As the Spartan Race hits the 110,000 competitor mark in 2011, with over 625,000 Facebook likes, we wanted to take a moment to reflect on the difference between an obstacle race and its forerunner, adventure racing. The two are often used interchangeably to the detriment of race organizers and competitors alike. And we should know: our founders are former adventure racers themselves. We’ve paddled with gators, walked through swamps in the jungle for hours, and have been lost at night with just tree bark for food.
Technically, when it comes right down to it, the only similarities that obstacle racing has with adventure racing is the running component and the use of obstacles. What might not be as apparent is that both events force you to overcome unpredictable and non-traditional challenges that you would not find in many types of “traditional” endurance events, yielding a greater sense of satisfaction, reward, and much better stories to share for months, if not years after.
For example, in adventure racing you might have to paddle a three-person kayak on the third day of a race on six hours of total sleep in the pitch dark across a 15-mile lake, battling nausea, literally going in circles (and not knowing it), experiencing poor nutrition and hydration, and challenged team dynamics. In an obstacle race you might have to overcome crawling on your belly uphill under 100 yards of razor-sharp barbed wire in the mud. Both are completely different experiences but the outcome is the same: reward for getting through a challenging moment.
However, let’s be honest here: certain adventure races involve a lot more hardship and deprivation than a two-hour obstacle race. Adventure races are tough and only feasible for the top 5% of obstacle racers. The requirement to be proficient at navigating, mountain biking, kayaking, running, and operating on very little sleep makes adventure racing not for everyone.
That’s where obstacle racing comes in. Like a steeplechase for humans, obstacle racing, often compared to “mud runs,” forces runners to race a course that mixes road racing, trail running, and cross country running with a variety of obstacles throughout the course to test endurance, strength, speed, and dexterity. Obstacle races vary in distance and challenge level from three mile races to near half marathon distances with race organizers generally traveling the country setting up race venues in large cities and encouraging athletes of all types to participate.
Runners are often unprepared for impending obstacles that may include going over, under or through various challenges that add additional physical and mental effort. The obstacles run from the traditional – crawling through mud, scaling walls, crawling under walls, and traversing balance beams to the non-traditional: carrying buckets of water, jumping fire, solving puzzles, walking tight ropes, and swimming under wooden planks.
Obstacle racing is popular among runners and non-runners alike as competitors must adapt to new and differing elements in the race itself and the training regime for preparing for such events.
Nothing against adventure racing mind you, but a well-design obstacle race is designed to challenge, to push, to intimidate, to test and even to break those brave enough to try. “Fun run” doesn’t apply here. It’s about being uncomfortable, overcoming obstacles and finding out what’s possible when what you expect of yourself is everything.