OCR Jeff Cain Reveals the Three Hardest Parts of Obstacle Course Racing

Obstacle course racing (OCR) is one of the hardest forms of running around. Not only you have to run as best you can, but you also have to conquer an endless number of obstacles on your way through the race!

In this interview, we talk with OCR racer Jeff Cain who is rather well known in obstacle racing circles.

Read on and learn all you can from Jeff’s many years of OCR experience.

Below, he shares all about his OCR adventures including his training program, his most hated obstacles and his favorite running shoes, clothes and gear.

OCR Jeff Cain

Can you tell us a bit about yourself?

My name is Jeff Cain. I’m originally from a very rural part of Kentucky and now I live just outside of Lexington, KY. I am a college professor at the University of Kentucky College of Pharmacy. Yes, I’m a blue-blooded, Kentucky Wildcat, through and through. I’m actually a pretty boring person, though and my interests, activities, and hobbies are narrowly focused.

In addition to obstacle racing (of course) and writing for OnMyWayToSparta, I founded and am president of For Those Who Would, which is a 501(c)(3) non-profit charity founded in the obstacle racing community. Working with some really great individuals to build that organization and help others provides me with an abundance of pleasure and fulfillment. I’m also deeply involved with a yearly OCR mission trip to work with orphans in Mexico. The majority of my time, however, is spent with my wife and daughter, whom I absolutely adore. Reading, watching UK basketball, and doing small projects around my house takes up the remainder of my waking hours.

I have discovered that I thrive on a balance of mental and physical activity; adventure and comforts of home; pushing myself and relaxing; and helping others along with inward self-improvement. I think that is what makes me wake up every morning energized and ready to attack the day.

OCR Jeff Cain

How and why did you get into obstacle racing?

My start in obstacle racing was kind of a fluke and somewhat of a long story. As a college professor, I often speak at conferences, other schools, and for some businesses. I usually receive an honorarium for speaking and consulting and one day in 2011, I decided that I wanted to use that money for unique experiences – not things. I looked around for a few months and nothing really caught my attention EXCEPT for a Warrior Dash ad in some magazine. It was black and white, but with a few elements in color – like the fire someone was jumping over and his headband. I was not a runner AT ALL, but this looked different and a little exciting. So I found a Warrior Dash a few hours away in Logan, Ohio and signed up before I changed my mind.

For that first Warrior Dash in 2011, I was in good shape, but I didn’t run at all to train for it. In fact, I hadn’t run “just for the sake of running” since the 100 yard dash in elementary school! For a year or two prior to that I had become really devoted to P90X and Insanity workouts offered through Beachbody and my training came solely from those programs. P90X had completely changed my outlook on fitness and food and in many ways gave me the confidence to start looking for physically-challenging events.

I have participated in other sports before and there seems to be a pattern there. I am either all in or all out. From age 15-30, I played competitive softball – during the week and almost every weekend. I broke my finger playing basketball late one winter and it wasn’t healed in time for the start of the next softball season. Once I was away from the game for a few months and realized how great it was to have that time back, I never played again. I then picked up golf and played it until right after I started obstacle racing. I have only played it a handful of times since. I think I adopted my sports backwards!

OCR Jeff Cain

Why is obstacle racing important for you?

Like most people who have gotten into obstacle racing, I found that it gave me a different outlook on what it means to be an athlete, what it means to do something really difficult and get through it, and what it means to be in a community of people with similar interests as me. The nature part of it is so important to me. Getting out of the sterile gym environment and into the woods and creeks is much more exhilarating and mentally refreshing. It has also conditioned me to handle the elements a lot better. If you train in the heat, the rain, and the cold, they don’t tend to bother you as much when you encounter it in normal everyday settings. I can get caught in a windy rain storm and think “Hey, this isn’t pleasant, but it’s still much better than that storm I got caught in during the Spartan Ultra Beast on Killington Mountain!”

How do you train and become better at obstacle racing?

I train almost exclusively at my house, except when I go trail running at a nature sanctuary or hiking trail near my home. I have a mini-gym in my basement, but I also have woods with steep hills, a wildlife trail, a climbing rope, an 8 foot wall, a tyrolean traverse, and a spear throw. A lot of my training is outside, except in the winter when I tend to focus more on specific strength-building and flexibility. I don’t follow a specific program, per se, but I have a loose schedule that trains all aspects of fitness across the course of a week and I concentrate on different aspects of fitness throughout the year. I still incorporate a lot of P90X – type stuff into my training because it was so effective at making me stronger. I do not have a coach. I have considered it multiple times, but given my age (almost 47) and my other life goals, it doesn’t make much sense for me to spend money on a coach when the gains probably wouldn’t be that magnificent. Going from a 16th place masters athlete to an 11th place masters athlete is a big jump to some, but it really doesn’t mean anything in the big picture because who besides me really cares if I finish in 11th or 16th place!

OCR Jeff Cain

What are the hardest parts of obstacle racing?

The hardest part of obstacle racing to me is actually trying to stay competitive as 1) the races become more challenging, 2) the athletes keep getting better, and 3) I keep getting older! In many ways, training for obstacle racing is part of the thrill and adventure. I train extremely early in the morning hours. I could fall off a rope or wall, break a leg running down a hill, or get attacked by dogs or coyotes (or skunks!) and lay out there for hours before anyone would come looking for me! In terms of racing, I’m always concerned about swimming obstacles. Water obstacles below the head are fine, but when swimming is necessary, the stakes are much higher. Run out of breath or cramp while running up a hill and you just stop and work it out. Do that while swimming and you could die!

Anyone who has raced competitively in enough obstacle races will have experienced a bad outing. In some ways, a mess of a race becomes more exciting to me. I fall on the extreme side of introversion, which basically means that I “live in my head.” One of the things I like about obstacle racing is the stories that they create. When things go bad, I just think of how that makes the story even better. I often “write articles in my head” for OnMyWayToSparta.com while racing, which helps me block out the external pain, elements, etc. I’ve come to believe that is a major mental benefit for me because I just go deeper in my head while the rest of my body keeps on moving.

What are your top 3 most hated obstacles?

I don’t know if there are specific obstacles I absolutely hate. I don’t do races with electric shock or ice bath obstacles because I think they are ludicrous. If others want to do them, fine, but for me they are gimmicks and a turn-off!

From a physical standpoint, I don’t like the rig-like obstacles or obstacles that require single hand grip strength to get through. Actually, it’s not that I don’t like them, it is I have physical limitations that prevent me from doing well and more importantly, even getting better at them. My whole left side is just wonky. When I broke my left pinky finger playing basketball, it didn’t heal correctly after the surgery and removal of pins. I can’t close my left hand all the way because of that, so I lose a massive amount of grip strength there. I also have a partially torn labrum in my left shoulder. That tear is bad enough to prevent training hard for strength gains, but not bad enough to warrant surgery to repair. The takeaway from these issues is that if I have to isolate and hang from my left hand/arm/shoulder side for more than a couple of seconds I’m toast!

When it comes to difficult obstacles, like the ones I just mentioned, I take a strategic approach. First, I prefer to watch others do them to learn the best (or worst) technique and second, I let my heart rate slow a little before attempting. Does that work for me? Sometimes.

OCR Jeff Cain
Jeff watching his daughter climb wall

How do you prepare for events/races?

My training consists of trail running, hill sprints, body-weight exercises, and a few obstacle-specific workouts in my woods. I am consistent in my training and have my plan worked out at least a week ahead of time. I’m not a big gear guy, but I do use Wreckbag and Hyperwear sandbags in my training. They are both great training tools, although at times I just stick to using a small log that I’ve had since training for the inaugural 2011 Spartan Beast in Killington, VT.

As far as books go, I’ve read the major obstacle race training books written by Margaret Schlachter, Matt B. Davis, and David Magida and they each have something to offer the beginning and relatively new racer.

I used to race a lot more than I do now. Part of the reason I cut back is wanting to support my daughter now that she is playing volleyball and running track and cross country. The other reason is that as the sport became more popular, the races became less of an ‘adventure’. The vibe you get at some of the races is different – not necessarily bad, but just different in a way that is not my preference. I now focus on either iconic races (OCR World Championships, Barkley Fall Classic 50k, etc. ) or those that are a very short distance from home. In the future though, I see me migrating to extreme-type races that are off the radar and don’t attract the mainstream weekend warrior simply looking to be part of the ‘popular crowd.’

Mud Guts & Glory group

How do you eat and sleep?

I have a reputation (both good and bad) for my diet and sleep regimen. Most people would say I adhere to a very strict eating pattern. I don’t follow any particular “diet”, but I aim for a balance of lean proteins, healthy fats, and lots of vegetables and fruits. I severely limit grain-based carbs, sugar, and most processed foods. I’m not a supplement guy, but occasionally drink protein shakes and eat protein bars as snacks. My favorite protein bar is Square Organics Chocolate Coated Cocunut! Yummy!

For sleep, I get up at 3:15 a.m. every morning during the week to train. Yes, 3:15. That early morning wake-up didn’t happen automatically. It was a gradual transition, because 5 or 6 years ago, I got up with not a minute to spare to shower, eat breakfast, and get to work. Now, however, I love the thrill of being done with training before most people have gotten out of bed. I’ve also started getting to work around 6:00 a.m. and get the same thrill of being 2 hours ahead of most people in the building. When people ask me how I do it, I tell them that I just commit to it….BUT I also go to bed by 8:00!! One of my friends told me that I keep ‘toddler’ hours. In the winter months, I can be in bed and out like a light before 7:30 p.m., but in the summer, it’s hard to go to sleep when the sun is blasting through your window!

How do you handle injuries and recovery?

I’ve had more than my share of injuries. That can be attributed to a variety of factors including my age, some body structural imbalances, lack of a long history in running and lifting, and the extreme nature of the training and events. I’ve actually always been careful to not over train or push myself to the brink of injury, but the injuries still happened. Knee bursitis, stress fractures, and the good ‘ol left shoulder have all required focused efforts to heal. My tips for recovery after injuries is “don’t be a hero!” I have watched time and time and time again seasoned obstacle racers train or race themselves into serious injury and then try to come back too soon. When I’m injured, I follow best practice to get better as fast as I can by doing the “right things.” I take advantage of physical therapy, do my exercises and stretches as prescribed, and give my body the time necessary to recover. That diligence to doing the right thing is partly due to my personality and partly due to the fact that I’m wiser now than I once was. Thank goodness! Even when injured, I don’t completely abandon training. I simply switch my routine to focus on other aspects of fitness that doesn’t compromise the healing process.

Jeff and April trophies
Jeff and April trophies

What is your best advice people new to obstacle racing?

My advice to those new to obstacle racing is simply to have fun. Accept that it will be hard and that you won’t be good at everything. There are all kinds of newbie mistakes. I made them and so did almost everyone else I know who didn’t have someone guide them through the process.

Shoe and clothing choices are the big culprit – cotton shirts and old running shoes – recipe for a rough time on a lot of courses. Other mistakes are signing up for the wrong events. I see a lot of people sign up for the longer, more challenging endurance races as their first race, when they should be getting their feet wet (or muddy) with the shorter distances and building up stamina and experience.

My recommendation for actually getting started in obstacle racing and not merely dreaming about it….follow my lead. Slap down the money as fast as you can so that there’s no backing out!

Best advice for people who have been obstacle racing for years?

I’ve spent a lot of time in and around the OCR community and as an academic and introverted thinker, I actually like to study it. The community is full of so many outstanding people, but like anything else that grows really large, there are negative aspects. Personally, if I could magically change the community it would be:

  • For everyone to recognize and understand that OCR is at the intersection of sport, business, and hobby. That means there are a lot of different perspectives and a lot of different priorities. Just respect those different outlooks, opinions, and facets of OCR because it means different things to different people.
  • Don’t take OCR too seriously. We should be serious about our training regimens, our racing performance, and improving the sport, but the OCR community is at its best when it is just a bunch of friends chasing each other through the mud and across monkey bars. Sometimes we (including me) needed to be reminded of that.
  • Stop all the nitpicking and squabbling about particular races, obstacles, rules, etc.

How do you balance normal life with obstacle racing?

I am deliberate in training and getting better every day of the week. Part of the reason I train so early in the morning is so that it doesn’t interfere with my wife and daughter. I also don’t race nearly as much as I used to because I cherish my family time. They race with me at times, which is great, but that is typically only for local races. I’m fortunate that as a college professor I have a measure of flexibility with my job and can make the time for the races I really want to attend. Although occasionally, I have to miss certain races that I wouldn’t otherwise – like during graduation weekend. One of these days I will make the Montana Spartan Race that always seem to fall on that weekend!

DryRobe

What kind of running shoes and clothes do you use?

My racing and training clothes wardrobe is actually pretty sparse. I am not one to buy a lot of clothes, so I have a few pairs of shorts, shirts, and socks and wear them over and over until I need new ones. I race in a pair of Salomon trail running shorts and alternate between MudGear OCR socks and Injinji toe socks. Shirts – well they are just compression shirts and depending on the time of the year, I don’t even wear a shirt. I do have a pretty cool “OCR Until Life Makes Sense” trucker hat, though for after the races! The piece of clothing that I wouldn’t trade for the world is my DryRobe with a For Those Who Would logo. I don’t like the cold and this is absolutely perfect for after races (and other things)!

Although I do not have many clothes, shoes are a different story! Over the years, sponsors and other companies have given me shoes to wear and review. I have Inov-8s, Salomons, Icebugs, and Reeboks. While I really like the Inov8s and Reeboks, the Salming Elements are currently my favorite. While they are not the single best shoe in the drainage, grip, stability, or weight categories, they are the best shoe for the overall combination of those features. I wear my Elements in every race now, but occasionally switch out with the Reebok Supers for training. My Inov-8s are old, but occasionally you’ll see me sport my old Trailrunners or X-talons! Perhaps one of the coolest articles of clothing that I have though, is a custom-designed hoodie created from some of my race shirts by Daniel Liszewski at Thirty7s.com.

OCR Jeff Cain wearing 37's shirt

What has been your best sport purchase below $100?

If you haven’t figured out already, I don’t buy a lot of “things”. My best sport purchase below $100 is probably a $3 massage ball that I use almost daily! I have a Mini-moji massage tool that is pretty neat and I take it with me when I travel to races.

What other favorite gear do you have?

I have a Salomon S Lab hydration running vest. I forgot the exact model because I purchased it for use during the 2012 Spartan Ultra Beast and have only worn it a couple of times since then at some extremely long races. I talked about my Salming Elements already, but I will reiterate that I love them! I have some OCR Gear arm sleeves that I wear during most races and they are fantastic at buffering the skin from the inevitable scrapes and cuts that happen during a race. A lot of people have expensive designer sunglasses that they wear around after races. Me, I wear a pair of cheap plastic framed glasses!

OCR Jeff Cain
Warrior Dash Trophy

What will the future bring?

I’m always thinking ahead about my racing future and what that will entail. I’ve trimmed down my race schedule as the environment has changed and time with my family became more precious. My major planned races for this year are the Barkley Fall Classic 50K and the OCR World Championships. Looking in the crystal ball, I think I see me getting into adventure racing and possibly some other similar fringe sports. I’m drawn to events that aren’t mainstream, so who knows what I will register for?! If I could ever get into the Barkley Marathons, I would sign up in a heartbeat! Whatever the future brings, I guarantee it will be challenging, fun, and filled with stories!


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