Not that it’s any surprise to anybody around here, but I love running. So much so, that I keep doing it even when, perhaps, it were better for me to take a break — just look at my plantar fasciitis that’s plagued me for the last three years or so. Can’t help myself. If I have a drug addiction, that drug is running.
Still, there’s not all that much to it, is there? You put one foot in front of the other, a few thousand times, you crank up your heart rate, and aside from a few changes in scenery, that’s about the end of the show. You change it up now and then — try a new route, take it off-road, sign up for a race and run with a few hundred other masochistic souls — but the soul of the run doesn’t change.
As such, it’s been a while since I ran a race. One race is pretty much like another, and I’ve done them.
But lately, there’s been this critter scampering around like mad outside the gates, recruiting the unwashed masses into its ranks, howling at the moon and slathering themselves in mud.
Obstacle Course Racing.
Part distance running, part American Ninja Warrior, OCR is this weird, primal thing that fact-checks your fitness and puts you through the effington wringer for the pure, unadulterated hell of it. OCR feeds you into the maw of pain and ugliness and sweat and blood and even, sometimes, fear, chews you up and spits you out. Like Fight Club, it takes guys that are lumps of Jell-o and, after a run through the gauntlet, leaves them carved out of wood.
Savage Race Georgia is a 6-mile gauntlet of some of the nastiest hills you’ve ever seen; lunatic ascents and mad, breakneck zig-zagging descents across woods and pasture that had us — people who paid to be put through pain — shaking our heads wordlessly at each other. In the 90-degree heat, even without the obstacles, the course would be nasty; with 27 obstacles, it really becomes brutal.
I signed up for Savage Race some months ago, enchanted with the idea of this OCR thing and looking for a new test when it came to my running. I ran it this weekend — actually, “ran” isn’t the best word, because I found myself walking a fair portion of it –and learned a few things in the process.
First of all, I’m nowhere near as fit as I thought I was. I finished in the top 50% — both overall and within my age group — which I thought was pretty respectable! But as much as I pride myself on being a runner, I ended up walking almost all of the ascents and walking a hell of a lot of the gaps between obstacles. I was just that spent, and just that gassed by the obstacles. I knew Savage Race was going to be a test, but I didn’t know it was going to be that hard. Picture wrestling an angry seal while climbing a ladder slathered in muddy, oil-slick Georgia red clay, and you get a sense of the exhaustion and the tenuous hold you have on yourself during the event. I finished — in a humbling two and a half hours, when I thought and hoped I’d finish in under two — but not without some serious digging and introspection along the way.
Despite a lot of training — even training specifically tailored to this race — I came up short on some of the obstacles. A declined climbing wall dropped me at the halfway point. A diabolical, jagged up-and-down monkey bars tossed me in the drink just past halfway. And a seemingly simple gauntlet of ropes and rings threw me to the ground just shortly after the start. Failures notwithstanding, even succeeding on an obstacle isn’t the end of the road. On an unassuming series of what were basically telephone poles with tiny footholds calling for a climb-and-traverse, I completed the obstacle, but couldn’t find a safe dismount and fell right on my ass; an impact that still has me sore a few days later. Even the victories left me bruised.
That said, I did better than I hoped in a few areas, as well. I only failed to complete three obstacles, and those were the ones I knew would be the biggest challenge of the bunch. I overcame some of the obstacles that I thought would unhorse me, and I’m happy to say that I at least attempted every challenge that the course threw at me (and I saw a lot of folks — even folks who looked fitter than me — walking around some of the nastier obstacles), even knowing I was likely to fail. Even the failures were fun, no matter how humbling.
And finally, camaraderie. This is the biggest thing that wowed me about this event, and even expecting it, I was blown away. Because while the elites might be able to handle everything this event throws at them without assistance, the average Joe is going to need a little help. At the start of the race, we chanted to each other: “you got me, and I got you.” Well, I gave help where I could, and I got help when I needed it. And road races are great for putting you in the midst of other masochists like yourself, but it’s a totally different experience to literally give your fellow pain-chaser a hand up over mud-slick wall as you chase your finisher’s medals together. But you get what you give: on the last obstacle of the race (a towering quarter-pipe ramp called Colossus), I found myself dangling fifteen feet above the ground from a slippery, knotted rope, inches from the ledge I was trying to reach. My muscles burned, my hands screamed, and I felt the rope slipping away from me. Just above me, on the ledge, a guy whose face blends into the mud-coated masses knelt with his hand out. With my teeth gritted against the strain, I couldn’t speak, but my face must’ve done the talking. “I’ll help you, man,” he said, “but you better grab that ledge first. Grab it.” And somehow, I did.
So here’s the thing. It’s three days later, and I’m still sore. My upper body feels like I was put on the rack and stretched by a man in a black mask. Below the waist, I’m covered in nicks, scratches, and bruises from throwing myself against all manner of walls, crawling through tunnels, slogging through mud patches. My hands took a beating like I haven’t seen: I’ve got ripped calluses, rope-burned fingertips, and mud shoved up under my fingernails almost to the cuticle. Savage Race beat me like a rented mule and left me in a quivering pile of raw nerves and burned-out muscle.
And I can’t wait to do it again.
If you’re on the fence about trying one of these races, stop hesitating and do it — if nothing else, you’ll learn some things about yourself, and you’ll have an unforgettable experience into the bargain.