BY NATHAN OLIVER
We got into OCR to push ourselves, to overcome obstacles set in front of us, to get stronger and faster than we were last year. Once you’ve done the annual Tough Mudder for three years straight, once you’ve got your trifecta, once you’ve podiumed at your local mud run, what’s next? For those determined not to plateau, it’s not enough to keep the bar set at the same height with anything involving our training and races, and that includes the races we choose.
Below is my list of obstacle course races that every true OCR fanatic should experience. It's a bucket list of races that will help spur you to take that next step from local legend to international racer.
- Disclaimer1: This is my list, but I encourage you to create your own.
- Disclaimer 2: The numbers are to keep count, but they're in no particular order of preference or awesomeness.
- Disclaimer 3: Don't miss my honorable mentions at the end.
#1 RUGGED MANIAC - THE BIGGEST LITTLE OCR
If it’s good enough for Mark Cuban to invest serious money, it’s good enough for my small registration fee. Rugged Maniac is a fantastic, but smaller OCR put on by a fun and invested staff. They’ve got a lot of the same stuff that your bigger OCR events have, but the smaller size has its advantages. Check-in is easier; the obstacles aren’t as crowded; and you may even get a chance to stand on that podium at the end of the day. But unlike a lot of smaller OCRs, Rugged Maniac doesn’t skimp on the essentials. The staffing is adequate, meaning no hour long wait at the parking lot entrance because there’s only one gate attendant. The festival area is lively and fun, helped along by an energetic DJ. The medals are large and well designed. The course photos are fantastic. In fact, I’ve gotten some of my best action photos from their courses.
Ok, ok...all of that is great, but what about the most important part of an OCR race - the obstacles? The obstacles in Rugged Maniac are some of the best I’ve seen at smaller OCR events. Even their slide obstacle, “Accelerator 3.0,” is solid enough to know your safe but steep / fast enough for a wild ride. It's not something you get with your everyday OCR.
One of the other great aspects of RM is that the cost is not prohibitive. If you have a friend that is thinking about starting to race and he or she doesn’t want to spend a hundred dollars to check it out, RM races start at fifty bucks. My only regret with Rugged Maniac is that they only offer the 5K format, but this race is hard to beat for a smaller OCR.
#2 SAVAGE RACE - THE ENTHUSIASTS’ FAVORITE
If you took a poll of their favorite races among OCR enthusiasts, I guarantee that you’d hear the name Savage Race quite a bit. This race series only takes place in the Eastern Half of the United States, but those who’ve experienced it quickly decide to make it a regular part of their season. The obstacles are the crown jewels of the race, and the race follows a similar penalty format as Tough Mudder - there’s no penalty exercises, you have to finish every obstacle if you're racing competitively. If you can’t get through one, you must surrender your band and aren’t eligible for an award. And some of these obstacles can get pretty tricky, especially the grip-focused ones because one thing Savage race doesn’t skimp on is water. There are dunk walls; there’s water in the crawls; water beneath the hanging obstacles; there’s water on the incline walls and slides. It’s everywhere. If you like getting dirty and less of a technical race (although plenty of these obstacles are technical), Savage Race is a great race to try. Now, will you guys bring it out to the West Coast for the love of God?
#3 GRIT OCR - SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA SUFFERFEST
This OCR is a local race to Southern California, but it blew me away as one of the best races I’d ever done. It is well run and organized, the obstacles are great, and it feels like a hidden treasure that only the local family of Southern Californian athletes really knows about.
I spoke with Antonio Alletto afterwards, and the race director was so excited about what he had helped create. You could just see the passion for building races surging through him. When you race Grit OCR, it shows.
This race has a couple different lengths, named the Fang and Claw courses, run on two separate days. There is also a ruck division for those who want to challenge themselves further.
While the course feels intimate, it certainly is not easy. The more difficult Claw course provides 8+ miles of hills with 1300+ feet of elevation, but it’s the carries that are the real standouts of this race. Yok’d, the race’s “signature carry” involved using a piece of speed rail as the yoke with a cinderblock chained to each end. In fact, one of the most difficult sections of an OCR I’ve ever done was on this race: A bucket carry up and down a steep hill bank about 20 times, followed by an extremely brutal double gas can carry and then “Potassium”, a multi-rig that used smooth bananas that were impossible to grip, especially since my hands were wrecked by the gas can carry.
All of this is just to say that the course was extremely well thought-out to make each section compound the difficulty of the next one. This one is worthy of a SoCal racecation.
#4 WORLD'S TOUGHEST MUDDER - THE NAME SAYS IT ALL
Call me Captain Obvious, but no OCR bucket list is complete without inclusion of World’s Toughest Mudder. It is a true sufferfest! The goal is to get through as many laps of the race as possible 24 hours. Though it occasionally travels, WTM has a legacy of epic weekends in the Nevada desert and hosting some of OCRs biggest names. Rea Kolbl, Amelia Boone and Ryan Atkins are all repeat winners.
Like the other “Mudders,” World’s Toughest seems to delight in pushing humans in sadistic ways that few other OCR races come close to. This is the racing company that dares you to run through dangling, electrically-charged wires. The frigid temperatures of the dunk walls are bad enough in the daytime, but when the night hits, it takes on a whole new level. A little advice to those who want to attempt it - bring a wetsuit.
One of the best aspects of this format is that you can pair up with another teammate or three and take on the course in a relay style. I’ve brought friends to races, and we’re always closer afterwards. Doing a 24 hour race in the Nevada desert will build a bond that will last the rest of your life.
Another plus is that the event village is huge. There are pit areas for all the athletes and teams along with food trucks, firepits, and spectators to make for a huge area buzzing with the excitement and comradery for which Tough Mudder is known.
#5 RED BULL 400 - FAST AND FURIOUS
I know what you’re going to say - how can a race that lasts less than 20 minutes and has no obstacles be on a bucket list for OCR? Well, it’s a 400 meter “sprint” that goes up a ski jump ramp. So, there!
Firstly, I think the fact that most of the race is done bear crawl style, nearly climbing up the 400 meter is more OCR than trail race. Also, the last portion of the race is a wood and metal structure that turns the race into a ladder climb. If you have to use your hands, it stops being a running race, case closed.
The winners can do it in under 5 minutes but the average racer probably needs just a bit more time. That's alright. You have plenty of time to train as the 400 doesn't hit the U.S. every year. When it does, register as early as possible.
The RB400 deserves to be on this list because there’s no race like it in the world. It may not be the longest time you’ll ever spend on the course, but it’s likely the most painful 400 meters you’ll ever spend on one.
#6 TOUGH GUY - THE ORIGINAL
Why do the race directors of the toughest races always have a pseudonym? Like “Lazarus Lake, ” the cigarette smoking charmer behind the Barkley Marathons, the creator of Tough Guy also took a nom de guerre: Mr. Mouse.
Tough Guy claims to be the oldest OCR, having started in 1987; so just being able to say that you’ve raced on the oldest OCR course certainly makes it worthy of your attention. However, if esteem isn’t what you’re looking for, Tough Guy also brings its share of torture.
Just finishing this race without losing some digits to frostbite should earn you some bragging rights. Tough Guy takes place in Staffordshire, England, at the end of January. So, before you even attempt the obstacles, you’re battling the cold conditions. If cold weather is a deal breaker, you can try the same course in the summer under the moniker “Nettle Warrior.”
The race begins with a cross country run through the bogs of Staffordshire before entering a gauntlet of obstacles dubbed, “The Killing Fields.”
What’s particularly interesting about the race and Mr. Mouse’s approach is that he puts a tremendous amount of care into the reasoning behind doing the race. To Mouse, Tough Guy is about living and growing. It's about facing death in the face and screaming back. This guy is a warrior poet, as you can read from the Tough Guy website:
In all historical disaster when materialism has gone, fear sets each group in a concrete form to join the journey into the unknown...We reach a point where fear joins the world of materialism we are leaving behind, together with the serene and beautiful world of death. Death is beautiful, we are gazing at wonderful things, there is no pain. Love is to pledge, to give, to go forward to infinitesimal giving of love.
In a OCR world full of WWE-style machismo theatrics, it’s nice to know there’s a race that strips all that off and focuses on how the brutality of being nearly broken can set you free.
#7 SPARTAN - KILLINGTON/BIG BEAR - THE BEASTS OF THE EAST AND WEST
Another race with a ton of history is the Killington Beast in Vermont. In 2010, inspired by the Death March race that he co-founded, Joe DeSena brought the first Spartan Race to the public at the Killington Ski Resort. In the last 10 years, the race has stayed true to itself. The course starts with a climb up a mountain to gas you right out of the gates, but it’s the water section that is legendary. The swim is usually freezing cold and probably the most difficult part of the race. More people DNF here than nearly any other section. A friend of mine once nearly quit from hypothermia, until Joe himself screamed at him to do burpees to heat himself up (BTW - it worked, and he finished). If you really want to Spartan up, this is the race to do it.
If Killington is the “Beat of the East,” then the “Beast of the West” is Big Bear, CA. Robert Killian told me that it was the hardest US course he’d ever run. Having slogged my way through it, I can personally attest to its difficulty. I chose Big Bear as my first beast precisely because it is such a challenging course. I wanted to push myself to the absolute limit. Not only are the hills steep beyond belief, but the altitude plays havoc with your breathing - you just can’t get enough oxygen. The course regularly features 5K feet of elevation gain to go along with the 13+ miles and obstacles. At least there isn’t a water traverse? What’s great about both of these races is that the entire small town of Big Bear comes alive with racers on the weekend of the race. If you’ve got any brains, you’ll want to get there a couple days early to soak in the town and acclimate yourself to the altitude.
#8 ORC WORLD CHAMPIONSHIPS - THE TRUEST TEST
OCR World Championships is a race series that everyone should do. However, unlike your typical race, you have to earn your spot by finishing in a top spot in one of the qualifying races. For Spartan this means coming in the top 25 of Age Group or the Top 5 of the Open heats. If you want to race in the more prestigious Elite heats, you’d need to place in the top ten spots in the Elite heat of that Spartan. That being said, there are a lot of qualifying races besides Spartan. There’s also a team relay and a 5K Charity Open that don’t require qualification.
One of the cooler ideas from OCRWC is that it’s not just about a multi-mile race. They have a 100m, 3K, and 15K distances to choose from or race them all.
OCRWC alternates between North America and Europe every year. Those who have been have nothing but glowing reviews. The festival area is amazing, the swag is insanely cool and well designed, but the biggest draw for most is the obstacle design and selection. OCRWC borrows some of the best obstacles chosen from other races like Conquer the Gauntlet’s Stairway to Heaven, Indian Mud Run's Floating Walls, and the car jump from City Challenge Race. It’s somewhat of an honor to have a race’s obstacle chosen, but OCRWC also designs their own. They are difficult; they are well thought out; and they are worthy of the title, “World Championship”. Besides these other aspects, a lot of athletes really enjoy representing their country at the races and getting to mingle with people from all over the world that enjoy the same sport they do is not a bad way to spend a weekend.
#9 SPARTAN AGOGE - LIFE ALTERING PUNISHMENT
Agoge is like nothing else on this list. It is a punishing sixty hour test of endurance. I’m not even sure you can call it a race, it’s more like a set period of time you have to survive. Each Agoge is different in it’s challenges, but you can bet that they’ll all be extremely difficult. They each also take place in a different location all over the world from Iceland to Mongolia to Nambia. The goal isn't just punishment, but to help focus and hone your body and mind in a 3 day sufferfest. Spartan hopes that at the end of the Agoge, it will strengthen four core aspects of your life - Purpose, Commitment, Resiliency and Knowledge.
“Survivors” (there’s really no other way to describe them) of the Agoge say that it is focused on team accomplishment - complete strangers become quick friends. The athletes are forced to push themselves to their limits and trust in their fellow Spartans. That may sound far-fetched and fanciful, but when you’re huddling up in an igloo in the arctic tundra next to a fellow Spartan who’s been through the sh*t with you for the last fifty hours, I think it’s likely your perspective changes.
#10 HAWAIIAN SPARTAN TRIFECTA WEEKEND - JURASSIC PARK
OK, so this one is a little different than the other choices. It’s not the Nevada desert, or the arctic tundra. It’s one of the most vacationed spots in the world, but can you really call it a Hawaiian “vacation” if you’re running up volcanos and grinding through burpees? While it’s not going to make you fight the extreme heat or cold, the Hawaiian Spartans are no joke either, especially the Beast.
One of the coolest things about the Hawaii Spartans, besides running through some of the most beautiful terrain in the world, is that you’ll run through Kualoa Ranch, which has been the location of huge Hollywood films like Jurassic Park and Jumanji. Most likely, you’ll be running through a pile of gigantic dinosaur bones and past a thirty foot skull from Kong: Skull Island.
If the scenery isn’t enough to warrant consideration for your bucket list, there’s another factor at play. Before you can feel completely satisfied with your OCR career, you need to do all three Spartan distances in a single weekend, don’t you? What better place to do all three courses than a Hawaiian paradise? Just make sure you schedule some serious R&R on the beach to recuperate after those two days of redlining.
Don't waste your time telling me I left out some great ones. I don't doubt it one bit. I've heard nothing but amazing things about Conquer the Gauntlet, and Indian Mud Run is legendary. I can't wait to try Battle of the Lions, and it looks like all of the major player are turning into beach Vikings for Hildervat. I'm just sharing my bucket list and hope we might cross paths as you pursue yours.
By design, this list is always changing - as I tick one off, I'm looking forward to adding more to it. Races can be a lot of things to a lot of people, and I hope this springboards you into thinking about the races you wanna chase. See you out there!
This article was provided by guest author, Nathan Oliver. Nathan has served on the Spartan Media Team, worked on the television program "Spartan: Team Challenge" for NBC, and has been a professional writer for 13+ years. Nathan would love to hear more about the races you love via his Instagram. Say "hi" when you see him at races, and reach out directly with future article ideas.