RDRC Interview with Ian Deeth: How to Get Started in Obstacle Course Racing
Like many of us, obstacle course racer Ian Deeth started his sporting life at school, as a footballer. He was good enough to play at university, but had a falling out with his coach, and switched over to track and field, competing at sprint distances from 60 metres indoors to 400 metres outdoors. He gained international honours for Great Britain at the student and under-23 levels, and for Scotland, just missing the team for the Commonwealth Games in 2002. For five years or so after that, he competed as a club athlete, until finally the press of full-time work meant he stepped away from athletic competition.
RDRC: So how did you stumble into obstacle course racing (OCR)?
IAN: After I moved to Asia in 2010 I developed a passion for surfing, and for 4-5 years I did that, maintaining my general fitness, until in 2015 when I was living in Malaysia, my friends and I saw an advert for this obstacle course race, a Spartan race. There were walls to jump over, heavy objects to carry, and I got really excited by the idea. I didn't do any specific training, and there were two categories – there was an open race, that you would run with your friends, and an elite race, in which you could potentially win prizes and prize money.
And so my friends and I decided to just go for it and run the elite race. We didn't really research too much, but we knew what some of the standard obstacles were, and this race was held on what was pretty much a building site, so there was plenty of mud, some water obstacles, a little bit of jungle. Very, very technical rough terrain. I ended up doing fairly well, coming third. And it was nice that there was a bit of prize money, but I really just enjoyed the experience.
The next one happened to be two months later in Singapore. I'd made quite a few mistakes in the first race, and I realized that if I trained a little bit more for the specific obstacles, and improved my running, then I could potentially get a little bit better. I managed to win that Singapore race, and from there, I knew I had found a new passion and started traveling around Asia to compete, as well as in Spartan races back in the U.K. As I improved I got involved in other OCR events such as the OCR World Championships and OCR European Championships.
RDRC: Obviously it's fun to compete at a high level, but what are some of the other aspects of the sport that pulled you in?
IAN: I guess one of the big attractions of the sport for me is that one, I get to travel to these fantastic destinations, experience some of the culture, and two, I've had a chance to move from the sprints to something more endurance-based. The races range from three kilometres all the way up to the Ultra Spartan, which is a minimum of 50 kilometres. And that's a new test for me. I wasn't naturally endurance-based, but I liked the idea of trying something new that was outside my comfort zone. And certainly being a 60-metres sprinter to start with and trying to tackle something like a 50-kilometre Ultra was quite an exciting prospect. Last year I managed to win a podium place at all five Spartan race distances in the same calendar year. The shortest was the Stadion, a 5km stadium sprint, and the longest was the Ultra, a 50km. Only two other men in Spartan history had achieved that. Sometimes you have a fixed mindset in which you're a sprinter, or you're an endurance athlete, and there's no possibility to cross over. It was very satisfying to me to have been able to cross over.
RDRC: How well do you think a background as a runner prepares you for trying OCR?
IAN: With Spartan, with OCR, the foundation is definitely running. And what is unique about these events is that usually there's an open category along with the elite, so regardless of whether you want to go there and be more competitive, or go to have a great time with friends, there's an entry point for you. And there's always an out as well. Say there's an obstacle you cannot manage, or that you find difficult, there is usually a penalty you can do instead. With Spartan that would be burpees, or in some other OCR events you wear a wristband, and if you are unable to complete an obstacle you'll get your band cut off, which would allow you to complete the course, ending up on a different finish list.
RDRC: So the burpees, or other penalties, are a sort of Get Out of Jail Free card if you can't manage one particular obstacle, like a rope climb?
IAN: Absolutely. It depends on the brand, but Spartan is the easiest to talk about because it's the biggest not only in Asia but worldwide. With Spartan some of the obstacles – like the bucket carry – are mandatory, but something like the monkey bars, if you were to fall off or you were hesitant about completing it, you would go off to the side and do a 30-burpee penalty. Or in a Stadion event, which is shorter, the penalty might be 15 burpees. Generally, the health and safety at these events is excellent. There are marshals at every obstacle, and first aid responders standing by to help anyone who needs it. Most people, regardless of their fitness level, will give most obstacles a go, but if you were concerned about not being able to complete one, there will be ways to avoid doing something you really don't want to do, particularly in the open category.
RDRC: For those of us who are "just" runners, if we're interested to give OCR a try, what do you suggest?
IAN: Well, if you're a runner coming into the sport, you've probably ticked the biggest box, because the majority of Spartan racing, and all obstacle course racing, is running. It's almost like interval training, broken up with obstacles.
I would say the main requirement beyond running is grip strength, and particularly hanging grip strength. So if you were going to do one exercise only leading into your first obstacle course race, I would suggest finding a pull-up bar and practicing your overhang pull-ups, or if you're not at a stage at which you can do a pull-up, find some progressions to work toward a pull-up. Maybe just hanging from a bar and then using some bands to do assisted pull-ups, or negative pull-ups, starting at the 'up' position and lowering yourself slowly back down. There are a lot of good progressions that are easy to find on YouTube. If you can do five overhang pull-ups with good form, you're in a decent position to compete in a Spartan sprint without failing to complete any obstacles. If you can get up to 10-12 pull-ups, you'll be in a really strong position.
And that grip strength will transfer over to the carries, which are the second element to focus on. Some of the familiar carries are a sandbag carry and a bucket carry. For the women, I believe the weight is around 35 pounds, and for the men, I think 75-80 pounds. You probably want to carry the weight on your shoulder, and in a sprint-distance race, the carry would be around 100-150 metres. And you can walk, but if you're looking to compete, you should get used to running with the weight. After that, I guess you're looking at figuring out ways to jump over walls more efficiently, as well as coming in and out of obstacles as smoothly as possible.
If you're coming into the sport for the first time, the hanging, and being able to carry something on your shoulder, those are the two areas to focus on. If you're nailing those two, you can probably go into your first Spartan race, and I'd recommend starting with the Sprint, which is the 5-kilometre one, with the possibility of going through clean, without having to do any burpees. Obstacles like the spear throw, which is a one-off throw at a target, is the one people may fail on their first effort. Or the Z-wall, which is a wall with grips on it that turns at 90-degree angles, which sometimes, if there's a lot of mud or if it's been raining, can throw people off as well.
But for your first race, if you're apprehensive, sign up for the open category, which has an emphasis on participation and fun. Or better, sign up for both. Go and do the open category in the morning and come back for the elite in the afternoon. In the open category, if you're going around with friends, you may find you have an opportunity to do obstacles more than once, which is great practice.
In my experience, most people who try obstacle course racing really enjoy it.