We had the honour of chatting with elite athlete Ben O’Rourke a few months ago. At the time, he had just earned a finish in the top 25 with a view to qualifying for the 2015 Spartan Race World Championships.
Unsurprisingly, given his persevering nature that he revealed in July’s interview, Ben did qualify. As a result, he tested his grit at Lake Tahoe, on one of the toughest obstacle courses in the world.
We caught up with him this week to hear about the whole experience. If you’re an athlete driven to earn your coin and face the epic challenge of the World Champs, do read on as Ben shared useful advice on motivation as well as practical advice.
A lot has happened since you were last featured on Grit Camp back in July. How have you been?
After our last talk I finished 14th in the Red Deer Spartan Sprint which meant I earned my coin to qualify for the Spartan World Championships. It was three weeks before the Championships so I just got it in the nick of time, which was probably a positive as it didn’t give me too much time to overthink it but gave me enough time to appreciate it and be happy in knowing I reached my goals.
I was ecstatic when I realised I qualified, I had put a lot of pressure on myself to qualify even though it’s my first year racing competitively so there was also a sense of relief.
So it’s funny after I completed this goal I was already thinking of 2016’s goals. At that time I listened to the Obstacle Dominator podcast by Ben Greenfield and Hunter McIntyre (elite athletes in OCR). Hunter had a great piece of advice. He said: if it’s your first ever World Championship, run it hard but first of all enjoy it. That’s the mentality I brought in.
I went to Lake Tahoe to have a fantastic experience. To run a race like I haven’t run before, to meet new people and take in everything I can to increase my race experience. Now that I know I am good enough to qualify, I can set goals for future events and compete again in future World Championships.
Awesome. Back to your first goal – what were the Championships like? We heard the course was built to test even the toughest elite athletes.
The race itself was very challenging. I heard that compared to other Spartan World Championships it was faster with less heavy carries. However there were plenty of other obstacles that took out some of the top guys.
The main test was the altitude. The location of the race, Lake Tahoe, starts at just over 6,000 ft elevation. A lot of athletes arrived early for this reason, to get acclimated with this elevation. However, the race course climbed from 6,000 ft to over 9,000 ft. An upward of 3,000 ft of elevation gain at an already high altitude meant breathing was difficult so pace was slower than it would have been at lower altitudes.
The biggest game-changer obstacle was a swim. It was about 200m but the water was so cold. I heard that over the weekend over 500 people were pulled out due to hypothermic symptoms or hypothermia itself.
After the swim there was a climb to another peak. There we found a crazy maze of barb wire we had to crawl under, then a wall climb and more barb wire. The wind on this peak made it very hard to warm up after the swim as we were on the cold ground crawling. And, to whatever level we might have dried, we got wet again when we had to get past a dunk wall and a slip wall after the crawls.
The obstacles were very strategically placed by Spartan, but they all added to the challenge and the Championship experience.
You had limited time to prepare for this epic challenge. What would you have done differently if you’d had more time?
A few things. I definitely would have added swimming to my training even if it was just for the few weeks I had. To get that time in the water would have helped with the swim.
Alongside this, heavier carries are one of my weak points so I can never get enough training on those.
The final thing would be extra monkey bars and rings training. There was a cliff multi rig which is a feature in all of the American Spartan Races now. I saw it in Montana so I was prepared. However for the World Championships they made it double the length. It was 52 feet instead of the usual 26! This was a burpee maker as the completion rate was low even in the elite wave! So more training there would have helped.
Given the altitude, the cold, and the burpee makers on the course – how did you persevere? What kept you pushing on?
I knew fairly early I probably wasn’t going to finish as high as I’d have liked. It was when I felt the altitude affect my breathing.
I just kept reminding myself I might not get this chance again to compete at a World Championships. By no means do I think it will be my last one. I want more now that I have experienced it and I will train harder for future years, but I just kept reminding myself at the time that this is a unique opportunity.
Seeing fellow Spartans also helped me get through. When I passed her at the top of the tricky peak mentioned earlier, Orla Walsh, one of the top women, was hypothermic. However, she battled back and I got to chat to her later on at a brutal bucket carry. She finished strong. It’s people like this who aren’t in it for the competition but to complete the course even if it takes them 8 or 9 hours that serve as my inspiration to keep trying.
When it comes to training, what should athletes who want to earn a coin (including myself) focus on?
At the end of the day our sport has a lot of running so you have to work on this! I would recommend running at least three times a week. During the peak of the season I was running 5 times a week!
There are plenty of books with great training plans for running so I recommend doing some research if you are starting from scratch. If you can get a coach or a trainer that always helps as well since they are experts in the area, but this isn’t cost effective for everyone.
Obstacle course racing incorporates all aspects of fitness however, so you also have to work on strength, endurance and power. To your 3-5 weekly runs, try and add 3-4 strength days. These can be mixed in with some of the runs. For example, you can get out and run around your local area, then stop to do a set of 30 burpees, pick up a log or a stone and carry it onwards. Replicating what you’d come across in a race is only going to make the race easier.
Finally, working out consistently is better than a big hard workout once or twice a week. Set goals, visualise achieving them and work hard. Be honest with yourself.
Great stuff, Ben.
Hopefully me and rest of Grit Camp readers will join to race alongside you at next year’s Championships. Or at least at the Beast and the Ultra Beast that follow.
Yea that would be really cool, I’d love that! Really like what you and others do at Grit Camp – you guys offer some brilliant articles. Thank you for doing the great work!
Furthermore would like to thank my sponsors Tho’z Barz who fuelled me all year for my races and supported me. SKINS for providing the best compression gear for my race season and Titan Strength and Fitness for supporting my training when in Ireland. All my friends and family who have supported me, my team Hurtin Albertans and all the friends I have made in OCR.. And last but definitely not least my fiancée and son who support my dream of OCR racing even though it can take up a lot of time.
Good luck in your future races and with the next season!
You can find out more about Ben here: