Barefoot Monologues

A Journey of the Sole

Obstacle Races and Ultrarunning: A Horrible Match Made in CrossFit Hell?


I started running for real about three years ago. And by “for real” I mean three years ago I announced to the public world that I am a runner, and I did this by signing up for my first race (does that sound too much like I’m comparing my running life to the way more meaningful “coming out of the closet”? Hm. Is that weird? Whatever, nevermind). I started with 5K’s, then 10k’s, and then eventually I moved up to longer races and I have pretty much stayed there ever since. I guess you could say I evolved into a distance runner, or at the very least I found my sweet spot. Which, by the way, is somewhere between “pretty slow” and “fucking really slow.”

But of course, staying anywhere for too long is never enough these days. You’ve always got to be striving to finish faster or go longer. A couple of years ago, while I was still doing my best to pin down a better half marathon time, the ultramarathon snuck up on everyone and became the new thing. Plain old 26.2’s just didn’t cut it anymore (unless you’re a road runner, and I mean, who wants to be one of those? Ugh*). The new standard went that you didn’t know what it was like to really love running unless you’ve run a trail race that’s so long you needed to change your shoes, stop to poop more than once, and consume full meals during the running of it. But once you ran your first ultra, you were from then on deemed an “ultrarunner.” Oh yes, that nifty, arbitrary term that has absolutely no real meaning. And once you’ve earned it then maybe, just maybe, you could even call yourself a real runner. Anything less than that was sorta washy.

So of course, I just had to have it. In due diligence, I completed my first ultra marathon. And then I ran another…you know, for posterity. Did I run them for the privilege of being able to call myself a runner? Maybe, who the hell knows.  After all these years I’m still not even sure where walking ends and running begins, anyway.

But no need to get stuck on all that baloney: because the whole expectation has changed once again. Have you noticed? Now it’s all about the obstacle race. I for one blame the trendy, LuluLemon-outfitted, meteoric rise of the CrossFit workout. Now, CrossFit is all about obstacles. Machines. Heavy weights. Upper-body strength. Anaerobic exercise. Grunting. In other words, being a CrossFitter is the exact opposite of being a runner. And obstacle races, well…from the looks of ’em, they are the CrossFit of races. Or, wait…maybe they’re the race of CrossFitters? Either way they totally confuse me, because 5K obstacle races are everything that a 5K race…isn’t.

I have a handful of friends who make an enormous deal out of “running” obstacle races. I’m happy that they are getting off the couch and being active (even if they are only ever being active as such, on the day of the race). My friends, like most other obstacle race enthusiasts, seem to have taken the act of climbing walls, crawling through mud pits, jumping over small fires, carrying buckets of water, hanging from ropes and knocking down dozens of burpees, and packaged it up into their definition of “running.” As in, “BillyBob and I are running the Spartan race next weekend.” But the message is totally faulty. Because from what I’ve gathered about obstacle races, the skills required to finish them have very little to do with the skills and training required to finish, say, the regular old 3.1 miler. In a 3.1 miler, you run. And you don’t stop, for the whole time. In an obstacle race, what little energy devoted to running is just for the purpose of getting from one obstacle to the next.


So why do so many obstacle race enthusiasts identify as “runners”? Has the obstacle course addict now become the new “runner”? Has CrossFit completely rearranged everything about fitness, encompassed it, right down to our beloved foot race? Have obstacle races taken away the hard-earned and much-coveted, bemedaled glory of the distance runner?

One might say yes, it has. But I reject that, gosh-darn it! Obstacle racers are not, in and of themselves, runners. They are obstacle racers, who participate in obstacle races. They may be strong, they may be badass. They may be able to do twenty more pull-ups than me (which is to say they can do…well…twenty pull-ups). But one thing they can’t do as well as me is train like a distance runner! They don’t spend long hours logging miles on their feet, they don’t obsess about pace and fueling, or sacrifice entire weekends for the long run. I declare that obstacle racers belong to the CrossFit Team, not the Runner Team.

Indeed, if you Warrior Dashers, Mud Runners and Spartan Sprinters want to prepare your bad asses for an obstacle race, you’d be much better off doing something like, oh I don’t know, 100 burpees a day. And then some deep squats. And a lot of grunting, too. You obstacle racers should stay over there with the kettle balls and the chin-up bars, and let us runners keep our race medals and our GPS watches and our useless upper bodies. Guys, there’s just no room for any kind of crossover**. You’re either one of them, or you’re one of us. I mean, seriously, I’ve never met an ultrarunner who does 100 burpees a day for fun. Have you?

(Shut up, Vanessa Runs)

I propose we all henceforth agree that obstacle racers shall call themselves “CrossFitters” (or some preferred variation of), instead of “Runners”. Because with all the man-made, non-runner-friendly contraptions littered all over the course, calling it a CrossFit race is much more fitting than calling it a Sprint or a Run. Or at the very least, if you want a true crossover, you should allow for the individual interpretation of the race by each participant, based on their preference and skillset. I mean, think about it: as a runner, using my very well-rounded*** runner’s logic, I would argue that the best way to complete the Spartan Sprint would be to…well…sprint. Sprint past, around and between all of the obstacles. A real “runner” would never climb over walls because that would just eat up precious seconds from our PR.

So don’t call it a sprint. Don’t call it running. Call it racing, if you must…but it would be even better if you found some other term. Maybe you could just settle on something more accurate, like hustling, or maneuvering. Or how about scampering. I’ve always liked that word, scampering. Nobody uses it anymore. I think we should bring it back.

*Before you get your panties in a bunch, I should let you all know this post is meant to be tongue-in-cheek. Get off the treadmill/rowing machine and laugh, people.
**Yes…still jesting. This is supposed to be fun, no whining allowed.
*** I know what you’re thinking: my logic is airtight thus far.

24 thoughts on “Obstacle Races and Ultrarunning: A Horrible Match Made in CrossFit Hell?

  1. Love this post! Couldn’t agree more.

  2. What’s a burpee? *blaaach*

  3. Um…You just knew I was going to reply here, didn’t you?…:) Very well written…And for the record…I have never EEEEEEVER said I ran the races…I limped, hobbled, dragged, yet sometimes strolled from one obstacle to the next…I leave all that running stuff to you guys…Now if you will excuse me…I have to go life a tree trunk and carry it up and down a hill or rocks that is mud covered while I am set on fire…

  4. Makes sense to me, obstacle courses are not runs. Having said that one of the trail races I did was a kind of a mud run in that it was extremely muddy in spots and we had to ford two small rivers but that’s not really the same.

    I also think its bad to succumb to the pressure to do the next extreme-ultra-whatever thing to prove that you’re a real runner. I’ve done trail races, I’ve done ultra-marathons (actually the same 50k 3 different times) but I’ve never done a trail ultra marathon and I kind of doubt I ever will. Everyone has their own preferences for race type, length etc. and it’s stupid to try and compare someone who likes one sort to someone who likes a different sort. I personally can’t see the point of getting out of bed for a 5km race, especially given that you spend more time waiting around beforehand that you runing, but I know people who travel 100 miles or more to enter one.

    While I do get a bit competitive when I’m in a race, like I said in a comment on another post, the training for a race should be fun*. If it isn’t then really you need to ask why you are doing it. And indeed much the same goes for the race itself. One reason I like running races is that I get to go to different places and see new sights (and eat new foods/drink new drinks …), so while I want to do well I’m not driven to always get a PR or whatever.

    * for certain twisted definitions of fun that may include aches, pains, cold winter rains and severe sunburn

    • Haha, thanks Mas. Truth be told I’m not even really sure I care if I’m considered a “runner” or not. But it’s interesting to consider the implications of whom it matters to in the running world. 🙂

  5. For as many *** as you have here indicating this is a tongue-in-cheek post you seem pretty intent in drawing the line all over the place with definitions. I started running as in your “for real” definition in 2007.

    I completed my first (on a *road* gasp!) 26.2 marathon in 2009, and started participating in mud runs in 2010. I’ve run, yes, RUN, the Warrior Dash, Spartan Sprint, and Tough Mudder. I’ve also completed mountain 20Ks and 50Ks.

    “Eating up PR time” to go over an obstacle is no different than an ‘ultrarunner’ doing the same at an aid station or walking up a steep mountain. Oh and guess what? I’ve never been to a cross-fit session in my life.

    Why can’t running just be fun in all forms? This post certainly seems like it has issues with many forms out there, not sure why.

  6. I have to disagree. Most of my races are obstacle races, from 5k to marathon length and longer, I have never set foot in a crossfit gym and the majority of my training is running. I log between 50 and 70 miles a week. I do believe this qualifies me as a runner. All of these races require a great deal of running and endurance and the elite are all very serious runners. Many of us climb or hit playgrounds to train for the obstacles, and that is a ton of fun. Perhaps you should run a few prior to writing an article such as this?

  7. As a runner who Crossfit’s and runs OCRs on the weekends, this post is quite amusing 🙂 Thanks for the morning chuckle. If you think OCR and Crossfit go hand in hand, have a chat with Reebok – they’d love to figure that out too 🙂

  8. Just so we are aware I think that anyone that laces up their shoes on a regular basis is a runner, wether it be for a local 5k, the BAA Marathon, the Western States 100, or a regional Tough Mudder. As an obstacle racer, as I guess I’ve been deemed, I have never once stepped into a crossfit gym, I have however completed several marathon and ultra marathons. I’ve never read a racing training regimen that does not recommend cross training. I guess I just tend to excel at lifting heavy things up and putting them down. When it comes down to it maybe the title of obstacle racer, like the title of Ironman, just means I’m a little tougher and a little more well rounded. Well I’m off to log my 6 mile tempo run, then bang out some burpees. Gotta be ready for my 50 miler this weekend.

  9. Fucking hilarious. It’s so true that these Obstacle Racers only seem to be physically active on the day of the event. I’ve never heard of anyone actually training for one of those things. Then again, what the hell do I know? I am a RUNNER, damn it!

    • Bit of a generalization, don’t you think? Of course there are those who don’t train for these events — just there are those who walk/jog through a 5k and take home a medal at the end of the day. I understand that this is intended to be tongue-in-cheek, but it completely ignores the class of elite racers who fall into the “runner” category in every sense of the word (many of whom have accomplished backgrounds in more “traditional” events).

      Trail runners, road runners, endurance runners, and sprinters are all universally recognized as “runners” despite the fact that they focus on different areas of expertise. Why should there even be a discussion about whether or not those who like to mix in physical challenges should be categorized under the same label?

      • Being the writer of this article, I know that none of what I said here is worth any debate. However, I’ll clarify that I really wasn’t talking about serious runners who “mix in physical challenges” with their running by signing up for obstacle races. I was referring more to people who sit on the couch for 364 days a year, and then get up and do a Warrior Dash on day 365. Also, this article is not serious. 🙂

  10. Cody Moat is changing this idea. Spartan Racer / 50 Miler winner. All the core work and fast twitch muscle fibers the crossfitters are developing, when applied to running long, can make for a super athlete.

  11. Pingback: Spartan Race Giveaway! | Barefoot Monologues

  12. Spartan Scamper, Hustle, and Maneuver. I’m training for a Scamper. That sounds so badass.

  13. Cute picture 🙂

  14. I can agree totally with your article if you can tell me what the hell it is I’m doing between obstacles because it sure gels like running….. All joking aside I find it kinda cool to separate the two. Saying I’m an obstacle course racer sends a clearer picture than I’m a runner. I think OCR can be a category of running, like triathletes and marathoners.

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