Dare You to Get Dirty in OCR
From a local mud run to an intense Spartan race, obstacle course racing (OCR) is popping up everywhere. From my observation, OCR used to attract runners from opposite ends of the spectrum: crazy-fit ultra-marathoners and new athletes who weren’t previously runners. Now, more and more average runners appear to be jumping on the bandwagon as OCR becomes mainstream. And it’s easy to see why. A full body and mind challenge, OCR has evolved into a legitimate sport and will continue to grow in the future.
Currently a traditional runner with about 15 combined full and half marathons – only one of those a trail marathon – I’ve been a snob about doing OCR. I’m not sure why; it probably has to do with my hatred for mud. I don’t mind getting dirty on a trail run, but the idea of Army crawling through mud just to chafe through the rest of a three-mile race over obstacles makes me cringe.
I did try the Marine Corps Base Hawaii Swamp Romp in 2012. While I wreaked of a putrid aroma and had mud in my ears for days (even after showering!), I actually had a wonderful time thanks to the camaraderie of my teammates.
As a CrossFitter, I’m sure I would love the strength challenges that accompany basic running in OCR. Moreover, I bet there are plenty of runners out there who are also curious about this newish sport.
This curiosity led me to speak with my friend Jono Blodgett from Hawaii, who won the 2018 Spartan World Championship for his age group in Sqaw Valley, California. After graduating from Whittier College with a B.A. in Biology and his M.S. in Marine Biology from the University of Queensland, Jono launched a successful career serving in various positions for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the State of Hawaii’s Division of Aquatic Resources.
In 2014, he experienced an “exercise epiphany,” realizing that he could use his newfound passion for fitness and nutrition to help others.
“While working with NOAA and the State, I would go on educational outreach events and ask the community if they ever went snorkeling or hiking to see any of our beautiful reefs and mountains,” said Jono. “Eight out of 10 times, I would hear, ‘No, I’m too out of shape,’ or a similar excuse. So, that inspired me to start training people to get their health back so they could enjoy Hawai‘i’s beautiful landscape.”
He soon switched careers and founded Mauka Makai Fitness and Hawaii OCR, in which he provides personal training, nutritional consulting and OCR coaching. Below is my interview with Jono to get an expert perspective on the new frontier of the running world.
FTM: What interested you about the Spartan race and obstacle racing in general?
JB: I had done a couple smaller obstacle races with friends and it was all about having fun, dressing up and then getting a nice cold beer at the end. But as I started to do them and increasingly finished in the top spots, I started to take it more seriously. I soon found the Spartan community to be unbelievable. Not only does it challenge you physically, but it helps to push you mentally and makes you realize that you’re capable of so much more in everyday life as well.
FTM: Some people refer to them as "fun runs." Is this an accurate term, and why?
JB: Of course they’re all fun!!!! Some are just a little more painful along the way😂. It all depends on which race it is; the smaller races like Warrior Dash or Makahiki Challenge here in Hawaii are more like “fun” races because there is no penalty if you can’t complete an obstacle. But, events such as a Spartan race have a 30-burpee penalty for every obstacle a participant is unable to complete. So that makes it a bit more serious, which can be a good thing because it will force you to train harder.
FTM: Tell me a bit about your Spartan World Championship win at Squaw Valley Ski Resort in Lake Tahoe, California this year. What's the course like, how did you feel, and what within your training do you attribute this victory to?
JB: The race starts at around 6,500-foot elevation, and being at a ski resort, the course goes up a MASSIVE hill straight out of the gate and climbs up to around 9,000 feet. Coming from Hawaii and being at sea level, the altitude definitely is a factor, so the first three miles I was not feeling good and really had to control my pace to ensure I didn't crash. However, I was able to maintain and keep fairly close to the front of the pack.
One well-known thing about Tahoe is that it’s cold. They have us do a short swim in a lake at the top, which is at about 45 degrees – freezing!! I prepped for this by sitting in an ice bath for 5-10 minutes a few times per week, so I would know how the cold would affect my breathing and motor control. It’s painful, but it paid off because I was able to pass four people on the lake swim.
The other well-known aspect of Tahoe is the massive hills that participants have to climb. With this in mind, I did A LOT of hill repeat training while back in Hawaii, so I was fully prepared for what they threw at us. After that, it all came down to pushing through the pain and staying mentally tough. Your mind is going to tell you to slow down or even stop because your legs and lungs are on fire, but your body is capable of so much more than people think. Training your mind to not give up and continue to push is key!
FTM: What is the difference between traditional (pavement and trail) running and obstacle running - besides the obstacles?
JB: Traditional pavement and trail running is all about endurance. You could do a lot of runs for training and then go out and do great for one of these races. But obstacle races also require a lot of strength. There have been a lot of fast trail runners that come over to obstacle racing and expect to win easily, but once they are faced with the strength obstacles, they quickly realize that it is a different event.
I am a perfect example: I am not the fastest runner, but I have enough strength that I can get through the obstacles quickly and then get back on the run. You can't limit your training to running for an obstacle race; you have to make sure you incorporate a lot of strength work such as pull-ups, lunges, deadlifts and a lot of hand grip strength.
FTM: What would you tell a person that is apprehensive about doing an obstacle run, but they have done a lot of half and full marathons (asking for a friend 😆)?
JB: I would tell this person that he/she already has a great foundation with his or her running abilities. Obstacle racing is still 80 percent running, and many people forget about that and get so focused on the obstacles that they die on the run. If that person builds their strength, he/she would love it. And everyone benefits by incorporating strength exercises into their routine.
I love to trail run, but I love obstacle racing even more because it adds in a different challenge and movement besides just running in a straight line. You have to crawl, jump, roll, squat, throw, carry and so much more. It makes the race and training much more fun with different movements added into your plan.
FTM: How should they train differently?
JB: If a person has a solid running base, then they can slowly start to add in 1-2 strength training sessions per week. Incorporate hanging exercises like pull-ups or dead hangs to strengthen the hand grip; perform some (weighted) carries to simulate the sandbag carry obstacle. For example, perform lunges while holding dumbbells at your side. Once we become adults, we don’t crawl and get down on the ground as often, so adding in some bear crawls and Turkish get-ups are a great way to adapt getting up and moving while close to the ground.
FTM: What is a good beginner race for aspiring obstacle runners?
JB: Warrior Dash is a great race that is in most states and good for beginner obstacle runners. There are so many small local races that are popping up all the time now, too. Spartan is a tougher race because of the penalty burpees mentioned above. So, if you are a beginner and just want to test it out, look for a race that does not have any penalty if you fail an obstacle. I always tell people to at least try the obstacle and if you can't do it, no problem. Now you know what you need to work on before signing up for a tougher event like Spartan.
FTM: Can you share a favorite obstacle running memory?
JB: My favorite obstacle memory was definitely the first time I hit the spear throw during a Spartan race. Participants have one opportunity to throw a spear and get it to stick into a hay bail. I had done six or seven races and always missed and consequently had to do burpees, so I was being passed by my competitors. The first time I hit the spear throw was during a race in New Jersey. I set up a spear throw in my backyard and had practiced a lot leading up to the race, so that moment when I nailed that spear throw was amazing. I'm pretty sure I screamed like a little kid on Christmas I was so happy!
To summarize, obstacle racing will definitely push a person to do things outside their comfort zone, not only physically, but mentally as well. I have seen so many people realize that they are capable of so much more than they gave themselves credit for. Often times, that confidence overflows into their life outside of racing as well. It makes them better parents at home and better workers at their job. If you're a little intimidated at first, get a group of people to go with you so you can help each other get through the obstacles and cheer each other on. Make it happen!
When not training for OCR or coaching other athletes, Jono is also a sports medicine representative for Stryker Corporation.