The Crucible – A True OCR Challenge

 The Crucible: Difficulty is key in this short-distance sufferfest

It may seem hard to believe.  On March 31st, 2018 in Clinton, Mississippi  I found a menagerie of soul-crushing obstacles deep in the heart of the sometimes ho-hum state of Mississippi.  However, that is exactly what The Crucible is.  A once a year event not for the easily defeated, The Crucible offers a great challenge to OCR elites as well as suffer fest diehards. Proof that people who are indeed serious about OCR and about pushing themselves to the brink even in Mississippi, The Crucible will tear racers down and subsequently build them back up into a stronger person by the end of the 4.8-mile sufferfest.

Josh Reed conquers the high wall

Methodical Mania in Mississippi

Just over four miles can seem like much further when it’s jam-packed full of forty obstacles.  The Crucible challenges racers with unique unorthodox challenges that they may not be used to. What seemed to be a large, low incline A-frame was actually a hanging over-under.  The concept is hard to grasp without optical aid. Imagine weaving your body in and out of two by fours all while trying to hold your body weight up.  The unknown can be daunting.  Discovering a technique that gets you through a new obstacle is part of the fun.

Katie on challenging Monkey Bars

Katie Windham making her way across the elevating monkey bars

Coaching at its finest

Monkey Swing

Innovation for the OCR Nation

This OCR introduced new, challenging obstacles.  It also made many OCR staples more challenging and threw a new twist on them.  We’ve all done a log carry. How about a DOUBLE fence post carry around a berm and down and up a hill?  Rope climbs are nothing new to the OCR world. A thirty-foot rope climb out of water is no easy task.  Bucket Carry? No, participants had to complete a double tire carry instead.  I commend and respect the race director on his barefaced approach.  The Crucible presented competitors with a great physical and mental challenge designed to unleash the animal of survival from within.

Sweet Victory

Working out the Kinks

The only qualm I have with The Crucible is expected with smaller, newer races.  Volunteers were either not placed at some obstacles early on, or they did not know how to properly give instruction.  This is vastly important when elite waves come through, especially when cash prizes are being awarded. Early on there were no instructions and no volunteers to give direction.  Many newcomer elites had to repeat obstacles, in turn, forcing them to be behind other competitors on an obstacle losing valuable time.

There were also a few bad choke points that just didn’t flow well for an elite event.  Hanging in the air because someone is in front of you and hasn’t yet figured out their technique isn’t fun.  However, these small detriments did not severely detract from the overall experience of The Crucible.  I feel that the small race can improve on these factors creating a tough challenge that also flows.  I am happy to get the word out about what The Crucible is and can be.  I invite many of you from surrounding states to come and try it out! It’s one of the few events that I personally can say makes a trip to my home state worth it!

 

2018 Abominable Snow Race

Adaptation.

The ability to overcome on the fly using the skills you have developed. Some would argue this is the single biggest quality that successful obstacle course racers possess. Maybe you have mastered the ability to adapt to obstacles presented to you during the warm weather races, or maybe you’re still fine-tuning them.

Well, let me throw a monkey wrench into your comfy regime. How about we add freezing temps into the mix, maybe some ice or snow, or maybe even a mixture of them all with some mud thrown in. You love mud right? The kind where you rinse off from a hose at the end of an event while sipping your finishers beer in 80-degree sunshine? Well, this isn’t the same shit.

Winter OCR is here to stay and it’s getting bigger and tougher than ever before. Winter is no longer the offseason for OCR with events popping up all over the country. I had a chance to race in the third annual Abominable Snow Race held last weekend with a few thousand other racers from all over the country at the majestic Grand Geneva Resort in Lake Geneva Wisconsin and I can tell you Winter OCR is here to stay. Held on the grounds of a ski resort you kind of had an idea of what to expect, but ASR chief Bill Wolfe went out of his way to make this race one people would talk about for a while.

Yeti Nation

With morning temps hovering just above freezing my family and I pulled into the Grand Geneva bright and early for packet pickup and were directed to a parking space in a lot right next to the registration tent. Thank you once again, Bill Wolfe for the VIP treatment!

I found most racers were parked in a lot a short distance away and could either walk or take a quick shuttle bus to the registration tents. Now, there were only two stations were athletes could check in making the process somewhat slow, but ASR did provide warm trailers nearby as a changing area which more than made up for the cold wait.

After getting yourself geared up and ready you entered the resort lodge, bathrooms were to your right and food and drink were upstairs. This was your final chance to warm up before leaving the lodge and entering Yeti Nation. The iconic voice of Coach Pain was the first thing you heard upon leaving the lodge, and as you stepped foot on the snow the cold smacked you right in the face as your gaze fell upon the tallest ski slope Grand Geneva had to offer. Food, merchandise, and drink tents surrounded you along with info tents from local races including Frontline, Dirt Runner, and Highlander Assault.

An Epic Adventure

ASR offered 3 different heat choices along with a little Yeti course for the younger racers. The regular Elite and Open classes were offered along with a special Hero Heat for military and first responders. The Open class course offered 22 obstacles along a 4.5-mile course while the Elite class/Hero Heat offered 25 obstacles over a 5.8-mile distance. The little Yeti course was not timed and wasn’t very difficult, but the kids really seemed to enjoy it and they got the same huge medal as the adults did! The main course itself started and ended right out in front of the main lodge offering great views for those brave enough to stay outside or watch from the warmth of the two-story lodge. ASR started off Elites first with the Hero Heat and Open class following. With Coach Pain pumping up athletes for the start I think we all had a feeling that this was going to be an epic adventure!

 

A Tale of Two Shoes

The very first thing I noticed upon starting was that all racers fell into one of two categories. It was basically the have or have nots and it came down to shoe selection. As we climbed up our first hill made of ice those with metal studded shoes moved right along while those without struggled mightily.

The course conditions remained this way throughout the race and served to thin out the crowd right away as we came to our first obstacle, a wooden wall climb named the Ice Breaker. The trail was wide enough for a vehicle during this short stretch of the race and offered the only real chance to pass as the path narrowed to one lane shortly thereafter, but not before an over/under/through obstacle.

An Inverted wall, which ASR called Cold Snap, was the last obstacle before the trail veered into the woods where the terrain turned into a single lane of muddy slush which was chock-full of rocks and tree roots making footing unbelievably slippery. This section of trail was appropriately named The Abominable Forest and lasted well over a mile. Nestled along one of the few clearings along the way ASR set up their Alaskan Oil Rigs, which ended being a type of ladder climb with the rungs set far apart and at a 45-degree angle made slick with all the tracked mud. After tapping the bell on top of the rig it was again off along the slick path and over more of the rocky hills leading to The Winter Weaver.  It was also during this section of the race where ASR threw in a triple set of hurdles and their slip wall.  These hurdles were cut into a diamond shape with a sharp point at the top making athletes regret stopping on top for very long.

 

Sled-Pull

There were a couple different ways ASR made some of their old obstacles tougher and the sled pull was one of these obstacles. In the past, the sleds were filled with snow or a sandbag and pulled along in a snow-covered circle. Now, the only real difficulty doing that was guiding the sled.

This year, ASR filled the men’s sleds with 3 sandbags and the women’s with 2 and the path this year was solid mud making the pull long and gut-wrenching. This also created a bit of a bottleneck due to racers stopping for breaks along the way. After finally getting rid of that damn sled it was back into the forest for more of the sloppy trail run leading to an uphill low crawl.

This wasn’t your normal low crawl either as the ground was made slick with ice, frozen mud, and decomposing leaves. There was no getting around becoming wet and cold after that crawl! Back on the trail now the switchbacks increased making many racers wonder just what direction they were really going. It was along this route ASR placed a 9-foot wall and their Cliff Hanger.

This was a Z type traverse wall with 2×4 pegs along with one section made up of 3 rope loops suspended from the top. The addition of the ropes was another example of ASR making their old obstacles tougher. This marked the halfway point of the course with more fun to come in the form of the Himalayan Climb up one of the snow covered hills with a cargo net climb on top.

Separating Open From Elite

The ride back down might have left you a bruise or two on your rear end as the snow was packed tight and the descent was steep causing many racers to use their backside as a sled. Athletes now followed the trail back out into the woods in a route designed to make racers loop back up one of the higher ski jump hills. ASR had used a giant Earthmover to make snow mounds to cross as a replacement for the normal mud mounds used during the summer.

Once at the top racers made their way down the back side of the slope stopping at one point to pick up a log for the Lumberjack carry. One final loop back into the woods and returning to the festival area was all that was now required. Sounds easy right?

Well not so much for the Elite and Hero Class as obstacle 18 came into view. A slingshot target was set up and a miss required burpees. However, that was for the Open Class only as Elites and Heroes skipped this obstacle and took off down an extended section of trail.

This extended version started off with a long ass low crawl as bungee cord was stretched across the one lane path for what seemed like miles. Then there was the bucket carry. ASR put their own spin on this by filling the buckets with water during the week and allowing them to freeze making them Ice buckets. An athlete certainly knew after the race if during the bucket carry they happened to bump one into their leg. And the length?? It was a long, long, long ass carry.  Many a strong racer could be seen making multiple stops along the way to regrip. The last extra obstacle along the extended route was a set of rising and descending monkey bars with a bell tap finish.

It was at this point where the extended course and main course joined back up as athletes made one last climb up the ski slope and grabbed an innertube for a fast-paced ride back down to the bottom. Now in the festival area, only two obstacles remained starting off with a set of low walls and ending up with a tip of the spear type wall traverse. Three slanted walls were set up side by side with ropes suspended from the tops of each as your only means of getting from one to the other. From there the finish line and that awesome bling was only a few meters away.

Final Thoughts

I found the 2018 version of the ASR to be not only longer and more challenging, but also much better managed. Things seemed to flow smoother and I left with a feeling of accomplishment. The racers I talked to post-race were in agreement that this year’s event far surpassed the previous year’s race.

The only real complaint I heard was that a few of the course marshals were not specific enough regarding obstacle completion during the Elite heat. But when dealing with volunteers you occasionally get these issues. Our sport is volunteer-dependent so it’s just one of the things you live with. My final thought on this event is if you think OCR is only a summer sport, think again and come on out to ASR next year!

 

Muscle Up OCR

This year’s Muscle Up OCR took place on August 26th in Spragueville, Iowa. Held on the grounds of a working family farm this 3.75-mile race boasted some outstanding scenery with about 1,100 feet of elevation change. Now, that elevation change doesn’t sound so bad until you show up and see the grade of the hills.

The farm is also used as an ATV course, the trails are torn up with steep banks and water runoff grooves down the center making the terrain difficult and physically draining.

Muscle Up provided chip timing for both the open and competitive heats with cash prizes being awarded to the top 2 male and female competitive finishers in 3 different age groups 14-24 25-40 and 41 and over. Obstacle completion is mandatory in the competitive waves while open class runners are offered a “muscle out” option at many of the stations. This provides an easier version of the same obstacle for those new to the sport that maybe can’t complete all the tougher obstacles.

I consider this the best family run OCR in the Midwest for a number of reasons.

  1. The farm friendly atmosphere. Chances are if you have raced here before they probably remember you and know your name.
  2. Some of the handmade unique obstacles you will not find anywhere else.
  3. For a short course, it’s very demanding. Most racers will be gassed at the end.
  4. Plenty of great views to see while racing.
  5. Competition level. While not huge in numbers there are always a few awesome athletes who show up to race here.

The Course

The course starts off in a fitting location considering it’s held at a working farm.  Racers are released every half an hour behind a barn where a herd of goats are penned up and continues along a dirt track for about half a mile before turning racers into the woods.

This is the point where racers face their first obstacle. The path leads through a series of ravines where downed logs were thrown across the path making for a challenging climb. After racers picked their way through the logs and rocks the trail led back out onto the initial dirt track where we first started.

Racers encountered a few sloppy mud pits as the dirt track turned into marsh before being led up a hill and along a game trail. Along this trail, racers were required to pick up a log to make the climb just that tougher.

At the top of the trail was a series of wooden walls which needed to be traversed with your log then further down the path was a mowed out section of prairie grass cut into a circle. Once completed a racer could now drop off their log and proceed along the prairie trail.

Muscle Up used every ditch, ravine, and section of woods to their advantage and just as racers thought the trail was getting easier Muscle Up set up an Atlas Stone throw over a wall with a cargo net climb a short distance away. This led to what I like to call “the endless hay maze.” Now, this wasn’t the actual name of the obstacle but after getting stuck in this pitch-black zig zag maze I thought it was very fitting.

The Obstacles

After brushing off the hay and finally getting some oxygen into your lungs racers were now led down a hill towards the festival area, but not before having to cross a rope bridge made up of swinging 4×4 posts and climbing down a ladder.

A sled pull and a tire ladder were waiting for athletes at the bottom before being sent back out on the trail.  Steep terrain came into play again as the trail led racers up and down the ATV path in a route design to tire the legs out before being presented a long list of obstacles situated in the flat open field.

First up in this obstacle armageddon was rope swing across a small creek followed up by a rope traverse over that same section of the creek. A monkey bar setup provided your way back across the creek.

A short jog away Muscle Up placed a rope ladder followed up by a long Atlas Stone carry. The last three obstacles set up in this series included a dual bucket carry over a well-constructed set of A frame type ramps with a rope climb immediately after.

The last and perhaps most tricky obstacle was a tire ladder climb. Muscle Up was able to link together a series of tires vertically that swayed and bucked like crazy when you tried to climb up them!

The Final Obstacles

Thoroughly gassed from the energy expenditure on all those obstacles racers were led up a climb that cut through some awesome scenery. Tunnels through weather cut stone was where the trail now went and I really couldn’t help but to look around and take some of it in as I made my way up the path.

The dirt track flattened out once a racer made their way to the top and continued until the trail opened to a section of hurdles made up of 55-gallon drums that were lined up in a row to test one’s leaping ability.

One final climb down a hill was now all that stood in a racers way to the final section of obstacles and the finish line.

A 7-foot wall climb was first up on this last section followed by a series of wooden hurdles. A metal tube provided a low crawl opportunity but not before an American Ninja Warrior style wall lift. I’ve not seen this obstacle anywhere else. A wooden wall was set into a narrow door frame with wheels on the side requiring an athlete to pull the section of wall up in order to scamper to the other side before letting go and having the wall crash back down! Three of these were included in the final section of the course all leading up to a fun water slide which dumped racers into a freezing creek before climbing out and crossing the finish line.

The Festival Area

Since this event is out in the middle of the country Muscle Up did provide a beer/drink tent and had a mobile food truck on site. A shower area was provided, as long as you didn’t mind showering in a barn. A tractor trailer was converted into a sectioned off changing area for athletes needing a change of clothes.

Conclusion

Muscle Up could have used a few more volunteers in key locations such as the log carry and the barrel hurdles during the competitive waves just to keep people honest. The photography for the event was pretty much just people taking shots with their phone which was kind of a shame because of all the neat obstacles. I personally come to this event every year and it’s never failed to meet my expectations.

 

“Big Dog” Regional Pricing… Is it worth a look?

The growth in the sport of obstacle course racing (OCR) is undeniable. Articles about Amelia Boone (one of the most recognizable and successful athletes in the sport of OCR) can be seen in magazines such as Runner’s World and Sport’s Illustrated. Tough Mudder and Spartan Race(the “Big Dogs”) have been featured on Good Morning America and the Today Show. Heck – BattleFrog even stepped up to sponsor the Fiesta Bowl this year. The sport is becoming known and races are being added, but does that mean that it’s growing at the expected rate? Is regional pricing something to consider?

The fact is, the central part of the United States isn’t seeing growth in terms of the number of races, when it comes to Spartan Race and Tough Mudder, to the same degree as the coastal areas of the U.S. Luckily, the lack of growth in the Central U.S. is being filled, somewhat, by BattleFrog and Conquer The Gauntlet, as well as local races such as The Battlegrounds and Mud, Guts and Glory. However, the racers between the mountain ranges are beginning to wonder “what’s up?”
20150904200231Many contend there is a coastal bias when it comes to the “Big Dogs” and their racing locations. It is obvious that the coasts and their high population densities turn out in droves to obstacle races with some having nearly 5,000 registrants whereas locations in the Midwest will draw sometimes only half of that. With this level of discrepancy, it is understandable that race companies look toward the areas that best support their events when selecting locations. However, is this strategy the best option when it comes to growing the sport? Mike McAllister, co-founder of BattleFrog, sees things a little differently.

Mike McAllister, co-founder of BattleFrog, sees things a little differently.

“We see the Midwest as very important to building our brand. People are willing to travel to multiple races within driving distance, so we want to give them the ability to follow our circuit.”

David Mainprize, the owner of Conquer the Gauntlet (CTG), feels similarly regarding the opportunities in the central US. In fact, all of CTG’s 9 races in 2016 are being held between Oklahoma City, OK, and Louisville, KY.

“CTG is a family run business, not a corporate entity. It’s no secret that our region is an area of the country with far less population centers and thus far less obstacle course racers, not to even mention the relative unhealthiness of this part of the country in general. So, to pull this off, we had to find a way to reduce costs. Simple math says, registration fees need to exceed the costs. We wanted to provide an affordable race that is epic but is still one that the common man could afford with ease.”

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It’s obvious there’s a market for OCR in the central U.S., so the question is, why is the overall turnout for Spartan and Tough Mudder lower? I contend that a lot of it comes down to the dollar for dollar value of the experience for those in the Midwest rather than a lack of interest. Now, before you go accusing us Midwesterners of being cheap asses, let me explain what I mean. Plain and simple, the incomes are lower in most of the central U.S., so this means a dollar means a little more to us than it might in areas where incomes are higher. We also have a couple of other regional options from which to choose in addition to CTG. The Mud Guts and Glory course in Cincinnati was the site of the first two OCR World Championships. There is also The Battlegrounds in St. Louis. These are both permanent courses that are fantastic alternatives to the national series and, for the most part, have much cheaper entry fees. I feel that the “big guys” shy away from these areas because why compete with a regional race that has a permanent spot and therefore more fixed costs that would allow them to accept a lesser turnout and still be successful? Carl Bolm, the owner of The Battlegrounds, feels,

Carl Bolm, the owner of The Battlegrounds:

“Competition is good for business and, even if the bigger races come to St. Louis, it would create more awareness of the growing industry. It also would give our current runners a chance to try another race. Of course, participants could come to realize just what an all-encompassing experience they get at The Battlegrounds. As long as we continue to produce the best run possible, I feel our runners will support our efforts.”

Battlegrounds - Race StartThe lack of competition seems to be helping boost race numbers at The Battlegrounds where they are expecting well over 2,000 racers for their May 2016 event, which will mark their largest race ever.

As if the permanent course options aren’t enough to dissuade potential racers from the $130 price tag, let’s look at a comparison of the cost of other activities where individuals could easily spend their disposable income. This is not to say that these aren’t similar things in other parts of the country but their cost and accessibility make them viable options in the Midwest.

Information gathered from a Google search:

Average Game/Event Cost
NFL game: MLB game: Marathon:
New England = $122 Boston = $52 New York = $255
San Francisco = $117 San Francisco = $34 San Francisco = $130
St. Louis = $74 (at least historicaly) St. Louis = $34 St. Louis = $100
Cincinnati = $71 Cincinnati = $22

A possible solution to this conundrum might be a regional price structure that would allow for the national race companies to better compete for the Midwest racer. It happens in other industries, so why not consider it? A concert promoter sets venue prices based on demand. The median price for a Selena Gomez concert in Nashville is $56 while it will cost you $80 for a similar ticket in LA. The Rock n’ Roll Marathon series even raises the cost of their San Diego event over their Nashville event by $10.

The purpose of my proposal here is this: just because regional pricing hasn’t been done, doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be considered. I am all for whatever will best grow the sport so I guess the market will decide. It should be noted that none of the people I contacted regarding this article thought that regional pricing would ever happen in our sport, but it sure is fun to talk about! As long as race companies keep putting on great events across the country, I think people will buck up and then show up. However, if the money train stops coming in then we may see change. Until then…
Take my money