It's been a funny old year for me, both in the world of OCR, and that other thing we call life.
I started 2015 off in a pretty positive manner, my first two races being Tough Guy (hell) and winter Nuts, two laps. It was at Winter Nuts where I got my first ever first place female (although I still insist that this doesn't really count seeing as anyone who was anyone was running four laps....however...) it was with this positioning that I also earned my entry into the very first UK OCR championships, taking place in November 2015.
Promptly signing up, and choosing the first wave over age (as why the hell not), I was excited for the race and ready to get myself fighting fit.
The year passed in a blur, with each month my race times becoming slower, my injury list longer, and my mind further out of the game, until suddenly, the UK Championships were here, and it was time to put my best foot forward, and see what I could do.
With a huge chunk of the OCR Community having been to Ohio for the World Championships, they were lucky to have had a heads up on some of the obstacles that were coming, but more importantly, to get their heads around the “mind f**k” of the wristband.
The wristband: let me explain the concept... At the start of the race, you are given a wristband, [in Ohio this was rubber]. When you attempted an obstacle, if you were unable to successfully complete it, you could continue to attempt it until you chose to say, I cannot do this. At this point, your wristband was cut off, and whilst you could still run, you were no longer competing for any kind of titles: put it this way, all finishers got a medal, very few kept their band, this rubber band was the true medal of the OCR World champs.
Without getting into logistics of congestion etc (which I have been told was not a problem), the wristband method seems to work. It offers up a whole new playing field, with different competitors getting results. It is no longer about who can run fastest, and will take the penalties, it is now who has the skill on obstacles, and the determination to complete them, with enough speed to keep going. However, it's also a total game changer in terms of your mind.
In the week leading up to the event we were treated to several videos from various people showing us examples of obstacles and how to complete these (although this did not by any means mean we would be able to!) With some obstacles that I had never heard of, let alone attempted I was very grateful for this, although with each day passing, I was becoming more and more nervous of what we were going to be facing.
Earlier in the month I had run King of the Hill, in glorious sunshine, running only in a vest, the mild weather had continued and I hoped we would be able to keep this for the UK Championships. Not taking anything for granted I packed several race options, including my trusty shortie which comes out in the winter.
Although I was staying nearby (or as close I could find a hotel that would take a puppy and a muddy girl), it was still an early start due to briefings, registration, and a wave time of 8.55am. The weather had picked up from the evening before, so I decided to forgo the shortie, and stick to a merino base layer (my first time trying it), and my winter subsports compression top, along with my favourite Skins long trousers, and compressport calf guards (as I do suffer from very tight calves). Add into this a new pair of VJSport IRocks, and a Mudstacle buff, and I was ready for the off.
I always forget how much longer things take with the puppy (how people with children achieve anything I will never know, I am in awe), and so the very dull but filling instant porridge I was planning on downing soon became forgotten after one spoon. I made do with chugging a hefty protein shake loaded with caffeine, and planned on chowing down on a PB Clif bar when I arrived at the race venue.
All plans went out of the window in the usual melee that greats you when arriving at a race. With so many people there the pre race prep time was filled with hugs and how do you dos, with every one excited for this inaugural event.
After completing registration, with help from the wonderful Lou Fraser, who had noticed that my bib was filed under “F” (registration people normally find me some what tiresome... “it'll be under C..or M... I'm not sure!”) I was delighted to find that my bib name was “Francesca”. After emailing Mark Leinster (the organiser) two weeks previously asking to change my name on my entry, I was expecting my bib to be wrong. Here was a hint of just how much effort had been put into this event, that someone had taken the time to look at entries and think what the best thing to do would be. It was quite clear from the fast replies, information online, and efforts such as this, that this event was not just any old race, but that heart and soul had been poured into it to make it a great race for everyone.
Before I knew it we were being heralded to the start line, waving our coloured wristbands, and sent off with a blast....
The course started with the usual Nuclear course, what was difficult was not offering people help when you normally would. In one of the ditches I turned round to offer a hand, before being inadvertently head butted in the nose by the unaware party.
As we approached the first walls I was surprised to see someone getting a leg up over the wall, but seeing as the marshal didn't comment, I left it at that and got on my merry way.
The weather was colder than expected, and it had started to rain earlier in the morning. Strangely, I have little experience of racing in the rain, but I could tell I was not going to enjoy it very much.
With the pack still as one, we headed into the Wild Forest Gym section of the race, beginning with the Jump course. As I was closer to the back this became quite slow at times, but we were soon through and on to the more fun obstacles, the monkey bars and rings.
Already here you could see peoples panic, failing the monkey bars the curse of the wristband was already kicking in. I completed these and moved onto the rings, one of my more favourite obstacles.
I didn't experience this much throughout the rest of the race, but here and at the Irish table I did: people, perhaps less experienced, who were keen to overtake, being unaware of those around them. One chap was kicked going across the rings which meant he fell, and several times on the Irish table, just as I was kicking my legs up, someone would run in into that space, meaning I had to stop and wait. Perhaps if this section of the course had been later on it would've meant less congestion on some of the more technical obstacles and less risk of injury/waiting time.
Swinging across the rings with glee, I did make an error, and just as I touched the final ring I slipped and landed on the end bars, right on my backside...luckily this was early enough in the course for me to see the funny side, and I had a good laugh with the marshal, before continuing with the course.
The next challenging obstacle was Nuclears famous Gorilla bars. Normally ok in dry weather, the rain was coming down meaning the bars were slippy. On my first attempt I got half way, on my second attempt I followed a girl hoping she would dry them, but fell not long after she did. For my third attempt I took two paper towels, ripped holes for my thumbs and used these as make shift gloves to dry the bars as I went across. This worked, and I was soon into the trenches, wristband intact!
There are few things I really dislike in races, but cargo nets are one of them: they always make my back wet and freezing cold, and every single part of my body ends up stuck through one of the holes: hair through one (pigtails were a stupid idea), one arm behind me, one arm in front, and an ankle somewhere. God knows how long I was trying to throw these things off, but I made it through in a grump, and carried on running. (Or attempted to!)
We then hit a section where suddenly, there was no one around. I love these times in races, when you are alone, and you can do what you want without the thought of people watching you...I can walk if I walk, limp if I need to. It gives a bit of breathing space in what is quite an intense environment.
Sadly this didn't last long and we were soon all grouped together.
Through the icy cold log carry river walk, the sopping wet rope climb, the seemingly unfair concrete tube drag (I say unfair as some women had short ones, some women had long ones), I held onto my wrist band.
10km in we hit the rig. Rigs are the in thing, a simple way to create tricky obstacles. I was confident with this rig that I would be ok on it, just like the gorilla bars, rings, monkey bars and rope climb, the rig plays to my strengths. I hadn't taken into account the wet and rain. I hadn't taken into account people going on there with wet muddy hands.
I also hadn't taken into account the fact that those running fallout were allowed to use their feet on the rig (whilst UK Champs were not) meaning that the end bar was soon slick with mud.
Whilst I was capable of getting to the last bar, I found myself falling each time when I reached it (sometimes failing to reach it at all to be honest!). What made matters worse was the chest deep pit of icy water below. With each failed attempt I was getting wetter, and colder, returning to queue up and wait again.
After several attempts I was starting to feel a bit down, and I looked about for a friendly face. I saw Ami (of this girl did) who darted past me, with the sage advice “Forget the wrist band, it's a head f**k”, before heading off on to the course. I was then spotted by Morag Logan, who quickly noticed I was neither looking, nor feeling particularly great. Wrapping me in a foil blanket provided by a marshal she rubbed my arms and body to get me warm and encouraged me to continue with my attempts. She stayed with me for a while whilst I strayed between determination to continue, and to be honest, utter dejection.
The support I received from both marshals and my fellow runners at this obstacle was amazing. I was given a coat to wear whilst I tried to warm up, I received hugs from so many people as I steadily got colder and colder.
Eventually after 40 minutes of attempts and several bouts of tears later, I decided the time had come to accept that I couldn't complete this obstacle, and so I held out my wrist for the marshal to remove my band.
At this point Richard Palmer had found me and was attempting to both cheer me up and warm me up. He offered to run the rest of the course with me, making sure I got through safely, and got to the end. At this point I really didn't want to go out there and the next obstacle involved getting your back wet, which I detest. With a foil blanket wrapped round me, tears streaming down my face, and shaking with the cold I joined Richard in the queue for this obstacle. We decided he would go first and then would be ahead of me to keep an eye on any issues.
As he disappeared under the cargo net into the water, I was pulled aside by a marshal who sternly said “You're coming with me”. Sticking a thermometer in my mouth she watched me like a hawk. “Yep, thought so, 34. Off you go, into the car” And without a chance I was bundled into a warm blanket and sat in a heated car.
My first ever DNF.
Although minutes previously I had been so unwilling to continue, the reality that I had no choice suddenly hit me.
I cannot tell you how much of a failure I felt like at that moment in time. I sat in the car, again crying at my absolute pathetic-ness, that I had been pulled out and wasn't capable of finishing the first ever UK Champs.
With another woman in the car, suffering much worse than I was, we were driven back to the start line, and the medics tent.
Here Toni Cupit, who had injured her hand on the rig and was unable to continue looked after me. Brining me tea, wrapping me in her dry robe and searching out my dry clothes, she stayed with me until I was ok. In fact, I remember leaving the tent with her, but I'm not sure what happened after that, so I am hoping I didn't wander off rudely...and I'm hoping she'll forgive me if I did.
After finding Roy who was watching the puppy, I spent the remainder of the afternoon wrapped head to foot in warm dry cloths and my dryrobe, waiting for the colour to come back to myself, and waiting to warm up a little.
I apologise to anyone I spoke to that afternoon, I wasn't in the best moods to be honest, feeling incredibly sorry for myself!
As time has passed I've accepted the DNF, I do not regret spending that amount of time on the course. I have not learnt a lesson and will say next time I will give up earlier. I will not give up. I will be attempting an obstacle until there is no feasible way of my completing it. I am not happy with losing my wristband early on and running. I am not a runner. My skill is strength, and I will continue to keep trying obstacles. I don't care what number over the line I am, that is not the game I am playing in this sport. So I didn't finish, but I gave it my all and I didn't give in.
The remainder of the course, I hear was incredibly tough, with obstacles such as tip of the spear and ninja rings taking many strong peoples bands, leaving maybe only 6 women in the “elite” category finishing with their bands.
I say maybe, because unfortunately, as with many new events, the results were unclear. With penalties dished out incorrectly or not at all, competitors marked as keeping their bands when they didn't, and accusations of marshals allowing their friends to pass obstacles with their band intact. With any process that involves a human element, there will always be errors, through miscalculations, mistakes, or wrong intent, but for the time being, this is the best system we have, and I for one cannot recommend anything else. Over time I am sure that processes will develop and become more streamlined, but for a first event here in the UK, I think we can cut a little bit of slack.
One thing I will comment on, and this goes for every event I have attended, is the calibre of our Marshals. Thanks to OCRA UK many of our marshals are trained. At the champs there was a staggering 120 Nuclear marshals, and 60 OCRA staff and adjudicators. All the adjudicators were chosen from those who had completed the OCRA UK marshals course, with their experience and commitment to OCR also taking a huge part in their selection. It was nice to see so many friendly faces out on the course, and to know that we were in safe hands.
I recently ran a Spartan race in the South of France. Here I saw a marked difference in the calibre of marshals from what we have in the UK. As an example, to compare the two Spartan beats, one in the UK and one in France, I noticed in France that at each station, the marshals were sat around, eating sandwiches (I was so hungry!) chatting between themselves. Incorrect advice given at stations, and little encouragement to the racers. In the UK we are treated to marshals who ply us with sweets and treats at each station (at their own cost!) who shout encouragement and joke around with you (even when you don't know them), and who, like the marshal who pulled me at the Champs, are trained and you know you can trust them to look after you. For this, I am incredibly grateful. Many marshals do this for the love of OCR, sometimes receiving a free race in return, but certainly not for pay. Long after you and I have left the course, drunk our warm tea and are snuggled in our dryrobes, these people are still out on the course, shouting the same words of encouragement hour after hour, in the cold, wet, and often alone. For this, I am truly grateful, and whilst for me I may have failed at the UK Champs, it was an Opportunity for the UK, with Mark Leinster at the helm, to show exactly what OCR is made of, and exactly what we can do.
Many thanks to Nuclear Races, Roy James, and Lee Sirkin for the phtographs