Jon Albon ran his first obstacle race in 2010. Four years later, he won the OCR World Championships – a title he has held every year since. Not content with conquering one sport, Albon is also a three-time winner of the Skyrunner World Series: the World Cup of mountain running. RSNG caught up with the rope-swinging, mountain-conquering athlete to see how he summits two sports at once...
RSNG You’re the best obstacle racer around, but you’re also a world-champion mountain runner – what discipline do you prefer?
JA ‘During an obstacle race, it’s usually pretty hardcore – it’s a bit of a battle – so they don’t tend to be much fun, in the moment. Often you come out of an OCR feeling like you’ve been dragged through a bush backwards, but the fitness and training you do for OCR is really fun and well-rounded – you get to work on your full-body fitness.’
‘On the other hand, Sky Running offers amazing scenery and the chance to run over some big, wild mountains, but the training is a bit less varied. I’d say I enjoy both, for different reasons.’
RSNG Do you have a different mentality when going into an OCR, than when you’re toeing the line at a running race?
JA ‘OCRs are definitely more intense, especially because normally when I go into an obstacle race I feel like I should win it. With a Sky Race I’ll hope to win, but won’t be quite so confident. That’s the main difference for me, but also with obstacle racing you need to be ready for anything – it’s a battleground and you need to be able to give 100% at all times.’
‘You’re going up heights, in confined spaces, getting cold, then you manage through and realise you can do this stuff’
RSNG How has OCR changed in the nine years you’ve been competing?
JA ‘We’ve gone from all-natural obstacles – so jumping over trees and ditches and so on – to courses that are like what you see on Ninja Warrior. The sport is changing massively and it really needs to find its feet in terms of what it is, because obstacle racing should be about two things: facing your fears and full-body fitness. So you’re going to be going up heights, you’re going to be in confined spaces, you’re going to get cold, and then you’re going to manage through and realise that you can do this stuff. And you’re also going to have your speed, balance, agility and strength tested.’
RSNG Why do you think OCRs have become so popular?
JA ‘I think one reason is the fact that there isn’t as much emphasis on PBs or times for courses. It really sucks if you do a marathon and you complete it in, say, 3:30, then you do it the next year and you get 3:31, and because of that you’re really pissed off at yourself. You still ran really well, but because you didn’t get a PB you feel disappointed. That shouldn’t be the point – it should be about getting the same kick out of completing it, and having fun. In obstacle racing, every course is different, so you can’t judge yourself on times – it’s more about how you felt you performed and how you think you can improve.’
RNSG How do you balance your OCR training with your running training, or do they naturally complement one another?
JA ‘I don’t train separately for either; I just run and try and make myself as fit as possible. They definitely complement each other, because with obstacle racing I’ve been on top of the sport for a while, so if I just did OCRs I wouldn’t feel the need to get any better. But with Sky Running, I constantly compete against people who are better runners, so that pushes me to improve and that then helps my obstacle racing.’
RSNG What should be the number-one priority when training for an obstacle race?
JA ‘You have to prepare yourself, psychologically, to deal with little things that might grind you down during the race. People don’t normally train in wet shoes, for example, but in an obstacle race you’re pretty much guaranteed to get your feet wet at some point. You need to learn to accept and persevere with little things like that. But the main thing I tell people is to have fun, and to make training fun, because if it’s enjoyable you’re going to do more of it, and then you’re inevitably going to get fitter.’
‘OCRs require the most complete form of fitness because you need to be able to do just about anything’
RSNG In obstacle racing, is physical strength as important as cardiovascular fitness?
JA ‘It can vary from race to race, but you need both. OCRs require the most complete form of fitness, because you need to be able to swim, crawl, climb, jump, balance and do just about anything – in any order, over any distance, for any amount of time.’
RSNG How does your OCR training change in the colder, winter months?
JA ‘Obstacle racing isn’t that nice in winter, I’ll be honest! It’s pretty gnarly, so I tend to do a few races in winter, just to make sure I can still do it, then save most of my races for summer. I live in Norway, and I take my off-season during the winter, so that means I ski a hell of a lot more and do longer, slower training.’
RSNG How do you train for obstacles that are impossible to replicate at home or in the gym?
JA ‘I don’t really train for obstacles at all, to be honest: I just go climbing or bouldering. Three hours of bouldering goes by in the blink of an eye, whereas three hours in the gym drags like hell!’
RSNG What kit do you wear for an OCR, particularly in winter?
JA ‘Being cold is a part of what obstacle racing is all about: the idea is you get cold, then you learn to deal with it and feel great afterwards – it’s part of the challenge. If you were to wear a full wetsuit to race, for example, I would argue that negates the reason for doing it in the first place. For most races, you can get away with a neoprene top with some merino wool, neoprene hat and neoprene gloves, but it really depends how long the race is and how long you’re going to be exposed.’
RSNG What OCR event would you recommend for a first-timer?
JA ‘If you just want to go with your friends and have fun, something like a Tough Mudder is perfect; if you want to actually race against the best people, race series’ like Toughest allow you to really test how fast you can go; and if you just want to see how tough you are, something like Tough Guy will allow you to really see if you’ve got the grit to make it to the end.’
WHAT NEXT? Watch Jon Albon in high-octane OCR action.
Obstacle course racing and mountain running are extreme sports and injuries are common – novices should take great care. Comments are for information only and should not replace medical care or recommendations. Please check with your Doctor before embarking on exercise or nutrition regimes for the first time.