Considering your first OCR?

So, you’re thinking about doing your first race, but you’re nervous about hitting the big “register now” button.

First OCR Warrior Dash

 

Guess what – I’m willing to bet that at least 90% of people who are interested in obstacle racing today sat exactly where you are sitting right now, including the pros. Yes, 90%. I’m not over exaggerating.

You’re probably asking yourself questions like, “what if I’m not ready?” or “what if I’m not good enough,” or *gasp* the worst of all, “what if I embarrass myself?”

I’d like to take a moment to address those questions.

What if I’m not ready?

Let me answer this question the hard way: you’re probably not. None of us REALLY are, and that’s part of the fun!

The thing with obstacle racing is that there are so many different components to it. There’s running, hiking, throwing, heavy carries, coordination, crawling, jumping, throwing, balance, sometimes swimming…and well, you get the picture. There’s a LOT.

It doesn’t matter what your athletic background is, at least one of these elements is going to humble you. You are going to look at the person who is standing next to you and think to yourself, what the $*@?. It’s just a part of racing. Truth is, none of us could be considered “perfect racers.” There is always something that you can improve on. If you are telling yourself that you are going to wait to register until you feel physically ready, well, because there are so many pieces, you’re going to be waiting forever.

This multitude of elements is what makes racing so entertaining. It’s fun to take a look at some of the things that you totally suck at and work on them. Then, when you try again, you can take a step back and say “wow, I used to only be able to make 2 rungs of twister, and today I made five!” It becomes an addiction, and almost like a game of How Good Can I Get?  I’d also like to go ahead and add that it is TOTALLY OKAY to be proud of yourself for completing a race. Good vibes are encouraged!

Races can provide an awesome opportunity for you to see what you’re really made of. Not only are there things that you can do in a race that humble you, but there are going to be some opportunities for you to surprise yourself. Yep, there are things that even you, the complete newbie, are good at, you may just not know it yet. Maybe, you can’t run for shit, but you are a lady who can carry the men’s weight sand-bag carries like a champ. You go, girl! Imagine racing as an opportunity to show you where you are awesome–come on, aren’t you a little curious to find out what you’re good at?

What if I’m not good enough?

I promise you; you are good enough. The thing about obstacle racing that I’ve learned is, the value of racing has nothing to do in the race itself. Racing is about the confidence that you learn along the way.

One thing I’ve learned about obstacle racing is that, for most people, tackling the challenge often deals with overcoming obstacles that are off the course. More often than not, you can listen to people tell you stories of how racing has helped them accomplish things that they have never imagined. I’ve talked to several people about how racing has helped them understand that they are better than their depression. I’ve heard how people say it’s made them feel strong enough to get out of abusive relationships. For some, they may have less serious things, like running OCR has made them feel “less bored with fitness.” Some people want a challenge, and you better believe they get that. Personally, running obstacle races has helped me have a better understanding of myself. It’s helped me come to terms with who I am as a person, it’s helped me gain the confidence I needed to say when I made a mistake, and it’s helped me gain the confidence of acknowledging when I am good at something.

Because of this trend of people-overcoming-personal-obstacle-racers, I’ve also noticed that everyone at races is SUPER friendly. Just like everything, there are exceptions, but people show up to support each other. People may offer you tips and tricks, or hey, even let you join their group. Racing often means traveling, and traveling can become opportunities to spend time with other people similar to yourself. I’ve met some of my best friends racing. It’s very exciting to listen to everyone’s stories–there are some pretty interesting people out there!

First OCR Warrior Dash 2

 

I know what you’re thinking, and sure, there’s the physical piece of it, too. If you’re reading this, you’ve probably been watching a lot of SPARTAN: Ultimate Team Challenge or other shows that just feature the elites. You know what, sure, there are several people that appear to be god-tier athletes. But most people aren’t like that. I would never try to sit here and tell you that those people don’t exist, because they most certainly do, but that should not be your determining fear factor. Most of the people who come out to races are those who are looking for a challenge, or they are looking for a unique experience. But, OCR is meant to be more mentally challenging than physical. It’s meant to make you feel good, not make you feel like you can’t accomplish something. Not to mention, most bigger OCRs have some sort of “opt out” option–whether it’s burpees, a penalty loop, a lost wristband, whatever. Some race series (I’m looking at you, Terrain) don’t even care if you walk past an obstacle, as long as you are not in a more competitive wave!

 

What if I embarrass myself?

Ready for another blunt, disappointing answer?

Nobody. Gives. A. Fuck.

Really, they don’t.

 

The thing is, OCR is about building confidence. With an event that attempts to build up your confidence and character, the people try to build you up, too. With that being said, as long as you try, you really shouldn’t be embarrassed. People you’ve never met before will sit there and cheer for you when you accomplish things. If you show fear, they’ll cheer you on. If you show excitement, they will cheer louder. Volunteers will dance with you and even help you get over certain obstacles, if allowed. You will see smiles all throughout. You will be encouraged. You will be pushed and held to high standards. Why? Because the people who are out there will believe in you. It doesn’t matter if they’re your friend, someone you’ve never seen before, or someone you will never see again. Everyone believes in you. If you’re surrounded by people who believe in you and want to help you, could you really be embarrassed?

 

So, Sarah, what do YOU think it takes to be ready?

I guess I’ve told you that you’re both ready and not ready for your first race. I stand by both of those comments. Physically, there is a challenge and truthfully, there is not benchmark you must hit before you get started. You’ll have areas you’ll excel, and you’ll have areas where you are weak. Everyone does, and quite frankly, if you wait until you’re ready, you’re probably going to be waiting forever. So don’t wait, go ahead and register; use your first race as a benchmark! Mentally, if you are willing to take on the challenge, then you are absolutely ready. There isn’t as much pressure to be a total beast as you may think; especially not if you are a first-timer.

Truth is, your first race is going to be uncomfortable. It’s probably going to humble you in at least one area, but, it will also give you a sense of accomplishment that doesn’t compare to anything else. If you’re willing to take on the challenge, you are going to be great. You’re going to meet some amazing people who believe in you. You won’t find a more uplifting community. So, please join us. On behalf of the OCR community, know that you are welcome to join us, and we are cheering for you!

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.

The Spear Throw Ate My Homework

 

You’ve all read it before. By now, its become a formula so basic and ingrained that it could be taught in first grade. The litany of excuses that riddle everyone’s race reports are as ubiquitous as race numbers and running shoes. Most notably, its the excuses that we spew out all over social media to explain why we didn’t win. Even worse is when we DO win and we feel the need to undermine our accomplishments by coming up with a reason why we weren’t in peak form but still managed to win! Thanks alot, says #2. What a jerk! Luckily, he’s had hours to mull it over and come up with excuses of his own. Most of the time, here is how it goes:

Step 1 : Introduce what you were doing, and when.

“I had a great race at (RACE NAME) this weekend.”

Step 2 : Come up with some kind of excuse.

“Everything was going great until (CALAMITY) happened”

Note: acceptable answers include: flu, instant unexplainable head-cold, sudden onset of muscle weakness, spontaneous race-nutrition explosion, wardrobe failure, not enough training, too much training, not enough racing, too much racing, etc.

Step 3 : Something incredible happened.

“I was in dead last place, trying to fix my broken shoelace, when I looked deep inside and visions of my ancestors appeared on the monkey bars. They told me to run harder. I came back from 284th place to finish 6th”

Step 4 : How well would you have done, if you didn’t experience your calamity?

“I would have finished 1st, for sure, if my underarm skin hadden gotten so chaffed.”

Step 5 : Put a positive spin on the whole thing.

“Luckily, my dog buster, won his ‘doggy 5km’ race that day and took us all out for pancakes after the race. This race has inspired me to train harder, push myself daily and really take my racing to the next level!”

So…. sound familiar? I get it, and i’m guilty of doing the same thing, but I think this has to stop. Ask yourself, WHY didn’t you get the result you wanted? Was it the weeks of missed workouts? The inability to execute your race? Most of the time, you don’t have anyone to blame but yourself. So OWN it. Swallow your pride. Celebrate your defeat. We learn more from defeat than victory, so embrace it.

Maybe you got beat? Maybe you didn’t achieve your goal? Short of a few very legitimate excuses (Meteor hit the finish line? Lightning fried my timing chip?) The reason you did, or didn’t achieve your goal was likely your own fault. Here are a few tips to help with that.

Set realistic goals! Maybe you’ve never cracked the top 10. That’s fine. But is it realistic to say that you are going to win world championships? Or jump from 50 miles to 100 miles at WTM?

Set goals that aren’t position dependant… and that aren’t dependant on other competitors. Something like “I want to complete every obstacle without failing” or “I want to run 6 min/mile pace on the flats, between obstacles. Or, (if you know the course well, and have raced there before) I want to finish in under 2 hours.
TRAIN! Analyze the race, break it down into components. Running, lifting, obstacles, grip, transitions, etc. Practice these. Time them. Recover, repeat, try to improve. Systematically training and measuring your performance allows you to become faster, better and more efficient. So do it!

Put it all together. Show up on race day. Control EVERY variable that you can. Don’t lose your bib, or show up with broken shoes or without any nutrition. If you want to do well, don’t leave anything to chance.

Execute! Crush it. Have fun.

After the race, avoid the temptation to blame something.

Take 10 minutes to really mull over your performance and see all the ways you can improve.

What went well? What didn’t? How can I shave 4 seconds off my barb-wire crawls?

If I don’t have a good race, its 100% my fault.

Unless there is a spear throw. You can ALWAYS blame the spear throw.

How To Race On A Budget

Wallet

 

This past season I raced more than I had ever raced before and spent less on racing at the same time and you can too. We all know Obstacle Course Racing can get real expensive real quick but below are a few simple suggestions for lowering the cost of your OCR addiction.

 

Volunteer Volunteering

I volunteered at almost all of my races this past year and it was an amazing experience.  Everyone should volunteer at least once and see how the sausage is made, so to speak.

Most companies will give you a free race for volunteering your time, and if you are stationed at an obstacle you are mostly just a glorified cheerleader.  The only problem with volunteering is that some companies will only give you a free future race, which means you volunteer in the morning and race in the afternoon or possibly a future date.  If you want to race in the first heat of the day that can be a problem.

Most companies, however, are willing to work with you if you reach out to them.  Multiple companies that I contacted had me pay for my race up front and then reimbursed me after I completed my volunteer shift after I finished my race.  Conquer The Gauntlet simply took my Driver’s License and held onto it till the shift was over.  In addition to getting you a “free” or discounted (I’m looking at you Spartan and OCRWC) race, you should volunteer because it’s fun and necessary for any race to run.  (Stay tuned for my article on how to make the most your volunteer experience)

 

Camp/AirBnB

The largest cost of any race tends to be travel, and hotels are expensive.  You can defray your travel costs by camping.  Generally only $10-$15 bucks a night for a tent site at most state parks.  Let’s face it, we are OCR people, we like a challenge, we like mud, we like being outdoors, we should like camping. If you have an RV or a truck with a topper on the back and a mattress just park it at Wal-Mart for free.

If camping is not for you then look to Airbnb.  You can find entire apartments/houses for less than a hotel, or you can just rent a room in someone’s house.  I’ve stayed in rooms for as little as $25/night and gotten a room which was basically a hotel room off Airbnb for $38.00 which was far nicer than the “cheap” $50.00/night hotel rooms I’ve gotten in the past.    My favorite Airbnb which I’ve stayed at multiple times for races was a kid’s tree house in someone’s backyard and it was only $10/night and 20 mins from the venue.  Cheap places are out there my friends, all you have to do is look.
Treehouse

 

Race Local and Sign up early Calendar

If you really can’t or don’t want to volunteer there are probably a lot of great local races that aren’t that expensive and are probably a lot of fun.  Signing up early is always a great way to save some bucks too so plan ahead if you can.

Local and regional races are almost always going to be less expensive than the major brands out there (Spartan knows you want that 12XTrifecta and they’re gonna milk you for it and you’re gonna like it so STFU).

Local races can be hit or miss but the vast majority of local OCRs I’ve been to have been amazing.  If you are unsure about any OCR check out ORM’s race reviews and see what someone else thought about the last race.  A couple of the lower price national OCRs out there are: Terrain Race and Rugged Maniac.

 

Coupon Codes

If you sign up for a race without using a coupon code you are doing something wrong.  Almost every race except super small local races (and OCRWC) have coupon codes floating around out there.  Rarely should you pay full price.  Do some research, ask your OCR friends, search Google or I think there is a website that has race discount codes… I can’t remember but I think it’s called ObstacleRacingMedia.com I’m not sure though.

If all else fails and you still need more dough to fund your OCR addiction you can always be like Matt B Davis and sell your old race medals.

Matt-Davis

 

Photo Credit: Justin Smith, The Battlegrounds, and Matt B Davis

From a pack a day to the world championships – My journey to OCRWC

In a few short days I will be competing in the Obstacle Course Racing World Championships and it has been an amazing and difficult journey getting to this point.  5 years ago I never would have imagined that I would be winning anything more than a video game let alone qualifying to compete in a world championship athletic event.

Just A Skinny Kid

I’ve always been the skinny kid, I never participated in sports in High School or College, never worked out.  The closest thing to an athletic activity I did was play disc golf, which generally involved drinking and smoking weed (not the most “athletic” drugs).  At age 18 I started smoking cigarettes and developed a pack a day habit which would last me almost 12 years.  I wasn’t happy, I hated that I smoked but it was just so hard to quit.   I had tried to quit many times but always failed, I felt defeated by my addiction.  There were so many things that I wanted to do but felt I couldn’t until I stopped smoking.  I wanted to be active I wanted to go to yoga classes but thought “you can’t do yoga if you are coughing every 5-10 minutes”.  I had the desire but I did not have the right attitude. Justin-Smoking

When I was 29 I had the opportunity to go to India with some good friends.  One week of our month in India was spent at an ashram on the banks of the Ganges, where we learned yoga and meditation.  I had hopes that at the ashram I would be able to not smoke. It wasn’t so.  But I learned there, next to that beautiful river, that failure does not mean defeat. I learned how to forgive, and to cultivate love for myself and others.

I Quit

When I got home I started a daily yoga and meditation practice, I started working out.  I wasn’t going to wait till I quit smoking to get in shape. I was going to make a plan and put my hand to the plow to create the necessary environment where I could accomplish my goals.  I wanted to quit before I turned 30 so one week before my 30th birthday with all of the love for myself and will power that I had cultivated over the past 6 months I quit.

I knew that I needed to rehab my lungs so I decided to try the number one cheapest cardiovascular exercise in the world, running. (I would later be dismayed about how not cheap it is to race OCR)  I remember my first run, it was on a treadmill.  I thought “I’ll just run 30 minutes, that will be good” after 7 minutes running at 5.5 mph I was gassed, got off the machine and thought I was going to puke.

I quickly discovered that treadmills are demons from hell that should only be used in times of great need.  Outside was where I belonged and I eventually started to be able to run 5k and thought it was time to do a race.

Enter the gateway drug to OCR – Warrior Dash.

I was such a mix of emotions going into my first mud run, and the biggest was doubt.  That doubt had power and I had a choice of how I would let that doubt affect me.  I could have let it take over and keep me from the race but I chose to face it and put in the training I thought necessary to overcome this new challenge.  I trained my ass off! I would go to the grade school by my house and run a lap around the building then do the monkey bars and run through the play structures, take another lap do some pullups, climb the jungle gym, do another lap, on and on. (I still do this because it’s fun and a great OCR workout) Physically I was ready but I didn’t know it.  The doubt was still there, my goal was just to finish.Justin-First-Warrior-Dash

The day of the race finally came and I was a mix of anxiety and excitement.  I was physically ready but completely unprepared (all of my clothes were cotton).  My first exposure as I pulled into the parking lot was of people drinking and smoking.  Smoking cigarettes! I was surprised, I was confused, I was appalled.  “how could all of these smokers run this “intense race”  My judgement was out of control.  As I got ready to run I saw people of every type, not just the lean athletic bodies I was expecting.  “Maybe I overestimated the difficulty of this race” More unnecessary judgement.  Then at the starting line for my heat was a woman well over 350 lbs, and my judgement melted away.  “This race may be more or less than you expected, but this woman who so many wouldn’t expect to be here is challenging herself with the exact same challenge that’s been scaring you for months.”  I realized that everyone at that race was there to challenge themselves, and I was quite the hypocrite to think negatively of those people smoking in the parking lot.  Maybe they are on a journey towards quitting and fitness is helping them just like it helped me.

New Challenges

The race was easier than I had made it out to be, but it was also way more fun than I thought.  I had been bitten by the OCR bug.  I couldn’t wait to do it again, I signed up for next year’s race once registration opened.  I loved it but after two years of warrior dash I felt I needed something more challenging.

I signed up for a Spartan sprint and again felt intimidated.  From all accounts Spartan was far more challenging than Warrior Dash and my intimidation and doubt fueled my training.  I joined a gym and upped my running regimen.  That 2016 Chicago sprint was the muddiest race I’ve ever seen and likely will ever see.  It was hard, it was a challenge, but it was also much easier than I had built it up to be in my head.  Having accomplished yet another new challenge I felt confident.  Justin-Spartan

It was time to compete

I signed up for a Savage Race even though I’d never ran a 10K, and I went to compete.  I was timid though and stayed in the middle of the start coral.  I held back since I’d never ran so far in a race.  I let my doubt get in the way of my performance that day.  I let slower runners be ahead of me and hold me back on obstacles where I could have gone so much faster.  Doubt may have fueled my training but it bit me in the ass on the course.  I was a mix of emotions, I knew I could have done better, but I knew I could learn from my mistakes, but above all I had so much fun!  I signed up for two local OCRs and the Spartan Beast in Breckenridge.  Each Race I gave myself a new challenge and pushed myself harder eventually taking 2nd place overall in my final local OCR of the year. Justin-Funny-Faces

Goal Time

I set a goal of competing at OCRWC and signed up for 5 qualifying races.  I was going to set myself up for success.  At Terrain Race 5k in Tucson I went back and forth between 3rd and 4th place for most of the race when a wrong turn with 1 obstacle left took me out of guaranteed spot.  I went from for sure qualification (maybe even pro) to uncertainty.  I felt sick, literally I thought I was going to puke.  I’d never put so much effort into a run before.  It took two days but I found out I got first in my age group and qualified.   Just 5 years removed from destroying my lungs and heart, I had qualified for a world championship event.Justin-Terrain

Overcome Your Obstacles

I know that everyone has adversity and obstacles in their life, whether it is smoking, losing weight etc.  Every obstacle we face in our lives comes with a choice though.  When you are faced with a new challenge and you have doubt, will you let that doubt weigh you down or will you let it fuel you?  Will you take it and use it to your advantage?

Too often we all think “I can’t do that until I do this” I need to lose weight before I can run a race, I don’t want to look like I don’t know what I’m doing at the gym.  We setup unnecessary obstacles (not the fun ones we all love) in front of our goals when all we have to do is keep moving forward, and we will reach our goal eventually.  Don’t wait until “the right time” to make improvements in your life.  The “right time” is right now.  It may not be the convenient time but it’s the right time to start making the changes you want to see.  I know that I can accomplish whatever I put my mind to.  And I know you can to if you give your all.

Love

In Conclusion I just want to share the meditation that helped me learn to love and forgive myself.  Imagine yourself as a child and repeat these words to your child-self

May you be well
May you be happy
May you be healthy
May you feel loved
I love you

And give your child-self a hug.

Thanks for reading.  I hope to see some of you at OCRWC and other future races.

Be Well.

 

Justin Smith

 

Photos Courtesy of: Justin Smith, Warrior Dash, Spartan Race, Terrain Race

Rea Kolbl – Second Chance Athlete

Rea-Kolbl-warming-up-before-Palmerton-superI was lucky to be featured on the Palmerton Spartan Race episode the other day, and I got a chance to share my story of how I got to where I am now. In case you missed it, here’s the short version.

I grew up doing sports, and I was on the Slovenian National Gymnastics Team for almost 10 years. Gymnastics was my life, and I didn’t quite realize just how dangerous having just one big dream could be until I lost it; and with it, losing all of my dreams of being an athlete.

It took me a while, but I did find a new life; one where sports were a side thing, a hobby I did on most days, but taking a day off was perfectly fine, too, if there were other things that got in the way. I lost my fitness, and if someone invited me to climb a mountain I’d have to first consider if I was physically capable of the challenge.

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And then one day, I signed up for a Spartan Race. There are so many commercials and ads out there, advertising how Spartan changes lives. And really, if you pick any sport or activity, chances are there’s someone saying the same thing. But what I think makes Spartan different, is that it really does change lives (and here I’m mostly talking about Spartan and not obstacle racing, in general, because in my short career so far I haven’t had much chance to branch out and try other events).

After Palmerton episode aired, so many people reached out to me, sharing their stories which were so similar to my own. It’s a beautiful thing, realizing you’re not alone and that your experience is not so different from so many others out there. They shared their stories of injuries that ended their athletic careers when they were young; stories of being forced out of the sports, for one reason or another, thinking that that was the end of the road. But then they found Spartan. And a chance to be athletes again.

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So what I realized is that Spartan Races are giving so many people their second chance at what they loved when they were younger. It’s like a second chance sport, and it’s beautiful and amazing how much happiness this can bring. What makes OCR unique is the broad skill set it requires. You need to be fast to run the course; you need to be agile to cross the obstacles; you need to be strong to complete the heavy carries.

And I bet that no matter the sport you did as a child (or young adult), it probably covered at least some aspect that is very important for obstacle racing. It equipped you with a part of a skill set that makes you good at this, and that makes you want to try again, train harder, finish faster, and do it better. And it ultimately makes you stick with it.

There’s also this element of learning on the go that’s unlike any other sport. You don’t know the obstacles on the course ahead of time, and even if you do they might change a little, and you have to figure out how to tackle them. And this need to overcome the unknown fosters the community. There were so many races where I’ve made long-lasting friends from discussing obstacle strategies or trying to develop one together. I did a lot of trail running races before falling in love with Spartan and, while there were definitely chats at the finish line, these were more of a polite small talk. Because everyone there knows how to run, there is no point in discussing with fellow runners how to tackle the trail, how to put one foot in front of another.

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In gymnastics, the routines were so polished by the time you performed them and so individual, there was no need to chat about strategies with your competitors. But that’s different in obstacle course racing. There’s always something new to learn, and every race is a chance to improve. More importantly, it’s also a chance to make more friends.

So, people stick with it. The first time I came for the race, but then I kept coming back for the people. Spartan gave me and so many others a chance to find another passion, another focus, a sport to stick with both for the sport and the people in it.

The other day I was thinking that Spartan races are a lot like kindergarten. You play in the mud, swing on monkey bars, and you make friends. And perhaps that is one of the reasons why obstacle course racing can bring back the childhood dreams, and make you an athlete again.

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Photo Credit: Spartan Race

 

Want to train like Rea? Check out one of her favorite workouts on ORM’s Train Like a Pro series.