The following is a reprint in-full of the Kiwi Trail Runner magazine article titled ‘Scaling The Wall’ on obstacle course racing (OCR) and mud running in New Zealand. It was published in Issue 08 Oct/Nov 2016. Enjoy.
Scaling The Wall
Max Bell gets down and dirty with a whole different running genre – obstacle course racing.
Imagine this… you are running up a backcountry hill in the middle of nowhere. You hurtle around a corner and come face-to-face with a wall.
A literal wall – made from wooden planks extending over head-height and completely covered in dirt from the shoes of previous runners struggling to climb this formidable barrier. Taking a running start you leap – but your fingers slip from the top ledge and a layer of skin scrapes away as you slide back down the vertical surface.
You could always go around it, there’s room on the trail, but the wall has been placed there purposely to challenge you during this run; avoiding one of the challenges now would be cheating yourself.
A group comes around the corner (strangely, they are dressed as Ninja Turtles): they boost you up to perch precariously astride the barrier to hoist the others up as if you, too, are part if the crime-fighting ninja team. Eventually everyone is safely down the other side, high-fiving each other before breaking into a flat-out run towards the next hurdle.
The likelihood is you are in the middle of an obstacle race – a new and increasingly popular genre of running event.
What is OCR?
Obstacle Course Racing (OCR) combines trail running, road running, and cross-country running with obstacles. Many obstacles are similar to those used in military training while others are unique to the sport. According to one industry report 4.2 million people participated in obstacle races worldwide in 2014: some recent sources describe participation as having matched, or even surpassed, that of half-marathons and marathons combined, labelling OCR ‘the fastest-growing sport in history’.
OCR is sometimes referred to as mud running and while many races do feature mud, the term doesn’t categorise all the races. ‘Mud run’ is generally applied to the fun-based family type events such as Naki Run-a-Muck and Arahoe Mud Run, while OCR more accurately describes races angling towards development into a competitive sport – think Spartan.
Some OCR races are held in stadiums or in urban settings: at another level, American Ninja Warrior and the recently announced Ninja Warrior Australia are examples of obstacle races, albeit in a reality TV show format.
As a running genre however, there is an enormous amount of variety to the sport. Common race lengths in Australasia are 5km and 10km, while some overseas races reach half-marathon distance or even extend to 24 hour events, such as World’s Toughest Mudder. Elite completion times for OCRs are longer than equivalent distances in road to trail running due to the extra exertion required to overcome obstacles.
Hitting the third uphill weight carry, I was broken… a guy with a Spartan tattoo across his chest gave me a high-five and I was left alone. With no one to hold up appearances for, I started crying. The tyre around my shoulders was damn heavy and my legs hurt. Then a runner in front of me crossing monkey bars burped out- a penalty of 30 burpees was enforced for obstacle failure, costing time and often a place. – Max Bell, 2nd place, 2016 Wairua Warrior
What gets in the way?
Natural obstacles include mud pits, water crossings, hills, rocks, trees and swamps and other natural obstacles; man-made obstacles include walls, crawl tunnels, monkey bars and weight carries. Some obstacles require teamwork to overcome such as scaling a concave wall; others play on participant fears such as running through a tent filled a teargas-like substance. Most obstacles test strength, dexterity or endurance.
Who does it?
Obstacle racing is a mass-participation activity attracting runners and teams seeking an out-of-the-box team-building activity with plenty of camaraderie.
Costumes are a common sight at an obstacle race, as are t-shirts with slogans such as ‘I like it dirty; ‘The hardest race on the planet’ and various puns referencing mud or how ridiculously tough you have to be to contemplate the event. Make no mistake, however – at the pointy end of the race, a competitive scene is playing out.
The OCR World Championships were founded in 2014 to unify, promote, and increase participation in the sport – this year they take place in Canada’s Blue Mountains in October.
Josh Bishop is arguably New Zealand’s top OCR athlete, finishing 29th in the elite male division at the 2015 world champs. Expat Kiwi Colin Menzies (currently living in Canada) has qualified for the 2016 world champs and will be competing under the New Zealand flag in the elite male 45-49 division. Menzies will also race the Spartan Race World Championships in the same month. Top Kiwi females include Julie Johnson, Roisin McQuillan and Kalli Fox. Reigning OCR Australian champions are Matt Murphy and Gemma Rolfe.
The sport is currently not governed although that cannot be too far into the future as various organisations strive for international and Olympic recognition. Currently, event organisers battle for the title of world’s longest monkey bars, reaching distances of almost 140 metres.
Could I do this?
As far as fitness requirements go, trail runners do well at obstacle races. After all, the biggest hurdle in an obstacle race is just being able to haul ass over uneven terrain such as farmland, where many OCRs are held. For those wishing to complete rather than compete over a course, being able to pull your own body weight over a wall and run 5km with enough conditioning to not twist an ankle is probably enough to make it to the finish line.
For those eyeing a podium place, OCR places demands on the body to run, jump, crawl, climb, balance, hang, lift, carry, swim, throw and more: a well-rounded, functional level of fitness is required. Each race demands and challenges different endurance and strength levels, and athletes are emerging who dedicate their training to OCR as their main sport, especially in North America, Australia and Europe.
New Zealand’s elite young multisporter and U19 XTERRA World Champion Hayden Wilde won the 2015 NZ Tough Guy and Gal Championship, announcing he found the 12km race as hard as a half marathon. Wilde contrasted running a static pace in a half marathon with an OCR where your heart rate spikes all over the place as you encounter a range of obstacles. A good OCR obstacle athlete will undoubtedly be a generalist athlete with a strong cardio base.
Something special is happening in Nelson.
Walking into the Wairua Body Coaching System studio is like walking into a fitness lover’s playground. Pull-up frames protrude from the walls; climbing ropes hang from the ceiling and boxing equipment is staked over head-height. Free weights of all sorts lie around the room – kettle-bells, medicine balls, tyres, giant logs.
A wooden bin in the corner is filled with weights that are broken from use. A large kettle-bell has its handle snapped clean off – the amount of force it would have taken to snap the metal is testament to the effort expenditure that goes on in this gym.
I imagine it filled with bodies, pushing hard and sweating – today it is quiet and I can play on the monkey bars and ropes. Climbing holds are bolted all across the long wall. We struggle to lift a 75kg medicine ball – like lifting a body. A collection of race medals and memorabilia is on display – Spartan Race; Tough Mudder; Obstacle Racers NZ and so on.
But the gym itself is not the special thing happening in Nelson. New Zealand’s first OCR club is based here, with their own facility and semi-permanent outdoor training installation. They deliver a bi-annual event – The Wairua Warrior – summer participant numbers doubled this year with sufficient growth to hold a dedicated elite wave. Despite these laudable efforts, race organiser and studio owner Greg Witika insists: “It’s all about whanau [family]”. Greg and his wife Donna have assembled a group of passionate people behind the Warriors, a people-centric culture that stems from the Witika’s Maori heritage and informs their business and growing OCR community.
‘Wairua’ translates as spirit associated with a person or object: this gym is about more than burning calories mindlessly. It’s about connecting people in life, as was avidly demonstrated at this year’s Wairua Warrior finish line. “For me it’s all about David,” says Jessie, David’s social worker.
A spirited lad
44-year-old David Trotter is in a wheelchair after a motorbike accident in 1989 that nearly cost him his life. He was on the side line at the 2015 Wairua Warrior, keenly watching people’s faces as they completed the gruelling course and crossed the finish line. At the next event, he wanted to be one of those people.
The Wairua Warriors Club set about raising funds to buy an all-terrain wheelchair and assembled ‘Team David’ who pulled, pushed and hauled David through the obstacle course and across the finish line. David can argue that his whole life is an obstacle course from getting out of bed to tying his shoelaces: completing the event simply endorses his Warrior spirit.