Many of us doing mud and obstacle course races get started by seeing it a fun challenge. Once you’ve completed that challenge enough times, it’s natural that you might consider actually competing in OCR, running elite waves with the best of them. That’s where I find myself at the moment.
With various completed races behind me, I wanted to take on a bigger challenge – find myself near the top of the results list or maybe even on the awards podium. So, a few weeks ago, I ran an elite wave of the Spartan Sprint in Manchester. I’m still far from overcoming the bigger challenges, but I’ve learned some about what it takes to compete and I wanted to give you an idea of what to expect and how to prepare. Here’s the 6 things you should definitely know before signing up for a competitive heat.
1. Be ‘impatiently patient’ to commit.
First and foremost, know that competitive and elite heats, usually the earliest morning heats, get sold out the quickest. This is because every race organiser limits the number of people able to participate in each heat, and due to their intensity and higher stakes, the elite heats tend to have an even smaller number of runners allowed.
So, if you want to compete you should commit to it as early as possible. I’ve been left feeling disappointed multiple times, because I decided to compete considerably late (a month before the race) when there were no longer any spaces left in the competitive heat.
2. It gets extremely intense!
Duh, right? You’d probably already expect this when signing up to compete. I did too. Yet I was still stunned at just how intense the race can get. Be prepared to begin at a much faster-than-usual pace at 10x the intensity to dash among the high-performing athletes. It’s nothing like a jolly mud run where it’s okay to take a breather when you need it. On the upside though, there was a higher purpose to my racing between the start and the finish line, beyond just doing it for fun. Don’t get me wrong however, competing is fun too, even more so if you love to be challenged and test your grit.
With all of this in mind, you perhaps shouldn’t be expecting too much from your first competitive race. Mine was a reality check. More of a test to see what condition I was in, so that I could set SMART goals for my training towards future competitive races.
3. Set realistic goals.
Rather than focusing your eyesight on the podium or top 10 finishers list, I’d encourage you to use your first race to explore how the new intensity level and the whole experience feels like. It’s unlikely that you would end up on the podium anyway, especially when there’s a number of racers who have been training to compete and competing for longer than you. We’ve interviewed a number of them on Grit Camp so be sure to check out their training regimes and best advice.
In your first race, your goal should be to assess where you need improvement or maintenance. You can then use this knowledge to set SMART goals, which are specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and time-bound and therefore more likely to be achieved. When setting goals, consider the number of races you want to compete in and what outcome you’d want from each. Just remember to keep it realistic (based on your current performance) and achievable.
We previously introduced the winner’s effect as a tool to give you advantage in racing – it’s about building a momentum of small victories to propel you towards tackling ever bigger challenges just as successfully.
Previously introduced winners effect, which talks about building momentum of small victories in order to tackle bigger and bigger challenges can be very useful in this case too. Once I started competing I knew that one should not be cocky and overconfident, since it is still a mildly unexplored field filled with full time athletes. The strategy here was simply to start competing and build slow momentum to greater success.
4. There’s more space and no queues for obstacles!
The morning of your competitive race you will experience a new kind of butterflies. You’ll feel a bigger fight-or-flight response and an adrenaline rush to match it. Almost like a sacred ritual, there is something special in being one of the first to arrive to the race site. When the camp is still empty and clean, and seeing the volunteers begin to assume their places for the day at the obstacles you can just barely see on the horizon.
The race course and its obstacles will be all yours to compete on. It’s easy to overtake other athletes (if you can catch up with them first) and there are no queues at all on any of the obstacles. I was surprised by this, having gotten used to the drag in front of every 8-foot wall with everyone having to wait for their turn. In a way, you could say there are fewer natural obstacles, since you don’t have to stop and wait for the other people, of varying fitness levels, to get over the obstacle.
All of this makes up for a wholly new racing experience. More space, much quicker. No crowd to wave you off at the starting line, but the camp will be packed by the time you get to the finish line. Get psyched!
4. It’s a different kind of camaraderie and tribe.
You’ll be running among beasts, not the muddy cubs of open heats. Unfortunately, that does also mean that some of the helpfulness that the OCR community is well known for might be absent from the competitive heat; much like you, the other racers will be just as keen to go one level further and best themselves. If you were to compare OCR camaraderie to that of a naturally wired ant colony, competitive heats would parallel an ant warrior colony mentality. That’s a shared mentality where every ant knows its goal and works towards the greater good of the colony, without the need to reply on others. This is a bit different from open heats where people will often lend a hand.
But leave any negative expectations aside. There is kinship in shared determination with everyone reciting their mantra, thinking through strategies or perhaps trying to visualise victory. The help you’ll get in a competitive heat is verbal encouragement as someone passes you or a pat on the shoulder – these work just as well as a helping hand to climb over a wall.
For example, during the competitive Spartan Sprint, I ran into a guy who was struggling really bad to get over a wall. Being adrenaline-drunk with a racing heartbeat, I shouted at him to get his ass over the stupid wall. He immediately climbed over it and super fast as well. That warrior spirit is the help you will get from your fellow beasts.
5. Prep yourself and gear up!
There are things that you can’t afford to neglect if you want to run with the best of them. This includes a strict schedule and sorting out a lot of things days or weeks before the event. As I said above, you’ll want to book your tickets as early as possible, but you’ll also want to organise other such logistics (do you want to stay at a hotel nearby so that you’re fresh the morning of the race?), the best performance-enhancing gear (compression, lightweight equipment), energy snacks and gels (to give you a boost before you shoot out of the starting line).
More importantly, before your start time, you’ll want to be warmed up. This is a step many people running open heats skip, doing minimal to no warmup, but when you’re a competitive racer a seemingly small thing like this can give you a huge advantage on the field. Don’t rely on the race organisers to warm you up during the pump-up speech at the start of the race.
I like to prepare at least 20mins before it’s go time by doing various drills and deep dynamic stretches throughout the body. If the conditions allow, I’ll also foam roll. This is essential knowing how early the elite heats usually are and having dealt with the muscle tightness from sleep or travelling in a fixed position.
Now you have a simple outline of things to take into consideration before competing. Are you ready to commit to a such a bigger challenge?