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Why More Trail Runners Should Race Obstacle Courses

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[Update: On Saturday, October 10, Max King won his second straight Warrior Dash World Championship, taking home $30,000.]

Whether it’s the ever-popular Tough Mudder or Spartan races or a smaller version of the same idea, you’ve probably heard of, or even tried, the obstacle-course racing events rising in popularity across the country. The Warrior Dash is one such obstacle race: participants compete around a 5K course that contains 12 intense obstacles—think scrambling up walls and ropes, crawling beneath barbed wire and sprinting across tiny balance beams—through mud fields, lakes and more.

Many trail runners are intrigued by the idea, but put-off by them too, despite many of the cross overs between the two styles of competition. True, obstacle course events are a far cry from the backcountry trail-running events that we love—but despite being their own beast, there are a surprising number of similarities.

Just ask trail-running veteran Max King, 35, of Bend, Oregon, known for his incredible record-setting wins across all disciplines of running, from the track to the road to the trail.

Last year, King took first place in the 2014 Warrior Dash World Championships, winning a sizeable chunk of the $100,000 prize purse when he crossed the 5K finish line in 22:34. Participants had to earn a spot in this championship event by placing in the top 25 for any prior Warrior Dash event, and King, as he tends to, blew his competition out of the water.

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King brings home the bacon. Courtesy of Warrior Dash

On Saturday, the 2015 Warrior Dash World Championships are being held in Pulaski, Tennessee, and King will attempt to claim his second championship title.

We caught up with King about his success in the world of obstacle-course events, the crossover between trail running and events like the Warrior Dash and why trail runners might want to get involved, too.

First things first—what made you decide to start competing in obstacle-course events?

It started a couple years ago when I entered a race on a whim. I was supposed to do a 100K, but was too injured, so I found an obstacle race that was happening in the same town and decided to do it. I’d wanted to do it for a while.

What’s the draw?

They are a ton of fun. I kind of see it as a great cross-country course with a few more fun elements thrown in. The field is mix of CrossFitters, runners and generally really fit people, so it’s really interesting and totally different than your typical running race.

What does it take to be successful in obstacle-course events?

It takes a good mix of strength, endurance and a bit of crazy. I love it. Just like a successful triathlete, you have to be good at both the obstacles and the running in between. It’s takes well-rounded athlete to do well.

Obviously the running is the easy part for me. The challenge is the heavy strength-based obstacles where my strength and [relatively light] weight are a disadvantage.

What is the crossover between trail running and obstacle events?

Most of the obstacle courses use the terrain itself as obstacles as well as the man-made ones, so they tend to be good trail courses as well. Since Warrior Dash is on the shorter side, it’s more similar to a difficult cross-country race but still with elements that favor a trail runner.

How do you prepare for an obstacle event like the Warrior Dash World Championships?

I honed a bit of speed through a few workouts over the last couple weeks. The obstacles are tough to train for because they’re efficiency based and very specific, so unless you build the obstacles you don’t know what’s coming.

What’s your mindset going into the race?

I have a hopeful mindset, but I can’t be too confident—I don’t know the course or who else my competition might be. I have to be ready for anything. All I know is that it will be a ton of fun to get muddy and run a great course.

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