Rat Race Dirty Weekend has been one of the most anticipated events in the history of obstacle course racing. When they launched their website last autumn I literally burst with excitement. What they were planning looked to take our fledgeling sport to a whole new level.
Being a new event, there were very few pictures in their promotions but I was completely sold on the concept: “The worlds largest obstacle course”, “20 miles” and “200 obstacles”. Also, with it being organised by Rat Race, the geniuses behind Survival of the Fittest, we were bound to be experiencing something pretty special. But would the event itself live up to the hype?
I really wanted to see Dirty Weekend become a success, but I had my worries. Although Rat Race see thousands of people attend their 10km Survival events, there’s a massive step up to run a course that’s over three times that size. Would people be put off by the distance? On the day I was happy to find out that there were 5,500 people crazy enough to sign up!
As I arrived on site on Saturday morning, it was like walking into a music festival. There was a packed camp site, a large stage (really for the headliners Ocean Colour Scene later that evening) and an enormous queue for the toilets. I’d left just enough time for my usual pre-event formalities, but unfortunately the extra time queuing for the toilets resulted in me missing my 9:15 wave time. It didn’t bother me too much though, I wasn’t in a major rush to get on the course... I’d have more than enough time on it today!
I’m well acclimatised to running 5km, 10km and 20km races, but I wasn’t quite sure how I’d cope with 32km, having rarely run that kind of distance. As I set off the line I figured I’d just get into a comfortable pace and take it from there. I was pleased to hear that there weren’t any obstacles in the first mile, which would allow the field to stretch out and avoid congestion. The last thing you want to do is run 100 yards and then queue for the first obstacle (it does happen!).
Over the course of the 20 miles there were 20 themed “zones”, each one containing a different selection of obstacles. We’d be here all day if I described every one of them but I’ll pick out a few of the highlights and general themes. Of course there were a lot of the obstacle course classics - there was a fair amount of crawling under netting, jumping barriers and climbing over walls. The walls varied in size and build from zone to zone. Sometimes they’d be head-high plain plywood, sometimes they were stacked up logs and, of course “The Wall of Fame” made an appearance in the Survival of the Fittest zone. Set at 8ft tall with no foot-holds, I’ve always found this signature wall very challenging, but I jumped up to hang off the ridge and then brought my leg up to the side to lever myself up and it seemed to do the trick!
Quite early on in the course, we faced one of Rat Race’s unique inflatable obstacles, which involves clambering through various gaps on an elongated bouncy-castle. As if that wasn’t tiring enough I was presented by a group of three rugby players holding rucking pads. I couldn’t resist smashing into them as hard as I could but regretted that almost instantly... I stumbled to the next obstacle feeling a little drained. Next up was a scaffolding structure with several bars to crawl under and then climb over. Rat Race like to make use of scaffolding to build their obstacles, which gives Survival of the Fittest a unique urban feel. It was really interesting and fun to see those kinds of obstacles scattered around a more rural environment.
Thankfully the course itself was mostly flat. Having the added challenge of hills would have made it super-tough. However, it was apparent from early on that this was very much a runner’s challenge, with fairly large stints between zones. I’m better at running than I am at clambering over obstacles, but I was often relieved when obstacles punctuated long stretches. It’s good to have something else to think about other than how much your legs are aching!
Strangely I found the first three miles to be one of the hardest times on course. Being mid-way through a cold, I think my body was trying to convince me that this was going to be a long painful slog and I struggled to convince myself otherwise. Also I had opted to wear a fairly thick merino wool top, as I knew that it would pay dividends when I got wet. Annoyingly though the water obstacles were a long time coming and I was burning up from early on.
There were a fair amount of woodland zones, first of all there was the “Tralblazer” and “Warzone”, which had a few of your regular under and over obstacles, as well as crawling under barbed wire, etc. It was around this stage that I hit the first areas of congestion. I wasn’t out to set any records so it didn’t really bother me that much. On a more competitive day it may have wound me up, but I’d have chosen an earlier wave if I was bothered. I reckon over the course of the race I might have managed to shave of 30 mins with no congestion. To be honest though, it probably did me good to have the odd break, when running so much further than I normally would.
From what I saw, the organisers reacted well by altering the course to improve the flow. For example, if there were a row of three identical obstacles, they’d get people to just do one of them to keep things moving. I think congestion is understandable at a first event, especially one of this size. I asked Rat Race if they were aware of the problem and they seem to be on top of it and will be improving it next year, here’s what they told me:
“Obviously you know we do these kind of races all the time but on a course this big we did our best to calculate the flow at each zone and unfortunately until the actual day we don't know how fast zones will process people depending on speed/difficult etc after fatigue has set in. We tried to identify where possible bottlenecks would occur and added extra lanes into places pre-event but now we can work on the feedback and make the whole course flow much better for 2014.”
It’s great to see an organiser reacting well on the day and also listening to feedback to improve things going forward.
It was a relief when we finally hit some water obstacles in the River Rat Race zone. Although it was quite tricky dunking under water and jumping up into inflatable life-rafts, it was lovely to cool back down again.
After quite a long jog we found ourselves in a classic churned-up mud run area. There were hills and ditches, as well as obstacles to climb under over and through in the mud. Getting on the floor was quite uncomfortable here and in quite a few other areas as the mud was quite rocky. I got on okay with well protected knees and elbows, but it seemed that a few people were suffering a bit with it.
Three of the stand out sections were placed just before the half-way point. The construction zone was set out like a building site with more ditches and piles of earth, skips to climb in and out of and ladders up to high scaffolding, which was all good fun and pretty unique in appearance.
Next up was the Water Wipe Out zone, which started with an enormous lake crossing. It was quite deep making it possible to swim in places, which isn’t easy with shoes on, but the alternative of wading wasn’t any easier. The base of the lake was knee deep in something squidgy. I’m not sure what it was, but it felt softer than regular mud. Whatever it was, it made wading extremely tiring!
After finally making it to shore we were given a life jacket and directed straight back into a deeper section of the lake! This time we were faced with a few inflatable obstacles to clamber over. There were two massive grey inflatables that had been turned upside down and abandoned but there were a couple of smaller obstacles that large groups were crowded around. The aim was to climb up one side of the inflatable and slide down the other... which was more easily said than done. I hung around in the water for a good 10 minutes and we managed to get a couple of people over the obstacle but it was just too hard for most. The majority just skirted around, which was sensible as it was starting to get very cold in the water. By the time I got out of the water for the second time I realised that my body temperature had dropped a lot and was a little worried to see another couple water crossings ahead. Almost on queue, my calf cramped up, letting me know that I needed to get warmed up... and that maybe I needed to take on a little more fuel.
Thankfully one of the water stations was just around the corner and it was great to see that they were giving out bananas and sweets as well as water. There were a lot of very cold people but thankfully there were a bunch of silver blankets being handed out. Although I was really starting to shiver, I opted to run harder rather than take a blanket. My tired numb legs weren’t particularly pleased with that decision and I got pretty jealous of everyone else wrapped up warm... oh well.
Next up was a the zone that I was looking forward to more than most - the “Ewok Village”. As well as having one of the most impressive obstacles, it also marked the halfway point of the course.
It was nice to see Becky (my long-suffering other half / mud running widow) milling around. She had very kindly agreed to take a few photos for me around the course, as I wouldn’t have much of a chance myself. Earlier that day I had handed over my over-complicated SLR camera to her, having fixed the settings for her and attached a lens with a good range from wide-angle to telephoto. I wanted to make it as easy as possible for a non camera geek to use and had briefed her a little about how to use it, but I thought she couldn’t go too far wrong... As I watched her take a couple of pictures around the Ewok Village something seemed a little wrong - she wasn’t holding the lens, so I mentioned that she should try doing that for stability. When I looked through the photos after the race, everything seemed a little distant and it turns out I didn’t explain to Becky that she would need to twist the lens to zoom in! Ha! Apparently, I wasn’t allowed to laugh at that... especially as she had to do so much running around to get close in to the action! 😀
Anyway... back to the Ewok village - it was a load of fun scrambling around innovative tree house style obstacles. It wasn’t the only time that we’d be high in the trees, the “Legends of Sherwood” zone later in the course also included some pretty high clambers. I’m not the best with heights but it all felt secure enough and I managed to trundle on through it all without too many worries.
From the halfway point onwards a fair amount of runners had dropped down to a walk - which is understandably after 16km! And a lot of people were starting to avoid the water obstacles, probably for the fear of getting as cold as we did in the Water Wipeout Zone. It’s from that point onwards that the course really became a test of resolve. It was never going to be an easy challenge and that started to hit home as the miles carried on ticking away.
One of the most entertaining parts of the second half was the “Biggest, Baddest, Boldest” zone, which included, amongst other things, a long crawl under cargo net, a massive hay bail tower and the world’s longest stretch of monkey bars (apparently, with 400 rungs and 110m it is a Guinness World Record!). Predictably my effort on the monkey bars was dismal, but I was amazed to see how far some people were getting. Massive respect to those who made it to the end, even those who stopped for the occasional break, I honestly can’t comprehend how difficult that is. Anyway, for those of us with less prowess, the forfeit was to jump a series of barriers from the point that you dropped from the monkey bars. I, of course, did the whole length, which was a tiring challenge and was actually an excellent obstacle in it’s own right and one I’d really like to see at other events.
After I crossed the 15 mile marker I thought that I’d be able to just tick off the miles to the finish and that my enthusiasm to cross the line would spur me on, but I faced the biggest challenge of the whole course. My legs were exhausted and my run had become very laboured and heavy-footed. I could feel that it was jarring my knees and that I may well be suffering the consequences in the days and weeks to come! From that point onwards it was more a battle with my mind than it was with the course. I refused to give in but all I could think about was crossing the line and collapsing to the floor. That thought went round and round in my head as I kept looking hopefully towards the horizon for the next mile marker.
The last couple of miles contained a few major obstacles inside the “Burghley Bedsit”, “Chariots of Fire” and “Final Furlong” zones. There were some large multi-level scaffolding and wooden structures to scramble over and around. It really was Rat Race at its finest, but I struggled to enjoy it, I just focused on getting through to the finish line.
Crossing the line was a massive relief. Although I always picture the triumphant moment when I cross the line and collapse in a heap on the floor I never actually have the urge to do it when the moment arises. I cut off my timing chip and strolled through the tent to collect my medal and goody bag. My priority had swung from lying on the floor to heading to the beer tent!
I ordered a pint of Rat Race Blonde and it is possibly one of the tastiest beers I’ve ever had in my life. Although I’m sure that was partly because it had been so well earned!
I hung around to chat to a few familiar faces and I think we all agreed that Rat Race had put on a very impressive event. They had set their sights high and managed to deliver a course that was massively challenging, innovative and a lot of fun. The amount of effort that had gone into building the course first time around must have been immense.
Sure, there have been a few gripes from people about the event and there are definitely some improvements that need to be made but, when put in perspective, they’re mostly first world problems (check out the link - it's dead good!). I’ve already mentioned the congestion and toilet queues. Apparently there were an adequate amount of toilets on site for the amount of people attending but I’m guessing that’s not taking into account that everyone wants to go to the toilet at the same time before a race. Also, they faced an unlucky malfunction with the toilets resulting in a lot of them becoming out of order. To be honest, I can’t blame the organisers, in fact I think it’s really nice that they brought in posh loos rather than your standard portaloos. You live and you learn, they assure me there will be far more toilets next year!
Incidentally, because I ended up in a later heat due of toilet queues, my official time was 15mins longer than it should have been. If you want to get your time and position changed just email firstname.lastname@example.org and they’ll update the system for you. Simple as!
There were a few issues with shower queues, a packed camp site and a crowded bar but again the organisers were just victims of their own success. I’m sure they’ll have all of those things sorted for next year.
“The main issue we had is that a lot more people camped than we expected, with the camping being included in the entry fee there was no real way to ascertain how many were planning to camp - something we will separate out from the entry fee for 2014 so we know the numbers and can provide the correct amount of facilities.”
I think the worst problem might have been the lack of water and provisions at the pit stops for the later waves. The organisers had this to say:
“The Pit-Stops we can only apologise for, we obviously have them on our endurance races (this is the first high volume adventure race we've used them for) and we underestimated the quantities and flow rate of people through them. There was also an issue with portion control which isn't a problem in our endurance races but is clearly an issue here and we will absolutely ensure that they are fully stocked with food and water for 2014, and we are planning to add an extra couple in too.”
I admire Rat Race for building something so massive and for convincing 5,500 crazy people to take it on. I admire them for delivering an amazing experience that stands out in the obstacle race calendar. And I really admire their response to issues on the day and their honesty and ability to take on constructive criticism.
I’m really happy to see that next year’s event date has already been released, confirming that Dirty Weekend is here to say. I had an amazing weekend and this is only the start of something very special. Using the base they've built, future years are likely to be even better. Bring on 10th May 2014! Tickets for next year's event will be available shortly on www.ratracedirtyweekend.com.