Saturday, August 9, 2014

Evaluating OCR experiences

My sons and I just enjoyed completing and volunteering at an OCR (obstacle course race) near Austin, TX today. Now it's time for the post-race evaluation...

Miles of Mud is an OCR company that organizes races reflecting an increasingly popular recreation/sports activity; that being, the challenge of a 5K race (or longer distance) with the inclusion of obstacles designed to test strength and athletic endurance in the rest of the body. For the rationale behind this trend, one need look no further than the playgrounds frequented by children in which they can run, climb, hang, crawl and exercise all their muscle groups. Our first exposure to this fantastic activity was through participating in a Spartan Race. There's a sense in which we were spoiled by Spartan Race (a company leading the field in OCR organizers), and all other experiences have been measured against that benchmark.

For Miles for Mud, we devised four categories to measure the experience. Our experience is twofold in nature: (1) as racers, and (2) as volunteers. Many OCR companies (including Spartan Race, though some do not) have a process wherein volunteers can race for free, having donated time and labor to help the event come off well. For those with a limited budget, this is a great option that also includes the satisfaction of helping others have a positive experience. Financially, our family needs this option to participate in the race, but also we enjoy being part of the "team," the crew, the network of labor that helped make the race a success.

As the boys and I spoke about Miles of Mud on the way home, the four categories we came up with were as follows...

  • Staff - Were the event staff friendly, professional and patient? Were they accommodating of needs for water, food or bathroom breaks? Did they make an effort to help us volunteer together? At registration, were they warm, welcoming and organized?
  • Logistics -  Did the event seem organized and well thought-out? Were sufficient materials brought to meet the attendance demand? How well were staff supplied with materials to perform their tasks (shirts, medals, radios, water, etc.)? 
  • Obstacles - Were they well-constructed? Did they offer an athletic challenge? Did they need explanation or were they self-explanatory? Was there a penalty for failing the obstacle? Was it also safe while being difficult?
  • Trail - Was the course designed for a decent trail run? Did the outside venue (ranch, field, stadium, etc.) allow for the run itself to be part of the challenge with topographic variety (hills, canyons and plains)? 
For each of these categories we rated it on a scale of 1 to 5; with 1 being completely lame and inadequate, and 5 being excellent with no improvements imaginable. Spartan Race has always scored so high on all of these levels that - in all honesty - we're likely just comparing these other OCR organizers to that standard. Nevertheless,  it's a place to start. This year we've experienced three other OCRs besides Spartan Race: Trojan Race Series, Gladiator Rock'n Run and today Miles of Mud. We should have applied this eval to the first two while they were still fresh in our minds, but I offer our assessment of the third below.

Our evaluation of Miles of Mud today scores as...
  • Staff (5/5 points) - We found the event staff very friendly, warm and accommodating. I had even received a personal phone call from them two days before confirming that I'd received all the volunteer news and directions. Once at the event site, they were welcoming and fully willing to find volunteer assignments where the boys and I could be in close proximity to each other. We were thanked regularly for our volunteer time with "You're the ones that make this all happen." When it came time for us to run the course (following our volunteer shift), even the announcer made a big deal of us starting out on our own since we were - quite literally - the last racers on the course. As we ran the course, the head staff person met us at strategic places (driving the four-wheeler) to explain obstacles and ensure we had adequate water. We found the entire staff patient with us as we completed the course, being the last racers to return back to the festival area.
  • Logistics (2/5 points) - While I'm loathe to focusing on the negative, an honest assessment is needed. Too few t-shirts were ordered to supply volunteers with appropriate sizes and, because they were so sparse, it was requested we turn ours in when the shift was over. Too few finisher shirts were ordered to supply racers with the requested size. For such a hot day, little to no shade was offered. No canopy or covered structure existed with seats or benches for people to escape the sun. No radios were supplied volunteers, or other communication method, in case of emergency over an injured racer. Six port-o-potties were present at the site, but no changing tent. While they did make accommodation for us to race after the volunteer shift, it was not part of a "volunteer's heat." The announcer was quite surprised that three more racers were leaving the starting line. We received no bib numbers, timing chips or means of tracking the time we took on the course. Half way through the course, our motivation to finish quickly was so that all the remaining finisher medals wouldn't be packed away and the festival area broken down when we got back.
  • Obstacles (3/5 points) - Though the event is called "Miles of Mud," approximately 20' of mud still existed when we went through the course. Very little mud had been built into the course, and the majority of what had been prepared was all dry when we went through. No process was established for keeping it wet in case of a final "heat" of volunteers (speaks also to logistics). No water obstacles were built into the course, which for such a hot day would have brought welcome relief. Some obstacles did not function properly, such as the hoist wherein the rope was passed through a top carabiner instead of a pulley, obstructing the rope's movement for lifting the weight. Some of the obstacles were well-designed however, such as the tire drag, the cargo nets and 4, 6 and 8' walls. While the wires over the low crawls were sagging, showing haphazard assembly, the climbing ropes were secured well and high enough to offer timely challenges twice on the course. For obstacles we found a middle score fair.
  • Trail (5/5 points) - Whether by virtue of the ranch it was held at or the selection of the trail for the course, the running path was excellent. Snaking through the trees and brush, it offered a variety array of hills and canyons, climbs and descents. After running up a hill, which excited the heart rate and burned the legs, we would descend down into a creek bed with zigs and zags that made each turn a thrilling discovery. As trail runs go, a better track could not have been mapped out. In many cases, an OCR might be held in a field or venue that does not offer a trail run such as that. This one was outstanding and challenging in all the right ways. 
Overall this gives Miles of Mud 15/20 points from our perspective, or 75%...a solid "C" grade. Admittedly, some of the lower scores we encountered may have been because of our experience as volunteers (e.g. late race start). Nevertheless, from our perspective it still was a fun day and we're glad we went. The boys thanked me for the taking them and we would have done it again.

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