Author (left) at Spartan Super SoCal
"Blessed is he who expects nothing, for he shall never be disappointed." ―Alexander Pope
"What time is it?" I asked another athlete at the halfway point of the Spartan Race Ultra Beast a few weeks ago.
"Almost noon," he replied.
Wow, I thought to myself. It's been four hours and I'm only halfway into a race that I thought would only take me 4 or 5 hours to finish. Reset expectation. Keep moving.
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Triathlons are about the "known" and certain. You know what to expect:
- You know the order and distance of each leg of the race.
- You can preview the course.
- You swim in a lake or pool on a course marked by big, bright buoys, bike on paved roads (unless its Xterra), and run on a reasonably flat course (usually).
- There are volunteers to show you where to go on race day and volunteers at aid stations to hand you water, sports drink, and sometimes even gels and other foods.
Triathletes have a reputation for being Type A creatures who are dedicated and focused to their training and racing (I know, I’ve been a triathlete since 1995). I also remember missing quite a few social events during my Ironman training days, telling my friends, "I've got to get my workout in!"
The downside of being so focused and rigid is that sometimes we're not prepared to deal with the unexpected when it happens during a race. For example: your goggles come loose in the swim; your heart rate monitor or power meter battery dies; you drop your water bottle; or you flat.
More: What to Do When Things Go Wrong at an Ironman
On the other hand, obstacle courses and mud runs, like the Spartan Race and Tough Mudder are more about the UNknown. You never know what to expect. You may know the distance but that could be deceiving depending on the obstacles you encounter. And you won’t know the exact course ahead of time. You might find yourself running on dirt trails, crawling through culverts, running through dry, rocky stream beds, scrambling over sand dunes, or trudging through waist deep water.
The bottom line is that triathlons and obstacle course runs are completely different experiences. So, why should triathletes do an obstacle course or mud run?
Because learning to adapt to uncertainty and the unknown on race day is the key to maximizing your performance in triathlon and other endurance sports. In several studies where the physical, technical and mental readiness of Olympic athletes was assessed, only mental readiness significantly predicted performance.
If you can conquer the uncertainty and unknowns of an obstacle course run, then you will be better equipped to deal with minor frustrations and obstacles that may arise in triathlon, such as a flat tire, a dropped water bottle, rainy weather or hot temperatures.
What better place to practice those mental skills, while tossing some fun to your training, than in a Spartan Race or other obstacle course run? Besides, what else are you doing this offseason? Running 5Ks, 10Ks, half marathons and marathons may get boring. No obstacle course run is ever the same twice plus you can travel to warm places like Southern California, Phoenix and Miami during the winter.
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Personally, after more than 15 years of racing triathlons, I needed to find a new and exciting challenge. Obstacle course runs fill that need and help keep me fit and motivated when triathlon season is still a long way off.
Come step outside your comfort zone and give obstacle course races like Spartan Race, Tough Mudder, Rugged Maniac and more a try. Just like tri, there are a variety of distances that range from approximately 5K all the way up to marathon (Spartan Race Ultra-Beast). Keep in mind that you need to have some physical strength to pull yourself up, over and through obstacles, but these events are still very much running races, too.
Have fun and be prepared for anything.
More: 6 Tips to Get Ready for an Obstacle Course Race
Search for an obstacle course or mud run.