I’ve been knocked out from electrocution. I’ve been immersed in ice within a breath of hypothermia. I’ve been driven to my knees by a death march up the side of a mountain. In the 4 short years I’ve come to eat, sleep and breathe obstacle course racing I’ve suffered. And along the way I’ve lived life to its boundaries. Every moment has been exhilarating.
OCR seduced me with its unwavering commitment to our collective humanity. What can be more human than running, carrying heavy shit, crawling and jumping? It captivated me with its ability to shake off the chains of modern comforts and tap into my primordial instincts of survival. Most of my friends think I’m crazy or even masochistic. Those other friends who convene every weekend on courses just smile and line up again at the finish line next to me.
This sport could be called a religion if not for the fact that the necessary skills to compete predate any god. There’s been a consensus that OCR’s popularity initially exploded because it tapped into that evolutionary past. Now, as the sport matures, there are those who argue that it needs to evolve to survive. I can’t help but wonder if that thinking could be dangerous and even counter-productive.
Evolution has come with or without that debate. The popularity of American Ninja Warrior has tempted some OCR series to tap into new audiences. More and more, race directors are engineering bigger more complicated obstacles. Some so innovative, even the best in our sport have been dumbfounded at recent championship competitions by the need for a how-to manual before attempting them.
Mr. Mouse would scurry into permanent obscurity at the thought of pleasing the masses who cheer on Captain NBC. When asked to overcome some of the most recent engineering monstrosities, ancient Spartans would take one look and simply burn them down.
Make no mistake. Skill has its place in our sport. But I can’t help but wonder how many successful competitors at today’s elite events would successfully complete or even choose to participate in an original Tough Guy or survive a Death Race. Skill is worthy of praise. But courage and the will to overcome adversity should be the true measurement of an obstacle course racer and obstacle engineers should remember that. Their creations should test every human being’s ability to push past their previously conceived limitations. Circus acts are for big tents.
I confess. I’ve followed the best in our sport to bouldering walls and some of the ninja gyms that have sprung up around my city. I recognize the value of grip-strength if I want to be an all-around successful athlete. More and more though, suffering on today’s courses seems to stem from torn and bloody hands. Where is the psychological test that has us walking away feeling reborn? Pushing our limits at grip strength doesn’t compare to pushing our limits as human beings.
Don’t get me wrong the “Sufferfest” spirit is still out there. But I can’t help but worry about the future of OCR as I see it twist itself into a more marketable sport at the expense of its soul.
This was never meant to be a spectator sport. It was supposed to pull people off of couches and into the mud to reacquaint themselves with the earlier version of themselves. Tapping into the grit that’s within us isn’t just addictive. It’s also contagious and that’s why it exploded in popularity.
Call me an idealist. But can we not evolve as a movement without abandoning our original genius insight? Our own evolution as a species was what we were trying to shake off in the first place!