Obstacle Racing: All Kids Should Do It

I know I’ve mentioned it before, but one of my favorite races I run every year is the Mud Ninja race here in Ohio. It’s local, it supports autism charities, it’s super-family-friendly, and most importantly it’s super fun! The 2016 incarnation of this race was late last month, celebrating its fifth year of existence, and I am proud to say that I’ve run this every year. But this year, we had a special addition to the experience – introducing someone new to the sport of obstacle course racing, our teenager, Kaylah.

Kaylah’s been living with us for a year or so at this point and has been a great family friend for a year before that. She’s a great girl, loves the arts and singing, likes to challenge herself (she’s on my wife’s swim team which is how we met her), and is very outspoken. She tends to be a bit of a girly-girl, in a lot of ways. Doesn’t like to get dirty, her primary sports before swimming were cheer and gymnastics, etc. And I don’t think she’d ever really even heard of obstacle course racing until she met us and found out what I was doing.

I think she thought it was all a bit nuts at first, but as time when on and we all talked about it (including the fact that our two kids both do kids’ races at the various events we attend) she started to get a bit of the bug. So that weekend, she joined us at Mud Ninja for the kids race.

Mud Ninja’s kids’ race is, obviously, a shortened version of the original. The walls are scaled down a bit, the distance is about a half mile, but that’s about the only difference. These kids are down in the mud, crawling up to their chins, sliding into mud pits and clambering out, working together as a team to conquer some of the obstacles, and having a ball.

I will be perfectly honest – I wasn’t sure this was going to be something that Kaylah was going to enjoy. She talks a lot about how she likes swimming because it’s 1) clean and 2) she doesn’t really have to feel herself sweat. Obviously, those are two things that are not the case in OCR. But she said she wanted to do it, and like any evangelical madman, I was ready for her to give it a try. She’d seen me after the Spartan Sprint in May, obviously, when I showed up still crusted with some dirt but obviously happy and tired. She gave me a hard time about the dirt, but you could tell there was suddenly some interest there. So…

Mud Ninja American Ninja Warrior obstacle
The big obstacle at Mud Ninja – the always challenging American Ninja Warrior!

Saturday morning, we showed up at the course at about 9:00 AM and walked in. It had rained here the previous day, and by the time we got past registration and waivers, our feet were muddy. Period. So, one major hurdle out of the way for Kaylah.

The plan was for me to start off at 10:00 and run my race, and while I was going, they would run the kids race. My wife wasn’t feeling great so it wasn’t going to be a long day, we wanted to do as much in as little time as we could.

Kaylah and I walked around a bit and looked at some of the obstacles so that she could get an idea of what things were going to be like. I’d told her about it, of course, and she’d seen me after other races, but seeing the course and some of the fan favorite obstacles got her eyes pretty big. The first thing you see when you come in at Mud Ninja is pretty much the end of the course – with obstacles like the Shinobi Slackline (a slackline obstacle over a mud pit) followed by four mud pit/climb obstacles and a final crawl through the muck to get to the finishing arch.

Then, I took her around to look at the two big obstacles at Mud Ninja – the warped wall, similar to the Colossus at Savage Race (without the slide on the back side), and the American Ninja Warrior – pictured here.

Mud Ninja Warped Wall obstacle
Warped Wall obstacle at Mud Ninja

Kaylah’s eyes definitely got big at this point. I think it was one of those “how the heck are you even supposed to do that?” faces, but once she saw a few people try it she got it. Her race wasn’t going to have that obstacle as part of it, but it gave her an idea of what to expect. In fact, it probably got her to a point where even the hardest obstacles on her course didn’t seem as intimidating!

So I got in line for my wave at around 9:45, stretched out as much as possible in the corral, and as I took off I heard my cheering section of my wife, son, and the very loud Kaylah sending me off into the woods and down into a ravine.

I won’t bore you with my personal story at the race as much, other than to say I conquered the American Ninja Warrior without using the rope out of the mud pit in front of it for the first time and had a pretty good race for me overall. Figured out some stuff to work on for next time, etc. Always a good thing to take away from a race.

The kids made it through their course before I got done with the 5K main race, so I definitely had my cheering section back as we got to the previously mentioned Shinobi Slackline and the mud pits/crawl before the finish line. I had three very loud supporters cheering me on as I made my way to the end, and after I finished and got my medal the first one to reach me was Kaylah.

She was absolutely exultant. She had conquered her┬árace and was half-aghast/half-bragging at the mud that caked her, and was a literal fountain of information as she told me about the race that she and my son had finished. I got to see the pictures my wife had taken, heard the news about the obstacles that our son had conquered for the first time in their race, and we got an earful as Kaylah told us all about what she’d done.

So here are the takeaways here: Kaylah’s done a lot of stuff in her life, there’s no doubt. But she’d never done anything like this: her family that I’ve met or talked to strikes me as pretty typical American (go to gyms, keep clean, dirt is bad, etc.). Meeting us has been a bit of an eye opener for her – we like to get dirty (hell, we encourage it), we encourage measured risk-taking, we exhort people to go against the grain, and more.

And taking part in one of those activities that pretty much encompasses everything we believe in has really jump-started what she thinks of as possible, I think. I’ll probably get an earful from her about this post and how I’m blowing stuff out of proportion. But I saw the looks on her face, heard the excitement in her voice, and saw her strut around. This meant something to her.

I think she now sees herself as more capable of things. She has already sat down with me to learn about other races and what they might offer her – full length races (5K or more). She’s looking at her swimming training as a boost to her potential OCR capabilities now. She’s not sweating dirt as much. She’s had a bit of a catharsis here in the action of throwing herself into mud and pushing herself with it. She even woke up the next morning, complaining about her soreness in that “yeah, I did something yesterday” way that all OCR folks know and love.

I don’t think I’m blowing things out of proportion when I say that this is something that all kids should try. Kids love the mud. They love to be outside getting exercise as much as they can. They love being shown what they can do, especially┬áthe stuff they can do that they didn’t even think about before. As I said in the post on initiation a while back, there’s a time when we need to push kids over a hill that they didn’t know they could handle. OCR can be a great way to do that.

So get your kids into a race. Tough Mudder, Spartan Race, Battlefrog, and even smaller races like Mud Ninja all have kids’ races. Check the websites for the race when you’re registering to see what they offer for your younglings. And watch them flourish as they dive into their muddy futures.

EDIT: So… this was disappointing: I was going through pictures to try to find something for teenagers/kids in obstacle course races, and Googling “teenagers obstacle course races” had a whole bunch of links about how to make “safe, fun obstacle course races for kids.” Example: the “pool noodle obstacle course.” I’m not even going to dignify this with a freaking link, because it goes directly against everything I was writing in today’s post.

Folks, half the reason to do an obstacle course race is that it’s not safe. If all we ever allow our kids to do is “safe” stuff, they’re never going to grow. We grow through challenges – really challenges – to our comfort zones. An OCR is all about getting out of your comfort zone. And creating “safe” versions of our sport is doing them an extreme disservice, because it’s making them think they can do things without actually doing them. The challenge is the whole reason to do an OCR. Or climb a mountain. Or run a marathon. The challenge is what makes you grow.

Don’t suffice for “safe” versions of races. Go for it. Do the work, take the challenge, and take your kids with you.