The real reason obstacle course racing has exploded in popularity: "The barriers of entry are so incredibly low," says Brett Stewart, an OCR trainer and fitness author. If his OCR portal, the Mud Run Guide, which last year hit 7.2 million page views, is any indication, this universal sport is only getting hotter.
Just under 5 years old, OCR now comes in a variety of distances, from 5K to half marathon, and obstacle configurations, challenging participants with everything from climbing the standard cargo net to leaping through live flames. You can race alone or with a group, starting in waves, which makes finishing more of a personal journey than an elitist competition. Multi-faceted OCR is naturally inclusive, accessible for people of all ages, sizes and fitness levels.
"I remember watching a 300-pound, newly minted grandma who was stuck on an 8-foot wall," says Stewart. "All of her friends helped her over, and the feeling I have from watching that has lasted to this day."
OCR's communal, only-as-competitive-as-you-make-it vibe instantly helps non-athletes overcome common "fears" associated with sports, Stewart explains. It eliminates the three biggies people have with entering a 5K run, for example:
- People will laugh at me.
- I will have to walk and feel stupid about that.
- I will come in last.
"In a mud run you will be covered in mud, you will slip and fall. Everyone looks like a fool," Stewart says. "Walking, in fact, is the aspect that catapults people into the sport."
Rob Dickens, COO of the Rugged Maniac series, says inspiration is where it all starts. "The great thing about obstacle course racing is that it attracts a lot of people who aren't fitness buffs," he says. "We hear from countless people how signing up for Rugged Maniac has motivated them to lose weight and be more active, and how proud they are that they were able to complete something so physical. More importantly, they build upon their experience to maintain a healthier lifestyle."
Entertainment is also part of OCR's appeal. "People are looking for new and exciting ways to be active. They're no longer satisfied with simply running down the street for a couple of hours," says Dickens. "They want more entertainment from their exercise, and who can blame them? During an OCR course, theater comes several forms:
- The hilarious team camaraderie that comes with helping launch your friend's rear end over a wall.
- Watching participants get covered in mud and other substances while they wedge through crevasses and maneuver over obstacles.
- The always lively after-parties, which are usually as much or more fun than the race itself.
"There are elements that appeal to everyone. Some like the social aspect and join groups where everyone drives out together to race; others have their own drive and love the competition and want the podium; then there's the people that love the challenge," says Stewart, who as a former Ironman triathlete admits even he was skeptical of the sport at first. "Now I laugh to myself when I come across an obstacle I've never seen before. My path from start to finish is significantly different from yours. Things that are simple for one are hard for others, and you never know when that's going to happen. Watching people overcome mental and physical obstacles is what makes it so much fun."
For OCR first-timers up for the challenge, Stewart recommends an entry-level 5K distance like the Warrior Dash. Ladies looking for a grunt-free women's-only experience can get a taste of OCR at a Dirty Girl Mud Run. The Tough Mudder and Rugged Maniac series sit in the middle, with a longer distances and harder obstacles. And, the toughest OCR event out there? That's the Spartan, where if you can't complete an obstacle you better be prepared to drop for 30 burpees.
From the burpee buffed to the couch-potato curled, people of all fitness ranks seem to have an emerging sport to call their own. "There was a time when triathlons were viewed as a fringe sport not worthy of consideration by serious athletes, but now the Ironman series is one of the largest athletic events in the world," Dickens says. "Obstacle course racing may reach a similar level in the next 10 years; we'll just have a heck of a lot more fun getting there."
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