Obstacle Courses: The Toughest Pain You’ll Ever Love

A mud-covered team celebrates at the end of their Warrior Dash. Courtesy of Red Frog, LLC

Your heart pounds as you stand, poised, ready to run.  Your teammate next to you fits in a last-minute hamstring stretch.  Surveying the sea of people around you, some wear costumes, some have plastic helmets, others are in large groups with matching shirts – and all of their facial expressions are equally intense.  The emcee leads everyone in a few final shouts of “Oohrah!!”  Silence falls over the crowd…until a single gunshot goes off and the herd of people takes off, a stampede of wild horses as they thunder across the start line.  You keep pace, motivated by adrenaline…and the desire to not be crushed by the crowd surrounding you.  Welcome to your first obstacle course race.

Dating back to ancient Rome, where obstacle courses were used to train members of the Roman army, the modern version of this event has skyrocketed in popularity over the past few years.  You can now find various versions of obstacle courses across the United States, and even as far away as South Africa and New Zealand.  They range in size, from the 600-meter Metro Dash to the Tough Mudder, which is approximately 10 miles long.  Participants in the Mudder face challenges such as crossing greased monkey bars over a pit of water, running through wires containing live voltage, and my personal favorite – jumping into and completely submerging yourself in a dumpster full of ice water, then dragging your pre-hypothermic body out of there without the help of a ladder.  For those who haven’t quite had their fill by the time they crawl across the finish line, top-ranking Mudders can enter the World’s Toughest Mudder, in which participants compete for a grueling 24 straight hours.  Last year, 1,000 people started the challenge and only 10 finished.

Warrior Dashers race over a fire to get to the finish line. Courtesy of Red Frog, LLC

For something with a bit less intensity, there are a multitude of options in the DC/Metro area.  Try the Warrior Dash, a 3-mile course where you’ll encounter 12 obstacles, such as “Road Rage,” where you run through a scrap yard, around and over rusted wreckage, or “Muddy Mayhem,” in which you crawl through a mud pit under rows of barbed wire.  Another event is the Rebel Race, where you have the choice to participate in either a 5k or 15k.  Here, competitors are met with challenges such as “Hay Dude,” where you climb over a huge pyramid made of hay bales, or “Gamble with Gravity,” where you climb up a 180-degree wall using only a rope.

So how does one best train him or herself for this type of event?  Most of the obstacle course websites recommend cardio mixed with lifting, so you can build both strength and endurance to get you through the course.   It definitely helps to be able to run 5-10 miles, but don’t forget that your upper body will have to do some work as well – climbing, pulling yourself over things, and sometimes carrying heavy objects will take their toll if you don’t train properly during the weeks leading up to the event!  The Warrior Dash website actually provides specific training plans based on your level of fitness and experience.  Even if you don’t follow a plan, however, as long as you get yourself into pretty good shape a few weeks prior to the race, you should be fine.

By this point, you may be asking yourself why anyone in their right mind would be interested in putting themselves through one of these events, let alone paying to do it.  “Why would I want to jump into freezing cold water and crawl on my stomach through tunnels of mud?” you question.  The secret lies in actually participating in your first obstacle course event.  You may not feel it as you run through the starting point, and I guarantee you probably won’t be feeling it as you hike up a mountain, carrying a heavy log in your arms, while getting hosed down with water. After some time, however, you’ll see that there is a greater sense of community which exists during the event, and realize that the overall goal isn’t only for you to cross the finish line, but instead for everyone to help eachother cross the finish line.  At this point, you might finally start warming up to the event (figuratively, of course, because your teeth are chattering and you’re still wrapped in the mylar blanket that was handed out after the last obstacle).  You’ll finally be enjoying it when you’re running up the last hill and can see everyone relaxing and swapping war stories at the after-party.  And once you drag yourself across that finish line, panting and caked in dirt, you will be hooked for life.

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