Monthly Archives: February 2016

OCR Idea: The Additive OCR

A while back, I came up with some ideas for tweaks to the OCR race format. Here’s another one: the additive OCR.

Most competitive OCRs punish failures either by imposing penalty burpees/laps/whatnot, or by making competitors try again until success or be disqualified. Instead of that model, what about something more positive, where competitors score points for the obstacles they do complete?

On its own, that’s pretty lame. But there’s another twist: Each obstacle has several options, with more difficult ones being worth more. So, climbing a 6-foot wall might be worth one point, while a 7-foot wall could be 2, and 8 feet worth 3. (Or perhaps more; I haven’t worked out an economy for this.) Herc hoist could have varying weights; monkey bars could have varying lengths, lengths between bars, angled bars, or options to do the whole thing backwards; and the spear throw could have unlimited throws, scoring one point for each hit—but if you miss, your score for the obstacle goes down to zero. And so on, and so on.

One more detail: Every obstacle is one shot. You select the option you’re going for, and you get one shot. Complete it successfully and you score; fail and you get zero points but no other penalty.

The obvious disadvantages:

  • It requires more infrastructure; a race set up like this would need to have each of the obstacle options in place. It wouldn’t necessarily need an exponential increase in obstacles—instead of, say, 4 lanes of one obstacle, you’d need one lane of 4 versions of that obstacle. But you’d actually probably need more than that, since the competitive heats would probably cluster at the harder versions, while the general heats would likely cluster at the less hard versions.
  • It requires an “economy” of achievement valuations to be developed. That’s a daunting task, if for no other reason than it would be trying to compare things that aren’t directly comparable, but it’s also a finite task that wouldn’t need a huge amount of continuing work.
  • It complicates refereeing and scoring. I’m not sure that it would be much worse than where OCR is heading, though—OCRs kind of already require monitoring for completion at every obstacle to ensure fairness, so noting a score at the same time, particularly if the obstacles are monitored by video wouldn’t be that difficult. I can at least sort of envision how it would work—probably with cameras trained on every obstacle feeding video to a central location with a few judges monitoring and keeping score. Like golf.
  • While I think scoring would be feasible for the elite heats, it would be more or less impossible for the rest of us. We’d have to keep track ourselves. Which would make relative rankings impossible.
  • It diminishes the “race” aspect—at least a bit. Although races could create a value for race completion time and factor that in as they choose.

I think the advantages are kind of interesting, though. They include:

  • Exceptional ability can be rewarded. Races like to call their obstacles EPIC!!!, but a race where none of the obstacles can be completed by anyone other than a world-class athlete is probably not going to be much fun to run unless you are a world-class athlete. This approach would allow an option for harder options—9- or 10-foot walls, massive heavy-thing carries, and so on—without clearly declaring to the rest of us how worthless we are.
  • There would be an easier progression for the rest of us. Some obstacles are far enough above my ability that completing them is impossible to even visualize. This would create smaller steps to make progress a lot more feasible.
  • It could reduce the importance of running speed in competitive rankings. Exceptional ability at various obstacles would provide a path to competitiveness. As it stands now, for example, being able to scale a 9-foot wall has no advantage over being able to scale an 8-foot wall. This would reward exceptional climbers, rather than setting a level that is “good enough” and punishing anyone who falls short.
  • It may improve the TV spectatability of OCR. Outside of dedicated fans, long races (of any type) aren’t particularly exciting on TV—the action is generally pretty steady-state, and at any given point one competitor’s standing relative to another’s isn’t likely to change much. OCR has this problem too: On most obstacles, elite racers will not be much different from one another. In this model, every obstacle (if designed properly) would have an impact on the final results, as racers pick different options and just about every obstacle has the potential for failure if the racer chooses over-ambitiously.



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Filed under Obstacle Course Racing, OCR Ideas

A Casual Climbing Competition

Today I (sort of) went to a climbing competition at First Ascent Uptown.

Ah, but I’m already getting ahead of myself. First Ascent is (I think) the most recent two entries in the climbing gym mini-boom that Chicago has experienced in the past year or so—first was Brooklyn Boulders, and then (if I’m remembering correctly) the outdoor climbing park operated downtown by the city park district (where I haven’t yet climbed), then First Ascent Avondale, and finally the Uptown location.

I went to the Avondale location when it first opened, and to be honest, I didn’t love it—the facility was big but the bouldering section didn’t seem to be, and the problems were rated harder than at Brooklyn Boulders (i.e., where I could do a V1 or V2 at Brooklyn, even the VBs were a struggle at First Ascent) so there weren’t many problems I could even do. Plus the geography is a problem—it’s probably actually physically a bit closer to my apartment than Brooklyn, but it requires two bits of public transport rather than one, and the second is a notoriously slow bus. It’s really not fair for me to be negative—there’s nothing wrong with the facility, but it really didn’t fit my needs as well as Brooklyn did. So I didn’t write about it, and I haven’t been back.

Uptown, however, is a very different animal. First off, it’s a huge amount more convenient for me—like a half an hour total of travel time, rather than an hour and a half for either of the other two. It’s also all bouldering—and since I’ve done no top-roping yet, that’s what I do.

Since it’s all bouldering, it feels huge. Which is a surprise, really. The facility used to be the second floor of a Borders bookstore, back when that was a thing. So it’s kind of hard to believe that a bouldering facility would fit. And to be honest, in my not-particularly-well-informed estimation, it does seem like the walls are a bit shorter there than at either of the other two places I’ve been to. But I suspect that effect is a bit less pronounced than it seems at first blush. The largest walls get respectable height, and certainly enough to be considered a full problem, even though you’ll be near the ceiling when you complete them.

A couple things stand out as impressive. One is the physical layout of the space. At the other climbing gyms, the climbing walls are mostly on the walls. Sure, FA Avondale has one sort of island crag thing in the middle of the bouldering section you can climb, and Brooklyn has two rooms and its bigger bouldering wall is on an interior wall, but at both of them you feel like you’re generally sticking to the outskirts. At the Uptown facility, almost everything you climb is internal. Most of the exterior walls are windows; the climbing surfaces are mostly islands or outcroppings.

Bouldering holds at First Ascent Uptown

Also, some of the holds have faces.

There are a few ways that FA Uptown compensates for the generally lower height of its walls. First off, a lot of the routes start low—like handholds below waist height-low. I’m often starting from a seated position with that pull-up motion just to get to the next one.

Second, a lot of the routes go at surprising angles, at least at the easy levels that I’m working. Whereas the taller problems at other venues are generally relatively straight verticals, several of the beginner routes here have handholds at what seems like about a 45 degree angle up from the footholds, forcing your body into a weirder position.

Finally, the walls seem to be a bit more craggy, if that’s the right word. All of the gyms I’ve been to have walls at various angles, but Uptown seems to have more where you’re climbing while leaning back at least a bit. And while both Brooklyn and FA Avondale each have a cave section where you can get fully horizontal while climbing on the ceiling, FA Uptown has several. They’re smaller, but that’s okay—you could only have one or two people at a time at the other facilities.

The harder route rating is still in place (though I’ve heard that Brooklyn has upped the difficulty of its ratings), but there are a huge number of problems, so there’s plenty that’s either doable or close enough as to be potentially feasible with practice. As a result, FA Uptown has become my go-to climbing gym. Not a dig against either of the other two places I’ve been, but it’s the one that’s practical for my life and situation right now.

So, onto the competition. But this will be pretty short, because I didn’t really compete. The rules were pretty straightforward: Climb as much as you wanted and could, and you get points for every problem you send—one point for every V level, and half a point for VBs or V0s. Much more casual than Brooklyn’s Windy City Gritty—no sections, no lines, and no judges. We were supposed to get a witness to sign off on our climbs. Most people had partners with them (it was called the V-Day V-Comp, after all), but I didn’t, and I wasn’t feeling particularly social, and I knew I wouldn’t be contending, so I didn’t bother to actually record anything. To be (dis)honest, I probably could have gotten away with just recording and not being witnessed, but why? Someone maybe could have cheated, but… the prizes were perfectly nice, outdoor puffy winter vest things, but they were on the scale that if you’re sad enough to cheat to win them then your life is sad enough that everyone would be okay with you taking them in hopes that you find some relief for what is obviously soul-crushing pain.

I have no idea how I would have ranked… no, that’s stupid. I would have ranked near or at the bottom, had I turned in my scorecard. Ultimately, though, I’m happy not to—I’ve been away from climbing for a few weeks while letting some shoulder and particularly back pain resolve itself, and I definitely needed a day where I could just have relaxed fun climbing rather than even thinking about a competition. But that said, I really like that the gym put the event on. It wasn’t precisely what I needed today, but there are plenty of times when I would have enjoyed it the way it was intended.

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Attack of the Killer Beets

Pretty regularly, I see in my Twitter feed or on Facebook (both of which are eminently followable) plugs for some beet-related supplements that seem to be targeting obstacle course racers.

I have absolutely know idea whether they work or not, or even what they’re intended to do, but they scare the crud out of me. And it’s not for a rational reason. That’s why I’m going to share it with you—in hopes that you will gain some measure of joy at my absurdity.*


Yep, it’s a beetnik.

No, I don’t have a beet allergy, and my pa wasn’t suffocated when a beet truck overturned on him, and my girlfriend never dumped me to run off with a beetnik.** The trouble is, in my world, beets are something you drive on.

Without going into incriminating detail: My day job involves writing about transportation, and one of the areas I focus on*** is winter road maintenance—plowing and salting and anything related to getting snow off roads.

There’s not really a good way to do this—salt works well (down to about 15 degrees F) and it’s cheap, but it corrodes cars and is sucky for plants and might get into groundwater; sand doesn’t work at all and is worse for groundwater; magnesium and calcium chloride work well and are less corrosive for cars, except that sometimes they’re more corrosive, and they’re more expensive; and other options are way more expensive or really bad environmentally. Still, there’s a lot of research going on, and it has found better ways to do it—mainly by finding ways to get the same results while using less salt.

That’s where beets come in. Beet juice is one product (out of many) marketed as an additive to help salt stick to the road, where it can melt snow, rather than bouncing off the road, where it can’t do anything helpful. I’m not sure precisely how effective this is, or how widespread the practice is—the whole additives approach is relatively new, and there’s a huge number of products on the market to do this or to counter some of the other bad things salt does, and the research hasn’t quite caught up to it, measurement-wise—but beet juice is certainly one of the options that gets discussed a lot.

So whenever I see one of these beet supplements being promoted or advertised or mentioned in a completely non-compensated way****, my background makes me think, “Wow, the stuff they put on the roads!”

It may have valuable side benefits the manufacturers never considered. I mean, a lot of people are deeply concerned about the danger of having slick, icy esophaguses. Or at least, they could be made to be deeply concerned about that danger if you talk about it enough, and in a shouty, “here’s what you need to be frightened of today!”-enough pundit voice.

I assume, however, that when you take the supplements orally you shouldn’t mix it with several pounds of salt per cup of beet juice. That would taste terrible and also mummify you. I think. I guess I don’t know for sure. I’m not going to be the one to try it, though.

Maybe I should be a bit more adventurous and not dismiss supplements out of hand just because they are also used to keep our roads safe. After all, phen-phen was originally developed to patch potholes. And we all know how well that turned out. There was a time when you just couldn’t beet it.*****

* While learning more than you have any really interest in about how snow gets cleared from roads in the winter. Yep, I’m sneakily making you knowledgier.

** Sorry not sorry. I also was never deafened by a set of Beets by Dre headphones turned up to 11.

*** AKA, one of my beets. Please stop throwing things at me.

**** Which is the way it always happens. I truly beetlieve that.

***** No complaints. You know perfectly well you’d have been pissed off that one hadn’t show up.

Beet image by darwin Bell,, used under Creative Commons. Mustache image by johnthan,, public domain.

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Wisdom, Some of Which May Be Applicable in the OCR World

I’m a person who’s alive and who has a blog. That means that I’m smart and I have wisdom to share, dammit. And some of it is directly relevant to obstacle course racing, or at least tangentially related. Or at least sort-of tangentially related to the unctiousness that can periodically characterize the online obstacle course racing community. Or whatever. Here’s the start of it:


If you don’t math like I math: The difference between kale and spinach is less than the difference between spinach and marshmallow. OK, maybe for one of the world’s greatest athletes you need to get to that level of detail. But for the rest of us, eating right involves generally eating right. And after that, get over yourself.

Inspirational speaker

I’ve previously mentioned how much inspiration pisses me off. Consider this a follow-up: Motivational speakers, and other “motivational” things, care about short-term attitudes, rather than results. They suck. Avoid them.

Exclamation pointsJust a grammatical peeve of mine. Although “peeve” is a bit of an exaggeration—pet peeves are usually really stupid. But exclamation points usually indicate bullshit, so don’t use them.

Writer's Digest covers
I actually wanted to do this with Men’s Health, but it’s hard to unpack all of the different national editions. Also, they seem to be on a 2-year schedule, alternating between “Your Best Body Ever!” and “Get Back in Shape!” Exclamation point!

Strawman arguments

If you debate, debate better.

Image sources (all public domain, Creative Commons, or used under Fair Use):
Spinach: wiswik,
Kale: FraukeFeind,
Marshmallow: pixel1,
Motivation: Chris Widener,
Megaphone: mickeyroo,
Chess: jarmoluk,
Trump: Gage Skidmore,
Scarecrow: AdinaVoicu,


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Let’s Have a Cool Cheating Scandal

There should be a good cheating scandal in OCR.

There’s historical precedent—stealing was A-OK for the ancient from-Sparta Spartans, as long as you didn’t get caught.

Although, to be honest, I’m not really interested in the kind of cheating where you don’t get caught. Sure, there’s skipping burpees, or taking shortcuts, or (very possibly) performance enhancing drugs, which would be effective and probably pretty easy to get away with, but they’re lame. If that’s the kind of cheating you want, you could find in plain old running—think Fred Lorz at the 1904 Olympics, who drove 11 of the miles, or Ben Johnson, who showed America that Canada was better than we were, and then showed us we were better after all, although it’s feasible that everyone was cheating* which, surprisingly, means that we can all live together happily and recognize each other’s strengths and weaknesses and appreciate each other for the most excellent people we are.

Ben Johnson and Cheetah energy drink

It ended OK. Now Ben Johnson endorses Cheetah energy drinks. This is true. (At least, Wikipedia true.)

No, I’m inspired by Femke Van den Driessche, the Belgian cyclist who hid a motor in her bike frame.  It’s probably unfair to single her out—she’s probably not the only one, and given the quite famous prevalence of doping in the sport, it’s entirely possible that I’m the best non-cheating bicyclist in the world. But that’s not really the point. The point is that there’s some audacity and creativity and gumption involved in Van den Driessche’s cheating that, while maybe not admirable, could conceivably make a good heist movie. Or whatever the sports cheating movie equivalent of a heist movie is.

What are some cheats that the OCR world could aspire to?

We could take a page from Rosie Ruiz. She “won” the Boston Marathon, by cutting the course, in 1980. But lame course-cutting is not the inspiration we should take. To qualify for the Boston Marathon, she used a subway ride in the New York Marathon to get a qualifying time. The kind of inspiring cheating I’m talking about involves clandestinely and cost-effectively building a functioning subway system under the rural woods where races take place, and secretly slipping in and out of it during the race. Maybe during water crossings.

Among the elites, a bit of chemical incapacitation of your opponents would be easy, effective, and Batman-esque (retro Adam West-style Batman, not grumbly Christian Bale) with a bit of knockout gas. I suspect it would even be pretty easy to sneak it onto the course. Camelbaks and other devices to carry water on your back could probably be modified to hold the gas, and I have to assume it would be fairly easy to develop a way to puncture it at an opportune time.

Batman screen capture

Or you could just get a sidekick with a farting problem.

Another easy competition cheat: Change the memory wall. Just bring a yellow marker, turn Cs into Os, Ds into Bs, 1s into 4s, and 3s into 8s. The downside, of course, is that sometimes the memory wall is just a decoy obstacle, so your efforts may be a waste of time. Also, it only hurts people who are behind you, who you really don’t need to hurt, so it’s not all that valuable, unless you’re an elite who just wants to be a dick to all the open runners. But still, it shows a bit of creativity, or at least a bit of chaos.

A jet pack would help immensely on walls and it would be a suitable culmination to decades of mad scientist research. The downside is, it would be bulky and there’s a decent chance that it would kill you. Also, don’t wear jet pants, even if you really enjoyed Arrested Development. Urban Dictionary says it’s not remotely acceptable.

Springy shoes, or maybe crampons in your shoes might be a lower-tech, less-lethal, still-likely-to-snap-off-in-the-middle-of-a-race alternative. But we’re getting away from my stated audaciousness goal here. So instead, how about…

A trained falcon to carry the spear from your hand to the target. The only problem I see is that this may technically not be cheating. If you successfully train a falcon to not only carry your spear with enough force and precision to thrust it into a haybale, but also to show up at the spear throw obstacle at the same time that you arrive, you probably deserve to skip the burpees.


Majestic, no? I’m not sure if it would carry the spear in its claws or on its back; claws are obvious but then it would hold the weapon sideways, so… By Omar Runolfsson, Flickr: Gyr Falcon – Falco rusticolus – Falki, CC BY 2.0,

What about the traverse wall, rope climb, and other obstacles that you finish by ringing a cowbell? Easy. Get a pair of gloves, bury a strong electromagnet in them, and ring the bell from a distance. It may also fry nearby pacemakers or Garmins, so maybe that’s not ideal. Of course, if you’re actually contemplating this, you’re probably not thinking about the impact of your actions on other people.**

What about those grip-strength obstacles that always happen after mud pits? Well, as a child of the 80s, I’ve got an easy way to solve those. Go Go Gadget Arms! Or, if you insist on realistic options, maybe just some metal claws that attach to the wrist so you don’t need to grip at all. (And as an aside, remember how great it was when Inspector Gadget was high art when I was in second grade? Sometimes it sucks having standards.)

Inspector Gadget movie still

It is, however, nice when standards prevent you from seeing crappy live-action movies of quasi-beloved cartoons.

And one final option that my 20-year-old minor in chemistry*** tells me is absolutely positively possible. Just coat yourself with some extraordinarily hydrophobic substance. If it’s strong enough, the water, mud, and muck on the course will magically part as you approach, making running faster and ending the phenomenon of lost time due to having shoes sucked into and eaten by the earth. This is another one that may technically not be cheating, even though crossing the finish line completely clean may raise suspicion. I guess it may also not be possible, but still, science is cool. And that’s what we’re going for here. I want cheating that inspires, not cheating that works. Cheating that works is lame.

* PEDs are an issue that I’m completely incompetent to discuss in an actual way. I grew up in the Nancy Reagan Just Say No War on Drugs era, so I’ve got a deeply built-in aversion to any use of the term “drug,” even though I’m fully aware of how absurd and devastating drug policy over the past few decades has been. I hope there’s a grown-up discussion that can be had, but I’m not capable of it.

** In case you didn’t notice, this post is a joke. Don’t actually cheat, asshole.

***Actually, not technically a minor—my college was very insistent upon that—but it would take a long time to explain all the intricacies, and then I’d have to kill you, and calling it a minor gives you the information you need, so let’s go with it.

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Goal Update: The Darkest Month

January is consistently my worst month.

Weather is part of that-it’s the coldest, bleakest, nearly the darkest, and most-trapped-in-my-apartmentest month. There’s also the holiday recovery, the unreasonable expectations of the new year, and the fact that I generally get sick somewhere in there (this year it never got that bad, but it’s lingered like an obnoxious taunting gnome with no legs). There’s also a freelance gig that I generally get that is nice in a cashal way, but also highly disruptive to my schedule, interruptive of my sleep patterns, restrictive in that it tethers me to my computer for several days straight, and stressful in that it aggressively reminds me of all the reasons I no longer work for that organization full time. And the job hunt took a lot out of me-I did an interview for a job that I think could have been as close to a perfect fit as possible, considering that jobs and humans have extremely different parts that really don’t interlock that well, and I thought the interview went really well, and then heard nothing back.

I’m happy to report that fitness- and goal-wise, the month wasn’t a free fall. Not good, but not disastrous. Some specifics:

Monkey bars: I successfully completed the full set while swinging every other bar. At some point I should video it as proof. It had a weird side effect that it’s much harder now for me to do the monkey bars using the typical go-to-the-next-bar style. I think I can do it but it takes a big mental adjustment. I like big brachiations and I cannot lie.

Crow pose: This is the most surprising. I didn’t hold it the 20 seconds that is my goal, but I did do a clear, controlled hold for a few seconds. I actually yelped in surprise when it happened in class because it’s never happened before. It’s surprising because I don’t feel like I’m at my peak, fitness-wise. But it’s also sort of understandable because my gym has been offering a new class that I call the weird shit workout. It’s a lot of quadrupedal movement (a term I picked up from that Horrible Parkour Class that I need to document one of these days) and inversion-y things and other weird shit that’s fun and hard and could, in retrospect, have helped. Still, we hadn’t done crow poses specifically, and I hadn’t worked on it in months, so it’s still a surprise.

Cooking: I’ve tried three recipes, and at least one is (sort of) a keeper. This pumpkin and turkey chili is one I could definitely try again-it’s easy and tasted okay, although I think it could use more of something. Maybe more pumpkin, maybe more heat. Still, close enough to count.

These southwest chicken bites-basically Tex-mex egg rolls that are baked, not fried, were also decent, although they’re a lot of work for the benefit. One side benefit, though: I figured that some bean sprouts would be a nice addition, but the supermarket only sells them in huge quantities that I could never finish. So I tried this mix of clover, cabbage, and fenugreek as an alternative, and I approve-I could definitely see myself using it in other applications. (And no, I don’t know what fenugreek is.)

The third recipe was a disaster. It seemed so simple-spinach, cheese, and an egg in a portobello cap, baked until the egg set. But the egg didn’t set-at least not for about twice as long as the recipe said-and then the yolk was sort of a gel while the white was barely a white. The whole thing tasted slimy and chalky and evil. I still shudder to think of it.

Weight: started at 267, ended at 267.5. I’m hopeful on this front, though. As you can see in the sidebar, I’ve started planning (at least roughly) my race season, which makes training feel a lot more real, even though there’s a long way to go.

Creation: This has gone well. I’m on a 37-day streak, so the month was good. It’s been primarily Dad’s Little Book of Rage, and the progress has been good—I finished 13 illustrations this month, putting me at roughly 60% of what I’m expecting to need.

It’s actually going a bit slower than I expected, given regular effort, but that’s probably a good sign. The reason is that the illustrations are becoming more elaborate, and (I think) funny in ways that I hadn’t anticipated. Like this one (still in progress), depicting the make-out session that is a natural consequence when someone expresses feminine solidarity at a community center songwriting class.


I may not be skilled, but I can at least be weird.

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