Community is what most point to as the best thing about obstacle racing. Meeting old and new friends is often the highlight of race weekends. Even so, the community has evolved from the earliest days. A recent article in Men’s Fitness Magazine hinted at the evolution: “Before it was a slick, Reebok-sponsored international obstacle-racing phenomenon, the Spartan Race was a quirky, little-known adventure race in Vermont’s Green Mountains”.


There was a time when the world leader in obstacle racing was held together with nothing more than barbed wire, caution tape, and glue made from Joe DeSena’s saliva. Only a few hundred people showed up at events. OCR was the epitome of a fringe sport with a small band of close-knit racers who found the anti-mainstream culture refreshing. There was a certain innocence surrounding obstacle racing. Expectations were small and little was at stake. Diehards showed up at events like the first Vermont Spartan Beast and World’s Toughest Mudder to simply enjoy the experience with barely a clue of what lay in store.


Then the business engine of OCR began to crank. Enter investment groups. Enter Under Armour. Enter Reebok. Enter prize purses. Enter sponsorships. Enter NBC Sports. Enter pro teams. Enter thousands upon thousands of new participants and the small community suddenly became crowded with numerous new voices struggling to be heard. The voices have resulted in a cacophony of product promotions, opinions, sponsorship announcements, and race discount codes all followed by a litany of hashtags. #IronicThatThisArticleIsAnotherVoice. The fringe aspect of obstacle racing started to disappear, as the business side of the sport needed mainstream acceptance. A paper in the Journal of Communication Management explains that increased commercialization and media exposure can strain fringe sports, resulting in the sport’s anti-mainstream ideologies becoming de-emphasized and even reversed. Conversations with those in the ultra-running and mountain climbing communities reveal that they have also experienced (and continue to experience) growing pains when the influx of people altered the fringe culture.


More than anything, the culture within the online networks started shifting. Original Facebook groups like the good ol’ Spartan 300 had fewer than 200 members. Now All Things Obstacle Course Racing and Spartan Racers Worldwide contain 7300 and 3100 members respectively. As instrumental as social media has been to the development of the OCR community, it also enables a change in how people within the community relate to each other. Relationships suffer when screen names and profile photos became the only connections to real humans with good hearts and intentions. I apologize in advance for being nerdy, but two academic constructs: acquaintanceship density and online social disinhibition help to partially explain changes within the online community.


Acquaintanceship density implies that as populations grow large, people are unable to develop personal relationships with everyone, thus caring and compassion among the community as a whole is reduced. Online social disinhibition addresses why people sometimes express themselves differently (usually worse) online than in person. Raise your hand if you have witnessed within an OCR-related Facebook group a harmless debate that devolved into name calling, reputation smearing, and personal attacks; all of which are far removed from the fellowship that we brag about to our “regular” friends. Some have been so heated, that if not for a few well-timed comic relief comments, Facebook would have caught on fire.


One of the most well-respected OCR athletes, Brakken Kraker, nailed it with his recent comment: “We have an interesting dichotomy in this sport: we have, hands down, the most selfless, devoted, generous, incredible community I have ever witnessed; we also have the propensity to be really, REALLY negative towards each other.“ While I can partially explain why it happens, I am not the “community police” and do not have a solution. Crap! I thought I was being insightful, but now realize I just sound like a whiner! Time for a positive spin. This is what I do know. Each of as individuals within the community are responsible for our own actions and no one else’s. We must determine our personal influence on the ever-growing OCR community. Do I help or hinder? Do I unite or tear down?


So we’re not on the outer fringe anymore and we have a large, diverse, semi-mainstream community that is prone to outbreaks of online playground fights. Big deal! Well, maybe it’s a tiny deal. I miss some aspects of the old days, but not all evolutions of community are bad. They are just different. Many new and fabulous human beings have entered OCR, bringing increased positivity, excitement, competition, and novel ideas. Without the influx of participants, OCR would have withered away, denying us the opportunity to debate the merits of training masks, burpee penalties, shoe selection, CrossFit, Oral IV, and who is or is not “elite”.


For those tired of the online drama, but still cherish the OCR community, I encourage you to join one of the many regional racing teams or groups. They offer camaraderie, encouragement, and support; all without most of the conflict prone to the larger national groups. It is in these micro-communities where the personal fellowship and feelings of closeness continue to thrive. At the end of the day, community is the strength of obstacle racing and something we must all protect.


“To build community requires vigilant awareness of the work we must continually do to undermine all the socialization that leads us to behave in ways that perpetuate domination.”
Bell Hooks, Teaching Community: A Pedagogy of Hope


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