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Featured Review: North American OCR Championships 2019 – 3K

Last year, my one and only goal was to have 100% obstacle completion at one of the races of the NorAm OCR Championships. I did it on lasts year’s 3K, in what remains probably my happiest moment as an athlete. This year, going into NorAm, I knew things would be different.

Thus far, 2019 has been the year of the ultra. The bulk of my training has been focused on running long and slow. It’s taken a lot of time and, most importantly, energy. That means I have been less intentional about my OCR training, I’ve run fewer OCRs, and it shows. Where I used to feel fluid and light on obstacles, things now feel a bit more effortful. I’ve lost my sense of flow.

With a good sense of where my training has been, I knew I had to be realistic about NorAm OCR Championships. I wanted to have a strong showing, but 100% completion seemed to be a stretch for where my OCR-related fitness was relative to the obstacles that NorAm was promoting on their social media. I believe strongly in goal setting and having those goals drive your planning (and, naturally, the implementation of that plan). NorAm had been a goal for me, but it was a lesser goal, in some ways, to trying out new things in the ultra running world. So now I have, and I’ve realized that OCR is my true love. I am going back to it as my main focus next year and my training will change accordingly. But, of course, we are still left with this year. What was success at NorAm going to look like with my fitness focused more on running long over swinging with strong grip?

In race goal setting, I am a fan of having A, B, and C goals. Of course my A goal was to keep my band and complete 100% of obstacles, but I knew that was aspirational. For my B goal, I wanted to get through an obstacle I didn’t think I could. I have been focusing time on mental training this season and goal B would allow me to put that mental training to use. When you have to try an obstacle again and again, there can be pressure and you can get out of the zone. I wanted to stay focused. Goal C was to have a good time. We do sports for fun — I certainly don’t make my money this way. After 2019 NorAm in all likelihood will move from Stratton, Vermont to who-knows-where, and I wanted to enjoy the experience since I might not be able to afford travel costs next year.

NorAm OCR Championships has a qualification system where athletes have to compete in their age group at a qualifying event earlier in the year and place well. I had qualified at Bonefrog Boston back in September. (For athletes who are not as fast, there is a journeyman qualification that rewards people who race frequently.) My 3K age group was set to start at 9:45 a.m. with the heat being divided up with sets of eight athletes going off at a time to make sure the short course didn’t get overly crowded. I decided to come in for the race first thing in the morning since Stratton is only 1:45 from my home in Western Mass. Registration, where you get your bibs and t-shirts, is a snap at NorAm day-of, and I knew I would have time. Before my wave started, I was able to register, drop off stuff in my car, check my bag, and take a moment for one last mental training session before heading to the start line. As a note, the t-shirts for 2019’s NorAm event were tech shirts instead of the former Next Level cotton blend. I tend to prefer the latter, but I will try wearing the NorAm shirts to the gym once or twice to test them.

The women 30-39 wave was the second of the day. We were running about eight minutes behind schedule with the men 30-39 wave taking a bit of time to get out (probably due to its large size). I was hoping to not spend too long in the starting area, so when it opened up, I went and got in line right away, making it possible to be in the second group of eight ladies to cross the start line. I was joined by some of my favorite fellow NES members and even had the pleasure of both starting and finishing with Niki, a great Spahten buddy and fellow team relay member (of team Tiny ^2 + 1).

At 10:00 a.m. we crossed the starting line to tackle the 3K course. The course started with a brief  climb. The total elevation gain was around 515 feet, much of which I think we got in the first climb and the Wreck Bag carry (obstacle four). The initial climb spread us out a bit (and reminded me of how much running on flats I had been doing — I’ve done fewer hill repeats with my current training for sure). The first obstacle was a basic 8′ wall with some small steps to make things pretty manageable.

Valkyrie was up next. The obstacle was an a-frame with rings hanging underneath. I had seen this obstacle previewed on the NorAm website. I actually felt okay about my chances with this obstacle going into the race because the reach seemed reasonable, and, indeed, I could reach. On my first attempt, I made it to the penultimate ring basically doing one-handed pull-ups to make my way along. Unfortunately, I didn’t make the last ring, slipping off, and ended up down on the ground. (Note: Valkyrie goes up really quite high but the padding underneath the obstacle was top notch — much appreciated.) I was tired from my efforts but wanted to do my best and made a number of attempts on Valkyrie. Unfortunately, after about a half dozen tries I decided it was best at this point to move onto my B goal and cut my losses with the idea that I could do more obstacles if I didn’t entirely gas myself on this one. I was also not feeling entirely 100%. I was sluggish and a bit heavy. I gave up my band, and, while last year I would have been devastated, this year I felt okay. My mental training had given me the ability to be present about focusing on the next task, and my self-awareness about my training allowed me to realize that my A goal might not be a 2019 option.

The course had racers tackle a 6′ wall before heading over to the Wreck Bag carry. Athletes of all sexes were required to take a 50 pound bag. It was heavy. It was a sufferfest. It hurt. I was glad to take the bag off my shoulders and drag it under the Wreck Bag crawl. Getting it back up was another story but after a while I got it up and made my way down the hill to drop off the bag with relief.

Next up was La Gaffe, an obstacle that featured a set of pipes you had a to climb and made lean from pipe to pipe. I like this obstacle, having enjoyed it at OCR World Championships in 2017 and at NorAm last year. It is challenging and unique. As long a it’s not wet it’s something I can usually accomplish. It took a few shots, but I made my way through.

We went from La Gaffe to Underdog. I was feeling pretty ‘bleh’ at this point in the race. Underdog was a rig that started with a rope to a hanging cargo net to some monkey bars. The reach from the net to the higher-up bars was a bit more than I could handle at the moment. This was a rig that I should have been able to nail no problem (and in fact did the next two days), but I was a little out of it. I walked away and took a moment to catch my breath. I wanted to get rid of the slightly nauseated feeling I had. I took a breather and headed over to Skull Valley.

I took some breaths and started to feel a bit better; things were not going great, and I wanted to reset. Next up was Skull Valley. The set-up had you starting on some skull-shaped grips before moving to a set of pipes and then along another set of skull hand grips. I actually got a good sense of flow on this obstacle — perhaps some of the best so far this season — and made it through on my first pass. I was pleased. Things were turning around, though only for a little bit. I made my way to the next obstacle.

Gibbon was a highly technical obstacle and arguably the hardest of the day if you hadn’t encountered it before. The obstacle required racers to take a peg and in insert it into a grip to make your way along — think moving monkey bars. Again, I had watched this on the NorAm social media channel. This obstacle was hard though. I had no success with getting beyond the first grip and was still feeling a bit unwell. After several minutes, I moved along.

The course headed back uphill through a set of crawl jacks. I think all racers were pleased that the wire between the jacks wasn’t barbed. At the top of the mountain was Stairway to Heaven, an a-frame with stairs racers had to climb from underneath using only their fingers. I lost my band on Stairway at NorAm last year, though I had no problem with it at OCRWC in 2017. The first step started extremely high up and getting started was a struggle. My grip was fairly tired at this point and my work on Stairway was not ideal. Like I said, I had nailed Stairway at OCRWC in 2017 when I felt like it had stairs a little lower down to get you started, and I can reliably do the obstacle at some other races. The exact details matter.

For the last eight obstacles (42%) of the course I had no failed obstacles. I tackled the Rope Wall, which was actually a bit slippery with an oddly placed rope but do-able. Next were the balance logs where racers had to walk a set of up and down balance beams then doing a rope traverse-style move under a log and a final flat beam. It was, in the end, easier than it looked.

Little Foot was the next obstacle. It was somewhat like a traverse wall where you had to move your way along foot holds. Instead of a wall, there were beams that were angled toward the racers, which you could wrap you legs. This obstacle seemed fun enough and didn’t offer too much trouble.

Toward the end of the race the obstacle density was high. I jogged over to the obstacle over under. This obstacle had racers slide a long a metal pipe then switch to going below a pipe with hand and foot grips before again transitioning to being above a pipe. It was a bit awkward going from below to above but, again, totally do-able. The best part of almost all of these obstacles is that they were quite different from what a racer might see at their standard weekend event. The variety, difficulty-level, and innovation displayed in the obstacles at NorAm really sets it apart and challenges racers.

Twisted Swiss was next. This obstacle reminded me of one from Savage Race, though this version was from City Challenge. There were hanging metal boards with holes cut in them, much like Swiss cheese. You would transition from board to board with some sets of rings in between. I finished the obstacle and saw a racer fall off it hard onto her arm. Fortunately she was okay and the end was in sight.

Here I would like to add a bit of feedback I received from some volunteers when I posted on the NES Facebook page mentioning I was doing a review. I came upon a fellow Spahten at Tricky Swiss, and he was doing A+ work. It sounds like being a volunteer on-course had some challenges. Two experienced volunteer mentioned that they were not given as much instruction as would have been helpful for their volunteer roles. Here is a quotation from a volunteer working at the farmer’s carry on Sunday.

I arrive to find a bunch of sandbags and no instructions. Didn’t look like there was a difference between M / F, presumed 1 bag each hand (it is a farmer’s carry after all); so far I could make assumptions based on my experience. Then there was the camera guy, set up (in his words) to get people coming down the hill. This assumed a clockwise rotation but again – nobody told me. I had to ask and eventually got it confirmed that the camera guy was in the wrong place; that they were going counterclockwise.

A similar story was echoed by my teammate at Tricky Swiss.

I was at Tricky Swiss, and there was some confusion as to what parts of the rig the athletes were allowed to use. Originally we were told that any surface on the boards were in play, but when approached by [a race official], he told us they could only use the holes, not the tops or sides of the boards. We called out a few athletes for this, and made them reattempt the obstacle for grabbing sides and/or tops of the boards. NorAm staff came by later and then said that all surfaces of the boards were in play. I am not sure if this affected the outcome of the results at all, but I can see how it could.

I mention these two bits of feedback for one reason — NorAm cares about the experience of everyone who engages with their brand. My experience as an athlete at the 3K was top notch. I am always so appreciative of our volunteers, so I’d like to think that anything we can do to make their experience top notch too should be encouraged. I also know NorAm is very diligent about making sure that everyone has the same chances on each obstacle. Clarifications for volunteers sounds like a key piece of that.

Back to the race.

We ran toward the main area of the ski resort village, taking time to slide across two cars for Car Jacked. The last main obstacle loomed, Urban Sky. The current configuration featured two side ways trapezes, which rocked side-to-side, to three wheels at various angles and then a final set of two sideways trapezes. I failed this obstacle quite a few times but was determined to keep trying. I had made this obstacle sometimes in the past and not others. I wanted to make it now. I was focused on my B goal and doing well with as many obstacle as I could. I was finally feeling more like myself and was not dizzy at all. I had a bit of a rhythm going. My friend, Niki, met me at Urban Sky. “One more time,” I said, “Then we go to cross the finish line together.” This time, I made it all the way through. I actually missed ringing the final bell by an inch but for someone who lost their band making it through was good enough.

Niki and I ran over to The Wall, a last slip wall with a rope at the top. In wet weather this obstacle is killer but in the dry weather it was a snap. We made it in our first try and then ran across the finish line to collect our medals.

The 3K NorAm race was a challenging course. I didn’t feel my best the entire time and didn’t hit all my goals but I had fun and tried things again and again, challenging myself even after I lost my band because I wanted to. I played. I saw Adrian Bijanada, the creator of OCRWC and NorAm Championships at Urban Sky. “Are you having fun?” he asked. And you know what? I was.

Do I wish I had done better at NorAm 2019? Of course! That being said, I am glad to have had some back-up goals that I was able to attain. I’d love to have access to a good OCR gym, which I don’t have so super close to me, so that I can train for races like this instead of encountering new obstacle on race day. In the meantime, I’ve purchased some Force5 grips to bring to a playground near me for training. As I’ve mentioned, my training this year has moved away from OCR to endurance running. It’s been an adventure, but, if anything, NorAm reminded me that I want to return to focusing on OCR as my main sport. It’s what I love doing.

NorAm and OCRWC are the Olympics of our sport, certainly OCRWC is. It’s a great privilege to complete at these races and try your best. I am not sure where NorAm will be in 2020. If it’s close, I would love to go again and try my hand with a season of OCR-specific training behind me. That goal alone is a testament to the fantastic event that Adrian and team put on. I am looking forward to tomorrow’s 15K with curiosity and expectation.

(Note: A huge thanks to all my fellow NE Spahtens who provided awesome pictures for this post.)

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