Welcome to a weekly feature on my blog – Ben’s Zone. Written by husband… Ben. A foodie, coffee obsessed, ex-smoking, ex-drinking and Ridgeback loving Dad. Who is also seriously into his fitness. You can find him on the blog (most) Sundays. Enjoy 🙂
Winter Nuts Challenge 2018 Review
I’m writing a lot about OCR at the moment and that’s because I write about what is current for me and right now I’m doing a lot of racing. It really didn’t feel very long since I did Tough Guy and the Muscle Acre Winter Warmer and already Winter Nuts was looming large. Nuts is a race I’d heard of a lot but never run which is bonkers given how close it is to me (just outside Leatherhead, so less than an hour). When an offer came up last year for entry into both the summer and winter events for £80 I had to have a crack. I remember my team mate Dan saying to me that Winter Nuts was harder than Tough Guy. How I scoffed at him, harder than the apex of OCR, Mr Mouse’s torture fields? Don’t be silly Dan. So I’ll be explicit in my reversal.
I’m sorry Dan, I was wrong. Utterly wrong.
Winter Nuts is the single hardest OCR experience I have ever partaken of and not by any insignificant margin. What I did last Sunday was unbelievably tough and I didn’t even properly finish. It was, on the other hand, a really brilliant race with great obstacles, a great marshalling team and super organisation. So if you only read this far then the verdict is, massive challenge, definitely worth it, if you like OCR, it’s a must.
The secret is, it’s a lap race. Nuts consists of 1 or more 7 (ish) km laps of obstacle heavy racing. I put down to do 4 laps and completed 3. I missed the cut off for the 4th lap (you have to set out by 2pm) but for reasons I’ll get into later I would not have been able to get out there even if I had got out within the time.
From the word go the organisation was superb. Winter races are all about dealing with the cold, but coming just after a major snowstorm it was clear the race directors had to take a measured view. The approach they took was that the race would run, as the roads were clear, but that all full immersion water obstacles would be removed. I think this was a very good stance to take, it allowed people to have fun without putting people at really unnecessary levels of risk. I think it was also mindful of the local emergency services who would have surely been overtaxed if people had been diving into frozen lakes. About a week before the race I got a letter with my timing chip and race numbers. Again, all very smart, the race number was a robust sticker, it came with a sticker to put on your bag and also some bar code thingies to make photos easier to understand. Everything was super slick.
On the day the organisation was, again, flawless. Hard standing for the car park, nice warm tent to get changed in, safe place to put bags down and a series of tables on which to leave kit you might need between laps. Admittedly there were a lot of people who had dropped out due to the cold but even still it was all obviously well organised.
The course itself consists of around 100 obstacles. The run out from the start / finish line is across a nice field area before it starts dropping into the first of many water filled ditches. The sides of the ditches are relatively high and steep but the exits usually have scramble nets to aid getting out. Water features heavily on the course so if it’s not your thing then this is not the race for you. Water definitely is my thing though, so I was happy. There is a lot of repetition in the course, and that’s good as that adds a relentless nature that becomes an obstacle in itself. There was a fair few more ditches before we came to what I’d describe as an obstacle village. This was an area which consisted of a number of larger set piece type obstacles. Now, these might not have been on the scale of the Tough Guy Killing Fields but it was pretty impressive. There was a huge A frame type thing that you either had to climb up the inside of (using hands only) or do a penalty lap, a number of really good climbing wall type obstacles as well as two large rigs. The rigs were well designed and allow Nuts to be a qualifying even for the world OCR championships. There was no penalty for failing the rigs, they could be attempted as many times as people wanted. To qualify for the world champs a competitor had to finish the race (at their chosen distance) and complete the mandatory obstacles on every lap. Then a certain percentage of those who did this would qualify. If a competitor chose not to complete the rig they would be asked to hand their blue vest (worn to denote a qualfying hopeful) to the marshall. Again, all very well organised and smooth. I know there are mandatory obstacles for the world champ qualifying events and I understand this but at the same time I think finishing 4 laps of Nuts should really have been sufficient given how difficult the race itself was.
The ‘village’ held my favourite obstacle of the race, the tyre chimney, basically a stack of truck tyres that were held within a framework so they could be climbed from the inside, simple but beautiful.
I wish I could take the time to describe all the obstacles but there were just too many. There was so much water that at times I thought I was an otter. There were some hugely difficult and unpleasant metal tunnels to get through and all of the water that wasn’t running had huge chunks of ice in.
I had trouble believing that it was only a 7km lap at times because there were so many obstacles that it felt much further. By the end of the first lap I was already feeling the pain and looking forward to some food and drink in the transition area before going out again. Here’s where I made a couple of massive mistakes. Having listened closely to team mate and friend Mike’s advice about endurance racing (specifically, eat lots) had made some really awesome flapjack and filled two flasks with tailwind. However, I had forgotten that I have a massive aversion to eating with dirty fingers. So, like an idiot, rather than bite the bullet and eat, I skipped and just had tailwind. Next mistake, despite knowing I have the worlds most efficient thermos, I made the tailwind with boiling water, so it was too hot to drink. I managed to get a tiny amount down before it was time to go out for the next lap. About all I did right was have some Ventolin as the cold was triggering my asthma.
The next lap was hard. My energy levels were depleted and my will was sapped. Though the snow had melted it had left the ground super wet and muddy so every step seemed twice as hard as it needed to be. Obstacles that had been tough last lap loomed impossible on the horizon, slowly, and surely the fear set in. On the first lap the cold was hard but manageable and the obstacles tough, by the second everything had just got that little bit harder and we weren’t even half way through. Just like Tough Guy the physical challenge is taken to the next level by the mental pressure it puts on you.
At the end of the second lap, the worst thing happened, cramp in both calves. It’s been a weak spot for me before and I don’t mind admitting it scares me when it happens. Looking back the writing was on the wall for me at that point, but I pressed on.
Again, no food at the transition, slightly more tailwind as it had cooled and no Ventolin as I forgot and so I hobbled out onto lap 3. By the time I hit the obstacle village I could barely run and I knew I couldn’t trust myself on any obstacle that involved climbing. The marshalls were obviously used to seeing sketchy people and were really great in checking I was ok. I felt really safe and looked after. A lot of the marshalls also had snacks and stuff on offer for runners which made them (in my eyes) akin to angels sent from heaven to help the stupid. When offered a jaffa cake on my 3rd lap I got over my fear of eating with dirty fingers. It was also around this point that I knew that whatever the time when I got in, I was not going out for a fourth lap.
I hobbled in, in pieces, about 20 minutes after cut off and I was glad. I had been running for nearly 6 and a half hours and the course had got the better of me.
I was eternally glad of the lovely warm changing tent and even more so that Mike was driving home. By the time I got back I was resolute that I was never going back, not to prove a point, not to regain pride, not for a bet, nada, never again.
Obviously I’ve changed my mind.
The whole ‘sporting’ side of OCR is about technical ability, massive rigs and being a consummate athlete. I have huge amounts of respect for the people who do that but it’s not for me and it’s not what I enjoy. Over the last couple of days, in addtiion to squeaking every time I get into the bath and wincing every time I take a step I’ve been mulling over what I do want from my obstacle racing. I want mud, I want pain, I want water (and lots of it) and more cold than in an eskimo’s fridge and for me there are few places where I can find it. Tough Guy is one, and it’ll always be my spiritual home but I get the feeling that Nuts might just be another. It’s got grit and pain in spades, super obstacles and an excellent team, it’s my thing, it’s what I want. So I’m going back, not because of pride or obsession or stupidity but because I’ve done this for long enough now to know what I want. I’ll take some disposable gloves next time and put them on to eat though.