The Push for Legitimacy

At my grandma’s 90th birthday party following the Pacific Northwest Spartan Sprint, I found myself
in a conversation with a family friend, who I hadn’t seen in years, trying to explain the race I had just run that morning. Granted, I’m not known for being able to express coherently when speaking (yes yes, and I’m an attorney…bla bla bla), but I found myself saying things like this:1268103_166267906897843_1342804676_o

“So it’s a trail race, typically pretty hilly, and you have a few dozen obstacles on the way – climbing over walls, crawling under barb wire, dragging tires, etc.”

His response: “So kind of like steeplechase?”

Well, not really. I mean, steeplechase is probably the most apt comparison you can find to an obstacle race, but besides hopping over a few things and getting wet, the similarities stop there.

But as I found myself fumbling for words and trying to describe the race I just won, I found myself also getting embarrassed in my description of it. For a second, I put myself in the shoes of the pesron that has never heard of an obstacle race, nevertheless a competitive obstacle race, and the thought crossed my mind that it just sounds, so…silly.

Among the small number of us in the obstacle racing community, there has been much talk over the past year or so about the struggle for legitimacy, about recognition as an actual sport. While any one of us mired in the community, and especially the competitive community, has no problem arguing for its legitimacy, to those unfamiliar with obstacle racing, the idea that running through mud can have winners seems a bit, well, silly. Perhaps it’s a struggle that every fledgling sport encounters, but obstacle racing has several challenges it faces before the wider world accepts what we do as a “sport.”

Terminology. I remember having conversations with fellow athletes a year or two ago about what to call things like Tough Mudders and Spartan Races. For a while there was the dreaded “mob event” that someone was pushing. Others decided upon “adventure races.” Or “mud runs.” Thankfully, “obstacle racing” has emerged as the accepted nomenclature among the community. I did, however, become acutely aware that “mud run” is still alive and well after being interviewed by Spike TV at the recent Mud, Guts and Glory race (more on that below) and encouraging them to use the term “obstacle race” as opposed to “mud runs.”

Standards* Unfortunately, there will always be cheaters in any athletic endeavor, whether it be steroids/doping (what up, Lance??), course cutters (HOW do you jump in a car and cut a marathon course unnoticed?), or corked bats (have you ever hit with one of those things? amazing). And how many of you CrossFitters have caught people short-changing reps or range of motion?

So like all of those, obstacle racing faces a standards problem, especially when it comes to penalties (I’m just going to AVOID the great burpee debate here – the horse has died an ugly, beaten death). While I’ve been fortunate, competing in the Spartan Elite heats, to witness 99% of my fellow competitors hold themselves to the highest standards, there is still a perception among the masses that there is rampant cheating in the ranks. And when the general masses believe such a thing, we have an uphill battle to prove otherwise.

In a conversation that I had the other day with an athlete in an established sport, he made the point that there shouldn’t even be an opportunity to cheat or to even get lost on a course, which means an increase in volunteers and staff, and an increase in enforcement and policing.

*I wish I had the solution to this one. Instead, I’m like every other person pointing out problems and then twiddling my thumbs and shaking my hand when it comes to actual ideas. I fully accept this.

Well-run races. Like every other (what could become a) fad, obstacle racing has started to hit a saturation point. Open up your Facebook, and the ads for the ever-multiplying obstacle races fill the sidebar and suggested posts. And with the proliferation of these races beyond the original trifecta of Tough Mudder, Spartan Race, and Warrior Dash, there are bound to be failures (which have already been publicized). People see a business opportunity and jump in, promising big things and failing to deliver. And with every half-ass, shitty obstacle race (whether that be as a result of lame obstacles or struggling to get paid purse money) that people attend, we face a setback in the appearance of legitimacy.

Favorite obstacle. Ever.
Favorite obstacle. Ever.

So it was with apprehension that I accepted the gracious invite to attend the inaugural Mud, Guts and Glory outside of Cincinnati the other weekend. And, to my relief and great delight, I was blown away by what they had accomplished there (see race reviews from my fellow athletes Jeff Cain, Muddy Mommy, Dan Krueger, Relentless Forward Commotion), and the heart and dedication they had put into creating a legitimate race. Not to mention they had one of the hardest obstacles I’ve ever encountered – a delightfully long and super steep monkey bars/salmon ladder/ cage. Talk about grip strength.

Look, I fully admit I’m a “glass half-empty” kind of girl in life. I kept waiting for the “fad” to pass. I was probably one of the last athletes to adopt the term “sport” for obstacle racing, and I still think the talk of it being an Olympic sport is not only misguided (who says being an Olympic sport is the pinnacle of legitimacy? Have we failed to realize that sports like baseball and softball are no longer in the Olympics?), but years away. But small changes over this past year have given me hope. And as obstacle racing gains more publicity – be it Dhani Jones doing an episode for Playbook 360 or NBC Sports televising the upcoming Spartan Championships in Killington – we continue to take baby steps in that direction.

Fun having
Fun having

In the end, I’m going to keep doing what I love – going out there, racing, kicking ass, and smiling the whole way through. And I’ll
do that for as long as obstacle racing sticks around, which I’m completely confident it will. Being out there on the trails and obstacles is where I’m the happiest, and that’s independent of whether we obtain widespread recognition and legitimacy. We may just get there. I sure as hell think we can do a lot better that steeplechase. Glass half-full.

(Photos courtesy of MGG, Spartan Race, and The Painted Warrior)

And here’s the theme song from WWE Smackdown. Just because. YES! YES! YES! YES!