Today was my first race since I qualified for the world championships three weeks ago. And not just a race: Strong Viking! Strong Viking is one of the largest OCR organizations here in the Netherlands. Each year they organize a variety of races, each with a different "theme"; they have a Hills Edition, Brother Edition, Water Edition and I think even a few more which I don’t know of. They were voted best obstacle run in the Netherlands two years in a row, mostly due to their good organization and strong, innovative courses. They’re also quite proficient at marketing that package, which helps a bunch.
Today was the Mud edition, a course set in de Berendonck near Nijmegen. There were some exciting new obstacles announced (the Platinum Rig made its Dutch debut), and the weather had been quite crappy all week with lots of rain. Add this to the fact that last year’s Brother Edition was one of the toughest and muddiest obstacle runs I’ve ever taken part in, and the stage was set for one hell of a race.
I’ve been training pretty hard this week, after only a short (but good) recovery from the first 30km I ran in nearly a year last Sunday. The week before was the first week I sort of achieved my intended weekly running mileage, because of my weird knee injury I hadn’t run properly for a long time. Because of this I’m definitely not back at the running speed/distance I was at last year. The lack of rest was therefore intentional: rest days eat away training days, and since I have already qualified for the world cup I’m focused on training and not racing per se. That being said there was of course this voice in my head, wondering… could I win it? Could I surprise myself again like I did at Mud Masters? I knew the #2 from two weeks ago, a great guy named Alexander, would also be at the start - that alone ensured competition would be fierce.
Strong Viking traditionally has a rather odd way of starting races: the starting line is a wall. Usually, the best way to get over a wall is to take a little sprint, jump, push one leg off the wall if required, and throw your leg over. None of this is possible if the starting line is a wall: everyone will be packed up to the wall (so no little sprint), the lack of speed means you can’t leg-up yourself, and once you’re up there, throwing your leg guarantees you kick someone below in the head (and we’re all nice people, so we don’t do that). So instead you jump up, pull yourself on top of the wall, and wait until there’s space to get your legs over, avoiding other peoples' legs in the process. This has the interesting effect that the field spreads out immediately, since you can get stuck either below or on top of the wall for quite a few seconds before you can continue. Again today, this gave some runners a head start, though I’m not entirely sure this isn’t compensated for in time at the end. It probably should be, as getting over that wall fast is mostly a matter of luck (or being an asshole).
I started today with only a minor disadvantage in this respect, the front guys were probably about 50m away when I managed to jump off and run. Immediately after the start I felt my legs were "heavy". This is not an immediate reason for panic, as it happens to me more often at the start of a race. Usually it can be attributed to either a failure to prime your body for the race through a bad warmup, or poor nutritional choices leading up to the race (an insufficiently digested breakfast can cause sluggishness, or a badly timed pre-race energy gell can cause a temporary dip in blood glucose, same feeling). There is also generally an unwillingness of my body to accept what I’m about to do to myself, which will usually go away after a few kilometers (I think many endurance runners can relate to this). Whatever the cause, today it meant I couldn’t keep up with the first runners, let alone close that initial gap. Alexander, who was slightly more unlucky getting over the wall, passed me quite quickly and closed in on the front two, and to my dismay I saw the gap getting larger. I hoped my heavy legs didn’t mean I hadn’t properly recovered and that I would be able to gain some ground later.
Luckily the first obstacles were quite straightforward - a rope climb and a weighted carry (which, in Strong Viking, is usually a shield and hammer). Then immediately came the platinum rig, which’s reputation alone made it an obstacle to be reckoned with… except it was easy. Okay, let’s diplomatically call it "relatively straightforward", but neither me nor the guys around me had much trouble getting through it, and I didn’t even take off my gloves as I usually do when grip is required. I suspect the setup used was quite a bit simpler than the obstacle that caused such a high dropout rate at last year’s Wold Championships.
The both beautiful and awful thing about OCR is that every aspect of the race affects the other. If you’re completely out of breath, a task that might otherwise seem trivial becomes hard or even impossible. I’ve much improved my cold resistance recently, but when I arrived at the classic Strong Viking "Ice Man" obstacle, I had to stop and take a breath to avoid my too high heart- and breathing rate from causing me to hyperventilate. Combined with the earlier traverse walls (which I have to practice, they are easy to get through, but getting through them fast is another matter entirely) this meant I was overtaken by more people and was now running in 6th position. However, my heart rate started to steady, and there was more running coming up meaning I could gain my composure. Even though I wasn’t feeling quite my optimal self I could keep up a slightly higher pace. This was good timing, as there were some steep climbs and descends coming up - a real heart rate killer. I got through this part well, and was running in 5th position with the number 4 at a reasonable distance.
Next up was a stop where you had to hammer a log through some resistant part over a certain distance. I don’t think there was an obvious requirement for this though, apart from a guy standing next to it telling you when to stop. I’m not a fan of this type of "obstacle"; for one they’re not really obstacles, and the fact that they at least seem arbitrary makes them kind of frustrating. After slightly too long I was back in the forest chasing number 4. I caught up to him at an obstacle I used to fear: walls. With walls it’s simple: if you can grab the top, you’re over, provided you know how (it requires only moderate strength, and I think anyone can learn it in an hour at most). So the problem is grabbing the top. I’ve done some practice sessions where I simply ran up against concrete walls, trying to touch as high a point as I could reach, which has really helped me with traversing walls. Combined with some proficient cargo-net crawling in between I caught up with the guy in front of me and was now running number 4. As an added benifit the walls were in a loop in the course, meaning I could see the first three runners. I set my sights on Alexander running in third position, counting the breaths between crossing landmarks to estimate if I was getting closer. This gave me a much needed distraction at this part of the race, when my body really started to complain.
This part of the race brought another new obstacle, where you had to cross wooden logs by hanging from a sort of broomstick and moving across. This seemed rather simple to me, but as it turns out I underestimated how hard this was. The stick was rotating in my hands and I timed my body movements poorly, even though I had taken off my gloves for extra grip I barely made it the required distance.
Next up was Strong Viking’s attempt to make an acceptable electricity obstacle. I’m rather indifferent towards the classic "sizzler" found at many events, but since it is arbitrary I do think it doesn’t have a place in a competitive race (of course the run is only competitive for a minority of the participants). The new obstacle, dubbed "Thor’s Lightning" (actually I think they used to call the sizzler that as well.. whatever, why not reuse a perfectly good name right?) involves moving a sort of triangle along an electrified wire; if you touch the wire with the triangle you’ll get shocked. This of course makes it not so arbitrary, since unlike the sizzler you have actual control over getting shocked or not (try keeping your arms still after a monkeybars-like obstacle). I appreciate the effort in coming up with this idea, but one thing has been forgotten which is erm… And I feel kind of bad saying this… I, like many participants, wear gloves during a race. They’re all different gloves, but most involve some kind of tough rubber. You know, rubber, that material that’s like an almost perfect insulator. My particular gloves are modified Mad Grip gloves, which is a kind of working glove that has partly been designed to protect the wearer against being shocked. So yeah, even though I pretended the danger for me was real, I’m pretty sure that I touched the wire at least once and didn’t feel a thing. Considering that this obstacle thus discriminates against people who are tough enough not to wear gloves during a race, I’m thinking the idea is unfortunately a failure.
At the drinking post shortly after this obstacle I was told I’d passed the 14km mark, so I knew I had to start giving all in order to improve my position. I noticed I was gaining some ground on Alexander, and I was hoping I could catch up with him so that we could push each other to try and catch up with the top two. Unfortunately when I finally did catch up with him, it appeared he had hit a wall (though literal walls are a real danger at these events, the particular wall he hit was figurative) and wasn’t able to keep up with my final push. I hadn’t seen the first two runners in a while and with only a few more kilometers to go I knew it was probably going to be next to impossible to catch up with them at this point.
In Dutch there’s a self-explanatory saying "the venom’s in the tail", which is generally true for Strong Viking races, and today was no exception. In particular, they like to have long patches of crawling under barbed wire through the mud in the final stages of the race. I’m never really sure what makes crawling so bad, it’s just that usually after a few meters of doing it you find yourself very much wanting to, well, not be doing it anymore. And then it goes on, and on, and on. Not as bad as Brother Edition (which had you crawling, uphill, through slippery mud, for more than 100m), but still bad. This was combined with some unusually high mud trenches, which gave me a calve-cramp which luckily I managed to ignore. There was also a quite long rope-crossing, which fortunately went really well. Three weeks ago at Mud Masters I lost a lot of time at a really short rope crossing which had me rather chagrined. It helped that the rope was tightly strung, so there was little ascend at the end.
At this point I realized I was too close to the finish to have any hope of catching up with the top 2, and that in turn there was little chance anyone was going to catch up with me. Third place was mine, however I still focused on finishing as quickly as possible, since it is exactly these parts of the race that you rarely get to train: keeping your pace while being fatigued, and still having the focus to complete obstacles. With "obstacles", in this case, I mean "monkey bars", since this was the final hurdle that was located close to the finish (they usually are, I think monkey bars are fun to watch for people around the finish area. Even more so when the contestants are fatigued… a lot of falling.). By now I’ve done monkey bars far too often to have any issues with it, even the Strong Viking kind which has you ascend / descend in the middle. It’s really only tricky if the bars are wet, which is usually not the case if you’re one of the first to run the course. It doesn’t hurt to check though, so I went through the first bars with composure, and completed the final ones quickly.
So that was it, I jumped up the "Walhalla Steps" (which are a harder finish than anyone is really willing to admit ;]) and finished third place. Number 1 and 2 had finished together, I think they had been there for 1 or 2 minutes; I’ll have to wait for the final times to find out. My final time was around 1:35 by the way, which is quite a lot faster than the SV Brother times, indicating this was an easier race (which says more about that race than it does about this one).
Woah this has become a much larger article than I thought it would be. I probably missed a lot of obstacles (not so much blood in my head during these races) but this was the gist of it. Hope you had fun reading for the ones that made it this far, for the rest there’s the mandatory…
TL;DR Fun, tough course, though slightly less tough than I expected. Finished third, plenty of room for improvement, luckily there will be plenty of time to train! Oh, and with a group we earned some WC-Qualifier t-shirts:
(That guy on the right is 16 years old, pretty damn awesome right?)