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.

Is There Potential For VR In Obstacle Racing?

KATvrTreadmills_1

 

The main limitation on virtual reality is locomotion. In the simplest terms, people just can’t move around with headsets obscuring their real-world vision, no matter how tempting it may be to do so within a given virtual program. It’s largely for this reason that, as promising as it is, VR hasn’t fully taken off yet in areas like gaming or fitness.

This problem is being addressed though, and while this is likely to be a long and imperfect process, there is progress being made. VR treadmills and similar machines are doing a better job of bringing about full immersion and a range of movement. Such things can work wonders for a lot of VR applications, and even some fairly intense workout concepts. If you imagine them applied to any kind of VR obstacle course or race training, however, they still seem to come up short. Omnidirectional VR treadmills can and will be remarkably flexible, but they still can’t directly alter terrain or bring about physical barriers.

Even if they’re not perfect though, might there be some potential for training those interested in these kinds of courses and races? In a light and indirect way, there may actually be some precedent for loosely related concepts in VR.

We have, for example, seen some more rugged VR adventures that simulate physical challenges well beyond walking and running. The most prominent particular application that would fit this description is probably The Climb. It’s a beautiful yet imperfect rock climbing game that’s coming to Oculus Quest this year and is expected to improve upon its original version. Though it is specifically focused on climbing, the game shows that a VR experience can revolve around rugged activity and physical challenges.

We’ve also seen some VR experiences with no real physical components that still make something of a show of progressing through obstacles or tough terrain. One of the most visible such experiences is Gonzo’s Quest, originally an internet-based game hosted by casino sites but now a well-regarded virtual reality arcade experience. In this game, no movement is required and even the gameplay is simple, but the point is to propel an explorer through the dense vegetation of colonial Peru. It’s not an obstacle course in any direct sense, but in a roundabout way, it almost gives you the feel for what one might feel like visually in VR.

Considering examples like these, you can at least begin to get a feel for the general concept of more involved physical challenges in virtual reality. You might imagine a VR simulation of a given landscape full of up-and-down terrain, unpredictable obstacles, things to push through, and things to vault over. And from there, you can further imagine that at least some form of VR training may well be possible for obstacle racers. It won’t be perfect, and there won’t be physical barriers. But even a largely visual experience coupled with a more advanced VR treadmill could still be valuable in training users for how to go about courses, and how to mentally adjust to obstacles and similar challenges.

*Cover Photo Credit: The New Screen Savers

 

World’s Toughest Mudder – An Ode to Pissing in My Wetsuit

When I think about the world’s toughest race
A mudder that put me in my place
The memory that I cannot replace
Is pissing in my wetsuit

I registered in the previous year
My training plan became more clear
A piece of training I never went near
Was pissing in my wetsuit

The forecast was cold for our race day
The five-mile course ahead of us lay
Nolan and Eli never bothered to say
We’d be pissing in our wetsuits

Worlds Toughest Mudder GirlThis competitor probably pissed in her wetsuit

The first couple laps were warm and free
The sun was out, everyone could see
I figured no other runner would be
Pissing in their wetsuit

The sun went down and it turned cold
The time had come for me to be bold
And deliver a liquid colored gold
By pissing in my wetsuit

The first couple times were totally weird
Being seen by others is what I feared
But eventually I became less skeered
Of pissing in my wetsuit

Worlds Toughest Mudder PondThe pond was the perfect place for pissing in your wetsuit

Turning laps, my heart would pound
My friends and family I couldn’t let down
I mastered the art of walking around
Just pissing in my wetsuit

As grass and obstacles turned to ice
The liquid warmth was really nice
Some laps I would even go twice
By pissing in my wetsuit

When the race was over my body was toast
My pit crew wouldn’t even come close
The smell of ammonia was super gross
From pissing in my wetsuit

Worlds Toughest Mudder WoodsTwo Ryans – Possibly Pissed in their Wetsuits

When I got home and cleaned my stuff
A simple scrub was not enough
Removing the smell was really tough
From pissing in my wetsuit

I watched the special on TV
They didn’t mention, I didn’t see
That Rea and Kris, I guarantee
Were pissing in their wetsuits

The moral of this story is
If during the race you have to wizz
The only acceptable answer is
Pissing in your wetsuit

Worlds Toughest Mudder Mendoza

I guarantee these guys pissed in their wetsuits

All Photo Credit Goes to OCR Nation

 

There is no DNF in a timed, looped, race.


There is no DNF in a time, looped race.

Here is how it goes.

1. The timed, looped race starts at a specific time.
2. Your job is to run for as long, and as far as you can, until the time runs out.

  • Want to take breaks? Do it!
  • Want to sleep? Do it!
  • Stop 12 hours in and go home, Cool.
  • Want to go balls out, no matter what, all through the night!?

3. The race ends at a certain time.

When the final horn goes off, whoever has the most laps in the fastest time, wins! Next highest laps in fastest time is 2nd place, next highest is 3rd, and so on. (In World’s Toughest Mudder’s case, 1209 racers)

The only way to get a Do Not Finish is to get disqualified by cheating.

Many cry  “But I stayed out all night, and that person didn’t.”

That was your choice and you got as many/more/less miles than that person, and can be happy/sad/thrilled with that result.

Follow along with me in this example:

It appears as though all of these athletes stopped well before 8:00am.

Yet, here they are listed as the 53rd-57th place. If the argument that “I stayed out all night mattered”,  their placement would show up beneath anyone that doesn’t show a finish time of at least 20 hours, or would be DNF altogether.

It means they would score lower than someone who ran one lap, slept for nearly 24 hours, then ran a morning lap. That makes no sense logically or competitively.

Age group awards are being handed out this year. Did TMHQ keep track of all the AG leaders as they come in each lap? Are they on radios, and handing out leader bibs tracking down top 3 in each age group?  I would not expect them to, and I assert, it’s time and resources better served doing other things at this event.

Seems like the official rules need some adjustment, or have a lot of angry people come awards time, or in OCR’s case, probably both.

Evolution of the Series

I’ve been knocked out from electrocution. I’ve been immersed in ice within a breath of hypothermia. I’ve been driven to my knees by a death march up the side of a mountain. In the 4 short years I’ve come to eat, sleep and breathe obstacle course racing I’ve suffered. And along the way I’ve lived life to its boundaries. Every moment has been exhilarating.

OCR seduced me with its unwavering commitment to our collective humanity. What can be more human than running, carrying heavy shit, crawling and jumping? It captivated me with its ability to shake off the chains of modern comforts and tap into my primordial instincts of survival. Most of my friends think I’m crazy or even masochistic. Those other friends who convene every weekend on courses just smile and line up again at the finish line next to me.

This sport could be called a religion if not for the fact that the necessary skills to compete predate any god. There’s been a consensus that OCR’s popularity initially exploded because it tapped into that evolutionary past. Now, as the sport matures, there are those who argue that it needs to evolve to survive. I can’t help but wonder if that thinking could be dangerous and even counter-productive.

Evolution has come with or without that debate. The popularity of American Ninja Warrior has tempted some OCR series to tap into new audiences. More and more, race directors are engineering bigger more complicated obstacles. Some so innovative, even the best in our sport have been dumbfounded at recent championship competitions by the need for a how-to manual before attempting them.

Mr. Mouse would scurry into permanent obscurity at the thought of pleasing the masses who cheer on Captain NBC. When asked to overcome some of the most recent engineering monstrosities, ancient Spartans would take one look and simply burn them down.

Make no mistake. Skill has its place in our sport. But I can’t help but wonder how many successful competitors at today’s elite events would successfully complete or even choose to participate in an original Tough Guy or survive a Death Race. Skill is worthy of praise. But courage and the will to overcome adversity should be the true measurement of an obstacle course racer and obstacle engineers should remember that. Their creations should test every human being’s ability to push past their previously conceived limitations. Circus acts are for big tents.

I confess. I’ve followed the best in our sport to bouldering walls and some of the ninja gyms that have sprung up around my city. I recognize the value of grip-strength if I want to be an all-around successful athlete. More and more though, suffering on today’s courses seems to stem from torn and bloody hands. Where is the psychological test that has us walking away feeling reborn? Pushing our limits at grip strength doesn’t compare to pushing our limits as human beings.

Don’t get me wrong the “Sufferfest” spirit is still out there. But I can’t help but worry about the future of OCR as I see it twist itself into a more marketable sport at the expense of its soul.

This was never meant to be a spectator sport. It was supposed to pull people off of couches and into the mud to reacquaint themselves with the earlier version of themselves. Tapping into the grit that’s within us isn’t just addictive. It’s also contagious and that’s why it exploded in popularity.

Call me an idealist.  But can we not evolve as a movement without abandoning our original genius insight? Our own evolution as a species was what we were trying to shake off in the first place!

 

The Last 10 Percent

Racing, as in life, is made up of so many different little parts. If you focus too much on one thing, it’s like stepping up too close to a painting. Sure, you can appreciate the brush strokes, but you’ll miss out on the whole picture. The overarching beauty of the masterpiece before you. Or maybe you are missing out on the hastily composed graffiti on the underside of a bridge. Either way.

So, here’s my approach. Do what you will with it. Embrace. Put it in your junk mail. I don’t really care. And in the end, that’s a lesson right there!

The Physical:

At the end of the day, if you want to win, or do really well, there are certain physical laws that govern you. For most endurance sports, once you have the elite “skill set”, we come into the range of aerobic capacity. In a nutshell, that’s how quickly you can move through the expected terrain at a pace that’s maintainable for 1-2 hours. Seems simple. Let’s delve a little deeper.

  • The expected terrain. If you are going to be competing on the side of a mountain, you need to be good at going up and down hills. Really good. You should probably practice that.
  • You’ll rarely find a 400m soft rubber stretch of course, where you can drop sub 60 second laps. So, why are you spending all your time on one?
  • The running portion is going to make up 70-90% of your time. Train accordingly
  • AEROBIC. Meaning with oxygen. People (especially cross-fitters) love going anaerobic. Beyond competitions that last a few minutes, they fall apart. Most OCR races are at least 45 minutes long. To train your aerobic system, you’ll need to spend lots of time at, or below your Aerobic threshold. Sorry, it’s true. This isn’t the sprinting up stairs speed. This isn’t the sexy, high-paced, dubstep ladden training montage. This is the “running through flowers, for hours” pace. Conversational. Heart rate 120-140 for most people. Get it into you!

The Coach:

If you want to self coach yourself… great. If you want to pay for a coach, also great. Make sure whoever you choose, the following always holds true:

  • Consistent progression. You should be increasing the training load by about 5% every week, with every 3rd or 4th week being an “easy” week.
  • Varied intensities. You workouts should be mostly easy, with some “really hard” stuff thrown in.
  • Tests. Every 4-8 weeks, you should have some kind of test, where you can see if you are getting any faster, or if you are just tiring yourself out.
  • Communication. You should have a relationship with whoever makes your training plan, that allows you to say “DUDE, i’m really tired, why is that?”, or lets you say “I don’t think this is working”. Your coach might need to say “suck it up, keep pushing”, or “hmmm, let’s reassess your plan”, or “maybe we need to get some blood work done.” either way, communication is paramount.
  • Your coach should be someone who is smart and who has some sort of a reputation in the industry. Ask 5 of your competitors about your coach. If they all think he’s a twat, maybe it’s time to look elsewhere… This can include you, if you are self coached! Don’t be a twat.

Spiritual

I’ve always believed that the most important facet of competition is the mental and the spiritual, not the physical. I’ve won many races that I shouldn’t have. Where the guy who finished second is a faster runner, or better at obstacles. So, what’s the big secret here? I don’t know. I’m probably wrong. But something here might help.

Your ego will build you up. This will create expectations. So, try best to let go of your ego.
“How do you do that” (Hunter M asks)? Accept that you aren’t special. If you are Michael Jordan, Wayne Gretzky, or a Mud Running champion, at the end of the day, no one is special. We are all just on a rock, hurtling through space and time, doing our best and maybe inspiring 1 or 2 other people to do slightly better too. Sorry if you thought the earth revolved around you, but it doesn’t.

Alright, now that you have no ego, release your expectation of how you might perform relative to others. Just go out there, breathe really hard, make your legs burn and see what happens.
I’m not here to discuss theism, but really? If God exists, i’d hope that he really doesn’t care about the outcome of an athletic pursuit. I really hope….

Now also, stop caring about what other people think about your performance. You may have 10 fans, or 100,000. But most of them would be unaffected if you quit the sport tomorrow. Don’t do it for them, do it for yourself.

Putting it all together

Cool. Now that we’ve squashed all ego and all expectations of how you might do, get back to the “Physical”. Break down the course. Break down your preparation. Break down EVERYTHING that you can. This includes your breakfast. Your running form. Your technique for picking up a sandbag. Look for where you lose time relative to your competitors. Work on those weaknesses, then build it all back up. Become a student of your sport. Learn as much as you can and then apply it.

I hear you saying “But Ryan, why would I want to spend all my time doing this?”. Well, this article WAS called “The last 10%”. You can go out and get 90% of the performance right now, without doing any of this stuff. Guess what. If you learn these principles and you apply them to anything else in life, whether it’s basket weaving, organizing your pantry or designing medical implants, you WILL improve. So maybe there is a bigger lesson there. Or maybe not. meh.