Thursday, July 23, 2015

Monkey Bars and Rope Swings Just Got Real

Liz Reed is the Adult and Information Services Librarian at the Morrill Memorial Library in Norwood, Massachusetts. Read Liz's column in the July 23, 2015 edition of the Norwood Transcript and Bulletin.

“Ah-roo!” “Ah-roo!” This is the call-and-response chant of modern day Spartans, as heard by yours truly several weeks ago in Barre, MA.  I accompanied my boyfriend to his first-ever Spartan race on a farm in Barre where he scaled greased walls, carried boulders, crawled under barbed wire, and ran about 8 miles with over 2,100 other racers. About 5,000 Spartans raced in Barre over the course of the weekend.
            Spartan Race is one form of Obstacle Course Race (OCR). Other popular OCR events include: Tough Mudder, and other mud runs; BattleFrog; CrossFit Games; Ironman; Ultraman; Peak Races; Death Race; and weekend warriors. The sport is growing in popularity so quickly that by the end of this summer, I wouldn’t be surprised to see new forms of OCR springing up. According to journalist Erin Beresini in her book about her immersion in the world of endurance racing, “Off Course: Inside the Mad, Muddy World of Obstacle Course Racing”: “Obstacle course racing is the fastest-growing sport in U.S. history. Every week, thousands of marathoners, CrossFitters, and casual weekend warriors shell out money to run through mud and fire, crawl under barbed wire, scramble over ten-foot walls, and dodge baton-wielding gladiators. They are a new wave of athlete for whom running thirteen or twenty-six miles just isn’t enough. They crave a primal challenge…”  The USA Obstacle Racing Association ( estimates that over 400 obstacle racing events are produced in the United States, and almost half that number are produced in other countries.
            OCR appeals to many different people on many different levels. For one thing, not all OCR events are technically races. Many mud runs, for instance, are not timed events, so there is no competitive pressure to finish as fast as you can. You can instead take the course at your own pace, meaning that more people of varying abilities can take part, and you don’t necessarily need to train for months and months to make it through. Spartan Race, although it’s a timed race, offers different levels of racing depending on your preference. The Spartan Sprint is 3+ miles with 20+ obstacles, the Spartan Super is 8+ miles with 25+ obstacles, the Spartan Beast is 13+ miles with 30+ miles, and the Spartan Ultra Beast is 26+ miles and 60+ obstacles. Joe De Sena, co-founder of Spartan Race, includes a disclaimer in the front of his book, “Spartan Up! A Take-No-Prisoners Guide to Overcoming Obstacles and Achieving Peak Performance in Life,” that “living a Spartan lifestyle, although rewarding, can be dangerous and should be considered carefully.” As someone who lived with a Spartan-in-training for months, I can attest that those training for a Spartan race work and train extremely hard. In the end, the Spartan experience is worth all the pain, but the work to get there can be grueling.
            As Beresi points out, OCR also has great appeal as a way to reject organized sports as we know them. While OCR courses do have some rules, there is not a large governing body in place to regulate everything about the sport in the same way as in professional basketball or soccer, for instance. Psychologists also theorize that OCR attracts thrill-seekers and risk-takers, people who crave novelty and variety.
            In addition, OCR tends to attract military types, and not without good reason. Sponsorship of OCR has become big business, with the US armed forces spending millions of dollars on sponsorships annually, according to Beresi. OCR satisfies racers’ curiosity about military life, providing an environment of camaraderie and extreme athleticism similar to that of the military, but without the dangers of the battlefield; BattleFrog courses are even designed by current and former Navy SEALs. Meanwhile, sponsorship gives armed forces recruiters direct connections with potential recruits.
Camaraderie may be one of the strongest draws for some participants in OCR. Unlike traditional racing, you’re not in it alone. People can and often do compete as a team, helping each other through and over obstacles. Strangers stop to help each other and shout encouragement. One the day my boyfriend raced in Barre, a team of coworkers and friends were racing with a man in a wheelchair. This team carried their friend on their shoulders through mud pits, over walls, and across water obstacles. As De Sena writes, “Spartans help each other, and no Spartan gets left behind.”

Beresini’s and De Sena’s books are great places to start to learn more about Spartan Race and OCR in general. “Learning to Breath Fire: The Rise of CrossFit and the Primal Future of Fitness” by J.C. Herz is a good overview of the history and current state of CrossFit. On our website, type “obstacle course racing” or “Spartan race” into the Search the Catalog box. Click on the Articles and Reviews tab to find articles and even videos related to OCR. According to my very own Spartan, and are very useful websites. Ah-roo!