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.

Rugged Maniac Northern California: A Formula For Fun

Rugged Maniac has certainly always stuck to a formula of fun and there was no shortage of that in NorCal on Saturday. Race day, May 26th, started out a little colder than a typical day in the east bay. It had been raining the day before the race and left the grounds slightly damp. This didn’t deter any of the soon to be runners as they filed into the venue from the nearby parking lot. The first waves of the day started off with a drizzle and cool breeze. After a while, the sun broke through the clouds, making for a warm but comfortable afternoon.
Rugged Maniac The Accelerator 3.0
As I entered the festival area I was greeted by music and dancing creating the vibe of walking into a big party. Multiple prime food trucks and vendor tents lead me in towards the main stage where competitions were held throughout the day to entertain the crowd. Guests were encouraged to participate in pie eating, beer holding and pull up competitions. For those not there for the race but to support their friends and family, the event offered free entry to the festivities. This made for a real spectator friendly event with something for everyone.
Rugged Maniac Beer Holding Contest
The festival area was set beside the start and finish line and was overlooked by the grand finale of obstacles, Mount Maniac. This mammoth is actually made up of two back to back obstacles, the Warped Wall and Accelerator. In order to climb this beast, you must first run up a quarter pipe and then reach out for some helpings hands. This is a great opportunity for some teamwork because it is customary to then turn and be the helping hand for others. This obstacle was the pinnacle of the race and it caused many people to pause before trying to complete it. The Accelerator, an enormous inflatable slide, was built off the back of the Warped Wall taking participants even higher before they came barreling down at breathtaking speed for a photo finish.
Rugged Maniac The Warped Wall
I caught up with a couple at the finish line as they were receiving their medals and looking extremely happy. They introduced themselves as Tim and Renee Hennessy and said they had loved the course. They weren’t as cold at the finish line as they expected but that might have had to do with an obstacle malfunction at the Accelerator. For a portion of the day participants were asked to climb off the Warped Wall and go around to the finish line. This left them dry at the end of the race instead of having the traditional dunk in the water at the end.
Rugged Maniac Tim and Renee Hennessy
Overall it was a flat and fast course with terrain over both gravel and grass. The first mile and a half was mostly running but punctuated by some strength based obstacles like Sled Dog and Pull Your Weight. On the second half of the course the obstacles became grander. One such obstacle was the new fan favorite Off the Rails. Here participants were required to use their momentum to swing out over a pool of water while hanging from a small rope on a zip line and ring a bell. No matter how far out they were able to swing everyone ends up in the water which extended far past the bell.
Rugged Maniac Off the Rails
Over the 3-mile, 25 obstacle course, there was a fair share of inflatable obstacles that play up the element of fun. Most runners couldn’t help but stop and enjoy them, just like kids on a playground. I saw many people do exactly that on The Crag, a large inflated staircase with a top of pillars to crawl through. Even with the playfulness, Rugged Manic had options for the more serious participants too. They offered a competitive wave and Rugged Maniac X, multi-lap options.
Rugged Maniac The Crag
Just like my fellow participants- I found myself becoming more childlike as I ran, climbed, crawled, and bounced toward the finish line. It was over too soon and left me ready to sign up for another one.  Except, next time, I’ll be bringing a group to my next Rugged Maniac because it makes for a perfect introduction to the life of OCR.Rugged Maniac Finisher Medals

Spartan goes to Iceland and brings back a new race format

What Was that Spartan in Iceland All About?

While this is a challenge for all of us who write about OCR, my biggest concern in writing about the Spartan Iceland Ultra World Championship was avoiding overuse of the words “epic” and “grueling.” My solution here is substituting the words “saga-worthy” and “difficult,” because Iceland is a land of difficult terrain that inspired centuries of sagas. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

This summer, Spartan announced that it was launching a new race in a new location: Iceland. I’ve been before, but I wanted to go back, and this seemed like a great excuse. Spartan also announced a new format:  a 24-hour UltraBeast consisting of 5-mile loops. My first reaction was “So, this is going to be World’s Toughest Spartan?” The staff at Tough Mudder must have been pleased, as imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. My next reaction was to note the date: December 16, a month after World’s Toughest Mudder and, more important, a time of year when the sun barely shines in one of the world’s northernmost countries. The flip side of this was that it would make viewing of the northern lights while racing a real possibility.

The Great Unknowns

Racers were stymied at first, as Spartan’s website was ambiguous about what exactly the race would consist of, where it would take place, and who could participate. Many were reluctant to fork over $750 for a race without more details – Spartan promised it would be “epic” and “grueling”, but not much more. Eventually, enough people signed up that Spartan committed to the event and provided a travel agent to arrange hotels and transportation. The exact location was kept secret until close the date of the event, though it was easy enough to guess from Spartan’s description (a quick web search of the term “thermal streams,” one of the course features, pinpointed the site as Hveragerdi).

Adding to this uncertainty was one of the first data points provided by Spartan: a mandatory gear list. While Spartan has made some gear requirements for races in the past, particularly to make sure that racers would have enough water on the Beast and UltraBeast courses, the gear list provided was more reminiscent of what was required for the Death Race or an Agoge. In addition to a pack for water, racers were required to have on their person rain gear, warm clothes, lights, backup lights, and a very specific foot care kit. While I could imagine hikers needing an Ace bandage out in the wilderness, the need for one on a five-mile loop was less clear to me, and an informal survey after the race turned up no one who used it out on the course. The list caused considerable online puzzlement: would we be disqualified before the start if our rain jackets didn’t have the correct type of waterproof taped seams? Would there be pack inspections along the course?

What’s Icelandic for “Athlete Briefing”?

Racers met the day before the race for a mandatory briefing at Reykjavik’s Harpa, a concert hall and conference center, something like Iceland’s Carnegie Hall, but sleek and modern. Before we got to the important race details, we were treated to what might be the Icelandic equivalent of a motivational speaker. Bjartur led us all in a chant, having us cry “Wiking! Yes!” and jump in the air. Yes, Scandinavians have trouble with word-initial v’s, and it’s funny. The next few days included plenty of cheers of “Wiking!”

Next, Spartan Founder Joe De Sena took the stage and explained that staging the race had cost over a million dollars, and he expressed gratitude for some last-minute sponsors who had made the event possible. Given how expensive Iceland is, this was certainly credible. Finally, we were given the details of how the race would work: the loops would be six miles, not five unless bad weather forced the closing of part of the course. We were shown the bling, and we received a lengthy explanation of how that bling would be allocated. The format of the race would have different levels of finishers, one for those who completed over thirty miles, and another for those who completed over thirty miles and did so over twenty-four hours. Calculating the twenty-four hours involved crossing the finish line just after 9:00 am on Sunday, but not after 12:00 noon, which would result in not completing the race at all.

Iceland Ultra medal and belt buckle

At The Start

We picked up our timing chips and race bibs: purple for the elite competitors, black for us civilians, with reflective areas to make us visible in the dark, and so to bed. In the morning (still in the dark – remember, Iceland gets about four hours of sunlight a day this time of year) we were picked up from designated hotels in Reykjavik by bus and taken to Hveragerdi, about 45 minutes away. Iceland is powered by geothermal energy, and Hveragerdi is one of the locations where the steam pours out of the earth. We had been warned to stay on the course during the race because cutting corners could land us in the middle of a scalding thermal pool. Not a good reason to be disqualified.

In addition to pervasive eerie steam, Hveragerdi has an inflatable dome that provides an indoor rec center for the locals – basketball court, putting green, soccer field. This served as the Transition Area, and we were provided tables to store our gear, mandatory and otherwise. Cheerily, it was announced that in the wee hours, there would be cots and inflatable hammocks available for napping or for more comfortable viewing of Christmas movies which were to be projected on the walls.

We geared up, but before we could go outside there were two more groups to take the stage. First was a cohort from the concurrent Agoge that had started the day before. I don’t know what they had been up to on their spiritual and physical journey, but they looked miserable. A crowd of hundreds was cheering their efforts, but they all appeared too exhausted and demoralized to crack a smile. I did not envy them. Next were two Vikings (Wikings?), or the modern reenactor equivalents, who led us in a Viking prayer, which consisted of calling out the names of gods in each direction (Thor! etc.) and pouring out mead.

Genuine Wikings

Icy Start

We filed out of the dome into what little daylight there was. The weather called for rain, freezing rain, snow, some clearing, and then more precipitation. In short, a miserable day to be outdoors. Still, there was a race to complete, and twenty-four hours had to start eventually. At noon we took off for a 5K “prologue” through the town. This was a clever way to stretch out the field, and it gave us a taste of what the conditions were like: icy. Even before we started on the trails, we had to figure out how to keep upright on slick surfaces. Running up even a slight incline on ice is tricky.

After the prologue, we headed to the hills and the obstacles. One of the first obstacles was a pipe that was part of the landscape and replaced the usual hurdles that can be found on Spartan courses. Some of the obstacles (Monkey Bars, Twister) were closed on the first lap to avoid backups, and we soon came across another nod to the local conditions: the “farmer carry” obstacle had racers carrying… ice. Handles had been frozen into large blocks of ice. Nice touch, Spartan, and I always appreciate it when races that somehow acknowledge the course settings (think tire carries that used to be part of the Tough Mudder course at Raceway Park in New Jersey).

Why they call it Iceland

Soon we were directed up the side of the mountain. Spartan has steep climbs in its races, but this was among the steepest and most difficult I could remember. This wasn’t running, but rather climbing up the side of the mountain, pulling yourself up on whatever you could grab and hope that your footing wouldn’t slip. Also, hoping that you weren’t inadvertently kicking loose rocks into the faces of those below you. Video of that climb here

At the top of the mountain, it became clear exactly how treacherous conditions were: winds of more than 40mph pummeled racers on the exposed summit. The combination of the slick ice underneath your feet and the strong winds made it tough to stand even on a flat surface, and the wind was powerful enough to blow the snot out of you. Apologies to anyone who might have been downwind from me.

Going down the mountain was not easier: there was simply not much stable footing. Between the ice and the freezing rain on top of the ice and the wet terrain below the layers of grass, my feet were wet, cold, and unstable. The obstacles were spaced out fairly well as a distraction, but when your hands are cold and wet and the surfaces are icy, even simple obstacles like a rope climb are challenging. A complaint I heard from several people was that the sandbag carry was the most difficult obstacle; the sandbags were 60 pound Spartan “pancakes” (who knew they came in this size?), but these bags had been left out in the freezing rain, where they absorbed water and froze into awkward shapes. One noteworthy innovation: Spartan had replaced the typical round of thirty burpees with other penalties for some failed obstacles. Instead, some obstacles had short penalty loops, bucket carries or barbed wire crawls. In another twist, the elites had to carry a “passport” with them where volunteers recorded how many obstacles the racer failed. At the end of each loop, the elites did all of their burpees in one session.

All that steam eventually turns to ice

The obstacles were all familiar, which was a relief given the unknowns of the terrain. As it got darker and as the rain started fogging my glasses, it was tougher and tougher to see the course markings, though I was brought back on course by helpful fellow racers. As I trudged up yet another hill, I had one of the highlights of my OCR career: I got passed by Robert Killian. As he danced up the hill past me, he said “Good job!” What a mensch! [Editor’s Note: Mensch is a person with honor] It says a great deal about our sport that one of the top elite athletes would spare the breath and brain power in the middle of a race to offer some encouragement to someone at the back of the pack. Thanks, Killian.

Robert Killian, OCR mensch

Throwing In The Towel After Throwing In The Spear

I was cold, wet and not sure how I was going to finish one loop, let alone keep going for twenty-four hours. As I tried to figure out the best way to get to the next marker, I found myself asking “What would Bear Grylls do?” I also remembered that Bear had once taken on Iceland.  But I’m not Bear Grylls, I’m definitely not Robert Killian, and the appeal of warm air and dry clothes back at the dome was overwhelming. I also realized that I should have signed up for the Sprint, not the Ultra, and one loop was going to be enough for me. Trying to hit the spear throw is difficult enough, but doing it in heavy winds, in the dark, and then having to do burpees in an inch of freezing water? I know when to say when, and I opted to avoid the risk of a broken wrist, or worse, from slipping on icy paths.

After admitting defeat, I settled into the world of the Transition Area, the dome where racers warmed up, changed clothes, recovered from each lap and refueled. There were cots and water jugs supplied, and the overall appearance was that of a refugee camp, albeit for especially buff refugees fleeing a repressive Gore-tex based regime. The dome was a veritable festival of DryRobes. There was food for sale, the camaraderie of fellow racers, a festival atmosphere for the few spectators and crew, and loud top-40 hits to keep the mood high. Myself, I took a nap in one of the Spartan-branded inflatable hammocks (pro-tip, Spartan: if you are going to note how expensive the race was to mount, maybe hold back on putting your logo on the hammocks next time).

It was warm and dry in here.

Deflated by De Sena

As I recovered, wedged happily in one of the hammocks, who should stroll by but Joe De Sena. Knowing his goal to yank the world up off the couch, I asked him if he was going to revise his pledge to rip 100 million people out of their inflatable hammocks instead? “They also deflate, you know” he replied.

All through the night, racers trickled in and out. At about 1:30 in the morning, an announcement was made: the skies had cleared and the northern lights were visible. This was enough to get me out of the warmth of the dome, and it was enough to justify the entire adventure. Photographs do not do the phenomenon justice, but this natural wonder was augmented by the tiny lights from the headlamps of the racers out on the course. Saga-worthy.

Spartan’s professional photographers capture the northern lights.

Northern lights plus racers in the night, as taken by my phone.

International Attendance

While this may happen more often at Spartan races in Europe, one notable aspect of this race for me was how international the field was. Joe De Sena has worked hard to build the race series around the world, and the athletes that traveled to Iceland had come from over thirty-five countries. According to Spartan, 48% of the racers came from the US, with 40% from Europe and the rest from even farther away. It was an eye-opener to see how global OCR has become. Also, it afforded a few entertaining cross-cultural opportunities:

Me: “So, where are you from?”

Another American Spartan: “I live in Scranton.”

Genuinely bemused Spanish Spartan: “Wait, that’s a real place? Not just on ‘The Office’?”

American Spartan: “Yes, it’s real. But they made some stuff up for the show. We don’t actually have a Chili’s in Scranton.”

Shortly after 9, Morgan McKay crossed the finish line to win the race for the women, and not long afterward, Josh Fiore claimed the title for the men. He did so in romantic style, having carried an engagement ring in his pack for the entire race and popping the question at the finish line.

ORM’s Matt B. Davis MC’s the proposal from the warmth of his DryRobe and my borrowed warm socks.

You can read more about Josh’s race experience here: Not to be left out, Morgan got engaged soon after.

Iceland Recap

Apart from diamonds, what are the takeaways from Spartan Iceland Ultra? To be sure, there were some rough spots. I try to keep in mind that this was a debut of a new product at a new venue. As an organization, Spartan does not shy away from a challenge, and I respect them for their daring. Still, I’ll point out some mistakes, some of them that were probably avoidable. Too many details were kept under wraps for too long. It’s one thing to tease, but if racers are going to commit to training for an endurance event, they need to know what the event is going to require of them. I was unsure if Spartan HQ was being coy for much of the run-up to the event or they were just not sure what they wanted to produce.

My biggest criticism of the event was one that struck me as soon it was announced: December is the wrong month for the race. I appreciate that the weather and the darkness were part of what made the event so difficult, but bringing an event to a place of spectacular natural beauty only to schedule it for a time when participants can’t see the scenery seemed like a waste. My suggestion: try March instead. You still get 12 hours of darkness, the weather is just as unpredictable, the northern lights could come out, and dates that are not so close to Christmas and coincide with school vacations would all bring out more racers. It also avoids the end of season conflicts with Spartan’s other championship event, with OCRWC, and World’s Toughest Mudder.

Downsides

Iceland is remote. This is part of what makes it appealing, but it also means that it is an expensive trip for everybody (well, almost everybody). There will never be one place that is convenient for everyone, but no one was going to be piling into a car for an affordable road trip for this race. And on the topic of accessibility, the initial price point of $750.00 was off-putting, especially given the additional costs of travel to the venue. Discounts were offered, and hotels turned out not to be too expensive in Iceland at this time of year, but sticker shock was enough to keep many away.

There were other problems that might have been avoided: the timing software was not yielding updated results throughout the race, which is particularly crucial in a twenty-four-hour race, where elite racers’ strategies can be built on how many laps competitors have completed. Even for regular racers, the results were not finalized for weeks after the event, which made the medal vs. belt buckle element confused at the end of the race. Speaking of which, apparently many of the medals that made it to Iceland for the Ultra had ribbons denoting Hawaii as the location. While both are remote volcanic hotspots, the contrast could not be greater. Another gear-related snafu was that there was supposed to be unique Spartan Iceland-themed swag on offer, but only samples were available at the race, to the disappointment of many. I understand that the setting made everything more difficult (absolutely everything: I heard that Spartan lost not one but two drones to the heavy winds, resulting in a lack of aerial footage that definitely would have been described as “epic”), but shipping race merchandise should be a no-brainer.

Final Complaints

Of all the obstacles not to bring to Iceland, there was no fire jump. Normally I think of this as a silly photo-op rather than an obstacle, but when you are in the Land of Fire and Ice, you bring the fire. That’s just what you do, especially when the race is mostly in the dark. I’m hoping a risk-averse landowner was to blame for that. More seriously, Spartan once again has problems measuring its courses. The original plan was five-mile loops, and the day before the race we were told loops would be closer to six miles. In reality, the loops were closer to 6.8. I raise this because it is a flaw I have seen at almost every Spartan course. This isn’t a matter of under-promising and over-delivering. Getting the distance right at an endurance event is Race Management 101. Spartan has enough experience by now that even at a new venue they should get this right.

In the end, the event was a success. It was difficult: 600 racers started the Ultra, and only 322 finished (208 finished the two sprint waves out of 250 who registered). This is not an event for everyone.  While the race could not have been a financial success, it was a way to launch a new product, the Ultra, which appears to be getting its own series separate from the Beast. Exactly how this is going to happen is still murky. The only clear message we received about the new product is that its colorway is going to be purple. However, in the same way that Tough Mudder has used the Tough Mudder distance to generate the multi-loop Toughest Mudder event at its regular venues, it appears that Spartan is using this format to create a much longer event without having to wrangle a longer race course. Very clever.

The Ultra Appeal

Who will sign up for this new product? Plenty of people, apparently. One refrain I heard from several racers was that the race was not challenging enough. At first, I thought this was bravado, but when I talked to these racers, many were coming from an ultrarunner background; their events can be longer and more difficult than what they encountered in Iceland. There is a market for very difficult events, and remember that Joe De Sena has a background in adventure races. Those events are frequently multi-day challenges that test not just athletic endurance levels but also raw survival skills. The question remains whether the Spartan brand can pull together enough new racers into a product with this level of difficulty, either from those who regularly do more difficult events or from those who are attempting their first twenty-four-hour race.

Spartan is definitely going to try: after the race, it sent out a survey asking where racers would be interested in having next year’s Ultra Championship. Iceland was an option, and after the money and research expended to find this unique spot, it seems a shame not to go back. However, other Scandinavian countries were on the list, as were some closer to home. Wherever the Ultra Championship lands next year, one thing is for sure: it will be both epic and grueling.

One Woman Overcomes Anxiety Through OCR Thanks to Instagram Contest

My story doesn’t have any shocking before and after pictures, but my transformation is just as real.

In 2016, out of nowhere, my sister asked me to do the Sun Peaks Spartan Sprint with her, without even considering it I told her “I can’t.” I had a long list of seemingly reasonable excuses; it’s too expensive, it’s too far to travel, I can’t run, etc., but the truth was, I was too scared and lacked all confidence to even sign up.

A month later at Thanksgiving she tells me that 2017 is going to be her “big year” she wants to be the healthiest she’s ever been, this happened to also be the year she turned 40, and instead of a loud girls weekend in Vegas like I was hoping for she tells me she’s doing Tough Mudder and getting her Spartan Trifecta … Shit! She’s my closest friend and we do everything together, no one else is going to do this alongside her and I sure as hell won’t be letting her celebrate “40 and fit” on her own, so now I had to put my own insecurities aside and support her … maybe she’ll forget?

Fast forward to Christmas, we both get Tough Mudder tickets, no big deal, right? Tough Mudder is just a long muddy fun run, no timing chips no pressure, I can do this!

"Tough-Mudder-Whistler-Tickets-Christmas-Morning"

Here’s where my entire life changes – my cousin sends me a link for her friend’s Facebook/Instagram challenge group the “OCRGUYCHALLENGE.” (Editor’s Note: OCRGuyChallenge is done by one of ORM’s favorite contributors, Glenn Hole). January 1 is the start of the “10-day Ultra” Challenge, each participant is required to run 5km per day for 10 days. I get all psyched up and tell myself I hate running, therefore, I must run… I miss the first day! Alright, day 2 here we go, I get to the gym, I hop on the treadmill which I haven’t done in years and get going before I knew it, I had run 5K! It was awful and I tried to talk myself out of it more than once, but I finished. Day 3 – I had to make up for missing Day 1 still so I ended up doing 5K in the morning then another 5K on my lunch break, the thrill from these runs and the sense of accomplishment I felt still motivate me over a year later, I went from “I can’t run/I’m not a runner” to running 5K every day for 10 days. I was hooked, I followed everything the OCRGUY posted and all the members of the group, they were so incredibly inspiring and motivating and FIT. I felt silly posting my times, I was too embarrassed because it seemed like they were all elite athletes, but then I mustered up the courage and posted, and all I got was an outpouring of support and congrats, I felt like I was truly part of a community that cared.

Next came the “OCRApocalypse” challenge and the lovely 4 horsemen, this challenge had prizes! Second place was compression socks and I knew I was going to need those for Tough Mudder so I thought I would give it a go.  I did the challenge, the workouts were intense and completely foreign to me but I had a bunch of personal bests and ventured far out of my comfort zone which got me a  lot of weird looks at the gym. On the day of the prize draw I woke up and checked my phone, I was really excited about those compression socks! Sure enough, OCRGUYCHALLENGE had tagged me in the post! Then before I even read it panic sets in, my heart starts racing, I had completely forgotten about the first place prize, a ticket to X Warrior Challenge, what had I done?! I told myself, “there’s no way I could have won that prize, that prize would surely go to someone in better shape, an actual athlete!” I clicked the link and there it was “First place prize, Candice Llewellyn-McKnight!”

I put my phone down and tried not to throw up, now I’m thrown into one of the biggest panic attacks I have ever had, “I can’t do this. I’m not good enough. I’m too out of shape. What the heck is X Warrior Challenge?!” I put on a brave face and leave my obligatory “thanks so much” message on the Facebook feed and spend the next few hours trying to calm down.

Here’s where I tell you a bit about my past: I have spent the last 15 years battling a crippling anxiety disorder, I’ve tried different medications, read all the books and seen my fair share of counselors/therapists/psychiatrists. Over the years of re-training my way of thinking I discovered that exercise truly is the #1 medication for anxiety. I developed a pretty good routine. I would wake up at 4:30 am, head to the gym for my standard “3 reps of 12” workout and the occasional spin class then off to work. I loved this routine, it kept me “sane,” until now…

The thing with chronic anxiety is you live in a constant state of self-doubt, everyone is better than you at everything so there’s no point even trying. Why would I ever enter a race, I’m just going to embarrass myself! Well, now I had a race, and my sister wasn’t going to be there holding my hand and saying “it’s ok if we take it slow.” I had a ticket with my name on it, what was I going to do? I spent that day drafting my “thanks, but no thanks” email to the OCRGUY.

After some time I calmed my brain and thought rationally. Overcoming anxiety is about testing your limits, getting out of your comfort zone, and persevering. What better way to do that then to do this race? I told myself there are specialized gyms in the area, I had been to cor.fit with my sister before to check it out, I will just have to start going there more. I went online and registered for Sunday Bootcamp. I was so nervous that morning, I sat in my car in the parking lot convincing myself to get out and go to the class. I walked in the door and everywhere I looked were people completely shredded and climbing walls with holes in them using only sticks (pegboard).

Here comes the panic again, I note the nearest garbage can and check out the exit “I can’t do this, they’re all machines, this was a mistake” then it was time for class to begin, it was hard, one of the hardest workouts I’ve ever had, but in the end I couldn’t believe I had done it. I showed up to a class by myself, where we had to work as a team and I had to interact with these “people,” and as the class went on I realized that they were actually normal people and incredibly supportive at that! I kept apologizing for slowing my team down. I remember thinking “I thought I was in shape!” but I learned that day that yes, I was healthy but I was not in OCR shape! I went to a couple more classes and I remember getting to the top of the 12 foot inverted wall for the first time and having a full-blown panic attack. I was shaking and on the verge of crying; I took a deep breath and the coach talked me through how to swing my body around and lower myself to the ground. It was the most incredible feeling to overcome not only the attack but also the wall! This may sound cliché but it was this moment that I knew that by simply trying, I could do anything! That’s when I dropped “I can’t.”

In one of my first couple of boot camps, I remember standing, waiting for class to start and this girl walked in, it was obviously her first day, she looked like I did on my first day! I walked up and introduced myself to her and we’ve been workout buddies since. That day she signed up to run X Warrior with me! I had never met someone so spontaneous, she’s completely inspired me to take on new challenges with confidence. She’s encouraged, pushed, and supported me through every race this year. If I hadn’t shown up to those boot camps I would have missed out on this amazing friendship.

"X-Warrior-Challenge-Stadium-Sprint""X-Warrior-Challenge-Stadium-Sprint-start-line-with-Coach-Pain"

 

Since getting involved with obstacle course racing I have learned so many things about myself and my capabilities that I would never have experienced had I have not won that challenge. At the starting line for X Warrior Challenge, squatting and listening to Coach Pain basically wash my anxiety away and replace it with sheer adrenaline and excitement literally brought me to tears. Not only was this happening but I was going to crush it! I ran the race, nailed the rope climb (which was another panic-inducing obstacle for me in training), then was faced with the X Dragon. That’s when I had my first face to face with my grit, I ran up and fell, I kept running up that first incline and sliding down on my forearms over and over, the volunteers tried to direct me to the burpee zone, but I was relentless. I ran at it again and made it up, once up there the panic set in, I was going to have to literally take a leap of faith and trust my body to grab the bar on the other side, and guess what? I did it!

The 2017 race season has completely transformed my way of thinking, to anyone who suffers from anxiety I can’t recommend Obstacle Course Racing enough, the sense of accomplishment once you overcome physical obstacles makes the mental obstacles that much more manageable. My anxiety is all but gone, I slew Tough Mudder and finished my Trifecta, and cannot wait to see how much stronger I am in the 2018 race season.

This is my thank you to the sport of obstacle course racing and the Alberta OCR community. OCRGUYCHALLENGE was the first to push me out of my comfort zone, X Warrior Challenge forced me to face my fears, and the amazing coaches at cor.fit have taught me my true strength by throwing me at obstacles with no time to over think about what I’m actually doing.

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Central Florida Beast and Sprint 2017

The End To A KICKASS 2017 Season

     Mulberry, Florida hosts Spartan Race for one last day in the mud. As the 2017 season comes to a close, athletes are looking to wrap up trifectas and qualify for next years OCRWC and have one last kickass race. Spartan delivered a grueling 13.5 mile Beast and a 5.5 mile Sprint to Central Florida. Spartan has tried in the past to bring Floridians a Beast but sadly was unsuccessful, until NOW. The response of racers for the beast was astounding as first time trifecta chasers entered the start corral.

Brian-Mahon-First-Trifecta                                          First time Trifecta Tribe member- Brian Mahon

       Brian Mahon of Davenport, Florida states that “the course was well designed using every bit of the terrain between obstacles…and a few cows on the course. I’m very happy with the fact that I earned my first ever Trifecta here in Florida and I do hope the beast makes a return to our state. Maybe even see a trifecta weekend here one day.” The weather made for an additional obstacle. Brian says that the Beast was his longest and coldest race to date. At a brisk high of 52 degrees Fahrenheit Floridians had no idea how to prepare for such chilly conditions.

Central-Florida-Spartan-Map                                Beast and Sprint Map 2017- Photo Credit: Spartan Race

Venue:

Mims Ranch in Mulberry, Florida is located about 70 miles southwest of Orlando with swamp-like, flat terrain. Being that the venue was completely new for 2017, athletes had to expect the unexpected. Thick and deep mud crossings made for the perfect shoe sucker scenario. Although Florida is known to be quite flat, the venue did offer a few foothills around the course. While running the Beast I did happen to spot a few unused bigger hills in the distance that would have been a nice addition as well. The course overall was laid out beautifully and even had a few racers stopping mid-race to check out the woodsy scenery.
Noticeable changes once again to the beloved Twister obstacle. Traditionally, Twister is known to have three sections of the spinning monkey bars, but in Mulberry, only two sections were offered. Additionally, the grips last saw in Spartanburg were non-existent. Perhaps Spartan is removing one section and the grips to avoid hand injuries. Either way, I was able to conquer this obstacle, no problem.

Elites

Palmer-Killian-Beast-Podium-2017Tiffany Palmer and Coach Robert Killian
Photo Credit- 
Killian’s Instagram 

      Impressive back to back podiums by Tiffany Palmer and her coach, Robert Killian who finished the 13.5-mile beast in ONE HOUR AND THIRTY-TWO MINUTES !! The double wins for the two elites help to secure top spots in the US Elite Point Series. While other elites are now in their offseason, these two did not waste any time to showcase their skills in Florida to get a few extra wins before next season. Killian states “Déjà Vu. A perfect way to end my last US race of the season, clinching a win in both the World and US Elite Points Series. I’m feeling even better today than yesterday and ready to take on the Iceland Ultra World Champs.” He adds “Big congrats to Tiffany for locking down 3rd overall in the US Elite Points Series after another dominating weekend”

Santa-Spear-Sprint

Santa’s like Spear Throws too.

Bucket-Brigade-Sprint-2017

Thank you to ORM for making this season possible and for all the amazing people I’ve met along the way.

 

 

Donut-Weight-JpopJessika Signature
Check me out on Instagram !! 🙂

Photo Credit- Myself unless otherwise stated.

Dirt Runner’s Winter Soldier

You run OCR events for the obstacles right? How about 50 of them packed into a 5k course? Oh yeah, Dirt Runner pulled this off in their second annual Winter Soldier event held on their permanent course located in Marseilles, Illinois.

Dirt Runner is the former home to the Illinois Spartan and Battlefrog Race Series and is well known for its tough terrain and brutal obstacles. This course truly offered something for everyone with heavy lifts, tons of overhead grip work, brutal low crawls, and seriously technical terrain.

Some of the perks you got racing Winter Soldier at Dirt Runner were free parking, free pictures, and free food and drink afterward. In other words, they don’t nickel and dime you to death like most major races do. Winter Soldier offered an Elite and Open one lap wave, along with an option to get as many laps in as you could in a 3-hour time period for those hearty souls.

 

On to the course! With temps hovering around freezing athletes were released from the Dirt Runner festival area with a small fire jump which led out to a trail cut through waist-high prairie grass where a series of wall climbs of varying heights along with a few low crawls thrown in, served to thin out the herd.

Also situated on this section of trail Dirt Runner set up a series of three different weighted carries. You had your normal bucket carry along with a solid cement block carry, formed in those same buckets if you needed a size reference, and finally, dual farmer carries made up of logs with a cloth type handle screwed into them.

Immediately after dropping off your logs it was time to high step through a section of car tires set down on the path leading to another set of 8-foot-high wall climbs. Here the course took a turn into the woods where the trail difficulty increased greatly as the terrain transitioned from running on flat grass to steep hills with uneven footing filled with rocks and tree roots. Some of the obstacles thrown in along this section of the course included monkey bars, a rolling log balance beam, a series of sternum checkers of varying heights, a reversed delta ladder, and a long low crawl through a buried metal tube.

The trail now led racers on a route that circled back into the festival area where Dirt Runner set up a series of obstacles in back to back fashion. The spear throw, Z wall traverse, and traverse ladder climb were all located in an area where friends and family could easily see the action right up close before athletes were once again led back out into the woods.

At this point, the terrain turned into running up and down a series of steep ravines that really drained the legs and taxed the cardiovascular system. Only two obstacles were located in this section of the trail. The tallest cargo net climb I’ve ever come across and a long uphill low crawl through another metal tube. This low crawl was perhaps the toughest I’ve ever had to do. It was super long. There was very little clearance inside the tube, the mud inside was frozen solid killing the elbows and knees with each forward movement, and the climbing angle was about 45 degrees going up. After finally getting out of that damn tube it was back to the steep ravine climbs until the course opened back at the festival area where a gauntlet of final obstacles was waiting.

The Gauntlet: Situated on the outskirts of the festival area with very little distance in between each task this final section of the race was draining both physically, and mentally. All while friends, family, and fellow athletes watched close by.

Starting off was a set of two delta ladders and two inverted wall climbs leading right into a semi tire flip and carry, down and back twice over a twenty-yard distance. A jump and hop up and over a set of stacked tractor tires was next up followed by Dirt Runners version of the weaver. Connected to the weaver was a cargo net climb over an enormous plastic container which led to a low crawl under a set of horizontal logs.

A high-step through more car tires led to a unique wall traverse. This wall traverse was set up in three sections connected by long poles on the top. So, after you made it across a section of wall you had to shimmy your way across a pipe to the next section of wall and so on. Each wall segment had a different configuration of ropes or pegs to traverse across. Skill and planning were required to navigate this obstacle along with a serious amount of grip strength.

A hundred yards away Atlas Stones were set up for a down and back push with another set of low crawls waiting after you finished. A climb over the famous Dirt Runner slip wall followed by another climb up the equally famous fortress of logs put you on top of a hill within view of the finish line. But not before a rope climb, a cargo net traverse, a barbed wire crawl, and an Atlas Stone/semi-tire drag and carry were completed.

I found this race to be fast and furious with something new seemingly around every corner leaving me totally spent at the end. Winter OCR events have become more popular every year with good reason. It adds another level of difficulty to racing.

Ok, you can fly through a course when it’s 80 degrees out but how about when temps drop below freezing? Dirt Runner offers some of the toughest races and events in the Midwest and I found Winter Soldier to be right on par with the rest of their events. Obstacle heavy, low cost, and a great feeling of accomplishment can always be found here. So, put one of the 2018 Dirt Runner events on your schedule!