Obstacle Races

Claire Maxted has plenty of races under her belt from road running to trail and mountain events, and adventure races to triathlons. So, surprisingly, this is only her second foray into obstacle race fun. She is editor of Trail Running magazine, the UK’s only bi-monthly dedicated to off-road running.  Read more articles like this in Totally Active Magazine.

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Wading through ice-cold water, slithering under barbed wire, climbing mud-caked walls and getting zapped by bits of electric fence in a pastime known as ‘obstacle racing’ used to sit on the fringes of society. Everyone knew one legendary friend of a friend’s mate’s uncle who had done one of these painful exercises in self-flagellation, most famously the original Tough Guy founded in 1987, but not many had actually risked an obstacle race themselves.

POV footage of Tough Guy The Original 2015 from Tom Littlewood

Fast forward to 2013 and suddenly 205,000 Brits, from built-up gym-bunnies to besuited office-workers are crazy about throwing themselves through the muddiest field race organisers can find, hauling and crawling over awe-inspiring obstacles like the Bog of Doom, Drainpipe of No Return and Death Slide and posting their superhuman feats on Facebook. Obstacle Course Racing (OCR) now has its own magazine, the 2016 OCR World Championships is at Blue Mountain, Ontario, Canada this October and the current World Champ is Jon Albon. The best racers will qualify for the Standard Distance (15k) and Short Course (3k) events by competing for top places at selected events like Warrior Dash and Spartan Race. Today you risk being the odd one out if you haven’t done an obstacle race. So we tackled the 10k Avalanche Run…


There was a scream, “Arrrrrrr!!!!!!” Then quick gasps for breath as we plunged into the first lot of icy water. Note here the word first, this was only the beginning of the Avalanche Run, 10k on forest-edged all-terrain vehicle tracks and round muddy fields in Market Harborough. Wading, thighs on fire, chest-deep in brown sludge, our faces contorted into grimaces, then grins as we numbed up. My friends Becky and Olly helped each other out. Skidding about and laughing like loons, we ran fast to warm up on weirdly amputated stumps of legs because our feet were now totally numb.


As editor of Trail Running magazine, I’m always splashing through mud, clambering or leaping over natural obstacles, stiles, puddles, sheep, etc. But as more people turn to obstacle races, (some like the Spartan Death Race with the teeth-chattering strapline, ‘You May Die’ )I wanted to see how tough OCRs really were. I was about to get one hell of a surprise. For someone who’s no stranger to freezing their feet off on remote mountain marathons, long-distance adventure races and the Bob Graham Round (65 miles over 42 Lake District mountains), I found out that I’m actually one hell of a massive moany, shivery wimp on a 10k obstacle race in winter!

Let’s just say, the running was the easy part. I run three times a week, so that side of my training was pukka. I also do a bit of climbing, weekly yoga, and strength and conditioning most mornings so the towering obstacles were brilliant fun. Muddy hills, cargo nets, scaffolding, walls and tyres, we waited for each other, shouted support and Olly, an ex-Para, helped shove us over the higher walls. The camaraderie involved within both your own little OCR team and anyone who comes past who shouts encouragement or gives you a hand up is a fantastic part of these races – well, save the time a man accidentally trod on my frozen finger on the tyre climb.


The hardcore part was the freezing water. Tonnes. Of. It. You’d just warmed up with a run and then another muddy, rock-lined tunnel, plunge pool or 100m of watery ditch. If it had been maybe June, this would have been wonderful, but in February it turned my legs to numb stumps and hands into throbbing, painful blocks about as useful as frozen ice lollies. On a trail run I deal with that familiar, intense agony of fingers feeling like someone is pulling your nails out by running a bit faster, putting on more clothes and getting dry, but we kept meeting more obstacles, and being re-doused in freezing water!

Fitness, no problems, mental strength to put up with agonising frozen hands on a winter obstacle race? Debatable! I ended the race on a high, sliding down a fireman’s pole into some hay and as I shivered in the goodie bag queue, I heard a girl say, “It was so fun, I LOVED it, you can see why people get addicted to these.” She’s right.


  • Strong plastic bag ESSENTIAL!!! For all your muddy kit at the end of the race. Forget this at your peril if you value the eventual resale of your car. And take a spare too in case it rips, or in case someone else in your car has failed to think ahead.
  • Complete change of clothes Sounds obvious, but after being covered head to toe in wet winter sludge, your end of race fight against hypothermia depends on peeling them all off (that’s assuming you can with your blocks of ice for hands), bung them in the above strong plastic bag and re-dress in warm, comfy clothes.


  • Obstacle race cape Loads of smug-looking, experienced OCRs were swanning around in these fleece-lined robe/capes on after the race and they looked rather wonderfully warm and windproof. I’d definitely invest in one of these if OCR was to be my chosen sport. You can get changed while wearing one too.
  • Grippy neoprene gloves Especially for winter OCRs, a well-fitting pair of grippy neoprene gloves is a life-saver, in fact, a wearing a tough, whole body wetsuit would be a good idea if you’re the type of person who really feels the cold, to trap a layer of body-warmed water against your skin.
  • Grippy shoes Mud, mud, mud, and then more mud, is the name of the OCR game, so if you want to make forward progress rather than slithering about and falling chest-deep in freezing water, get off-road shoes with the pointiest lugs you can find, like a rubber version of a football boot sole.


Chief UK ambassador for Icebug, Conor Hancock, 22, Sheffield:

“I’ve always enjoyed exercising and competed in many sports before finding Obstacle Course Racing (OCR),” says Conor. “Back in November 2013 I raced Spartan Beast with no expectations, finished 3rd and was hooked! I love that OCR is competitive, but muddy fun for everyone whatever their fitness. My training includes running, circuits, kettlebells, boxing, swimming and cycling. I’ve won nearly 20 major OCR races, including the inaugural UK OCR Champs 2015, and Tough Guy Original January 2016. I came 8th at the first ever OCR World Champs, then came 4th last year.”

  1. OCR has a massively friendly community and the best way to get yourself involved is to visit the website www.muddyrace.co.uk. Here you will find all the latest news, training help, kit advice, upcoming OCR event listings, and there’s the opportunity to link up with like minded obstacle race enthusiasts too.
  1. Mix up your training between running and gym work for both leg and arm strength. My main sessions are running-based, with circuit training and kettle bell sessions to boost my upper body strength. Vary your training to avoid boredom and injury with cross-training like cycling, swimming and boxing.
  1. Learn and practice the best techniques for standard obstacles like ropes, water and walls, so you can get round faster, and avoid injuries. Various experts, coaches and race organisers offer training days and you can see the best way to tackle obstacles in the Icebug Race Team videos.
  1. Get the right kit – wear grippy shoes for the slippery obstacles and mud. Technical t-shirts are better than cotton ones for their moisture transportation and quick-drying properties for hot, sweaty and wet OCRs. A pair of sports socks with elasticated support and heel and toe cushioning pads guard against blisters too.
  1. Get yourself signed up for an OCR event near you straight away, no matter what level you’re at – go for a 5k option first. In training, try not to just focus on running, try to have more fun and incorporate bodyweight exercises like burpees into your run. You won’t regret it!



The Suffering

12 Mar, 25-26 Jun, 29 Oct

5k, 10k, 10miles

‘Be your own hero’ in this hugely popular race around Rockingham Castle, Leicestershire; a massively fun challenge through mud, water and hills with Reapers…volunteers who dish out more suffering!

Dirty Dozen

16 Apr, 9 Jul, 20 Aug

6k, 12k, 18k

Big obstacles from roped challenges, barbed wire and watery depths, designed by the in-famous ‘Beard’ to push you to your absolute limits in south and east London and south Wales.

Nuts Challenge

5-6 Mar

7k, 14k, 21k, 28k

A 7k Surrey assault course open for training sessions all year, race day sees you crawling through mud, water and climbing obstacles for 1-4 laps depending on your ‘Nuttie Scale’.

The Wolf Run

Summer Wolf: 11-12 Jun Autumn Wolf: 3-4 Sept Winter Wolf: 5-6 Nov


Spring Wolf has already sold out but, with three more chances to run with the pack this year, you can climb, jump, wade, crawl and swim around their testing 10k courses.

This article is a feature piece from Totally Active, a completely interactive online magazine written by active people for active people. Totally Active are on a mission to push endurance to its limits, to help readers achieve their potential, whatever the sport or activity. Totally Active have brought some of the world’s foremost endurance, performance, nutrition and fitness experts together in a publication which informs and inspires readers to go to the edge, to break boundaries, and to succeed. Read more articles like this at Totally Active today.