Recently obstacle racing has grown enormously. I remember quite a few years ago sitting with some friends in the pub and throwing around the idea of doing Tough Guy, a race famed largely for the fact it involved real fire. It was back in the days where running a marathon was the highest accolade of fitness for the mortal man, when trail running was simply called cross country.
Nowadays you can pretty much find an obstacle race happening most weekends somewhere or other, there's even a whole magazine devoted to them. I've done a few over the years, the main one being Tough Mudder (you can read about that one here).
However despite their popularity I've always found obstacle races a difficult thing to classify. With normal running races there's a simplicity about them, when you've done one you look at your time and either smile or grimace. With an obstacle race there are so many factors involved that time doesn't necessarily mean a great deal, and with the effect of the elements as well the crowds, two people will seldom run the same race. For me the main reason people do them is a primal desire to push themselves into something unknown, where even with intense training you may come across something you weren't prepared for.
I'd heard about Dirty Weekend a few months ago when I was speaking to a friend about triathlon training. I told him about some of my previous races and when I mentioned one that included thirty gruelling obstacles he shook his head, if I really wanted a challenge I should try something a bit harder, something with 200 of them. At the time I questioned him, struggling to understand how it was actually possible to fit 200 obstacles into a race. I then found out that it wasn't just a race but a mini festival for the kind of person that does obstacle races, with the participants camping around an enormous music tent for the evening after the race was finished.
And so a few months later I ended up at Burghley House in Lincolnshire with a couple of friends. I'd sat and looked through the website at the various challenges that littered the twenty mile course and felt a pang of fear. I was probably at my peak of fitness after doing a variety of classes along with my marathon and triathlon training, however looking around at the other participants I could see it was not your average race. Aside from the obvious runners there were some really big guys; they looked like rugby players. They also looked like they were taking it seriously. I also noticed what appeared to be military plans of the course on the wall of the press tent:
Just before we set off it started raining. My friend turned to me and sighed. Another runner looked at us; a veteran Dirty Weekender judging by his outfit. “That's the least of your worries,” he said before laughing. Suddenly the horn went and we set off across the field, quickly reaching rows of straw bales and leaping over them. “One down, a hundred and ninety-nine to go” someone shouted.
The first couple of miles weren't too bad. We leapt a few trees and clambered over a wall or two without a great deal of concern. At this point the worst thing we had to do was scramble through some black mud under netting. A mild discomfort as we ran along with the taste of mud in our mouths.
It wasn't until about five miles when we hit the lake surrounding Burghley house that it started to get difficult, and when I say difficult I largely mean cold. We jumped into the murky water and felt the air rush out of our lungs before swimming the twenty or so meters to the other side. Suddenly the running wasn't quite so easy as our clothes were heavy with water and the feeling had gone from our legs. Everything after this point suddenly seemed to get a lot harder. The grass and mud was slippy as we followed those in front, gripping harder as we jumped over the various logs and wooden constructions that barred our path.
The next thing I remember is clambering up a large wooden platform looking down at an enormous pool of water below and seeing the splashes as the people in front of us leapt in. It's at this point I should mention I took the smaller option of the two platforms, I've never enjoyed jumping of the highest diving boards and this one wasn't particularly inviting.
Then it was back in the lake, this time for an 80 meter slog through the dense mud underneath the water's surface. Any attempt to swim was pointless as we felt around in the depths for whatever invisible objects stood in the way; it didn't smell particularly nice either.
For the next few miles we struggled to climb over more walls, swing across hoops suspended over the lake and scramble under netting as our knees scraped across the ground. It was at this point we came across one of the high points of the event, the monkey bars. Laid out in front of us was a hundred metres of metal scaffolding leading into the distance. I'd been warned of this before coming and had it in my head that I could finish it. What I hadn't accounted for was the fact my arms would already be fairly useless and 100 metres is actually a very long way in monkey bar terms. I managed about 20 meters before dropping off.
The last few miles of the race were a bit easier than the first, presumably because making people who have ran nineteen miles try to swim a lake is probably a bit dangerous. Aside from a few log walls and, interestingly, an area devoted largely to scaffolding, we neared the end. As we did we saw the last obstacle towering in the distance - a giant three levelled series of walls, each around eight feet high. Even at the start of the race this would have been a scary prospect, however after 199 other obstacles it was slightly more than upsetting. As the crowd cheered we made our way over, pushing and pulling other people to help them scale it.
With a beer in hand and a medal that rather neatly doubles as a bottle opener, we relaxed. Of all the obstacle races I'd done in the past this was by far the hardest. Unlike most of the others I actually felt a sense of accomplishment after finishing. I've never been that bothered about finish times for these kind of races however there were actually some pretty hard challenges in this. Specifically for me it was the water, even with the aid of a life jacket, bobbing across the sometimes quite choppy water was far from fun and I noticed a few other runners looking less than happy. Added with the fact the the course is just six miles short of a marathon, the event will prove more than enough of a challenge for most.
Dirty Weekend is an annual event, you can enter the 2015 race here. If that's too far away you can see what other events are available at ratrace.com. We'll be at the London River Rat Race on August 16th.