The Good, the Bad and the Beautiful – Europe’s Toughest Mudder 2017

Europe-Toughest-Mudder-start

Tough Mudder has done it again.  Europe’s Toughest Mudder was a phenomenal event and brought everything we’d come to expect – camaraderie, superb organization, teamwork, an amazing course, massive obstacles, endurance and an insane amount of mud. As with every TM, I doubt anyone went away disappointed (except maybe with themselves if they felt they didn’t push hard enough or came ill prepared).

THE GOOD
The course layout was superb, making really good use of the terrain to make it challenging whilst at the same time allowing a relatively fast pace and for people to push themselves.  Despite being briefed that obstacles would be opened and closed at various times to allow only 15 or 16 to be open at any one time, the only time I found any obstacles closed over my 5 laps was during the sprint lap.  The fact that we therefore had 19 obstacles open pretty much the whole time (unlike 11 or 12 at the first two America’s Toughest Mudder events), combined with pouring rain, freezing water and Tough Mudder’s love for placing any obstacle where you needed grip after another where you got covered in mud, provided for an extremely tough course and 8 hours of suffering.  As someone who has done Wold’s Toughest Mudder, you could almost call this an endurance sprint. It was an impressively well-rounded event and a good introduction for everyone who is considering doing World’s Toughest Mudder – a glimpse into what it’s like during WTM night ops but without the hassle of the gear change and the fatigue from already having been on course for 8 to 12 hours.

Europe-Toughest-Mudder-Kong

THE BAD
There wasn’t really any – apart from way too many people who showed up unprepared or not realizing how cold they would get and, as result, having to quit or getting disqualified due to hypothermia.  I would have preferred a little bit less mud right before Funky Monkey and Kong as they were covered in mud and us mere mortals had minimal chance to make it across successfully.

However, it’s all training and reflects the frustration at WTM when your hands get tired, cold, swollen and with every hour passing it gets harder and harder to get a good grip on your favorite obstacle. The biggest thing, if I had to moan, would be ‘why the hell do we only get one?’ My wallet says a massive thank you, but it does seem a bit unfair having only 1 chance with the other 5 over the pond being just too bloody far. We definitely need a few more next year, especially with a number of people it has made consider to join the madness of WTM.

THE BEAUTIFUL
Throughout the race, the Tough Mudder core values where upheld – teamwork and camaraderie. That is the major difference between TM and most other race’s, the leaders of the race will turn around and help people.

Having Jonathan Albon lapping you and giving a cheer while passing you or boost you over the bloody walls at 0400 makes a world of difference. The best and most memorable example though was when I arrived at Blockness Monster just as the only other person in sight was getting out on the other side and the guy came all the way back to help me (if you’re reading this, thanks so much!!! You are a legend!).

It was an amazing experience meeting all the incredible people from around the world who came to do ETM; and sharing the course with all the legends like Da Goat, Chris James, Sharkbait and of course Jonathan Albon, was an honour.

Europe-Toughest-Mudder Da-Goat-Albon

It didn’t matter if you’ve done WTM before or not.  ETM was a good test for kit, nutrition and to see where your training’s at for everyone considering WTM, newbie or veteran. Hopefully, we’ll see a few more events like it next year.  See you in the mud!

Photo Credit: the author

The Battlegrounds

The first of two events held at the permanent OCR location called The Battlegrounds near Cedar Lake Missouri was held on May 20th in what could best be called monsoon rains. The OCRWC qualifying course was originally designed to be a 5-mile loop, but due to the heavy rain, race director Robert Holm was forced to scramble and reroute the course before the 8 am start. This made the course longer, as racers were now required to complete two 3.15 mile loops. So, while racers missed out on some of the fantastic obstacles on the back end of the course, they got to hit some of the signature obstacles that the Battlegrounds featured such as The Gauntlet and The Drop Zone twice. This also caused some course crowding due to racers coming across other racers from the next wave on their second lap. With the extremely sloppy terrain and loads of racers lined up at each obstacle, times were slowed. But with over 2,500 athletes racing, there really was nothing much more race management could do, and I applaud their efforts.

The race started a half an hour late due to the quick course redesign with the elite wave of men and women leaving from the festival area with Coach Pain leading the cheers on the microphone. The cut grass trail racers were led down quickly became a muddy mess as athletes raced away from the festival area and onto their first series of mud mounds. All the recent added rain water made every dip into the water a chilling experience! Now cold, wet, and muddy athletes were back onto the trail racing towards the hanging grape vines of the winery across the street. A series of low hurdles was the next set of obstacles for racers to overcome before being led through another freezing pond of water and muck. Back out of the pit the trail became even worse with all the water dripping off athletes making an already sloppy track miserable. Now it was onto a moat crawl with a twist. For open racers, it was just a basic moat crawl, but for elite racers, fencing was added over the top where only a few precious inches separated the water and the fencing testing your lung power and mental toughness. A short jog led us next to the first of two tall cargo net climbs on the course. Another dip into a small pond with a hurdle in the middle and crawl through a mud pit that resembled soup led racers back round to the festival area where the second cargo net climb was located.  A lake crossing on a series of floating pontoon rafts tested one’s balance to the maximum and lifeguards were stationed on both sides of the traverse for safety.

After a brief jaunt back towards the festival area, a low crawl through the drainage tubes under a low bridge awaited racers before being required to climb up a wooden ladder to the top of a platform where a huge water slide was waiting. Once you flew down the slide into the freezing water an athlete had to swim a brief distance and climb out of the water pit area over stacked tractor tires. The trail now circled away from the festival area in a sloppy loop where just keeping your balance in the much was difficult. The nasty trail loop rounded back to the festival area where an inverted wall and a 6-foot-high Irish Table was waiting before climbing up a mud mound to The Drop Zone. Don’t like the high dive at your local pool? Well this very much resembled that feeling because this obstacle required one to jump from a height over 10 feet into a pool and swim out, luckily there were lifeguards stationed all around the pool! At least you got to wash the mud off you right? Hope you were not tired from your swim cause the next task was a wreckbag trail run where the footing was basically nonexistent. The rains had made all trails very difficult to navigate.

After finally making it out of the woods with your wreck bag, a massive mud mound was waiting for you to climb over….with your wreckbag. Talk about a total suckfest! One of the Battlegrounds signature obstacles was next up. The Gauntlet is an obstacle of chance and luck and caused many people, including myself, to get very wet. Suspended over a water pit are a series of lane, that all include a different configuration, on which you must traverse from one side to the other. There may be a fence to cross, or ropes, or a balance beam, or a rock wall. Pick the wrong lane and fall requires one to swim out and start over. Tired after The Gauntlet? Well up next was a pole traverse suspended in the air where an athlete could only use your hands to cross, no leg help here. There was even Air Force personnel there making damn sure you made it all the way to the end before continuing. A lateral rope traverse led athletes towards the finish but not before a slick warped wall climb that would knock the wind out of even the strongest of racers. One last climb over a semi-trailer and one last dip into a small pond were now all that stood between a racer and the finish!

After crossing the finish line, plenty of snacks and drinks were provided and more substantial meals could be purchased in the festival area along with Battlegrounds swag. Plenty of showers were provided to wash all that muck off and they even had two areas where you could get blasted with a fire hose to get that stubborn mud off, plus a few layers of skin. Parking and photos were free and the festival and parking area were easy to navigate. The ability of race management to adjust on the fly really made this a fun event. The conditions sucked, so if you thought ocr was just a “mud run” you wouldn’t have been far off here and although the back half of the course was rerouted there were still plenty of tough obstacles to overcome and I felt thoroughly tested. This event boasted over 2,500 racers and I’ll certainly be back for their next event September 23rd.

Photo Credit: Battlegrounds

Europe’s Toughest Mudder 2017

There’s something so appealing to UK residents of travelling to Vegas for the infamous World’s Toughest Mudder– if anything, it’s a holiday rolled into an extended race weekend (with the small matter of navigating a 24-hour lapped obstacle course!). So why would anyone in their right mind want to travel to the UK in Spring to essentially run the hardest part of this race in typical UK conditions – rain, wind, and cold? Because every participant was there to push themselves to their physical and emotional limit

As the third race in the new ‘Toughest Mudder’ series, Europe’s Toughest Mudder promised to be the toughest course competitors had faced yet. Competitors are required to complete as many laps of a 5-mile course between the hours of 12 midnight to 8am: now, I don’t know about most people, but I am usually tucked up cozy in my bed by this point in the night! Even with the unconventional start time, Tough Mudder managed to attract 775 willing participants – the highest attendance at a Toughest Mudder yet – to take on the grueling course through the night.

On arrival at Belvoir Castle, there was free parking and a short walk to registration – two things that often don’t come hand in hand with UK races! Registration was pain-free and we were on our way to setup our kits for the night; the pit was situated in the marquee that had been used for the regular Tough Mudder event earlier that day; this was a nice bonus, as it meant our pit crew would be dry and warm waiting on our return (nobody wants a grumpy wet crew!). Once we were strobed up with our bibs inappropriately named and wetsuits at the ready, the race director called all competitors to the start line; this is arguably the best part of any Tough Mudder event – music blaring, everyone bouncing around with adrenaline, and the MC putting the fire in you to go out and get your goal!Start-line-EuropesToughestMudder

At 12 midnight the race began with the standard obstacle-free sprint lap to break up the crowds of runners and give you a feel for the course and its terrain. The event had been setup slightly differently compared to previous Toughest events as there was only one 5-mile loop, but the obstacles would be opening at different times… there was a certain excitement of reaching an obstacle on each lap to find out whether you would have to take it on or not! By 4:00 am, all of the obstacles were open for business, and it quickly became a blessing to have any stretch of running in between to regroup before the next obstacle came along.

Craig-Kong-EuropesToughestMudder

Now, as I mentioned before, the weather in the UK in Spring is not exactly tropical – combine the low temperatures, wind, and rain with the mandatory Arctic Enema, Augustus Gloop, and Blockness Monster and this was a recipe for hypothermia if you were not prepared. Inevitably, the conditions claimed a lot of runners, and by half way through the race, a lot of the lesser prepared competitors had called it a night. I had luckily decided to run in a full wetsuit from the word go; so I managed to keep relatively warm on the first few laps. Arctic Enema did, however, start to take its toll, and it was a swift pit after lap 3 (mile 15) to recruit my neoprene hood as extra backup – this guy saved my race!

Arctic-Enema-EuropesToughestMudder

For the first time during a race, I felt like I did not want to eat ANYTHING and for me, that’s unheard of – picture a hamster stuffing its cheeks with food then scuttling off – this is usually me at endurance races. Luckily, I had my pit crew there to force feed me on each lap, preventing me from bottoming out half way through the race even when I thought I could manage without. I cannot stress enough to anyone who is planning on taking on a Toughest Mudder event the importance of having someone to support you. Sometimes your head says ‘you’ve got this!’ but really, you definitely are high on adrenaline and should be eating or drinking or changing gear at this point.

Mud-mile-EuropesToughestMudder

During the first couple of laps, the obstacles were relatively easy but as the night wore on and the rain got heavier the obstacles also got more challenging- at points I felt as though I might as well have poured lube on my hands and I’d have the same penalty runs as I got during the middle laps! The mud in the UK is great for a regular Tough Mudder event where it’s all fun and games and you are having a laugh with friends, but smear that stuff onto Hang Time (modified King of the Swingers) at 4:00 am and I’m lucky I didn’t need heart surgery from falling off those bars – obstacles that didn’t cause me any trouble in Vegas suddenly were my nemesis. I didn’t let this get me down too much as a few of the world-class racers appeared to be having the same issues as us mere mortals and were on their way round penalty runs just as the majority of us were.  I even saw Jon Albon running the penalty lap for Hang Time…now tell me that isn’t a hard obstacle.

KOTS-EuropesToughestMudder

I’d forgotten what a surreal feeling it was to witness the sunrise whilst on course, it’s something that can instantly change your game even if you’ve hit rock bottom- everything seems just that little bit more achievable once daylight starts to surface and you get your second wind. By the morning it was noticeable that there were only a fraction of the runners who had started still out on the course. The tough terrain, cold weather and constant water submersions had claimed more people than I think even TMHQ expected! It was a lonely and what seemed like a never-ending final lap and one which I won’t forget in a hurry, I had completely reached my physical limit around 1 mile into lap 6 and quickly realised I needed sugar by the bucket load if I was to try and make it to the end. One runner was passing me as I wandered about in a daze and gave me a packet of caffeine shot blocks- the kindness of others during obstacle races and in particular, Tough Mudder races, never fails to amaze me. I plodded on with friends I had caught up with up ahead of me and attempted the final obstacle Kong, while others jumped straight down to the crashmat- I was partly over-confident that I had managed this on the lap before and it was a huge gamble to take knowing I had extremely limited time left on the clock to cross the finish line. In the end, the gamble cost me 6 official laps as I fell from the final ring on Kong, and was timed out 10 meters from the finish line… I have never been so devastated at the end of a race! All of the emotion and sheer exhaustion came to the surface at this point and my friend rescued me from the teary heap I was in and dragged me across that finish line- it was camaraderie at its finest (and I also felt like a Brownlee brother!).

Europes-Toughest-Mudder-Finish

The buzz of the race and the incredible achievements by all on the day in the first race of its kind in the UK will definitely not be forgotten in a hurry! It was a surreal experience from start to finish and one which I think any serious competitor in obstacle racing or endurance running should take on. I for one will certainly be back on that line in 2018 eagerly awaiting what TMHQ has planned for us.

Photo Credit: Tough Mudder

Spartan CitiField Sprint 2017: There are no rain delays in OCR

Those who have followed my recent race history might notice a common theme: weather on race day has been unusually hotunusually cold or unusually wetThis weekend proved to be no exception, as torrential rains hit New York on the same day that Spartan Race returned to CitiField. If you take away nothing else from this review, please remember that if you want to avoid extreme weather, make sure I’m not at your race. All the same, Spartan and thousands of Spartan racers were up to the challenge. As Spartan advised racers in a pre-race e-mail warning them to be careful on slippery stadium stairs: “rain is just another obstacle”. Aroo.

 

Eight-foot wall climb, in the wet shadow of CitiField

Before I tell you about what Spartan presented, can we talk baseball? Like all right thinking people, I was raised as a Yankee fan. To be sure, I believe in equal justice under the law, even for Mets fans, though I’m not sure I can extend that consideration to Red Sox fans. When Spartan started its first stadium race at Fenway Park in 2012, I was tempted by the concept, but the venue was a deterrent. I’m pretty sure that some kind of supernatural flames would consume me if I tried to cross the threshold at Fenway. When the event proved to be a success and Spartan extended it to other cities, I hoped that it would come to Yankee Stadium. Instead, Spartan opted for CitiField, which I still think of as Shea Stadium, partly out of resentment towards the corporate sponsor, and partly out of general orneriness. While I am reluctant to admit it, when the new stadiums were built for the Yankees and the Mets, it was the Mets that ended up with the better building. There, I said it. And it doesn’t make me less of a Yankee fan.

Why focus so much on baseball? Because the venue really made this race special. Even if you are not a baseball fan, there is something special about running on the warning track of a major league stadium. For me, one of the most memorable moments of the race was emerging from the visiting team’s clubhouse (smaller than I imagined) and… into the the visiting team’s dugout. Even without the obstacles and Spartan-ness of the day, that moment would have been enough for me.

And what about the obstacles? Here’s a good video that shows them all. Spartan presents the stadium races as an introduction to the entire series, and the distance, the numbers of obstacles, and the level of difficulty were perfectly calibrated to serve as a gateway to longer events. Many of the signature obstacles were on the course, along with a few that seem to be unique to stadium events. Racers faced six- and eight-foot walls, a rope climb, a spear throw, monkey bars, the Hercules Hoist, a sandbag carry and an A-frame climb. For the stadium races, they added “obstacles” that are really more like exercises from a typical CrossFit workout: box jumps, hand-release push-ups and ball slams. To me, these made the event seem more like an extended workout rather than a race; the sense of achievement you get after twenty-five ball slams is not really the same as the satisfaction you get from ringing the bell at the top of a rope climb. However, if you had never done a Spartan race “outdoors”, you would not notice the difference, nor would you miss the dunk wall or the fire jump.

Not one but two T-rexes appeared on the Jumbotron as they conquered the “obstacle” of box jumps. Not so hard for them, despite their tiny, tiny arms.

Spartan handled the logistics well. Waves were sent out every few minutes to keep the flow of athletes moving through the course without bunching. The only back-up I faced was at the spear throw, which used foam instead of hay bales – perhaps a sign of Spartan’s continuing efforts to standardize their “sport”? Most of the targets were out of commission and two wet – though cheerful! – volunteers did their best to manage the crowd.

Beyond the actual race, this event had the best “festival” atmosphere of any Spartan race I can recall. Racers and spectators mingled along the concourse, where many, many exhibitors plied them with samples (frozen yogurt! Something called “hard seltzer”!). Because of the compact course, spectators got the chance to see their athletes on several occasions, though many opted to do so from locations that kept them out of the rain.

 

There were spectators watching the finish line, but mostly from seats that were sheltered from the rain.

By my unscientific survey after the race, it attracted both Spartan veterans and plenty of racers who had never heard of the brand until recently.  Despite the cold and the rain, everyone I spoke to was eager to sign up for another race. I would consider another stadium race, even if the price point seems a little high for what feels like an extended workout at an extravagantly large CrossFit box. One final gripe: where was Mr. Met? If I’m going to go all the way out to New Shea, I expect to see Mr. Met (“Hey, Mr. Met: do you even lift?”).Despite the round head, this is not a picture of Mr. Met. Mr. Met was not at the race. This is me, showing off my Spartan bling, with the special stadium medal.

Photo Credit: the author and Spartan Race

THE BIG SKY IS FALLING – Montana Spartan Beast and Sprint weekend

 

Linzee Knowles

I’m a sucker for this venue. Last year that mountain put me squarely over its knee and opened a 55 gallon drum of good old ‘rocky mountain whoop ass’ on me. Don’t be surprised if I can’t explain it fully, but for some reason I came back to look it in the eye again. Pride probably. Now, before we start waxing Jungian over my relationship with the Montana Spartan race weekend, I think it’s important to cover a few basic things about the race itself. Maybe then you too will understand why this is an essential part of my OCR story each year.

Fire Jump Glenn

As I said last year, I would put good money on this being one of the most idyllic locations for an OCR race. Accommodations are plentiful, reasonably priced and charming. Kalispell is used to visitors year round, and boasts just about everything an out of town visitor would need. It’s a green meadow community that welcomes visitors with open arms.

Accommodations

The race course itself crosses over miles of almost entirely forested back-country trails. It’s wild and unforgiving. It’s a venue that combines winding, thrilling single-track, punishing climbs and some incredibly steep downhill quad-busters. The view is spectacular in almost every direction. I gushed about it enough last year: it’s a gorgeous course from start to finish, no matter which way you slice it.

Yet this year, there were some who felt shortchanged by the race overall. Some even said it was an easier race than they had hoped. The stats line up with that assessment: It was almost a mile shorter and about 900 feet less elevation gain. It was a faster course for sure. Did we just witness one of the toughest events on the Spartan Race calendar get easier?

As all the snowflakes begin to melt into a boiling torrent of keyboard mashing anger directed at Spartan Inc. for making it all too easy for us… let’s just stop for a moment. Go to the fridge. Grab a Kombucha and let’s get real. Have a seat, chicken little.

Montana vista

Look at these miserable short changed Spartans

Facts from now on:

Spartan Races are as awesome and challenging as they ever were.

This was a fast and technical course. Faster than last year. Running in the reverse direction on both days opened up a different type of race. There was one less hill climb than last year, but there was also more in the way of root laden single-track in its place. The heavy carries, while shorter (as some people pointed out) were also less simple, requiring careful foot placement and guts to complete. We were treated to two sprawling barbed wire crawls. The slip wall was really tough (tiny ropes for the Trump hands era I guess).

Look, I get it. It was different. Some staple Spartan obstacles were missing; there was no tire flip and there was no heavy sled pull like last year. Instead, in their place were a few newer obstacles like the Twister, Olympus and the Bender. Some will always bemoan change. I thought it felt fresh.

Fresh Running

My take? The Big Sky isn’t falling at all.

It was as full and powerful a beast course as any out there, and as challenging a Sprint as you will find anywhere in the world. This venue still offers one of the most engaging experiences available on the OCR circuit in North America. The terrain alone is world class.

Stefan

Sure, there are differences from year to year. Obstacles change. The expectations of the participants change. We get fitter and more experienced. The rules change. It’s progress – so get over it. Here’s the deal. Spartan may just happen to be in the business of making obstacle course racing a thing. To make it a ‘thing’ you have to cater to everyone.

At one end of the OCR experience you have almost superhuman elite racers who have formed a lifestyle around these events and fully expect to be tested to the limits – both by each other and by the course design. There are a lot of people like me who do “ok” but keep coming back for more (again, the full treatment of middle aged psychologies is not the subject of this review) and then we have the noobs. The first timers.

We all have a place on the continuum.

New people have a special place. While us veterans might be thinking the sky is falling, for others, the sky is opening up wider and brighter than ever.

Don’t forget that right now someone is signing up for a race for the first time ever. They ensure that the sport continues to grow. We cannot alienate the very people who come to the sport for the first time by making races too difficult, demoralizing or dangerous for new registrants. That might mean tempering the pace of Spartan’s own internal arms race to produce the toughest races on the planet and thinking laterally rather than vertically  when it comes to developing races. I for one think that it was progressive to see Spartan thinking about all participants rather than stagnating on the same old formula, or just catering to the elites or just making it impossibly hard. Ultimately we all have to move forward if we are going to be a part of the future of this sport together – no matter which division you run in. Ringer

So… Montana may have been a little easier this year. So what?  I’m gonna say it… If you feel that it was too easy, you didn’t run hard enough. Kick it up a notch. Enter the elite or competitive heats next time and give it everything you have. Compete within your age group. Increase the stakes for yourself. Compete against your own pace goal. Try and finish burpee free. Challenge others to do the same. Oh, and by the way Ben O’Rourke is awesome. Just look at that man.

BEN THE LEGEND O'ROURKE

CONCLUSION

I’ll try and make my home run conclusion with a story from the race on Sunday that reminded me of what this 5-year obstacle obsession of mine is all about.

Meet Jason and Michelle Cherry.

Michelle and Jason

It was just by chance that I ran with Michelle and Jason for some of the sprint course. As we chatted, I found out that this was their first ever Spartan Race. After the event I reached out to them to describe the experience as first time Spartans:

“I signed up for the Spartan Race on a whim. I had no idea what to expect. I had heard of the Spartan before from my husband’s friend and thought – yeah that could be fun, but never went out of the way to pursue it.

I have done plenty of races, triathlons, marathons…which I absolutely love, but the Spartan was on a whole different level. When I started the race some sort of crazy adrenaline kicked in and I felt like I could handle anything that came my way. (even though I couldn’t and did a lot of burpees!) I felt like I was a kid again, running through the woods, getting dirty and loving it, experiencing challenges I had never experiences before, being encouraged by complete strangers and encouraging anyone I passed. I got to run with some pretty great people, (esp) my husband – who was my biggest cheerleader! As I approached the end of the race I really wasn’t ready to be done- Though jumping over that fire at the end was such a great feeling, and honestly I have been on a post race high since.

The people I met the race weekend were so great! It is a community I felt welcomed into and one that I am excited to be a part of! And yes, I am definitely running the beast next year when the Spartan comes back to Montana. (or maybe sooner, I’m not sure I can wait that long – we will see!)”

I can’t have said it better myself. I’ve done my fair share of races now, and yet there was something restorative about seeing the course unfold for them for the first time. I guess that I saw in them a little of myself on my first Spartan Sprint in Calgary in 2012. To them it was still crazy and new. The obstacles were difficult and exciting. They were having fun and enjoying the experience itself. No industry politics, no podium scandals, no complaints. Just pure OCR fun.

OCR is for everyone. I’m glad to see Spartan striking a smart balance across two fantastic races this weekend.

Until next year Montana.

AROO!

Glenn

all photos credit Gamefacemedia and spartan race.

X-Warrior Challenge 2017

It’s 9:15 am.

Darcy Chalifoux (Race Creator) and Frankie John Fuchs (course designer) stood chatting together near the start line. They don’t look nervous, but it’s just fascinating to see how they might act on a day like today. In all of the activity going on around me, I’m suddenly more interested in what they are thinking and feeling than anything else. I’m hoping it’s positive for them: people are pouring into Calgary’s Stampede Park. 

Darcy and Coach

Xwarrior Challenge (5) Start line

As an alternative to some of the other players in the Canadian OCR business, X-Warrior feels critically important for the OCR community in Alberta and Western Canada. Other OCR companies have pulled out from entire provinces (states) this year, leaving the OCR communities in entire regions without races. Alberta itself has seen a contraction of sorts, so we are all very excited to have X-Warrior challenge in town. It’s taken an heroic effort to get this event up and running. It felt great to be standing here, ready to support them.

I’m certainly not alone either: some of the most familiar faces in the province have turned out en force to see what this format is all about. Amongst them are serious western Canadian competitors such as Josh Stryde, Jessica Lemon, Austin Azar, Kody O’Brien, Linzee Knowles, Stefan and Kristian Wieclawek, Graham MacDonald and Nancy Loranger to name a few. It seems the word has gotten around. It’s a stacked elite field with all the makings of a very competitive and visceral opening sortie.

Speaking viscerally, where are the facilities?

Real bathrooms.

I could get used to this

Don’t forget the Titans

Deanna and the kids are wondering when and where the free mcflurries are happening. It’s a legitimate thing to ask, and it’s part of the bribe. I stop to talk to Stefan Wieclawek for a moment. He’s wearing a white Titan bib. He’s telling me he is going to take a shot at snagging first place in the multi-lap 6 hour X-Warrior “Titan” event. I didn’t doubt it. True enough he would later finish in first place with a total of 8 laps or 56 kilometers.

Bring on the Pain.

After a brief introduction to the course by Frankie, the start line routine kicks in. None other than Coach Pain himself appears on the grandstand stage to applause and massive cheers. We kneel as he begins his monologue with a stirring, percussive reflection on the nature of our sport.

Coach Pain X

Darcy seems a little bothered by the sound quality. He needn’t be. The message hits unexpectedly and lands perfectly. It’s a call to focus, a rousing war cry that echoes through the stadium and brings with it a collective rush of adrenaline. It’s a wake-up call for everyone involved to take this race seriously. It’s a command to become competitors. An order to conduct your goddamn business!

Having Coach Pain at the start line was the right choice. It elevated the whole experience, allowing X to hit its stride.

Coach called the first 10 runners to the line. People are bouncing on their toes. Pacing foot to foot. 

This was serious stuff.

I did not expect this.

I am not ready for this.

It was about to go down.

The first group is away and I’m up in the second wave, about 45 seconds after the first. Coach Pain bellows one last time and we’re bolting out of the corral at full tilt.

2017-05-13 | 2017 X Warrior Challenge Calgary

Immediately it’s clear that this is a runner’s race. We take in the south loop of the track, jumping a few walls before running into the stadium seating of the Grandstand.

This is brand new stuff for me, but I’m finding plenty of pace and energy tackling the stairs. We cross into the interior of the grandstand, tackling rope covered stairs and multiple vertical walls set up inside the grandstand building.

Note: OCR shoes are very squeaky on polished concrete.

We emerge into the upper levels of the grandstand, snatching a few high fives from volunteers as we pass, only to run back inside to descend (read: jump down) a long stairwell before bursting back out into the sunlight and along the northern edge of the Stampede racecourse itself.

Pace increases as concrete gives way to loose sand and hard pack. The field thins out. My shoes are biting in well and I start to close in on a few racers that stayed ahead of me in the tighter confines of the stadium, which is fast disappearing behind us.

In the distance, I can hear Coach Pain releasing the last of the elite runners with another bellowing shout “GO!”

Pace.

Obstacles come rushing at us in quick succession. We face a horizontal wall walk and a tip of the spear style obstacle before we turn back on ourselves to tackle an inverted wall. My back is starting to ache again (I hurt it a few days earlier – I’ll explain in a bit). Must push on. Gotta catch Ben O’Rourke. My nemesis.

The obstacles seem well designed, with plenty of lanes. We were never held up by bottlenecks on our heat. A decently long barbed wire crawl really lost me some ground, which I regained (at great effort – might I add) by the time we reached the bridge across the elbow river.  

That bridge was covered with a low ceiling of rope and we had to bear crawl the distance at speed. The adrenaline is still flowing; pacing a run like this stresses me out a little. The hard efforts coupled with uncertainty of what was to come added to that internal struggle. Yet, it was at this stage I realized that I this was my first race in years where I wasn’t caked in mud or had wet feet at this point. I could get used to this.

People are getting tired. Heavy lungs all around me. Ben has already taken a face-full of asphalt but he’s not stopping. Xwarrior Challenge (6) Ben and Glenn

With the first sandbag carry out of the way, we moved to a Z wall, and then back towards the main arena, meeting the first of the elite female wave who were battling for the podium as we ran through an underpass. After a heavy tire flip and the jarring visual contrast of running through some very dark stables, we headed back out into the blinding sunlight for a flat bucket carry.

A really fast over/under style hurdle section was in there too. Somewhere. It’s just memorable because as I jumped over the final hurdle I heard coach Pain’s voice booming across the field again. “Remember to compete! Remember to compete!”

Keep that pace up.

Closing in on the final set piece of the event there was a double tire carry, and yet another sandbag carry among the bleachers of a smaller (posher?) grandstand within the arena circle. My lower back was really slowing me down now, but Coach’s voice took over. “I KNOW SOME OF YOU HAVE GOT PROBLEMS! I KNOW SOME OF YOU HAVE GOT PROBLEMS!” He repeated over and over again. I was having problems. In my L4 and L5 specifically. You see – just two days earlier while trail running I had glanced (like a stone) over a rogue tump of grass on my way down a hill, bouncing on an unprepared, completely straight leg. My spine took the shock and punished me for it.   

Just three obstacles were left.

The axe throw… which I couldn’t complete, even with three attempts. Practice required for next year. 20 slow and painful burpees followed, but I’m right next to the start area now and the end is in sight.

Axe Throw

After a good rope climb (dry and mud-less), I felt somewhat redeemed, just in time for the final obstacle, ‘The Dragon’s Back’. You may have seen a very similar obstacle at OCRWC. It takes courage and technique to complete, leaping from a horizontal platform to an angled platform, grabbing onto a bar to pin the landing. It is a fast and thrilling way to end to the race, and probably the most technical obstacle on the course.

Crossing the line felt great. Well, everywhere except my back. I was reminded that the Titan event would circle this course for a further 5 and a half hours. Ouch.

Xwarrior Challenge (1)

I reached out to the course designer Frankie-John Fuchs for his rationale on the course design for X-Warrior Challenge:

For me, stadium course race design is very challenging and exciting. The main challenge is that the foot-print for the course is very restrictive, but the excitement comes from being able to integrate some of the amazing opportunities offered by this great facility. It doesn’t get much more iconic then Stampede Park, and in some instances, X-warrior is introducing people to this world famous location!

My general principles in designing courses are pretty simple:
1) Nobody finishes my course in under 30 mins. We say it’s going to be a 5K distance race, but it is definitely going to be a little longer than that. I love the training and preparation that people put into the races at all levels and I feel people’s desire to be tested! I also believe people are stronger than they know so they deserve the glory of not only completing a 5km race but being introduced to the deeper waters of longer, unpredictable races. As for the Titans, well… they are pretty much unstoppable, but I selfishly don’t want them to get away with too many laps and not feel it for a week. 


2) Everyone is going to hurt – I’m going to strategically stack or create obstacles that target specific areas of your body at different parts of the race to test you! I also want to minimize bottlenecks while ensuring obstacles are not too far apart.

3) You will inspire others – my favorite part of OCR is the community. I want to have the course enable this by integrating areas where racers pass by each other to allow for cheering and interaction.

My Thoughts

X was a great experience. I enjoyed every moment of that course and I felt that desire to engage with the event and bring others along with me. I’ve heard nothing but positive feedback from other participants too and the format works well for anyone who enjoys OCR or running without the threat of a cold outdoor shower afterward. The Titan experience adds another strata of performance to the event, allowing endurance athletes to showcase their skill set also.

Logistically, you’ll find the venue really easy to get to. Registration was a breeze. It was entertaining for spectators and the vendor tents within the race grounds were great. There were free McFlurries. Finishers received a quality medal, a wristband, snacks, and a choice of T-shirts or tank tops. Winners were awarded a pair of Icebug trail running shoes. It’s a really rewarding event which will keep people coming back for more. Registration for 2018 is already underway and the hordes of race hungry Canadians are signing up as we speak.

Xwarrior Challenge (8) podium

Further Thoughts and Balance

There is a fine line between setting a course that will both challenge and entertain competitors and casual racers. X seemed to cater to both the strong and the speedy, but it did favor the runner a little more. I would have liked to have seen a couple of more challenging heavy objects on course – something a little grisly to get stuck into and to struggle with. Maybe a heavy plate or tire drag and push. Maybe an atlas ball maneuver or a double sandbag carry. Either way, I felt that there possibly could have been something to really allow those who are more strength focused to shine as brightly as those with speed and stamina. I think there is room for that in X. Even if it’s just a competitive wave thing.

That’s really all I’ve got, and while there’s always room to develop, X-Warrior challenge did so many things right, it’s hardly a mark down. 

X-Warrior was fast, the stadium was creatively used and featured some really fresh ideas underlying the use of obstacles and the terrain. It’s a smart and very savvy presentation, with a great intention, superb execution and a clear love of the sport underlying the whole thing. 

Conclusion and the BIG question.

I asked myself, if I was coming to this race for the first time, would it have the kind of quality, atmosphere, community, competition, excitement and difficulty curve that I experienced on my first ever OCR event? Would I come back for more? Would I train for X-Warrior challenge? 

Xwarrior Challenge (2) elites

Absolutely. I cannot wait to see what X has in store for us next in Western Canada!

Xwarrior Challenge (7) Medal