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Are You Elite?

Some people sing in the shower. I blog. In my head. So here are the results.

There has been quite a bit of discussion recently in the OCR community regarding what makes an obstacle racer elite. Truly elite. More elite than others. Not quite elite. Not elite yet. Not elite enough. Super elite. As a word geek, I decided to consult a dictionary. [Roll your eyes if you must… Dictionaries are awesome. Yes, they are. They are!]

ELITE = A group of people considered to be the best in a particular society or category.

In other words, using this definition an elite obstacle racer is someone who is considered to be the best among obstacle racers.

Seems simple enough.

However, when I went to the discussion boards with a question “How do you define an elite obstacle racer?”, I received answers ranging from “there is no such thing as elite” and “elite is a state of mind” to “you have to finish in top 5 in order to be considered elite”.

Most responses fell into one of two categories:


  • If you are elite, if you think you are.

Way to be Zen… Ommm?

  • Elite cannot be defined.

The philosophical theme continues. I think this one is more in line with Buddhism. To reword Sutta Nipata: “as a flower blown out by the wind goes to rest and cannot be defined, so the obstacle racer freed from definitions goes to Vermont and cannot be defined”. Of course, Buddhism would also suggest that while elitecannot be defined, it can be experienced. As definition is made up by the mind, while experience comes through participating… [You started it.]

  • Everyone can be elite.

I think this particular approach opens up the floor for the ubiquitous “everyone is a winner” argument. It’s politically correct, but not very practical. After all, why have a race then?

  • If you don’t quit, you are elite.

Ummm… Death Racers, unite? I applaud the tenacity, but sometimes when you don’t quit, you are not elite. You are stupid. Not quitting no matter what is overrated. Look up the word “hypothermia” when you get a chance.


  • Elites score in top 200 in Spartan points

Don’t get me started on the point system…

  • Elites finish within 60% of your age group ranking on any road course

This would amount to finishing in the top 40% of your crowd (your age, your sex). To give you some perspective on this one – my best 5k time is 21:12. According to the age-grade calculator provided by Alec Blenis, that would put me in 68% percentile. In other words, I run faster than 68% of women my age. To run faster than 95% of women my age or to be in the top 5%, I’d need to run a 15 minute 5k. A feat that is not happening any time soon.

  • Elites finish within 200% of the winning time

Alec Blenis, who I think would qualify for every single definition of “elite” I mentioned so far, suggests implementing a qualifying time for the elite waves. He gives an example, using a recent NC Spartan Sprint. Winning time for males was about 40 minutes – thus, anyone who finished in 80 minutes or less (under 1 hour 20 minutes) would qualify as elite.

While this is a very objective and practical suggestion, it seems overly generous, especially as you look at longer races. For example, the winning finishing time for Ottawa Spartan Beast 2012 for females was about 4 hours. The 200% guideline would suggest that any woman who finished in 8 hours or less would qualify for the elite wave. For that race, over 95% of women finished within that time cut off.

This, of course, serves more as a guideline to resolve the logistics of overcrowded “elite” wave, rather than addressing the question of what makes a racer elite.

  • Elites finish within top 5, within top 20, within top ___ [insert arbitrary number here]

This seems to be the preferred definition of the “elite”, among racers themselves, including Hobie Call who suggests that to be elite is to be a top contender in your sport. He goes on to define top contender as anyone who consistently finishes in the top 20.

This method is probably the simplest, however, it does not address the issue of athletes who compete in the open wave, yet finish with better times than “elites”. At least as of now, if you want to be recognized for your fast finishing time, you better be in the first wave.

  • Elites are sponsored.

This one I am not so sure about. Sponsorship can mean many things, and at the end of the day, getting free shoes, or protein powder says very little about your athletic performance. For example, companies may choose to sponsor athletes who they think are inspiring to others.


Some took offense to the label itself, and suggested to rename elite heats to competitive heats, or pro heats. Of course, that introduces another semantic discussion about what does it mean to be competitive. After all, you can argue that every single heat is competitive in some respect. At the very least, you are competing against yourself.

As for “professional” obstacle racers… A common definition of a “professional athlete” that is used in other sports is an athlete that gets paid for his/her performance. In the world of obstacle racing, this definition yields a group small enough to fit into my kitchen (and it’s a very small kitchen). And more semantics… Paid at all? Paid a lot? If it’s the latter, then the group may actually fit into my bathroom, or disappear entirely, because unfortunately being awesome at a sport does not pay very much.

A recent survey by the Track and Field Athletes Association reported that approximately 50% of athletes ranking in the top 10 in the USA in their event made less than $15,000 annually from the sport. Better keep that day job. And maybe get a couple of part-time jobs too to cover the gear and travel.

Does the label only apply to an obstacle racer whose gear, travel and lodging are fully covered? What about a racer who receives $50 from Spartan Race for placing in the top 100? A racer who gets a free entry to another race based on their result?

In 2012, some of the Spartan races in United States came with monetary prizes for the top 3 finishers. Spartan races in Canada didn’t. So does that mean if you come first in United States and get paid for it, you are a professional obstacle racer, and if you come first in Canada, and do not get paid, then you are not?

A friend of mine competes in dragon boating on a national level. If that is not elite, I don’t know what is. Yet she still has to cover all of her travel expenses, training and rehab (massage, chiro, physio) out of pocket.

Let’s go back to the definition though… ELITE = A group of people considered to be the best in a particular society or category.

Notice how specific this is. Being an elite obstacle racer does not make you an elite dancer, an elite chef, or an elite human being.

I will always run in the elite wave, because I hate bottlenecks. I also usually race solo (ha!), rather than with a group of friends. I am also fairly fast on an obstacle course, so I try to start closer to the start line. Does that make me elite? In obstacle racing, maybe. Put me in a swimming pool, and it’s a completely different story.

At the end of the day, I do not think there is anything wrong with the label “elite”, if you use it appropriately. Being elite does not have to make you elitist. But it can…

Moral of the story: Don’t be an ass.

Elite or not.

P.S. Damn, that was a long shower…

Signing off, Solo


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