You don’t know the draw of an obstacle course race until you’ve done one.
I certainly didn’t before Saturday’s Tough Mountain Challenge.
I got into running a few years ago and have done a dozen road races since. Other races are about testing your endurance over a fixed distance. They’re about achieving personal records and measuring your progress.
This kind of race is not that kind of race.
Like other races, you have the fun costumes. You have the DJ and the music and the beer tent at the finish. You have the T-shirts and timers. And it’s only a 5K — the standard entry-level race — and anyone can get off the couch and do a 5K in two months training.
But that’s about all that this race had in common with every other 5K I’ve done.
And I loved it.
This kind of race isn’t about proving anything, at least not in the conventional sense. It’s more about testing your mettle. About meeting every challenge with energy and enthusiasm. It’s a celebration of comprehensive fitness, physically and mentally.
We all started out running, but that ended within the first five minutes. I’ve run two marathons in the past 12 months but I, like most others, realized that it was faster to walk up a mountain than struggle running.
Of all the obstacles, it’s impossible to say which was the hardest. Some were a struggle physically, others mentally. Let’s just say, I’m glad the crawling-on-our-bellies-through-mud-and-rocks-under-barbed-wire challenge was early in the course. That hurt, but right afterward we were hit with several snowmaking guns that made it impossible to see and breathe, thus inducing a mini-panic attack. Later, we were trudging up a hill and I could hear someone meekly bleat out an obscenity in front of me. I looked up, saw this wall of a mountain ledge in our path, and bleated out the same thing. To which the person behind me looked up and said the same thing.
When we got to the top of the path, there was a sign greeting us asking, “WTF were you thinking?” You could stop and sign the panel — and many people were taking the time to do so. That was when I realized that I didn’t have to take this race so seriously.
Looking around me at the start, I saw lots of gym-based teams … but not too many track clubs. And the average participant was fit — way more fit than the usual 5K race — but those of us lacking the 7-day a week gym bodies were not completely in the exception.
I stood there with the other half of my duo, Scott. We were in a wave with several other teams. That was the another thing about this race that I didn’t get before I did it. A team starts and finishes together. In a conventional race, that seems to me like a way to hedge your time. Your team is only as fast as your slowest person (in this case, me) so you can take the team’s time and say, “well, this is how I did, but I was on a team.”
The camaraderie was so much of what made this race fun. People waited (breathlessly) in line for each other to move across the obstacles. Being a part of a team meant that there was always someone pulling me along — and someone to share my incredulousness at the challenges ahead of us.
A major question that confronted me before this race: Whether or not to take the beer at the aid station at the top of the mountain. I was feeling pretty good after WTF hill, so I agreed to it. What I did not expect was that it was a challenge to shotgun a beer as fast as I can before moving on. Well, maybe that skill I learned in college has paid off for something!
Crossing the finish line, I had a huge smile on my face. Something that I don’t often say at the end of races. I didn’t have a new record to be proud of, or anything to compare this experience to, or a distance to aspire to exceed. It was just fun. It reminded me of why we get fit in the first place: to challenge ourselves to do fun, absolutely crazy things.