Overcoming obstacles

The Major North obstacle race: March, 2016

At the start line… just after the warm up…

My best friend is in the military. He does not speak fondly of ‘phys’ – so I find some of the pseudo-military fitness classes in fashion quite funny. From what I hear, the encouraging cries of by ‘well done, trooper!’ and ‘chin up, squadron!’ are as far from real military fitness as expecting a private shower afterwards.

However, it is entertaining. It was with this light-hearted attitude that I entered the British Military Fitness Major North race in March. Little did I know that I would leave with some serious homework to do. It was excellent, but a lot tougher than I expected: the kind of experience you don’t know why you’re putting yourself through, but find you’re still talking about obsessively three weeks later.

Now, I’ve lived in rural Scotland, so I do not mean it lightly when I say it was one of the more uncomfortable experiences of my life. I’ve trained in some pretty yuk conditions: I’ve been unable to feel my feet at the top of snowy munroes; I’ve slid on my backside down muddy hillsides ‘cause there’s no other territory to train for cross country; I’ve emigrated to a country where I can run comfortably run without gale force winds, sub-zero temperatures and thick drizzle getting interrupting play for six months of the year. I did not, however, make a habit of wading through Scottish rivers. I tended to run around them. If obstacle races had been on my agenda then, this was the obvious flaw in my training plan.

“No mud, no glory!”


It was the cheesy military element to it which kept me going. There was the Marine Zone, which comprised of swamps, ice pools and deep stretches of muddy water, and other zones with similarly gimmicky names where people shot at you with water pistols, or had you dive over bales to throw potato ‘grenades’ at distant objects. It was wondering what they would throw at you next that kept me going when standing in a freezing puddle while a queue built up to dive over a floating log.

And afterwards, it was hard to tell the bruises from the mud. It would probably have been a better experience in a team. Having others to pull you out of swamps or push you in to ice puddles, saving you squeamishly teetering on the edge before someone in an ill-fitting military-surplus uniform pushes you in with the butt of a water pistol, would have added to the experience. But the atmosphere was conductive to making friends with strangers: when push comes to shove, not many people are going to leave you stuck in the mud.

Apart from a little bit of running between obstacles, it might not seem to have much in common with a triathlon. But there was a serious lesson to be learned.

Having watched the queue ahead of me plummet one by one into the first ice-lake, the jump itself wasn’t difficult. It was the second ice pool which was harder. Because I had completely forgotten – and was firmly reminded by the first pool – how much I hate open water.

As soon as I was up to my chest in water, I felt my lungs contract in panic. Water was in my face, and I started to hyperventilate. Panicking, I scrabbled around looking for some way of clawing myself out. Stumbling on to dry land, I sat down heavily to get some rhythm back in to my breathing. Those around me laughed and helped me up. It was part of the jovial atmosphere, but I knew I had to learn to control the panic rising better.

For the second pool, I concentrated on my breathing as I gingerly inched in. It didn’t particularly help, but at least I had recognised the state of panic I was going to feel, and was starting to formulate a plan.

I kept telling myself that despite the race stewards tough military exteriors, these people were ultimately there for everyone’s safety. Furthermore, the people just a few feet in front or behind me who had just helped me dislodge a leg from knee-deep mud were hardly going to have saved my shoes to let me drown. Second pool down: twenty-three to go.

For the third pool, I had my plan and was more composed. Rather than try to hold my face clear, I ducked right in and swam breast-stroke across. I concentrated on blowing lots of bubbles into the mud each time I exhaled. It was the first pool that I crossed without panicking: I grinned a big mud-toothed grin as I climbed out. By the end of the Marine Zone, I looked like a swamp monster, and had got into a nice panic-attack-free head space. I was almost looking forward to the puddles.

Being a geek, I afterwards read up on the effects of cold water shock on lung capacity, and other such topics that made me wish I had been a sports scientist. Understanding how the body copes under pressure definitely helps me mentally prepare for sports, and one of the recommended coping techniques for open water swimmers prone to panic was, reassuringly, breathing in through the nose and of through the mouth, blowing bubbles into the water until you get used to the temperature and pressure, and establish a rhythm. It also simply helped that there were multiple google results for this kind of panic – I’m not alone in being a triathlete who is terrified of open water, it seems.

But back to the passing out parade. Just as I started to be a pro at the ice pools, Marine Zone was over. It was back to running and jumping over things, which I can do with very little panic. Up and over one particularly fun five-metre wall, aided by ropes and more military surplus kids, and it was well done trooper, chin up squadron, have a beer on us.


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