Down But Not Out

I arrived in Holland with mixed feelings and after a weekend of racing I left with them too but for different reasons. Arriving I was apprehensive of the new obstacles I was going to be facing knowing that there would be a huge amount of technicality involved but at the same time I was confident in my ability to compete and was expecting to do well, partially in my age group division.

The main event would be the standard distance course on the Saturday which was 15KM where I was against my fellow 30-34 year olds. I had also entered the short course race on the Friday which was just 4KM where I was going in the elite race against all the very best obstacle course racers in Europe. I saw this one as a bonus where I had nothing to lose and I was planning to use it to test out some of the obstacles ahead of Saturday.

Along with my wife and two children I flew from Luton to Amsterdam early Thursday morning then made the one hour drive to Biddinghuizen. We were staying in a theme park which was ideally situated just a couple of miles from the event location on the same road. I nipped to the venue on Thursday evening to have a quick look round and register. This confirmed my original thoughts as lots of very technical obstacles that I’d never done were in view. I was unusually nervy but excitement was my overriding feeling.

When race day arrived it was a little different to normal as although I was first wave to go off it didn’t start until the afternoon (1pm) and I had very little travelling time. I got there in plenty of time and watched the opening ceremony but the first thing I noticed (you couldn’t miss it) was the daunting low rig which had been set up slap bang in the middle of the event village. I remember thinking that it looked ridiculously hard and it wouldn’t be long before I found out just how true that was.

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It felt great standing on the start line amongst some of the very best in the sport including triple world champion Jonathan Albon who described the start perfectly in his own racing blog:

“One of the craziest starts to an obstacle race I have seen. After just 20 meters of running we hit a steep bank which dropped down into a waist deep ditch containing reeds that were taller than me. Charging through these we quickly made a U turn and dived back in. After some nine repetitions, we were finally away and running.”

I had managed to get through unscathed and after a crawl that followed I took up a good position amongst the top twenty before jumping into a river and wading under a bridge. This allowed for a little rest bite from a snappy early pace. Once I’d clambered out of the water I picked up my pace speed and got passed a few people before the obstacles arrived thick and fast.

I ticked them off one by one. Some I’d experienced before but many I hadn’t. So far so good. Just before we came back into the event village area I counted ahead of me as everyone was still in fairly close contention. I was in 14th place.

I cruised across yet another set of monkey bars and hanging rings then reached the Samurai where I was stopped in my tracks for the first time. This was a row of poles which you had to traverse across without touching the tops of or the floor. I jumped on confidently but slipped straight off. I tried again with the same result. The metal was wet as there had been some rain and I just couldn’t purchase any grip whatsoever. I took my gloves off and jumped to the highest point I could reach and made my way through. Job done and on to the next obstacle. I hoped that this would be the last of my troubles but little did I know it was just the beginning.

Next up was the ovals. As the name suggests this was three metal oval shapes suspended in the air that you had to get from one side of to the other. They moved as you worked your way along them and the gap between each meant a long reach was required. I just couldn’t seem to get my positioning right to get close enough to grab the next one and spent so long there that not only did I completely lose my position but also the majority of my grip strength. Eventually the marshals said that the few of us who still remained could use our legs to help us across. This still took several more attempts but in the end I made it and was on my way.

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This is probably a good time to explain the rules of this race. Like most championships a band system was in place. You had to complete every obstacle in order to keep your band. You could have as many retries as you wished but fail and your band would be cut and you would then automatically be placed behind anyone who finishes with their band irrespective of time. A further ten minute time penalty was given for each obstacle not completed after your band is cut.

By now the racing was over for me so all that mattered was that I could keep my band. Next up was the spinning wheel monkey bars. This was another one I’d not done in the past it required a technique I wouldn’t normally not have an issue with. It was a different story at the time though as my lower arms and fingers were giving up on me. Again, after several goes I made it across.

I knew what was next, it had been starring me in the face for the entire time I was at the previous obstacle. It was time to attempt the low rig. This was a succession of different hanging objects such as vertical and horizontal bars, balls, rings, upside down T shapes and a wheel all suspended just a couple of feet from the ground and you had to get the whole way across without touching the floor or any of the scaffolding structure.

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Let’s just say I spent some time here and when I say ‘some time’ I mean hours rather than minutes. Yes, that’s right, hours! Just over two if we are being accurate. A mixture of stubbornness and sheer desire not to give up came over me and I tried, tried and tried again. I built up quite a following from marshals to supporters and fellow athletes all willing me on to accomplish it but almost every time I tried I reached the same place roughly three quarters of the way across before a combination of lack of technique and lost of grip strength got the better of me and each time I hit the sand below with a thud.

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My family were there from start to finish encouraging me and after a while I felt I’d reached the point of no return and just had to get the job done. I felt like if I didn’t do it eventually then all the time I’d taken would have been a waste. I don’t think I’ve ever been as determined to do something in my whole life. I never thought a silicon wristband would mean so much to me but what it represented became everything that mattered.

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Eventually my arms, which had now been screaming at me for what seemed like an eternity, wouldn’t allow me to reach the point I had been getting to repeatably and I kept getting my feet caught in the straps that secured the holds leaving me hanging upside down helplessly. I was getting really close to doing myself some serious damage and I still had the following days race to come. It was also getting late, I was cold, wet and completely physically and mentally drained. There was now hardly anyone else on course and the cut of time of three hours was fast approaching. I had no choice but to accept defeat and reluctantly I gave up my band. Dejected I ran the final kilometre with no motivation left to complete the final few obstacles but did get passed the easier ones. I crossed the finish line with a feeling I’d never experienced before in running or obstacle course racing.

It’s a strange process to receive a giant medal when you feel as though you’ve failed but with the amount of effort I’d put in maybe I’d actually done more to earn this one that ever before. Later that evening my wife told me that without knowing it I’d taught my 8 year old daughter the most valuable lesson of determination I possibly could and that she came away with the best example of ‘never give up’ attitude. Hearing that made me feel a whole lot better and although my upper body was in tatters and my hands a mess I’d lived to fight another day and I was going to give it my best all over again come Saturday.

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I woke up the next morning feeling tired and stiff. To add to my upper body pain my leg muscles were sore and tender. This wasn’t from the running but the amount of time I’d spent hanging from them on the low rig. I was a little concerned but I knew a decent warm up would help cure the problem. My finger however had swelled up like a plumb and there was little I could do about that. I stuck a blister patch around it for a bit of padding and hoped for the best.

I’d never stood on a start line as beaten up as I was but as soon as we set off adrenaline kicked in and I was back in competitive mode. We went the same way as the previous day but the reeds had all been flattened. This exposed more of the swampy water but I had a good technique of jumping most of the ditch then using my momentum to land and step straight out. It seemed to be working and every time I ran up another one of the hills I was overtaking more people eventually getting into the top five places as we moved on.

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The next few hundred meters followed the same route as the short course but when we jumped in the water this time it was a right turn to get out. It wasn’t long before we reached a 1KM sandbag carry. I was in fifth place but almost immediately moved into third. I felt as though I kept a pretty even pace throughout but just after the half way mark two different runners went past me meaning I was back where I started as I dropped my bag and ran on.

I didn’t take long to regain those positions though with another running section to follow. Just as I overtook the guys from Belgium and Poland who had been so strong with the sandbag a competitor from Norway ran up along side me. We had a good battle exchanging between third and fourth for a while with the first two seemingly out of touch.

We moved back towards the event village taking in some of the remaining technical obstacles that were left out of the short course. This would be the first test for my finger and I managed to nail all of them at the first attempt. Then came the ovals which I’d struggled with on Friday but to my surprise I flew straight across.

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A long tire carry followed shortly after involving plenty of obstacle to negotiate along the way. It was during this that we merged with several other waves so I completely lost track of my position. After this and during a hugely tough weaver, that I was really pleased to get the better of, I lost a fair bit of energy and I knew it was going to be a long slog from here. This was confirmed when cramp struck me in both hamstrings as I was traversing a rope across a lake.

Back in the event village it was time to try to get through some more of my nemesis’s from the short course. First up was the Samurai poles. They were wet on the Friday but it had been raining for the majority of the race on Saturday so it was even tougher. This time however the marshals were allowing people to hold the tops of the poles which made things easier.

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Then came the spinning wheel monkey bars. I slipped off on my first attempted but once I’d composed myself remembering the relaxed approach I’d taken when finally making it across yesterday I was able to complete it.

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Now came the real test. It was time for the low rig again. Before the race I had reassured my family that I wouldn’t be spending a silly amount of time at any obstacles today. I would give everything a good go but if I couldn’t do it I would accept that and move on. After spending all day at a race I’d predicted would take approximately 25 minutes yesterday I’d promised my kids we’d be going to the theme park in the afternoon today. I wasn’t going to break that promise. First attempt I slipped off before I’d given it a proper shot so I joined the short retry lane queue for a second go. This time it was the same story that I was all too familiar with but my hands were already in a bad way so I called time on it there and then, had my band cut and moved on leaving that obstacle behind until next year. It had well and truly beaten me but I will be back for revenge. Stronger and better prepared.

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Then came the wave hanger which was a floating board above head hight that you had to use only your hands to shimmy across. This was literally 10 meters on from the low rig and I’d arrived here the day before with nothing left. Today I flew through it like it was nothing.

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A slightly longer run brought me to another new obstacle, the UFO. This one looks really simple but is far from it and was the culprit of the majority of lost bands from the previous year’s event. Basically it’s a rope climb with a multiple sided board attached three quarters of the way up making it really tricky to negotiate. There was also the addition of a one minute sand timer which you had to turn around yourself before you began and that’s how long you’d get to complete your attempt. I was actually feeling pretty confident about this one but it didn’t take me long to realise at this point in the race I just didn’t have the strength in my arms that was required and for some unknown reason the leg technique needed to climb a rope often brings on cramp for me meaning multiple attempts just wasn’t an option, especially when I’d already lost my band.

Following this was the Stairway to heaven. This is a ladder type structure which you have to climb from the inside using arms only. Yesterday I’d made a feeble attempt at this one so I wanted to give it a better go and using the muscle up technique I managed to get all the way to the top but found the reach across to start the descent to be too far and fell down. I joined what was the longest queue I’d seen over the two days for another go and noticed that the retry lane had an extra beam at the top of each side making the reach shorter. Once it was eventually my turn I again made it all the way up and time time completed to midair turn but as soon as I started to come down I slipped and fell. I wasn’t prepared to queue up and wait again so took another 10 minute time penalty and ran off.

After a couple of high wall climbs I was at the Ranmageddon rig. This one was just hanging rings which a traverse bar in between. This is the type of obstacle that wouldn’t normally faze me but after so many upper body and grip strength tests one after another I certainly wasn’t my normal self but did get almost to the end before like a lot of my failures today, the combination of severely reduced grip and the wet weather got the better of me. I did fancy another try at this one but again the queue was too long.

It was now a case of mostly running in the remaining two miles with the bulk of the final obstacles towards the end. I could still get my legs going at a good pace so pushed on and overtook quite a few people on the run alongside a river then around some fields. Yet more hanging rings and monkey bars awaited along with a quarter pipe, a muddy uphill crawl and something completely different which involved moving a heavy block a set distance using a sledgehammer. The only obstacle I didn’t complete during this section was another weaver but this time you could only go under each rung.

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The 51st and final obstacle was clogs combo. It was a climb, a clamber over a suspended cargo net, more hanging rings then a horizontal plank with wooden clogs attached which you had to swing from. This wasn’t easy but it was the last obstacle before my racing weekend was over so I was determined to complete it and that I did.

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I crossed the finish line feeling a lot better than I had done the previous day. I still hadn’t accomplished every obstacle but I’d made a good go of it. I hadn’t given up when I’d lost my band and for well over half way I’d made a good race of it. I’d done all this with a battered body from the start which was confirmed when I took my gloves off to find my numb hands were bleeding from blisters. This event had literally taken blood sweat and tears. I go away with a lot to work on, lessons taught and learned and a experience I’ll never forget for both good and bad reasons.

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