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Overcome Any Obstacle

Overcome Any Obstacle

Whether you’re a mud junkie or an obstacle course virgin, make sure you rise to the challenge with our experts’ tips

Doug “The Beard” Spence, 37, is not your average fitness coach. He left his sales job, set up an event called Dirty Dozen Racing and built an assault course in his garden he calls the Backyard Jam to train people to defeat obstacles. 

Fell runner Jon Albon, 26, got his first taste of OCR at a freezing cold Tough Guy in 2011 where he came from 1,500 people back to finish 76th. Since then he’s won almost all of them. He was the shock winner at the US-based Spartan and OCR world championships in 2014, won Tough Guy and defended his global title last year and spent most of 2015 ranked No1 in the sport.

1 Will doing OCRs make me fitter?

“The best thing about obstacle races,” says Dirty Dozen Racing founder Doug Spence, “is they make exercise fun, accessible and collaborative. You can cover 20km without thinking, or make new friends simply by offering to haul them out of an icy stream.” And they make you fit, says top British racer Jon Albon. “You build such a rounded fitness – a caveman fitness,” he says. They’re a throwback to being active as a kid, turning park walls, benches and trees into impromptu assault courses. They’ve also helped the 26-year-old Albon with his other passion, mountain ultramarathons, suggesting they can enhance rather than harm your cardio. “It’s not like running marathons where the main object is the time you finish in,” says Albon. “You’re chasing experiences, not PBs, so they’re always fun, always exciting.” Spence echoes that sentiment, citing a bus driver who lost 35kg to take on his race and propose to his girlfriend at the finish line. “That’s OCRs in a nutshell. Done right – or even done wrong – they can give you a fitness and self-confidence that can change your life.”

2 Will I survive?

In five years of Tough Mudder there’s been one fatality, an accident that occurred at the 2013 Mid-Atlantic event in West Virginia despite 75 paramedics and rescue divers being onsite. To put
that in context, 28 runners died during marathons between 2000 and 2009, according to the American Journal Of Sports Medicine (most due to heart problems). That doesn’t mean there’s nothing to beware. Obstacle courses exploit your fears. Spence, co-founder of one, plays them down. Albon, conqueror of most, relishes them. “They make you feel alive,” he says. Midlands event Tough Guy is designed to take you to the limits. “It’s always January so it’s extremely cold. When I did my first one there was ice on the water where you swim,” says Albon. “Logs crossed the route so I had to dunk my head under repeatedly. It was a shitstorm of hypothermia.” Facing these challenges is what keeps people coming back for more. “Afterwards you feel you can do anything. It’s such an escape from just sitting in front of your desk.”

Stuck in: beware the comedy onesie. 

Stuck in: beware the comedy onesie. 

3 So how do I train for one?

“If you only do two things it should be to go running and bouldering,” says Albon, who set up online training hub obstaclecourse.training with fellow elite OCR athletes Ryan Atkins and Matt Murphy. “Climbers have incredible strength compared with their bodyweight and are light enough to run fast.” Some of the best competitors hail from Scandinavia (Albon is based in Bergen, Norway) and so does the most effective training principle for the sport. “Fartlek, meaning ‘speed play’ in Swedish, where you rotate between slow, medium and fast pace on training runs, will get you used to the stop/start races,” says Spence. Combine this with simple bodyweight exercises like press-ups, jumping lunges, burpees and pull-ups. Use the trees that line your run as markers. Pick one in the distance, sprint to it, do 30 seconds of exercises, then jog to the next tree. “Vary your running,” adds Albon. “Do long, slow, fast and short sessions on different terrain, especially on grass and trails.” Give yourself at least three months to train for one. Know what distance you’re taking on and build up to that gradually. Spence and Albon agree that pumping up your mirror muscles will not get you to the finish line. “The best-looking bodies are rarely the most functional,” says the 1.79m, 65kg world champion.

4 What’s the best thing to wear? 

Race entry fees are steep enough without forking out on NASA-constructed bodysuits and Q-level gadgets. Albon suggests using a GPS watch will ensure you know the distances you’re capable of covering on training runs, but the truth is, your kit will be so trashed by the finish line that the less precious you are about it the better. Tough Mudder give you the option to “donate” your crud-caked trainers after you’re done. It’ll save your washing machine getting clogged with soil and TM’s industrial-grade jet washers should resurrect them to clothe those in greater need than yourself.

"Beware the comedy onesie."

If you are running for a good cause beware the comedy onesie, which converts into a human-sized sponge at first contact with water (as two Dirty Dozen regulars raising money for Great Ormond Street learned the hard way, says Spence). Regardless, remember to bring wet wipes, antibacterial hand wash and wellies to wade through the lagoon-like conditions that quickly form around the showers. If you hope to enjoy rather than simply endure the conditions, Spence recommends man-made fibres that don’t hold water. Albon doesn’t race in the UK without a neoprene hat and, perhaps unsurprisingly for someone sponsored by off-road specialist VJ Sport, advocates a solid pair of trail running shoes above all. “The Irock shoes are the best I’ve found,” he says of VJ’s footwear designed for orienteering. “If you’re slipping around you’re wasting energy.”

5 How do you prepare for the mud, ice and electric shocks? 

Tough Mudder and Tough Guy both boast about their 10,000-volt zapping contraptions, which sound terrifying – but don’t be discouraged. Amperage is the key unit to note when it reaches your skin, and these shocks score around ten amps – on a par with getting Tasered. Unpleasant but not life-threatening. “It hurts most when people run through with their eyes closed and get tagged in the head,” says Albon. The alternative? Man up, he says bluntly. “Pain is perception. Accept it’s going to sting a little and suck it up.” You shouldn’t self-Taser in training, but you can replicate other conditions. “You’ll get wet and muddy, so you should get used to it,” says Spence. “When the heavens open, don’t use it as an excuse. Grab your kit and face the elements.”
Albon says you can learn much more from running outdoors than just running on a treadmill. “Run with wet feet, get used to running with little stones in your shoe. Most importantly, I’ve never seen someone go for a run in the torrential rain without having a big smile on their face. It’s just more fun.”

Cold comforts: a new race called Toughest is bringing a new elite level of competition to UK OCRs from its home in Scandinavia. 

Cold comforts: a new race called Toughest is bringing a new elite level of competition to UK OCRs from its home in Scandinavia. 

6 Could they make me rich?

Competing at them probably won’t, although Albon did pocket $10,000 (£6,700) for winning the 2014 OCR world championships in the US. Winners of Toughest, a new race coming to the UK from Scandinavia in April, will take home £5,000 and a six-month lease of a Mini. It’s hardly the EuroMillions jackpot but does show how, as with CrossFit, corporate sponsorship is starting to pour in and generate momentum for the UK’s fastest-growing sport. For those who aren’t former GB roller hockey players or expert fell runners (Albon is both), winning the first-place prize money might be a stretch. But renting a field, building your own course and getting a couple of hundred people to hand over £50 can begin to look like a well-trodden cash-spinning route. In 2010, Tough Mudder’s co-founders turned $20,000 of personal investment into half a million dollars. Today annual revenue clears $100 million.

7 Should I carb-load the night before?

Even among marathon runners, dosing up on stodgy pasta and potatoes isn’t the accepted wisdom it used to be, and in OCR the approach to nutrition tends to be more relaxed. Albon prefers to follow a normal diet and keep his race nutrition simple. “Before the event I have things that don’t repeat on me like porridge, bready food like a cinnamon bun. Clif Bars are great because they give you a steady release of energy.” He recommends you eat two hours before
so you’re neither full nor hungry on the start line. During the race it’s easy to follow the marathon template and load up on bananas, energy drinks and bars, but bear in mind the distance. Albon will only have fast- absorbing gels for a quick boost if racing over an hour, and avoids solid food unless it’s more than six hours. At the finish, tradition states a warm beer or cider is thrust into your hand like a rugby initiation, but you should forgo this ritual when training. “Chocolate milk is my go-to recovery drink to restore carbs and protein,” says Albon. Call it glycogen replacement.

8 Are these events about winning or just taking part?

Not every obstacle course is designed to be raced. Tough Mudder prides itself on putting “camaraderie over finisher rankings”. If you want to know your final standings, pick events that use chip timing – and if you reach a point where you’re eyeing a place at the OCR world championships, make sure your race is a qualifier for the main event (see below). “To improve your chance of hitting the front you should take your running and climbing game to the next level,” says Spence. Join a club for each that’ll help you build a good base of cardio and grip strength to get you between and over any conceivable obstacle. 

"Most of these races prioritise teamwork over finish times and you might come unstuck if you go it alone." 

If you’re in a team, agree on your expectations before you start. Decide how fast you want to go, who’ll set the tempo and who’ll be the base of the human pyramid to scale steep walls. Working on technique for the trickiest obstacles will help and, for certain races, Albon highlights the importance of tactics. “Choose strategic races where you can get the edge over those faster or stronger than you,” he says. The Toughest event has long and easy or short and hard lanes and you can qualify to get a higher start position, while Spartan Race has punishing burpee forfeits if you mess up. If first place rather than friendship is your goal, get yourself in the elite wave and don’t stop to give anyone a leg up. But be warned: most of these races prioritise teamwork over finish times and you might come unstuck if you go it alone. “The best thing about OCR is that total strangers will offer each other a helping hand,” says Spence. It’s not about being the best, but about doing your best. “Nobody judges anybody. If you get caked in dirt no-one will sneer at you – in fact we actively encourage it.”

Book races and classes at dirtydozenraces.com and get more training tips from Jon Albon at obstaclecourse.training. Published in the March 2016 issue of Men's Fitness. 

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