I Ran the OCRWC: I Got a Medal. And an Asterisk.

Of all the possible endings I had envisioned for my race, riding shotgun in a volunteer’s pickup truck and bypassing obstacles en route to the finish line wasn’t one of them. And of all the adjectives I could use to describe my experience at the 2017 OCR World Championships, I can’t believe the first one that comes to mind is “anticlimactic.”

I Had A Goal

This was my first time at OCRWC. I’m still fairly new to the sport, and I’m certainly on the “enthusiast” end of the spectrum. My 2016 OCR goal had been to complete the Spartan Trifecta, something that seemed crazy when I first seriously considered it. But then, last October, balled up on a South Carolina hotel bed, clutching my new three-piece medal, after eight hours-plus of the hardest thing I’d ever done, I decided out of nowhere to go for Worlds in 2017.

Winning a qualifier or nabbing a podium for an automatic entry wasn’t going to happen. The Journeyman class would be my way in. I picked my qualifying races for the front half of the year. I included one race more than I would need, just in case. I pre-registered for the 15k in December, a full ten months early. I booked accommodations at Blue Mountain in February. I lined up travel to Toronto in April. (Yeah, I like having a big red X to shoot for.) This was going to happen. After I completed my fourth and final qualifier, I badgered the OCRWC office staff via email to make sure I was really in. It all seemed like there must be some catch. I mean, surely they don’t let guys like me run in the WORLD CHAMPIONSHIPS, RIGHT???

And truth be told, I was nervous right up until the moment they handed me a bib number in the Athletes’ Center on Thursday night. Right there in the shadow of the giant slip wall, it felt real. I was in. I would be included among the champions for one magical moment in time.

2017-OCRWC-race-bib

The Atmosphere Was Electric

OCRWC and Blue Mountain Resort put on a spectacular weekend. The atmosphere was electric. The obstacles, all larger than life and scattered around the Village. Coach Pain’s amplified pep talks floating through the nippy air. Huge crowds of people cheering for racers as they crossed the finish line. I felt like a rockstar walking around the grounds with my “Competitor” lanyard. I saw the giants of the sport up close and personal. Ryan Atkins and Lindsay Webster, right there for winners’ photos. Yuri Force floating up a warped wall like it wasn’t even there. I did the ‘sup-bro head-nod thing with Hunter McIntyre, who’s never seen me before in his life. I chatted up Kevin Gillotti in the pita restaurant and got obstacle tips. It was surreal.

Then it was my turn. The Journeymen (and Journeywomen) took off at 2:45 on Saturday afternoon. This had been a detail of no small concern to me from the moment the schedule had been released. That’s late in the day, certainly much later than the 9 am waves I prefer to sign myself up for. It seemed alarmingly late, even, given the 15km distance and the high number of obstacles.

2017-OCRWC-course-map

Even more nerve-wracking was the verbiage I remembered from the rulebook that specified a strict five-hour cutoff. Based on previous races, I knew five hours might not be enough time for a guy like me to make it 9.3 miles and navigate 43 obstacles. When I had looked up what time the sun goes down in Toronto in mid-October, I freaked out even harder. The race officials might give me until 7:45 pm, but Mother Nature would be shutting off the daylight at about 6:30.

In Life, We Are All Journeymen

But despite those sobering numbers, I figured that the OCRWC organizers must know what they’re doing. I couldn’t worry about the details now; I had the race of my life to run. I’ll freely admit I bawled my eyes out as Coach Pain reminded me and my fellow amateurs, the ones who wouldn’t be holding a big cardboard check at the end, the in-it-for-the-love-of-the-sport racers, the men and women who had struggled the most and worked the hardest to even be here, that “In life, we are all Journeymen.” With that, we attacked Blue Mountain.

The course was brutal. That familiar OCR gallows humor came out early on the first of several trips straight up the mountain. Yet spirits were high, encouragement was plentiful, and the weather was cooperating. The rain that had been forecast to have already started… hadn’t. We all forged onward. Up and down the mountain, over walls, under barbed wire, and through the mud. This is what we came for.

2017-OCRWC-warp-wall

As the race wore on, though, things changed. The rain started – first as a drizzle, then in earnest. Now, obstacles became more slippery. Footing became more challenging. The trips up the mountain got significantly slower and harder. The sky got progressively darker as afternoon turned to evening.

Urban Sky was the first obstacle where volunteers started shouting out time announcements. “You’re behind the 8-ball! You have got to pick up the pace! You are not going to make five hours!” Very soon after, we heard a whole new race strategy: “Forget the retry lane! Start skipping obstacles! Go around if you can! Just get to the finish line in five hours or you won’t get a medal!”

I May Have Nothing To Show For It

And for the first time, it occurred to me that I might not make it, that this whole trip – no, this whole year of racing and training – might leave me with nothing to show for it but a big fat DNF.

Just after the Low Rig, there was a very narrow passageway in the woods that we had to traverse. I can only describe it as a waterfall without the water. It was a sheer rock ravine no more than four feet wide. Enough for one person at a time. With one rope for assistance. And it was pitch black. The only sound was the occasional noise of a rock skittering away and sliding downhill under someone’s misplaced foot. This sound was always accompanied by one person’s sudden – and often NSFW – exclamation… and the concerned words of coaching from the dozen or so of us trying to navigate this patch of very technical mountain terrain. My overriding thought? “This had better be the last bit of this kind of trailwork or someone is going to break something. Or worse.”

A few minutes later, I was out of the ravine and on the Log Hop. I strained to see the vertical stumps, even though they were right in front of me. It was so foggy. It was so wet. It was so cold. It was so dark. And then, a voice from the volunteer tent in front of us. “Get off the obstacle! We’re shutting it down!”

Shutting it down?!? I knew it wasn’t 7:45 yet. What did they mean? Shutting what down? Just this obstacle?

No. Organizers had just halted the race, we were informed. It was too dark and too wet. The course had become unsafe. Volunteers held us at the tent and told us no one could proceed. Trucks were on the way to take us back. Several racers burst into tears that their day was over. Some were openly relieved at the same realization. One started swearing at the volunteers, demanding to be allowed to continue.

Would We Still Get Medals

But it was over. We stood shivering, swapping stories, laughing, all nervously wondering to ourselves to some degree what would happen next. My brother and another racer realized that they still had their wristbands, 33 obstacles in. They wouldn’t get the chance to go for a perfect 43. Would we still even get medals?

After that truck ride, we were allowed to climb the final slip wall and cross the finish line. Medals were draped over our necks, to the smattering of polite golf claps from the handful of spectators who had stayed, as crews and vendors hurriedly packed up their tents in the darkness. I don’t even think the emcees were still welcoming runners in over the microphone anymore. I was sore and exhausted, to be sure, but I knew I hadn’t run the full race. There were ten obstacles out there I never even got to see. It all felt empty. Hollow. Anticlimactic.

I don’t begrudge the OCRWC organizers for calling the race when they did. Conditions on top of the mountain were no longer safe for racing. That was obvious, even to the angry guy screaming that he’d promise not to hold anyone liable if he hurt himself by continuing on. There’s nothing anyone can do about the weather; that’s an inherent roll of the dice with any outdoor event.

It Feels Like A Hollow Victory

I guess my frustration/anger/bewilderment comes when I think about that schedule. That 2:45 pm start time. For the Journeymen wave, of all people, the runners that need the most time of anyone competing the entire weekend. Why wait until 2:45 to send the amateurs off on a 15k mountain run with 43 obstacles when the sun goes down at 6:45? A five-hour time limit for “the enthusiasts” seems awfully hardcore, but it adds to the challenge, fine. It’s Worlds; it should be tough. And if you have to call it at four hours because of weather, well, them’s the breaks.

But I was never going to get that five full hours. Even on a bone-dry course, I doubt I could have done that race in four. The full five would have still forced me to make decisions about skipping obstacles or bailing out on retries, both of which would seem to contradict the “for-the-love-of-the-sport” ethos that had inspired us, Journeymen, to be there in the first place. Coach Pain had pointed out at the start that our group was not the fastest, nor the strongest. True enough. But we were given the hardest obstacle of all, the one that couldn’t be overcome, the one I worried about when I saw the race-day schedule, the one that anyone with a free app on their phone could have foreseen simply by looking up sunset times.

There’s Too Much At Stake

How could OCRWC organizers not have seen that coming??? How do you justify starting the amateurs so late in the day? I understand that we can’t go first. That course has to be clean for the elite runners. There’s too much at stake for the sponsored racers to make them navigate a course full of obstacles AND a bunch of couch warriors getting in the way. I get it. Truly.

So give the Journeymen their own day. The 3k seemed to go off for all waves without a hitch on Friday, or at least I haven’t heard of any similar issues with darkness. Saturday is the right day for the elites, the semi-pros, the podium runners, the athletes who have a legitimate shot at prize money. And Sunday rightfully needs to be reserved for the team relay and charity runs. Totally agree. So extend the event one more day and let the Journeymen have the torn-up course all to themselves starting at 8 am Monday for as long as it takes them. I wouldn’t have minded. And I’m not the only one. But to allow the Journeymen to come from 67 countries to compete at the World Championships… only to yank them 75% of the way through the course because it’s too dark?!? That’s just terrible planning.

2017-OCRWC-finisher-medal

I See An Asterisk

I’ll always have the story of this weekend to tell. And I hope that one day when I tell it, it won’t include the words “empty” or “hollow” or “anticlimactic.” But right now, it sure as hell does. I competed in the OCR World Championships. For one magical weekend, I was included with the best on Earth. I played on some insane obstacles I’d never even seen before. I climbed a mountain… multiple times. I crossed the finish line. I got the T-shirt. I ran three-quarters of the hardest race of my life. Yes, I now have a World Championship medal. But honestly, when I look at it, I don’t see a neon green maple leaf in the middle of it. I see an asterisk.

Maybe someday I won’t.

Reaching the End of Your Rope is the Whole Damn Point

I was stuck. Hopelessly, impossibly stuck. Clinging to a wet rope with everything I had – which, at that point, admittedly wasn’t  much- unwilling to let go, unable to pull myself any higher. I just dangled there, suspended above a pit of muddy water, trying to somehow balance myself on an uncomfortable knot in a last-gasp attempt to buy myself a little more time. But as I looked around in desperation- at the runners wading in to grab a rope, at the racers coming down off theirs, at the spectators shouting encouragement to those still climbing, at the dejected and exhausted group grinding out their burpees, and more than once up at the bell that now seemed miles above me – reality set in.

Rope Climb End of My Rope

Completing my first Spartan Sprint in March of 2015 was, without question, the hardest and most physically demanding thing I had ever tried up to that point. But in the hours and days that followed, as I nursed my scrapes and rested my muscles and posted my photos and replayed my race in my head, it was the rope climb that haunted me.

It wasn’t that I failed the obstacle. I failed three others, too. But those I could dismiss: I mean, how many times in my life have I ever thrown a spear? Or even seen it done? Who would expect to master that the first time? No, I couldn’t get the rope climb out of my head because it seemed like I should have been able to do it. It wasn’t wet hands and bad grip (like what got me on the monkey bars) or simple physics and bad luck (like what made my foot hit the water on the rope swing), it was bad strategy. I had had the strength to climb that rope; I didn’t know the technique. There had to be a trick. I saw dozens of people do it while I burpeed myself dizzy, every clang of that bell a deafening reminder that someone else knew the trick… and I didn’t.

Thank God for YouTube. With a few mouse clicks, I had access to clip after clip of people (some of whom looked no fitter than me) flying up their ropes like they were being hoisted from a crane. Before long, my vocabulary included spiffy new phrases like “rope management” and I could spot a “J-hook” from an “S-wrap” with just a casual glance. But understanding how to climb a rope in theory and actually climbing a rope in the real world are very two different things. It was clearly a skill that would require practice to make perfect. And watching every single video on the Internet wasn’t going to get me up my next rope if the only time I ever touched one was on raceday.

Spartan Super Atlanta 2015 Rope Climb

Purchasing a 25-foot climbing rope was simple. Hanging it safely in my backyard took some effort. I found two tall trees roughly ten feet apart, easily accessible and with no low branches. From the lumber yard, I bought a 2-by-6 that I would use as a crosspiece to span distance between the tree trunks. The trees are about 10 feet apart; I bought a board that’s 16 feet long. That extra length is crucial.

I fastened one end of the board to the trunk of one tree. I used big, beefy lag screws that penetrated the trunk by several inches; wimpy nails or easy-to-drive deck screws wouldn’t cut it for a job like this. Since I’d be hanging over 20 feet in the air off this contraption, skimping on the hardware seemed downright suicidal. I drilled a pair of holes- the same diameter as the lag screws- all the way through the 2×6, and then drilled smaller pilot holes into the tree trunk. Then with a hex-head socket wrench, I cranked those suckers in until they had drawn that board tight to the bark.

Rope-Climb-Rig-Lag-Screws

The second tree is where things have to get more involved. Merely repeating the process at the other end of the board may seem instinctive, but it neglects a basic principle: TREES MOVE. It doesn’t take much more than a gentle breeze to get even massive trees swaying back and forth.  Anything you hang between two trees needs to allow for that movement, or you risk putting undue force and pressure on whatever’s connecting them. Near-constant twisting and shifting and pushing and pulling will weaken even tight connections over time, and possibly even snap a piece of lumber in two eventually. So here’s what I came up with:

Rope-Climb-Rig-Floating-End

If you look closely, you’ll notice that the horizontal 2×6 crosspiece isn’t actually attached to anything at all. It’s simply resting in something that is. I used two chunks of 2×8 lumber and a scrap piece of plywood to create a bracket of sorts. One piece of 2×8 is screwed tightly to the tree, with the plywood in between. This is what the crosspiece rests on top of, with the added thickness of the plywood allowing just a little bit of play so the crosspiece isn’t wedged tightly against the trunk. Then the other 2×8 is fastened with screws anchored all the way into the tree trunk, with the top end sticking up quite a bit higher than the 2×6 crosspiece. Now the trees can sway in any direction whatsoever- left, right, forward, backward, completely independent of each other- with the 2×6 crosspiece basically riding out the motion in a channel. The extra feet of 2×6 sticking out beyond the second tree looks a bit goofy perhaps, but I know that even if a severe storm pulls those trees in perfectly opposite directions, that crosspiece has plenty of overhang and won’t slip out. (And if the trees are swaying enough for all of that overhang to slide out of its bracket, I have much bigger things to worry about than my backyard rope climbing rig.)

Rope-Climb-Rig-Overhang

Rope-Climb-Rig-Hanging-Hardware

A heavy-duty eye screw and quick-connect link centered on the crosspiece gave me a way to attach my new rope, and I was ready to put my climbing skills to a real-world test. I’ll freely admit, it took several tries. I played with the different foot hook techniques, I taught myself to use my legs to manage the slack, and I suffered through some nasty burns on my inner thighs and outer calves before I learned that protective clothing would be a must for me. I added a single rope climb to the end of my daily workouts and training runs. And soon- sooner than maybe I expected, even- I was hand-tapping the 2×6 crosspiece (I resisted the urge to install my own bell. You’re welcome, neighbors.) and enjoying a bird’s-eye view of my backyard knowing that I would never fail an OCR rope climb again.

Backyard-Rope-Climb-Rig

Six weeks later, running through the woods at my first BattleFrog, I could hear the distinct clanging of a cowbell up around the next hill, and I knew what was coming. Adrenaline kicked in and I actually sprinted to the sound, eager to exorcise the demons of rope-climb burpees past. The rope that day was thinner than on my backyard rig, and not nearly as tall. For just a moment at the top, I locked my legs and stood tall in the rope so I could punch that bell repeatedly like a speedbag. And laughing out loud, I swear I could feel the eyes of at least a few other racers on me, wondering what in the hell the trick was to mastering this obstacle.

*A few notes about rigging up your own backyard rope climb:
-Ropes come in varying lengths and thicknesses. A diameter of 1-1/2 to 2 inches will approximate what you’ll find on most OCR courses. Choose what works for you and your situation, but buy a “climbing rope” or a “battle rope.” Don’t just ask the guy at the hardware store to cut you off something that looks good from a big spool in Aisle 7; those ropes likely aren’t meant to hold human weight. And steer clear of light-duty “climbing ropes” that are designed for children’s playsets.

-Not all ropes come with hanging hardware on one end. Consider how you plan to securely attach your rope before you pull the trigger on a purchase.

-All lumber should be pressure-treated, and all fasteners and hardware should be heavy-duty and outdoor-rated if your rope climbing rig will live outside, exposed to the elements.

-Consider your floor, especially the higher you make your rope climb. Cushion a large area underneath the rope with lots of landscape mulch, bales of hay, foam padding, protective mats, an old mattress… ANYTHING.

-Despite every precaution, there’s still an inherent danger, same as when you actually participate in an OCR. Don’t take anything for granted- when you build a rope climb, or when you do a rope climb. Know the risks and use good judgment.