In 2010, after half a decade of racing triathlons, Erin Beresini’s body gave out. The collapse was devastating for Beresini, who had made writing about endurance sports her career (she's published articles in the New York Times, Competitor, and Outside, which she will join later this month as an online editor). “Worst of all,” she writes in her debut book, Off Course: Inside the Mad, Muddy World of Obstacle Course Racing, “I couldn’t do what I always did when I broke down: go for a run, a bike ride, or a swim.”
Beresini thrashed around for a year, shredded her Achilles tendons during a 30-mile cross-country ski race in Wisconsin, and eventually stumbled into obstacle course racing in 2011, just as the sport was taking off. Unable to run, she struck up a friendship with a next-door neighbor in Los Angeles who happened to be a CrossFit trainer. In the fall of 2012, she competed in the Ultra Beast, a punishing 26-mile event at a ski mountain in Vermont organized by Spartan, one of the two leading obstacle-racing brands. (The other is Tough Mudder.)
Off Course loosely traces her rehabilitation as an athlete—mentally, if not necessarily physically—and examines the sport’s rapid transformation from bizarre sideshow to the most popular endurance activity in the country. Anybody wondering how that happened will enjoy Off Course.
As was the case with many traditionalists, the obstacle racing movement initially caught Beresini off guard. But in the book, her skepticism doesn’t last long, and she’s hooked after her first race. Obstacle course races are punishing, weird, and messy—and, therefore, she realizes, lots of fun. They also offer something most marathons and triathlons don’t: an ethos of teamwork and comradeship, which she finds a little hokey but mostly affirming, especially at the end of the Ultra Beast when she finds herself near hypothermic and doing burpees at night in the rain.
In fact, the focus on teamwork is one of two elements that obstacle course races have borrowed directly from the military, the other being the courses themselves, which were developed by a French naval officer to train recruits more than 100 years ago. More recently, Tough Mudder founder Will Dean lifted major pieces of his series from a long-running OCR event in Great Britain called Tough Guy, which resulted in a lawsuit and censure from Harvard Business School, Dean’s alma mater.
Beresini sketches brief, and often very funny, profiles of the other major players in the OCR world: Spartan founder Joe De Sena, Tough Guy creator William Wilson, elite racer Hobie Call, and a Tough Mudder groupie named Ray Upshaw, who has the event’s motto tattooed to his back but eventually gets banned from all Tough Mudder events, ostensibly for violating some Tough Mudder polices but more likely for being a bit of a nutcase.
Those profiles do a lot to explain how OCR has grown so explosively in the past few years: the sport offers a much wider variety of people a chance to compete in endurance sports than has ever been possible with marathons or triathlons. Midway through her training for the Ultra Beast, Beresini meets a CrossFitter who is intrigued by her racing plans and unintentionally proves a maxim in the CrossFit/OCR/endurance world: “CrossFitters didn’t know what they were training for until OCR came around.”
How long will obstacle racing stick around? Beresini isn’t sure, but she notes that triathlon, which today has a place in the Olympics and hundreds of thousands of dedicated racers, was similarly mocked as a fad and a bastardization of other events when it debuted in the late 1970s. OCR seems to exert the same pull on Beresini that triathlon did before she burned out. “I was hoping to make a few friends and lift myself out of a funk,” she writes. “I did not expect that OCR would forever change the way I train.”