Through my relatively short journey in the world of obstacle course racing and endurance events, I’ve met some remarkable people. Some of these people are incredible athletes on the course while others have overcome real-life obstacles that make those on the course look simple by comparison. Time and again, I have heard racers say that OCR has helped them to overcome immense real-life challenges including depression, addiction, domestic violence, rape, PTSD, and even cancer. OCR is their therapy. I have heard this often enough to believe there is something to it, and that obstacle course racing can be a powerful tool in recovery from a variety of serious conditions. How and why? The scientist in me was curious.
OCR as Therapy
I recently heard a TED talk by Johann Hari titled “Everything you think you know about addiction is wrong,” in which he describes the powerful role played by social connections on addiction. He discusses the alarming trend over the past several decades in which Americans have “traded floor space for friends, and stuff for connections”.
This talk set my mind racing, wondering whether the answer to OCR’s as a powerful recovery tool could be as simple as the strong social community around it.
With this hypothesis, I reached out to find out more. And not surprisingly, the answer is more complex. There appear to be several components of OCR and endurance events that make them so helpful on the road to self-recovery, and their relative importance depends on the individual concerned.
Having a training focus or distinct goal in mind can be very therapeutic. It gets you out of your head and forces you to work and concentrate towards that goal. K used obstacle course racing as a focused goal during cancer treatment:
“My first OCR came 8 days after finishing chemo. It was a goal I set for myself to keep me working out during that time. The first spartan was 7 weeks after radiation was done. Again I set it as a goal to focus on during treatment. I've also set them as goals following the surgeries.”
Meanwhile, J cited the focus as a huge part of his daily recovery from some issues, including addiction, PTSD, and anxiety:
“It gives me a focus point, mostly. I want a podium more than I want nicotine. And it's like a break from PTSD. It's sort of similar to a lot of military training, and it puts you in that mindset a bit but not overly so. It's familiar and it gives an outlet for frustration and aggression and anger. For anxiety, it sort of forces me to deal with everything head on.”
Many of these situations, such as depression, domestic violence, and addiction are accompanied by low self-worth. Facing the challenge of something difficult, especially if others doubted you when you started, can lead to feelings of euphoria, the knowledge that you are good enough and strong enough, and can provide a very powerful validation. For people going through terrible situations, this can be a turning point. When asked which was most important to her story, S said:
“Easily the validation. Going out there and being tired, hurt, and wanting to quit but to just keep pushing to the finish line. It's the greatest feeling in the world.”
C, who has battled against both depression and rage, had this to say:
“The rage. The sheer, undiluted anger and bile that I felt and still often do… it comes out in a cathartic way. I like the cold. The wet. The misery. When people around me begin to complain how hard they are finding it, I smile. That's when I come into my element. For no matter how cold and wet and hard it becomes, I just laugh even harder. This is nothing. It doesn't even register. I use (difficult) events… because they are valves. I turn those valves and all the aggression and rage and hatred that build up inside me is released.”
The OCR community is strong and unique in many ways; it is welcoming, helpful, and joyous. It is a place where the misfits and the broken are welcomed, and where very often the “ordinary” is shunned just a little. We like to play in the mud. To get dirty, to beat ourselves up on obstacles and mountains, to feel the burn in our muscles and the air ripping in and out of our lungs. We like to push up against our limits, and see where that takes us.
Groups like the Weeple Army, Cornfed Spartans, New England Spahtens, COR, Lone Star Spartans and others have been wildly successful not just because it’s nice to meet people that share a hobby that others think is “weird”, but because deep connections are often formed through shared suffering. Whether it’s helping one another through a Spartan Sprint, running laps together at the World’s Toughest Mudder, or being tied together for a Death Race; these events break down the normal barriers that separate people and provide fertile ground for the deeper human connections that we often lack in other aspects of our lives.
We inspire one another, and love being inspired by others in turn. When we hear about someone fighting PTSD or addiction or obesity, we celebrate their fight and their successes and lend a metaphorical hand, in the same way, we lend a physical one out on the course.
My initial theory that the community and social bonds of obstacle racing might be the main reason that so many have used the races and events successfully to help in their recovery from a variety of different issues was too simplistic; it’s clear that there are multiple components at play, and many people that I asked cited more than one in their answers. T, who has serious trust issues from a very traumatic past, said:
“In between races, training makes me feel like I'm working to accomplish something… When I race, I feel like I'm in control of the situation. I decide if I will do an obstacle or if I choose to burpee out. No one is forcing anything on me. As for the community aspect, at times when I feel weak, there is always a teammate to hold my hand. I cry on at least 1 obstacle every race and it's usually at the top of something high and my legs are shaking and my heart is racing and there is always a teammate to take my hand and get me over the top.”
And finally R, who was trapped in an abusive relationship for years, said simply:
“The initial awakening came from the excitement of something new and unusual and raw. Then I came in contact with the community and I felt protected and safe… I immersed myself in training and learning about the industry and it became my outlet. The community became my safe house.”
From setting goals to the validation that comes from achieving them to the raw challenges placed in front of you to the remarkable and supportive community that surrounds our sport, in many ways OCR can provide an ideal outlet and therapeutic tool.
OCR has brought millions of people outside to play in the wind and rain and has encouraged countless people to adopt a healthier and more active lifestyle. That this sport can help many people in their fight against much bigger demons than most of us will ever know and in some cases save lives makes it truly wondrous.
Disclaimer: The viewpoints expressed by the authors do not necessarily reflect the opinions, viewpoints and official policies of Mud Run Guide LLC, or their staff. The comments posted on this Website are solely the opinions of the posters.