In 2014, over the course of one year, I went from not really knowing what obstacle course racing (OCR) was to achieving my first podium placing. It has been a big year for the remarkable sport of OCR – the first year a national event was held in this country (more on this below), and the first year an international world championship was held. The sport, described as growing at an incredible pace, is indeed growing – with new events and new athletes getting involved in New Zealand. In what has become a long first post for this blog, here’s my story:
My name is Max Bell. I’m 27 and live in Wanganui, New Zealand with my partner and children. While new to OCR this year, my training background has consisted of parkour which, if you’re unfamiliar, is often described simply as the “art of overcoming obstacles” – hence OCR is a natural extension. I also train in ancestral fitness and have started a business for functional fitness (which has helped me get this blog going).
In April Tough Mudder was coming to New Zealand. Electric shocks and all. It was the first time the series would be held in New Zealand, and a big challenge to enter as my first race – 20 kms of mud and obstacles. 6,000-something participants later (a remarkable participation level from my perspective), and I was hooked on OCR. Joining in with Obstacle Racers New Zealand, we completed the course in, from memory, around 3 hours. While we stumbled along with a mixture of walking and running, we completed it. A great point is that one of Tough Mudder’s signature elements is it’s about participation over competition, asentrants aren’t even timed. The “race”, if you could call it that, is about throwing people into a challenge where people help each other overcome obstacles. The course was hard, but amazingly fun and worth the electric shocks.
Coming out of Tough Mudder’s cooperative philosophy, I wanted to try the other way of doing the sport – the competitive form of it. The next race closet to me was Naki Run Amuck, run by the Rotary Club of New Plymouth North. The course is held partly on a beach and looked small, local-scale compared to Tough Mudder’s global focus. Nervously, I opted to enter the shorter distance of the race, at one lap of 5km, and run as fast as I could with the aim of seeing how well I could do giving it my all. I ran and ran and managed it in 36 minutes. But I was dead after crossing the finish line – quickly finding a tap to ran my head under to recover before I would’ve fainted. I hung around to watch the rest of the event unfold and found the results posted quickly afterwards on a noticeboard, a more detailed version of which was placed online later. I came 8th place in the men’s division (12th place overall)! I was exhausted, but I had done it. The winning times for the “real race” of the 10km full-distance were around 55 minutes – so double my distance and about double my time, that made sense… except, comparing myself, I could barely stand after running my distance yet along imagine being able to push myself another 5km. Yet I marked that pace down in the back of my head as the level to reach.
Next up in June was a race I had heard people talking about, as it’s New Zealand original series of mud runs – the Tough Guy & Gal Challenge Palmerston North run by Event Promotions . This time I opted for the longer version, two laps for 12 kms total, but ran it at a casual pace alongside the ORNZ crew again, going for fun rather than placings. The course made excellent use of a river, criss-crossing across it multiple times to create lots of loose rock ground for interesting ankle-traps. An exciting hook for the Palmerston North event is that it’s held on the Linton Military Camp and opens up the army assault course as part of the race. I was looking forward to that! However, less than one third of the assault course was actually included – the rest, including any obstacles involving swinging or climbing, were roped off. I ended up hearing from someone on the way out that health and safety inspectators had recently come through and shut down parts of the assault course – not only for public use but also for the military use which, even he stated, was ridiculous considering they’re training to fight yet aren’t allowed to train on a rope or a set of monkey bars because it’s too unsafe. While it’s a valid (and lame) decision for protecting people’s safety, and whether the full assault course was available in previous year’s events I’m not sure, I feel a massive opportunity to make an amazing OCR course featuring a full military assault course was completely missed – and instead we were left to run past most of the course and stare longingly at it. The dis-inclusion of any obstacles involving upper body strength was disappointing as well – as, from what I hear, upper body obstacles are a good leveling field in OCR where the runners are quickly faced with any weaknesses in their training. One aspect of OCR I love when compared to other sports is that it’s truly a full-body sport which requires a wide range of functional strength and fitness – if a course is designed right.
Notably, this was the first year the Tough Guy and Gal Championship was held – New Zealand’s first OCR national-level event – in which the top 3 in each division of the 12km were invited to the Championship race in Rotorua. Knowing this, I paid attention to the posting of the results, noting down at the back of my head that the qualifying times for men were all around 60 mins over the 12km, which is a step above the finishing times I saw take place at Naki Run Amuck (around 55 mins over 10km). Unfortunately for what was this country’s first national event, there was little coverage or information which came out on it afterwards – the Rotorua Daily Post being the only news piece I could find by quickly googling. In future years, hopefully Event Promotions will be sharing more news, or ,as more people train for OCR like I have started to, hopefully more people will be sharing news (if there is any news or blog posts out there send them my way, as I’m keen to hear how things went).
Afterwards, there were a few months in which there were no races nearby, but in which I decided to train. I followed a program written for me by Shelley Quinn of Star Holistic Fitness Studio, also my beautiful partner, which gave me a broad outline of training 5 days a week for an hour per day. While I took breaks off I probably shouldn’t have, this period of training has to have been the most disciplined I’ve ever been! As coming from a parkour background where people get distracted whenever there’s anything nearby to jump on (which is pretty much all the time), it’s been difficult to make myself stick to whatever I was meant to have been training. Although, to stop myself from getting bored, I constantly changed each session and overall did a wide variety of exercises: sprinting, burpees, pullups, dips, progressions for flags, progressions for muscleups, and tons and tons of running. I also completed the Spartan 30-day WOD program (and used it to learn to use that twitter thing I’d setup but never posted on by forcing myself to post for 30 days). Here’s a selection of photos I captured:
— Max Bell (@maxbell_nz) July 2, 2014
Going into the McDonald’s Mud Muster, run by Sport Wanganui, in October I was feeling fitter that ever before, but still not as fit as I’d liked to have been. I choose to enter the full distance at two laps for 10km. At the start as the gun blasted, the front of the pack took off fast and pulled ahead out of sight. I upped my pace, passing a few people, but keeping it comfortable. I was once again loving being free to run over things and through mud and water without worrying how dirty I was getting, but the entire time there were people in front of me who I’d never be able to catch – or so I thought. So instead I focused on the goal of achieving the top 10 – a goal I’d set myself after Naki Run Amuck but hadn’t told anyone because I was embarrassed I’d never actually be able to achieve it. The Mud Muster course is entirely on hills and has to be my favourite course design so far, even beating Tough Mudder, as great use of the natural terrain meant there was never a dull moment. There were hill climbs, descents where fighting slipping was a constant challenge, and any flat ground stretches were filled with either an obstacle or a mud ditch – meaning there were never any plain stretches of just running. Instead the entire time was filled with needing to be aware of foot-placement or overcoming obstacles – exactly what OCR should be about! If I wanted to run for a flat stretch, I’d buy a treadmill or do a road race. Unfortunately the other three OCR races I’ve done so far all had stretches of boring flat ground where I wasn’t engaged with the challenge of obstacles and instead zone out. This course was two laps, with the people running the shorter versions, the 5 and 3 kms, set off inbetween laps meaning that halfway through it became riddled with participants and soon became impossible to tell who was actually infront of you…
I pushed ahead and crossed the finish line, loved it, and stayed to watch the prize giving. I was taken by surprise when my name was called out as 2nd place in the men’s division. I’d thought there were people in front of me the whole race, but apparently somewhere in the stack of mud covered bodies I’d passed them. The greatest part was that I’d sustained the pace I had, only a few months prior after Naki Run Amuck, thought impossible for me! I’d finished in 63 minutes, sustained the previously impossible pace for 10kms, and achieved my goal of finishing in the top 10. My training had paid off!
So hello world. At the end of this year, my finishing time in the Mud Muster was below that of national level, as set by the first Tough Guy & Gal Challenge Championship (at around 60 mins over 12km rather than 10km), but now I have a next goal to aim for and that a bar has been raised it’ll be an interesting journey from here to train for it. I’m greatly looking forward to entering more OCRs in 2015, and seeing how the sport develops both in New Zealand as well as internationally. To improve, I’m aiming to increase my capacity (through strength and endurance training) and increase my efficiency (through parkour and movnat training). Coming at training by combining these three perspectives (OCR, parkour and movnat) will I think be interesting and something I haven’t seen done before, and something I will be writing more about on this blog.