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Fringe Sports: Obstacle Course Racing

Fringe Sports: Obstacle Course Racing


Kris Mandoza charges through the mud and ice water before pulling himself up a wall using just a rope and physics. He stands a little taller and far more muscular than the average ultra runner and throughout the next several hours, he will travel more than 100 miles on foot. His optimism shines through the adversity as he hears the crowds applauding his tackling of the obstacles. While it might not be obvious with his easy-going demeanor and his readiness to cheer on the competition, he is the champion of one of the most difficult endurance races in the world — World’s Toughest Mudder.

In the world of endurance sports, athletes are always looking for new ways to challenge themselves. Obstacle course racing has existed, in some form, since the 1800s. However, the first formal endurance race, Tough Guy, occurred in the United Kingdom in 1987. The sport stayed fairly obsolete for a few more decades until the mid-2010s when there was substantial growth.

Races now can range anywhere from 5k to 100+ miles of running, with obstacles that require athletes to climb, throw, and crawl through cold, muddy, and challenging conditions. There are a variety of races, each of which come with their own set of challenges.

Colorado, with its active lifestyle and built-in natural obstacles, has become a hotbed for OCR athletes to relocate to train and be a part of the local racing scene. Mendoza, professional athlete and the 2018 champion of World’s Toughest Mudder explains that many athletes are already runners or rock climbers when they start, making it a popular sport in Colorado. “With local Colorado groups, specialized gyms, and so many athletes, we have really built our own community,” he stated.

The five most popular styles of OCR

  • Spartan Race: The Spartan race is the most popular style of OCR racing as well as the most competitive with timed races and both amateur and elite fields. These races often take place on trails with a series of obstacles along the loop. Spartan races have short course options, such as 5k or 10k, but can exceed 100 miles as well. Competitors may help each other, though it is less common at the elite level, especially with the large prize purses offered.
  • Tough Mudder: Untimed races that encourage athletes to work together or on teams to get through obstacles. Often these races are around 10 miles or more in distance.
  • Rugged Maniac: Often considered the best for entry-level athletes, these races have some fun challenges but are usually shorter in distance. Competitors have the option to be timed, but only 4% opt in.
  • Savage Races: Less about running and more about obstacles, these races have some gnarly features such as ice plunges and rings of fire. For those who wish to compete for the cash prize, there is a timed option.
  • Warrior Dash: With the motto “anyone can start and everyone can finish,” these are fun and untimed 5k race with approachable obstacles along the way.

A playground for adults

Cali Schweikhart, a member of the Spartan Pro Team and one of the youngest competitors to win a Spartan Elite race, explained that she started her journey in the sport after stepping away from playing Division 1 soccer at college: “A friend recommended that I try a Spartan race. Something about it hooked me from the start. They have you do the Spartan call at the beginning, and then I just felt like a kid on the playground.” Schweikhart explained that while it is competitive, racers still encourage one another.

This same mentality is what led Sam Banola to open his gym, Warrior Playground, in Longmont. Banola recounted that he ran his first Spartan race over ten years ago and loved it. He felt like the specialized sport needed specialized training, so he developed an obstacle course gym to help people prepare for longer obstacle course races as well as Ninja Warrior events. He explained, “It is a much more fun way to do fitness” and stated that people will stick with a training program if they have fun doing it.


The distance and style of race will dictate what training should look like. Nickademus de la Rosa, an OCR and ultra running coach with Lightfoot Coaching, encourages athletes to practice getting their heart rate high mid-run, so their bodies can feel prepared for an obstacle. “It is an interesting blend between specific training like circuits, whereas a runner might just run continuously. I throw in something like monkey bars or burpees to throw off their rhythm throughout the run. I see a lot of success when people can spike up and come back down.” He also explained the importance of improving grip strength and improving efficiency in running.

Banola uses a similar principle at his gym to help athletes prepare. Through a six-week program guided by a coach, new or veteran racers work on getting stronger while preventing injury. “It is common for athletes who are weekend warriors to have some existing injuries, so for that reason, we do a lot of balance and stabilization training because it is all less fun if you get hurt. It is a functional training program with a mix of strength, body weight, and HIIT training. Then, as they get closer to a race, we start to add in some skill training.” Banola said he makes obstacles at the gym a little bit more difficult than most races because it makes race day all the more approachable.

While the obstacles are a big part of the race, being able to run the required distance efficiently is also crucial. Mendoza stated that he made running the base of his training, especially as he moved to racing the longer events. “Running that far or that long requires a really good base. But there are also obstacles that require extra running if they are missed. It pays to be a well-rounded athlete. A really fast road runner might not be good at trail running, and a great runner might not be great at some of the obstacles.” Mendoza explained that he mixes in lifting and occasional visits to a ninja gym to make sure he stays sharp.

Fellow athlete Schweikhart, who is a strength and conditioning coach as well, added that while there are many skills required in the sport, she does not advise training for all of them with the same intensity at the same time. She stated, “There still needs to be a progression, building endurance. Every athlete’s biggest growth is learning how their body works in training.” She added that it is crucial to work on balance and body awareness while growing in the sport.


Ready to give it a try

With several races and specialized gyms in Colorado, there are plenty of opportunities to try the sport at a low barrier of entry. The Warrior Playground gym offers a free first day for anyone who wants to give training a try. “We can make movement fun, so people get really into it and stick with it. People just need to give themselves a chance,” Banola encouraged. Trying the new and difficult form of racing could be extremely empowering for an athlete who is looking to make fitness fun and creative.

However, it is not just the improved strength that can be a draw for the sport. Schweikhart explained, “I love the sport and competing, but I love the community. It is great people who love to try new things and be outside. Some of my closest friends are from the sport. Some of my most treasured memories are from the sport. I would encourage anyone who is interested to try it out. You will never find so many kind and welcoming and fun people.” For her and many others, it is the robust community of athletes in Colorado who make the sport amazing.

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