Disclaimer: This is the third part of a race report. If you care about continuity, the first part is here, and the second 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.
This entry concludes the (maybe too) lengthy detour I took to talk about this race. Regularly scheduled programming will resume.
The first half of the course, despite its challenges, has been a kids’ gloves introduction to the course. In the second half, the gloves come off immediately. Mile four begins with the craziest ascent I’ve ever seen on a running trail. We’re leaning against the hill itself for support in climbing the hill; ropes and pickaxes wouldn’t go amiss here.
Then we turn around and come right back down it; apparently we climbed that monster for the sheer hell of it, and if that isn’t a perfect metaphor for this race, then I don’t know what is. Our next obstacle is a dunk into ice water — there’s literally a refrigerated truck next to two pools, and as I go under, I can feel the cubes clinking off my dome — which, frankly, comes none too soon in the ninety degree heat.
Then there’s more pain: we pick up lengths of 4×4 and sling them across our backs to carry them a quarter mile across more rolling hills. Why? Because we can. We’ve already run a 5k and covered an elevation gain of something like a half mile, given and taken; why not slog some lumber while we do more of the same? And then we shimmy sideways across railings not unlike the ones you stand in while you’re waiting for your turn on the American Scream Machine, and if you haven’t fantasized about doing that, well, then maybe you’re reading the wrong race report.
The obstacles come fast and furious now; the first half of the race gave us maybe three challenges per mile, but we’ve got twenty more to cover in the last 2.5 miles, which means a lot less running and a lot more scrambling. “Wheel World” pits us against rotating garden spigots that leave a lot of racers twisting and spinning helplessly in space before splashing down in defeat, but a simple application of my old maxim — momentum matters — carries me through the obstacle. Instead of attacking it head on, I roll into it sideways off the launch platform, and the rotation carries me cleanly across.
Then it’s up a culvert on an incline which shifts to a decline when you’re halfway across. The culvert is too narrow to crawl on hands and knees but too slick to commando crawl. I inch forward like a slug until it tips and spits me out into the dirt, my abs burning and my knees bruised.
Then a climbing wall; not up, but across, and it’s leaned backwards at a fifteen degree angle. This is my first failure: I just don’t have the grip to hold myself up and I stumble off into the dirt. But here’s the thing about that: at this point in the race, people are failing obstacles left and right, and there’s no shame or anger in it. You just dust yourself off and truck on. A point of training to return to for the next time.
Now another crawl under barbed wire, but this one through the thickest, soupiest mud yet; we come out the other side looking like the Michelin Man hosed down in brown goop. It clings and clumps to us as we mount the hill for the next challenge: a simple ramp. Except, thanks to the mud, it’s impossible to climb the thing. Even the rope is slick with the mud of hundreds of previous runners trying to summit this thing.
At this point, you can barely finish an obstacle before you’re on to the next. A twenty-foot climb followed by a terrifying leap into a deep pool. A diabolical jagged monkey bars over murky water. (This one puts me in the drink halfway across.) An inclined traverse around telephone poles that you have to hug like the college girlfriend that’s looking for a reason to dump you. A maze-like series of ropes and rings that drops racers like a series of particularly bad habits. (I slip off the rope almost immediately, with burns on my pinkie and ring fingers to show for it. Never in my life have I injured my pinkie finger, until today, but there it is.)
And here, again, I’m forcibly informed of the key difference between an OCR and a road race. Road races, and to a lesser extent, trail races, are a more or less linear challenge. The difficulty goes up predictably with the distance, and the race gets harder the farther you go. The effort wears you down, but you know what distance and pace you’re capable of. But with OCR, the challenge is on an exponential curve: they save the best (most challenging) obstacles for last, but by the time you get to them, you’re gassed out by the previous obstacles and/or the viciousness of the run itself.
I’ve now failed three obstacles and I’m almost a half hour behind my predicted finish time. And in a strict running race, that would be shattering. But here? Today? Staring down the final obstacle — a fifteen foot quarter-pipe, mud-slick from failed attempts to summit it and topped with hooting, cheering savages who’ve already made the climb — well, earlier I likened the event to a bacchanalia, and while there are no chemicals involved, we’re all drunk at this point. The falls on earlier obstacles don’t matter, the bruises on my knees, shins, and elbows are irrelevant, the mud caked in my eyebrows and the stubble on my scalp is totally off topic. I don’t care about the burning in my calves from the relentless ups-and-downs of these murderous hills. Every runner who makes the top of this ramp does so to a chorus of cheers and howls, and every one who fails and slides back to the earth meets a sympathetic groan.
But I’m tapped. I’ve got nothing left. The six miles of the run and the ridiculous crescendo of the obstacles have left me a pile of sentient Jell-o. I can no more make it up that ramp than I can sprout wings and ascend into the heavens. But I lower my head and charge at the ramp anyway.
I grab at the rope. My fingers seal around the knot, strangling it. Somehow, I fling my arm upward and catch the next know, and creep higher. But that’s it. I’m done. The ledge is right there, but I can’t reach it. I cry out, or at least I think I do. On the ledge above me is some guy I don’t even know, and he’s shouting at me like I’m Rocky. Grab that ledge. You can do it. Grab it. Come on! He could help me, but he knows — as I know — that it’ll mean that much more if I can make it on my own.
And I do. My fingers catch the ledge, then a hand has my forearm and I’m being lifted upwards over the edge. I tumble onto my back and stare up at the sky for a moment.
It’s a clear, beautiful Georgia afternoon. Wispy blue clouds, postcard blue sky. The roar all around me goes dull.
I’m acutely aware that this afternoon would have been a gorgeous one whether or not I had put myself through the wringer of this race. But somehow, the air is a little sweeter, the breeze a little cooler, the sky a little bluer.
But there’s no time to rest. I get to my knees and turn around to offer a pay-it-forward hand up to a few other racers climbing their way up after me. High-fives and slaps on the back abound. Then, it’s over to the other side of the wall — a slide right back down into (you guessed it) more muddy water. And there’s the finish line. Somebody puts a medal around my neck. A bottle of icy water is shoved into my hand. Half of it goes on my head, half of it goes down in a few greedy gulps. It tastes like the untamed glaciers of the Arctic.
I’ve spent a lot of time thinking and writing about this race, a lot more than I usually bother to write about running. (Partly that’s because fitness isn’t really the focus of my blarg here, but partly that’s because there’s really only so much you can say about running.) But I think the race deserves a bit of time and reflection. It wasn’t just an event, it was an experience. I’m not going to say I’m a better person because of it — that would be shallow and too easy, I think — but there’s an ineffable sense of accomplishment swirling around me after finishing this thing, even almost a full week later.
There’s something primal about it that no amount of running or hours spent in a gym can replicate. Running, jumping, crawling, climbing — these are things our bodies evolved to do, and the creature comforts of this modern life have allowed too many of us to forget we can do them. Savage Race was a test in a way I’ve never been tested. It’s a bit like life, really: it throws a challenge at you, beats you up, bruises you a bit, knocks you in the mud. Then, if you come through to the other side, it says, “okay, you handled that. Now how about this one?” And it repeats, on and on until you drag yourself across the finish line, or until you tap out, give up testing yourself and walk the rest of the way home.
I’m happy to say that, even though I didn’t complete every obstacle, I tried every one. And my run may not have been pretty, but life ain’t pretty. We all get a little dinged up, a little scraped and bruised along the way. We all get a little dirty. Sometimes it hurts. But you can still run the race with a smile on your face.