It's been a long road for me to get to the OCR World Champs. I've missed it the last few years due to various injuries, and this year was looking to be the same.
The year started well with me qualifying for the championships at a race in January, and I was feeling in good shape and pretty positive. Unfortunately however, I had a tumble towards the end of February, and tore the ACL in my right knee... again.
I had pretty much written off the year, but I hit the rehab hard and by the summer I was in great shape and hitting PBs for my 5km time.
Training was going really well until about 2 months out, when my knee started to get pretty sore after most runs. I just pushed through it, not willing to back off my training at all. This proved to be a bad idea (in hindsight obviously).
I had to take 4 weeks completely off running, which felt like a disaster. However, through a combination of seeing a specialist knee physio, hitting the cross training hard, and plenty additional strengthening exercises for my knee, I was able to recover enough just in time. The World Champs was back on!
The World Champs consists of 3 main separate races over the weekend: a 3km "sprint" race on the Friday, 15km "Classic" race on Saturday, and the team relay race on Sunday.
All the races are mandatory obstacle completion, meaning that if you can't complete any of the obstacles then your wristband is cut and you are essentially out of the race (still allowed to continue, but officially recorded as "Did Not Complete").
For many people keeping that wristband then becomes the main objective; as doesn't matter how fast you are if you couldn't do one of the obstacles and are recorded as DNC.
Beyond excited, I headed down on the Thursday with my wife and daughter. Athlete registration on Thursday evening was a bit chaotic, but later found out that half of the volunteers never turned up, so kudos to those who worked really long hours to get everyone registered.
The atmosphere at the venue was already buzzing on the Thursday night, so I couldn't wait to get going the next day.
The 3km Sprint Race (Friday)
The 3km race was set to be a mostly dry, obstacle intensive, high intensity race. In my peak fitness, this would be well suited to me, but wanting to protect myself for the 15km the next day I had planned to take this race a bit easier. Objective simply to keep my band (for completing all the obstacles), and to not injure myself.
I was in the first wave of the entire weekend: the 30-39 age group, and the atmosphere at the start line was phenomenal. A lot of things were going through my mind: fear of whether my knee would cope, excitement for the awesome course, determination to get it done, as well as simply relief... Relief that I had finally made it to the start line of the world champs.
Instead of a mass start, 10 runners were set off roughly every 1min. Although it meant standing about on the start line for a bit longer, it also meant that you would have a clear run for most of the obstacles.
When my turn finally came, I set off running hard leading my group of 10 down the initial short run, and round the corner to the first obstacle of the deep trenches. A marshal shouted out that you were allowed to jump over the trenches. So full of adrenaline, I launched myself over the first trench, and even had time while in the air to think: this is the opposite of taking it easy and being careful with my knee!
Even though I landed on the other side of the first one completely fine, I jumped the following trenches and crossed the tyre pit a little more gingerly.
I gained a few places back on the crawls and short wreck bag carry, and we were then quickly on to the first of the technical obstacles.
There was a bit of controversy with one of the new obstacles for this year: Caterpillar. A queue was forming at it already, even though this was only the first wave of the day. I think simply there wasn't enough poles or the runners weren't returning them quick enough for the next person. They ended up closing this obstacle shortly after, but unfortunately I was one of the people who got caught in the initial queues.
Next up was the first two of the harder grip strength obstacles, back to back: the Platinum Rig and Varjagen Saga.
The configuration of the holds for the Platinum Rig was actually very kind on the Friday. You could pretty much miss out all of the harder holds (knunchuks, bombs), and use only the rings and monkey bars. So no dramas getting past this.
The Varjagen Saga immediately following the Platinum Rig was a bit of a daunting sight. It consisted of 3 sections each with it's own bell: a series of rotating wheels at different angles, a rotating bar of holds (similar to Spartan's Twister), and then finally a few wobbly horizontal bar holds that tilted from side to side as you moved across.
You could touch the ground and rest after hitting the bell in each section, but if you failed any part then you had to go right back to the beginning of the very first section.
The wheels of the first section were cold and wet as I gripped them ready to start. This made me a bit more apprehensive, so I decided to go for the 90 degree lock off of my arms in order to minimise movement of my hands. Using the momentum of the wheels, I quickly swung through and hit the bell.
Exact same idea for the twister middle section, and feeling good I immediately transitioned onto the final part. I moved across the few holds fine, and reached out to grab the final ring before hitting the bell. The hold I was on tilted just as I reached out, causing me to miss the ring and fall. Disaster.
Back round to the retry lane, I did the exact same thing as what I just did, and quickly got back to the final section. Unfortunately my forearms were now screaming! I started my traverse across the holds, got to the final one before the ring again, and then my forearms gave out and I fell again. Disaster x 2.
Back to the first section, I had to stand trying to shake the lactic acid out of my arms for several minutes before I felt able to try again. It also gave me time to regroup and think about technique, and so next time I decided I would go for the slow and deliberate hanging approach (more strain on the hands, but far less reliance on the forearms and upper body strength).
I took my time, resting for 30s-1min after the first and second sections. Probably overkill, but I was not wanting to fail it again. I physched myself up for the final section, and started shuffling across the holds hanging with straight arms.
It suddenly felt pretty easy, and I transitioned to the final ring and hit the bell. Was such a relief to hit the bell, though I must've wasted the best part of 10mins at that one obstacle!
In hindsight, was actually a fairly straight forward obstacle. Just a combination of it looking daunting, making a small mistake during the first attempt, and using an inefficient technique, made it a lot more difficult than it needed to be.
The course then diverted slightly from what the map was supposed to be, and the next obstacle was actually Trapeze instead of the Force 5 Rig.
Trapeze was pretty fun, a combination of monkey bars and swinging trapeze bars, and placed under the giant tent in the middle of the event village. Having learned my lesson from Varjagen Saga, I used the more deliberate hanging/momentum approach and traversed to the other side no problem at all.
Dragon's Back (to Back)
A short run away from the event village area, it was then back-to-back Dragon's Back obstacles. The first one, named "Isotope", was pretty straight forward, the gap between the platforms was pretty small and you could almost reach across without jumping. The second one however, the gap felt massive.
If you've never done a Dragon's Back before, this would have been pretty daunting, as required a proper jump and reach to the bar on the next platform.
Into the second half, there was no let up in the obstacles: a giant log carry, weaver, Force 5 Rig, "bomb drop", Skitch 2.0 to name a few. The Force 5 Rig was back under the giant tent in the event village, and probably looked more difficult than it was. Was a fun obstacle, made even more exciting with the crowd of people looking on.
The "bomb drop" consisted of pulling a missile-shaped weight out of water using a rope, until it touched your feet. Was pretty straight forward, but I imagine reasonably difficult for the smaller people (some of the women probably weighed about the same as the "bomb").
Skitch 2.0 was one of the obstacles I was little nervous about. Simply because I never tried anything like it before. I had a little blip on my first attempt, not because I found it difficult, just I completely missed the bar with the hook when making the midpoint transition around the chain. Second attempt, with a little more concentration, passed it and hit the bell no problem.
Approaching the end of the race now, there was a heavy bomb carry (similar missile-shaped weights as before), immediately followed by the infamous Skull Valley. Was clever (or maybe cruel? haha) course design, burning your arms out on the bomb carry right before taking on Skull Valley.
Skull Valley is an infamous "band-taker" obstacle which has been present at every OCR World Champs. I had never attempted it before, but I had watched a LOT of videos on it, so pretty felt confident about the required technique. I never wasted much time thinking about it, and got straight on to the first skull.
One skull at a time, straight arm dead hang, using the swinging momentum of your hips to move yourself on to the next skull. (Somewhat similar to sideways ninja rings technique).
The only part I found a little difficult was the transition from the monkey bars in the middle back to the skulls. The first skull of the second section was a lot higher than the final monkey bar, so you really needed to swing and reach up to get to it. Reckon would've been pretty difficult for shorter people with a smaller wingspan.
All that was left was a short run, through some muddy tunnels, and then up and over the final giant slip wall. Since I was in one of the first waves, the wall and attached ropes were reasonably clean and dry at this point, meaning that it was fairly easy to get a good grip.
With a friendly sprint finish against the competitor next to me, I was across the line in just over 38mins. Results-wise that put me 246th out of 509 in my category. Considering I couldn't run at all 4 weeks beforehand, and I wasted almost 10mins at Varjagen Saga, I was over the moon to have finished roughly middle of the pack.
The main thing though is that I completed it with my band intact, and I was injury free ready for the main event the next day.
The 15km Classic Race (Saturday)
The 15km "Classic" race is arguably the marquee event of the weekend, with some people skipping the 3km event just so that they are 100% fresh.
I felt the 3km had settled my nerves quite a bit, though didn't stop me feeling a bit apprehensive on the start line. Purely because the 3km had been more difficult than I was expecting, and this was going to be 5 times the distance of that, with 100 obstacles!
After another rousing speech from Spartan Phil, we were underway. Instead of the 10 people every minute like in the 3km, this was a mass start for each category, and was pretty chaotic for the first few obstacles.
The wreck bag carry near the start did a good job of spreading out the field. It felt like it went on for ages, and was hard work doing endless switchbacks in the woods under and over various beams.
After the wreck bag, the obstacles came thick and fast for the entire race with very little let up. There is no way I can mention them all, so will just cover a few highlights.
There wasn't anything too difficult in the first stint. The "minions" obstacle apparently took quite a few bands, but didn't really have any issue with this myself. It consisted of traversing a series of short ropes, with floating yellow balls underneath that you could stand on. If you touched the water at all, then you failed and had to try again.
I more or less ignored the yellow balls, not putting much weight on them, and never had any issues.
My hands were starting to get a bit sore shortly after that, when we got to the Kingfisher obstacle: suspended monkey bars that curve upwards. Never had any issue here either, but the sore hands were a sign of what was to come.
There was a nice respite from the technical obstacles with an incredible muddy pit that was almost like quicksand, an awesome zip-line, and then the infamous Nuclear Races Death Slide. I love a good slide, and this one was great fun. You got a lot of speed, and there was a kicker at the bottom that propelled you into the air.
Also good course design, having the full water submersion to clean you off straight after the super muddy pit. Then having a a bit of a prolonged run straight after the water so that you could warm back up a bit.
Stairway to Heaven Hell
At about 6km into the race, I emerged out of the woods and was faced with the carnage of Stairway to Heaven. Often one of the main band-takers, and today was no different.
There were many pro-women (who had set off in earlier wave) jogging on the spot, trying stay warm until they felt ready for another attempt. As well as a crowd of people formed at the retry lanes, psyching themselves up and cheering each other on.
I didn't waste any time, and ran over to a clear lane. I had trained for this a lot (or so I thought), by ascending and descending multiple pull up bars. So I felt confident as I began my first attempt. I reached up to the second step, and began climbing, getting to the top no problem at all. So far so good.
Now hanging from the top step, I turned my head to spot the opposite side and couldn't believe how far away it felt. All my training of going up and down, and I hadn't really considered the hardest part: the transition to the other side!
I must've hung there for a good 10-15s before attempting to grab the other side. It was a pretty lame attempt, and I promptly fell to the ground.
Over to the retry lanes with everyone else. I rubbed some sawdust in my hands, then waited a few minutes for my grip to recover a bit, before trying again.
A quick climb to the top step again, I counted to 3, then more purposely reached for the other side. I successfully grabbed it, though now felt a bit stuck with one hand on either side haha. After another few seconds of hanging, I tried to transition my right hand over, but ultimately my left slid off before getting a secure grip.
While heading back round for my 3rd attempt, I looked down at my hands and they were now completely shredded. Bleeding with several flaps of skin hanging off.
A lot of things went through my mind at that point. A difficult obstacle now felt impossible, and I was only 6km into the race. Though I was not going to voluntarily give up my band! I was going to complete this obstacle no matter what.
I pulled the flaps of skin off, applied a generous amount of sawdust, and got ready for my 3rd attempt. I climbed the steps fine, same as the previous attempts. However, this time I muscled up and hooked my forearm and elbow around the top step.
Since I was now higher up (as opposed to hanging straight down), the gap to the other side felt a lot less. I flung myself over to the side, hooking my forearm and elbow round in the same manner. It wasn't pretty, I bruised and cut the inside of my arm, but I had it made over. A careful descend of the steps of the other side, and I had finally completed it.
Any celebration was short lived, as I had still had 10km and another 60 obstacles to complete, all with completely destroyed hands!
Rigs: The Sequel
I was already feeling pretty broken by the halfway point, as I headed back towards the event village to take on the Platinum Rig and Varjagen Saga.
To my surprise, the Platinum Rig configuration had been changed from the day before, making it a bit tougher. Due to the gaps between the holds you now couldn't get away with only using the rings and monkey bars, and had to use a couple of the more difficult grips like the short rope or T-bar.
I was briefly a bit stuck hanging on a ring right at the end, but was able to get a few swings going, regain my momentum, and hit the bell.
With Varjagen Saga immediately after, I was a bit worried. After the mess I made of it the day before, and the state of my hands now, I wasn't feeling confident. Fortunately I had learned a lot from the day before, and took my time using a straight arm approach, with the momentum of my hips and legs to transition along the holds.
It was fairly painful on my torn up hands, but definitely seemed to be the safest and easiest way to do it.
With another difficult obstacle completed first time despite my hands, it gave me a bit of a mental boost heading into the second half of the race.
Counting down the obstacles
As the race went on, I started trying to think ahead of the remaining grip strength obstacles that might give me some bother with my hands. "Only Skitch and Skull Valley left that might give me trouble" I would tell myself.
However, with the sheer number of obstacles, I kept forgetting about random things that were yet to come up. The amount of times I would turn a corner and be faced with another grip obstacle like the Ninja Rings or Spinning Monkey.
Was actually probably a good thing I didn't remember all these things were yet to come!
One obstacle that gave me a surprise was the really long rope traverse ("Tyrolean Traverse"). Probably the longest rope traverse I've seen, and if you touched the water at all then it was an instant failure.
There was no way my hands and grip would last all the way across doing the underneath monkey/sloth technique. So opted for the marine-style on top of the rope approach.
To successfully complete it you had to touch the beam the rope was connected to on the other side of the water. It took several minutes to cross, and was pretty difficult to keep balance on top of the rope at the same time as making sure not to touch the water with your dangling leg.
I felt pretty bad for the runner next to me, who literally fell off while reaching for the beam, and consequently had to swim back across and start again!
I willed myself through the remaining obstacles purely on adrenaline, and wasn't long until I was back on to the same section used in the 3km course from the day before. I was feeling pretty tired and broken by this point, but took comfort in knowing that I had already successfully completed all of the remaining obstacles in the 3km race.
The heavy log carry, the weaver, Force 5 Rig, Skitch 2.0, the heavy bomb carry - completed again with no issues, albeit slower and wearier than the day before. Just Skull Valley to go!
As I ran up the short hill towards Skull Valley, I could start to see the large crowd that had formed. At first I was a bit confused why everyone was just standing about, but then I realised it was simply loads of people having failed and waiting to recover before trying again. It was carnage. I literally saw people sitting crying, not able to complete Skull Valley but not willing to give up their band so close to the finish.
I never had any issues at all with Skull Valley the day before, but the sight of all these people struggling with it made me a bit nervous. As I looked down at my hands, caked in mud, blood, and sawdust, it didn't exactly do much for my confidence either.
"Right, complete this and I've kept my band!" I told myself. Pumped up, I went to an empty lane and reached up for the first skull. Slow and steady I made my way across.
The taped monkey bars in the middle between the two skull sections were painful. I could feel them tearing my hands more, but there was no other option than to just block it out, and get it done.
As I got to that last skull, and hit that bell - The sense of relief was enormous.
Hitting the (Slip) Wall
A short run down to some muddy tunnels, then back up towards the giant slip wall in front of the finish line. Approaching the giant wall, I was exhausted but so incredibly happy that I had managed to complete the race with my band intact.
I ran up the wall a couple steps and grabbed the rope, expecting it to be easy like the day before. My hands immediately slipped down to the knot at the bottom of the rope, giving me quite a surprise.
I hadn't even considered this as an obstacle, and was already celebrating in my head! The rope (and wall) were covered in slippy mud, making it an entirely different beast than in the sprint race.
After a couple failed attempts of my hands sliding back down the rope, I shuffled my feet a little higher to close the gap. Then a quick 1-2 with my hands followed by a lunge to the lip of the wall. A standard heel hook, and I was over.
Even though I was literally metres from the finish line, I just lay on the top of the wall for 5-10s. I don't think I had ever felt so broken and tired, but at the same time so much relief and happiness.
Was such an incredible feeling to cross that finish line, having suffered and struggled, and then overcome it to finish with my band intact. My wife and daughter were also waiting for me at the finish, and it happened to be my daughter's 1st birthday as well. Felt a properly special moment.
I crossed the line in 2hrs 49mins. I didn't really care about my race position at the time, was more just about completing it with my band intact. In any case, similar to the 3km, I finished roughly in the middle of the pack: 170th out of 300 in my category, and 805th out of 2097 overall.
The completion rates (i.e. those who managed to complete every obstacle, and also finish under 4hrs) released after the event were pretty interesting. On average, 60% of men managed to complete the course, and only 11% of women. So based purely on that, suggests it was pretty difficult.
Without a doubt, one of the best OCRs I've done, and a truly special weekend. What I loved about the course is that you had to be a good obstacle course racer to do well. Not just a runner, not just a ninja warrior, not just a cross-fitter, but an obstacle course racer. That's exactly what an OCR championship course should be.
The obstacles in isolation were all totally achievable, but all 100 of them thrown together and the simplest of tasks suddenly became a challenge. I saw someone on social media refer to their experience as "Death by 1000 cuts", and I thought that was a pretty apt description of the 15km course.
Then there was the incredible atmosphere of thousands of amazing people from all round the world. I expected to see phenomenal athletes there. However, what surprised me was seeing the sheer determination and resilience of everyone.
I thought I was as stubborn and determined as they come, but there were countless others who would put me to shame. My story of battling through despite shredded hands certainly was not unique.
There were people who tried for hours on end to get through Skull Valley at the end of the race. Some eventually successfully completing it, while others literally there until the course was closed due to failing light.
I saw a video of one guy using his teeth to bite the muddy rope on the giant slip wall in order to get to the top!
Post race, I wasn't in a particularly good shape. In addition to the usual "OCR kisses", I had badly bruised ribs, destroyed hands, a deep cut in the back of my arm, and a suspected broken big toe (got an x-ray once back in Edinburgh, and turned out just to be a nasty trauma to the nail/nail bed).
Ultimately though, all these niggly injuries heal and fade shortly after. Whereas the memory and feeling of scaling that final giant slip wall, my band intact, with my daughter waiting at the finish line on her 1st birthday... That will stay with me forever.
OCRWC 2019 has already been confirmed to be back in England next year. So if you have been inspired or motivated to take part next year, you can check out how to qualify here.