It doesn't matter if you get up to run at five in the morning, or if your hardest exercise is getting up from the couch to get more cookies. You want to read this wild, fired-up, exhilarating book about the world of obstacle course racing. Erin Beresini makes you believe you can do anything. And she ought to know, because she did.
Erin Beresini is a Los Angeles-based freelance journalist and the author of OFF COURSE Inside the Mad, Muddy World of Obstacle Course Racing. In it, she uncovers the rivalries, lawsuits, scandals, and major players behind the fastest growing sport in U.S. history. I have to put this line in because Erin is so funny: "Her unbiased opinion is that it is probably one of the greatest books ever written.
I'm thrilled to have you here, Erin! I wish I could run a course with you!
Tell us about the Spartan Ultra Beast?
It is an insane race! When I did it, the event was two laps of the Vermont Championship Beast course—about 27 miles. There was rarely a moment where the course was flat, just straight up and down Killington ski mountain. At one point, there was even a goat trail that wound up a ridiculously steep section through the trees. It seemed like it would never end, and when it did, I still had to climb at least another half hour to the top. The sun set on my second lap, and my worst nightmare happened: it started to rain. It wasn’t particularly warm to begin with, but icy rain, I knew, would freak out my Arizona-bred body. I was at the top of the mountain in the dark in the watery sky, looking down at tiny twinkling lights at the very bottom. I knew that’s where the finish line was, but getting there would involve a harrowing butt-slide down slick black diamond slopes and tree runs. A man next to me slipped and couldn’t stop tumbling until a rock finally broke his fall. “I’m bleeding, but I don’t know where from,” he groaned. Holy poo, what am I doing out here!? was all I could think. (Except with more cussing.)
You’ve said that obstacle course racing “has done more to make fitness fun than any other sport.” Why do you think that is? Was there any time when you felt, “Oh my God, what have I gotten myself into?”
Obstacle course racing includes dodging fire, slogging through mud, navigating barbed wire, and even fighting gladiators.
I have a pretty hefty tolerance for weird stuff. It’s not necessarily the on-course craziness that’s made fitness fun (although it is ridiculously fun!), but what you take away from the events. For me, that was the ability to see my workouts and tired running routes in a new way. Now I always stop at the monkey bars that are half-way through my six-mile loop—I look forward to getting there—and swing across them. I’ll do dips and push ups and squats and rows while I’m there, then take off for the rest of the run. OCR encouraged me to be more creative with my workouts. Strength routines shouldn’t be limited to gym equipment. Grab a rock and hike with it. Fill your car washing bucket with water and walk up and down the driveway with it. Drop and do burpees at every stop sign on your run. That’s stuff I never thought of doing before, and that I do all of the time now. I haven’t been to the gym in years. (Except when I want to swim indoors.)
What was the training like?
My very kind personal trainer neighbor took pity on me when he found out I’d signed up for the Ultra Beast but couldn’t run because of Achilles tendonitis. We did a lot of fun body weight exercises in his garage gym--push ups with my feet or hands in TRX straps, planks, squats. I’d also do battle ropes, farmer walks with kettlebells, kettlebell swings, sideways medicine ball tosses. At one point, he loaded me up with a sandbag and told me to go hike the Avenue C stairs, a long string of concrete steps about half a mile away from his garage gym that lead down to the ocean. You’ll find a lot of people working out there, but not usually carrying what looks like a body bag. In short: a lot of strength training and hiking, not much running.
What surprised you about being a part of obstacle course racing?
How inclusive the sport is. There’s an OCR for everyone, and people of all different sports backgrounds and abilities at every race. I’ve seen pro athletes from all different sports jump in. Pro triathlete Jenny Tobin has won Spartan races, famous ultra runners like Max King are getting dirty. People who’ve never raced before in their lives are popping on tutus and jumping into the mud—and they get just as much love as the pros. It’s glorious.
Besides getting a super buff body, you also gained some emotional strength. Can you talk about that?
I might sound like a total jerk saying this, but I have always believed I can do anything. That doesn’t mean the journey doesn’t get tough. But with that mindset, setbacks don’t feel too big. My brain and body were not on the same page at all leading up to the Ultra Beast. I was mentally ready to race, but was struggling a lot with tendonitis that never seemed to end. (Side note: it’s likely because the charming 1937 apartment I’d been living in had a mold problem!) A lot of my adult identity had to do with endurance sports, and being knocked out for practically a year made me really upset. It also made me think a lot about why I race. Ultimately, it’s for the cool people I meet and the friendships that are strengthened through unique shared experiences. Deciding that might’ve made me soft—I haven’t trained to compete at a high level in a few years—but it kept me out there and happy, on course and off.
Part of what I loved about the book was the wild cast of characters. Talk about that, please.
Spartan Race inventor Joe De Sena is a unique guy. He hurt his hip in a car accident and doctors told him he likely wouldn’t run again. So he went on an Ironman binge and raced something like 12 of them in a single year. He practically owns an entire town in Vermont, where he invites racers to live and train. He’ll wake them up before dawn to make them go hiking with him. No excuses.
Mr. Mouse, inventor of the UK’s Tough Guy is a hoot. A septuagenarian with a big bushy white mustache, his race is similar to Tough Mudder’s, but Tough Guy started in 1986. He had a rough childhood, and served in military conflicts. Those combined experiences led him to create Tough Guy. He felt he learned a lot about himself from reaching his lowest point—so he created a race that would break you with electric fences and cold water and constricting pipes so you could build yourself back up. He calls his residence the Mr. Mouse Farm for Unfortunates, and tries to employ people that, for some reason, couldn’t get a job elsewhere.
What’s obsessing you now and why?
I love the Facebook group Chicked Nation. It’s a place for women of all athletic abilities to come together and encourage each other to reach their health and fitness goals—no boys allowed! It now has more than 15,000 members. Ask a question you have about anything—OCR, training in general—and you’re sure to get smart, helpful responses. You might even find a teammate for a future event!
What question didn’t I ask that I should have?
I think you nailed it. J