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Obstacle course racing (OCR) is the latest mass participation sport enjoying exponential growth around the world.

Obstacle Course Racing

Where strength, endurance and fun meet!

Obstacle course racing (OCR) is the latest mass participation sport enjoying exponential growth around the world. Started as a sport in the seventies in England, where they did an annual obstacle run called the ‘Tough Guy’, OCR really took off in 2010 when the Spartan and Toughmudder obstacle races launched in the USA, with over a million Americans registering for and participating in OCR in 2011.

The sport is more closely related to military-style obstacle courses that are used to test and familiarise recruits with the sort of tactical movements they’re likely to engage in during combat. These obstacles have since been adapted, and have evolved in many instances, into the more common obstacles participants encounter today.

These events generally combine running (or walking) with different obstacles, from monkey bars, rope climbs, swings and wall climbs, to mud pits, tunnels, river crossings and platform plunges into icy water, among many others.

The factors that seem to be driving the rise in popularity of the sport, other than the challenge itself, are the fun and group participation elements, for the amateurs at least, and the camaraderie that comes from overcoming a series of obstacles together. For the elite athletes it is more serious, with an annual OCR World Championship event already established, where the best from around the world can go head to head to determine a global champion.

This rise in popularity has also spawned a number of race series around the world, with race organisers and route planners applying their unique blend of obstacles and challenges to each to try and distinguish their offerings.

In South Africa the more popular, established events include the Jeep Warrior series and the Impi Challenge – both multi-event series that take place in major centres around the country. A more recent addition to the local OCR calendar is the Spartan Race, with urban-based events like the Urbanathlon offering fringe Parkour-like events.

The biggest, and arguably the most challenging series is the Jeep Warrior Race, which launched in 2013 and now attracts more than 50,000 participants each year, according to Pieter Swart, the co-founder of the event. Swart believes that OCR has become so popular because it’s a sport that anyone can do, “no matter your size, shape or age, and you can do it in teams and have loads of fun with family and friends.”

The Jeep Warrior Race series offers four courses, namely the Brats Race – 1km, 8 obstacles tailored for the kids – a Rookie Race – 6 to 8km, with 15 obstacles – a Commando Race – 10km, with 20 obstacles – and the elite level Black-ops race – 18 to 20km, with 30 obstacles.

The Impi Challenge has also grown tremendously to become an OCR institution in South Africa. Starting out as the brainchild of three young pioneers in search of an innovative adventure that could be tailor-made for the South African market, the challenge celebrated its seventh anniversary in 2015. According to Pieter du Plessis, Impi Challenge director, participant experience will always be at the heart of the event.

“The Impi Challenge is a national event that attracts over 10,000 participants within the three regions each year. What sets the Impi Challenge apart from other events is that it is essentially a trail run that features an adventure-style obstacle course. The event is ideal for participants of all ages and all fitness levels. Although challenging, all obstacles are safe and fun.” A huge highlight of the Impi Challenge is the “best dressed” award, which encourages participants to let their creativity run wild. The best dressed Impi and/or team win prizes compliments of the event sponsors.

The events on offer at Impi events include the Mini – 1km with smaller supervised obstacles – the Dash – 5km with 12 obstacles – the Challenge – 10km with 18 obstacles – and the Elite – 18-20km with 25 tough obstacles. There is also a Corporate Challenge event.

Du Plessis adds that race venues are specifically chosen for their exclusivity and ability to accommodate innovative obstacles that will challenge participants both physically and mentally.

“An Impi Challenge course will always feature loads of fun in the mud, with a good variety of terrain, from jungle sections, to sugar cane fields, awesome scenery, and a good measure of hills. Basically we’ll make good use of whatever is on offer at the selected venue. All Impi events encourage social interaction, with a variety of courses on offer. If competing in the Elite race is not your thing participants can enter the Impi Challenge as part of a team, and we’ll guarantee that you’ll be laughing all the way to the finish. Either way, on completion of the course competitors are left with a sense of achievement.”

A huge draw card of the Impi Challenge is that all events are spectator friendly. Family and friends are encouraged to show support on the day, while soaking up the vibe in the festival village that includes live entertainment, a food village and beer tent. Participants can enter individually or as part of a team (teams vary in size from 2–10 people).

Then there’s the internationally-renowned Spartan race series, which debuted in South Africa earlier this year. Last year Spartan delivered over 130 events in 15 countries. According to the Spartan website, the race originated in “the scenic hills of Vermont, USA” and the series has evolved to include three basic formats; an amateur Sprint event, an intermediate competitor Super event, and the elite Beast event. Each successive iteration is 7-10km further, and each course is filled with mud, water and signature obstacles designed “to help you discover your inner Spartan”. “Our goal,” say the organisers, “is to bring the world’s highest standard of obstacle racing around the world, and we are committed to doing so in South Africa. A full 2015 South African race schedule will be published soon.”

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