The Sternum Checker Needs to be Chucked

Heads-up, gentle reader: this is an opinion piece. As such, you may not agree with everything I’ll be saying, and that’s perfectly fine.

I have been biased against the Sternum Checker ever since I first saw it. There was something fundamentally evil about the thing. It seemed so simple and innocuous; it looked designed not to challenge, but rather to hurt. Badly. This opinion was painfully confirmed after a bruising day spent practicing it at an OCR Expo in Montreal last Summer.

The injuries to racers at a recent event were the last straws for me, and I asked Mud Run Guide if I could write an op-ed/rant about it. They said “yes,” so here we all are.

The Straw that Broke the Camel’s Clavicle

I had slept in impressively after a long day of coaching and presenting at the Alpha OCRWC Training Camp, and so was running rather late as I drove to the Sunday morning race to volunteer. On my way there, an ambulance goes screaming past me on LakeShore Boulevard, and I think; “sternum checker.” Then the ambulance takes the turnoff onto Cherry Street and heads towards the race venue.

After parking I make a beeline to where the sternum checker is set up, hoping that I’m wrong. No such luck, as I arrive to find a racer sprawled under it being carefully loaded onto a stretcher by the paramedics. Enough is bloody well enough already. It’s high time we got rid of this obstacle before it gets rid of any more racers.

 

The Sternum Checker: what is it and where did it originate?

I am not going to assume that everyone reading this knows what the sternum checker is. You’ll notice immediately that there is a wide variety of things called “sternum checker,” but this isn’t an op-ed about standardization of obstacles. Not yet anyways.

Anyway, the challenge is to get yourself over the second and higher of the two logs. This is usually done by running at it, stepping up onto the lower “launch-pad” log, and jumping at the upper log. Remember that this was for military people wearing upwards of 50 lbs of gear and packs, not OCR racers, so they were EXPECTED to slam into the top log with their chests. Hence the name.

A brief exposé of the origin of this obstacle is in order. It was developed by some forgotten sadistic genius as part of the world of military boot camps. Note that this is not “bootcamp-style” group training, but actual, real, brutal military bootcamps. The goal here is not to get you all into shape and to have fun while getting fit. Nay-nay. The goal here is to break people before rebuilding them into perfect fighting men and women. Since its introduction to the world of OCR, it has kept right on doing just that: breaking racers.

Former king-of-the-hill of the “O” in “OCR,” the mostly departed BattleFrog Series was, unsurprisingly, an early adopter of the Sternum Checker. The race was started by Navy Seals after all. Despite this elite hardass military origin, they decided to stop using it in 2015 because they considered it too dangerous. Not too hard: too dangerous. (See Additional Note at Bottom from former BattleFrog Race Director)

The obstacle features prominently in their “College Championships” TV show, and it’s usually the girls who have to do it. They almost all blow through it with no problems, which goes to show that it is not a difficult obstacle. Go to Youtube and search for “Battlefrog College Championship” and you’ll see what I mean. FYI they call it “the dirty word” not “sternum checker” on the show.

An Objective Analysis of the Obstacle

Sternum Checker is the only regularly used obstacle that I have come across that is designed to hurt you even if you do it right. The initial and obvious challenge is to absorb the impact against the log (failure = bruised or broken sternum, xiphoid, ribs, ruptured spleen, bruised liver, broken wrist, broken clavicle, broken jaw, lost teeth). The next and potentially much more dangerous challenge is to try not to let the momentum of your legs pull you off it backward. Failure here puts you in a very vulnerable position, landing on your back, neck, or head. Finally, you then have to try to pull yourself up onto and over the log to complete the obstacle and keep your precious band or avoid the burpees.

That middle challenge is what is the most danger here, as we are looking at bruised or broken tailbones, spinal disc injuries, broken ribs, broken scapula, broken clavicle, broken neck, concussion, and possibly a fractured skull as the most likely consequences of this type of obstacle failure.

No other regularly featured obstacle presents such a high risk of serious injury with the typical failures.

All of the above gets much, much worse in mandatory completion races. In a Spartan, for example, you have one shot at it. If you fail, you do your burpees and continue in the race, fully ranked. At races like the OCRWC, if you fail an obstacle, you lose your band and are no longer officially ranked. Because of this, racers will try over and over again for literally hours.

Doing this on the sternum checker greatly increases the chances of injury, which, as I just described, are already high and serious.

The Gender Gap

This is always a touchy subject in OCR, but what the hell: in for a penny in for a pound. Here are the top-5 most failed obstacles at the 2015 OCRWC. Note that this is among a field of athletes who had to qualify, so a much higher caliber field than a typical race.

ObstacleTotal FailuresWomen Failures% of Women FailingMen Failures% of Men Failing
Skull Valley54426667.5127828.99
Tip of the Spear38922156.0916817.52
Platinum Rig #134518947.9715616.27
Sternum Checker31222958.12838.65
Platinum Rig #226316541.889810.22

The 1st sternum checker was far and away the biggest gender gap obstacle at the 2015 OCRWC. It is not unreasonable to extrapolate from this that failure rates among women at non-championship races with a lower average caliber of athlete would be even higher…65%, 75%, 80%+.

The gender gap on SC1 sticks out like the proverbial sore thumb. There was much post-race discussion after OCRWC 2015 about SC1 being unfairly hard for shorter racers, which demographic stats will tell you are mostly women. Looking at these numbers, you can make the case that they had a case.

Historically, the Platinum Rig is the big band-breaker at mandatory completion races. However, these women handled both Rigs significantly better than they did SC1.

Finally, keep in mind that SC1 is a simple single obstacle, unlike the others, which are long and involved. This makes the high failure rate there among women even more of a red flag.

It’s NOT too hard: it’s too DANGEROUS

Right about now I imagine a fair few of you are thinking along the lines of “hey, it’s an obstacle. It’s supposed to be tough. Suck it up, buttercup”.

I have no issue at all with the difficulty of the obstacle. In fact, if anything it is too quick and easy for strong racers. Here are a bunch of videos showing how quick and easy SC is if you know how to do it and have the physical gifts and skills required later in the post. Please don’t try these at home. Or ever.

 

If I were a princess about the difficulty of obstacles, then I’d be ranting about the Platinum Rig or Tip of the Spear or putting Skull Valley right at the end of the race. I’m not because the issue is not with difficulty, but with the consequences of failing the obstacle. For the Sternum Checker, the consequences of failure are potentially very nasty, up to and including paralysis and death.

Let’s compare and contrast likely fails on the Sternum Checker with the most likely fails on other common obstacles.

  • Fail the rope climb, and you slide down the rope. Maybe some rope burn, maybe a twisted ankle.
  • Fail a warped wall, and you slide back down. No likely issues.
  • Fail a Rig, and you tumble a couple of feet to the ground. No likely issues.
  • Fail the Irish Table and you swing back down to the ground, or maybe fall a foot. No likely issues.
  • Fail Dragon’s Back, and you slide or fall the steeply pitched ramp. Maybe you injure an ankle or wrist or knee if you miss your grip and tumble down.
  • Fail the Sternum Checker, and you could easily wind up out of the race or in the hospital or a wheelchair or in the ground.

The Latest Injuries

Latest broken racers were just last weekend in Toronto. One racer was practicing the Platinum Rig sternum checker the day before, crashed off and bruised her tailbone so badly she couldn’t walk the next morning and had to DNS. The worst, however, was a racer who crashed and broke ribs and shattered her clavicle into four pieces, requiring surgery. Word is she has recovered well, but it ruined her OCRWC weekend, to say the least.

Anyone who has been injured by the SC – please share your story if you want. Normally I am rightfully leery of anecdotal “evidence,” but in this case, reliable injury stats are all but impossible to obtain across the myriad races in OCR-land.

It’s an Inverted Goldilocks Obstacle

What I mean by the heading is that its difficulty rating across the population of racers is a variant of an inverted Normal Distribution.

Please vote for me in the little know Pulitzer Prize category of “worst clarification ever.” What I mean by that is that if you asked 1000 randomly selected racers to rate the difficulty of Warped Wall, Rope Climb, Herc Hoist, Platinum Rig, etc., you’d likely find that some would rate them very hard, some would rate them very easy, and most would be somewhere in between. That’s a type of Normal Distribution, commonly referred to as a Bell Curve.

Repeat the above survey with the Sternum Checker, and I think it’d be very different. You would likely find that most of the answers were at the extremes of “dead simple” or “all but impossible.” Very few would be in the middle (the Goldilocks Zone) of “challenging but do-able.”

For the racers who know how to do it, it is dead easy and very fast i.e. not much of an obstacle. For the majority who don't, it can be a race, season, career, or potentially life-ending proposition.

I know of a woman racer who is going to race OCRWC with the certain knowledge that she will be giving up her band at the sternum checker. “I just can’t risk any more blows to my head.”

Another case was a very tough racer who spent over 1 hour trying SC1 at OCRWC 2015. She made it, which is a testament to her toughness. However, she was essentially one big bruise from wrists to knees and had to bail on the team race the next day.

I know wherefore I speak, as I spent a lot of time trying it out (the new Platinum Rig version). Have some video of people cruising through it effortlessly.

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YAHOO – You Always Have Other Options

There are many safer alternatives that offer similar physical challenges such as the Irish Table and its variants, without risk of serious injury

If you want a mind-f&*k confidence obstacle, then something like Toughest’s Dragon’s Back fits the bill perfectly, again without the high risk of serious injury. Heck, even something as simple and harmless as a 10-15 foot jump into water would stop and balk many racers, with almost no risk of any remotely serious injury.

OCR should challenge racers. But it shouldn’t break them.

 


Additional Comment:

Garfield Griffiths, former BattleFrog Race Director, reached out to MRG with this comment about the obstacle at BattleFrog: 

” NOTE. Peter. Dirty Name or Sternum Checker WAS NOT an original Battlefrog obstacle. I refused to add it when I created the original BF format (even though it was VERY Navy SEAL/military in nature.) I never liked it. It was added literally the 1st race after my departure in early 2015. I agree, its to risky for OCR. Yes, elites can eat it up, but joe public can get badly hurt, or worse. Yes, it was at OCRWC, mainly as it was built into the course in Ohio. Again, I was never a fan.”



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