Although I have been taking part in triathlons for a while now, I will freely admit that (along with many people) until a few years ago I had no idea obstacle races even existed. I am not sure of the exact moment when they became mega-popular, but at some point they seem to have exploded! Now every weekend there seems to be tons of events all over the UK where you can run around fields, wade through mud, climb ropes, crawl under barbed wire and even brave electrocution, all in the name of challenging yourself and your body to the limit.
Events such as Tough Mudder, Wolf Run and Survival of the Fittest have become arguably as big brands as Ironman, and are a lot more accessible to boot, avoiding the significant cost and training requirements of triathlons. And that is not to mention the social aspect of the races, given they tend to work really well as team events, where you can run as a pack and help each other navigate those tricky obstacles (as demonstrated in the above halfpipe). Most importantly, they have a real emphasis on the fun side of things, and while I personally enjoy some of the pain and suffering you go through in a long distance race – each to their own! – obstacle races seem to involve a lot more laughing, either at some of the ludicrous obstacles or just at each other.
As much as I fancied trying out one of these events, I had never actually got around to it, with the closest being the Colour Obstacle Rush last year, which was a bit like Park Run crossed with Fun House: a fun day but not particularly tough, the main difficulty being getting all that pain out of your hair afterwards. So things worked out really well when my wife and a few of her work colleagues invited me to join their team in ‘Rough Runner’, a 10km race in Oxfordshire, with obstacles based on Saturday night TV shows such as Gladiators, Takeshi’s Castle, Total Wipeout and Ninja Warrior: How could I say no?!
Fast forward a few months and my team of seven found ourselves on a huge country estate in the Cotswolds, watching one of the funniest briefing videos I have ever seen, with lines like “If you fall over don’t cry about it princess, the ambulances will only come if you have lost a limb”. We were in the second wave of about 100 competitors (we were supposed to be in the first wave but got carried away taking team photos!), which was partly planned so we could reach the obstacles before they became too caked in mud… After a brief group warm up involving lots of shouting and burpies we were off, galloping down the hill full of energy like Black Beauty.
We quickly realised there was no messing around when we came across the first obstacle after about 500 yards. They had done well to hide it around a corner – something that became a theme as we negotiated the rest of the course – and it was obviously there especially for those who had been planning on avoiding the mud! This was effectively a tyre car wash, where you had to lie down and squeeze between them, all but guaranteeing you ended up face first in the muddy water on the other side. Looking back it was actually a good idea as it got the fear out the way early, and a few moments later we were back on our way with nice squelching trainers.
Over the next few kilometres we encountered a whole host of nostalgia inducing stumbling blocks, ranging from classic monkey bars and spider webs to a Wipeout style Punch Wall and some sort of insane version of the Gauntlet from Gladiators… but with pigeons! The one I was most pleased with personally was Hang Tough, a classic Gladiators event where you need to swing from ring to ring. I had never tried this before and to be honest didn’t think I had the upper body strength, but it turned out I smashed it just like Jet, and I have to say I still feel pretty chuffed to have made it. The same goes for my wife who managed a huge jump to get up the half pipe and clamber to the top. The highlight for everyone though was a huge waterslide about halfway round – a nice reward after a gruelling series of hill climbs – which although it only lasted about five seconds was a massive rush and the release we all needed.
It was not all easy going though: we should have known there were going to be some toughies when we were warned to wear gloves for the race, and one particular one that seemed to knacker everyone was ‘Newton’s Cradle’, where you basically had to traverse a number a number of swinging space hoppers / buoys, using a combination of momentum and pure chance to clamber from one side to another. I managed to get away with relatively minor rope burn, but some others looked like they had been in a rope fight with an octopus.
Aside from the obstacles, the course itself was pretty challenging. Although the event was not timed (I know I keep calling it a race, but that was not really the point) the 10 km course was littered with rabbit holes, nettles, and generally uneven ground just waiting to trip people up or sprain some ankles. By about kilometre 8 our team was looking a bit like the walking dead, with two people half-limping from achilles related issues, others displaying an array of bruises on any uncovered limbs, and all of us dripping wet from our latest immersion.
Still, this was where the team spirit really kicked in, as we approached what we knew would be the final – and one of the toughest obstacles – the Travelator! Yes, this really was every 90’s child’s fantasy, and just like in Gladiators you felt like you had gone through the mill in the Eliminator by the time you reached it. This one had four lanes: Fast, Medium, Slower, and finally a reverse one for those who had literally nothing left. Obviously I can’t say no to a challenge like this, so had to take on the fast one, and it was tricker than it looked. The pace is not an issue, it is the sudden change of pace combined with the angle, that really makes it hard. That said, after a momentary stumble where I convinced myself I was going to lose it, I managed to recover and power through to the top victorious!
Moments later the rest of the team was up with me, having completed various levels of Travelator-induced difficulties depending how much they could still walk, and we had a last wave for the cameras, before a final water slide to the finish line. First ever obstacle race completed! Looking forward to more next year!!