give up

My goal for the race was just to finish, so success was just dependent on not giving up and making my way to the finish line (even if I had to crawl to get there).  An obstacle race is designed to throw hardship in your way to break you down, physically and mentally.  You’ve run hills for 6 miles and worn yourself out carrying sandbags and rocks and climbing walls and uneven monkey bars?  Great!  Now here is a nice pit of mud to wade through, and then some more hills, and then crawl under barbed wire, and then jump another wall…and oh by the way before you get to the finish line there’s a grueling gauntlet of upper body heavy obstacles (ring monkey bars, horizontal traverse wall with no footholds, javelin throw)…and then you’re 2 obstacles away from the finish line!  But hey you’re tired and muddy and you slip on an inclined rope climb 1 foot from the top and sprain your ankle.  What do you do?  You can tap out…or you can do your 30 burpee penalty on 1 foot, rest your injured ankle, and then do a sprint and jump through fire and hobble over the finish line.  Barring a significant lack of common sense/unacceptable consequences, “I give up” should not be in your vocabulary.

2.  Obstacle immunity (coined by Joe de Sena)

Compared to carrying a 70-100lb bucket of rocks up and down steep and slippery rocky hillsides, dealing with unexpected last minute product launch delays at work is easy.  Sitting in traffic doesn’t even phase you (at least you’re not covered in mud and pebbles).  Running laps in gym class is a breeze (at least the course is flat, you have access to water, and ALL you have to do is run).  Bad things (or really, inconvenient things) can happen, but if you’ve gone through some variant of hell, you can just recalibrate your expectations and gain some mental immunity to the normal hardships life throws your way.

3.  Test yourself (fitness, grit, persistence)

You think you’re such a badass.  You think you’re so smart, so strong, so determined, king of the hill.  But have you put your mettle to the test?  The only way you’ll know how fit, mentally and physically, you are is if you purposefully go out and attempt hard things, or even things that seem impossible.

4.  Temper the blade

Forging a strong but non-brittle blade requires hours of pounding, heating and cooling the steel.  Similarly, becoming a strong but non-brittle person requires undergoing a life filled with hardships and obstacles that teach you how to become mentally, physically, emotionally, and spiritually strong.  If normal life is too anesthetized to provide you with these learning opportunities, you must go out and seek them for yourself.  Not just to test yourself (as noted above), but to keep pushing your limits and learning how and where you can improve.

5.  Have fun!

It might not sound like it, but obstacle races are a lot of fun!  There’s nothing like spending a lovely day in the great outdoors, working up a sweat with interesting likeminded people, and seeing what kinds of exciting and unexpected obstacles the race designers have prepared for you (this is why I never check course maps on the day of the race).  It’s a great skill to be able to laugh your way through mud and burpees, and an even better skill if you can make other people laugh as well, which brings me to…

6.  Ask for help and help other people

I would’ve had to do a lot more burpees if I didn’t have teammates and fellow racers to give me an assist through different obstacles.  8 ft wall?  No problem, just ask someone for a boost.  And then pay it forward whenever you can.  People feel empowered and needed when they can help other people (esp. people in their tribe, and if you’re doing an obstacle race, you’re automatically part of this tribe), so don’t be afraid to ask for help!

My teammate ripped his hands on the way down the rope climb and we approached different racers and volunteers asking for bandaids so that he could keep racing.  People who didn’t have bandaids offered him their racing gloves to protect his injured skin.  I had various racers offer me boosts over tall obstacles and I paid it forward by cheering other people on.

7.  Life is a team sport–it’s better when we’re together

If you can, run the race with a team (or at least a friend or a family member).  You’ll have people to encourage you and lend you a helping hand, people to cheer you on, people to care for you if you get injured, people to make sure you don’t quit when the going gets hard, and people to have a friendly competition with.

If you can’t do some obstacles alone, then get a partner or teammate to do it with you–for example, men had to flip 400+lb tires with poor grips, so my teammate found a fellow guy racer to help him flip tires together (they just had to do twice as many, but it meant not having to do burpees alone!).  On another wall climb, an overweight woman was able to get over with the help of several teammates giving her boosts, cheers, and a helping hand over the top.

8.  Get inspired

I like to get to races early in the morning so that I can watch some of the elite heats race for time.  The top racers move through obstacles with a speed and grace that is frankly inspiring.  And not all of them are young guys, either!  If a middle aged woman can breeze through the monkey bar rings, what excuse do you have?  Similarly, if an overweight person, or a frail-looking old man can run this obstacle race, can carry that bucket full of rocks, can shimmy up that rope like greased lightning, what excuse do you have?  You are not a special snowflake, and you have no excuses, so go out, train hard, and kick ass!

9.  There’s more than one way to skin a cat

Watching the best of the best run the race will teach you what is possible if you work for it.  Watching people who aren’t strong, fast, fit, etc. go through obstacles will teach you alternative ways of solving a problem.

For example, take the wall.  There are at least 2 ways to climb over a wall.  The first requires you to have enough upper body strength to do a muscle up in order to move from hanging from the top of the wall to levering your upper body over the wall so that you can just swing your legs over and cross over.  If you’re not strong enough to do a muscle up, though, you have options.  One option is to use physics–get your fingers over the top of the wall and get a good hand hold, and then keeping your back and arms straight, walk your feet up the wall until you can hook one foot over the top of the wall as well.  Then use your leg (and your 2 arms) to pull your body up to the top of the wall, and then roll yourself over to the other side.  Brute force is not the only way through.

10.  There is always a way through if you’re willing to work for it

If you can’t pass any obstacle successfully, or don’t want to make the attempt, you can always continue on the race if you do 30 penalty burpees.  This is a measure of your endurance, patience, and grit.  30 burpees is brutal if you’re in mile 8 and already exhausted from everything that came before, but if you break them up into sets and push through, there’s nothing stopping you from finishing the race.

OK, there are too many reasons to fit in one post, so tomorrow’s post will be Part 2 on what you can learn from OCR.  As the Spartan racers would say, Arooo!


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