Disclaimer: This is the second part of a race report. If you care about continuity, the first part is here. If you think that running and obstacle course races are endeavors fit only for the insane, well, you might not be wrong, but feel free to skip this entry. If you’re intrigued by all this, you can find lots of pictures and in-depth descriptions of these obstacles at Savage Race’s website. Now, onward!
For a guy who runs mostly roads, it’s challenging enough going off-road. The footing isn’t as sure, the hills are ubiquitous, and you have to watch your every step for roots and rocks and, in this case, horse sharknado. From speaking to a few finishers before my wave started, I know enough to know the hills are going to be nasty, but I’m still not prepared. The first half mile of the course takes us down from the start line, up over a tree-lined hill that we couldn’t see past before, down again across the inline toward the lake (which has us leaning sideways to keep our balance), and back up again to get into the woods proper. As we roll down into another valley, we have to cross this tiny stream of runoff, just wide enough to be unhoppable. Racers are hesitating and trying to pick a dry footing across. I shake my head in wonder. This is a mud run, isn’t it? And I pile ahead, right through the stream, kicking up spray and mud in my wake, and I hear the splashing of other feet right behind me. I immediately wish I hadn’t, though — mud run or not, running in wet shoes is not fun, and with all the hills and cambers, my feet and toes are sliding around and raising blisters already.
Despite all that, I can feel myself breaking the first rule of racing: don’t go out too fast. I can’t help it, though — the adrenaline is surging, I hear the light tromping of feet all around me, and there’s a cool breeze through the shaded paths, so that even at ninety-plus degrees outside, the running feels like heaven.
But we’re at the first obstacle: a pair of fences made of widely-spaced two-by-sixes about eight feet high. I don’t break stride — from my run I hop onto the fence and climb it like a ladder, toss my legs over, and drop to the ground. One down, and while it was hardly a challenge, I’m exhilarated. Then it’s through another patch of trees, and I see barbed wire stretched low across the ground. I’m preparing to drop to my belly when I see another racer lay out sideways in front of the obstacle and begin to roll through the dirt. Well, that looks a lot easier than commando crawling, so I follow suit. What I don’t notice is the downhill grade in the second half of the obstacle, and by the time I roll out the far side, I’m not so much rolling as tumbling. Clear of the barbed wire, I sprawl out and watch the sky spin crazily overhead for a few seconds before I stumble to my feet. I’m not the only one spun like a top, but we master it and truck on.
It’s a hot minute, fully a half mile of hills and trees, before it’s obstacle time again: another field of barbed wire. Didn’t we already do this? No, this one’s different — in addition to low-slung barbs, this one has lanes marked off with wire as well. No rolling through this one — it’s time to crawl. As I’m shimmying along, I hear the inevitable skritch of a snagged shirt and torn skin; the guy next to me just popped up too high and paid for it. Meanwhile, on my other side, there’s a commotion of rustling grass and a cloud of dust as another guy rolls past like Wile E. Coyote on rocket skates. Basic training comes in handy, it seems.
A bit further on, there’s a deceptively simple-looking set of chest-high pommel horses that must be vaulted; I clear them pretty easily with a half-cartwheel, half barrel-roll over the top, but I see lots of folks getting tossed on their backs as they hit the far side, or unable to get a grip enough to clear them at all. What’s easy for one is never easy for all.
Just after the start of mile two is the first obstacle that looks truly imposing, the strangely named “Venus Guy Trap.” If you’re picturing the jagged, toothy plant laid open for a fly, you’re not far off; this is a set of two ramps at 45 degree angles facing each other across a mud pit. You must first climb up the seven-foot back of the ramp (and the lip hangs well over the support, so you’re really dangling), navigate down the one ramp, tromp through the mud, and then do the same thing in reverse, except now you’re slippery from the mud. I watch a few people attempt it before trying my hand; some can muscle right over the edge, others can’t even get their hands on it. Well, hell. You got me, and I got you, right? I step up to a struggling racer, make a platform of my hands, and offer a boost up; figuring if I invest some karma now, it’ll be there for me when I need it later. I boost three people over the first lip and then turn around for my own attempt, and here I’m surprised again; turns out I can make the climb just fine. Not exactly graceful, but I clear the edge and roll down the ramp with no trouble. That’s the first daunting task, but it won’t be the last.
But here, again, this race is shaking up my preconceptions. Because there are people in the race who are clearly not physically fit enough for an obstacle like this, and I’ve been wondering just what the hell they were thinking, signing up for this thing. Case in point: there’s an older guy I’ve been gaining on for the last quarter mile who I finally catch up to at these two ramps. He’s overweight, too, and clearly struggling already just from the run, even though we’re only two miles in. To add to the indignity, his shirt is torn from the barbed wire a half-mile back. But he’s not in it for himself; he’s here to support his daughter. As they approach the obstacle, he wordlessly hustles up to the base of the climb and goes into a wall-sit, offering her both his knee and his shoulder to help her get to the top. Once she’s over, he hoofs it around to the far side to meet her on the other side. And suddenly I feel a little bit like an a-hole for being so judgey — everybody comes to this test for their own reasons. And the family that runs obstacle courses together…
The next mile has a handful of challenges that look tougher than they are — there’s what looks like a giant Swiss cheese wedge and a traverse across chain-link fences suspended over murky water, both of which are easier than they look. Then a few that are designed to make you uncomfortable and literally cover you in mud and muck: these are ditches with barriers submerged in the water/mud that you must crawl/swim/claw your way under to advance. If dignity was intact before this point in the race, it’s gone now — we are all unidentifiable orange-brown foot soldiers tromping off to new discomfort.
But in the midst of all that is another challenge to the spirit: one of the simplest obstacles yet, but a doozy nonetheless. This one is simply a free-standing wall eight feet high that offers no handholds or footholds. Nothing but upper body and scrambling feet will get you over — and maybe a leg up from your fellow racers. But I clear this one on my own as well, surprising myself again in the process.
We’re through eleven obstacles now, and three miles into this six-mile affair, and I’m already noticing changes in myself and the other racers. Not nearly as many people are running in between obstacles; myself included. I’m still jogging the straightaways and the descents (where I can manage it without risking a catastrophic tumble), but anything more than a gentle incline has me walking, and the course is stingy with anything gentle, even leaving the obstacles out of the equation. The walking is not terribly surprising, though. What’s surprising is that as the obstacles get tougher (and make no mistake, there’s a pretty steep difficulty curve the farther you go, which is actually kind of cruel … you might say SAVAGELY cruel, okay, I’m sorry, I won’t make that joke again), the people attempting them get fewer, and the camaraderie among those that fling themselves into the maw strengthens. Kind of like a chinese finger trap — the harder you work against it, the stronger it becomes. Those of us who try every obstacle get more determined, we help each other more, and when we succeed, there’s back-slapping and high-fiving and primal screams all around.
There’s a high in all this. As much as my body hurts more and more the further I go, there’s a sort of euphoria settling in. It’s not a runner’s high (although to be fair, I’m not sure I’ve ever actually experienced one of those in five years of running). The pain doesn’t disappear and give way to magical feelings of well-being and serenity. The pain is there, lurking in the back of the mind like a murderer hiding in the basement in the latest slasher flick. But who cares about the murderer in the basement when there’s a crazed, endorphin-fueled party going on upstairs?
I’m starting to see why this OCR has become such a thing. I came to the race alone, but now I’m recognizing the faces of the handful who are on the same pace as me. We’ve become almost a family flung together in this gauntlet; we kvetch and moan about the brutal hills, we encourage each other in the run-up to each new obstacle, we wait with hands outstretched as each of us muscles through the next struggle. I don’t even know their names, but I know their shouts of jubilation and their groans of agonized defeat.
And I’ll hear a lot more of both in the second half of the course.