Barefoot Monologues

A Journey of the Sole


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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.

spartan

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.
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Two Half Marys and a Spartan Sprint: Re-motivating.

This has been an eventful few days for me, as far as this whole running endeavor goes. On Sunday, I ran the Boston Athletic Association 10k race. It took place in Back Bay, went for a spin around all the gardens and traveled up and down Commonwealth Ave. It was quite novel to run red lights in the middle of the Boston streets, and awe-inspiring to see all the celebrity elite runners gazelle-ing it past us in the opposite direction toward the finish line. Pretty race, not so pretty performance on my part. It was humid, and I’m discovering that after all that winter training I’m not much for running in the humidity right now. It was also at 8 o’clock in the morning, a time of day that I almost never run. Oh, and at mile 3 I did something stupid: I ate 2 Gel Bloks – which I’d never tried before. About a mile later my stomach let me know she wasn’t having any of it.

All graphic details aside, I didn’t finish as fast as I wanted to. I finished about 15 seconds later than my last 10k, and both my running partners finished over a minute before I did (which, in my mind, means that I should have run at least that much faster). So I was somewhat disappointed in my performance, but it’s okay. I got my t-shirt (B.A.A races always have the BEST shirts!), my cool medal to add to the collection, and had a great time with a couple of awesome chicks who love running as much as me (the pumpkin pancakes and beer at the Pour House afterward weren’t so bad either).

Another thing that happened that day is my very close friend Kathy inadvertently reminded me that I have some half marathon training to do! We are both running the Smuttynose Rockfest Hampton Half on October 2nd, and her official first day of training was Sunday. Excellent. Except I’m also running the Rock ‘n Roll Providence Half Marathon way before that…on August 2nd.

Which means I have (drumroll)………………

SIX WEEKS to train for it. Yikes.

That would normally not give me the least bit of worry, my last long run before this weekend was 8 miles so I’m on track. But my performance on Sunday tells me that I need to majorly work on speed and endurance, especially in the humidity (of which there will be an abundance on August 7th). So, Monday morning I pulled up the “Hal Higdon’s Half Marathon Training Program – Intermediate” and figured out where I ought to be. Now, let me say that I don’t actually believe in following these plans to the letter. I like to use them as a sort of guideline, a way of knowing what might be expected of me to do well. Turns out I’m expected to have run a 10k last weekend (check) and 16-19 miles this week, with a 9 mile long run on Saturday. No big deal.

um.

It’s important to point out that I’m sort of training for TWO half marathons. Knowing that this first one in Providence will likely be satanically hot and therefore quite slow, I may just consider it an extra-fun training run for the second race (a flat ocean-side course in nice, COOL October), which I hope will be a PR-maker. So – I’m going to try and run three days midweek instead of my usual two, for interval training. I like intervals, fartleks, hills. They add total suckage to the current workout, but it’s amazing how much they help later on.

So last time my peak mileage per week was 20. This time it’ll be more like 23-25. Still not a crazy amount in relative terms, but I think it’ll do. My biggest worry is recovering mentally from the first race in order to prepare for the second one. It took me over a month to get back into gear after April’s half. It could have had a lot to do with the crushingly busy season at work and the subsequent week-long business trip, but also a bit injured so it was difficult to get back on track. Hopefully I’m stronger now and will have less injuries as I go through training (IT Band, don’t fail me now!)

And then there’s the third thing: Today I signed up for the Spartan Race, which will take place three weeks after the Providence half marathon. The Spartan Race is in the same vein as the Warrior Dash. My friend Kathy has dubbed it “the race for people who don’t run,” which is fitting since most of it actually consists of things like crawling, climbing, swallowing dirt and dodging tires, not even running. It sounds fun, kinda badass. It means I’ll need some upper body strength (of which I currently have none…I mean come on, I’m a runner!), so it will motivate me to take more lunch breaks in the weights section at the gym. So, hopefully I will avoid injury at the Providence half. But more importantly, I hope I don’t injure myself at this thing – because the Hampton Half is kind of critical now so I don’t want to screw it up with this goofball race. I’ll just have to be careful, I guess.

But I can’t pretend like it won’t be fun to smoke my guy friends who are running it with me. That’s right, smoke ’em like salmon.