2016 Obstacle Course Racing World Championship Race Report
About the Race
The OCR (Obstacle Course Racing) World Championship (or OCRWC for short) is the overall championship for the various obstacle course races around the world, although it is an independent organization. Each racer there must qualify in an accredited race. The list of accredited races is on the company’s website and is quite extensive. Most of the races that people are familiar with are on there (Spartan, Warrior Dash, Mud Hero, etc). The qualifying criteria varies depending on the race organization as well. To qualify as a Pro/Elite it’s usually finishing in the top 10 of your gender. For age group, it’s top 5 or 10 in your age. Journeyman is the final category and that’s for people that didn’t meet the other criteria but raced 4 or more qualifying races during the season.
I was running in the 45-49 age group. I had qualified at the Ottawa Mud Hero Ultra mostly by accident. My oldest son had asked me if he could do a Spartan race, but we were going to be out of town that weekend. The Mud Hero was a good compromise and I decided to run the longer (‘ultra’) version of the adult race since I was going to be there anyway. I ended up finishing first in my heat and second overall for the weekend, and that’s how the rest of this started. (Technically I qualified as an elite, but I decided to drop down to the age group category, since I really didn’t have that much experience doing the actual obstacles).
The race this year was held at Blue Mountain in Collingwood Ontario. I used to ski there years ago but I was surprised at how much it had changed. Blue Mountain Village now reminds me of Tremblant. I think that the two resorts are owned by the same parent company, so that makes sense. The finish line was in the middle of the village, with the arch dominating the view. It definitely caught the eye. Also nearby the finish were a few of the more popular obstacles: the Platinum Rig (1 of 2 on the course), the Urban Sky and the Skyline. More on those later.
Race check-in was well organized and quick. (Although, to be fair, I showed up late afternoon on the Friday, after the 3k short course race had finished, so the bigger crowds were already gone). The race kit included a lanyard with a personalized ID card that allowed you access to the athlete-only area, as well as containing a schedule for all the weekend events. It also included the Finisher t-shirt, which I found either inspiring or presumptuous, depending on the time of day. This was the first time I have ever received any clothing marked ‘finisher’ before I had done the race. Needless to say, I didn’t try it on. The race kit also including the timing chip, and a wristband to fasten it. If you are wondering why it wouldn’t be attached to my shoes, it’s because it is easy to lose a shoe in these kind of races. One additional thing that should be mentioned about the race bibs, that I hope more races adopt: They had a QR code on the front which allowed scanning software to better recognize the bib number. Added to that, you could link that directly to your Facebook profile, so pictures were automatically updated to Facebook semi-live. (Semi-live because the photographers still had to upload them to the server, but it was still a nice feature).
Race day was an interesting time. The heat for men 45-49 wasn’t until 12:20, however I wanted to get to the venue early enough to get a good parking spot, buy my official OCRWC hoodie and to see the elites start. The venue opened at 6:30 and I was there at 6:40, because I stopped to grab breakfast (and a snack for later) at Tim Horton’s on the way there.
Hanging out with folks before the elite start was cool. OCR is still a niche sport, so everybody is quite friendly. I met a couple of folks who were on American Ninja Warrior, another couple who were on the Spartan Race TV show and the women’s Spartan world champion. Chatted for a while with a bunch of folks who had run the 3k race the day before about which were the tougher obstacles and strategies for them. The consensus was that the ‘Samurai Rig’ was the toughest one (30% of the field lost their band there according to some folks and because of that it became a major choke point). The other main note was that the ‘Wreck Bag Carry’ was going to be twice as long as the 3k and the second half was going to be much steeper. Other rumours floated around that the Samurai was going to be out and that the carry would end up being the same as the day before. (Both were true).
A couple of explanations here, to make things less confusing. In this race, the obstacles were ‘mandatory completion’. This means that you couldn’t bypass any obstacle by doing a penalty exercise. (For example, in Spartan Races, you do 30 burpees if you fail, then you keep going. In some cases, doing the penalty can be faster than the obstacle). You either tried until you succeeded, or you told the judge you gave up and they cut your wristband. The wristband is just a rubber bracelet with the OCRWC logo on it. If you lost the bracelet, you were out of contention for the podiums/money. By the end of the weekend, one of the major points of pride for people was showing off their uncut band.
As for the Samurai rig, this was a series of upright logs that you had to traverse, without touching the ground.
It requires a lot of body coordination, or so I’m told. They removed it from the race due to either safety concerns (the logs were cracking) or that it was too much of a bottleneck. (Those were the two major rumours).
After watching the elite waves start, I went down to the merchandise area to wait for it to open. I was second in line. (This is pertinent to the race, not just filler, otherwise I would just include a picture of my jacket and move on). I talked to the guy in front of me for a bit about the race. His name was Jackson and we ended up talking about the various races we had done before, along with some folks who wandered up because they were from Alberta and had recognized my Sinister 7 jacket. We got to talking about grip strategy/taping and I explained my basic idea. (Tape up my hands using climbing tape, with some padding between the tape and my palm). He countered with a better strategy. Apparently he was a personal trainer for an NFL wide receiver and he suggested to use the same gloves they did. And since he had a dozen or so pairs he just gave me a set (He gets them for free). And I will say this: they are fantastic for races. Extremely grippy. I will be using them from now on, as long as I can afford them. (It turns out, they aren’t cheap!)
After that little side adventure, I went to the finish area to wait for the elites to come in. In both the men’s and women’s races, the winners were about 5 minutes ahead of second place. It was fascinating watching them do the last couple of obstacles. I had hoped to get a better idea on how to complete them, since the one (Urban Sky) seemed technical. At that level though, they got through so quick and effortlessly, I was wondering if I was overthinking things. That was until the 5th place male came through. He was from Slovakia. And he failed Urban Sky several times. The first section twice, and the final section probably another half dozen times. During that time, the announcer was commenting about the difficulty of the recent obstacles and the toll it took on grip strength. Finally, he got through, (to a large ovation) and finished the race. For me though, I decided that if a top elite had to retry things, then I was probably in for a world of hurt when I got this far. Assuming I still had my band at this point.
Rather than stew about things, I made my way back to the athletes’ lounge and prepared to race. Two heats before mine were the men 20-24, followed by the women 35-39. Heats were 20 minutes apart which meant I was going to start in 45 minutes or so. In the athlete zone some were warming up and stretching, others were going over last minute strategies and rumours and others were crowding around the few finishers that were already around, trying to get direct information on the obstacles. I took a different tactic. I tried to take a nap on one of the many beanbag chairs they had strewn about. The way I figured it, there was no use working myself up over things. It’s not like any information I got at this point would make any difference.
After a too short interval, they called my wave, gave us the pre-race briefing, going over what obstacles were out, which ones were changed (the ‘Sternum Checker’ was replaced by the ‘Irish Table’) and some last minute safety tips. (Wet grass is slippery. Barbed wire can be sharp. Do not use your feet on the ‘Stairway to Heaven’). They also handed out our wristbands. I looked at mine and was really hoping I’d get to take it home with me. Not a likely outcome, but it was my ‘C’ goal. (‘A’ goal: not last place, ‘B’ goal: DFL, but finished). I looked around at the other athletes and noticed one thing: Everybody was in shape here. There was nobody around who was “just here for the experience”, except maybe me.
In the corral, I got limbered up and waited for the go, as the pre-race MC, “Coach Pain” hyped us up. He apparently quite well known among the US competitors, but this was the first I’d ever seen him. I’d like to say he was inspiring, but the truth is I tuned out, since I was trying to go out slow and steady instead of doing a sprint from the start. Even though it was only a 15k race, running up and down a ski hill multiple times meant that some race strategy was important. All I can remember about the speech was him occasionally referring to us as ‘Old Farts’ a few times before he got to his catchphrase: “Conduct! Your! Business! … GO!)
With that, the race was on. It started with a nice short 400m or so incline. Most of the pack pulled away from me at the start.
I figured a few might be regretting the pace before too long… And less than 200m in, I was right. I started to hear laboured breathing next to me and then it fell behind, followed by a bunch of other folks. Turning into the first downhill people started falling back very quickly. By the time we reached the first obstacle, I had pushed back to the middle of the pack and was gaining ground. And the first obstacle was a series of 3 or 4 foot tall hurdles. (Or as I called them: mild inconveniences). These fell into my race strategy perfectly as I hopped over them, barely breaking stride. (For the curious, I had a 3-phase race strategy: 1) run steady, 2) be tall, 3) don’t be short).
Following that, it was a straight run back up the hill to a quarter-pipe. Which is a short warped wall into a cargo net descent. The hill climb had taken its toll on a larger number of folks too and I was reeling people in regularly. The run up the quarter-pipe was very easy too, and I managed to skip the ‘helper rope’ to gain a bit of time. (Strategy #2!). From there it was more running to a 6 foot wall (inconvenience) followed by a barbed wire crawl. The crawl wasn’t too bad, maybe 200m uphill, but it’s one case where my height doesn’t help. When I crawl, it’s hard to stay closer to the ground to avoid the barbs. It’s possible to roll in some cases, but rolling uphill takes a lot of energy too. People gained on me during the crawl, but quickly fell back again as we started running again, to the inverted wall. This is a 6 or 8 foot wall that is tilted toward you. To get over it, you have to jump up, and do a pull up to get yourself far enough up to either roll over, or swing your leg over. Less of a problem for me than for some.
From there it’s more running, followed by the ‘low bridge’, an obstacle so formidable that I’ve blocked it from my mind completely. (In reality it was so unmemorable that I can’t think of what it was… possibly a crawl through a tube. If that’s what it was, all I can remember is that it was short and that those types of crawls are just wrong for people with my body type). This part of the course was mostly obstacle free. There were several short climbs and descents, but this was probably the part of the course geared best for me. I was regularly pulling people in and not being passed much, if at all. Finally, at around 4-5k in, the course started to get more obstacle dense. Another inverted wall followed almost immediately by a ramp wall were up next. The ramp wall had three lanes. One that was completely smooth and two others that had foot holds. The volunteer yelled that we had to try the hard lane first, then could opt for the easy one. I employed race strategy #3 here and made over on the first try, passing a few more people, on my way to the first of many upper body obstacles.
That obstacle was ‘Pipe Dreams’, an arm over arm traverse of a long horizontal pipe. Usually it’s positioned over water, but this one was over the ground, which was covered with enough hay to disguise the terrain you would land on if you dropped.
I got through this with a minimum of trouble and kept on at my steady pace. The gloves I had gotten from Jackson were working beautifully. From there it was back to lower body type obstacles. (‘Vert’ – a steep climb that racers used a rope to help traverse and ‘Traction’ which was a steep decline that zig-zagged back and forth down the hill. The downhill was much more difficult. My quads were burning by the time I reached the bottom). At this point, the obstacle density picked up.
First was the Q-steps, similar to the quad and/or quintuple steps from Ninja Warrior, only slightly easier. They were slanted a lot more than the ones from the show, so the easiest way to do it was as a quasi body-prop exercise (feet on one side, hands on the other). With my height (strategy #2!) it was an easy traverse. Next up was the Dragon’s Back, pictured above. This one gave a few people pause, but it was more a mental challenge than a physical one. It was just a matter of jumping to the next bar and landing your feet lightly on the ramp. (This slowed many people down). Then a quick downhill, back into the village and on to the Platinum Rig #1. Platinum Rigs (or Rigs for short) are a combination of adult sized monkey bars and tinkertoys. It’s usually an upper body type obstacle, but the configuration can be changed very quickly. In this case the configuration had changed between the 3k course the day before and today. One of my gym teammates had given me a couple of tips for this one and I breezed through it, which surprised me. I noticed the retry lanes were very busy and there were folks from the two heats in front of me there. There was also a pile of cut bands at the end.
From there it was up a short rock wall and onto the Wreck Bag carry. This is simply a carry of a 50lb bag of sand up and back down the ski hill. They also decided to set up a series of steps at the top for us to walk up and down, because ‘Why not?’. This was honestly a slow obstacle for me, but I was still reeling folks in, although at this point they were more from the heats ahead of me, instead of folks from mine. I could tell from some of the looks that I was getting that the 20 something men were a tad perturbed to be passed by us ‘old guys’.
After dumping the Wreck Bag, the course designers must have realized that we were back at the bottom of the hill, so they helpfully organized yet another climb up. I had slowed down to a power walk that time. It was getting hot out and it gave me time to down a gel. I had an idea that I was doing pretty well though. That was confirmed by a spectator yelling out at me: “Hey, Canada! You’re in 10th, keep it up”. This, of course, spurred me to speed up. By the time I hit the top, I had passed two more and I was feeling pretty good. The top of the hill led to the warped wall. This was also similar to the one from American Ninja Warrior, only it didn’t curve back out as much. It was the same height though. I had never successfully made it up one of these in the gym though. Before the race, I had asked for tips and all I was told was to ‘look up at the top as you go’. Turns out that was the right tip, since I made it on my first try easily. The only reason I came close to missing was that I was so shocked at how much height I had gotten that I almost forgot to grab on.
Then I hit the next series of obstacles. (An 8 foot wall, tunnel crawl, barbed wire crawl, net crawl and another 8 foot wall). I kept steady through these until the last wall, where a bad landing off the drop derailed things. The way I landed stretched my calf out oddly and suddenly it cramped. I ended up having to hobble off to the side to try and stretch it out. Another racer stopped by and offered me a salt tab, which also helped, but this is where I definitely slowed down. After this, I couldn’t go all out, without my calf threatening to cramp again.
Back on the course though, I made it to ‘Skull Valley’. This was one of the more dreaded obstacles, since last year it had taken over 30% of the field’s bands. I had seen the preview for this year’s version online and attempted to practice, but wasn’t sure how I would do. The nice thing at least was that there wasn’t a huge line up.
The picture doesn’t do it justice. This was the final third of it. The first third was similar, only the skulls were all on one side. (In this part, the skulls alternated sides). The middle third was a rope traverse.
This was the first obstacle I ended up failing. I got to the third handhold and the fingertip from my one glove got caught under my other hand. I tried to pull it free, but ended up tearing off the entire finger of the glove, throwing me way off balance and dropping me to the ground. Back to the start, where I was able to go again right away. I pulled off my gloves, figuring I’d try barehanded. That was apparently the secret, and I was off to the Platinum Rig #2. This was almost exactly the same as the first rig, only 1/8 the size.
This time it was about 3-4 feet off the ground, and although you could use your lower body to help you through, it was going to be very tough for someone my size. My ‘being tall’ strategies didn’t cover this. And judging from the line up at the retry lane, it would be tough, no matter what size you were. There was a short wait to try it the first time and I was working out my strategy. I figured if I failed, I might just give up my band and keep going since the wait to retry would be much longer than the penalty. However, I managed to get through on my first try somehow. It wasn’t quick and it wasn’t pretty. (Especially the part where my feet slipped off and I was hanging from at T-bar doing an ab crunch and kicking out one foot at a time trying to bring back a foot hold). The volunteers got a pretty big laugh out of it.
From there, it was ‘Stairway to Heaven’, two sets of stairs, back to back, in a pyramid. You had to climb up using only your hands, transition to the other set and climb back down the same way. It looked hard and was something I had never tried before. But it was easier than I thought, since being tall meant I could skip the first rung on the way up. I was pleased with myself until I looked at my hands. I had torn one of them open and had a huge blood blister on the other. I guess I should have put my gloves back on. I caught a break though, since the glove that was intact the same hand as the one with the cut. For the rest of the race, I wore the one glove and carried the other. My thinking was that having half a glove would be worse than a bare hand. Next up was the ‘Weaver’. A painful obstacle that was a series of 4x4s arranged in a staircase formation going up and down, with about 3 feet in between each. Racers weaved their way through, going over the first one, then under the next then over, etc. It took a lot of body coordination to do, and the movements were awkward. Several times I thought various parts of my body were about to cramp. I think I received more bruises on this obstacle than on all the others combined.
This was about 10 or 11k into the race, with the last downhill series and set of obstacles to go. The downhill was through a set of mountain bike trails which weren’t too technical. I was running with a couple of other folks at that point, one guy from my heat and a woman from the heat before. As I was going down, I decided that my calf was feeling better, so I’d pick up the pace a bit. About a minute later, I learned that it wasn’t feeling that much better when I tried to hop over a tree root and promptly did a front flip and skidded a good 15 feet on my shoulder. The others stopped to see if I was OK, which was nice. They also thanked me for pointing out that root to them. That made me laugh.
The last part of the race was really fun, since they back loaded the course with some of the more interesting and spectator friendly obstacles. The first was the floating walls. These walls were free floating and you were only able to use the hand and foot holds on the board, not the sides or top. It wasn’t all that difficult, if you went carefully. (And also if your grip strength held out).
From there you went right to the Skyline, which was a zipline, with ‘stops’ at various points along the ride. It was a matter of kipping your body to jump over them and then riding to the next stop. For most, if they could handle the jolt, they were fine. For me, the extra degree of difficulty was keeping my feet from extending and touching the ground (Strategy #3 working against me!).
Finally, it was the Urban Sky, which was where the elite from Slovakia had failed multiple times earlier in the day. This one worried me, since it was the fourth or fifth straight upper body obstacle. But it turns out my strategy of ‘being tall’ paid off again. The rings at the start weren’t much of a problem because I could reach the next one very quickly and keep my momentum going. Then, the second set of rings was even easier. I just stretched out, and reached to the middle ring, then swung over to the far side, without doing all that pesky hand over hand stuff. The volunteer there made sure to tell me that it was practically cheating for me to do it that way. (It’s always good to have a laugh that late in a race!)
I noticed I had passed someone on that rig as I ran toward the last slip ramp before the finish. I didn’t think too much of it until I was climbing down the final bit though. The guy popped his head over the wall behind me and called out “I’m coming to get you!” and I saw him start to do a roll, meaning he was going to drop from the top and race it out to the finish. I (obviously) couldn’t let that happen, so I hopped down and put everything I had into the last 100m or so sprint, which was probably the best way to end a race like that.
After all that: I ended up 15th overall in my age group, which I am pretty happy with. I could have done slightly better without a couple of mishaps along the way, but those happen. If I race it next year (and I definitely hope to!), I will be better trained for the obstacles and will be ready for them. I really only had 3 months of obstacle specific training leading up to this so that may make a difference. Coming into the race, I only wanted the experience of racing at a ‘world championship’ and to, perhaps, not to make too much of a fool of myself. So, mission accomplished. As for next year, I think my goal might be to improve on this year’s result. But overall, it was a fantastic race and experience. I’d highly recommend it to anyone! (Oh, and by the way… I still have my band. Skull Valley was the only obstacle that I failed at all).
The other great thing about the weekend is that there are several races going on. There was a 3k short course championship on the Friday, and a relay and a charity event on the Sunday. I also ran the relay (doing the ‘running’ leg… the other two legs were ‘strength’ and ‘technical’) and did the charity event as well. The charity event was the entire relay course, only done as an individual. Anyone was allowed to run the charity version and it was probably the most fun. It was raining and the course was extremely muddy and slick. By the time you were done, you were soaked and filthy. And there was a good chance you had slid down the ski hill on more than one occasion. (In some cases people slid down the hill while attempting to carry a 50lb Wreck Bag… Impressive and scary to watch).