DISCLAIMER – What follows is merely my opinion. I am not an industry insider, although I spend way too much time thinking and talking about OCR. I am mainly interested in the competitive aspect of the sport, even though I recognize the obvious fact that without the recreational element forming its overwhelming majority, the competitive aspect would not exist.
Many of us have tried to imagine the perfect race. In a fit of ambitious folly, I started thinking about what would be the ideal World Championship event if we got rid of, you know, real world constraints. Let me state for the record that I love the existing OCRWC. Adrian Bijanada and his team have accomplished so much for the sport, and they put on a hell of an event, the race of the year for me and many others. But they are bound by the shackles of reality and I’m not. So feel free to view this as presumptuous armchair quarterbacking, because it is.
One last thing: I believe variety is the spice of life and I hope we can keep, and even increase, the scope of regular season races that are held by independent companies, so everyone can find their preferred series. This is why I’m focusing a championship event, pretending I’m the president of an as-of-yet non-existent federation that had authority and oversight of the sport, and funding allowing it to take a financial hit on the WC event. So here it goes:
QUALIFYING – This is an important aspect of what makes a world championship credible. It must be strict. I will sound like an elitist here, but that’s the point. A World Championship has to be elitist by focusing on the proverbial cream of the crop. Pierre de Coubertin had it right when it comes to sports in general, but for such an event, the famous maxim “The important thing is not to win but to participate” should actually be reversed.
No fun runs or mud runs should be accepted as qualifying races; only races and race series that put emphasis on the competitive aspect, have proven to attract a high caliber of athletes and enforce rules properly. Of course this would be a judgement call, but in this information age, enough data on races is available and enough local racers can be reached out to to make this judgement possible. Athlinks would be a very useful tool to cross-reference race winners and their results at other races that are known quantities. There exists a very interesting ranking system for cross-country skiing based on who shows up to a race, making each result relative to the competitiveness of the race. One would, for example, get more points for an 8th place in a very competitive NBC Spartan Race where a lot of top racers show up, than winning an off-season race with much less top level competitors. Something like this could be implemented with some programming skills and solid data reporting by the various race series, but for now, using Athlinks to select qualifying races would suffice.
Only the Top 5 (or Top 10 for particularly high-caliber races) athletes of each gender should qualify, from the first competitive (or “elite”) wave only, and in only two age divisions: overall and Masters (40+). No “sliding down” of the qualification if the leaders have already qualified. Ideally, one should qualify in a race of similar distance to the distance they plan to run at the championship, but for now it is probably premature, as there are no “set” distances for regular season races. Racers could also qualify as a Journeyman by completing at least five qualifying races during the year preceding the championship.
DIVISIONS – Anyone who qualifies should have a chance to participate in the championship, hence the strict qualifying requirements. We should aim for a maximum of 250 racers of each wave and adjust qualification criteria accordingly in subsequent years. Separate starts for the men and the women with ample time in-between to avoid clogging up the course and to generate some excitement by having all the top names visible, side by side with each other. Male competitors must give way to female athletes who caught up to them or risk being penalized or disqualified on the spot (solid volunteers would be needed, paired with paid staff (officials) at each obstacle).
After the first two waves, the same would be repeated for Masters (40+) athletes and after them (and only after the top men and women from the elite heats finish their race, giving the opportunity for Journeymen to watch the race unfold) would come multiple Journeymen waves, giving the most passionate participants in the sport the chance to experience running the same course as the top athletes. This would boost attendance and help with covering the costs, but more importantly would contribute to the atmosphere you want for an event like this.
RACE DISTANCE – Stop the distance creep! Let’s not go the way of trail running or triathlon, where there is and unfortunate focus on ultra distances and the Ironman, to the detriment of shorter races. Trail running is a fringe sport and triathlon is sustainable only because it banks on wealthy participants spending fortunes on events and equipment. Let’s instead take inspiration from prestigious, mature sports such as track and field, swimming, or cross-country skiing where shorter races are at least as prestigious as longer events.
We don’t need super short events because those exist already. American Ninja Warrior and OCR Warrior are examples but I’m also thinking of the Military Pentathlon obstacle course event: videos of which regularly make the rounds on OCR Facebook groups, with lots of justifiably awed comments as the inevitable response to the extremely high level of skill displayed. They got this.
We should focus on the endurance part of OCR, attempting to make race distances representative of regular season events. I propose three different distances. The first one would be a 3km race. Yes, I know, this isn’t representative of regular season races, but I’m making an exception because there needs to be a push for it (and if I’m honest, because I’d really love to see such a race). Some of the top OCR athletes we all know and admire would shine even brighter over such a distance and I cannot wait to see how it plays out in Ontario at the 2016 OCRWC. Then come the representative distances: a 6-7km event, and a 15km event. Each race distance would be held on a different day, making this a Friday to Sunday OCR fest.
I believe there is no need for a 20-21km event because it is too close to the 15km distance. Go back to track and field and swimming: basically every distance is double the preceding one: 100m, 200m, 400m, 800m, 1500m, 3k, 5k, 10k, half marathon and marathon for running; 50m, 100m, 200m, 400m, 800m and 1500m for swimming. There’s no “one and a half marathon” or 15k Olympic distance. Let’s not reinvent the wheel.
TERRAIN – We need to represent all races and favor versatile athletes who can deal with anything. Muddy, dry, flat, rolling hills, steep ascents and descents, easy terrain, gnarly technical off-trail stuff: a mix of everything.
OBSTACLE DENSITY – Here’s where the championship would NOT be representative of most series (unfortunately): we need very high obstacle density for this race. We want to crown the best obstacle racers, not the best runners who are able to deal with obstacles. The WC event should, as is already being done, pick and choose from all the best obstacles in all series. I don’t really see an upper limit on obstacle density, other than practical considerations. Since we’re dreaming and therefore not concerned with those, let’s envision up to 100 obstacles for the 15km race, or about 1 obstacle every 150m (or yards if you insist on using the ridiculous imperial system).
Obstacle variety is also important. The list should include a smorgasbord of tests of agility, strength, endurance, technique, balance and all other athletic traits. Carries, crawls, hoists etc. should be part of it in addition to the spectacular technique- and grip-based obstacles. Don’t go overboard on the individual lengths of the carries to avoid slowing down the pace too much; have more of them instead; keeping the race entertaining.
OBSTACLE DIFFICULTY – This is a tricky one. It’s a fine line to thread. In general, championship races should strive to represent the regular season races, as previously mentioned; they shouldn’t be much tougher. The 100m dash stays the same in the World Championships or at the Olympics, the marathon course isn’t made more difficult; it’s the increased level of competition that raises the difficulty and challenge. But our sport is different. Only having the best in the world in an event allows you to push obstacle difficulty farther because you don’t have to make it fun and achievable for recreational runners.
You don’t need to make these so extremely tough that only people named Atkins and Olympic gymnasts could go through them though, because the sheer density of obstacles will raise the difficulty level.
Still, it would be possible to misjudge the difficulty of an obstacle, or they could be made harder by external factors such as cold or rain, and then you’re stuck with a slow-paced race of attrition with lines of racers shaking their forearms and bloody hands waiting for their umpteenth attempt. Not good for the sport, not good for TV, not good for spectators. Fortunately, this is only a potential problem for a small number of obstacles such as the rigs, and there is a solution. Read on.
One last point on obstacle difficulty: common sense would dictate that there be a separate lane for women on some obstacles, as on average, they don’t have the same upper-body strength as the men; this could also double as an easier lane for Journeymen competitors. I don’t want to be presumptuous, however, and this decision should be left to female athletes. What do you think, ladies?
OBSTACLE COMPLETION – Obstacle completion should be mandatory. Competitive series seem to be moving in that direction, save for the Spartan elephant in the room. Exercise-based penalties are hard to enforce, as has been discussed time and again in endless Facebook threads, but we want to avoid the slog mentioned above in case of a mishap. Here’s the solution: for the hard, repeatedly “failable” obstacles, have extremely long and hard penalties as an option. A 1km jerry can carry, for example, or a nasty log carry up and down a steep hill, or maybe a very, very long crawl through the mud. Something that would ruin your race if your competitors were able to go through the obstacle and you have to give up and choose the penalty. If a large majority fails, the race just makes a detour through the penalty loop and things don’t screech down to a halt. This would also serve as a judgment test and ego check; when do you decide to throw in the towel and go for the penalty, and when do you stick with it and try the obstacle again?
ONE FOR THE SHOW – How to make the event TV and spectator friendly? This is a must, as only if it results in a good show can we get serious sponsorship and make it sustainable in the long run. The 3km short course is less of a problem. You can easily hold it in the immediate surroundings of the festival area and cover it with a reasonable number of static cameras. The most spectacular and toughest obstacles should be used for that race, which would be ideally suited for live streaming and/or TV.
For the medium and long course races, having them loop in and out of the festival area is a must, using the same fixed cameras used for the short course. In addition, Toughest in Scandinavia has shown that a small number of fixed cameras along with having some ATVs with cameras in the back of them following or preceding racers makes for good viewing. The races could be quickly edited down to a more manageable length and streamed online or shown on TV on the same day, as is done for the World Rally Championship races.
So there you have it: my unqualified, seat of the pants take on what the ideal (note I avoid using the word “perfect”) Obstacle Course Racing World Championship would be. Feel free to comment if you disagree or think I went wrong somewhere! It’ll give me something to think about during those boring long easy runs…