The weekend of the summer solstice welcomed obstacle course racers to the first ever Black Ops 12 hour race at the Boneyard OCR Compound, just south of Barrhead, Alberta, Canada. Although it was the weekend with the most sunlight of the year, racers and crew still had to grind their way through 7 hours of caliginous night. Other than some floodlights at base camp, the soft glow of bouncing headlamps is all that broke through the dark curtain of the early morning. The open prairies of Alberta had not welcomed a half-day obstacle course race until this moment. This debut challenge welcomed a horde of competitors who had not yet raced in an event of this duration.
While Black Ops was by no means exclusive, the majority of athletes in attendance were seasoned racers. Surprisingly, there were a small number of individuals who were competing in their first ever OCR. If they are reading this summary, I raise my glass to you. You stared at the unknown with unblinking eyes saying “give me your best shot.” It is my hope that you continue down the rabbit hole that is obstacle course racing and bring even more people into this wonderful sport that we have come to love.
The compound opened at noon, allowing participants to set up their pit tents as you would see at World’s Toughest Mudder. As there were a few hundred registered, there was a surprisingly large amount of room to navigate through base camp. Friends would catch up over the pre-race dinner, strangers would introduce themselves with a hug, and race organizers were finalizing details with volunteers. Speaking of, the volunteers of this event deserve a special shout-out. The majority spent the entire weekend stationed at obstacles, rotating occasionally to keep things fresh. Many elected to forgo sleep breaks because they wanted to continue generating an exciting and positive atmosphere for participants. It is safe to say that the organizers, racers, and crew all were grateful for your tireless work ethic and drive. An announcement indicated the race would commence sometime between 9 and 11 p.m. A siren piercing the general chatter of competitors would be a thirty-minute courtesy warning. This came at 9:30 p.m. followed by the silence of a nervous crowd. The race was about to begin.
(One of the many signs seen around the course motivating racers)
Out of the thick, green smoke grenade cloud emerged a stampede charging off the start line. Some were running at a near sprint pace, others elected to maintain a slower tempo. Many were carrying 40-pound sandbags. Amazingly, some did every lap with a bag on their shoulders. Anyone who completed a single lap with a sandbag was awarded a Heavy patch. When all was said and done, the vast majority of racers waited in line to collect the fruits of their labor. The first lap was completed without obstacles to give everyone a preview of the course and to let racers settle into their pace.
From the chatter overheard, it seemed as though the opening lap also served as an eye-opener that their lap goals may not be as achievable as anticipated. The majority’s goal was to reach the 50km mark, but at the end of the event, very few reached that plateau. No one eclipsed the 75km range even though the question before the race was “who will” not “can anyone” hit that distance. The Black Ops course combined with the complexity of obstacles made for a tremendously tough event.
X Warrior Challenge, the company hosting Black Ops, debuted a new obstacle penalty model to the Obstacle Course Racing scene. The topic of penalties has been a polarizing subject around the OCR community, and no doubt there will be discussions on the results of what was used at this event. At Black Ops, racers were given two wristbands; similar to OCRWC, that they had to have at the end of the race. Like the world championships, competitors had the ability to retry obstacles before giving up their bands. Unlike OCRWC, racers were given the ability to “recharge” their bands to restore them to two bands by completing penalty laps. For example, if you had two bands, you had the right to continue along the course.
If you arrived at any of the three penalty loops, you had to complete the loop once for every band missing. There were a number of instances where racers reached the recharge station and had to complete the loop twice before moving on. In the event a racer failed an obstacle when their bands were both removed, they were still only required to complete two penalty laps after attempting each obstacle. The three recharge stations were as follows: a sandbag carry down a hill and turning back up, a steep hill where racers simply had to climb down then back up (reminiscent of Challenger Hill at the Sun Peaks Beast in 2017), and a lengthy propane tank carry where the tanks were filled to the brim with sand.
These penalty loops added quite a bit of distance and elevation, which resulted in everyone having a variety of distances recorded despite running the same course. Unlike other races, the penalty loops did not occur after each obstacle. They were set in strategic locations along the course. This allowed racers to continue racing and complete obstacles until they reached the recharge stations. The length and difficulty of the penalty loops gave motivation to all on course to complete all obstacles as repeated penalty laps took a tremendous deal of strength and energy. They also played a role in the re-evaluation of distance goals for many racers.
(Some obstacles saw a plethora of bands lost throughout the night)
Another hotly debated topic in the community has been the use of accuracy obstacles during races. Black Ops featured not one, but two separate challenges that required participants to take aim to avoid penalties. The first was an axe throw at a wooden target, the second involved an airsoft rifle. Both allowed for only one attempt each lap. For the shooting obstacle, racers had to lie in a prone position behind a fence while attempting to shoot a can which was approximately 20 yards away. In a surprise twist that not even the organizers anticipated, the airsoft obstacle had a much higher success rate than the axe throw. The elation witnessed from racers upon hitting their targets was an elation that was greater than I have seen at any other obstacle. Unfortunately, that obstacle was shut down in the middle of the night. While it was open, it was one of the most popular challenges of the event.
Most of the obstacles used in Black Ops were staples of OCR (walls, cargo nets, barbed wire crawls, etc) but many were innovations on the norm which made for new challenges. In addition to the airsoft target shooting obstacle, two of the stations which led to the most penalty laps were the Peg Board Z-Wall and a new version of Tarzan, which debuted at a previous X Warrior event. The Z-Wall involved a horizontal peg board that also features small footholds for people to traverse across. The Tarzan obstacle featured a combination of traditional ropes and “hook ropes” which added an element of elevation change between grips. Both resulted in many bands taken over the night, although participants saw increasing success throughout the evening with additional practice.
The Monkey Bars felt more like a rig, including ascending and descending bars, a horizontal shimmy bar, and non-equidistant holds which worked to disrupt the rhythm of a racer. Perhaps what was defined as the most difficult obstacle by many was the lengthy log carry. It involved carrying a heavy piece of wood through a long single track trail that led to a couple of muddy hills. It also became one of the most mentally taxing obstacles of the night.
(Base Camp as the sun began to rise)
The rising sun brought a renewed sense of energy among everyone involved with the race. Once exhausted racers were able to run again, volunteers brought more energy to the table, and crews were engaged helping their racers finish their last laps. In order to receive their finisher medal, everyone was informed during the pre-race briefing that they were required to complete their last lap between the 11th and 12th hour of the event. Many participants were finishing a lap close to the beginning of the 11th hour, so they elected to wait just before the finish line until the one-hour warning was issued so they could earn their medal. This resulted in a huge wave of finishers completing their race simultaneously, a sight that one could easily have mistaken for a start line. The race was over. Participants then devoured their complimentary pancake breakfast while watching the podium announcements. A nice touch that X Warrior delivered was giving out “Spirit Awards” to athletes and volunteers who made outstanding contributions to the event or showed great heart. Volunteers of both the race and the host Boneyard Compound received awards for countless hours of service and a racer was recognized for completing multiple laps in socks she borrowed because her shoes were causing her more pain than it was worth.
(No shoes, no sun, no problem)
Overall, the inaugural Black Ops race was a success. The Boneyard OCR Compound was a fantastic location for an endurance event even though there was limited elevation gain (racers will tell you that they made the most of what hills they did have on site). The walk to and from the parking lot was more difficult than you would normally experience as it involved some distance as well as some hills which made for some difficulty transporting gear for the event. However, after speaking with the owners of Boneyard OCR, they indicated they will be improving the parking for future events as they have added more land closer to the venue. The event itself met a good balance between running and obstacles The majority of the obstacles were beside or around the base camp which made for optimal spectator conditions and light for participants. A new penalty system added to the on-going conversation about what method is best: mandatory obstacle completion or immediate penalties. The rumour is that Black Ops will become an annual event in Alberta.
For a visual representation of the race, stay tuned for my highlight video to be released at a future date.
Race Rating: 4/5
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