It’s 9:15 am.
Darcy Chalifoux (Race Creator) and Frankie John Fuchs (course designer) stood chatting together near the start line. They don’t look nervous, but it’s just fascinating to see how they might act on a day like today. In all of the activity going on around me, I’m suddenly more interested in what they are thinking and feeling than anything else. I’m hoping it’s positive for them: people are pouring into Calgary’s Stampede Park.
As an alternative to some of the other players in the Canadian OCR business, X-Warrior feels critically important for the OCR community in Alberta and Western Canada. Other OCR companies have pulled out from entire provinces (states) this year, leaving the OCR communities in entire regions without races. Alberta itself has seen a contraction of sorts, so we are all very excited to have X-Warrior challenge in town. It’s taken an heroic effort to get this event up and running. It felt great to be standing here, ready to support them.
I’m certainly not alone either: some of the most familiar faces in the province have turned out en force to see what this format is all about. Amongst them are serious western Canadian competitors such as Josh Stryde, Jessica Lemon, Austin Azar, Kody O’Brien, Linzee Knowles, Stefan and Kristian Wieclawek, Graham MacDonald and Nancy Loranger to name a few. It seems the word has gotten around. It’s a stacked elite field with all the makings of a very competitive and visceral opening sortie.
Speaking viscerally, where are the facilities?
I could get used to this
Don’t forget the Titans
Deanna and the kids are wondering when and where the free mcflurries are happening. It’s a legitimate thing to ask, and it’s part of the bribe. I stop to talk to Stefan Wieclawek for a moment. He’s wearing a white Titan bib. He’s telling me he is going to take a shot at snagging first place in the multi-lap 6 hour X-Warrior “Titan” event. I didn’t doubt it. True enough he would later finish in first place with a total of 8 laps or 56 kilometers.
Bring on the Pain.
After a brief introduction to the course by Frankie, the start line routine kicks in. None other than Coach Pain himself appears on the grandstand stage to applause and massive cheers. We kneel as he begins his monologue with a stirring, percussive reflection on the nature of our sport.
Darcy seems a little bothered by the sound quality. He needn’t be. The message hits unexpectedly and lands perfectly. It’s a call to focus, a rousing war cry that echoes through the stadium and brings with it a collective rush of adrenaline. It’s a wake-up call for everyone involved to take this race seriously. It’s a command to become competitors. An order to conduct your goddamn business!
Having Coach Pain at the start line was the right choice. It elevated the whole experience, allowing X to hit its stride.
Coach called the first 10 runners to the line. People are bouncing on their toes. Pacing foot to foot.
This was serious stuff.
I did not expect this.
I am not ready for this.
It was about to go down.
The first group is away and I’m up in the second wave, about 45 seconds after the first. Coach Pain bellows one last time and we’re bolting out of the corral at full tilt.
Immediately it’s clear that this is a runner’s race. We take in the south loop of the track, jumping a few walls before running into the stadium seating of the Grandstand.
This is brand new stuff for me, but I’m finding plenty of pace and energy tackling the stairs. We cross into the interior of the grandstand, tackling rope covered stairs and multiple vertical walls set up inside the grandstand building.
Note: OCR shoes are very squeaky on polished concrete.
We emerge into the upper levels of the grandstand, snatching a few high fives from volunteers as we pass, only to run back inside to descend (read: jump down) a long stairwell before bursting back out into the sunlight and along the northern edge of the Stampede racecourse itself.
Pace increases as concrete gives way to loose sand and hard pack. The field thins out. My shoes are biting in well and I start to close in on a few racers that stayed ahead of me in the tighter confines of the stadium, which is fast disappearing behind us.
In the distance, I can hear Coach Pain releasing the last of the elite runners with another bellowing shout “GO!”
Obstacles come rushing at us in quick succession. We face a horizontal wall walk and a tip of the spear style obstacle before we turn back on ourselves to tackle an inverted wall. My back is starting to ache again (I hurt it a few days earlier – I’ll explain in a bit). Must push on. Gotta catch Ben O’Rourke. My nemesis.
The obstacles seem well designed, with plenty of lanes. We were never held up by bottlenecks on our heat. A decently long barbed wire crawl really lost me some ground, which I regained (at great effort – might I add) by the time we reached the bridge across the elbow river.
That bridge was covered with a low ceiling of rope and we had to bear crawl the distance at speed. The adrenaline is still flowing; pacing a run like this stresses me out a little. The hard efforts coupled with uncertainty of what was to come added to that internal struggle. Yet, it was at this stage I realized that I this was my first race in years where I wasn’t caked in mud or had wet feet at this point. I could get used to this.
People are getting tired. Heavy lungs all around me. Ben has already taken a face-full of asphalt but he’s not stopping.
With the first sandbag carry out of the way, we moved to a Z wall, and then back towards the main arena, meeting the first of the elite female wave who were battling for the podium as we ran through an underpass. After a heavy tire flip and the jarring visual contrast of running through some very dark stables, we headed back out into the blinding sunlight for a flat bucket carry.
A really fast over/under style hurdle section was in there too. Somewhere. It’s just memorable because as I jumped over the final hurdle I heard coach Pain’s voice booming across the field again. “Remember to compete! Remember to compete!”
Keep that pace up.
Closing in on the final set piece of the event there was a double tire carry, and yet another sandbag carry among the bleachers of a smaller (posher?) grandstand within the arena circle. My lower back was really slowing me down now, but Coach’s voice took over. “I KNOW SOME OF YOU HAVE GOT PROBLEMS! I KNOW SOME OF YOU HAVE GOT PROBLEMS!” He repeated over and over again. I was having problems. In my L4 and L5 specifically. You see – just two days earlier while trail running I had glanced (like a stone) over a rogue tump of grass on my way down a hill, bouncing on an unprepared, completely straight leg. My spine took the shock and punished me for it.
Just three obstacles were left.
The axe throw… which I couldn’t complete, even with three attempts. Practice required for next year. 20 slow and painful burpees followed, but I’m right next to the start area now and the end is in sight.
After a good rope climb (dry and mud-less), I felt somewhat redeemed, just in time for the final obstacle, ‘The Dragon’s Back’. You may have seen a very similar obstacle at OCRWC. It takes courage and technique to complete, leaping from a horizontal platform to an angled platform, grabbing onto a bar to pin the landing. It is a fast and thrilling way to end to the race, and probably the most technical obstacle on the course.
Crossing the line felt great. Well, everywhere except my back. I was reminded that the Titan event would circle this course for a further 5 and a half hours. Ouch.
I reached out to the course designer Frankie-John Fuchs for his rationale on the course design for X-Warrior Challenge:
For me, stadium course race design is very challenging and exciting. The main challenge is that the foot-print for the course is very restrictive, but the excitement comes from being able to integrate some of the amazing opportunities offered by this great facility. It doesn’t get much more iconic then Stampede Park, and in some instances, X-warrior is introducing people to this world famous location!
My general principles in designing courses are pretty simple:
1) Nobody finishes my course in under 30 mins. We say it’s going to be a 5K distance race, but it is definitely going to be a little longer than that. I love the training and preparation that people put into the races at all levels and I feel people’s desire to be tested! I also believe people are stronger than they know so they deserve the glory of not only completing a 5km race but being introduced to the deeper waters of longer, unpredictable races. As for the Titans, well… they are pretty much unstoppable, but I selfishly don’t want them to get away with too many laps and not feel it for a week.
2) Everyone is going to hurt – I’m going to strategically stack or create obstacles that target specific areas of your body at different parts of the race to test you! I also want to minimize bottlenecks while ensuring obstacles are not too far apart.
3) You will inspire others – my favorite part of OCR is the community. I want to have the course enable this by integrating areas where racers pass by each other to allow for cheering and interaction.
X was a great experience. I enjoyed every moment of that course and I felt that desire to engage with the event and bring others along with me. I’ve heard nothing but positive feedback from other participants too and the format works well for anyone who enjoys OCR or running without the threat of a cold outdoor shower afterward. The Titan experience adds another strata of performance to the event, allowing endurance athletes to showcase their skill set also.
Logistically, you’ll find the venue really easy to get to. Registration was a breeze. It was entertaining for spectators and the vendor tents within the race grounds were great. There were free McFlurries. Finishers received a quality medal, a wristband, snacks, and a choice of T-shirts or tank tops. Winners were awarded a pair of Icebug trail running shoes. It’s a really rewarding event which will keep people coming back for more. Registration for 2018 is already underway and the hordes of race hungry Canadians are signing up as we speak.
Further Thoughts and Balance
There is a fine line between setting a course that will both challenge and entertain competitors and casual racers. X seemed to cater to both the strong and the speedy, but it did favor the runner a little more. I would have liked to have seen a couple of more challenging heavy objects on course – something a little grisly to get stuck into and to struggle with. Maybe a heavy plate or tire drag and push. Maybe an atlas ball maneuver or a double sandbag carry. Either way, I felt that there possibly could have been something to really allow those who are more strength focused to shine as brightly as those with speed and stamina. I think there is room for that in X. Even if it’s just a competitive wave thing.
That’s really all I’ve got, and while there’s always room to develop, X-Warrior challenge did so many things right, it’s hardly a mark down.
X-Warrior was fast, the stadium was creatively used and featured some really fresh ideas underlying the use of obstacles and the terrain. It’s a smart and very savvy presentation, with a great intention, superb execution and a clear love of the sport underlying the whole thing.
Conclusion and the BIG question.
I asked myself, if I was coming to this race for the first time, would it have the kind of quality, atmosphere, community, competition, excitement and difficulty curve that I experienced on my first ever OCR event? Would I come back for more? Would I train for X-Warrior challenge?
Absolutely. I cannot wait to see what X has in store for us next in Western Canada!