I Miss The Good Ole Days Of Obstacle Racing

The 2019 Obstacle Racing season is well underway, and from what we’ve seen so far, both participation rates and TV viewing numbers are at record highs. Well, that’s just peachy, I guess.

I should congratulate Spartan. They’ve done the unthinkable: taken a cheesy fad and made it mainstream, leaving opposing companies face-down along the road in their wake like Battlefrog competitors during a double sandbag carry. Joe and company have even persuaded huge mainstream sponsors to buy in and Olympic dreams to swell…but listen, I can’t do this. I’ve made my name as a straight shooter, so I need to be honest with you: not everyone is happy with the progress the major obstacle racing series is making, yours truly included. I’m sure many of you loyal ORM readers feel similar. Progress has occurred at the expense of the community. Do you also remember (and miss) the good old days? Let’s get into it.


Obstacle Racing Media was given an exclusive look at early injury numbers (measured via medic reports submitted at venue) during 2018. These usually cover anything from cramps and IV’s to serious injuries and on-course fatalities. And guess what? They’ve dropped massively in every category this past year, continuing a three-year downward trend.

Roots-Stretcher

Back when racing was hardcore

But to be clear, this isn’t just about injuries. I hope you don’t think we’re that obtuse. What this IS about is how soft, how white-washed this sport has become. This is what happens when companies sell out. I know I’m not alone in thinking that by fixating on moonshot Olympic dreams and Yelp reviews, Spartan has left many of its core members in the dust, and in doing so has lost some of the draws it once had. Some industry experts I’ve spoken with agree and worry that Spartan Race is losing its edge. This can be attributed at least partly to recent changes focusing on safety that has sullied the race experience and proven divisive at best.

Many of us miss the good old days before Spartan sold its soul in exchange for TV money and hastened to rid itself of everything that made it great in the first place. First to appear was Reebok- the soulless, trend-hopping, neglected cousin of Nike. Desperate to capitalize on the sport of functional fitness, the brand peppered overpriced gear with our hallowed logo and treated OCR shoes like iPhones, releasing a new, mildly disappointing update each year, with grip one can only assume was directly inspired by a banana peel that had been soaked in warm coconut oil.

Then the gladiators disappeared- which, as many of you remember, led to a nation-wide boycott of races by the cosplayer community. But it’s not just people who like to play dress-up who have been hurt by policy changes.

To have a sweat-soaked, muscular, cape-wearing hunk take you down and dominate you at your most vulnerable…I still get chills just thinking about it. In fact, that rush alone was excuse enough for a season pass for many of us. But sadly, those days are gone.

Chuck Whipley, head of Kermit the Flog, a BDSM club based out of Atlanta, echoed this sentiment during a recent FB messenger conversation.Part of the allure of Spartan used to be the idea that you were paying not just to race, but to be publicly humiliated, both physically and emotionally, and if lucky, sometimes in front of large crowds.” Whipley continued, “I know [fellow club member and OCR industry insider] Matt Davis feels similar, and he’s the guy you should get in touch with.” Through a spokesman, Matt declined to discuss the matter but did deny ever meeting or communicating with Chuck.

And the courses? They used to be TOUGH. In the past, racers were guaranteed at minimum several ravine tumbles, a rolled ankle, and maybe even a few deep slashes across the back, courtesy of barb wire. These days you’re lucky to experience one of the aforementioned if at all, and rumor has it barbed wire is next to go.

Come Monday I used to show up to work an absolute wreck. Mornings were spent limping around the office, regaling anyone within the distance of the tribulations I had undergone while they had spent a lazy Saturday sipping breve lattes or comparing paint finishes at Home Depot. I know they were impressed with me, maybe even a little jealous, even if they didn’t show it. How could they not be? My body was hardened by burpees, my confidence sky-high. Cracked scabs oozed puss through my dress shirt as I bent to fill a mug with my signature brew (bulletproof coffee mixed with one-and-a-half sticks of butter). It was clear I had returned from the edge, from something extreme, having stepped beyond what was normal or expected of a man and emerged better for it. Chafed nipples leaked tiny droplets of blood onto my pastel-striped Brooks Brothers shirt, like Rorshach tests that served to inform my coworkers of their own daintiness. I imagined David Goggins looking proudly down from Heaven, a single tear rolling down his stern face. Editors note: David Goggins is alive and well. I was Ed Norton in Fight Club; bruised and battered, but free, and completely numb to the corporate BS. The opposite of present-day Spartan.

Gone are the threats of sepsis and paralysis, replaced by participation medals and special interest stories on NBC. We ran to honor the flag; now people run for Instagram likes. Which makes me wonder what will happen to participation rates if Instagram actually deletes ‘like’ tallies from photos.

Roots-Stretcher                                Why race when you can purchase the experience from your couch?

I’m sure I sound bitter, but this is just the truth.

Google trends confirmed my suspicions. As of this writing, searches for “How to get feces out of barb wire cut” were at a 4-month low, while queries for “Frostbite on wiener, how to tell?” had grown flaccid at best.

Also gone these days, the ability to utilize the spear throw area to literally gun down competitors. For several years now the spear has been tied via rope to the fence, eliminating the once-fan favorite game of Frogger that would occur while volunteers rushed into the line of fire to retrieve spears from the target.


A higher-up with Spartan who wished to remain unnamed acknowledged my concerns. “We’ve seen some of these early 2018 figures, and yes, we’re a little concerned over the perceived sell-out status of our brand. But in the long run, we believe fans will understand the changes we have made,” he said.

In Spartan’s defense, there are signs it has turned from its foolhardy ways and has even begun to show some common sense by returning back to its roots and core community.

As many of you know, back in 2016 Spartan was forced to indefinitely postpone their second annual cruise after the ship was quarantined following a post-trip coast guard inspection of its pool and hot tub. However –and this will probably be news to most of  ORM’s readers– this August the arduous two-year disinfection of the Royal Princess is slated for completion. Finally!  The official Spartan release stated as much: “We can announce with pride that the hot tubs will officially open again. Spartan and hedonism will once again be synonymous as Spartan and the (recently-unstickied) Royal Princess will return to Stirrup Cay, Bahamas in 2020. Bring your swimsuits…or don’t- anything goes.”

Our sources within the industry echoed that all is not lost, adding that they’ve seen a solid uptick in ACL tears, compound fractures, and rolled ankles over the past 18 months, most of which the industry can thank the Tough Mudder X series for.

Finally, while Warrior Dash’s recent demise has certainly shocked the industry, grassroots races are quickly popping up in its wake and just might sway hoards of disinterested racers into getting back on the course. The front-runners to fill Warrior Dash’s hole include Florida’s Co-ed-Croc race, in which competitors are teamed up with an alligator over a 6+ mile course, and the Black-and-Blue race, a 24 hr enduro event during which racers are tasked with completing as many laps as possible around the Roswell, Georgia police station while donning Collin Kaepernick jerseys.

Do you also miss the good old days of the sport? Let us know in the comments below.

 

Why aren’t you faster?

“If more information were the answer we’d all be billionaires with perfect abs” -Derek Sivers

Back when I was racing, there was a conversation that would come up almost every weekend. It was always the same conversation, and it usually went the same way. “Listen,” a ‘green’ racer would say, “I want to improve, I think I have talent, and I was wondering what the next step would be for me?”

It’s incredibly exciting to hear this, because I remember being in a similar position. At age fourteen my mile time dropped from 4:56 to 4:41 in a single race, and it dawned on me that I might actually have a future in running, this thing that until that moment had felt less like ‘sport’ and more like punishment. This is bittersweet, of course, because acknowledging it means choosing a path that is lonely, painful, and rarely rewarding, and for a 14 year-old, anything but cool. Think about it, you’re basically saying “I am committing to having a body that will repel the opposite sex (or the same sex, whatever your thing is) for the foreseeable future.”

I went out and bought Jack Daniel’s Running Formula. I began spending far too much time on Dyestat and Letsrun.com. The walls of my room filled with race bibs and pictures of Alan Webb and Dathan Ritzenhein. I read Once a Runner over and over, until the cover shed and the pages began to fall out. I kept playing basketball, but my heart was not in it. My coach¹, a hard-nosed Bo Ryan disciple, would see this and tee off on me: “Looks like McCauley’s too tired from running to give his all on defense today! EVERYONE ON THE LINE!”

Throw in a Prefontaine poster and milk jug full of water and your runner’s starter pack is complete

 

Soon I was familiar with pacing, mileage progressions, and the necessary strength work to succeed. Now whether my coaches would allow me to train that way was an entirely different question (they didn’t) but regardless, I had acquired an inherent understanding of what it would take, physiologically, to succeed at the next level.

So in response to the question from the fellow racer, I would respond, “How many miles are you running?” Whatever the reply, the answer would be simple: “You need to run more miles.” At this suggestion they would visibly deflate. This was not what they were hoping to hear.

It couldn’t be that simple. There must be a secret, a short-cut, some way to improve NOW.


This sport is at its core running². There is no secret to running. There are no short-cuts, #lifehacks, or tricks to get faster. You must run more, and you must run at different speeds: fast, medium, and slow, and on different terrains: flat, hilly, slight downhills, and finally, at different distances: short, medium, and occasionally long. Sometimes you should run twice a day.

When you are not running, you must recover.

That’s oversimplified, of course, but that’s just about all there is to it, and it is where this article should end. However, that’s not how it goes. Our earlier conversation with the athlete continues.

“Okay, but what are your thoughts on minimalist shoes? What if I transition to forefoot striking or start supplementing with more Crossfit? Speaking of supplements, which should I be taking? What about pre-workouts?”

None of this matters, and while this isn’t a conversation I’m normally interested in having at all, it is definitely not one I will have unless the athlete has already done aforementioned- the 99% to make the 1% worth it. Have they made a choice to fully chase a dream; to embrace what John L. Parker dubbed the “miles of trials,” which consists of building up to a high mileage diet of 60-100 miles per week over time? Have they watched their body change, their sloppy form tidying up, strides shortening and toe-off becoming light and nimble, movement becoming rhythmic and precise, 8:00 minute mile easy runs becoming 7:20’s and eventually, 6:20’s?

If you haven’t done the 99%, there’s little point focusing on the 1%. Think of it as a math teacher writing a formula on the board. “This is the key to solving the problem,” they say to the class. “But,” the student interjects, “What’s the best type of pencil for me to be writing with?” These are nothing more than distractions from the work at hand.

If you’re reading this and you ‘noped out’ at the 60-100 miles part, that’s completely fine. For any number of reasons, you don’t want it; truly, desperately want it, and most people don’t. But don’t blame your lack of trying on schedule constraints, injuries, or family. You simply don’t want it.

This is a significant commitment to embark on, after all. So you ignore the advice and look elsewhere for a source who will tell you differently.


It’s easier for consumers to change their heroes than habits.

And for good reason. It’s uncomfortable for us to step out of our echo chamber. For a vegan or ketogenic to admit that their diet may hamper them in certain endurance events. For a muscle-bound athlete to admit he would fair better in an ultra-marathon if his dead-lift were lower. Or a cross-fitter to acknowledge the negative effects of that IPA or two he loves to sip after a workout (and this one cuts me deep).

Why change your belief when you can simply find a new coach or community who will affirm your beliefs?

Coaches –who are salesmen– flock to the outlier. You will meet running gurus who will tell you high intensity and low miles are the cure to life’s problems. That the stronger you are the faster you will be. That forefoot running is the elixir of life.

To be fair, I did experiment with minimalism and even raced Spartan race barefoot in Temecula. To this day I find the occasional cactus spine in my feet…

We are a society with every bit of knowledge ever gleaned a mere finger swipe away. The path to success is there, clear, concrete, fully-laid out, and yet we are ever-more fixated on ignoring that in favor of expediting, shortcuts, and hacks. Coaches, writers, anyone who can profit from offering some new exciting alternative will attempt to do so. To be fair, some of these alternatives are not bad, at least for hobby joggers. But on the other hand, one could argue that Christopher McDougal’s teachings have subsidized more doctor’s country club memberships over the last 10 years than concrete roads ever have.


To those of you who have already gone down that path and experienced the trials of miles, who have over many years built up an aerobic base, well, you’re free to train however you like. Go experiment with alternatives, you’ve earned it, after all. Our sport is filled with athletes like Hobie Call, who won a world championship off of low mileage. That can work for a guy who spent the prior 10 years training full-time for the marathon, but if you don’t have that aerobic base down, it probably won’t work as well for you.

But if you’re sick of being just ‘okay’ or ‘almost there’, and you really, really, want to be good, to be a sponsored athlete, to grace podiums, to PR at every distance from mile to marathon -whatever your goal might be- I challenge you to do the following. Find a copy of 80/20 running or Jack Daniel’s book. Get yourself a good running (not OCR³) coach. Become a student of the sport, and give running one year. One full year. There is no instant gratification here. In fact, you will probably regress, at least at first. But in a year you will be an entirely different person and competitor.


Weldon Johnson is the co-founder of Letsrun, the website I spent countless hours on back in the day. In 2006 he wrote a fantastic article documenting his improvement from 29:49 to 28:06 in the 10km over a 3-year span. Weldon subscribes to the Michael Scott school of KISS (keep it simple, stupid).

  1. Run more
  2. Slow down
  3. Be consistent
  4. Believe in yourself

You’ll notice that nowhere in Johnson’s article is there mention of form, diet, supplements, or cryotherapy (well duh, this was 2006). Weldon doesn’t espouse eating only nuts, or putting hunks of fat into his coffee. Nothing he states is cool or sexy, but it works. It has worked since the 60’s, and it has worked for Ryan Atkins, Chad Trammel, Amelia Boone, and Ryan Kent, along with basically every other top racer. All of them have likely sacrificed double-digit years to lonely work, and in doing so have learned their own version of the secret. Weldon explains:

“Running is a very simple activity. It is largely an aerobic activity (and more so the farther you run in distance). The better aerobic fitness you have, the better you’ll do. The more you can train and the more consistently you train the better you’ll do.”

Letsrun: What a love child of 4chan and Runner’s World would look like

You have two alternatives. You can keep doing your thing; after all, there’s so much information out there, and maybe, if you search long enough, and try enough products, there’s a chance you find it, the REAL secret. Perhaps it’s wearable tech, or protein powder, or minimalist shoes. Maybe it’s weight vests, magical water, cryotherapy or myofascial relief. Or sleep trackers, electrical muscle stimulators, HIIT training. Some have said genetic testing, water-running, trx, and standing desk have worked wonders.

Or you can shut your computer, lace up your shoes, and go outside for a long run.


¹That basketball coach is in prison for life, but that’s a story for a different time
²There is one event this is not true for: the 100 meter race at OCRW this upcoming year
³However, the best OCR coaches: Yancy Camp, DWEP, Albon, Mericle, Atkins, and well,  just about every other top racer who coaches… they all have endurance backgrounds and are fantastic, extremely knowledgeable humans. My caution is against using someone who is unfamiliar with endurance outside of OCR.

2018’s Highest Earning OCR Athletes

After a hiatus in 2017, we’re back with our highest OCR earner list. As was the case in 2016, this list only covers publicly available, published race winnings. It does not include any sort of pay or sponsorships from Pro Teams, nor any of the other usual sources of supplemental income. This may include television revenue sharing, coaching services, affiliate earnings, or other undisclosed payouts. These latter payouts make up a significant portion of athlete earnings, and for some athletes can dwarf race payouts.

To view our 2016 list, click here.

These USD-converted earnings are rough at best and should be treated as such.


8. Nicole Mericle

 

2018 Race Winnings: $27,000+
Biggest Payday: OCRW Championship 3k, $6,300

2018 saw a fair amount of obstacle racers pulling in mid to upper 20’s in race earnings. While these figures aren’t by any means earth-shattering, they are a positive sign. After all, there was a time when only the very top racers were making these amounts.

Nicole Mericle narrowly edged out a group of racers, including Tough Mudder X champion Emma Chapman ($25,000) for the number 8 spot. Thanks to her strong performances at the several championships. Mericle won two titles at the OCRWC Championships in England, a first and duel 2nds at the OCRW North-American championships, and a second at Spartan’s North-American Championships.* Nicole closed her season in style, racing three times over two days at the Spartan Trifect World Championship in Sparta, where she placed second, and then claimed a title no one else on this list has: The Red-Bull ‘All-In.’

*Our apologies if you’re new and in complete confusion as to the many acronyms and similar sounding championships. Every race series has their own ‘Championship,’ many of them with similar sounding names.

7. Hunter McIntyre

2018 Race Winnings: $30,000+
Biggest Payday: Tough Mudder ‘X’ Final, $25,000

There was a time when Hunter McIntyre seemed next in line to Hobie Call’s throne as king of OCR, but Hunter has never seemed particularly concerned with fulfilling other’s expectations. In the last two years, he has moved away from the OCR scene, racing just 8 times total. Hunter didn’t race a single Spartan Race in 2018, but he did compete in the Tough Mudder X  series, where he went three for three, including a win at Tough Mudder X finals that was worth $25,000. Sure, his winnings have dropped significantly from previous years, but no need to fret. Hunter has recently partnered with Beachbody on a video series, and we suspect sponsorship checks will continue to  hit Hunter’s mailbox for the foreseeable future.

 


6. Ryan Woods

Asheville Spartan Ryan Woods

2018 Race Winnings: $37,200+
Biggest Payday: Spartan National Series, $8,000

With an uncomfortable 2017 finally behind him, the sport’s fastest runner returned to form in 2018, diversifying his race series and winning at Savage Race, Spartan Race, and World’s Toughest Mudder’s team competition. At 39, Woods is among a group of racers including Cody Moat, Hobie Call, and Mark Batres, who are proving elite performance can be maintained well past the traditional peak performance windows in running sports.

 


5. Rea Kolbl

Rea-Kolbl-crosses-first-in-West-Virginia

2018 Race Winnings: $37,700+
Biggest Payday: World’s Toughest Mudder, $10,000

The former Slovenian gymnast has been on more Spartan Race podiums than any other woman in the last 3 years. Despite finishing 5th in Lake Tahoe, Rea has traditionally dominated in the longer race formats. She has not lost a race 8 hours or longer, including World’s Toughest Mudder in 2017 and 2018.  If Lindsay Webster is the best all-around racer right now, Rea certainly has a claim to the best pure endurance racer.

 


4. Robert Killian

Robert-Killian-Sandbag-Carry-Seattle-2017

2018 Race Winnings: $38,000+
Biggest Payday: Spartan North American Championships, $12,000

The former Spartan World Champion claims the number four spot thanks in part to volume, having raced (at minimum) a staggering 27 times in 2018.  Killian has never avoided racing, but even by his standards his August stretch was truly remarkable: in a span of eight days, he won five races, two of them longer ‘beast’ courses, including the North American championship. Bonus awesome feat: In May he came in first at the Montana Beast, then traveled to Colorado where he won the Sprint the next day.


3. Jon Albon

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2018 Race Winnings: $63,200+
Biggest Payday: Spartan World Championship, $20,000

While the 2018 triple world champion (Spartan race, OCRW short and long courses) had another great year, it’s the purse Jon didn’t win that had the endurance world talking. Spartan CEO Joe De Sena offered 1 million dollars to the athlete who could win Spartan’s ‘big three’ of championship races, ie the World Championship in Lake Tahoe, Trifecta championship in Greece, and the Enduro 24-hour championship in Iceland. Albon won the first two before coming up short in Iceland, and although most remained dubious to the possibility of the triple, he certainly gave his all in chase of it.

Despite our hesitancy to enter the absurd ‘best athlete’ conversation, Albon might just have a case as to the most well-rounded endurance athlete on the planet. His 2018 resume includes wins in everything from the 3k to two-day orienteering events, Skyrunning series, and even a victory on the roads in the marathon.


2. Ryan Atkins

2018 Race Winnings: $74,200+
Biggest Payday: Spartan Ultra World Championship, $16,000

North America’s top male racer didn’t compete in as many Spartan Races as the others on the list, but that didn’t affect his earnings. Atkins won the 3k, 15k, and the coed team title at the NorAm champs, as well as the 24 hr Championship in Iceland. His efforts in Iceland also netted him an additional 10,000 bonus from Joe De Sena.

While many claimed Hunter would be the first “Million Dollar Athlete” in OCR, it appears it might actually be Ryan who will be the first. If our math is right, Atkins may have already eclipsed $500,000 in career winnings alone.


1. Lindsay Webster

2018 Race Winnings: $87,500+
Biggest Payday: Spartan Championship, Lake Tahoe, $20,000

What more can we say about Lindsay Webster at this point? Webster has won nearly everything available to her over the last three years.  This year she re-asserted her dominance, taking first in 19 of the 21 races she entered. Mind you, she wasn’t cherry-picking Sunday races. She won Spartan’s National Series and World Championships, the 3 km, 15km, and team races at Nor-Am champs, the 15km at OCRW Worlds, the Tougher Mudder crown in Seattle…. there’s too much to list, so do us a favor and just take a look below.

Webster’s current run in OCR is something we haven’t seen since the early days of the sport when Hobie Call and Amelia Boone reigned supreme, if at all. In this sport, athletes continue to excel through their mid-30s, and we don’t see the 29-year-old slowing anytime soon.

 


Many thanks to obstacle racing’s very-own living encyclopedia/stat maniac, Jack Bauer, for helping fact check this article.

Lose Weight Or Die In Vermont, An AI Story

In recent years an AI program wrote a novel that made it past the first round of a Japanese literary competition, and a new Harry Potter novel, created with the Botnik learning machine made waves in literary circles. While predictive text generators struggle with plot, dialogue, and overall sensibility, they do possess a remarkable ability to understand the underlying themes or ‘feel’ of the text they are fed.

Following is a short story about Spartan Race, courtesy of botnik and Hay Kranen text generators, and using available text from Joe De Sena’s “Spartan Up” along with Outside Magazine’s fantastic look at Joe and the farm.


He had always hated the muddy field with its smiling, slippery suffering, cold, pain. It was a place where he felt shocked.

He was a dirt drinker with soft arms and sculpted knees. His friends saw him a large leader. Once, he had even made a cup of tea for a fatigued blob. That’s the sort of man he was. I’ll elaborate on the short-circles; the great grease which perfectly proportioned the way life uses principles and builds a suffering!

Joe Desena, Spartan CEO

Joe slid over to the window for 30 days and reflected on his cold surroundings. “Why burpees?” Andy yelled from the survivors. The rain hammered the young children. “Exhaustion has them in the pond.” He laughed.

He saw wet goals in the distance. It was the figure of Spartan Race.  He was not prepared. Too easy.

Spartan stepped and came closer, firmly Joe could see the organic pools in his eye. “There’s a cabin in Vermont, but everything is stone at 4am.”

Spartan stared with the passion of 5686 tight-fisted quitters. He said, in hushed tones, “I love you and I want pain.”

Burpee Joe looked back, even more suffering and still fingering the heavy boulder. “Spartan, lose weight or die in Vermont,” he replied.

They looked at each other with tired feelings, like two concerned, comfortable losing at a very determined Wall Street Party, with Chinese music playing in the background and two smart teachers changing to the core.

Joe studied Spartan. He took an underwater breath. “Too bad,” began Joe, “Are you eating apples for 8 days long? I don’t feel the same way, and I never will.”

Spartan looked pained, his overtired emotions crawling like a substantial, sparkling spear.

Joe could hear Spartan’s emotions shatter into 705 pieces. Then the strong brute hurried away into the distance.

Not even a drink of dirt would calm his nerves tonight.

——

Racing, Burpees, and Misogi: a Three Year Update (Part One)

This past fall I traveled to the United Arab Emirates for the Inaugural Middle-Eastern Obstacle Course Championships.

I wasn’t particularly excited to be racing. Granted, there had been a time when I was really passionate about racing, back when I first stumbled upon the sport and subsequently caught the racing bug. Back then my goal was to be the best in the world at what I did, and a good deal of every day was spent either training, recovering from training, or thinking about training.

I thought about the sport constantly in those early days, but the sport did not think about me. I loved speed and trained that way, but the sport of obstacle racing was evolving toward sluggish, multi-hour mountain races. This left me with the occasional short course races and not much else. I had a brief stint with Spartan’s Pro Team and moved on. I would end up working far too much, meeting a Hungarian girl, and eventually following her to Europe.

My racing days were three years ago, ages in a sport spit-balling forward into the public’s eye as quickly as OCR. But I would be lying if I said there wasn’t a certain tickle, an itch in the back of my head. I tried to bury it and move on to new things. Still, it reemerged on an almost weekly basis.

Twice in the last three years I’ve attempted to scratch it.


The Championship took place well outside of Dubai, in the northeastern, mountainous section of the United Arab Emirates that bordered Oman. As we left Dubai behind there was no gradual transition from urban to rural. Instead, one moment we were in the awe-inspiring, meticulous city, and the next we were alone on a sand-strewn two-lane highway. To either side stretched seemingly unending dunes dotted with the occasional camel.

The novelist Wilfred Thesiger spent years wandering through this “Empty Quarter” of the desert in the 1940s. For months at a time the landless Bedouins he traveled with subsisted on nothing more than dried dates and camel milk. Dates, to me at least, seem to be about on par with sandpaper in terms of nourishment while in the throes of dehydration. And why would Thesiger, an affluent aristocrat, willfully spend extended amounts of time trying not to die out in these ever-changing sands?

Eventually British interests began to show interest in meeting with tribes, oil was found, rights were negotiated, and just like that, the massive silver city currently shrinking in our mirrors had sprung upward from the sand.


I drank strong, bitter coffee to stave off the jet lag while Halvord Borsheim, a Swedish racer based out of Dubai, slalomed his BMW SUV though sedentary early-morning traffic. His girlfriend Martha, also a racer, was co-piloting, but she was rehabbing and would be cheering instead of racing today. My brother, Brakken, had flown in from Milwaukee, and currently sat next to me, dozing.

This would be my second time racing here. I had flown out to Dubai in 2015 for the first Middle Eastern Spartan Race. It was a sprint to the finish, and I crossed the line thinking I had won. But my celebration was cut short when I saw Hallvard, medal around neck and banana in hand, waiting for me past the finish line.

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Given the brutal terrain and conditions, I was ecstatic with the 2nd-place finish. The rest of my week was spent wandering around the city in a sleep-deprived spell, jaw hanging at the sheer wonder of the place. I was new to racing, to traveling, to having giant checks handed to me, and everything felt like a dream.

Something clicked for me that during that trip. This was a thought that, simple as it was, would grow into a philosophy over the coming years. You see, I have good speed endurance (I once took a year and a half off from running, and for my very first day back, walked to a track and ran a half mile in 1:58) but my talent is not linear, and I’m actually quite average when it comes to pure aerobic, or endurance events. Had the Americans shown in 2015 I’d have taken 10th and gone home empty-handed. If the Europeans showed up I would have been lucky to take 20th. But only I had made the choice to show up, to sit on a plane for 16 hours, to race. This was the secret: talent is important in this world, but like it or not, it is finite and can only be improved so much. Circumstance, however, is entirely up to you.

This attitude began to bleed into other parts life. Identify a low-probability event, give yourself the skills to succeed in that situation were it to happen, and then finally, attempt to influence the odds of the said event occurring.

I wasn’t able to make it in 2016, but Brakken did fly out.  He took 2nd as well, but to a Russian this time, Sergei Perelygin.


It was morning, but in name only- the sun had already cleared the jagged mountains skirting the race grounds, and it was 93 degrees, well on its way to triple digits come race-time. I was thirsty by the time my warm-up was over.

Like most championships, this race would be the Beast distance, rumored to be in the 13-mile range. The first hour would consist of open desert running before moving into the mountains for the second hour. I’ve discovered that these races are typically less-obstacle intensive than US races, meaning shorter, lighter carries and crawls, but it was rumored that there were some intense carries and lengthy swimming sections in the 2nd half of the race.

I stood there at the start line, a good 15 pounds heavier than my racing days, minutes slower in the 5k, running a race 5 times longer than my ideal racing distance, wondering if I still had “it.”

But we’ll come back to “it” later. Because this story isn’t about that.

It’s really about the first time I attempted to scratch the itch, and more importantly, how I failed.


In 2016 I was invited to LA for the taping of a new TV show. The History Channel and Peter Berg (Friday Night Lights, Lone Survivor) were teaming up to expose everyday people to Special Forces training; somehow I had been chosen. Probably, if I’m going to be honest, because I’m the cheaper Kraker. I think Brakken might have been out in Atlanta filming a show with NBC at the time.

Nonetheless, work had become quite stressful and I needed a break, so I put in for vacation and flew out to sunny Valencia, California. I saw a fun week in the sun, some long rucks, probably some pushups and planks, and an easy paycheck ahead of me. As you’re probably aware of by now, the History Channel did not share these sentiments; they had very, very different ideas of what the weeks would be like.


Side-note: There’s a strange moment where everything changes. Where in a split instant a person, a normal, everyday person, goes from “Average Joe” to “PUBLIC FIGURE.” What this means essentially is that people now are allowed to say awful, unfiltered things to you on social media. We’ve seen people end up in this position, so I wasn’t unaware of what was coming.

Fast forward to the Thursday night the show, called “The Selection”, aired, and sure enough, the comments and messages began to stream in. People, especially veterans, seemed peeved – no, legitimately upset by what we had volunteered to do.

We were disrespecting the Special Forces and what they stood for by ‘playing pretend.’ We were embarrassingly weak. We were actually actors – heck, we probably hung out in heated trailers between takes. We were soft.

Soft. Now that’s a critique that stuck with me, and for good reason.


A few days before the show began the 40 or so of us participants were shuttled via 12-passenger vans to a small park outside of the city. It was a beautiful, sun-drenched California day and spirits were high. We’d been cooped up in a hotel room undergoing physical and psychological panels for the past 3 days and were ready to blow off some steam.

There in the parking lot we were split into groups of 20 and sent through the basic army PT tests. The first sign that I may have bitten off more than I could chew? I couldn’t hit the sit-up standard of 60 in 2 minutes. Here I was, surrounded by some massive, impressive human specimens, starting to regret my (non-existent) fitness.

We’d been given maps and orienteering to study, knots to tie, etc, to prep us for what was to come, but I put off going over the materials. There was no point preparing – things would most likely be fine, and if not, I would figure it out as challenges arose.

The show began and I was anything but fine. I struggled with the lack of sleep, the never-ending upper-body exercises; the planks, push-ups, log-carries, and of course the constant, wet, bone-chilling cold. An hour in I made up my mind to leave the set. Luckily, my ego wouldn’t allow that, but I’d already accepted my departure as inevitable.  But it wasn’t the physical pain, the tear gas, or the running that did me in.

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I began to feel myself losing my mental edge. We were given a very specific set of instructions summing up, among other things, communication with the instructors running the exercise. Before long I’d forgotten even the most basic one: the word “Instructor.” All I could think of, for hours on end, was the word “Inspector.” I kept my head down and tried to avoid any communication with the cadres, whose names were lost to me. I began to feel vulnerable. I didn’t trust myself, were I to be blindfolded, thrown in a box, tortured, or any other number of things. Would I have a rational reaction on camera, on national TV?

I’m externally motivated. This is great for showing up and overachieving come race day, but not so good for putting in work when the competition is gone and its time for a solo training session.

So what do you do when your external motivation decides to do the opposite, and blasts your face with a hose while telling you, rather explicitly, to quit? 
In my case, I listened.

Physically I was fine, but as I tried to find motivation it became clear I was lacking a “why” for being there.

One of the participants had cancer. He’d put off undergoing brain surgery to be here. Another had only ever wanted to serve his country, and he couldn’t imagine doing anything else in life. This was his moment to shine. But why was I here?

I never figured it out, so I stuck it out for 30 hours and then was gone, just like that, whisked off the set and to the airport for a return flight to Denver.

‘You’re Soft’ I had written, matter-of-factly, in a notebook while the plane took me east toward Denver. “Oh, it’s just an aftermath of being tear-gassed,” I fibbed to the flight attendant, who had seen my red eyes and inquired if everything was alright.

I touched down late that Sunday night, Ubered home from Denver, and slept for 12 hours. That next morning I opened Reddit to catch up on the last two weeks of news.  While browsing, I stumbled across an article from Outside magazine about Kyle Korver, one of the greatest NBA’s shooters ever, and his “Misogi”- inspired training.

Misogi is a Japanese term that refers to the Shinto ritual of full body washing, or cleansing. Korver’s training group referred to it in the physical sense: A difficult, borderline impossible task that served to strip one to the core, both physically and mentally. For their first Misogi, Korver and his training buddies paddle-boarded 27-miles across open water. The next year they upped the stakes, with an underwater, boulder-weighted, 5k relay.

Grantland explains:

“Each participant would dive down, find the rock, run with it as long as he could, and drop it for the next guy to find. Those waiting their turn wore weight belts and tread in water between five and 10 feet deep.

“It took five hours. ‘We were honestly worried about blacking out,’ Korver says. They were also worried about sharks.”

What about the aforementioned wanderer, Thiseger? A quote of his comes to mind, upon leaving a desert journey behind, one in which he’d been imprisoned by the Sultan of Saudi Arabia:

“No man can live this life and emerge unchanged. He will carry, however faint, the imprint of the desert, the brand which marks the nomad; and he will have within him the yearning to return, weak or insistent according to his nature. For this cruel land can cast a spell which no temperate clime can match.”

It hit me. Like Korver and Thesiger, l had been gifted an incredible opportunity: a chance to participate in my own Misogi. But I had walked away, no – I had quit, before allowing things to get bad. In doing so, I failed to capitalize on the experience.

This wasn’t my first time walking away from something. I dropped out of college with one semester remaining. I walked away from racing as I was just beginning to win the short distance races. Maybe there was a theme here.

Sports (and this type of experience) possess a fantastic ability to simulate the highs and lows of life while in a protected environment. How do you react when things go poorly? Who are you when you forget to wear your mask? Its why we stress athletics in children – this is not just playing, but high-stress character-building in a controlled environment.

This Misogi put me to a simulated rock bottom. It was time to fix myself.


Fix Yourself: A Two-Step Process to Physical Enlightenment

Step 1: Remember, explicitly, your thought process during and immediately after the event.

I know you’ve had lows; you’re a human, after all.  What did you think at that rock-bottom point?  “I hate myself when I overeat.” “I gossip too much.”

I used to watch the open heats at Spartan Races. You’re bound to spot someone having a really, really bad time out there. You’ve seen them. Wallowing in the mud, baggy t-shirt and basketball shorts being sucked off, or sitting off to the side on their own, taking deep, ragged breaths, eyes averted from passerby. What would happen when their race was over, once they had taken a hot shower and changed into fresh clothes, I wondered.  Did they take an Instagram photo, accompanied by a big smile and flexed biceps, throw a caption on the photo like “Crushed it” or #Beastmode, and move on with their life? Or did they, from time to time, remember what had really happened out there, the vulnerability they had felt? In my case, I pretended like it didn’t exist for far too long.

Write it down, write it all down and set it in stone explicitly while you’re still in the trenches of despair.

“Pain + Reflection = Progress,” says Bridgewater founder Ray Dalio.

Time is an optimist’s best friend, and we need to get these thoughts down before we begin to rationalize our choices, the passing months softening the rough edges of memories.

So I wrote it down. “You’re Soft.”

Step 2: Get Hard

Yes, I was weak mentally. But if I had the physical tools to succeed, would I still have struggled?

And how does someone become stronger? I decided to start with the basics. Take it back to square 1 and acquaint myself with heavy, painful movements that as a life-long distance runner, I had avoided like the plague for a variety of parroted misconceptions, including:

  1. “You’ll become too muscle-bound”
      1. and
  2. “You’ll injure yourself”

Enter the Burpee.

A look back at the first USA OCR National Championships

Take a look at the start line pictures from your local mud run, or “obstacle race.”

Unlike a 5k or marathon line-up showcasing emaciated, linear body types, these photos are usually more of “type-A” line-up. Your OCR start-line is dominated by big arms, distended abs, tattoos, and spandex, lots and lots of spandex. You’d be forgiven in dismissing this strange collection, this burning man/cross-fit baby, as being nothing more than a fad that takes itself a bit too seriously.

But look closely and you might see, sandwiched between heavily tattooed Cross-fitters in checkered board shorts, juiced out powerlifters, and hobbyjoggers with dad-bods, a glimpse of one or two thin, serious-looking runners rocking short shorts and bright invov8 shoes. You’d be remiss if you thought they were nothing more than a marathoner trying something new.

No, these are the first of the professional athletes of this new sport, battling week in and out on the muddy for chicken-scratch prizes and sponsorship, much like the Steve Scotts or Prefontaine’s of track and field’s early post-amateur years.


Despite its lack of experience as opposed to other sports with Olympic dreams (the sport, in the US at least, has been around just under 10 years) obstacle racing has serious Olympic aspirations. This past weekend some of the top athletes in the OCR world met up in Miami to compete over a 3 mile course. At stake were spots on America’s newly-announced Pan-American team, which will spend the coming year racing exhibition races in North and South america before heading down to the Pan-am games.

While the aforementioned weekend-warrior crowd might pay OCR’s bills, it was the runners who were the focus on this special course. It is these same runners who are instigating an identity crisis in a sport attempting to be both commercial and Olympic in its aspirations, ideas that time and time again have proven to be mutually exclusive.

While participation numbers may be down as a whole since, say, 2010, the mainstream popularity of obstacle racing has exploded in recent years. Tough Mudder and Spartan Race have defied their fringe labels to become household names, benefiting from renewed interest in natural, gymnastic-like movements thanks to the explosion of Crossfit and shows like the ratings-dominating American Ninja Warrior.

NBC, NBC sports, ESPN, and CBS have all begun to devote substantial airtime to their own specific versions of the obstacle race. Even Netflix (Ultimate Beastmaster) and CMT (Broken Skull Ranch) are cashing in on the obstacle/mud-run movement. Sponsors the likes of Panasonic and Reebok have jumped into the fray, marketing action cameras and sport-specific shoes (with built in drainage and extra grip for obstacles like rope climbs) to the mostly middle-aged, upper-middle class participants who shell big bucks for a few miles of mud and object carries on a weekly basis (A typical Spartan race entry costs around $125). Jeep, Coors light, Subway, and others have highlighted the sport in their TV spots.


But why mess around with the massive headaches of properly planning and executing a race when the potential of TV money lies waiting? Battlefrog, previously one of the biggest competitors to Spartan Race, and one with a large, passionate fan base, had a similar thought. They disbanded their race series, fired their staff, and are attempting to jump to ESPN or other networks with a televised racing series.

In this streaming age ESPN is seeing its lowest ratings ever and even dropped 1.5 million subscribers in 2016, according to adage.com. Yet the show has been reviewed well and BattleFrog seems to have no intentions of returning to the original fanbase that made it a household name. 

They say once a rapper uses your name in a song you’ve made it, and in late 2015 Pittsburgh rapper Mac Miller dropped the first known OCR-related line in his song “Brand Name” :

“American-ninja to these obstacles, no stopping me…” (Things go downhill quickly from there with euphemisms to ladies of the night and services but you get the point)

I think its safe to say OCR has officially become more than a fad; it has established itself as a concrete societal mainstay. So it’s here, but what’s its identity? Is it a cash cow, a grassroots movement, a professional runner’s sport, or some combination of the three?


Back to that Miami starting line. For an event with as much buzz surrounding it as this, the photos told a different story. The participant #’s were slim, the obstacles borrowed from other sports (Spartan has decided to use biathlon’s lazer pistol as its featured penalty-inducing obstacle), and the athletes fast, fit, runners competing on a fast, flat course where the more traditional cross-fit body-types didn’t stand a chance.


This was labeled a “short-course” by Spartan, and it was shorter than usual, at least by OCR standards, with a sub 30-minute completion time.

But that’s not a “short-course” by any other sport’s standards; after all, the longest track and field event, the 10km, takes around 27 minutes to complete. From an aerobic standpoint, the same athlete who wins an 11-minute running race will, with proper training, be the best in a 2 hr race, and this is often the case, with Ryan Atkins, Hunter McIntyre, Amelia Boone, and other endurance mainstays winning events no matter the course. Spartan attempts to change this by introducing heavy obstacles to even out the playing field, but it could be argued that when events attempt to even out a playing field, the opposite as actually being done.

Fast-forward 30 minutes and Mark Batres crossed the line in first for the males, followed by former Spartan World Champion Robert Killian and upcoming speedster Mike Ferguson. An upland, California native, Batres boasts prs of 13:44 in the 5k and sub-30 minutes in the 10km.

Obstacles can be learned; aerobic capacity can not. If the sport continues this way we may be seeing a field of Kenyans sweeping podiums 5 years from now. 

And Batre’s prize for being crowned the first USA OCR champ and Pan-American team member on the most-hyped weekend of the year? A meager $300.

Throw in a flight from Cali, rental car, hotel, and race entry, Mark likely left in the red (disregarding sponsors, and any unmentioned payouts of course).

So we’re seeing progress on the corporate side of the sport, but we’re not seeing much of a trickle down to the athletes themselves.

But that will change. 

Although optimists were saying the same about track and field some 40 years ago…

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