Off The Road and Into the Mud: Becoming an Obstacle Racer

Heather Gannoe mudIntro from Pete: I’ve known Heather Gannoe since the early days of dailymile.com, and finally got to meet her in person a few weeks ago out in Oregon. Heather has blogged as long as I have, formerly as Run Faster Mommy!, and now over at Relentless Forward Commotion. She has a knack for keeping it real in her writing (e.g., read this one), and I highly recommend following her if you don’t already. She is also on Facebook and Twitter. In this post she shares her transition from road runner to mud runner. Enjoy!

Obstacle course racing and I haven’t always seen eye to eye. I’d love to say that my passion for this sport was a “love at first barbed wire crawl”, but that would be a bold faced lie.

During the spring of 2010 I was a somewhat fanatical, amateur, road runner. I had stumbled across the sport of running just about 3 years earlier, as a means of weight loss after giving birth to my oldest son. Very quickly the weight loss sessions became viewed as training runs instead, and I progressed from local 5 & 10K races, to running half and full marathons. I had fallen in love with living a healthy, active lifestyle, and even more so, the wonderful endorphin driven runner’s high.

Over those next 3 years, after another baby, and countless miles and races under my belt, I decided it was time to get serious: I wanted to qualify for the Boston Marathon. So I did what any amateur runner with big dreams would do: I registered for a couple of marathons and hired a coach. Coach was a great guy, but he certainly meant business. There were weekly training goals to meet, miles to run, and paces to hit, with no excuses allowed (not even babies or college classes, believe me, I tried). Extracurricular activities, such as small local races signed up for on a whim, were absolutely frowned upon.

So needless to say, I didn’t tell Coach about this “Warrior Dash” race I had heard of.
While today it seems you cannot sign onto Facebook without seeing another friend post a muddy profile picture; back in 2010, mud runs and obstacle course races were still pretty unheard of. I honestly can’t remember how I stumbled upon the Warrior Dash website, but I was instantly enthralled with the idea of crawling around in the mud and climbing over walls. My inner 6 year old could not resist: I found a race location relatively close to my home at the time, and immediately registered.

As the mud run race day approached, I started second guessing my decision. Technically, I wouldn’t be missing any important long runs…as the Warrior Dash coincided with taper week. That’s right, I had a marathon, one I was hoping to set a big personal best at, the following weekend. The last thing I should have been doing that weekend was racing, never mind a race that required a two page injury waiver. But against my better judgment, and my fear of somehow falling while tackling the obstacle requiring me to jump over two rows of flaming logs, I went to Georgia and ran in the race.

And guess what? I fell after leaping over the second row of flaming logs.

warriorI obviously didn’t see that dura-flame log that had rolled out of the fire. In fact, I had no idea what had even happened until weeks later, when the official race photos appeared in my email inbox (look to the right for the evidence). All I knew at the time was that I took off with all of my might to try and avoid the hot flames, and the next thing I knew I was on the ground. I fell, and I fell hard. I tried to stand back up and run the last 20 or so yards to the finish line, but every time I put pressure on my left leg, my ankle would completely give out. I hopped my way to the finish line, sat down on the ground, and thought to myself “Coach is gonna KILL me.”

The fall caused a second degree tear of my anterior talofibular ligament, resulting in a week on crutches, a couple of weeks in an air cast, and about six weeks without any running. Needless to say, I not only missed the marathon I had trained so hard for, but also missed another one I had registered for at the end of the summer. I was upset, Coach was disappointed (which as any parent can assure you, is code word for angry), and I fell into an “it really sucks to not be able to run” depression over the next few weeks.

Alas, time heals all wounds, and eventually I was back to logging countless road mile after mile. It would be a year before I ran another obstacle course race (you would think the first one would have been enough), and another two years before the passion really took hold. While I enjoyed each mud run more than the previous one, it is hard to pinpoint the moment I realized I’d much rather trek through the muddy forest carrying heavy objects instead of run Yasso 800’s, but I can tell you it came at the perfect time. While running had been something I ‘d enjoyed for years, I was finding myself becoming burnt out with training, as well as goals that were at that point in my life, unrealistic. I loved cross training, but was finding it incredibly hard to do the fun things while keeping my mileage up to meet my marathon training goals. I began to dread training, because it seemed I always fell short.

And then I moved to Vermont, which pretty much sealed the deal. After spending the first five years of my running career in a suburban area In South Carolina, it now felt like an utter shame to run on pavement, when I had countless mountains and trails to choose from. My race calendar began to change as well, from countless road races to trail races and more “fun” mud runs…and eventually to more intense, competitive obstacle course races. Last year my season culminated with the Spartan Ultra Beast, a 30 (ish) mile obstacle course race up and down the unrelenting face of Killington Mountain. And I have never loved running more than I do today.

Transitioning from a traditional road racer to an obstacle course racer has significantly increased my overall fitness levels. In the beginning, I quickly realized that while I was a decent, front-of-the-middle-of-the-pack runner, I was far from being considered in “great” shape. In obstacle racing, a Boston Qualifying time means nothing if you do not possess the upper body strength to pull yourself over a ten foot wall, or to the top of a muddy rope climb. On the other hand, upper body strength means nothing in this sport if you cannot run. Obstacle course racing, it seems, was a match made in my athletic heaven.

Heather Gannoe pic 1My training sessions are far more versatile now; runs are almost always taken off road in hopes of finding any and every natural obstacle to traverse. Intervals of body weight strength and plyometric exercises, such as pushups, squats, burpees, and lunges, are added into tempo runs and speed work. And the versatility is not just a fun change in pace, it is required: many of the obstacles and challenges in these types of races are kept secret until race day. You must be physically prepared for anything, and mentally prepared for the unexpected.

But without question, the best part of transitioning from a road racer to an obstacle course racer has been rekindling my passion for running and fitness. The necessity for my training to become more varied has allowed me to stop worrying about how many miles I ran that week, or if I hit every single prescribed pace. Instead of constantly focusing on increasing my running endurance, I am now allowed to focus on conditioning my whole self, physically and mentally. And let’s face it: who doesn’t love to crawl around in mud pits and leap over fire? It appeals to my inner child, and goes against everything my mom always told me not to do.

The obstacle course racing circuit is growing at an astronomical pace, and there are races for beginners to elites, and even some that contain no mud at all. My suggestion for anyone who is feeling burnt out by their running is to give an obstacle course race a try. You don’t have to become a muddy convert, or leave your Boston Marathon dreams behind, but I promise you will have fun.

Just be sure to warn your coach.

Heather Gannoe is an ACSM certified Health Fitness Specialist, new mud running addict, and running mom of two. Previously known around the web as Run Faster, Mommy! , Heather now blogs at www.relentlessforwardcommotion.com, and can be found on twitter @RunFasterMommy

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About Peter Larson

This post was authored by Peter Larson. Pete is a recovering academic who currently works as an exercise physiologist, running coach, and writer. He's also a father of three and a fanatical runner with a bit of a shoe obsession. In addition to writing and editing this site, he is co-author of the book Tread Lightly, and writes a personal blog called The Blogologist. Follow Pete on Twitter, Facebook, Google+, and via email.

Comments

  1. I have fallen in love with mud runs. I did my first in February, and I just did my third one two weeks ago. I’d run them all if I could!

  2. Rayhzel says:

    I’ve done a couple of of obstacle runs and they are certainly a nice way to switch things up.

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