Life Isn’t A Journey, It’s An Obstacle Course

The Olympic Games have a reputation of representing the purest, highest repository of human athletic ability. Yet amid the pomp, there always seem to be a handful of events derided as “not Olympic”—whether it’s an obscure hybrid like ski cross; rhythmic gymnastics, in which swirling a ribbon is a key skill; or dressage, in which horses dance to pop songs.


But when it comes to un-Olympicness, none of those can hold a candle to plunging, a medal sport from a century ago in which the competitors leapt into the water and did not move. Far from being a pure expression of athleticism, our great-grandparents’ Olympics were replete with novelty sports in what could be a carnival-like atmosphere.

In the fitness industry, as in any other industry, you’re going to have the latest trends or fads, what’s hot and what’s not. What’s motivating the masses to get out there and sweat on a perfectly good Saturday or Sunday when they could be sleeping in? Of course we’ll always have marathons and triathlons, but the latest and greatest seem to be obstacle-course racing and team-building events with a whole lot of craziness and good times thrown in.

Obstacle course races have been around pretty much since the dawn of civilized society.

Obstacle courses are representative of a series of obstacles that will test us in ways that we have never been tested and will take all of our strength, cunning and perseverance to overcome. In general an obstacle course is not only a test, but an achievement that results in you becoming a better person for it. It is akin to walking through the fire of opposition and coming out on the other side reborn and stronger than ever.

The first mention of the obstacle course actually was used to describe the ancient Egyptian underworld, called Duat.  This was not a type of Hell, it was more like a strange, and sometimes scary, obstacle course that a deceased’s soul had to go through in order to be admitted into the afterlife.

In Duat, souls had to pass a series of 12 gates that were guarded by demons. They had to recite each demon’s name correctly in order to be let through to the next gate. Once the souls passed through all 12 gates, they were led into the Hall of Judgment for final assessment.

The deceased’s last task was to pass through the weighing of the heart ceremony, and receive final judgment from God.

Later on, the ancient Greeks manifested obstacle course racing in the physical form with a race called the Stadion, where runners ran naked around a track covered with obstacles.

The Stadion was once part of the five events in the Olympic Pentathlon, and obstacle course races — with clothes — continued through the centuries. The races also became staples of military training, the variety of maneuvers a perfect blend for getting troops ready for the multitude of challenges they might face in the field.

The use of obstacle courses for enhancing, contesting, and assessing physical fitness, for sporting, military, and physical education purposes is ancient practice.

Documentation of the use of obstacles in athletes’ training regimes dates to at least as early as the Roman Empire, as can be seen in the following passage by Greek writer, Lucian:

Furthermore, we train (young men) them to be good runners, habituating them to hold out for a long distance, and also making them light-footed for extreme speed in a short distance. And the running is not done on hard, resisting ground but in deep sand, where it is not easy to plant one’s foot solidly or to get a purchase with it, since it slips from under one as the sand gives way beneath it. We also train them to jump a ditch, if need be, or any other obstacle, even carrying lead weights as large as they can grasp.

Lucian even explained the training-related utility of a popular element of many modern obstacle courses – mud. He acknowledged that the use of mud in training may at first seem “ludicrous,” but noted that it helps cushion landings of individuals wrestling each other, and that it “gives much strength to their bodies,” in making them work hard to grip and hold each other, when made slippery like “eels.”

In some ancient societies, like Sparta, military training and education were essentially synonymous, as its citizens’ sole purpose was to prepare for war. It has been said that, “Sparta did not have an army; it was an army,” and that its children began their lifelong physical, military training at the age of seven.

They engaged in a great diversity of activities, which constitute elements of modern day obstacle courses, including running, jumping, climbing, swimming, vaulting, balancing, and swinging from ropes.

Mankind has trained for wars as long as they have fought them. Obstacles of various kinds have always been a part of that training. Even Biblical accounts of early Israelite warfare show signs of training through the use of obstacles. In Judges 3:15, an assassin named Ehud is described as being “bound in his right hand.” Many scholars believe this was a deliberate training method in which Benjaminite warriors bound their right hand to strengthen the use of their left hand, giving them advantages in combat (Judges 3:21 and 20:16).

The current trend in obstacle racing started a few years ago, when elite athletes started looking for new challenges, ones without the joint-jarring pain of long-distance running or the cost of triathlons.

Suspended in a culture entranced by technological recreation, a generation of Americans is turning to obstacle course racing for a personal challenge. This increasing popularity has spawned an industry boasting a variety of venues complete with support communities and training equipment. Long before obstacles courses became a pop-cult sport, they established themselves as a fixture of hard-nosed military training.

Over the last two hundred years, America has developed into the modern Rome. Much in America’s formation was deliberately patterned after the great, ancient empire. The Colonial Army certainly surprised the world when it defeated the British Empire in the Revolutionary War, but it was not until World War II that America asserted itself as the definitive, global superpower. American society transformed into a war machine.

At this crucial juncture, Brig. Gen.William Hoge instituted the modern obstacle course at Ft. Belvoir. Hoge’s obstacle course began operation in the spring of 1941 training new recruits for combat. His design was upgraded by Major Louis Prentiss in November of the same year and has been a fundamental element of American military training ever since.

Obstacle courses are designed to test the physical aptitude of the participant. In the military, they serve the additional purpose of preparing soldiers for combat. To accomplish these goals, in Hoge’s original course, “The trainees had to climb over walls, jump over barb wires, and crawl through ditches and pipes.”

Modern courses continue to use many of these basic elements in their training. The physical challenges in modern obstacle courses can be broken down into the following categories: jumping, dodging, climbing, horizontal traversing, vaulting, crawling, balancing.  Materials used in the course include logs and wooden structures, manila ropes, cargo nets, barbed wire, and pipes. The environment of the course will vary, but may include mud, forest and water obstacles.

The Spartan Race, created in 2005 by seven ultra athletes and a Royal Marine, was one of the first major obstacle course races.

The Spartan Race is on a mission to get you active, healthy, excited about change, and return to our ancient roots where running through woods, getting dirty, and facing adversity was part of everyday life. Their events are all about challenging today’s perception of normal.

The Spartan Race series, which has three dozen races in Canada and the United States this year, includes four distances, from 3 to 26 miles, and many other races include shorter versions and kid runs.

Of course, there are always those athletes who want the ultimate challenge, so for them there’s the Spartan Death Race, which last 48 hours.

And, depending on your athletic ability, you can choose these races and pretty much find something that will suit where you are at, at the moment.

The great variability in obstacle course design and in the skills and abilities required to negotiate various courses makes it inappropriate to make definitive recommendations for training programs. Obstacle course challenges may vary tremendously between different types of events and even between the same types of events, run in different locations, at different times. Individuals should characterize the demands of targeted events as clearly as possible, and then tailor their training as specifically as possible to those demands.

It’s all about controlling your mind.

Top obstacle course competitors tend to be individuals with diverse and well-developed motor skills and physical capacities. While obstacle courses vary greatly in the degrees to which they test different physical capacities and skills, they all challenge several.

Throughout modern history, obstacle courses requiring variable combinations of endurance, strength, agility, coordination, balance, and strategy have continued to be important in the physical training and testing of military personnel, as is documented scientifically, practically, and popularly.

Obstacle courses have long been used as valuable tools in physical education curricula.  Not only can they be used to enhance motor development, but cognitive and emotional learning as well.

Young children can learn movement terms and concepts, as they perform such skills as crawling, climbing, leaping, balancing, and ducking, “through”, “on,” “over,” “inside,” and “under” objects. Older students can learn basic anatomy and physiology, by identifying the muscles and joints most important to negotiating various obstacles, and by assessing changes in such parameters as heart rate, ventilation, sweating, and perceived exertion as they do so.

Obstacle courses can also be used to develop skills related to orienteering, problem solving, constructing, leading groups, and working as a team, and to strengthen personal qualities, like courage, persistence, and confidence.

By this point, you may be asking yourself why anyone in their right mind would be interested in putting themselves through one of these events, let alone paying to do it.  “Why would I want to jump into freezing cold water and crawl on my stomach through tunnels of mud?” you question.

Self- determination theory (SDT), may at least partly explain their appeal. Achievement goal theory holds that the primary motive for learning, striving, and persisting is the desire to demonstrate competence, and that individuals define success in this regard from two major perspectives. Task- or mastery-oriented individuals find success in working hard, learning, improving, and mastering skills, according to self-referenced criteria. Ego- or performance-oriented individuals generally see success as performing better than others, performing the same as others with less effort, or avoiding performing worse than others.

Though the two perspectives are distinct, individuals can possess both task and ego orientations, which seems true of many obstacle race participants. Many assess their own performances, without relation to those of others; many judge their efforts solely according to finishing position; and some evaluate their exploits based on both meeting their own standards and performing well compared to others.

SDT maintains that all individuals have three major needs: 1) to act according to their own free will (autonomy); 2) to feel capable and effective in their actions (competence); and 3) to feel socially connected (relatedness). According to SDT, intrinsic motivation, or motivation to participate in an activity because it is itself is pleasurable and rewarding , is enhanced when participation is voluntary and when it promotes competence and connection with others. Many obstacle challenge events seem to satisfy these needs.

Our country is built on the idea (at least according to the political advertisements) that people can make of the world what they want. We embrace success stories that highlight personal character, not personal privilege. We are uncomfortable admitting ways in which we are better off than others— and don’t like privileged people. Mitt Romney’s attempts to downplay his wealth (and the ridicule he receives when he fails at this) highlight this.

We proudly lay claim to the idea that we are the 99%, compared to the top 1%, but are more hesitant to label ourselves as the top 99%, compared to the bottom 1%. We focus upward, on those who have more than us, rather than downward, on those who have less. We’d rather be disadvantaged rather than advantaged.

This preference is readily apparent in the kinds of personal stories we embrace. The popular stories about our new Olympic heroes show this.

But, why is it that we gravitate towards these stories, and not the stories of athletes born with a silver spoon?  Why do we like hardship stories?

It’s because we mark ourselves as exceptional not only because of our accomplishments, but also because of the obstacles to those accomplishments.  So much so that the absence of obstacles can actually work against us.

Life can be like an obstacle course. All sorts of challenges set up before us and hurdles to overcome. On this course we can go it alone or work in a team, having to self-motivate and motivate others along side us.

Obstacle course racing is one way to gauge your stamina, endurance mindset, and obstacle-clearing abilities. It serves as a great source of motivation for self-training, providing you with an actionable purpose for your training. You will also get to know how good you are (or how much improvements you need). If you already have a group that you train with, obstacle racing provides an opportunity to build teamwork. If you train alone, you will be able to meet many like-minded individuals (who are competing), who will help you when facing difficulties in the race.

Sometimes we need a push and sometimes we need to push others. Parts of the course utilize our talents and skills to the full, while we struggle with other elements where we feel our talents are found wanting. This is when outsourcing is a grand idea: working together synergizes and quadruples results.

The large numbers of entrants in many of today’s popular events seem to provide social connectedness for virtually everyone. The options to compete to win, to work for personal challenge, and to participate for fun, seem to provide autonomy and, for many, comfort, in enabling more and less competitive companions to participate in the same event, as it suits them. Certainly, motivation to participate could be undermined by pressure from significant others to participate, or by challenges that inspire feelings of incompetence, but the widespread popularity of obstacle events indicates that many participants’ experiences are satisfying.

The secret lies in actually participating in your first obstacle course event.  You may not feel it as you run through the starting point, and I guarantee you probably won’t be feeling it as you hike up a mountain, carrying a heavy log in your arms, while getting hosed down with water. After some time, however, you’ll see that there is a greater sense of community which exists during the event, and realize that the overall goal isn’t only for you to cross the finish line, but instead for everyone to help each other cross the finish line.

Life is an obstacle course.

Just when we think we have reached the end, we are told or realize that this is just another stage and yet another section lies before us. Some of us will drop out of the course early. Some go stampeding ahead, only to be found sprawled on their backs, panting for air. At some stages we can change our team members and at some levels there are choices about which direction to take. We are given guidelines but there is no conclusive manual or map detailing the layout of the course. We are also not told what the overall goal or final outcome will be. Some question the purpose of the course and some just keep going ahead blindly.

It is important to prepare daily for what lies ahead. Exercise the mind and the body so you can face the challenges. The route can take you through some awe-inspiring scenery so do not solely focus on the task at hand. Enjoy the view while cycling along. Take some time to soak in the sights and stop for a drink.

Remember not to always have your eyes set on the outcome and spend enough time with the process to fully appreciate your participation.

The prize? What exactly is the prize? The prize is the course itself and the experiences we have along the way.

The struggles and challenges that we face are exactly what we need in our life, and they will come exactly when we need them. If the universe allowed us to go through our entire life without any obstacles that would cripple us. We would not be as strong as what we could have been. Not only that, we could never fly.

Realize that life’s difficulties and struggles are for our own good, embrace them with love – they are a personal gift from the Almighty.

In an obstacle course, as in Life there’s going to be a lot of turns, turns that once you make, you’ll be proud. While you’re running through, you’re going to crash into the climbing wall. Most of us get scared to climb it, but the only way to keep going is to overcome the struggles. There’s going to be a lot of barbed wire that will cut you and catch you up in many ways. The scars may remain, but you go on. And, one day, you’ll look back and be proud of the course you ran.


Register  for your race Today!

Live and Learn. We All Do.

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About julia29

Hi. My name is Julia El-Haj. I am a Hall of Fame Athlete, an MBA, Professional Certified Marketer, Certified Youth Fitness Trainer, a Specialist in Sports Nutrition and a licensed Real Estate agent. I gave up my "seat at the table" to be home with my 3 children because that's where I was needed most. I blog about everything with Wellness in mind.
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4 Responses to Life Isn’t A Journey, It’s An Obstacle Course

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