Contributed By: Mark Barroso, NSCA-CPT, SGX
I’ve participated in more than 40 endurance events since 2014, 31 of which were obstacle course races and the rest Gorucks, Hurricane Heats, half-marathons, and 5K runs. I’ve also trained two different clients for their first Spartan Race before running their first race with them side by side. Several of the races saw me compete in the “elite” category although my only Obstacle Course World Championship (OCRWC) qualification came in the Open category at a race in 2016. In addition to being a Spartan SGX Coach and personal trainer, I’m also a fitness writer who has covered OCR since 2014. Based off the Spartan and Tough Mudder Pros I’ve met and spoken to, I can confidently say that if you’re reading this, YOU ARE PROBABLY NOT AN ELITE ATHLETE. And that’s 100% OK! Let’s throw some numbers out there to support my claim that you are probably a very good OCR athlete, but not the best of the best.
OCR PROS VS. ELITES: WHAT’S IN A NAME?
The Spartan Race Pro Team has evolved over the years and in 2018 it included a top tier of six people who were truly 100% sponsored and a “Select” tier of 30+ athletes but with perks but more like brand ambassadors. The Tough Mudder Pro Team has five athletes on it. Tough Mudder considers a top five finisher at a Toughest Mudder (8+ hours of obstacle running in the dark) an “Elite Contender” at their World’s Toughest Mudder event. There are 5-6 Toughest Mudder events per year so that’s 60 people maximum (30 male, 30 female) that are “Elite Contenders” aside from top finishers of the previous year that automatically qualify. At larger qualifying races like OCR World Championships, I believe the “Pro 100% Obstacle Completion” are among the top tier of OCR athletes.
There were 178 100% obstacle completion pro finishers at 2017 15K OCRWC, 120 obstacle completion finishers at 2017 3K OCRWC, and 114 obstacle completion finishers at the 2017 OCRWC Team Event. There were about 240 finishers at 2018 Enduro 24 Hour World Championships and 58 Pro Finishers with 100 Obstacle Completion at 2018 North American World Championships. I know there are also races conducted by the United States Obstacle Course Racing Spartan (USAOCR), which is the official governing body of OCR in America and a member of USA Pentathlon, but there have only been a few of those races. So, let’s say there were four of those races–I’d consider the top five in the Pro divisions there “elite” as well. Spartan Race has 300 male and 300 female spots open for 2018 Spartan World Championships in Lake Tahoe.
Now let’s assume that all of these finishers aren’t the same people–that somehow the best of the best only compete once a year in a given race distance and format which is often not the case. But assuming they are all different finishers, we’ll call it 3,000 total.
Spartan World Championship: 600
Spartan Pro Team: 50
Tough Mudder Pro Team and “Elite Contenders”: 70
Tough Mudder X (1 mile race): 20 (they pay the top 10 in each gender)
Savage Race Pro Winners: 30 (let’s say Savage has 30 races next year)
USAOCR Top 5 Finishers: 20 (assuming four total races to date)
OCRWC 15K Pro 100%: 178
OCRWC 3K Pro 100%: 120
OCRWC Team Pro 100%: 114
24 Hour Enduro: 240 finishers (approximate)
North Americans Pro: 58
= 1,500 racers
Let’s add another 1,500 racers not accounted for that win Pro Divisions of local races but don’t compete at the international level.
We’ll call it the 3,000 best racers in the world, most of which are in the US.
The OCR documentary Rise of the Sufferfests estimated there were about five million total OCR participants across all brands in 2016. Let’s assume that number rose to six million in 2017 (which is possible given increased web traffic and TV exposure for Tough Mudder and Spartan). I’d guess that a lot of those participants are the same across various race brands. And while there’s no way to quantify that, we’ll go with the six million number. So 3,000/6,000,000 = 0.0005. Are you in the top 0.05% of racers in the world (that are mostly in the US)?
Probably not. But that’s okay! You see, there are levels to sports. And just because an OCR wave is called “Elite” doesn’t mean you’re an elite athlete for participating in it. Are D-1 football players elite compared to D-3 players? Yes. Are D-1 football players more elite than NFL players? No, obviously not.
“ELITE”: THE MOST CONTROVERSIAL WORD IN OCR
To clarify, this whole debate is based on the definition of what "elite" really means, which is shaky at best. Most OCRs have a competitive wave which comes in different names depending on the brand of race (for example, Spartan calls its most competitive wave the "elite" wave vs. Savage refers to it as the "pro" wave). Some basic points of the debate are outlined below:
- Elite waves are generally held to more strict rule enforcement (for example, Spartan Race does not allow obstacle assistance in the elite wave) but otherwise they are basically the same as open waves, just a little more expensive for the benefit of an earlier start time and the chance to win a cash prize, HOWEVER
- A big part of the whole issue/seed of this debate comes from more qualified athletes (e.g., sponsored athletes, or those with realistic goals at a podium spot) being "shut out" of elite waves because the registration is currently a "first come, first served" situation regardless of athlete potential...and that makes people pretty salty. This fuels the debate and such comments as "such-and-such registered for elite? Really?" or "Because all xyz registered elite, I got shut out." Needless to say, this is not a happy group of athletes. HOWEVER
- Many others are in the "run your own race" camp and essentially don't care who registers elite, with the reasoning that until the races make a qualifier to get into the elite category, it's kind of pointless to argue about who's really "elite" vs. not as it's subjective. Some people just think of "elite" as a mindset. At the end of the day, OCR athletes lace up their rugged shoes to go search for motivation in life. The term "elite" is ultimately that extra kick in the butt: the motivating factor to keep training and perform better. For people who don't have a host of fitness-minded friends or family members, the desire to hold their own in the elite category serves as a tangible training goal. I've personally wanted to quit during training runs but kept going because I was trying to better myself in the elite category.
TO BE OR NOT TO BE…ELITE
In four years of obstacle course racing, I’ve realized that OCR athletes are weird, like myself. They are the most welcoming community you’ll find in any sport and many racers have literally overcome a host of real-life obstacles hence why they enjoy man-made and natural obstacles. However, I believe some OCR athletes are sipping some serious Obstacle-Aid, meaning they either:
- Think that their placing at an OCR race will eventually garner them a “Pro Team” spot
- They are using the “elite” title in their social media to promote their personal brand
- They are using the “elite” term to motivate themselves to be a better racer.
I was in category “3.” I wanted to race elite to see just how good I was at racing. After I didn’t place Top 20 at a few elite races, I realized I didn’t consider myself to be elite. To me, if I were really elite at this, I would’ve placed higher without even trying. I decided I didn’t want to spend endless hours training to maybe finish Top 10 at a local race, only to train harder to place Top 10 at a national event, only to train harder to place Top Five at an international event. All for a few thousand dollars and the potential to be considered a “Select” Pro Team member (below the actual Pro Team that gets paid to travel and race)? No, thank you.
I took a look inside at my motivations for racing and came up with some insights, which I will share with you now. Running over logs year after year in the quest to catch a sponsor’s eye, or for more Instagram followers, might not be sustainable in the long run. If your long-term business revolves around competing in OCR at a high level, then you are probably in that group of 3,000 elites or you coach the athletes in that group of 3,000. And I think that’s awesome. But while constantly challenging yourself to be “elite” can be motivating you could also just wind up injured by literally running yourself into the ground, and missing out on some of the best experiences that OCR could offer. For me, taking a step back to train someone ELSE for his first race reignited the spark of what drew me to OCR in the first place, and helping him complete obstacles and finish the race is much more rewarding than running elite ever was. Running with a group of people like Team Oscar Mike, an organization that supports adaptive athlete veterans, is another way to connect to OCR on a deeper level.
And let’s be clear: people race for all kinds of different reasons. Maybe some like to race elite just for the challenge of it, without the end game of trying to get on a Pro Team someday. My goal here is to point out that running competitively and placement aren’t ALL that matter, and they should probably matter a lot less to some people than they do. Instead of obsessing over rankings (which is what OCR companies want us to do, by the way), or focusing on self-imposed pressure to perform, I encourage you to broaden the scope of what you consider to be a successful day on the race course. And I challenge you to be the best version of yourself on and off the course, instead of getting caught up tying your self-worth to your ranking. Instead of wasting money and time trying to be a professional athlete, consider redirecting some of that energy into whatever it is that you REALLY value in your life – the stuff that will last long after the races are done. Like hanging out with friends and family. Or getting a new hobby like fitness modeling where you get paid to work out. Will the hiring manager at your next job inquire about your best OCR finish? Unlikely. Is “Elite Points Leader” a prerequisite for any Master’s Degree or Ph.D? Not that I’m aware of.
I took the “Ego” out of my OCR career, and I’ve never been happier. Being “elite” won’t last forever but being FIERCE can, and that’s measured in so many more ways than something as simple as a ranking at a race.
Residence: Bergen County, New Jersey
Fun Fact: Mark has interviewed both Spartan CEO Joe De Sena and Tough Mudder CEO Will Dean in person.