The Gift of OCR

Photo Credit: OCR Nation @ocrnation

Obstacle course racing has been the greatest gift in my life.

A child from a broken home, I grew into a women full of insecurity. At a young age I began to hate my body and developed low self-esteem via “situational osmosis” from an abusive household, and by listening to and observing my mom; watching her shame over her own body germinated thoughts of inferiority, insecurity, and self-hatred in my own mind. Upon the onset of trauma in my teenage years, I developed an eating disorder as a mechanism for escaping reality.

As with any addiction, my life was not my own for many years; I was enslaved by daily urges, shame, and blinding emotional pain that was self-induced. For nearly a decade I battled myself…abusing my body, pushing away those that tried to love me, and allowed the sand of my hourglass to waste away through my depression. My initial journey into athletics originated not from a place of health, but a place of darkness; I ran to obtain a physical image, not a state of being. I despised my body type, convinced that my weight was the measure of my self-worth. I felt powerless in my addiction, and I feared that I was not strong enough to regain control of my life.

Finding myself at the start line of my first Spartan Race in 2015, I was terrified: I did not belong there, I was too weak, and I was not good enough. Approaching each obstacle on course that day, I was intimidated and the familiar feelings of inadequacy bubbled in my gut. Thoughts swarmed in my head: What if I cannot do this? What if I fail? What if I have been right about myself all along? Slowly, I worked my way through the five miles, attempting each obstacle to the best of my ability, completing penalty burpees when I failed, and continuing to move forward in spite of my fear. Crossing the finish line, I was humbled by my inability to climb a rope, complete monkey bars, and maneuver over the 8 foot walls. My body was covered in scrapes and bruises, and I was exhausted.

Driving home from the race that day, I had a profound experience. I checked the results on my phone and found that I had placed in the top 10 of nearly 1,500 women in the open heat of racers. I was overcome with emotion to the point where I had to pull my car over as I sobbed uncontrollably. Even though I had doubted myself, wanted to quit, and was so afraid, I hadn’t allowed the chains of my eating disorder to impede my ability to achieve. For the first time in my adult life, I felt powerful.

As I continued to compete in more and more obstacle course races, I slowly began to break through the self-imposed barrier that I had built between my mind and the actions of my daily life. I changed my perspective to focus more on my health and fitness as a means for building strength, rather than as some sort of punishment for not looking a certain way. I learned to fuel my body for performance, instead of depriving and hurting myself for the sake of my weight. I started to embrace my body type for my natural inclination to build muscle and my ability to perform in athletics. I also began to work on my mindset to break my patterns of negative self-talk, learned helplessness, and limiting beliefs.

As I developed as an athlete, I grew as a person. While I focused on elite performance in obstacle course racing, I blossomed from the inside out. Competing in races became my passion and it transformed me. Each race makes me better: the demons that I conquer in my mind on course builds my resilience; every failure that I overcome makes me more confident; and every finish lines brings me closer to recovery from my addiction.

Obstacle course racing has been the greatest gift of my life, because it has given me just that. I am no longer the ghost of my past, hollow from the pain of my insecurities. Through my experiences on course, I have gained a sense of self that has carried me through heartbreak, loss, and triumph. I am no longer a victim of addiction; I am a survivor that is powerful enough to take on any obstacle.


Winning Isn’t Everything

Photo Credit: Savage Race @savagerace

Merriam-Webster provides a definition of “winner” as the “one that is successful” and as “a victor, especially in games and sports.” By the limitations of the English language, there can only be “one” technical winner in a given situation. In individual sprots, there will always be one overall winner; the individual that could out-perform the other athletes that showed up that day. For obstacle course racing, the winner would be that singular competitor that could run and complete the most obstacles the fastest.

The pressures of our society coins phrases such as “if you are not first place, you are last place,” “second place is the first place loser,” and “winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing (Vince Lombardi).” By the literal definition, our language limits the judgment of our performance, daring us to believe that if you are not the winner or victor of the competition, then perhaps you are not successful. Essentially, the interpretation of the word “winner” means that unless you are designated as the overall victor, your performance may be without merit, excellence, or success. As a habitual third to fifth place finisher in competitive obstacle course races, I decided to re-evaluate my definition of “winning” and to alter my perception against the constraints of societal norms.

To me, “winning” does not necessarily equate with how I perform against external competitors and athletes; winning is a term to define how I perform against myself, as well as how I allow the experience on course to shape and develop my character. To me, winning means putting in the full effort and mindset of victory, even if my finish line ranking falls short. Obstacle course racing (OCR) has taught me that I can still be victorious, I can still be successful, and I can still “win,” regardless of my final placement in an event. I have learned that the only way that I can “lose” is within my own mind: when I am unable to withstand the challenges and I choose to give up on myself. My victory is defined by how I confidently persevere through the obstacles and terrain; my ability to continue to pick my feet up in spite of pain and doubt; and how I use each failure or mistake as an opportunity for learning and growth. For one athlete, “winning” might mean that they successfully complete the monkey bars for the first time in a race, or attempt an obstacle that they previously feared. For another, “winning” could be defined as simply being brave enough to start, or the life-changing accomplishment of crossing the finish line of a race.

Through my years in OCR, some of my most significant and proudest finishes have not been races where I was crowned first place, or even made it to the podium. Some of the most profound experiences that I have encountered are the events where I refuse to succumb to self-defeat and I win against myself: when I fight back against the voice in my head that is taunting me to quit; when I am able to complete an obstacle that previously kept me stagnant on course; and when I am able to overcome my own demons to cross the finish line. Most of the race performances that have developed my mindset, taught me important lessons about myself, and built my confidence are events that have resulted in “sub-par” finishes by the standards of our language and society.

This article is not intended to dissect the English language or to try to change the general view of “winning vs. losing,” but to encourage people to approach obstacle course races (and life) under their own terms. My intent is to help dissolve the black and white thinking that can easily categorize us as “losers” and devalue our efforts, based on a comparison of ourselves against others. The way that you approach your performance in life and the mindset that you choose serves as the lens in which you perceive and evaluate your experiences. Every day, you can make the intentional choice to live in the grey area, outside of the pressures and conformity of what others may define as your path to success and winning; this is your life, your journey, and you get to decide and define your own victories.

Merriam-Webster also provides an interesting definition for “losing” as “to fail to gain.” Interpreted, this means that as long as you gain, then you can never lose. Simply put, the choice is yours: regardless of your placement in races, in your career, in your finances (in anything), what did you gain? Did you gain in knowledge, confidence, experience, or ability? Did you walk away from life’s finish line empty handed because you were not crowned as the victor, or did you choose to gain, learn, and grow from your experience? Whenever that answer to the latter is “yes,” that is when you win.

The Power of Letting Go

water crossing 2
Photo Credit: Spartan Race @spartanrace

In a Spartan Race, you get one attempt at an obstacle; if you fail, you are not granted a second attempt…you must step aside and do 30 burpees before you can move forward. Needless to say, this can be very difficult. There are no second chances, no redemption, no opportunity for a “re-do.” Once your chance has been taken, it is over. Stepping aside to the “burpee zone” to complete your penalty, your mind can swirl with thoughts: “Where did I go wrong? If only I had one more chance, would I have completed the obstacle? I wish I could try again. I made a mistake. My competition was able to complete this, but I could not. I really messed up…I am a failure.”

It can be easy to surrender to these types of thoughts, allowing yourself to replay the attempt and use the failure to fuel a negative thought train. As your body fatigues during your set of burpees, your mind can lose control in this downward spiral of “what if” and “had I only” scenarios. Reliving your failure, asking questions…distracted from the present moment and replaying the past.

Once you have failed the obstacle, it is failed…there is no going back. Obstacle course racing has taught me the importance of letting go and moving forward. If I stay stuck with replaying the failure scenario in my head, if I continue to focus on something I cannot change, I impact my ability to perform my best in the present moment. If I want to move forward and be successful for the rest of the race, I have to be willing to let go of what I cannot change; I can only control right now, this step, the conscious decision for forward momentum. If I keep my concentration fixated on the failed obstacle behind me, my mind is not clear and open to the possibilities of success that may lay ahead of me on course. By living in the past, my thoughts are weighed down by the negative thoughts, which can become a heavy mental burden to carry as I continue forward on foot. Moving forward, without the weight of my past failures, requires the intentional decision to let go of what cannot be changed.

I am grateful for my experience in OCR and learning to accept the failure, complete my penalty, evaluate for next time, and move on. The decision to move forward and live in the present moment, despite failures, is the key to success in any aspect of life. Reality is simply a string of present moments, on and off of a race course. We cannot always control the failure or event, but how we choose to react and respond is entirely within our control. Certainly, it is important to pause and reflect on the failure, to learn from the mistake for bettering ourselves in the future. But one must pause, reflect, and then let go to move forward.

This scenario is relevant in all areas of my life. While I may not have to complete penalty burpees for failures in work or relationships, there are generally consequences that must be endured. When mistakes happen, when I am wrong, or when things do not go according to plan…I am back on that race course. The burpees or consequence may happen, but my choice to learn from my mistake, persevere, let go of the past, and continue onward in my journey is mine. It is a powerful choice that I get to make, and it ensures that success and contentment are entirely within my own control.

So whether your failure is a missed spear throw, mistake at work, wrongdoing in a relationship, or any other circumstance, remember that you get to choose how you react and respond. The potential of your success depends on how willing you are to let go of the past, live in the present moment, and move forward into the future.

Life is Heavy, So Train Your Grip

Photo Credit: Spartan Race @spartanrace

Obstacle course races are full of uncertainty, just like life. Weather, terrain, course layout, obstacle design…there are so many unknown variables that athletes encounter on race day. We conquer treacherous landscapes, engage in physically demanding tasks, and we face doubt and fear as we navigate our arduous surroundings; racers trudge through mud, climb hills, exert ourselves on complex obstacles, and we carry heavy weight for miles.

Obstacle course racers do not train and prepare for ideal, predictable situations; we train to be prepared to endure imperfect and uncertain conditions on course. To succeed against the mental and physical demands of a race, we approach obstacles with the mindset that they can be accomplished, rather than focus on any thoughts that they may be impossible. Obstacle course racers simply choose to accept the difficult circumstance, silence their excuses, and find a way through the obstacle. When the sandbag is heavy, we use our shoulders and necks; if the trails are muddy, we take deeper and more deliberate steps; when the monkey bars are wet and slick, we adapt by tightening our grasp around the bars, by using our elbows and arms. Through obstacle course racing I have learned to not give up just because I approach something unexpected or challenging. Instead, when a race courses give me something heavy or difficult, I simply choose to accept the situation, tighten my grip, and move forward.

Face it, life is heavy sometimes…and it can be really hard. Our lives are full of heartbreak and uncertainty that is entirely out of our control. We lose loved ones, fail at our goals, become injured, make mistakes…you name it. While we cannot always control the weight of our circumstances and the heaviness of life, we can control how we choose to carry it and how we allow it impede our forward progress. Just like learning to overcome uncertainty on a race course, we build our tolerance and ability to overcome the unexpected obstacles in our daily lives.  We can develop our mental muscle (our “mental grip”) to be better prepared for handling life’s difficulties.  Our mental grip is the way that we approach, interpret, and experience situations; essentially, it is our “handle” on the reality around us. When we use our mental grip, we are not stopped in our tracks by hardships or obstacles; we simply adapt, tighten our grasp, and find more effective and efficient methods for carrying our heavy burdens. Tightening your mental grip means approaching life with a positive mindset, resilience, and mental fortitude…regardless of the circumstances.

Just as we train our bodies to flip tires, carry sandbags, and maintain a tight grip on monkey bars, we can train our mental grip to more proficiently manage the heaviness and obstacles that life throws at us. Like the physical training for races to enhance endurance, agility, and speed, we can train our minds to adapt and become stronger against adversity and uncertainty. Building mental grip comes from confronting old demons from the past, forgiving others that have wronged you, learning to let go of failures, and having realistic accountability conversation with yourself. This also means liberating ourselves from self-sabotaging habits, healing from addictions, or leaving relationships that no longer serve us. To be successful, we must approach our situations rationally and honestly, as well as consider alternate perspectives and solutions to our problems. Just because the rain came down to dampen our surroundings does not mean that our situations are impossible, it means that we simply need to grip tighter, try another way, or learn to endure through the difficulty with more tolerance.

Mental muscle is built when you intentionally do the work underneath the surface to examine your current method for carrying stress, take accountability for your own negative mindset, and examine ways to improve your capacity to carry life’s heaviness. Training your mental grip is just like the physical training component of obstacle racing; to develop this “muscle,” your focus and energy must be deliberate, consistent, and continuous. Self-improvement and growth is a never-ending process that is full of honest self-evaluation, pro-active change, and forward momentum. You must be willing to take action and make purposeful changes in your daily life to form new habits; these habits will be the foundation in which you build and improve your mental grip strength.

Obstacle course racing has taught me that I cannot expect to control or avoid all of the uncertain and inevitable circumstances of my life, but I can choose to approach, experience, and overcome these obstacles more effectively and more peacefully. Life is going to drop heaviness on me at times, obstacles will present themselves…and they will likely be slick from the mud of life. There will be situations that may push me to my breaking point and may threaten my foundation of thoughts about myself and reality.  My journey will lead me on a rocky, muddy, and difficult paths – trails that lead me through failure, doubt, loneliness, and fear. But by re-adjusting my mental grip on the situations, by choosing to focus on positive, forward movement, I can overcome any obstacle or heaviness life presents to me…and there is no finish line that I cannot conquer.


Taking the Rocky Trail

Photo Credit: Spartan Race @spartanrace

Obstacle course racing has changed my life. Racing has taught me the impact and significance of mindset in my approach to overcoming adversity and finding peace in the present moment. Competing in obstacle course racing has been the catalyst that has initiated my journey in pursuit of my best self. The self that does not fear failure, the self that does not give up, and the self that seeks out opportunities to push the limits of my comfort zone.

When we overcome adversity, we build mental strength and resilience. Traveling difficult paths in life makes us tougher; to me, obstacle course racing is a tangible manifestation of this metaphor.  When we take the rocky, steep trail filled with obstacles, we encounter not only physical challenges, but the obstacle of overcoming our own fears, doubt, and negative thinking; these are opportunities for mindset growth.

So often, we fear the rocky trail because we will face resistance and we are exposed to the possibility of failure, disappointment, and loss. Obstacle course racing has instilled a hunger in me for these paths of high resistance, these chances to push myself further. Racing provides the landscape for me to transcend the walls of my comfort zone, transcend the place where I feel safe from failure. Obstacle course racers know that the most beautiful destination for our mindset growth is that raw, exposed land outside of our comfort zone. That open, dark place where we go when our body and mind enter the unknown; that place where the only light available is the torch that you choose to carry in your mind. In this dark place, we build our mental fortitude and our ability to approach negative experiences with our torch of confidence, fortitude, and resilience.

For me, each race is a chance to travel that rocky road that leads to growth and character building. Standing at the start, the miles and obstacles between me and the finish line are opportunities to experience a path of higher resistance. It is the opportunity to expose and humble myself to the distance ahead, knowing that failure is possible. I surrender myself to this rocky path, because that very potential for failure is the catalyst for my growth and transformation. When I conquer the fear and doubt in my own mind on course, I triumph. It is not my speed and excellence in performance that defines my victory, but my conquest over negative thinking and the limits of my comfort zone.

The lessons learned on an obstacle course go beyond physical developments, and are applicable in how we face difficult challenges and adversity in our relationships, jobs, families, and daily encounters. When we overcome obstacles on race courses, we also learn how to overcome obstacles in our lives. Racing develops our ability to brighten and illuminate our mental torch as we travel difficult and rocky trails. As the light of our torch strengthens from overcoming obstacles, so does our confidence and ability to observe these challenges through mindfulness and awareness; we can now see them clearly as obstacles, and not stopping points in our journey. No longer are we in the darkness of our fears, no longer are we blinded by the demons of our mind.

Obstacle course racing has changed my life: my torch, it blazes now. It shines brightly and leads me through adversity and difficulty; it lights my path as I approach obstacles in my daily life and in my mind. Each time that I triumph over myself, I become a better and brighter version of me. My wish for the world is to give the gift of this light, this fiery magic that is found in the moments when we are most with ourselves on race courses. My wish for the world is to shine bright against adversity and hardship, to progress towards the enlightenment of our own torches. My wish for the world is to change lives, one obstacle course race at a time.