My thoughts on OCREC

I’ve been following the discussion sparked by last weekend’s OCREC for a while now and figured it was time to put my thoughts on paper. I’ll be doing this in English so that maybe our international friends can follow along with what the heck we’re all on about (it was an international event after all). And to prevent the "48 collapsed comments leaving everyone devoid of context and shouting into an empty space" user experience, I’m doing it here rather than on Facebook.

The way I see it, we have three separate discussions going on simultaneously:

  1. Was the OCREC a successful event?

  2. Was the course of the OCREC what it should have been?

  3. Is a trend towards more, longer and harder obstacles what we should be aiming for in OCR?

I think it is important to differentiate between these three topics, because discussing (3) in the context of (1) is just the perfect way to piss people off needlessly. So let me start with (1).

Was the OCREC a successful event?

I can be pretty short about this, and I think that most people would agree with me that yes, it was. It was well organized, communication was good, there was a clearly marked course with trained officials, celebrities, sponsors, sadness, euphoria and every emotion in between. I take my hat off to all the volunteers (!) involved in organizing this. Of course some things went wrong, but that’s completely normal for a pioneer event. On to (2).

Is the course of the OCREC what it should have been?

Here it gets a bit trickier. I have actually already stated my opinion on this matter in a Facebook post a couple of days back, but I realize that this is The Internet and all nuance is lost in the world of expectations and a lack of facial expressions. Therefore I would like to place a disclaimer for everything that follows first. I am not angry or upset, and do not mean to offend anyone. I believe all decisions were made in good conscience and think the people who made them, especially the people who made them, have the sport’s best interest in mind. I am not saying any of the following out of spite nor do I question these people’s decision making capabilities. That being said I think the answer to the question posed above is "no", and here’s why.

For me, the question can be dissected into a few technical points and the bottom line question: "Was the OCREC course representative for present-day OCR courses?". I think it was not. The thing many people liked about last year’s OCRWC course was that it was new, but in a very familiar way due to the "borrowing" of obstacles from races all around the world. In contrast, in my opinion the OCREC course contained too many elements unfamiliar to OCR, predominantly the longer combination obstacles (but also some shorter ones). Note that the question of whether these do or do not belong in OCR is completely irrelevant here (that’s something for the next section), it’s just a matter of whether they’re commonly found in OCR right now, and I think it’s safe to say they’re not. I do not believe that the aim of a championship course should be to be as hard as possible, much like I don’t think it is necessary to have 10cm higher hurdles at the Olympic track. The course should be challenging, but it should be challenging in the way that we all know it. The added challenge is intrinsically present with strong competition from all countries. I would even go as far as saying that the changes are indicative of a lack of regard for the level of the sport in general, which brings me to part 3…​

Is a trend towards more, longer and harder obstacles what we should be aiming for in OCR?

This is the hardest topic, because the last time I checked there was no formal definition of what makes an Obstacle Course Race except what the term implies: it has to be a race, on a course, with obstacles. Everything else that’s being said on the matter is therefore an opinion subject to personal preferences. I’m about to share mine, of course. Before doing so however, let me just utter the magic word that fires up a disproportionate amount of neurons in the brain of anyone affiliated with OCR in some way: survival. In the Netherlands we have a sport called the survivalrun, which has been around since the 80’s. It’s a combination of endurance running and tackling obstacles, and is therefore by definition an OCR. The sport is, however, far ahead of the more "mainstream" OCR (which I’ll just call OCR from now on) in many ways. The national association of the sport, the SBN, has been around since 1990. There are several levels of national competition, with clearly defined rules that actually define ranges for race distances and their average finish times. If a race organizer fails to meet these requirements consistently they may be denied the ability to organize races in the future. This ensures a consistent level and quality of the races.

Make no mistake about it: this sport is totally badass. A typical race course has a lot of long, hard and technical obstacles. If you’re coming from OCR and try a survivalrun for the first time you will be very, very humbled, and likely a bit depressed about how empty your wrist feels without that wristband they gave you at the start. When OCR started to really gain traction a couple of years back the distinction between the two sports was unsurprisingly unclear to most, leading to exactly that happening: unexperienced OCR runners doing a survivalrun and failing hard. Much to the dismay of the actual survival athletes, who were now seeing lines build up on their courses caused by people attempting them whilst knowing neither the rules nor the techniques required to make it through. Little love was lost between the two groups at this point, leading to some verbal clashes here and there (yay Facebook!). Fortunately this situation improved over time as more and more people learned the difference and realized these two sports could probably stand to gain from each other rather than having to hate. I think the "cross contamination" between the two groups is now larger than ever and happens in a much more deliberate and constructive fashion.

The unfortunate side effect of this cross contamination is that OCR, in my opinion, has started to suffer from a bit of an identity crisis. A big part of what got people into OCR in the first place is the sense of accomplishment: look, I battled through this rough terrain and these obstacles, and I finished! Then, all of a sudden, there’s this other group of people doing the same thing, but more difficult…​ punching you in the face with a big red boxing glove with the word "perspective" written on it. What adds to the problem is that, because obstacle courses are different every time, it’s kind of hard to tell if you’re getting faster at them. The only real way to get your accomplishment fix is then through (a) seeing how the others are doing or (b) harder obstacles. The sheer amount of races all over the country leads to heavy fluctuation in a specific race’s competition, and at this point nobody really seems to pay any attention to the Dutch national competition points. This makes (a) kind of tricky, which in turn leads to a call for (b) which does not fall on deaf ears.

Now don’t get me wrong: I don’t mind it if the obstacles get harder. I think every OCR athlete has at least a mild preference for either obstacles or running, but you really should be able to do both well to compete. (My personal scale is currently tilted a bit too much towards running, as a consequence of both personal preference and time constraints. I do not have any obstacles nearby, but I do have roads nearby, and I happen to love running. By large this is a choice and I will hopefully be able to redirect more of my attention to the monkey business in the near future. Anyway.) Before we simply start building bigger, more technical obstacles though, I think it’s worth taking some time to wonder about the "why?" and the "how?". Most importantly, we should ask ourselves the question what sets OCR apart from survivalrunning. After all, if all the goal merely is a regulated sport with very challenging obstacles, then that sport already exists in the Netherlands. OCR should not strive to become a "survivalrun light", because it is redundant and only leads to more of a minority complex. The OCRA and SBN are different entities, representing different sports.

Fortunately, I’m about to present the definitive answer on this matter! Okay no, I’m not, obviously. I will provide my ideas though. Here are some points that, in my opinion, set OCR apart:

  • To start with the most controversial: running. Love it or hate it, I think OCR has a relatively strong focus on running.

  • Accessibility. I would also file this under "controversial when it comes to racing", but OCRs are generally accessible for a large group of people. They may not all be able to finish the run fast, but most are able to finish.

  • Size. As the result of the previous point, participation in OCR events is rather high. I’m not convinced that the survivalrun concept would scale well to this size, though I would like to hear from someone with experience in the matter if these events could handle, say, quintupling the number of people at the starting line. One might argue to reduce the number of participants, but I actually think the traction is a good thing - and obviously scaling down is not an option for all the commercial entities involved.

  • Pace. I think OCR obstacles generally are / should be fast paced, and should not take minutes to complete. If you fall off and have to try again you definitely lose precious time, but not so much that you’ll never take the risk of trying a tricky move that might gain you 10 seconds.

  • Compensation. What I mean by this is that to a large extent you are able to compensate for your weaknesses. Bad technique but huge forearms? Go ahead, climb up that rope hands only. Shitty climber but fast runner? Take it easy on the obstacles, slam the inbetweens. No one weakness should void your chances of finishing or even winning if you excel at another. There’s a balance here, because of course there are certain things that you just have to be capable of doing. I dare not say how high this bar should be (literally and figuratively) but I don’t think it should be always moving up. Also relates to the previous point, because this means that one mistake might not lose you the race, which makes it more exciting in my opinion.

  • Mental aspect. Even though I don’t always like them, mental obstacles are an inherent part of OCR. I’m talking about the things that require little to no skills but do mess with your head, like huge slides, water jumps or the Dragon’s Back. I’d mention the sizzler if I didn’t actually wholeheartedly hope that thing goes extinct.

  • Innovation. The lack of standardization is a good way in that races can go crazy in coming up with obstacles (after which the rest will just slam another name on it and copy ;-]). This keeps it fun and helps determine the balance.

By no means an exhaustive list, but these are my thoughts so far. If anybody has anything to add or comment, I would love to hear it! So far I’m confident we can have this discussion without any hating or trolling…​

As a final note I would like to point at one race organization which is I think is doing all of the above right: Toughest. I only did one of their races thus far (not counting Toughest 24hrs), and I sucked, but I had a blast. Also, their competition final last year had the best (live!) video coverage of any OCR I’ve seen yet. Icing on the cake is they’re now using (shameless plug, you’re welcome buddy) Rick’s handiwork which is exactly the kind of innovation I’m talking about. I personally hope this is the way forward, but by no means should it be up to me… we’re going to see!

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