UK-based runner David Hellard has qualified for the 2015 Obstacle Course Racing World Championships and Spartan World Championships, both in the US, sadly both of the dates clash with the first-ever international marathon to be staged in war-torn Afghanistan. While David says obstacle racing in the UK seems to have met a balance between the difficulty of obstacles and the amount of running, he sees an international scene in which the industry is changing. This may, he argues, impact not only his decision on which event (OCR championships or Afghanistan Marathon) to take part in, but also the long term viability of obstacle racing for the masses.
I wasn’t there at the start of obstacle course racing. Tough Guy had been going for 13 years by the time I lost my manhood dressed as supergirl in 2010. I then ran the second-ever UK Spartan and formed the UK’s first sponsored Obstacle Course Race team inov-8 OCR, but already I fear the days that I can genuinely consider myself an obstacle course runner are numbered and possibly also the future of the sport.
I signed up to my first Tough Guy almost as an ironic statement -the notion that I could ever be considered tough was laughable! I did however run, unable to resist the beaming grin of Sak Nayagam, a kickboxing world champion and genuine tough nut, challenging me to take him on over the eight-mile course. I fancied my chances.
At this stage in my life I considered myself a runner. Although not particularly experienced, I was training for a marathon and felt confident my fitness would get me round the Tough Guy course, which it did. I narrowly avoided hypothermia, realizing it was hitting me when my vision reduced to a narrow tunnel, but I managed to run it off. Nothing on the course required a huge amount of upper body strength. It was also a lot of fun -nets, crawls, climbs and lots and lots of ice-cold water. Boy oh boy it was tough, still one of the toughest I’ve done, but that was due to the cold. What was great about the race is that anyone could complete it. Many didn’t, but that was because they either gave up or were too cold, not because they started a race they were physically incapable of finishing no matter how hard they tried.
Fast forward five years. I became a reasonable club runner and championship marathoner, formed inov-8 OCR with some friends and even though rarely challenging for the win, I’ve not looked entirely out of place in a team containing many of the UK’s best obstacle course racers. The runner has always had his place in OCR, as the expense of putting on a decent event forces race directors to spread out the obstacles over a considerable distance. Charging competitors £100 ($154) to complete a 5k course seems exorbitant, but for a 20 miler, it’s good value.
However when I looked ahead to this summer’s OCR races I found myself having to carefully select my events for fear that some of them, I might not be able to finish -this despite having put on 5 kg’s in upper body muscle in the past year.
It’s hard to tell exactly when the change in emphasis happened. OCR races of all types were cropping up, then Tough Mudder brought OCR to the masses, redefining tough to mean a 10-mile run with lots of Facebook photo opportunities. This removed the element of competition, instead ensuring that everyone left feeling a winner and no-one minded queuing for obstacles.
The mass participation it created was great for the sport, even if it did eclipse the other events in terms of marketing, forcing them to offer more than just a bit of mud and a few carries. Spartan responded by upping the stakes. If the marketing campaign of Tough Mudder was a slightly overweight bloke helping a pretty girl over a wall whilst smiling, Spartan was a bleeding Jean Claude Van Damme, skin ripping apart as his muscles exploded from the exertion of leaping a flaming pit of death.
They wanted poster boys of mythical proportions. Unfortunately for them the humans that can do the most pull-ups, sit-ups, press-ups and monkey bars over a 10-mile course, while strong, are in fact compact, efficient and dynamic. Their poster boys couldn’t win such events. In my experience I found that this led to more obstacles that required carrying much heavier weights. The poster boys obviously enjoyed this.
Meanwhile, Ninja Warrior has gone from YouTube sensation to global mainstream television favorite. An adult playground very few get to play in. The course looks simple to the viewer, but requires immense grip, technical ability and upper body strength, far surpassing the ability of the average body builder or even rock climber.
Races have emerged emulating the Ninja Warrior experience, the most notable being The Toughest, based out of Scandinavia and now spreading out across Europe. Simple monkey bars are passé these days, unless they incorporate hang toughs, vertical climbs, chain grips or loops.
I was invited to join a top-end team, including the reigning world champions in OCR and parkour, at the Toughest 24-hour race. Long distances play to my strengths, but I turned down what would have been an amazing weekend because I was too worried about letting the team down. I can do most obstacles in a race, but the course was an extremely challenging 1 km loop. I knew I’d barely last an hour before a lack of strength would cause me to fail every obstacle. As it turns out, I had substantially overestimated how long I would have lasted. Having spoken to James Ruckley -a good all round OCR racer with considerably more upper body strength than me -he lasted one lap.
I question how many people in the world can successfully compete for 24 hours over such a course? And this is my worry for the future of OCR. There are only so many elite racers and at the same time courses are becoming impossibly hard for everyone else (and even some of the elites.)
The elites make up at most 5% of race entries, in some races less than 1%, and it’s the thousands of non-elite runners who pay for the courses and the sponsors. Race directors are caught up in an arms race to try and outdo each other for the title of ‘toughest’ and they risk isolating the general public. For the negativity Tough Mudder receives from certain sections of the OCR community, they’re brilliant at finding the balance between challenging, fun and achievable, which means people race in the thousands.
If the emphasis on ‘tough’ continues I fear we’ll end up with only two types of races -the type that appeals to the general populous but not the elites and the type which will see a handful of global brands fighting it out to try and attract television revenues and gym tie-ins because they can no longer operate from just the sale of tickets. If that does happen then it’s the end of the OCR runner and my decision to head to Afghanistan may have cost me my last chance of actually completing a World Championship obstacle course.
Follow David @davidhellard (Twitter) and check out his blog site at http://beerbellyrunning.blogspot.co.uk/