Obstacle course racing comes down to the survival of the fittest – but that doesn’t only apply to the competitors but to the companies putting on the events as well.
Going the course takes mental as well as physical strength.
Obstacle racing goes a good many steps farther than the iron men of triathlons take and not everyone has the mindset and passion to cross the line.
OCR Business Is Growing
And while the popularity of marathon racing dwindles, with finishers dropping from 19 million in 2013 to 17 million in 2016, the number of OCR competitors is climbing.
That’s because of the nature of the races, according to endurance coach Travis Macy, who has covered the miles in more than 120 endurance events.
Road or track racing doesn’t hit the heart any more, he says. Racers want to be tested in bigger, harder and faster ways than ever before, and OCR present the opportunity for them to prove they can push themselves to the limit and survive.
What is obstacle course racing?
Obstacle course racing (OCR) is a sport that matches individuals against a set of gruelling physical challenges – the obstacles – which they must overcome to cross the finish line.
Races and obstacles vary between events and can be run cross country, on tracks or in an urban setting.
The obstacles are often styled on military assault courses, like scaling walls, carrying heavy weights, crossing water, crawling through barbed wire entanglements and running through fire laid out over courses of generally three miles or more.
The longest OCR events are run over several days and cover 100 miles or more.
The aim is to test mental and physical endurance, strength and dexterity against the clock.
Around 20 million racers are registered as OCR athletes across 138 countries with contests held on every continent.
The popularity of the sport is growing, with many American schools, colleges and universities setting up teams based around obstacle course training.
Obstacle course racing history 101
OCR is old as the hills, with the first contests documented as far back as 708 BCE as an Olympic trial by the Ancient Greeks.
The contests have come down the years to modern athletics as the steeplechase, pentathlon and decathlon.
OCR exists as a private and personal competition outside athletics dominated by large corporations organising events around the world.
The first modern OCR is considered the Tough Guy event that started in 1987.
The sport is governed by World OCR, which has a remit to take the sport to the Olympic Games.
The key players in obstacle course racing
OCR is dominated by global events run by sporting brands. Many of the brands and names behind the sport have lacked the stamina to stay the course during the growth of OCR.
Among the most popular events still taking place are:
Rugged Maniac began in October 2010 in Massachusetts, USA. Over the intervening years, Rugged Maniac has developed into 28 events in cities across the US and Canada.
The events won backing worth $1.75 million as an investment by entrepreneur Mark Cuban, owner of pro basketball team Dallas Mavericks.
The event features 25 obstacles over a three mile course.
Spartan is the main rival to the success of Rugged Maniac.
Based on the original accounts of the OCR events that took place in Ancient Greece, the Spartan is a tough lifestyle choice rather than a race, according to the web site.
Covering three types of races, from a three-mile sprint with 20 obstacles to a 13 mile marathon with 30 obstacles, Spartan also offers endurance events that pile on the pressure over 30 miles of obstacles or more than 60 hours of racing.
Tough Mudder is not so much a race as a team event aimed at getting everyone over the line rather than a race against time.
A typical Tough Mudder course stretches over at least 10 or 12 miles.
The season culminates with the World’s Toughest Mudder, a 24-hour competition with tougher obstacles over a shorter course. Prizes go the athletes and teams completing the most laps of the course over the race time for cash prizes of up to $10,000 (for individuals) and $12,000 (for teams).
Warrior Dash has stood the test of time and maintained an OCR presence for a decade, but purists feel the brand should not be described as an OCR event because participants are not penalised for skipping obstacles during a race.
For that reason, die hard OCR supporters consider Warrior Dash an obstacle race rather than an endurance test.
Winners still pick up the prized horned helmet.
As the name suggests, some Warrior Dash events are quick – maybe lasting just 15 minutes or so.
Staying the course as a business
Less than five years ago, OCR was a money-spinning mega business luring entrepreneurs into the arena and swallowing their dollars.
Many OCR brands have come and gone, with many others looking for a profitable exit.
The aim of the brands heading the market is to stay the course by building for survival and cementing revenue streams.
The market is worth millions, but the big guys don’t want to share, they want to dominate.
After all, that is the nature of OCR competitors at all levels and getting on for $500 million dollars is the prize generated by OCR every year.
OCR is changing from a fun experience for people taking part to a sporting challenge for elite athletes.
Red Frog, the parent company of Warrior Dash is taking a different view. OCR events are carefully stage managed around food, drink and music festivals with a weather eye on building community spirit.
Spartan is veering towards the elite athleticism of OCR, while Rugged Maniac is a big day out company.
The problem is time and space. Too many OCR events are vying for too few dates and a limited supply of appropriate venues.
To expand, many corporations are having to look at offering overseas events.
Where to run obstacle course races
The big brands want obstacle racers to race at their events and buy their spin-off products, so although each have their own web sites, finding a local obstacle course race that’s not tied to a brand is almost as tough as competing.
Thankfully, some generous souls have put together lists of obstacle course races, both national and international.
Of course, a lot of independent and small branded promoters run events around the globe.
An easy to navigate guide to where to find your nearest obstacle course race is Letsdothis.com.
The listings cover 390 events this year in the US and Canada. Crucially, the web masters also list the cost of taking part, which seems to average around $40 an event.
Another site listing obstacle course races around the world is Find A Race – with 219 listings, although 197 are in the UK and the rest in North America.
World ranking obstacle course athletes
The contest has some blockbuster names vying for the title of the world OCR champion.
Placings are based on rankings by an expert committee in the sport who give athletes points when they cannot race head to head.
The latest men’s world rankings are:
Source: OCR World Championships
The latest women’s world rankings are:
|4||-1||Ida Mathilde Steensgaard||Denmark||92|
|10||4||Lisan De Vries||Netherlands||42|
Source: OCR World Championships
Who can compete in obstacle course racing?
Anyone can compete in obstacle course racing – from kids to veteran athletes. Many events are split into classes to cater for participants of all age and skill levels.
Many events also welcome teams rather than individuals.
But be warned some events are not for the faint-hearted.
The Commando Challenge is only eight miles, but it’s eight miles of sheer hell based on a special force’s selection course. The challenge is more than an obstacle course race, competing involves teamwork and brains.
If you are looking for something a little gentler to ease the kids and the rest of the family into obstacle course racing, try the OCR Kids Facebook page for some inspiration.
A challenge that doesn’t involve supreme fitness like a special force’s commando, then try the Dirty Double at Stamford, in Lincolnshire, England.
The race combines a monster course of 400 obstacles stretching for 40 miles ahead of you and finishes with an equally monster after party.
Labelled the dirty weekend by many, it’s though to be one of the most challenging obstacle racing courses in the world.
For someone looking for an obstacle course race with no mud, no obstacles and no water, then the Electric Run could spark some interest.
It’s a spectacular three mile run which is more of a concert than a race. The event is all about light, music and dancing and involves a massive crowd sparkling in neon and LED colours moving to the beat of the music around the course.
You can enter as an individual or with mates as a team.
Details for the latest event in the UK are about to be released, say the organisers.
Is obstacle course racing too risky?
There’s a lot of pride and inner strength involved in an obstacle course race, but some well-trained endurance athletes shy away from the challenge.
And there are some solid reasons why besides the usual physical issues involved with fine-tuning your body to take part in an elite event testing your strength and stamina.
In 2012, 22 obstacle course racers were struck down with a tummy bug after swimming through a mud-filled pool at a Though Mudder event near Las Vegas. The source of the bug was traced to the mud, where public health officials identified an infection commonly from cattle or pig bacteria.
Some cattle were spotted near the pool on the days prior to the event, reports the magazine The Atlantic.
In other events over the years, competitors have drowned and many others have suffered from hypothermia to heart attacks. Many of the OCR competitors train in the Wim Hof Method to build up resistance to the extreme cold conditions. In the OCR documentary Rise Of The Sufferfests you see many of the top athletes shaking uncontrollably due to hypothermia from running the OCR race
Super fit athletes in many sports are struck down by illness, accidents and injury, and the risks of obstacle course racing are no different. Serious injury is rare and competitors are warned of the perils of competing prior to taking part.
Is obstacle course racing for me?
The answer of if obstacle course racing is for you or not is down to the individual.
The sport allows you to take part at your perceived fitness, age and strength level, so you should compete with your peers rather than highly trained toned athletes.
Obstacle course races also come in many categories, for fun runners to the serious professionals.
Check out a few local events and see how they go before taking the plunge into ice baths and swimming through mud!