Thursday, December 8, 2016

Flow in Obstacle Racing

I’m reading, The Rise of Superman by Steven Kotler. I’m also listening to Kotler on episode number 873 of the Joe Rogan podcast. Steven Kotler is a New York Times bestselling author and the cofounder/director of the Flow Genome Project. He is one of the world’s leading experts on ultimate human performance. The Rise of Superman explores what the upper limits of human possibilities might be. In 2013, The Rise of Superman was the first book in history to land on the national bestseller lists in the sports, science, and business categories simultaneously.

So what is Flow? Kotler says,”Flow is an optimal state of consciousness, a peak state where we both feel our best and perform our best.” Wikipedia defines flow like this, “In positive psychology, flow, also know as the zone, is the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in the feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity, In essence, flow is characterized by complete absorption in what one does.”

The psychological concept of Flow was named by Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Csikszentmihalyi wrote in his book, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, “ a state of concentration of complete absorption with the activity at hand and the situation. It is a state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter.” Csikszentmihalyi laid out nine component states of achieving Flow, “challenge-skill balance, merging of action and awareness, clarity of goals, immediate and unambiguous feedback, concentration on the task at hand, paradox of control, transformation of time, off of
self-consciousness, and autolelic (deriving meaning and purpose from within) experience.”

I think it is the Flow that makes OCR so fun and addictive. When I’m running an obstacle race I lose myself. As you read the list of states of achieving Flow, you probably notice that many of them are components of an obstacle race. When approaching an obstacles one has to quickly assess it and evaluate the challenge and their skill level. They have to be aware of the conditions of the obstacle and their action on the obstacles have to match the conditions. Is the obstacle wet or dry? It is stable or unstable? Obstacle racing incorporates the all component states of achieving Flow.

On the Joe Rogan Podcast, Kotler describes one of the routines he does to put himself into Flow. He starts with a 30 minute hike with his dogs. Exercise and being in nature are two elements that can start the neurochemicals flowing that are part of Flow. He then does hill sprints for about seven minutes to get endorphins in his system. He finishes with running down hill to create a risky situation. The greater the risk the better the Flow. After he finishes he uses the Flow state for his writing.

Kotler’s routine for creating Flow is just like running an obstacle race. Most of the Elite runners show up early and warm up before the race. They jog around the area and do various warm up exercises. When the race starts they sprint to the first obstacles. When they reach the obstacles they encounter the risk. No wonder people can do the World’s Toughest Mudder, they are repeatedly putting themselves into Flow.

But you don’t have to be an Elite runner to experience the flow. Just being outside and walking to the obstacle is enough to start the Flow experience. When you reach the obstacle it might be difficult for you and that is enough to get your endorphins to kick in. The risk is built into a lot of the obstacles. Obstacles require awareness and focus. Flow follows focus. So even beginners will experience Flow while running an obstacle race.

One other way to experience flow is in service to others. When are helping others we lose ourselves in the moment. Some of the obstacles are really hard to do alone. Some people show up at the race that are not physically prepared to meet the challenge of the obstacle and need assistance to make it through the obstacle. Running as a team is very popular in obstacle racing. Friends and families helping each other through the obstacles. But it doesn’t end with friends and families. Strangers helping strangers is also the way some get through the course and feel the Flow. Group Flow is even more powerful than individual Flow.

Next time you run an obstacle race think about Flow. Try to have the best Flow experience you ever had while running the race. Enjoy being outside and enjoy the exercise. Push yourself physically so that you get your endorphins pumping. Attack the obstacle in a way that makes you feel the risk. Don’t walk around scarey obstacles, try them. Then sprint off to the next obstacles. Keep repeating this cycle through the race. Enjoy the moment, push yourself and/or help others, and feel the risk.

Monday, October 10, 2016

CTG XTC Mega Race Review

                                        CTG XTC Mega Race Review

      I almost didn't go to this race because it was schedule so close to the Obstacle Course Racing World Championship. I didn't want to be hurt or too sore before my trip to Canada. But, I'm really glad I participated in the CTG XTC 10K Mega OCR. It was one of the best races I've ever ran. In addition to the course being fun and difficult, it was like the closing festival for obstacle course racing in mid-America. Hosted by Conquer the Gauntlet and Xtreme Timber Challenge at KC Timber Challenge in Bonner Springs, Kansas.

      I ran in the elite wave so I got there early. One by one the Conquer the Gauntlet pro-team started arriving. This was like the who's who of OCR in mid-America. Those racing stars who were not at the Spartan World Championships in Tahoe were at the Mega Race.

The race started with a shotgun blast. We ran for nearly 3miles before we reached the real Gauntlet. We had to climb the steps of the zipline tower and ring a bell.


                                                        First obstacle, The Log Cross

                                                           Rope climb up a bluff.

                                                                       Bus Crawl.

                                                                 More bus action.

                                                              The Quad Burner.

                                                                    Another climb.

                                                                The Ankle Turner.

                                                    Notice the Tower in the background.

                                                      Looking down the tower stairway.

                                                         Someone ringing the tower bell.


The view from the lower part of the tower. Hay bale climb over on the left. Monkey bars on the right.

                                              What it feels like to Conquer the Hay Bale.

                                              Climbing over downed trees on the path.

                                                            The Conqueror's Carry.

                                                                     Looking Good!

                                    Pipe crawl. It was pitch black in the middle of the tunnel.

We hit the first to CTG obstacles and it really slowed the pack down. The slackline was kicking almost everyone's butt. It took me 5 tries before I made it across. Next was the Z-beam. It too was slowing people down.

                     Couple demonstrating how to help each other across. Not allowed in the Elite.

                                                       A group of Z-Beam walkers.

                                                                     Hammer time!

       Now for the real Gauntlet, it was sort of like a Gauntlet inside a Gauntlet. Nine of Conquer the Gauntlet's hardest obstacles back to back. Throw in one to get you wet and a couple just to sap whatever grip strength you might have left. Hammer Time was great for getting my frustration out after so many attempts at “Slacking Off” and “Z-Beam”. Nothing like bashing a block across a couple of rails with a sledge hammer to relieve a little tension. But it was really just the first in a long line of obstacles designed to fatigue your grip

“Tarzan Swing” was the first in a long line of upper body strength test. This rig has possibly the longest distance between swinging holds on the whole OCR circuit. You need to be a gibbon with a 10 foot arm span to make it across the “Tarzan Swing”. In the elite lane they have probably the sketchiest holds in the OCR industry. Rubber hand grenades, upside down bowling pins, and pipe bombs are the holds that occupy the elite lane. This was the one obstacle I failed this go around.

                                                Getting ready to attack the Tarzan Swing.

                                                        Me before I fell off the last hold.

     The “Great Wall of America” was next but it might have been “Rock Wall”. Either way both require jumping and climbing. Lack of fear and grip strength are a must. I'm not saying that all of the holds on “Rock Wall” were loose but I did hear a few people scream. I guess its better to just run up the wall. I've seen it done. “Great Wall of America” is a 12.5 foot plywood wall that has a couple of 4's placed on it to help you up. One of the 2x4's is 4 feet up from the ground the other one is at the 8 foot mark. No problem simply step up on the first 2x4 and reach up and grab the second one. Right? Now you are only one ballistic jump away from grasping the top board and pulling yourself over the top.

                                                            Great Wall Mob.

                                                                 Just up and over.

                                                         Backside of Great Wall.

                                                                      The Rock Wall.

         I'm not sure of the exact order of the next few obstacles, but it was one grip killer after another. “More Cowbell” isn't a very tall rope, but if you just finished the “Tarzan Swing” you might not have much strength left in you upper body. Use your legs, if you didn't wear them out getting over the two walls. No problem except you have “Rubber Road Block” and “Net Scrambler” to negotiate next. The “Rubber Road Block” requires total body strength and coordination to conquer. An absents of fear of heights helps too. “Rubber Road Block” is a wall of automobile tires threaded together with rope. It feels unstable. You have to keep three points of contact with the wall so you don't fall off. “Net Scrambler” isn't as scarey or difficult as “Rubber Road Block” but it requires total body strength to get over. Its just an “A” frame with a cargo net over it. Did I mention grip strength?

“Cliffhanger” is a monkey bar set that goes up and then back down. There is a deep pool of water under you just in case you fall. 

                                                                    More Cowbell.

                                                              The Rubber Road Block.

                                                                     The Cliffhanger.

                                                              The Net Scrabbler.

    There isn't anything really difficult about the “Torpedo” except climbing the boards to the top and climbing the cargo net out of the pit. Unless you are afraid of heights and water.

                                                      Me shooting out of the Torpedo.


      The “Belly of the Beast” is a combination of balance, strength, and coordination. You walk up a plank to a platform. Hopefully your shoes aren't too wet from the “Torpedo”. From the platform you slide under a cargo net and crawl on the underneath side down to a cowbell. If you touch the ground before ringing the cowbell you have to start again at the plank. 

                                                             The Belly of the Beast.

      Now that we have gotten wet and our grip is failing we reach one, if not the, hardest obstacle from Conquer the Gauntlet. The “Pegatron”. Oh, “Pegatron” how we all love to hate you. “Pegatron” is a pegboard that you traverse across horizontally. Or I should say, “Try to traverse”. No two holes in the boards are the same. No two pegs are the same. Makes it more fun that way. I managed to make it this time. I ran 5 Conquer the Gauntlets and this Mega race this season. I made it across “Pegatron” only twice.

                                                                   Me on Pegatron.

                                                          Another shot of Pegatron.

     I now reach what many consider the second hardest obstacle from CTG. “The Stairway to Heaven”. Or is it the “Stairway to the Pool”. When I got to the Stairway my forearms were done. I looked like Popeye. My forearms were larger than my biceps. Well, at least they felt that way. I Started up the stairway and at the third step I knew I couldn't make it. I went back down and stepped away from the obstacle. I ate a gel pack. I walked back over to the “Cliffhanger” where there was a water station and got a water. I finished the water and continued to wait until I felt enough blood had left my forearms and returned to my heart for fresh blood. Then it was up and down the stairway.

     The “Walls of Fury”. Five eight foot walls in a row. All you have to do is jump up and pull yourself over. Jumping up wasn't too much of a probably for me. I'm 5' 10.5” and I have long arms. But, holding on to the top board was difficult. But, I made it. Up and over all five walls. I'm off and running through the woods.

    I didn't find a good picture of the "Walls of Fury" so you will have to go here to see it. If some one from the race has a good picture, post it in the comments.

      It was close to 3 miles back to the finish line. Once again up and down all the creek banks on the way back. There was tires to navigate through and mud holes to splash through. Another bus, but this time it was climb a cargo net up and over the bus instead of going through the bus. And then out of nowhere there appears another set of monkey bars to cross. My grip strength had returned by this time so it wasn't too much of a problem. This set of monkey bars was the opposite of the “Cliffhanger”. The bars ascended down to the middle and then back up toward the end.

                                                                  A little agility test.

                                                                      Tires to go over.

                                                               Oh yeah, more mud.

                                                                       A little rinse.

                                                              Over the bus this time.

                                                          Cargo net on the bus.

                                                        Me climbing over the Yeti Gate.

                                                        The second set of monkey bars.

                                            Tape is holding strong. My arm never fell off.

       Back to running. Right before the finish line there was two more CTG obstacle. The “Inverted Ladder”. It's about eight foot high. You can crawl underneath the ladder using your feet or jump up and grab the top step. Pull yourself over the top and walk down the steps. 

                                                                The Inverted Ladder.

                                                      At the top of the Inverted Ladder.

                                                        One last mud hole to go through.

“Flying Flames” was the last obstacle. It wasn't a very big stack of flaming logs but after 6 miles of hills and 64 obstacles my butt was feeling a little heavy as I leaped over the logs. I made it through the race without any injures except the lost of my elite belt. Very painful. 

                                                                    The Finish Line.

     You can watch a 14 minute video of the full race at this link. Jason Williams recorded his run through the race. He fast forwards through the run and slows the video down for the obstacles.

     After the race it was time for a celebratory beer and visiting with all the OCR friends I've made over the 2016 season. We talked about the difficulty of each obstacle and how we made it through the race. Several of us will be running the OCRWC in two weeks and we talk about preparing for it.

What a great race to end the season. I encourage every to attend this race next year. Don't make it your only race. See how many races you can do next year and then finish with CTG XTC Mega Race. 

                                                                     Said beer.

                                                                  The prized medal.

                                                                  They have a Yeti!