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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

OCR World Championships (OCRWC) 2016: Race Recap

The third annual OCR World Championships (OCRWC) took place over this last weekend at the Blue Mountains Resort near Collingwood, Ontario, Canada.  After taking place at the King’s Domain permanent obstacle course in Oregonia, Ohio the first two years, moving the race to another country truly made it feel like a more international event.  Race creators would also be tasked with building a complete course from scratch as this venue primarily functioned as a ski destination.  The organizers could not have asked for better conditions on Friday and Saturday as the trees were in full color-change mode along with a sun filled 45-70 Fahrenheit temperature.  Parking and spectators were once again free of charge this year plus a well laid out vendor area right in the center of the ski resort lodging.  An added bonus was free ski lift rides for athletes and their support teams to truly take in the natural beauty atop the Blue Mountains as they cascaded down into the Georgian Bay.

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New this year was the addition of the 3K short course championship ran on Friday which turned out to be an amazing event.  The order of heats for this event was reversed from standard with the master’s participants heading out first, competitive athletes second, and the professionals last.  This proved very successful because it allowed both 3K participants plus those still traveling that morning to the venue for packet pickup to view the entire professional competition.  Using a rolling start format, athletes would stay close to the bottom of the mountains and face 15 obstacles.  The men’s pro race, in particular, was extremely close with Hunter McIntyre and Ryan Atkins battling back and forth the entire course.  These athletes were running sub 5-minute mile pace through the running sections and conquering obstacles with reckless abandon.  Hunter, unfortunately, slipped at the end of the Urban Sky obstacle allowing Ryan to cross the finish line in first place.  On a side note, Hunter was later disqualified entirely for missing a bell at one of the earlier obstacles, but it was still an excellent viewing spectacle.  2nd and 3rd for the men ended up being Jon Albon and Viktor Alexy.  On the women’s side, Lindsay Webster took top honors by a healthy2-minutee margin with Karin Karlsson and Hanneke Dannhauser rounding out the podium.

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The main event took place on Saturday where athletes from 42 countries would tackle the 15k (9.3 miles) long course comprised of 48 manufactured obstacles in conjunction with the natural terrain and elevation of the ski slopes.  Undeterred, athletes gathered in the starting corral under the start banner adorned with flags from across the world and listened to Coach Pain give an impassioned pre race speech.  Once the “GO” command was given, hundreds of participants attacked the slight uphill start through the crowd of spectators and green smoke onto some small hurdles.  All the excitement of the first flat quarter mile quickly faded as the course turned sharply up the “Happy Valley” ski slope.  Turns out the ascent was not the worst of the worries because halfway up the slope loomed an ill placed warped wall.  Being placed right after a muddy water run-off and in the shade still covered with fresh dew resulted in an immediate bottleneck.  Exacerbating the issue was the fact that 200+ elites were in the midst of fighting for early race position and unwilling to provide ample space to one another for a proper approach.  It was pure chaos with no race staff there to assist in providing order and absolutely allowed the first runners to gain a serious time advantage.

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Eventually, athletes were able to negotiate the bottleneck and continue up the ascent totaling 600 feet in the first mile.  Upon reaching the summit and questioning the reason one would willingly sign up for such an event, participants were greeted with a breathtaking scene.  A six foot wall stretched across the entire trail width and beautiful blue water meeting a cloudless azure sky was all that could be seen lurking behind.  From there the course routed us around to the top of the slopes through some low crawls and an assortment of walls to scale before forcing us down a 700 foot descent.  Along the way, Savage Race Pipe Dreams and Toughest Dragon Back made an appearance.  Slated next on the obstacle list was a new offering from Platinum Rig called the Samurai which consisted of vertical poles one must traverse.  However, athletes arrived to the structure only to find it taped off and not part of the 15k event even though it was used during the previous days 3k race.  This was rather disappointing, but there was no time to dwell on the reasoning as the trail provided a steep 500 foot ascent and then descent.  At the bottom was the original Platinum Rig which was nestled in the center of the busy festival area providing prime spectator viewing.

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A quick dash over the decorative waterfall and up a small incline took participants to the dreaded 50 pound sandbag carry that was slated to be a full half mile up the steep “Tranquility” ski slope.  Once again, the race organizers had unexpectedly made last minute changes to the course and the carry was the same distance as the 3k event or roughly half the planned length.  This was still a tough carry at 200 feet ascent/descent on 40%+ gradient, but somewhat unsatisfactory after mentally preparing for the anticipated longer version.  Perhaps the race director felt it was too difficult since it was immediately followed by a 700 foot ascent directly through the tree lined slope boundary.  While climbing, racers encountered an eight foot wall, barbed wire crawl, and cargo net crawl.

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There was little time to celebrate or catch a breath as a new variation of Skull Valley was looming right at the peak.  This year’s version consisted of the same skull handholds on one side of a suspended beam transitioning into four ropes with foot assist knots and finishing with more skull handholds on alternating sides of the suspended beam.  The deep skull handholds and the knotted ropes made this obstacle very manageable compared to the more difficult 2015 version.

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Completion led directly into Platinum Rig # 2 which was being dubbed Platinum Rig Mini as the entire structure stood only six feet.  The actual portions of the rig that participants were allowed to touch during the traverse were a mere three to four feet!  This was a great twist on a classic obstacle which required athletes use core strength and body control as they snaked their way across the assembly without touching the ground.  Feet were permitted on this configuration as opposed to the standard rig.

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After a quick drink at the hydration station and a glance from the scenic ski lift summit, it was back to single track running through more beautiful fall foliage.  The journey would take entrants through a weaver, over-unders, Dead End Race warped wall, and quarter pipe all leading up to Conquer the Guantlet’s Stairway to Heaven.  This obstacle was cleverly placed at the tallest point along the course overlooking the entire Blue Mountain village and making competitors literally climb into the sky.  A 400 foot descent was up next with natural obstacles along with a rudimentary 50 pound sandbag hoist.  There was a final 300 foot ascent thrown in for good measure to fully sap the last bit of leg strength before heading entirely into the main festival area.  The finishing sequence of obstacles were Dead End Race Monkey Business, sternum checker, suspended boards, Skyline, Urban Sky, and a finish ramp wall.  Urban Sky was particularly fun which featured spinning wheels at various angles with a transition into a rotating spiral monkey bar type apparatus.

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When it was all said and done, UK’s Jon Albon (currently living in Norway) repeated as male pro Champion for a third straight year followed by Canada’s own Ryan Atkins and Conor Hancock also from the UK.  For the women, Canada’s Lindsay Webster claimed the title with Nicole Mericle of the USA and Karin Karsson of Sweden rounding out the top three.  Full results are available online.

From an elite perspective, the obstacles were very well laid out, but not overly difficult so this course definitely favored the more proficient mountain runners.  It was clear the race organizers wanted a higher success rate during the age group waves which is a balancing act every event tries to strike.  The now defunct US based BattleFrog Series used a clever multi-tiered difficulty system and Europe’s Toughest Series has a short, challenging option as well as a longer, easier alternative.  It would be interesting to see if these strategies could be incorporated into next year’s event.  At the end of the day, this was still a world class event that brought together the entire OCR community in one glorious setting for a very memorable weekend.