The typical "Ready, set, BANG!!" rings through the air as we dart away from the start line, up gravelly hills, through dense bush, and of course into sloppy pits of mud. Obstacle course racing season is in full tilt! We always want to be ahead of the pack, but two young guys have nestled themselves ten yards in front of us. I look over at my race cohort, Johnny, but before I can purvey my worries he says calmly, "Don't worry, they'll die out." And they do. One kilometre into the 6.2-kilometre junket, we have overtaken them and are solidifying our bid for race champion.
Leading up to this race, I've relied on sporadic gym sessions, the odd trail run and the fact that I was a pretty solid high school athlete -- over a decade ago. Johnny on the other hand, has carefully analyzed the energy systems and skills required to successfully run these races and developed intricate training programs to prepare himself and others for the rigours they have to offer. In the end, he stood atop the podium. I did not.
Obstacle course races are cross-country races that incorporate anything from crawling, climbing and brief swimming, to balance beam walking and pulling heavy stuff. In a Q&A with Johnny Fukumoto, a local adventure-race ace, we try to answer some of the common queries he receives in his gym leading up to a race, and prevent issues I see in the clinic afterwards.
TIM: A year and a half ago you dragged me into the OCR scene to run the Ice Donkey. What first interested you about the adventure-race scene? Why would you recommend it to people?
JOHNNY: The scene gave me and many clients of mine something unique to train for. These races provide an amazing atmosphere (as do the more traditional marathon races), but they are also full of surprises.
TIM: So essentially they are more diverse and less repetitive for participants?
JOHNNY: I think so. Some people have a lot of difficulty training for something like a half-marathon and I'd recommend this alternative to them in order to focus their goals of healthy living around something new, exciting, specific and yet at the same time more diverse.
TIM: I've run a half-marathon, full-marathon and a few adventure races. The training and event style varied greatly between them. What are the differences/benefits of choosing an adventure race when compared to -- for instance -- a half-marathon?
JOHNNY: Typically the mud/obstacle races are shorter in duration so the event itself (as well as the training commitment leading up to the event) is much less daunting.
TIM: But this doesn't mean they are any easier. If you want to compete, your body is going to hate you.
JOHNNY: True, but I think that there are more opportunities to do these races in more of a "just-for-fun" fashion with a group of friends; an awesome social experience. Most of the events are around 5 to 7 km so you can focus on lower-impact strength and metabolic training styles to prepare you for the race. This is in contrast to logging large numbers of km on the road without necessarily working on your core strength, muscle imbalances and total-body conditioning. Personally, I have also found the recovery time to be much shorter when compared to very long duration events.
TIM: Well you've finished a bunch of them and done some serious traveling to run some of these races; I find it hard to walk three blocks to the start line of the Manitoba Marathon. What are some of the nearby adventure races that you've ran? Which ones are best organized? Hardest? Easiest?
JOHNNY: Locally, I've done the Swamp Donkey Adventure Race twice; one of the better organized events I've attended. Their shorter "sister-event" is the Dirt Donkey, a 5km event to which I've also brought dozens of clients....
Don't forget the Ice Donkey, and we ran the Mud Hero as well. The hardest one I've done locally would be the Dirty Donkey Kickass followed by Mud Hero and Dirty Donkey (Regular). They are a much easier, "accessible-to-all" type of race.
TIM: And the other events that were a little further away?
JOHNNY: I traveled to do Tough Mudder Toronto -- a much longer event; about 12 miles. Spartan Sprint Toronto -- the most difficult in terms of competition and upper body requirements, and Hard Charge Fargo -- another event with incredible competitors. This year I will compete at World's Toughest Mudder -- a 24-hour race in Las Vegas, and have qualified for the OCR World Championships. They are all easily searchable online.
TIM: How would you suggest people approach and train for their first race?
JOHNNY: The approach is going to be unique dependent on who you are in terms of fitness and any physical limitations.
TIM: Your suggestions?
JOHNNY: If you are someone who experiences lots of pain when running, then I would suggest you focus on building up your strength and cardio by doing things like circuits with squat, pushup, lunge, row and plank variations (if you're not sure which variations are safe for you then enlist the support of a reputable coach or trainer).
TIM: But you need to walk/jog/run a little bit, right?
JOHNNY: Yeah. To increase difficulty and reduce impact, find a hill nearby (I know finding a hill in Manitoba is like spotting a unicorn), then I would suggest walk/jogging in intervals to build your conditioning. Many events do have a hill component that will feel extra nasty if you haven't prepared for it.
TIM: What about any climbing/crawling/upper body requirements?
JOHNNY: For the upper-body challenges, focus on basic front and side planks as well as mountain-climber variations for beginners. Bear crawling is a great exercise that will build up functional strength to crawl under wire, through mud, tunnels, etc. Hanging both straight and bent arm from a bar will improve grip strength, and more advanced exercises like chin-ups will also help with climbing over walls and hanging onto many common rope obstacles.
TIM: Even though I think these races offer less risk for developing chronic injuries when compared to road races, how do you suggest avoiding acute injuries on the course?
JOHNNY: Train prior to the event -- on your own or with a good trainer -- in additional areas like balance, mobility, agility and strength/power.
TIM: That sounds like work to me.
JOHNNY: Yep, but fun work! Also, wearing footwear and apparel that is appropriate for your confidence levels and the weather will help. You want your ankles to be supported, but remember whatever you wear is going to get really wet and muddy. In the winter, keep your muscles warm and supported with layers.
TIM: So no jean shorts like last year? Deal. Now to sum things up, are there any common misconceptions among your training groups regarding adventure races?
JOHNNY: Tons. The biggest being that you should only register for a race like this if you feel you are an olympic athlete or that you are living a "perfectly healthy life." Most people who attend these races are of average fitness; just out to have a new experience and some fun with friends (and sometimes wear some wacky fun costumes). There is nothing wrong with walking, and if you approach obstacles at your own pace you'll feel in control and enjoy an interesting way to challenge many different aspects of your physical fitness.
TIM: I guess I should sign up for something soon.
JOHNNY: You haven't yet?!?!?
TIM: I like to procrastinate.
JOHNNY: C'mon buddy -- let's go get muddy!!
Tim Shantz is a certified athletic therapist and personal trainer. He can be reached at email@example.com