Obstacle course racing (OCR) challenges an athlete to complete a set course by foot, which involves overcoming carefully chosen challenges that are in the form of obstacles.
It has been deemed as the fastest growing sport in the world and over the past three years has captured the hearts South African adventure seekers.
Thousands of participants sign up not only to test their athleticism, but their sense of grit.
So what’s the big deal?
“Being able to be out in nature and experience it first-hand with my head and my hands appeals to my inherent being.” – Biokineticist and Warrior Race Black Ops Elite athlete, Jonah Young
After the introduction of The Warrior Race in 2014, you’re barely able to scroll through a social media page without someone encouraging you “be brave” or “get dirty.”
With the difficulty of the obstacles, intensity of the trail run, and the added element of mud, OCR not only defines the parameters of your fears, but gives you the opportunity to move beyond them.
The exhilaration of discovering your limits, and then pushing past them becomes addictive!
When you don’t have the strength to overcome an obstacle, you don’t leave the race haunted by the thought of not being able to do it. Instead, you’re driven by the thought of not being able to do it yet.
And that’s the beauty of this sport; it’s impossible to step on and off of the obstacle course as the same person. It not only encourages you to be braver, but better.
What makes obstacle racing unique is that it is one of only a few opportunities for athletes from different sporting codes, whatever it may be, to compete against each other on a level playing field.
Where it started and where it’s going
There is often debate surrounding the origin of OCR. Some believe that it dates back to the UK based race called Tough Guy, which was first held in 1987. It was originally created to be the “toughest race in the world” with the purpose of “getting away from seriousness of road running,” and birthed a new idea of what it meant to pursue fitness and be healthy.
Adventure racing (AR) is also often tied to the origin of this sport, and is even described as the “grandfather of OCR.” Dating back to the 1960s, it is easy to trace the multisport nature of OCR in adventure racing, and the idea of using your mind and body to overcome the changing elements of your environment.
Tough Mudder reached out to adventurers with the question, “Tough is calling, how will you answer?” And the notion of taking on such a challenge has spread like wild fire since.
The forward momentum of the sport has been so powerful that there is the very real possibility that OCR will be an Olympic nomination by 2020.
According to ACTIVE.com, obstacle racing has already created an official governing body, the International Obstacle Racing Federation (IORF). This is the first step in obtaining legitimacy in the eyes of the International Olympic Committee, and is driven by adventure racing icon Ian Adamson.
“OCR is one of the most rewarding things you’ll ever do. My personal experience of the sport has come with a great sense of comradery. You will be total strangers at the start line and best buds at the finish line.” – SA’s leading OCR athlete, Thomas van Tonder
The comradery that comes with this sport is of a special kind.
Picture your first Warrior Race. It’s a crisp Sunday morning and you’re standing at the start line. Even the slightest thought of the challenges that lie ahead send a sharp shiver down your spine.
Warrior Ric (renowned commentator) stands before you and shouts, “Warriors…” He’s already told you to reply, “Be brave!” When you say it, however, you realise that your voice forms just a small part of the sea of like-minded people you’re surrounded by. And all of them are fighting the same fight as you.
It’s going to be tough. You’re likely to encounter a muddy hill, right at the end when you’re most tired, that you’ll slip down more times than you can count. But when you look up, you’re guaranteed a row of hands that are being extended to you from the top.
If you are an elite athlete, even though you won’t have assistance on the course, you’ll be drawing from the crowd shouting for you to try that obstacle one more time when you’re convinced that every ounce of your strength has been depleted. You are certainly never alone in this sport!
“We pride ourselves in safely taking our participants to places they have never been. We challenge them on a multitude of levels. And ultimately provide them with experiences they will never forget.” – Impi Challenge
You have to watch this (no, really):
Obstacle course racing is all about the outdoors experience. It allows you to connect to the natural world we so easily lose touch with.
At times that connection feels brutal, and totally overwhelming. But when your legs get you to the top of that hill, and when you finally reach the highest point of that obstacle, you’ll look out and be completely satisfied.
A good example is an event called The Air Up There. In 2017 it took place in the beautiful Maluti mountain ranges of Lesotho. Imagine pristine mountains, crisp air, an altitude of 3,222m, with no pollution and no noise. Now imagine running and conquering your fears there!
Big reason to enter! The latest trend is to win the keys to a fancy car that you get to ride around until the next event, along with a hefty cash prize that’s permanent.
Fortunately all you need for this sport when trying it out for the first time is an adventurous spirit, a good pair of running shoes (not white ones), and an outfit you’re prepared to drag along muddy trails.
If you’re attempting a shorter course for your first obstacle course race, then that old pair of tekkies will do!
But if you’re looking to take on longer distances, invest in a decent pair of shoes. Preferably ones that have been specifically designed to accommodate this sport.
The leading brands at the moment are Reebok, Inov-8, New Balance and Salomon. You can check out their top rated OCR shoes here.
Thomas van Tonder, eleven-time Warrior Race champion, gives the following advice:
“While there isn’t a lot of gear involved in an OCR race (we even run without shirts), you do need a good pair of shoes.
I’ve personally used the Salomon S-Lab Speed for the last three years. They have the ability to drain water but provide support at the same time. They are also trail orientated with a very aggressive grip.”
Let’s start with the most important aspect of starting OCR, training for it. Greg Avierinos is part of the Key Health team, and is currently one of South Africa’s front runners in the OCR field. He comes from an adventure racing background, and is well-rooted in the multisport lifestyle. After recently starting OCR training classes, he offers an in-depth and well-constructed guide to finding the balance between strength and cardio that this sport requires.
Our go-to-girl for tips on grip strength is Sabrina Daolio. She experienced a maiden victory at #Warrior3 this year, and gives out weekly advice about obstacle course racing.
There are many obstacles that require grip such as rigs, cliff hangers, nets and even rope climbs.
She encourages OCR athletes to take up rock climbing / bouldering as a form of cross-training: “Not only is it a fun form of cross-training, but it’s also a great way to get some strength in the fingers. I personally love playing on the system board at Wonderwall Climbing Gym.”
Sabrina’s home workout to up your grip strength:
- Find something to hang on (a pole, a door ledge, a branch of a tree) and a small ball (a stress ball or a ball of Prestik)
- Squeeze the ‘ball’ 30 times with each hand
- Hang for 30 seconds to 1minute (you can mix it up by hanging with a closed grip / full hand or hanging on your fingertips)
- Repeat 3-5 rounds
Ripped hands? This is bound to happen at some point, and it’s terribly painful! Sabrina applies methylated spirits to start with (ouch!) and then uses FitLab’s Repair Balm, a herbal balm especially formulated to repair wear and tear on skin that has taken a beating!
Moving onto entering your first race…
SA’s obstacle course racing events
The pinnacle of obstacle course racing, especially for South African athletes, is the OCR World Championship. This year it will take place from the 13-15 October at the Blue Mountain Resort in Ontario, Canada.
To qualify athletes must finish in the top five of their gender in the elite division in The Warrior Race or Impi Challenge.
The Warrior Race
“We have certainly struck a chord with the outdoor-minded athlete and weekend warrior alike.” – The Warrior Race
This is South Africa’s leading OCR series. It burst onto the scene in 2013 is described to have “spearheaded the meteoric rise of obstacle racing in South Africa.”
It has up to 9,000 participants per event and remains at the forefront of the growth spurt in the fledgling sport of obstacle racing.
The Toyota Warrior, which is powered by Reebok, is relentless in its encouragement on social media to #bebrave and #bemore.
It caters for athletes of all fitness levels. There’s the Rookie event, a course of approximately 5km with 10 obstacles, the Commando event, a course of 10km with 20 obstacles, and finally the Black-Ops event, a course of 15km and 30 obstacles.
Too easy? Take it one step further and enter as a Black-Ops Elite athlete. You’ll get a band around your wrist at the start of the event that has to be fully in tact at the finish line. If you require any assistance on a given obstacle, your band will be cut. Harsh!
There has recently been the addition of a sprint race. You can enter individually or as a team to tackle a 400m course with 10 obstacles in the fastest possible time.
“Impi is committed to being a creative, innovative and exciting brand that produces unique South African events across multiple platforms in the adventure sports market.” – Impi Challenge
This is South Africa’s original obstacle course race. It prides itself in exhilarating obstacles, mud, music and an amazing festival area!
Like The Warrior Race, there are various categories that cater for beginners, families and serious athletes. The 1km Mini is the perfect event 6-10 year olds. Families and children over 10 years old have the option of a 5km Dash. The more competitive athlete can either enter the 10km Challenge, or 20km Elite.
Other events to try
One of the latest OCR additions is a Cape Town based series called The Grind. One of the main focus areas of this event is to reel in first-timers. The Grind is determined to build the sport through family orientated, spectator friendly events, “offering a race for everyone.”
I don’t know about you, but an invitation to ‘tame the Beast’ makes The Beast Challenge a very intriguing event! The categories start with the Tame Beast. They then move up to the Wild Beast and the renowned Savage Beast. The names speak for themselves, and cater for the novice and elite athlete.
Looking for a shorter course with more obstacles? GI Joe takes place at the Tikwe River Lodge (Virgina) and offers a 6km course with 32 obstacles, and a 12km course with 52 obstacles. Sounds like a good burner!
A new craze is urban obstacle races. These are held right in the heart of South Africa’s most populated cities.
And there you have it, you’re just about ready to take on your first race! There’s just one last thing to read and we’ll send you on your way – 400km Munga Trail winner and former Warrior Race athlete Bennie Roux wrote an article on mental fortitude.
You can have the latest shoes and the best advice. But all in vain without the mental strength needed for a sport as daring as obstacle course racing!
Read more about obstacle course racing
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