Unedited. The edited version of this article was published on MudRunGuide (http://www.mudrunguide.com/2015/10/what-is-obstacle-course-racing-as-a-sport/)
Leading up to the Spartan World Championship, and the International Obstacle Racing Federation’s first World Congress, there has been a lot of talk about the “sport” aspect of obstacle course racing. There are so many issues that need to be addressed, and I will address some of them in upcoming articles. In this article I want to ask the question:
What is obstacle course racing?
All of us have our own individual bias when it comes to how we define OCR, but I think it’s helpful to see that “OCR” really encompasses a broad spectrum of styles and events. And thus, it allows for many different types of athletes and skill sets.
To get started, let’s make a comparison to running:
Who would win in a race between Justin Gatlin, Nick Symmonds, Galen Rupp, and Ryan Hall? (Apologies in advance if you don’t follow track and you don’t know who these individuals are.)
I’m not asking who can hit the highest velocity. That would be Justin Gatlin, for sure. I’m asking: in a race against each other, which person would win?
It’s not a question that can be answered unless you know how long the race is, right? All four of these guys are amazing runners with very different skills sets. Justin would easily win the 100m, Nick would clearly win in the 800m, Galen would most likely win the 10k, and Ryan would definitely win the marathon. You can’t really answer which one is the “fastest” or “best” in a race until you determine the length of the race.
OCR requires a much more diverse skill set than just running, but the same principle holds. It’s difficult to determine who is “fastest” or “best” until you determine what skill sets are rewarded in a particular race.
For instance, no one competing in OCR right now is going to beat Issac Caldiero in a course like American Ninja Warrior. But Isaac isn’t going to have a chance against a Cody Moat or a Ryan Atkins in a Spartan or BattleFrog race, and he probably couldn’t even come close to a Brakken Kraker or a Hobie Call in something like an OCR Warrior race.
Each of those competitions rewards a different skill set combination.
So, like track, if we are going to try to determine who the best racers in OCR are, we need to examine the different skill set combinations as well as how different races reward those different skill set combinations.
Let’s break it down, to see what we can find. I am going to oversimplify the skill sets a little for brevity, but you should be able to see the point even without a comprehensive in-depth analysis. (One thing in particular I will leave out is the category of “skill” or “technique,” but it should be obvious that this is an important part of OCR).
I FEEL THE NEED; THE NEED FOR SPEED
The most obvious skill to acknowledge is speed. Speed is the primary determinant of success in OCR. But if we were going to assess the skills of an OC racer, what types of speed are needed?
In general, there is the speed of moving between obstacles, and there is the speed to complete an obstacle.
In races outside of American Ninja Warrior and Alpha Warrior, the speed between obstacles is usually accomplished by some form of running. Thus, the elements of speed are a) running on flat surfaces, b) running on rolling hills, c) running on various terrain (technical running), d) ascending (hiking/climbing), e) descending, and f) endurance.
Just like the track example above, where each of the four athletes listed excel at a different distance of running, different OCR athletes excel at different distances and aspects of running in OCR.
The athletes who came to OCR from track might fly on the flats and rolling hills, but they might not be as good on steep ascents and descents. Likewise, there are other athletes who might be really good at climbing and descending, but who aren’t all that fast on the flats. There are some who might do really well at races less than 30-60 minutes long, but not do as well at 3-4 hour races. And there are others who might not excel at the shorter races, but they can go out and grind all day long.
These are all different skill sets. One skill does not necessarily determine “best” more than another, but each person could be “better” than another at different aspects. At this point in the sport, most of the top racers are pretty well rounded and are decent at all of them.
The speed it takes to complete an obstacle is dependent on the category of the obstacle. There are many categories we could mention, but the most obvious one that ties in to different skill sets is strength.
BICEPS WIN RACES
Strength obstacles can generally be broken down in to two categories; absolute strength and relative strength. Absolute strength requires lifting or carrying or pushing or pulling an object of fixed weight; relative strength is based upon a person’s body weight, and would include things like hanging and climbing and traversing.
When an object is a fixed weight, it is easy to see how it can be pushed, pulled, dragged, and carried by someone who weighs more. A strong 135 lb female OCR athlete is typically going to have an easier time carrying a 50 lb bucket than a similarly strong 110 lb female OCR athlete. Each has to carry 50 lbs, which is a very different percentage of their bodyweight.
However, if those same two athletes are on the monkey bars, the 110 lb athlete might be better than the 135 lb athlete. The amount of strength required to get 110 lbs across the monkey bars is the less than the amount of strength required to get 135 lbs across the monkey bars.
None of this should be terribly enlightening. It doesn’t take deep analysis to understand how these different skills sets play out in a race. So now, let’s look at the races themselves.
THE OBSTACLE COURSE SPECTRUM
At one end of the obstacle course racing spectrum are races like American Ninja Warrior and Alpha Warrior. They are composed of mostly upper body, relative strength obstacles, and they require very little speed between obstacles. The speed component required is the speed needed to complete each obstacle.
On the other end of the spectrum, you have the World’s Toughest Mudder. Speed on and in between obstacles has some importance, but having the endurance and strength to race for 24 hours is equally (if not more) important.
In between those two end points is where most of us place our definition of “obstacle course racing,” even though OCR really covers the entire spectrum. We could continue to fill in the spectrum as it currently exists; from OCR Warrior and Warrior Dash to Spartan Race, BattleFrog, Savage Race, and others, but the point of this article is to address how each race, wherever it is on the spectrum, has its own skill set bias. Having a skill set bias doesn’t make it “wrong,” it is just a function of the race format, just like a 10k is going to have an inherent biased against someone who excels at the 800m.
Spartan Races, in general, have a bias, but they get magnified even more at the world championship. The SRWC is typically much steeper and much longer than any of the Spartan Races held during the season. People competing in Spartan Races during the year find themselves facing a world championship race that may or may not match the skill set they exhibited during the year. It is akin to telling 1500 meter or 5k runners that they now need to run the marathon.
Historically, the SRWC has had a heavy bias towards endurance runners and strong ascenders/descenders. There is also a strong bias towards those who have good absolute strength. The reason Spartan Races have a bias towards absolute strength is because the obstacles that require that skill set (bucket carry, sand bag carry, log carry, sled pull, etc) are mandatory, meaning you cannot burpee out of them, whereas the obstacles that require relative strength (monkey bars, Rig, etc) you can burpee out of. It could take you 20-40 minutes to do a brutal Norm-infused double sand bag carry (like at last year’s SRWC), but you can fail and burpee out of the monkey bars and be done with the obstacle in 2-3 minutes.
Additionally, due to the length of the world championship race, it is possible that a really good endurance athlete can overcome strength deficiencies by making up time on obstacles with time between obstacles, but only if they can survive the heavy carries (absolute strength obstacles).
Of course, Spartan is entitled to make their championship race anything they want. There is no “right” or “wrong” race configuration. But from a “sport” perspective, if we are to assess athlete versus athlete, we have to account for the different race configurations and distances to understand what biases are present.
The OCRWC smoothes out some of these skill set curves, but also presents some of its own biases (as all races do). With more rolling terrain, there are components of ascending and descending, but no really long, sustained climbs. Mandatory obstacle completion gives equal weight to absolute vs relative strength obstacles, but also creates a potential bias towards relative strength. From our example above, maybe our 110 lb female athlete will take a long time to carry that heavy object, but eventually, she will get it done. However, if the 135 lb female athlete, who has little problems with the heavy carry, can’t get across a difficult Rig, it’s possible that no amount of time is going to increase her chance of completing it.
Of course, no race will be able to accommodate each skill set equally. There will always be inherent biases, based primarily on the combinations of speed, strength, and endurance. A race can try to moderate the differences, but there will always be someone whose skill set isn’t being matched very well.
And to me, that isn’t the issue. In fact, one of the beautiful things about OCR as a sport is the amazingly diverse skill sets of the racers. Athletes from so many other sports descend upon OCR to see how their skill set compares to others.
The issue, in my eyes, is when we start talking about determining the fittest athletes on the planet (sorry, CrossFit) in regards to races that we now know have skill set biases. (To be fair to CrossFit, we could probably list the CrossFit Games somewhere on our OCR spectrum, even though they include highly technical barbell lifts.)
Who is better? Justin, Nick, Galen, or Ryan? It depends….
We are currently at a stage where we don’t have to stress about it too much because many of the top athletes are good at all (or most) race configurations and distances. But as the sport grows, that is going to change. There are going to be more and more “specialists,” and there will hopefully be a wider range of race configurations and distances to match different athlete skill sets. OCR Warrior has shown a cool short course format, Spartan tested one out last year in Vermont, BattleFrog presented a team version on ESPN earlier this year, and Extreme Nation had a very successful one race outing.
You might think this is all just mental masturbation (MBD) but it’s not. Before you can move forward in creating a sport - long before you worry about obstacle standardization and spectators and all of that – you have to define what obstacle course racing is. And the fact is, it’s not totally clear, because it encompasses much more than what we are currently seeing. And if it remains undefined, who determines where the races are currently heading?
THE DISTANCE DRIFT
We have probably all seen the Facebook arguments on how races are getting longer and more brutal, in terms of terrain, heavy carries, etc… This year’s NBC Pennsylvania Super was approaching Beast length in terms of the time it took to complete the course.
I have always been intrigued by this notion that longer somehow means “more epic.” I’ve seen it in the running world as well. One day I was talking to an ultra runner friend about racing and I mentioned something about a 5k race. They looked at me with a smug grin and said “A 5k? Heck, a 5k is just a warm up for me.” To which I responded, “Then you aren’t running fast enough.” (The grin disappeared.)
Many people don’t like the pain of running fast, so they run slower for longer distances and then act like longer is superior; as if “the hurt” only comes from long, grueling races.
To test, try this: go out to a track and run 800 meters (that’s twice around a track) as hard as you can. Seriously, really sprint it. Run like a lion is chasing you. When you get to about 45 seconds, you might start to feel like you are drowning and are about to pass out. Don’t worry, just ignore it and keep going.
Chances are, you won’t even make it one time around before stopping. That inability to catch your breath, that metallic taste in your mouth, that burning in your legs and arms and chest, that is also “the hurt.” You don’t have to run three hours to find it.
Now, if you PREFER to go three hours, if that is your style, then great! Just understand that there are others who prefer speed. Athletes are on both ends of the spectrum. Neither is “better” or “more right” than the other, just like the 100m and the marathon aren’t “better” or “more right” than each other.
One could argue that we should only talk about the existing OCR races, and that all athletes should just be judged using the current formats. I suppose that is fair for the time being. After all, that is what “OCR” is at the moment. But if the goal is to move OCR in to legitimate “sport” status (dare I say, Olympic status), then we need to examine the entire spectrum, because the fact is, the current formats might not be the best formats for the “sport” of OCR.
Just some thoughts. What do you think?
This article is Part One of in a three part series.