Off-Trail Racing With Natural Obstacles

What's the next trend in running? It very well could be off-trail racing with natural obstacles.

In O2X Summit Challenge events, competitors run, hike, climb and scramble their way to the top of a mountain. Photo: Courtesy O2X Summit Challenges
In O2X Summit Challenge events, competitors run, hike, climb and scramble their way to the top of a mountain. Photo: Courtesy O2X Summit Challenges

What’s the next trend in running? It very well could be off-trail racing with natural obstacles.

Trail running over mountain terrain where there are no trails can be a lot of fun and also very challenging. In skiing and snowboarding, it’s called being “off-piste” terrain—in other words, not smoothed out by a grooming machine—but in trail running, we just call it “off-trail” running, and to some extent, adventure running.

It’s not entirely new, but it’s definitely becoming more prominent. It’s very common in Europe and for the past several years more U.S. trail races, mud-based races, obstacle course races and the once-popular sport of adventure racing have incorporated off-trail sections and used natural obstacles to challenge competitors. For a few recent examples, consider The Rut 50K on Sept. 13 in Big Sky, Mont., which sent runners off-trail on crazy-steep sections of scree and talus; or the Devil on the Divide 50K in Empire, Colo., which included a 10-mile section of “undefined trail” over steep mountains, through grassy valleys and across raging mountain streams.

It’s a hard thing to pull off in the U.S. because land agency permits can be so strict, and quite frankly, not all event directors are concerned with environmental impacts. But a new wild and rugged racing series focused primarily on sending competitors over natural obstacles on a mostly off-trail course to the top of a mountain has found a way to do it with a pro-environmental ethos. The series launched recently with four races in New England, but it could be a national series in 2015. With its first event on Sept. 13 at Sugarbush Resort near Warren, Vt., O2X Summit Challenges engaged a wide variety of participants with a combination of trail running, hiking, scrambling and obstacle racing over natural terrain.

In that event—which had both a grueling 5.25-mile “double-diamond” course that featured a 2,400-foot vertical climb and a slightly less rugged 3.5-mile “single-diamond” course with 1,500 feet of vertical gain—more than 250 competitors battled natural features and made their way to the finish line at the summit of 4,083-foot Mount Ellen. The course included sections of fire roads and singletrack trails, but most of it was comprised of off-trail sections—for example, grassy fields with uneven footing, rocky, rooty sections of forest and large boulders the size of cars.

PHOTOS: O2X Summit Challenge In Vermont 

Temperatures at the start were in the mid-40s, but when racers reached the top it was in the mid-20s with the windchill factor. But less-than-ideal weather is just fine, too, says event co-founder Adam LaReau.

“Anyone who has even been in the outdoors and anyone who has served in the military know that Mother Nature takes care of all of the challenges you’ll ever want,” he says. “You really don’t need to do too much to add to the challenges that are out there already. One of our goals was to create a hard, challenging event that engages someone to climb a mountain and get to the peak. And there’s no better feeling than challenging yourself by going over natural terrain to get there.”

LaReau and O2X co-founders Paul McCullough, Gabriel Gomez and Craig Coffey each have successful athletic and business backgrounds, while LaReau, McCullough and Gomez are also decorated U.S. Navy SEAL combat veterans who have been involved in various training camps for aspiring SEALS and other military personnel. While they hope to attract trail runners, obstacle course races and those with military training, one of their primary goals is to make their events accessible to as many people as possible.

“We talk about how anyone, no matter their ability, can set goals and chip away at bigger problems,” LaReau says. “In our first event, we had some fast runners, some Navy SEALs and some obstacle racers moving pretty fast. But for some it was just about getting to the top of the mountain. That might mean going from water station to water station or working 250 feet at a time where you keep plugging away and keep challenging yourself and pushing past what you think you’re capable of doing.”

The O2X series continues with three more New England events this fall, including events at Sunday River Resort near Bethel, Maine, on Sept. 27, Loon Mountain in Lincoln, N.H., on Oct. 18 and the series finale at Windham Mountain in Windham, N.Y., on Oct. 25. Given that they’re creating rather groundbreaking events that require racers to maneuver over vegetation, through streams and over rocks, aligning with resort partners that already have special-use permits and relationships with land agencies is key.

That said, LaReau says O2X aims to be a very environmentally friendly brand in all aspects, including working with resort and land managers to design appropriate courses as it relates to land, vegetation, water and wildlife concerns. He says O2X is following guidelines of Leave No Trace, Reverb, 1% For The Planet and the Environmental Protection Agency’s WasteWise program. O2X has cup-free aid stations, strives to be a waste-free event and has a post-event mountain remediation plan that ensures the area returns to its natural state after the event is over.

“We want to leave the mountain better than we found it,” LaReau says.

LaReau says O2X is already in discussions with several ski resorts in the west to expand their series nationally in 2015. Assuming that pans out, they’ll introduce “triple-diamond” courses that are 7 miles or longer and have at least 3,000 feet of vertical climbing. If the rave reviews from the inaugural event are any indication, the crew at O2X Summit Challenges could be on to something.

Pre-race camping, $500 prizes for the winners and a post-race smorgasbord from local farmers and food suppliers were also part of the inaugural event. The end of the 5.25-mile double-diamond event included a final challenge of scrambling over a series of steep rock outcroppings, which meant competitors had to crawl on their hands and knees. That included winner Kenyan Neuman, a former All-American runner for the University of Colorado who owns PRs of 13:40 for 5K and 2:22 for the marathon.

“It was awesome, a super-cool event,” says Neuman, who won the 5.25-mile race in just under an hour. “The course sort of leveled the playing field between the faster runners and the people who were better at hiking in the woods, scrambling over the natural features and climbing over the rocks.

“There was a guy who was definitely putting me to shame on the scrambling sections who I’d have to catch on the more runable sections. My heart rate was through the roof the entire time. It was really difficult and very uncomfortable the whole time where my legs were just burning. But it was a blast.”

PHOTOS: The Rut 50K Trail Race In Montana