Excerpts from Brett Stewart's Ultimate Obstacle Race Training, Ulysses Press, 2012

What is an Obstacle Course Race (OCR) or Mud Run?

On the most basic level, any event where impediments or challenges are placed on the course in the path of competitors is an Obstacle Course Race, most commonly known by the acronym OCR. Based on this definition, one could argue that events like the Durham Doughman made famous by Adam Richman on Man V Food could be lumped into this category; however we'll focus on challenges slightly larger than a few dozen sweet confectionary treats. While the gastric pitfalls of most “real” obstacle races may bear some similarities to navigating a quadrathlon with a belly full of dough; in Ultimate Obstacle Race Training we’ll be climbing, crawling and navigating obstacles that require strength, endurance, stamina, a healthy dose of courage, and a can-do attitude — you can’t get “tough enough to crush the world’s most bad-ass courses” without the proper mindset and drive. So, what is an obstacle race? Let’s ask Alex Patterson, (former) CMO of Tough Mudder:

“An obstacle race is equal parts mental toughness and physical endurance. These events require the primal desire to conquer the course and the physical dexterity to tackle each obstacle that we (happily) put in your way”

OCRs and Mud Runs races come in many shapes, sizes, difficulties and distances. Below is an overview of the landscape of these types of adventures and challenges. One thing that’s for certain is they are all exciting and fun ways to spend a day racing with – or against – your friends.

Types of Obstacle Course Races or Mud Runs

Adventure Races

While they could be called the grandfather of obstacle races, adventure races are some of the most grueling endurance events in the world. They require the use of various modes of transport such as running, map-reading/orienteering, kayaking, mountain biking, mountain climbing/rappelling, swimming, horseback riding, as well as tackling a host of obstacles both natural and man-made.

Created by Mark Burnett (Survivor, The Apprentice), Eco-Challenge was the first worldwide adventure race and is considered by many to have put the sport on the radar for athletes all over the world to aspire to compete in. From 1995 to 2002, the format was refined and tweaked in an attempt to make events more difficult, exciting and TV-friendly, in the process defining adventure racing as an entirely self-encompassing sport featuring a mix of multiple different disciplines. The term “Adventure Race” was coined by journalist Martin Dugard when describing the passion and challenges conquered by athletes in events such as Eco-Challenge.

Probably the most well-known Adventure Race was Primal Quest, held six times between 2002 – 2009. PQ courses traversed over 400-plus miles through some of the harshest mountain and desert terrain and lasted for up to 10 days; during which co-ed teams of four battled the course, the elements and other competitors without the aid of support crews or navigational assistance. Each of the six Primal Quest courses featured incredibly picturesque yet difficult terrain with mountain ascents and descents in sub-freezing climates and treks through hundreds of miles of barren wasteland where the mercury topped out over 110 degrees. Participant and crew safety as well as the immense costs of conducting an adventure race on such a grand scale was responsible for the limited number of events held, as did the unfortunate death of an extremely experienced adventure racer, Nigel Aylott, in 2004. PQ holds the distinction as being the first expedition adventure race to be broadcast on television, highlights were shown on CBS in 2004 – 2005 with ESPN & ABC providing coverage in 2006.

Hundreds of smaller adventure race events with distances ranging from 10 to 60 miles and durations between 4 to 24 hours are held all over the world every year to challenge the small, yet dedicated following of adventure racing athletes.

Examples of this type of event:
Past: Eco-Challenge (1995 – 2002), Primal Quest (2002, ‘03, ‘04, 06, ‘09)

Current: USARA: United States Adventure Racing Association currently sanctions events throughout the USA and features a point system for ranking teams seeking to qualify for the 24-hour National Championship.

Did You Know: In 1995 the Eco-Challenge created by Mark Burnett was broadcast on MTV and on ESPN as part of the X-Games? The Eco-Challenge went on to be produced and aired on Discovery Channel from 1996 to 2000 and USA Network until its demise in 2002.

Puzzle Solving / Scavenger Races

Events that fall into the scavenger race category require some form of puzzle solving, orienteering, and feature elements resembling a scavenger hunt played out on a grand scale – in some cases across an entire city. Occasionally these events can even take on the appearance of a pub crawl – not that there’s anything wrong with that!

Racer vs. Obstacles

These events are purely based on defeating man-made or natural challenges; you have to get over, under, around or through all the barriers that are placed in your way along the course. Crawling over parked taxi cabs, climbing dozens of flights of stairs up a skyscraper, running up and down endless sand dunes or scampering up, over and down enormous cargo nets are just a taste of the type of obstacles you’ll encounter along the course – but if you’re looking for ice baths and mud puddles you’ll find those in the Hybrid races below.

Racer vs. Course

In these types of events, the course fights back; the obstacles are moving, changing, or feature race staff actively trying to rattle you as you attempt to complete the course. Racers are pelted with water balloons, sprayed with hoses, come under fire from paintball guns, forced to dodge swinging balls as they run through a gauntlet across balance beams suspended over water.

Popularized in the United States by ABC’s Wipeout, events of this nature grew into prominence on Japanese game shows where contestants are bounced, cajoled, tricks and even pummeled while attempting to navigate safe passage through the course. Many of the extreme obstacles used in the far east version found their way into Wipeout or American Ninja Warrior, albeit in simpler, safer and contestant-friendlier versions – for insurance reasons.

Themed Events

Your friends, family and neighbors have been turned into bloodthirsty, remorseless, brain-eating zombies… and they are waiting for you along the course. Did that grab your attention?

Sometimes an event comes along that is so innovative and cool that it makes its own category; being chased by zombies during an Ob/Mud race falls squarely into that description. Run For Your Lives combines the challenge and excitement of a mud run along with an unique twist – you can choose whether you want to be a racer or a sloppy bucket of flesh zombie. If you’re lucky enough to find yourselves in the ranks of the undead, your job is to track down and catch unwitting racers and eat their brains – well, rip off the flags from their belt as they try to squirm through the mudfest of a course on the way to the finish.

Mud Runs

In a pure Mud Run, you won’t find any walls or ropes at these events; the primary obstacle is deep, thick, soupy, slimy mud that you need to navigate from start to finish. These races are the human version of mud-bog tractor pulls – only you’re providing all the horsepower. Equal parts running and mud slogging, these courses are notorious for saving the wettest, dirtiest element for the finish line where you’ll usually have to belly-crawl through a pit of mud to end the race.

Hybrid Obstacle Races & Mud Runs – Today's OCRs

Once a cargo net or rope gets stretched over a mud pit, the line starts to get blurred between a “Mud Run” and an “Obstacle Race” and the event becomes a cross-over sensation, a melting pot of awesomeness, the Wonder-Twins mashing their magical rings together and taking the shape of a modern OCR event (and the form of an ice-bath, the boy always had to turn into something made out of ice according to some obscure super-power rules)

These are the most prevalent events being held all over the world and draw their maniacal inspiration from the entire above list – some of the nastiest elements of adventure races mixed with huge man-made jungle gyms and natural impediments along with goopy tons of mud. Let’s take a look at just a smattering of the types of challenges you’ll face on these courses:

Being submerged in an ice bath, hauling sand bags, lifting & dragging heavy rocks on a rope, balance beams, cargo nets, crawling under barbed wire, jumping fire, braving electric shocks, jumping over, diving under or crawling through barriers, climbing walls, scurrying up or swinging from ropes, throwing spears, jumping or climbing hay bales (some may even be on fire), running through or climbing over tires (lots and lots of tires), scrambling over slippery walls covered in liquid soap, sloshing through streams, lakes, ponds, bogs, brooks or even ditches or shipping containers filled with water, crawling through metric tons of mud, chopping wood, pulling yourself over wrecked cars, running from zombies, swinging across monkey bars, jumping rope, high platform jumps into icy water, swinging from zip lines, crossing parallel bars, gladiators smacking you with pugil sticks, being shot at with paintball guns, being pelted with water balloons and getting sprayed with hoses. By my count, that’s about 50 awesome reasons to start looking to sign up for an Ob/Mud race right now!

Why the Hell Would You Do an OCR?

The easiest answer – Because you can. OCRs & Mud Runs have something for everyone and are wide-open to anyone willing to sign up, show up and never give up. Barriers to entry are lower in modern OCRs vs. nearly every other organized event you can sign up for:

  • Adventure Races – Required Skills: orienteering, mountain biking, mountain climbing & repelling, running
  • Triathlons – Required Skills/Gear: Swim, bike, run, wetsuit, ridiculously expensive bike, skin-tight clothing and shaved legs
  • Marathons – Required Skills: The whole “Running for 26.2 miles” thing
  • Bike racing – Required: Those two-wheeled contraptions that cost so damn much, shaved legs and tight outfits (see also: triathlons)
  • Organized Sports – Required: Equipment, field, goals… and sport-specific skill. Can you hit a curve ball at 85 MPH? What about a tennis ball at 120MPH?