Part One of my three part series on "the sport of OCR" got a lot of attention. So much attention, in fact, that my three part series almost became a two part series.
After all of the conversations that started up related to Part One, Adrian Bijananda released an earlier than planned statement regarding the three course length options at next year's OCR World Championships, and lots of thoughts and ideas have kicked up on social media since then.
So instead of slowly building up and developing concepts that were started in Part One, let's just have a "speed round" of issues that we can all collectively chew on and discuss (ie argue about on Facebook).
ALL YOUR BIAS ARE BELONG TO US
I covered the ideas of inherent race bias and "distance drift" in Part One, but the bias goes beyond individual races. For instance, consider the Spartan Race point system.
Spartan has three designated race distances; Sprint, Super and Beast. You get points based on your place in the race (and your time relative to first place). However, Beasts are worth more points than Supers, and Supers are worth more points than Sprints. So again, there is a built-in idea that longer is better, or harder, or somehow more "worthy." And to relate it back to our track example, this is like telling Usain Bolt that his wins are not worth as much as Stephen Kiprotich's wins (Kiprotich won the gold medal in the marathon in the 2012 Olympics).
Unlike the races themselves, which are bound to have inherent biases, this one involves personal prejudice. The ultimate revenge of people who aren't fast is to reward the slow grind. We have all seen the language before. It used to show up as the now infamous "runner's course," and lately I have seen people complain about how "fast" people are, or how "fast" the race was. Really? It's a RACE. The point is to be as fast as possible!
But again, I get it. Everyone tends to want races that are in line with their strengths and/or interests, and most open heat racers spend a lot of time and money to go out there and grind away.
I am not suggesting that the answer is to only have short and fast races. That would just be biased in the direction of the speedy people. I’m suggesting that if you want the sport of OCR to measure the entire athletic skill spectrum, you have to include pure speed.
THE FIRST RULE OF FIGHT CLUB IS...
Many people use OCRs as their own personal Fight Club. Some are in it for the pure joy, some for the intense competition. Some come to shake off the numbness of the daily ennui to feel the rush and glory of sweat, suffering, and adrenaline. They train for it, and they love it. They want to show the world what they are a part of. Facebook is full of people posting about the beast mode and the suffering. For many, it is a personal badge of honor.
Unlike Fight Club, the first and second rules are not only ignored, but are violently discarded.
This is not a shot at people who use OCRs to fill the empty void, by the way. We all do it with something, whether it's OCRs or running or triathlons or sky diving or shopping or scrap booking.
In fact, there is actually a beauty in it. I would much rather people seek out their personal salvation doing OCRs than getting involved in drugs, alcohol, or a number of other destructive behaviors. And as a trainer and a coach, I love the health, fitness, and performance paradigm that comes with being involved with obstacle course racing. Self-empowerment, in whatever form, should be encouraged.
But the point is, many of these people are drawn to the flavors of the original OCR kool-aid; the ones that were largely about dealing with the unknown and the unexpected. The ones that were more like the Hunger Games than the Olympic Games.
The people who fall in to these categories are going to put up a strong, loud resistance, and present strong counter arguments against the "sport" aspect of OCR, because that version doesn't fit what they love about it. They don't care about standardization, spectators, and fairness (unless they see people in the open heats not doing their burpees, in which case they sometimes get bent out of shape and post scathing Facebook posts about “cheaters”).
Life isn't fair, they would say, so STFU and get it done.
You can’t really blame them. That is what they love, and there is nothing wrong with it. The "problem" is when weight is given to their opinions in regards to the sport of OCR. We need to be cautious about the validity of these arguments as they relate to the sport because they aren't thinking about the sport, they are thinking about preserving an activity that is very meaningful to them.
We don't need to fundamentally change OCRs to serve a small group of athletes looking for a sport. Instead, OCR needs to create different races that serve the sport aspect better. I don't know anyone who is an advocate for the sport who believes we should get rid of the existing formats.
Why would we? Look at the (growing) numbers of participants, both new and existing. That is a lot of potential positive affect in the world due to the OCR phenomenon.
Even Hobie Call, a vocal advocate for the sport aspect, has said repeatedly that we need to keep the current versions of OCR in tact. In fact, Hobie takes it one step further and suggests that the sport of OCR could be a way of introducing OCR to the masses. The fact is, in any town or city, 8 out of 10 people still don’t know what obstacle course racing is, despite the enormous fan base that exists inside the OCR bubble.
THE MOB RULES
Related to that, another point that always comes up is that it is the open racers who pay the bills. They are the ones who provide the framework on which this "sport" currently lies. As it is now, that is absolutely true. But it doesn't have to remain that way. As long as the two are as intimately linked as they are right now they will always hold each other back. The sport aspect will try to drag things to be more in line with the sport, and the adventure aspect will resist and try to drag things back to OCR's original rawness. What we end up with might be a sub-par, lowest common denominator; something each side lives with but doesn't love.
Free each vision. There is a way of linking the two without having to cram each of them in to the mold of the other.
I ALWAYS FEEL LIKE SOMEBODY'S WATCHING ME
We were bound to get here. And having just mentioned Hobie, it is time we bring up the idea of spectators.
I don’t 100% agree with the assertion that OCR has to get spectators to become an Olympic sport, soley based on the fact that many current Olympic sports have very small audiences: archery, badminton, trampoline, curling, skeleton, etc…
However, I do admit that in today’s selection of Olympic sports, money probably plays a much larger role than it once did.
One thing is for certain; the fastest way to attract large sponsorship and advertising dollars to the sport is through spectators. Why? Even if you continue to grow the participant base of OCR over the next ten years, providing a media product that the public wants to watch exponentially brings more eyes to the sport. Way more than a participant base ever could.
At the end of the day, most potential sponsors and advertisers are looking to sell stuff, and “audience” is the key to their investment. An audience of 5 million participants has some marketing reach, but an audience of 20 million viewers provides a lot more.
In the process of working to secure sponsorships for some of the current OCR athletes, I have spoken to a number of companies and agents. The answer is usually the same; the audience just isn’t big enough for them to invest in OCR. In fact, as an athlete, your best bet right now is to grow a large social media audience. Having a large number of Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram followers has more power than standing on the podium fifteen times a year.
This tells you the power of “audience,” whether it exists in the form of participants, social media followers, or television/on-line viewers.
WAITING FOR GODOT
As I mentioned in Part One, I don't think the answer is to try to make the current races as unbiased as possible. There is a beauty in the bias, and each bias fulfills the needs and desires of its kind, just as in track.
I think the middle ground to be struck, at least within the existing formats, is to reduce systemic bias (like the current Spartan point system) by allowing dissimilar races to be equal in value, and to reward the best all-around athletes on their diverse skill sets. That skill set diversity is what we say we prize anyway, right? We don't want "runners" to come in and just win all of the events. We want people to be fast (on all types of terrain) and to be strong and versatile in a number of different ways (yes, including the long, endurance-based grinding).
So how do you do that? One way is to create a series.
Early in 2014 I had an idea of creating an OCR circuit series using the current OCR brands and races. My idea was loosely based on the US Running Circuit (http://usatfrunningcircuit.runnerspace.com/), but that is just one of many examples. They also have series championships in surfing, snowboarding, triathlons, and NASCAR. Even multi-stage cycling races, like the Tour de France, have stages that are very different from each other. The Tour is not just one very long race.
As an example, one could create a series of, say, six to ten races of various lengths and styles (that is, races that reward different skill set strengths), and assign points based on how one places in the race (and relative to the others in that race). The "series/circuit winner" would be the person who accumulated the most points in the series/circuit.
So, you could have races like the Austin Sprint and the Vermont Beast in the circuit. One rewards those who are fast and speedy on flats, the other rewards those who can grind uphill and bomb downhill. You could also include Spartan races, BattleFrog races, Savage Races, Warrior Dashes, or whatever. Some reward absolute strength more, some reward relative strength more. Some reward speed, some reward endurance. Some reward flat and variable terrain, some reward extreme uphills and downhills.
You get the point. The idea is to see how well athletes can perform over a wide spectrum of skill set demands.
The reason I didn't end up putting the circuit together is because I didn't have the money to reward the top finishers. Having prize money was the only incentive available to encourage people to do those specific races, due to the fact that everyone has their own associated costs of going to the races. For instance, Spartan pro team members get compensated for going to Spartan Races, but the BattleFrog pros (and others) would have to pay out of pocket to get there. Similarly, BattleFrog people would be covered at BattleFrog races, but Spartan athletes (and others) would have to pay their own way. The only way to assure the likelihood of a "real" series champion would be to have all of the top athletes at each race. And the only way to incentivize them to go would be to have the potential for a positive financial outcome.
I suspect that NBC will create something similar to this, but it will only involve Spartan Races. While this might be a better way of finding the most well-rounded “champion,” it will still be subject to the biases that are currently present in all Spartan Races.
In general, I like the spirit behind Adrian's idea of having three course length distances, but there are some potential issues. As Ryan Atkins has mentioned, the course distances are too similar to each other based on the current athlete pool. There might be some variability in the standings, but for the most part, there is a high likelihood that the same group of people will all be in the top 6-8. Even if the distance variability was significant, they still all happen on the same day, forcing athletes to choose between them. And finally, it would seem that the only variability between the three races would be distance, which we now know is just one of a number of possible race biases.
There are so many other points I could bring up, but that is enough to get the pot cooking for now.
In Part 3 we will take a look at drug testing, athlete policies, mandatory obstacle completion, and the current Spartan television productions, which are the only real media examples we have right now (in this country). We will also examine another sport that successfully worked to find its way in to the Olympic Games.
Until then, write down your thoughts, and help create the path forward...