Have you ever seen Thomas van Tonder blaze his way through an obstacle course? Every movement seems effortless and natural, as if he’d been involved in obstacle course racing (OCR) his entire life. But surprisingly enough, that’s really not the case for the 25-year old from Hartebeespoort.
The Team Jeep warrior grew up with a dream to be great at something, but never quite found the talent that truly set him apart as an athlete.
When he left school he started kick boxing. His body naturally responded to the sport’s functional movements and demand for discipline, and in 2014 he received the ultimate honour of grading to his black belt.
But this was just a stepping stone for what was to come, and his Warrior destiny was calling. Thomas reveals an inside look into his meteoric rise to fame in the South African world of OCR. He currently has 11 Warrior Race titles to his name, and is the undefeated champion of The Beast Challenge.
After giving up his day job to pursue a career in this sport, his dream to be one of the greatest OCR athletes in the world might be realised sooner than later. Here’s a first-hand look into what it takes to be great at something, as we reveal the experiences of the OCR champion himself:
It all started the day I had to hike-a-bike
When I was first introduced to OCR, I was actually training for the 94.7 Cycle Challenge. Ironically, I got two flat tyres. I picked up my bike and was running back home when I suddenly came across two guys completely covered in mud. They looked like they’d come out of a war-zone!
What are they doing?
I just had to know, and chased them down. With great enthusiasm they told me that they were busy doing The Warrior Race. I was sold, and entered the Rookie event at the end of 2013 with some friends from my kick boxing club.
I felt like I could have done it twice when it was over, so I stepped up my game and entered Black Ops in the next race. Our batch started 10 minutes behind the Black Ops Elite athletes, and I thought it would be fun to see if I could chase them. Well, I landed up crossing the finish line second overall!
That was my wake up call. I always wanted to be exceptional at something, and maybe this would be it.
From kick boxer to obstacle course racer
During the year I started to become competitive in OCR, I was still doing kickboxing training. But I’d start adding a 5-10km run before class, and then do my normal training afterwards. I was trying to prepare my body for that test of functional fitness after a run.
I knew it was all about finding a running rhythm, hitting an obstacle, and then getting that rhythm back again. Pretty soon the distance progressed somewhere between 15-21km, and I could really feel my body adapting to this sport.
I also had to seriously start working on my grip. So after class I’d literally just hang on the brackets that were made to hold the kick boxing bags!
I don’t know if it was from the kickboxing, or that dream in my head to be the best at something, but I had a strong mental game back then; I think that gave me an edge when I discovered the growing sport of OCR in South Africa.
Learning the hard way
We all have our weaknesses. I discovered mine at Warrior Race National Championships 2014. I was leading the series and was determined to win that race. There was R100,000 on the line that day!
It started off well and I was feeling super confident. As I approached an obstacle called the Cliff Hanger I attempted to get across a thin piece of wood screwed onto a ply board using my fingers. I got stuck there for hours, but just didn’t have the grip strength capacity for that.
I was so frustrated that I’d allowed such a small component of the race to take away any chance of winning! But it taught me a big lesson, and I went back home determined to change. I’m glad to say that grip strength is now one of my strong points.
My current training approach
One of the hardest things to execute in OCR is to balance the demand for both strength and running. I weigh in at 85kg, and am 1.89m tall, so I run like more of a tank than a Ferrari!
The approach I take is to focus on my weakest link, and then try and improve my strongest link. The races I’m training for at the moment place a massive focus on the run. Guys like Claude Eksteen and Bradley Claase have really upped their running game, and I need to be able to keep up the pace! So most my training at the moment revolves around improving my cadence and speed.
What I lack in running, I make up in obstacle strength. When I get to obstacles like a bucket carry or tyre pull, I’m able to put a lot of power into that! So I capitalise on my strength during a race, and push really hard where I feel strongest.
I try my best to balance out my strength training so that I don’t bulk up and build too much upper body muscle. But you know what, I’ve had guys pass me at World Champs that are super built and run like hell! So anything is possible; it all just comes down to hard work.
Because my grip strength feels pretty good at the moment, I only spend 2-3 sessions at BattleRush in the week. Bradley Claase often joins me and we push ourselves doing what I call ‘OCR simulation sets,’ which involves running and obstacles. I also do grip specific training like dead hangs (where you focus on breaking down your forearms), and go to a climbing gym called Wonderwall in Johannesburg.
The mindset of a champion
Your mental state is as important as your physical state. You can’t be successful if you go into race doubting that you’ll actually achieve your goals, or wondering if you measure up when you compare yourself to everyone else.
Honestly, if you don’t believe you can win, when you get to that start line you’re ready to settle for second best.
Someone once told me that respect is paid at the finish line. So while you have to race fair, you also have to race hard enough to unapologetically chase what you want most. Run your heart out, and take every single opportunity to get in front during a race.
There’s a fine balance between confidence and humility though. I never want to let my ego get the best of me. The fact is this: victory always goes to the one who wants it most and who has trained the most persistently.
To take my mental game to a practical level, there are specific things I like to do before a race. I’ll usually go check out the bigger obstacles like Breaking Point the day before, and then rehearse conquering it in mind. I literally visualise completing I, and think about where I’d put my hands, and the techniques I’d implement. It helps to have a strategy. I’d look at the race map beforehand, see which obstacles I know I’m capable of smashing, and then set out to do that!
The road ahead
Taking the steps towards pursuing this sport as my professional career was never easy. I’m so grateful for how much Team Jeep has guided me through that. Joining them has opened so many doors for me, and allowed me to get my name out there as an athlete. They’re like my family, and walking this road with guys like Jay Jay Deysel reminds me that I’m not alone.
This year I’m a full time OCR athlete, after spending four and a half years in the construction industry. I’m at the stage in my life where I’m able to do that and am in the best form I’ve ever been. It’s my performance year, so I’m excited to see what could happen when I invest all my time into this.
Besides The Warrior Race, the main focus I have is OCR World Championships. I’m just going to run my ass off, and see what I can do. There is also a possibility that we might do the Spartan World Championship too, which is only two weeks before OCR World Champs.
What has held me back from a podium at OCR World Championships?
That’s a question I ask myself a lot. And it all comes down to the running. The biggest thing I’ve been trying to work on is hitting an obstacle after a run, and just doing it without catching my breath and composing myself first. At World Champs, the obstacles aren’t nearly as hard as what we have here. So it’s much more of a runner’s race than anything else. You need to keep that pace in and out of the obstacles.
Add to that a massive elevation gain! For the past three years it’s basically been a race of hill repeats. While I can make up time on the downhill, I just get overtaken on the uphill. I wasn’t prepared for that last year, but this year is different. I feel the most prepared that I’ve ever been to take on the guys overseas.
I truly believe that this year could be my year. If I don’t get podium, I’d like to get top five. I’ve made up my mind, amd I want to put my stamp on that race with the best in the world. I’m going to do everything in my power to achieve that.
But success is a whole series of small things that are consistently done right. So for now, that means waking up and putting my all into every single day.
What can I do today to be closer to my goal tomorrow? I’ll keep reminding myself why I’m doing this, and relentlessly turn back to the OCR fire that was ignited the day I was hike-a-biking.
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