We’re super excited to have covered the NAIL-BITING Nuclear Challenge Cup last weekend, so make sure you check out our frontrunner coverage when it appears, but how was the race from a competitor’s experience? Rosanna Kuit gives us the muddy details…
The Challenge Cup was billed as "the race for racers," so given that I wouldn't describe myself as a racer and I haven't run at Nuclear before, I wasn't really sure what to expect. Nuclear receives rave reviews for its unique obstacles which, combined with the legendary mud, means it scores highly on the fun scale, but until now the only truly competitive race held there was the 2015 UK OCR Championships, which received mixed reviews. It's been clear from the unveiling of this new event that a lot of thought has gone in to the format so I was certainly excited so see how it played out.
The pre-race information was much more comprehensive than the usual spiel about parking and bag drop. We were provided with a clear list of rules for penalty obstacles as well as a video demonstrating correct obstacle completion, which was so much better than trying to listen to a marshal’s instructions mid-race! Challenge Cup racers were also allowed to practice on the course the day before the race, which I'm pretty sure is a first in OCR. I did skim read the rules and watch the video, but I couldn’t get down to the course the day before, so I decided to embrace the unknown and not study the course map too closely.
Thankfully, the vile weather on the motorway inhumanely early on race day cleared up and I thought the conditions were pretty good for what should be a fast race. It certainly wasn't as cold as it could have been in November, and only allowing one try at penalty obstacles would hopefully keep the course flowing and avoid the formation of tin foil penguin huddles. Nevertheless, I was slightly rattled to enter the start pen and notice that I was the only girl without a long sleeved base layer or neoprene. Hmm. I reminded myself that I always run warm, and the vest was a step up from the crop top I'd nearly worn, so there was really no need for a panicked last-minute wardrobe change.
After a reminder of the rules and an opportunity to ask any last questions, we were off. The first section of the course was mainly wooded trail running which allowed the faster runners to pull ahead and the field to spread out before we hit the obstacles. I'm a sucker for pretty scenery so I had to keep reminding myself that I was in a race and I needed to keep my legs moving while admiring the autumnal woodland. The system for mandatory versus penalty obstacles came into play fairly early on when I executed an entirely pathetic attempt at the ninja rings and found myself having to drag a heavy chain over a steep mound of earth. What I didn't expect was that only a few obstacles later I caught up with some ninja ring completers and overtook them while dragging an even heavier chain through water and up a muddy bank. This game of leapfrog continued throughout the whole course and it really added to the racing element. Ordinarily when you keep overtaking the same person on the course, you figure they either have little regard for course markings or they're taking aggressive cornering too far, but this time it was down to your strengths and weaknesses at different types of obstacle compared to those around you. After tailing the same person for ages you'd finally pull ahead by nailing an obstacle they failed, only to see them run past when you faltered at something later on.
The variety of obstacles was fantastic and the majority were constructions totally unique to Nuclear Races. Those innocuous looking minions - floating gym balls with ropes overhead - were actually really tricky so I was pleased to get over them penalty free, and simple things like climbing underneath a horizontal cargo net over a water pit provided a different challenge to the obstacle race staples of walls, barbed wire crawls and cargo net climbs. I very strongly dislike slides so my screams on the death slide were probably heard in the event village, and swimming across the lake afterwards was the only time I felt cold during the race. I warmed up again within a few minutes of running and the "one attempt only" rule at penalty obstacles meant you always kept moving. Having running sections immediately following any full water submersion was a great bit of course planning, so thank you Mr Course Designer. The only obstacle that was made difficult due to its positioning so close to water was the Kingfisher; when I arrived at the ascending monkey bar contraption, my hands were so cold I could barely move them, and that, combined with my general ineptitude, resulted in another obstacle failure.
I failed an awful lot of obstacles purely so I could review the penalties first hand. Honest. I resisted the temptation to fly through the high rig like a squirrel monkey and instead channeled my inner bear as I joined the procession of people crawling round the penalty loop. Less than halfway round, my burning shoulders were a testament to the clever course design where failing an upper body obstacle didn't mean you exercised your legs running around a flag. Purely in pursuit of experiencing the full course I carried scaffold poles, dragged a chain, carried concrete blocks and climbed a cargo net. These penalties combined with the relentless obstacles and heavy mud underfoot certainly provided a challenge and I started to find my fitness somewhat lacking. I was failing obstacles that I can easily do during training or a low-key fun lap of a race, but I didn't have the endurance to complete them while fatigued. Yes there was mud on the course and yes some of the obstacles were fairly technical, but it certainly wasn't Ninja Warrior Mud Edition and I could have perfectly well completed them if I wasn't so spent.
I had such a great time out on that course. Despite it being a competitive race there was the usual friendly chat amongst runners and a buzzing undercurrent that we were taking part in something new and exciting. Not only a new race format, but one specifically designed to stop the moaning about obstacle skipping and cheating. The very first bullet point in the race rules stated that "The Nuclear Challenge Cup will be a fair race," and from what I saw it certainly was. The rules for the obstacles were clear and the marshals were obviously well briefed, meaning the penalties were applied fairly to everyone. I really liked the variety of those penalties and the way they targeted the same muscle groups as the obstacle you'd failed. The issue of height bias has cropped up again recently and at 5'2" I had no trouble reaching any of the obstacles, so thumbs up on that front, and it was great to have carries and drags of a decent weight for the females. It's almost embarrassing to stroll past a guy struggling with 2 sand bags when you've only got 1, so when we did have a lighter carry than the guys I was glad it was only a bit lighter and not a pathetic half the weight. Perhaps the only obstacles with room for improvement on the penalty front were the high and low rigs. Quite to my surprise, seeing as I’d failed most hanging obstacles up to this point, I managed to get right to the last ring of the low rig before falling off inches from the bell. Getting that far had taken quite a long time and totally burnt my arms out, so it was a bit galling to end up a few minutes behind people who'd fallen off right at the beginning. Perhaps there's a case for having different levels of penalty according to how far along you get, or perhaps it's just the nature of obstacle racing and we shouldn't seek to nail down every last detail. I could have dropped off the rig when the other girls did and stayed with them, but I've definitely got more satisfaction from knowing I was so close to completing it. Had I succeeded in ringing that bell I would have gained a band to bypass the jump course, which would have been glorious.
While plodding back towards the finish area I started reflecting on the race and resolved to start taking my training more seriously ready for next year, and more worryingly, I think I pondered eating less ice cream. Regardless of whether or not either of those plans come to fruition it's really interesting that this event seems to have sparked some glimmer of competitiveness within me. Normally mid-race I'd be chatting to someone, or admiring the scenery, or thinking about food, (and that even goes for bigger races like the World Championships). It sounds daft, but having spent so much time on the injury bench I just enjoy every moment of being able to take part and couldn’t care less how well I do... Or so I thought. After today, I've had the realisation that improving my performance at this type of race is pretty temptingly within reach. I wouldn’t have to learn a heap of new skills by becoming a full time ninja or living at my local climbing wall; I just need to train harder. It sounds so simple!
Without any doubt, the Challenge Cup more than lived up to its slogan as "the race for racers," but I didn't expect it to also be the "race that'll turn you into a racer". It's a great concept well executed by a team passionate about obstacle racing, and the level of detail in the planning was obvious throughout. Racers were required to prove their skill, strength and speed to be crowned the fastest and fittest obstacle racers and I’d say that's exactly what happened today. I'd really love to see this race format become a regular feature as the first wave of all the Nuclear Races events and I know Race Director James Parrish has said he'd like other races to take it on. A whole series of events across the country offering truly competitive fair races would be a fantastic development for the sport. Fingers crossed!