Having a motivational speaker at the start of a championship race is something I lump into the “Only in OCR” category, along with music that shakes my eardrums, men thumping their chests and howling “aroo” like sex-deprived monkeys, and incongruent race outfits like warpaint and tutus, or speedos and clown masks. Some people are energized by the electric atmosphere of an obstacle course race…not me. These races deplete me. I avert my eyes and ears, let my mind wander to a foggy ski slope in Vermont, and go through my warmup routine in the farthest corner of the farthest parking lot.
At the 2016 OCR World Championships at Blue Mountain, Ontario, Coach Pain (Dewayne Montgomery) kicked off each race with his commanding voice and honed messages of courage, adversity, and honor. For my race, Coach Pain told us to lie down on our backs and stare up at the sky. Uh, seriously? I just spent 45 minutes warming up and readying myself to race, and I’m being asked to lie down on wet grass and mud? I could hardly protest… The speech went like this:
WATCH IT! Coach Pain starting line speech.
Soon after he started speaking, I stopped rolling my eyes, then I decided it was kinda’ cool, and before long I was misty-eyed and ready to harness oceans of untapped energy. Coach Pain is a MAN! (I gave him a hug after the race). We rose, spread our wings, and took flight…only to come back to earth 200 meters later, sucking wind from the uphill start. The race had begun. I was here to compete for a coveted three-peat in the 40-44 age group race. For the next two hours/10 miles I’d be charging up and down ski slopes, forested singletrack, and going over, under, through, up, and down about 45 different obstacles.
Once we got through the first ¼ mile of old dudes running a pace that was about 5X faster than anything they would run the entire rest of the race, I found myself among the top 2-3 guys, and by the top of the first big ascent, I had a large and growing gap on the field. Although I like to be alone, I do not like to paint a huge target on my back. But I also felt pretty relaxed; I could maintain or increase that intensity for the next two hours. When I won this race in 2014, I opened a large gap early in the race and went on to win by nine minutes. In 2015, I did not take the lead until halfway through the race, and went on to win by four minutes. Maybe this could happen again? I decided to go for it…maybe an early lead would benefit me later on. If nothing else, it could make up for any missteps on obstacles.
So I rolled…running felt good, obstacles were inconsequential, and I felt like my lead was growing. Maybe even insurmountable? I quickly quelled those thoughts…but I also started becoming more conservative. I power hiked when I could have run, took my foot off the accelerator, caught myself leaf-peeping and enjoying the Canadian air. I cruised a long descent into the Platinum Rig where most of the fans congregate and reveled in the cheers.
Soon came the only heavy carry of the race…a 50-lb wreck bag carry up a ski slope, over some steps, and directly back down. Here I got to see my competition…LeEarl and Michael together, maybe two minutes back near the halfway point of the race. Next a long climb up the mountain. No looking back. My wife, who runs up mountains better than I do, uses a mantra in her races to stay calm and centered. I forgot to come up with one before this race, but I started humming the tune from “Age Group Racer”, a hilarious video of obstacle racer James Appleton and his homies singing to Jon Albon. “I’m just an age group racer, baby” became my mantra during the long climb and the next few obstacles, and it kept me smiling.
I was halfway up the Weaver, one of the hardest obstacles (at least for me), and I heard LeEarl approach and shout to other racers to clear a lane because he was chasing down the leader of his race. All happiness left my body, replaced by dread. It was like a Dementor had just dropped down out of the clouds and encircled me. He caught up! And there was about 4 miles and 20 obstacles left. I cast my Patronus charm and took off.
I started running with reckless abandon. I got to the next obstacle, and then the next, and the next…and LeEarl was still nowhere in sight. Maybe I imagined him? Maybe my brain was just trying to spur me into unnecessary action? Maybe he faltered on an obstacle (unlikely…from all the pre-race intel I was able to gather, he is an absolute machine on obstacles). And then he was there. He was like Freddy Krueger or Jason Voorhees, slowly and methodically stalking…while I was the teenager with my pants half down, shrieking and sprinting away wildly every time I saw him. Was he wearing a hockey mask? Carrying a chainsaw? A pattern emerged among all the hysteria…I was able to get away on the runs, and he was catching back up as soon as we hit a sequence of obstacles. I started hammering the technical downhills, since that seemed like my only clear advantage, and was thankful I had worn two ankle braces. In the end, we all know that Freddy and Jason slaughter the half-naked teenagers. A daunting sequence of hard obstacles awaited us in the last half-mile of the race. I wasn’t sure my running could save me.
Heavy congestion at the Wall Traverse…I zigzagged on the approach, like when you approach a highway tollbooth and weave to get the shortest line, and I settled on a lane with a guy 1/3 of the way across. I started and soon saw the guy wasn’t moving…he turned toward me and said “sorry, I am really slow.” Shit. I couldn’t change lanes now…that would force me into the “retry lane” where the line was really long. I used my calm, soothing voice…”no worries. Just don’t move, hold on tight, cuz’ I’m coming around.” I found enough handholds and footholds to work my way around him, getting a little incidental pelvic contact that made me think of dark crowded dancefloors after three bottles of Boone’s Farm country wine. I slid past without even a lookback or phone number, and was off to the races.
Got to the rope climb and LeEarl was still a ways downslope. I climbed hard, then without thinking eased my grip and slid all the way down the rope, stripping the skin from the tips of both of my ring fingers. Ouch. Bombed down the next big descent, again gaining ground, down toward the festival area into a cluster of six more obstacles before the finish. I had watched some great athletes…better men than me…falter on some of these final obstacles. I had to do each one cleanly and efficiently. No mistakes. Monkey bars followed by horizontal pipes…got to the end of the pipes and swung onto the platform, piece of cake. Then all of a sudden I started falling backward, into the pit of despair and shattered dreams, and in a mid-air desperate lunge I grabbed the pipe with one hand, dangled for a second, got the other hand on it, and swung back onto the platform again. Without that save, I would have had to restart the entire obstacle, and…lets not think about that. I shook my head and laughed to myself…”age group racer, baby, its okay”.
I sprinted off to the Suspended Walls, had a little trouble deciding on a lane but found a reasonably good opening and climbed on. My brain wanted to go-go-go but this was one of those obstacles you just can’t rush through. Got it.
Full sprint to Skyline, took a bit to find a clear opening but got it. Sprint to Urban Sky…the last hard obstacle. Looked like some oversized playground equipment. Kid stuff. Shouted to get a clear lane, did the first part of the obstacle quickly and hit another small roadblock at the second part of the obstacle with no clear lanes. Shit, don’t these people know I’m being chased by someone with a hockey mask and chainsaw? Can’t somebody help me?
Got my chance…cleared it. Sprinted to the final Ramp Wall, over like butter, and then an all-out sprint to the finish line. I dropped and waited for LeEarl to arrive, 27 seconds later, with a big smile on his face and warm words of congratulations. I guess I imagined the chainsaw and hockey mask.
Victory. Hard-fought. My first and second world championship victories were fun, and my margin of victory in those races allowed me to smile, reminisce, flirt, and embrace the moment during the final few miles. But this year was truly a race, with an uncertain outcome and the need to dig deep all the way to the finish. In what might be my last obstacle course race – at least for a while – I could not have asked for a better experience and outcome. I wandered around the festival area for a few hours until the awards ceremony, claimed my oversized check, said some final farewells, and retreated to my truck in the farthest corner of the farthest parking lot.
By early the next morning I was at a trailhead in Lions Head, 1.5 hrs north, setting out for a solo 10-mile trail run along a stunning escarpment overlooking Georgian Bay.
It feels weird to complete this race and turn my back on obstacle course racing, because OCR World Championships truly exemplifies everything that is GOOD about the industry. Endurance training is a lifestyle choice, and OCR World Championships is the perfect venue to test these strengths against the best in the world. But for now I yearn for cross country and track races, if only to push myself in new ways and reach different goals while I am still in my prime. At 44, can I run a mile as fast as I did when I was 17? I’ve got a few months to train…