RPG characters often tromp through many types of terrain on their way to do something more important, like dragon slaying or dungeon crawling. This tromping often includes trivial random encounters just to keep the players interested and is generally considered an annoying delay by players. After my recent experience actually, well, tromping across the countryside I have a new found respect for actually traversing terrain. On October 25th, I ran the Terrain Racing 10k obstacle course/mud run in Phoenix, Arizona and learned an important lesson; obstacles are hard, but the damn land will hurt you more than any wall, mud pit or monkey bars.
I am far from an elite athlete, but I can run a 10k race (6 miles), albeit slowly. The distance did not concern me as much as the obstacles and my minimal research suggested that good grip strength and upper body power were essential for the climbing, so I started doing pull-ups. Lots of pull-ups.
Thinking myself prepared, I joined my wave at the starting line, actually it was a starting pool. This was actually a gift because it eventually reached 95° on race day and it was getting warm at 9:00 AM.
A cannon fired and we were off and running. I should stop for a moment to describe the venue.
Arrakis, Dune, desert planet. Pure scrub desert, occasionally punctuated with an obstacle or water station. The ground alternated between concrete-hard packed mud/clay and loose sand. Oh, and every green plant wants to stab you with one of its many thorns/spines.
Anyway, we charge down the course and blow through a couple of mud pits with immediately add a couple of pounds to your feed because mud sticks like super glue. Additional misery comes from the abrasive sand entering your socks and slowly scratching off the first layer of skin from your feet. Lovely.
A couple of miles go by with more obstacles, such as walls to climb or cargo nets. Since I trained for these specifically they were not an issue and then the race designer managed to do the impossible. He found a damn swamp in the middle of the Arizona desert.
As I approached the swamp/creek I thought we would just cross it and then head out across the desert. Sadly, it turned into slogging about 300 yards of waist-deep water. Slogging through water hurts, if you are trying to move with any speed at all and it saps the strength. This obstacle was not even an obstacle and it caused me more misery than anything else on the course besides Mount Pain (more on that later). Finally ending my soggy trek I noticed the local mosquito population feasted with abandon on my apparently tasty flesh. I felt like a pin cushion and the next day I looked like one too. A very itchy pincushion.
Traversing some more obstacles and a couple of miles, we arrived at Mount Pain. It really has no name, that is just what I called while I was climbing it…repeatedly. Mountain is not even the correct term, it is actually a huge pile of gravel that got rained on for a couple of years. This means that every step you take gravel slides down under your foot and you gain perhaps 15% of the step you actually took. I hate this place with the fire of a thousand suns. So, of course, we went up and down it repeatedly until we will finally allowed to jump/slide off the top of it.
A couple more miles of mud, obstacles and climbing walls pass and then with a grand flourish, we finished the race. As I collected myself at the end of the race, I reflected on what I found challenging and there was really no question; the terrain itself. I job on a treadmill and I now understand this was a terrible mistake. My ankles and calves were not conditioned correctly for running on uneven/sandy terrain. It earned me a spectacular calf cramp in mile five to remind me to trail run more before attempting this race. Going cross-country, even on the pancake-flat Arizona desert is brutal, grinding physical labor. The thought of doing this carrying the standard adventurers kit or, even worse, heavy armor and weapons terrifies me. More than anything else, this simple fact will inform my campaigns going forward. Numenera is my game of choice these days and it does have rules for fatigue with heavy armor, but I think I may add some other penalties to add a bit of verisimilitude to travel. Might make the players start treating overland travel with the respect it deserves.
As for those interested in trying an obstacle course race, check out the Terrain Run website and start training. Trust me, you will view “boring travel” with a whole new level of respect when you complete the race!
Trask, The Last Tyromancer