We absolutely love the "Awesome Athletes in OCR" series because it's given us an opportunity to learn about and spotlight athletes that help make the OCR community so amazing. The community isn't made up of the top 1% of athletes, but the millions of athletes who show up, from a huge variety of backgrounds, and push their limits while encouraging others around them to do the same.
Without further ado, Mary-Ruth!
What was your first OCR event?
Spartan Race Dallas Fall 2014, I did the Sprint, it was hosted at the Rough Creek Lodge.
What made you decide to sign up for your first OCR?
I had just done my first Susan G Komen 3-Day 60 mile in fall of 2013. Because of my fundraising efforts, I was getting invites to multiple breast cancer events. At that time, there was an organization called “Dirty Girl” which hosted fun mud runs to raise money for breast cancer research. Mud Runs, Paint Runs, Music Runs, etc., were just getting to be a “thing” at that time. I am NOT a runner, but I love doing special fundraisers for causes that are dear to me. I was all set to do that mud run with my 3-Day partner and them my daughter’s crew team qualified for the Central Area US Championships, so I was disappointed, because the mud run sounded fun. Then, I get this Groupon email, which offered entries for this Spartan Race; so I signed up. After doing some research I realized that Spartan was a real event, not just a “fun run”. Serious Training would be required.
How many OCR's have you done to date?
Dallas Sprint 2014
ATT Stadium Sprint 2015
ATT Stadium Sprint 2016
Dallas Sprint 2017
First Trifecta Year 2018
North Florida Super 2018
ATT Stadium Sprint 2018
West Virginia Beast 2018
Ohio Sprint 2019
Atlanta Sprint 2019
My 2020 goal was a trifecta weekend – we had booked Hawaii. But I ended up doing the Virtual Race Trifecta Memorial Day weekend. I don’t really count those three races as completed OCR events; they were more like training.
Which race venue has been your favorite to date, and why? If you can't choose an absolute favorite, just choose one of your favorites? Each venue has had a different “personality”. But I would have to say #1-West Virginia and #2 North Florida.
Dallas is fairly level and not terribly muddy-although what there was, was very nasty and cold. Good for a beginner-but November in Dallas, the weather can be anything from 35 and sleeting to 85 and sunny – nuts.
ATT Stadium was fun, but as with all stadiums, you need to train on stairs, and learn to do them properly or you’ll blow a knee out. It was no problem for me because I do tower climbs for the LLS and can put in 200 flights on the Stairmaster with no issue. I encourage the non-runners in the gym to start with the Stadium races, because there appear to be more obstacles per mileage.
North Florida was really level, but a nasty stinky swamp, don’t wear anything you think you might wear again soon. (After washing my flip-flops 3 times-with Clorox- they still stunk and I just left them outside for a month before they were wearable again.) And make sure your shoes are on snug, mine got sucked off twice, despite glove fit and snug laces-until I figured out a technique to get my feet down and up with out losing them. You had to be very careful with your footing because of the mangrove roots under the mud and the thick briars through the woods. But it was my first Super; it was a great course for first time Super folks. They had a nice festival area; my sister and aunt came to cheer me on, they had never been to an event and were very impressed with the organization and cleanliness.
West Virginia was absolutely beautiful and August in that area is spectacular. But, picking the North American Championships for your first beast – was tough. I knew it would be because I know the area. It was every bit of 14.7 miles, and we climbed that mountain up and down twice. Some areas were so steep that they hung cargo nets for us to get up, or ropes for us to lower ourselves down. You had to be very careful with your footing, ankle injuries waiting to happen, learned to crab walk downhill. They had a really nice festival area, kind of wish I wasn’t too tired to enjoy it.
Ohio was more level than I expected, but lots of recent rain made it muddy and I think it affected the building of the obstacles – because honestly, it was not particularly tough, didn’t see some of the obstacles that I usually see on a sprint.
Atlanta was unique, rolling through the woods; they made some interesting use of the terrain. The course ran through the woods that were next to the cross-country course built for the 1996 Olympic Equestrian events-which I had attended – so that was pretty cool.
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What types of workouts do you enjoy doing most?
I have developed my own version of a cross-training workout, alternating between aerobics and gym “obstacles”; primarily based on areas that I need to build skills/strength. After training for my first Spartan Race, I was more all around fit than I had ever been, even thought I have always been very active. I now have a maintenance (in-between) events routine just to maintain that level of fitness and improve certain skills; and then I have a 12 week count-down routine when I’m getting ready for an event, which includes my weight vest, and steadily adding to my gym “obstacles” and breaking my aerobics in to smaller increments and more increments. My routine has evolved slightly over the years as I have discovered what works for me and for the obstacles. I find that just maintaining that training level keeps me “functionally fit”.
Historically, which obstacle has given you the most trouble at any OCR?
I have yet to hit the spear throw – but I’m not discouraged, hopefully that’s a skill I will never need in real life. (Ha!)
The rope climb was my nemesis; I only got up in once by pure brute force, until my neighbor (SWAT team) showed me how to do it military style. I hung a rope in my covered arena for practice. Now I get up every time. Even did it twice at one race to save an injured team member from burpees. Showed my daughter how to do it, she got up first time.
Monkey Bars were getting me until I developed more grip strength. The bars are so big in diameter that it’s all fingers and wrists to develop that C-cup with your hand. I use some new tools (wrist roller, fat grips, etc.), and new exercises to get stronger.
Now, I struggle with the Mt Olympus. I know it’s evolved a bit, but when I did it last it was chains, rock climbing holds and single circle cut outs. I’ve only tried it at three races, always needed help; I was planning some new training techniques to get ready for the next attempt. It’s definitely a combined strategy of balance, arms, grip and leg position, and you need to not overthink it and keep moving.
I’ve only came across the Tyrolean Traverse once, at the WV Beast. I only made it half way. I need a slightly different technique, which I was also planning for next time, so I would be interested in trying that again.
Describe your ultimate OCR course.
Just enough terrain changes to be interesting and challenging. Weather needs to be in the 45-85 degree range. I work outside for a living so I don’t want my fun time to be too brutal. I have only done Spartan races, and their obstacles seem to be the types that force you to develop skills that are what I like to call “real skills”, in other words, strengths that will help you carry yourself through life. I prefer those sorts of obstacles.
How much time do you normally spend training during an average week?
4 days a week. 3 Days are full cross training workouts – usually about 1½ hours, which include 60 minutes of aerobics divided into 4-5 segments. I up that counting down to an event, depending on the length of the event, but will break it down to 6-8 segments so that I am pushing 12-16 “obstacles”, for a sprint. Pre-Beast workouts got to 4 hours 3 times a week. But my job is ranch work, so I’m active 7 days a week anyhow, training horses, baling & hauling hay, cleaning stalls, maintaining the property, etc.
What would you say is your biggest weakness on an OCR course? (Hills, obstacles, running, etc.)?
I would have to say the obstacles.
I don’t really run. I watch my heart rate very carefully-love my Garmin. If I stay in the “green zone” I can go the distance, what ever that is. I know from my workouts in the gym the pace I can maintain to have the stamina to finish whatever distance. I usually average 20-25 minute miles that includes obstacles and burpees. (I’ve never had to do more than 4 sets of burpees-the beast). So yes, a 15-mile beast took me 6½ hours, but I knew it would. Time doesn’t bother me, that’s not my goal. Goal is to finish, try everything, meet nice people and have fun. I always succeed and I’m always inspired by the people around me.
Since I’m not a true runner, I will jog lightly until I have line of sight to an obstacle, then I walk to get my heart rate down to the low end of the “blue” zone-it’s different for everyone-I do the obstacle, then walk away until my heart rate is back in blue and pick up a jog again. If my heart rate ever gets in the orange zone I walk, control my breathing, and sometimes give myself a standing 10-count.
I learn something knew on each race because the obstacles evolve, so there are always new challenges. The trick is to not be in a hurry at a new obstacle; watch a few folks go and succeed; see what techniques they use. I would say obstacles are my weak area. I still have strength issues with doing a “jump and grab” (say for the 8 foot wall). I’m working on pull-ups but can’t do a single muscle-up, some obstacles I can hook an ankle and use my legs to get up and over. Grip strength is hard to develop. I have multiple “grips” I practice with, globes, numchuks, chains, cones, etc., so I’m always trying to improve that.
The hardest race you ever completed was? And why?
Has to be the West Virginia Beast. First of all, it was my first Beast. For a non-runner to take on 15 miles is a big deal. I trained on the mileage and upped my gym “obstacles”. I packed enough GU chews and almond butter packs to make it, even gave some away to folks that didn’t pack enough. Probably needed some pickle juice packs, first time I ever had the leg cramps, ugh! I probably didn’t stretch enough at various intervals, and honestly didn’t train enough on down hill. The next day my quads were soooooo sore. Better plan for next time. In fact, I worked on my downhill technique on my recent trip to Aspen. Also, I had very little grip strength left by the final pass to the finish line. Final obstacles were Mt Olympus and the Multi-rig, which are still tough for me anyhow. But I made it and had fun, met some really terrific folks.
What motivates you to continue racing in OCR?
1) The level of fitness I have achieved training for them. After my first race, I realized that the cross training routine I developed not only had improved my overall fitness and body strength, but had greatly improved my vascularity, which resulted in firming up, not just toning up my muscles, but toning up my skin (elasticity and firmness). When people are amazed I’m really 60, I tell them that exercise is my fountain of youth, and it’s true.
2) The camaraderie: at the gym and at the events. So many really wonderful people, it’s as much a social event to me as a fitness event. Mental, emotional and spiritual health are just as important as physical health-sometimes more. COVID has really taken that away from everyone. Which is why I am so enjoying my new Instagram; my daughter talked me into a public persona to express my enthusiasm and dedication to living a vibrant life. I love seeing what others are doing for exercises, it challenges me to try new things, and helps me see other possibilities, and inspires me to work towards new goals.
3) The biggest motivation is my overall health. Since I started Spartan, my Dad has started having memory deterioration. It’s not Alzheimer’s or Dementia; it is due to calcification of the arteries in the brain-the same calcification that happens in the heart. My dad was asymptomatic, not overweight, still exercising-lightly, low blood pressure, low cholesterol-and then he had a minor heart attack, which led to a triple bypass. It was a year or so after that the short-term memory started to go. Everything I’ve read since then-and his own doctor-recommend mixing aerobics and strength training in a workout 3-5 times a week for at least 45 minutes keeping you heart rate in that green zone the whole time. If his condition is hereditary-and not life style-then I am at the same risk. Consequently, I treat my workouts like a doctor’s appointment, and I tell everyone I can this story so hopefully they will be encouraged to do the same. I’m not racing to win the race; I’m racing to win at life. I try to sign up for events periodically to keep my motivation to train.
What is the VERY LAST location on this planet where you would want to run an OCR?
I generally hand pick an event based on location and weather. Certain times of year, I would not do certain locations. And certain locations simply don’t appeal to me, because I don’t necessarily want to spend the time or money to go to those cities. Because my ranch is my work, when I take time off to go somewhere, I have to pay someone to do my work. So time-off is precious and I have combined the races I have traveled to with vacation or visiting family.
I don’t think I would ever travel outside the US to a Spartan Race – as fun as that would be. It’s a lot of time and money to travel for just that goal. I don’t think I can name just one place.
If you could give one piece of advice to a new OCR participant, what would it be?
It’s all about stamina and grip strength. Embrace the training, get the right shoes, and get a good watch (pace, distance, heart rate). Remember to train smart; practice does not make perfect; Perfect performance, makes perfect. Take time, go slow, work on form, and then add speed and weight.
The very best part of OCR-and why I choose Spartan is that especially in the Open division, everyone there wants you to succeed, everyone is cheering you on, everyone helps each other. It’s an incredibly positive environment. I am always inspired by the people around me, who are all out there for their own reasons, trying to prove and improve something for themselves.
I have had the privilege of attending a Leadership Conference hosted/led by Joe DeSena. I really like his philosophy and I respect that he practices what he preaches. He doesn’t ask anyone to do something that he isn’t willing and able to do himself. He takes the time and effort to pay forward to the community. He encourages and supports folks who are overcoming personal struggles/obstacles in their lives. He has united and created a community of athletes who want to do the same. He believes and embraces “no Spartan left behind”.
You just ran the coldest, most miserable race of your entire life. The temperature was in the 40's, and it was misting and windy the entire time. What is the first food or drink you would want at the finish line?
Immediately after my stretch: Hot chai tea with honey and lemon and a bowl of beef chili with some saltines or crusty bread.
Later that night for dinner…either red wine, filet mignon, Caesar salad, brussel sprouts, or light beer, bacon cheeseburger and fries. (Hmm!)
Which do you think is easier for you: strength training or endurance training?
I would say strength, because I’m always trying to build on those skills. Grip strength is hard to develop and takes time and repetition. Endurance training is just a test of time and patience, and a good playlist. Adding a weight vest to my routine really upped my endurance-by a lot. When I finished my first sprint after adding the vest to my count down training, I literally could have done the course again. That’s when I knew I could go for a trifecta.
If you had the option of running OCRs at the age of 80, would you still do it?
I am going to keep participating in my charity events and Spartan races for as long as I am able. I believe that the fitness routine I have established will keep me going for quite some time. I do walks for Breast Cancer, tower climbs for Leukemia & Lymphoma, and bike rides for Ovarian Cancer; Spartan races I do just for me.
Finally, if you could sum up your mental approach during a race in a few words, what would it be?
Finish, Try everything, Meet nice people, Have fun, Help anyone I can, Smile a lot, Get some good pics.
Thanks very much, Mary-Ruth, for sharing a little bit about your life in OCR with us! If you'd like to follow Mary-Ruth on Instagram and have another great OCR personality in your feed, her handle is:
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