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A TRUE Obstacle Race - The Purist's Perspective

Sasuke, the Japanese precursor to American Ninja Warrior, first aired in 1997 – way before Warrior Dash and Tough Mudder were around.

The list of obstacles reads familiar – Tarzan Swing, Cliffhanger, Warped Wall and Net Climb. Competitors came from all walks of life – from gym and parkour instructors, and trampolinists to plumbers, and janitors. Almost ten years later, ANW premiered in US, pulling adults and kids alike to their screens.

Now, talking about a “pure” obstacle race is like talking about a “pure” mongrel – it’s a combination of sports, by definition. But I love semantics, so humour me.

What is a race?

Funny that we have to discuss this… But, ok.

A race is a timed or ranked competition, where individuals or teams compete with one another. It’s not a “challenge” or an “experience”. Those things are fine and dandy. They are just not races.

What is an obstacle?

I’m going to get real selective with my definitions here – the “obstacle” as a thing that blocks your way. A thing you have to get over, under or through in order to keep going.

In that sense, American Ninja Warrior is a pure obstacle course – you have to get from point A to point B – over and through. Use your hands, your feet, your body. The “race” part is absent, because while athletes do compete against each other, they do so, one by one.

What is NOT an obstacle?


Stone drag. Atlas stone. Bucket carry. Sandbag carry. No, no, no.

Carrying water jugs. No. Carrying a buddy. No.

Picking up a heavy stone and carrying it fifty feet one way, and then fifty feet back – that’s not a obstacle. Carrying anything for any period of time is not an obstacle. It’s farm labour. Minus the sense of meaning.

Now, if you need the said object to get from one point of race course to another, that’s a different story.

Carrying enough stones to pile them up, and use the resulting pile as a side step to climb over a wall that is too tall otherwise? Finding and carrying a bamboo pole (possibly for miles) in order to be able to climb from one tree to another later in the race?

Now we are talking.


Burpees, or push-ups, or pull-ups, or, heavy jump rope, or 8-count body builders, or “lift up this rock five times” or any sort of “do this exercise because we needed to have an obstacle here, and ran out of options” stations are not obstacles.


If you are given a task for the sake of being given a task, and completing that task does not move you forward in any way, that’s not an obstacle, that’s a test of random and arbitrary skill at best.

Throw a spear. Throw this ball into that basket. Climb up this rope, and then down this rope.

But, why?

Notice, that at least some of the above CAN be converted into obstacles. If you need to climb a rope, in order to continue the race – voila! A rope climb is now an obstacle. Similarly, Tyrolean traverse, and rappelling are two skills that could be incorporated into actual obstacles, moving the racers forward.


“But, SOLO…”, you protest. “If we get rid of all these non-obstacle obstacles, then what remains?”

Well… actual obstacles remain.

The rig. High or low. You pick.

Pipe Dreams.

Monkey bars. Preferably over water – otherwise, it’s somewhat contrived.

Cargo nets. A-frames.

Hanging bridges. Floating bridges.

Log hop, log walk. But not log carry. Unless you need that log to cross a river.

Rope climb – assuming the rope actually connects one part of the course to the next.

All the walls your heart desires – incline or otherwise. Half pipes, quarter pipes. Everest.

Tunnels – under ground, under water.

Rappelling. Tyrolean traverse.

Tightrope walk.

Swim. Assuming you have to cover a certain distance to continue the course. An out and back swim would not be an obstacle, unless one has to retrieve something during the swim necessary for the next stage of the race.

Dragon’s Back. Skull Valley. Samurai.

Hell, even Electric Eel, and Arctic Enema would fit.

Kong Infinity, first seen at World’s Toughest Mudder 2017, and recently unveiled as part of Tough Mudder 2018 line-up, checks off the obstacle boxes.

You have to get across to keep going.

As long as we are talking about RACING, I would NOT include a new Happy Ending obstacle from Tough Mudder, as you need multiple people to complete that obstacle. This would only be meaningful for teams competing, and assuming that the number of people on each team would be enough to get over that obstacle.

As it stands right now, OCR is a bastard child of trail running, American Ninja Warrior obstacles, and military obstacle courses. And as it stands right now, a TRUE obstacle race does not exist.

Savage Race, and the 3k course at OCRWC is probably as close as it gets to what I have in mind here. And one day, I’d love to see a cross between Survival Run and OCRWC – together, they have the optimal combination of pure obstacles, and self-regulating design – more discussion on the latter coming up next.

So, there you have it. A PURE obstacle race, as per definition. I’d love to see it sometime.

And… I can’t believe I am about to quote Ryan Holiday at you, but… “obstacle is the way”.

Hugs, SOLO


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