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.

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Todd Brock

Todd is a former fat slob who still can't believe he got hooked on OCRs. When he's not planning his next race, he's a freelance writer and father to two daughters.
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Comments

  1. Great article. I finished the 15k journeyman but realized, like you, that the sun going down was going to be an issue. I made the conscious decision to make getting across the finish line my top priority. I reluctantly decided my strategy would be to try each obstacle a maximum of twice and if the retry lines were too long I’d only try it once. Basically I gave up my band before the race even started knowing I wouldn’t be able to complete the tough rigs on my first or second try. Even crossing the finish line felt somewhat empty as I would have loved to try some of those rigs multiple times in an effort to complete them. The rope climb was so wet and muddy there was little hope of

    I would have loved to go through the course on Monday as a Journeyman day but I don’t know the logistics would work for operations, staffing and volunteers. Seems like added costs would mean higher registration fees. I don’t know what the answer is to be honest.

    Regardless I very much enjoyed being part of the OCR World Championships. This course was by far the toughest I’ve ever taken on.

    • Todd Brock says:

      Thanks, Darryl. I was honored to be there. Awestruck, even. That makes the ending sting even more for me. I started bailing early on retries, too, once it became clear that time was running out. But it seems like some basic tweaking of the schedule could have given all of us a full 5-hour shot at that course… and finishing on our own terms.

    • Valerie Poutre says:

      That is one of the most well written articles I have ever read. There was a down side for me as well. As much as I like very Coach Pain the journeymen we’re announced for the 50+ woman’s wave. I thought our wave got completely overlooked at first. Then we regrouped. However younger waves were allowed to run earlier, journeymen 25 minutes later. It is already hard to keep a band never mind when every obstacle was soaked wet. I am glad I got to try skull valley and Platinum rig. I will say that I am used to running muck and slime……living in Florida. The decision to put the oldest out last, or the least experienced , in a sport that brags military tactics and teamwork should be reconsidered.

      • Thank you for the kind words, Valerie. Given that people are still weighing in about “the Journeyman issue” a month later, I sincerely hope OCRWC takes it seriously and chooses to make some changes for 2018 and beyond. The fact that there even *is* a Journeyman wave is what makes Worlds (and this entire sport) so special for so many. I would encourage everyone to go back through ORM’s recent archives and listen to Matt’s podcast (Part 2 of his OCRWC wrapup) where he talks one-on-one with Adrian (the Big Kahuna at Worlds) specifically about the Journeyman snafu. Adrian shares some valuable insight concerning the challenges that race organizers faced at Blue Mountain. I can only hope that the OCRWC staff is listening as well: to the weekend warriors like us who are the reason the sport of OCR exists and continues to thrive.

  2. James Boxall says:

    This was written to perfection! I was with you at the log hop when our race came to an end. My buddy in kilt was the other guy still with his wrist band, and what you both accomplished (keeping bands) is huge! I was proud of my buddy watching him go through the obstacles and hope you are proud of yourself as well.
    Thanks for writing this, made me relive the moments leading up to the race as well as the hollow feeling in the truck ride off Blue Mountain.

    • Todd Brock says:

      Thanks, James! I’m proud of all of us. For getting there to begin with and for getting as far as we did, wristbands or not, on a brutally difficult course. It would have been fun for us all to at least get a crack at those last 10 obstacles.

  3. Christopher Hill says:

    Thanks for writing this article, I was with you in that group that got pulled from the race after the log hop. You wrote about our experience very well and conveyed the same feelings I had. Yes, I agree it was the right decision to stop us before entering the woods for that final descent. From what I’ve heard, it was very treacherous in there and safety must always come first. I agree that the issue here is our starting time. If sunset is at 6.30pm, then the last wave should set off no later than 1.30pm to allow a full 5 hours of daylight. Or, divide Journeymen into smaller groups and set them off at the half-hour mark in between age group waves. I was also disappointed about race staff telling us to bypass obstacles and keep running if we wanted to get a medal. Pretty much from Stairway to Heaven onwards, we were told to just keep going. So a 15km OCR ended up being more like a 12km trail run. It rained from about 3.30pm onwards and the mud turned the mountain into a giant slip and slide, leaving us crawling on our hands and knees and grabbing at clumps of grass to climb the mountain. But regardless of the adverse weather, we still never had 5 hours of daylight to give it a fair shot. I had that same sort of ’empty’ feeling, being driven back to the village and told to cross the finish line to collect a medal, with not even a finish line photo to show for it as the photographer was not there. I am glad I got to run this with my friend, as no matter what the outcome, we still had an adventure with memories we will always remember.

    • Todd Brock says:

      Thanks, Christopher. You captured it all brilliantly (and far more concisely than I did). An adventure to remember, for sure, even if we didn’t get the full experience. My hope is that organizers consider making some changes like the ones you suggest to at least give the Journeymen a fair shot at completing the race on their own.

  4. Caroline Laforest says:

    « How could OCRWC organizers not have seen that coming??? How do you justify starting the amateurs so late in the day? » The organizers were fully aware beforehand, I had an exchange of emails with them pointing out that the 5 hour cutoff was not feasible for the Journeyman wave. My comment was based on what happened in 2016 where people were pulled off course after 4:30 hours in bone dry conditions ( also the Journeyman wave’s start time was a good 20 minutes earlier in 2016 if I recall correctly)

    • Todd Brock says:

      Thank you for weighing in, Caroline. Although I must say, that makes this all the more depressing to me. To set a 5-hour cutoff… but then knowingly send off a wave of amateur runners who they know they’ll yank off the course in 4… that is infuriating, to say the least. That sounds like OCRWC is happy to take money from Journeymen, is fully aware that many of them won’t get the full experience they’re paying for or even the time they’re promised, and that they simply don’t care if squeezing the start-time schedule so tightly leaves those racers disappointed. I very much do not want to believe that to be the case.

  5. I just read through it a couple of times to see what exactly it said about time cutoffs and darkness and headlamps, and I couldn’t find any mention of any of those things in the official rulebook. Was it in some other race-to-athlete communication?

    Thanks

    • Todd Brock says:

      Peter, the first I heard of a 5-hour cutoff was back in August… when I happened to stumble across an Athletes’ Guide from the 2016 race. (I was searching around for any intel I could find on specific obstacles, etc.) I even messaged my brother that day to let him know that we’d have to be mindful of our pace, based on previous races of similar distances. When the 2017 Athletes’ Guide was sent to me, it specified a 5-hour cutoff for 2017 as well, on page 17. The reason listed? “As much of the course does take place in densely wooded areas, as early evening hours approach, the course will become dark quickly. Due to this fact, a 5-hour cut-off time has been set for the safety of athletes, staff and volunteers.” Yet I knew immediately- based solely on info from my phone’s weather app- that a 2:45 start time would allow just FOUR hours of daylight, tops. I naively assumed that the course design must be such that 5 hours would still be sufficient… or they wouldn’t let me start at 2:45 while telling me I had 5 hours. Headlamps- required gear for many races where darkness is known to be an issue- are not mentioned. Finally, a post on the OCRWC Facebook page at 7:37pm on Friday night (10/13, the night before the 15k) alerted racers to “expected… slick and challenging… conditions… especially at the top of the mountain.” A reminder was included about the 5-hour cutoff “without exception.” I knew that weather (like lightning) could obviously halt the race at any point, but at no time was I informed by race staff that we may not get the full five hours DUE TO DARKNESS… until I heard volunteers saying so at Urban Sky.

  6. Patrick St-Pierre says:

    Todd, I made it, barely! I love your article. It has taken me a while to comment it because I wanted to weigh my words. First, I loved the experience, second, the rain is not OCRWCs fault, we all know that. Heat times and sunset on the other hand, is something we can plan for, I agree. I was in that last wave at 14:45. I made it because from the get go, like others, I decided not to try the same obstacle more than twice. So I, too, gave my band away before starting. I lost it around kilometer 8, half way. I did the race in 3:35:26, only because of that decision of not sticking around obstacles too long. And when it started raining, that decision of not trying obstacles more than twice turned into trying it only once making me accumulate a good chunk of time penalties. I love trail running and some of those trails were meant to make time… When they are dry. Wet and slippery like they were, it was dangerous to even walk them. Let alone at night. I completely understand the decision to close the race. I arrived at 18:21, just before sunset and I was feeling for those left on the hills. On top of that, I’m a fairly good trail runner, I have good legs for hills, nothing like the pros but still, that is what saved me. My grip sucks even on dry obstacles. The 5hrs cut off makes sense to me, like you said yourself, it is the Worlds after all. It does make sense when you actually really have 5hrs, in ideal conditions. Running on wet clay is like running on soap (in the dark!? no way). For the entire duration of my race I was more focussing on making it before sunset than doing the obstacles. OCRWC should have seen this coming and I believe they did. They are smart people, they decided to ignore the issue for some logistical reason unknown to me. There has to be a reason behind it. I know now how much harder I have to work on speed, endurance, grip strength and tenacity.

    • Todd Brock says:

      I appreciate you taking the time to weigh in, Patrick. I agree with everything you said. The idea that staffers could have shifted start times to allow Journeymen a full 5 hours- and simply did not- saddens and infuriates me. Everyone knew weather was coming. Everyone knew the sun would be going down. It has been suggested that the responsibility, then, should have fallen on me to do exactly what you and others did: to decide straight away to skip retries in an attempt just to make the finish line. To alter my plan on the fly. But for the amount of time I spent all year working to collect qualifier medals, and for the amount of money I spent to come to Worlds… I can’t help but feel like OCRWC should have also altered *their* plans on the fly… to give all of us the best chance possible at the full experience we came and paid for. It’s a shame that anyone felt they had no choice but to skip obstacles at AN OBSTACLE COURSE RACE just to finish the damn thing. (Isn’t that why we do this sport instead of just signing up for road races or trail runs?) Tweaking the start times of earlier waves… making an official announcement reminding Journeymen that weather and daylight would be deteriorating rapidly… something. Like you, I now know what I need to work harder on. Apparently, out-thinking race organizers needs to be on my list.

  7. Janette Burnham says:

    Thank you for this. I must have been just ahead of you on the course. I spent 4:27 on the course and knew that with the 5-hour limit I wouldn’t be able to try anything more than twice. Keeping my band was not in the realm of possibility for me and I was ok with that. There were obstacles I wanted to try so bad that I just walked past because of the wet. Some they waived penalties for, others they didn’t. I knew I would have had Dragon’s back in the bag, and I was so anxious to try it, but with the rain, I decided it wasn’t worth the risk of slipping and injuring myself. I not only had the race of my life to finish, but I’m still trying to get my Trifecta before the end of the year as well (you know, because I’m an enthusiast and all) Those of us that had to go down the back end of the course in total darkness, all I could keep thinking the whole time was “I can’t believe the organizers allowed this. Why didn’t they require us to have headlamps? This is beyond tough, this is downright dangerous.” At one point I fell, started slipping and couldn’t stop myself. I saw myself going over the edge of the trail and tumbling down into the woods when my hip caught a huge rock and stopped me. I had cried out as it was rather painful and when someone tried to come to my assistance they slipped and bumped into me, as did the person behind them. We stared yelling to the next person to hold off, but they lost their footing as well and next we knew there was a 4-person pile-up on the trial. One of them asked “Do you need help, do you need me to get you someone?” To which my reply was “I don’t know who you would get, there’s nothing to do but keep moving forward.” Like you I planned all year for the race of my life. It was not everything I had hoped for. All I can do is keep moving forward.

    • Todd Brock says:

      Thanks for sharing your experience, Janette. I shared some of your utter disbelief at several moments during my race. The slip-and-slide conditions were awful… but not under anyone’s control, I reminded myself. The start time was what I kept coming back to in my head. “Why were we sent off so late if they knew we wouldn’t have the 5 hours they promised?” I’m glad you finished the entire race, but I hate that any of us felt like our only course of action was to skip obstacles. That’s the whole point of the sport, if you ask me. But I understand your choice to do so… and now wish I had done so as well. In hindsight, I’d be happier about getting one shot at a few of those final 10 obstacles than I am with how many attempts I made at the Northman Race’s La Gaffe, trying to keep my band because I assumed I’d have a full 5 hours.

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