Contributed By: Katie Purcell
INTRO/ABOUT MEMy name is Katie Purcell, and I’m an obstacle course race addict.
With 6 years of racing under my belt, I have heard thousands of stories over the years about why we race – the triumphs, the motivations, the trials and tribulations. As a sociologist and anthropology nerd I have sought these stories out because I find them so fascinating, and in this article I’m going to take you through the overarching trends that stand out to me the most. But first, a little about me and where I come from/my experience with OCR.
- 2013: I am in recovery for an eating disorder that I have struggled with for most of my adolescence/adult life, and a friend (Kristi) asks me if I want to do “this thing she heard of” called a Spartan Race. It came at a time in my recovery when I was navigating how to work exercise into my life without being overly focused on calories burned or weight loss, so this gave me a new, healthy focus at the gym on what my body could do. I register in March with Kristi for the November race and to prepare for it, I also participate in a local OCR. For both races I participated with Kristi.
- 2014: High on the victorious feeling of my stadium race in November, I register for another stadium race in April, and the same (original) stadium race in November, with a Spartan Super in between.
- 2015: I want to complete my first Spartan Race trifecta so I purchased a season pass, and end up completing 3 of them (for a total of 9 races), still completing all events as a team with Kristi.
- 2016: 5 trifectas. I start racing in the “Elite” heat at Spartan Race, and Kristi and I each race on our own for time.
- 2017: Ready to branch out into different OCR series, I try an additional 5 brands in addition to Spartan Race including Goliathon, Dead End Race, and Savage Race. At the end of the season I try my first Spartan Race Ultra Beast (which I always said I’d “never” do), and actually enjoy it.
- 2018: Wanting a new challenge, I decide to focus on endurance-length races and complete 2 Ultra Beasts, 1 Ragnar Race on an Ultra team, and one F.I.T. Challenge Ultra Race.
I came to racing from a history of addiction (an eating disorder), and I won’t go so far as to say OCR “cured” me, but I will say that crossing the finish line that first time was the proudest moment of my life up to that point. I had achieved things I never thought I could do and - while I still had plenty of room for improvement - the stark contrast between where I had been in the depths of my disease and the person I was when I finished that first race was enough to get me hooked.
That’s a little bit about my OCR story, and if there’s anything I’ve learned about the “why” in OCR it’s that my story is not unique. I have broken down this article into the three “macro” level reasons that I have found attract people to OCR, and keep them coming back: Fitness Motivators, Sociological/Community Motivators, and Psychological/Personal Motivators. Within each category I’ll tease out some key themes. Also I should note I will be referring to OCR as a relatively “new” sport throughout the article: while there can be some debate on the official “start” of OCR, it is most popular in the United States and both of the major players here – Spartan Race and Tough Mudder – claim 2010 as their founding year. So for the sake of simplification and because the sport existed in relative obscurity until the last decade or so, I am referring to it as a “new” sport.
This seems like the most natural/obvious place to start. OCR is a sport, and sports are basically about physical fitness, right? But there are a ton of underlying reasons why people are attracted to this type of physical fitness…
- A Holistic Type Of Fitness: Firstly, OCR is a very holistic type of fitness: you can’t really just be good at any one thing (e.g., “only” a runner or “only” a strength person). This forces people to challenge themselves to be more versatile in their training, and also creates an interesting dynamic at the start line: it’s one of the only sports where someone who was traditionally a long-distance runner can stand next to someone who was traditionally a weight lifter, and they can have an equal shot at placement. In this way, it also helps level the playing field for all athletes regardless of specific areas of excellence.* (*Note: of course some areas are more beneficial to the sport than others, but you get the idea.)
- New Physical Challenge: For people who have always been fit, this relatively new sport is a new physical challenge.
- Leveled Playing Field: Because it is a relatively new sport the playing field is leveled in a lot of ways (as mentioned above), because whether you’ve been athletic your whole life or not, basically no one has been doing OCR for 15 years and so it’s a new challenge for everyone.
- Good Option For New Athletes: On a related note, because it’s a relatively new sport with a leveled playing field and it is non-traditional, it is also a more welcoming option/environment for people who have not always been traditionally athletic.
- It Is Trendy: I know this seems like kind of a cop-out reason but it’s true…fitness trends are huge and people like to try “the new cool thing.”
- Encourages A Healthy Lifestyle: It encourages people to stay healthy and pursue a healthy lifestyle. People will find a way to spend their time on the things that are important to them, and having a cool/fun physical event coming up that you have to train for is a more compelling reason to stay in shape/invest time into fitness than the old standard “because working out is important.”
There are a ton of layers to the “social” aspect of why people are attracted to OCR: many related or overlapping but one thing is for sure: the community feel is pervasive and all encompassing. Let’s take a look at a few:
- The Joy of Shared Experiences: Firstly, the social pleasure of shared experiences can outweigh the joy of doing something on your own: or in layman’s terms, it’s more fun to do stuff with other people! Several studies have pointed out this phenomenon in recent years especially as we as a society have begun to place more emphasis on both experience-based consumption (meaning we like to spend our money on doing stuff more than owning stuff) and spending quality time with others. Getting out there and playing in the mud is fun, but it’s even more fun when you can get a bunch of friends to go with you!
- Social Proof: In this current heyday of social media, many of us post everything we do online. When we do something cool or fun or meaningful, we want to share it with the world! When we do this, our posts go out onto the interwebs and show everyone else how cool and fun OCR is, which creates (and perpetuates) the concept of “social proof” (which basically means when we see other people doing something and they’re having a good time, it makes us more likely to be interested in it and think it’s a fun thing to do.) The flip side of this concept is FOMO (fear of missing out) – we are more attracted to the idea of signing up for an event when we see how much fun it can be and how much fun people in our social circle are having when they participate – and we don’t want to miss that fun for ourselves!
- Forced Cooperation Leads to Natural Camaraderie: Many of the obstacles themselves force cooperation/working together (a few examples: some races have a “buddy carry” where racers have to carry each other, some races have high walls too high for most people to climb on their own, and Tough Mudder has several obstacles that are designed specifically to be completed as a group). This “forced cooperation” encourages people to work together in at least two different ways: either to register for the event with others (who they may or may not have participated in an event with if they didn’t know they’d need help), or “race day friendships” are often formed when someone you didn’t know at the start line becomes a friend throughout the race because you help each other literally conquer obstacles. It is well documented that the concept of “shared suffering” or overcoming adversity as a group fosters a sense of solidarity and closeness (similar to the experiences of basic training in the military, or “hazing” in a fraternity), and this is certainly at play in obstacle course racing.
- Solid Foundation of Support and Encouragement: Because people come to OCR from all different backgrounds and many people have not been traditionally athletic, there is a huge foundation of support and encouragement on course and within the sport – even between strangers (as mentioned above in the “shared suffering” section.) I have witnessed it countless times on course and read/heard dozens of stories and I cannot pinpoint exactly why OCR is so much more encouraging than other sports, but I can say that it is a very different mindset than more singularly-minded events like a road race or half marathon where each participant is on the start line thinking his or her own thoughts, but there is not necessarily a lot of conversation happening. Of course it is true there are more serious OCR events where the most competitive athletes are very serious at the start, just like there are road races where the participants at the start line are all laughing and joking, but as a whole and from what I have witnessed over the years, OCR can be a much more encouraging/positive vibe both at the start line and throughout the race – even amongst the elite athletes who wish each other “good luck.” Because participants are so welcoming/encouraging and also look like they’re having so much freaking fun (see section on “social proof” above) the community aspect is also what continues to inspire and invite newcomers to the sport. The beer at the after party doesn’t hurt either!
- Accountability: There are a couple of different layers to this. Firstly, there’s the old adage that you become the average of the people you spend the most time with and to an extent, that is true. Putting yourself in a community where you see others succeed or constantly being around others who work hard exposes us to the mindset of hard work and challenging ourselves. We continue to push ourselves in part because we see our self-selected peers doing it, and then they see us working hard and the cycle perpetuates which raises the bar for everyone. An example of this is when you do a workout with a friend and there is a friendly competition between you, and all of a sudden you’re both working harder (running faster, or lifting heavier weights) than you might if you were on your own. When people register for a race, and they (naturally) post about it on social media (or at least share with others that they are doing it) there’s a natural expectation that they’ll put some amount of effort into training for that race – which is part of the reason why they signed up and shared with their friends in the first place! Friends in OCR push each other – on and off course – not only to register for more races (“how many trifectas are you going for this year?”) but also to continue to improve their fitness levels and achieve new goals. Which brings us to the other side of the accountability coin: signing up for races/being part of the OCR community/having friends who you are training with (or who know you are training for an upcoming race) are all social factors that keep people motivated to train and keep us from “falling off the wagon.” In this case, social pressure can be good!
Last but not least, obstacle course racing draws and retains participants because it can be immensely rewarding on a personal level, for so many reasons. It hits on feelings of pride in achievement, adrenaline in competition, and satisfaction in empowerment and the creation of self-identity, and so much more.
- Get To Be A Big Kid Again: On maybe the simplest level, participating in an OCR means that in some ways you get to be a big kid again, and people love that! Rolling in the mud, playing on the monkey bars, and climbing over high walls then crawling under barbed wire*? Sign me up! (*Note: okay so most of us probably weren’t crawling under barbed wire as children. But you get the idea!
- It Promotes Positive Vibes: On another basic level it is something you can feel personally good about, because you know you are spending your time and energy on a pursuit that is good for your body and promotes a healthy lifestyle. It can also be very exciting and a huge adrenaline rush!
- It Attracts Different Mindsets: People race for all different reasons (as you have probably figured out by now), and one aspect is that it can attract people with many different types of mindsets. Unlike other sports that are typically individual in competition (e.g., traditional road races) or typically team-oriented in competition (e.g., rowing), any given event in OCR can be both individual AND team-oriented, and it can even change within the event. Participants who want to be more competitive and individualistic can run in the more competitive heats, while those who want to focus on the “fun” and “teamwork” of the sport can run as a team or in the non-competitive heats. Sometimes an athlete will go into a race planning to run alone but decide to slow down and get/receive help from other racers, and come out with a whole new set of friends! Additionally because participants are so friendly and encouraging to newcomers, and many are social both on- and off-course, many people who felt like “outsiders” before they started the sport feel like they have found a home there.
- Personal Feelings Of Achievement: There are many opportunities for a great feeling of satisfaction in this sport. Participants literally and physically conquer new obstacles all the time: whether it’s achieving a new goal (for example: getting over an 8 foot wall by yourself for the first time) or making a more metaphorical break from the past. Many participants cite in particular the satisfaction that comes with overcoming the mental aspects of the race: saying they race because it’s a great test of “mental grit” to “see what I can do” and the positive feelings that come with challenging themselves to improve.
- Feelings Of Empowerment: This is similar to personal feelings of achievement, but going one step farther. While a feeling of achievement speaks more toward a specific goal or accomplishment that we feel proud of, the sense of empowerment that OCR brings builds into a stronger sense of self-confidence and “self-constructed identity,” which is a much broader concept. The empowerment is what happens when you take the positive vibes of the achievements you make and use them as the foundation to build a stronger sense of identity and who you are, and you feel like you can define who you are for yourself. This is especially prevalent among some women who go out on the course competing with men (whether or not the weights are the same) and realize they are strong, independent women. Regardless of what may have happened in your past or struggles you have gone through: training/competing in OCR and getting through a race, and taking ownership of all the obstacles, is an extremely empowering experience. It is also empowering because it is an experience that is all your own: this is the phenomenon encapsulated when we hear thousands of men and women say “I do this for me” and what they mean is regardless of the multiple shared identities many of us have (you are a father, and an overworked employee, and a brother, and a husband…or a wife, and a busy mother, and a daughter taking care of ailing parents) this is one arena of your life that is 100% for you and that is an empowering feeling. The last area I have seen the empowerment concept come into play is with older athletes: OCR is a great way to empower people of all ages by showing them “I still got it.”
- It’s Addictive: This might be pretty straightforward, but in case it’s not, OCR can be a pretty addictive sport. For the reasons above it is great for personal fitness and promotes a healthy lifestyle, but beyond that it also makes people feel good for all the reasons of personal satisfaction outlined, and the social aspects of social proof/positive reinforcement mentioned in the “Sociological/Community Motivators” section. Basically, once people start it and get entrenched in the culture surrounding the “OCR Lifestyle,” they get hooked! Several OCR series have opportunities for participants to “level up” by running multiple races per year: for example Spartan Race has a “trifecta” which can only be earned by running at least one of each of their main distances (the Sprint, Super, and Beast) in one calendar year…unless you actually want to get a special trifecta medal, in which case you need to complete at least two trifectas in one calendar year (and the trifecta medals increase in size with each subsequent trifecta). Savage Race has fewer events per year than Spartan but they have a similar incentive: their signature Syndicate medal is only available to participants who race at least twice in a calendar year, with add-on pins for each state where they race. The popularity of social media accounts like @medaladdict and proliferation of vendors selling medal displays like Marathon Medal Displays both exhibits and reinforces this “OCR Addict” concept. On a more literal level, OCR can be seen as “addictive” due to the makeup of the athletes themselves: I cannot explain this fact or provide any statistics aside from the anecdotal evidence I have collected over the years, but it seems that a lot of participants who come to OCR have a history of some kind of addiction, or have lost a significant amount of weight, or have had some other kinds of major health issues. It may be in part because since the sport is more welcoming to fitness “newbies” (for reasons outlined above) and so it is the perfect opportunity for those looking to refocus their life in a positive direction emphasizing a healthy lifestyle. I can say on a personal level that this is partly what happened to me: as I mentioned earlier, the opportunity to compete in an OCR gave me a new, healthy goal to focus on and a challenge to work toward which had a hugely positive impact on my recovery. Then once all the positive feelings and endorphins kicked in, plus the positive reinforcement from others and wanting to continue to “collect” as many medals as possible, the rest was history.
Welp...that's the best list I can come up with after 6 years racing and countless of conversations with other racers discussing our "why." From the 63-year-old grandma of five to the newly released army veteran, there are SO many different motivators that continue to attract new athletes to the sport and keep them here. I am grateful for all it has done for me and my life, and look forward to seeing what the future holds.
What's YOUR why? How has it changed over the years?
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