If you’d met Ryan Atkins in October of 2014, he’d say claiming to be a professional obstacle course racer was kind of a joke. If you ask him now he’ll tell you he does some trail building and some contractual engineering work, and that he makes money obstacle course racing. Realistically though, he’s got no way around it: he himself is a professional obstacle course racer. In fact he’s one of the best in the world. He’s got the salary, the sponsors and the track record to prove it.
He lives in Caledon now, but grew up in Ottawa competing on the unicycle trials circuit. And he was no slouch there either; he was world champion at 15 and then again at 18. Then he started racing mountain bikes while in university, before getting into running. And it was the running that set him on his current path. He won the World’s Toughest Mudder in 2014, and placed second at the Spartan World Champs and the Obstacle Course Racing World Champs.
How did you get so good at obstacle course racing?
After racing mountain bikes for a couple of years, I just started running. I started doing ultras and stuff and just got really into it. I guess the agility from unicycling trials riding, along with the endurance from mountain biking and all the running; it was kind of like a perfect storm for training for obstacle course racing. It kind of all clicked together for me.
There’s also the fact these races actually exist now.
Have they been around for awhile?
There is a guy in the UK that’s kind of credited with starting it. He started his first race in 1987, but it’s really only become mainstream in the past 5 or 6 years.
How were you doing in the ultra races?
I was doing okay. I think i was 5th at one of the North Face bigger races. My favourite thing is running FKTs (Fastest Known Times). I like being out in the wilderness, or in the mountains and just running. That’s my favourite thing to do. You just go out with your GPS watch and record the route. It’s like a race, but you’re just time trialling, usually on something super-scenic.
What drew you to obstacle racing?
It’s a really cool sport. Because not only do you have to have good endurance, you need good agility, good strength, good grip strength, so I think the all around fitness it demands is pretty unique. Crossfit’s kind of similar, but you don’t have the same kind of running requirement in Crossfit. And then a lot of the top level athletes in endurance sports, just focus on that one sport, which makes sense, but they’ll tend to neglect a lot of other aspects of their fitness. For me, course racing is pretty cool in that respect. I also like it because the barrier to entry is so low. You just need a pair of running shoes. And then when you’re running a race, you come up to an obstacle, go over it, then right back into running as hard as you can so the fitness demands are pretty cool because you’re switching from system to system.
Is there a preferred obstacle for you?
I don’t really have too much trouble with obstacles themselves. I think I’m a little stronger than I need to be for this sport, there are no obstacles other than spear-throwing that I really suck at. I have lots of grip strength and heavy carries I seem to do well at.
What do you do for training?
I really like to go out and trail run. So that’s the bulk of my training. It’s my favourite thing to do, so I do that a bunch. So probably 75% of my training is that. And then the other 25% is strength-based training; a lot of body weight stuff, carries, and rock-climbing as well. That’s kind of how it breaks down. Then when I’m too beat up from all the running, I’ll just ride my bike.
Where do you trail run around Caledon?
I really like running on the Bruce Trail, doing loops on that, doing loops at Forks of the Credit Park. There are great trail systems around there; Mono Cliffs, Terracotta. There is tons of running. There are some pretty good hills too.
What about mental?
Yeah, there’s a lot of mental. I think all my years of racing mountain bikes definitely comes into that. Because every time you come to a start line it’s another learning experience, so having done so many races, helps out with the knowledge that its just another race at the end of the day, don’t get too stressed, don’t get so worked up.
The unicycle trials that I did help too. When you’re in a trials competition you really need to shut everything else out and focus on the task and on your movement. You can’t let any distractions come through. And you need to perform when you need to perform. To have the ability to switch everything off and completely zone in on my performance and my feelings, how my breathing is and how I feel in my legs and my mind. That’s something that’s a skill and takes practise and that’s something I definitely honed through unicycle trials, as funny as that may sound.
Do you have any interest in these long races that cross the Gobi Desert and such?
Yeah, I’m interested. I think I’d rather run them just as challenges instead of races. I’d love to run across Antarctica, that’s something I’ve been dreaming about doing for years. I’d like to run the whole Bruce Trail in one go, or things like that; super ultra, long runs. But right now, it’s hard to train for a 5 km race and a 500 km run, so I try to keep that in sight and hopefully in the off-season, in the winter, I’ll be able to do some of the bigger adventures I’m dreaming of doing.
Running across Antarctica? Has that been done?
People ski across it. I don’t think anyone has run across it. I just think the landscape would be so incredible doing something like that.
What’s Team BattleFrog?
Yeah, Battlefrog is a US obstacle course racing company, and they are sponsoring me this year, so I’m going to most of their events, representing the team and it’s pretty cool. I get to help out at the kids’ races and I get to run all their races, which are really cool. They’re basically inspired by the Navy SEALS, so they have a bunch of employees who are past Navy SEALS and their obstacles are set up like a SEALS obstacle course. I really like the company, so I decided to partner with them.
How long are these races?
They’re different lengths, a Battlefrog race is 15 km, a Spartan race will be anywhere from 5 km to 40 km, the longest race is the World’s Toughest Mudder which in 2013, I ran 100 miles on.
You ran 100 miles? Were you running a different distance than other people?
It’s a lap format. So I ran 20 laps of 5 miles.
How long did that take?
About 22 hours.
How did you do at mountain biking?
Yeah, I was doing okay. I got pretty good pretty quick and was racing elite my second year racing, and I think I was third at nationals, and I had a few good races. But I was never quite that level on the mountain biking front and I think I’m just naturally a bit more muscular of a person, upper body wise, which doesn’t really help in cycling. SO I think I really struggled with that. Then when obstacle course racing came along I think it was a bit more natural for my body type.
How many people in the world are making a living at this now?
What are your goals for the year?
I’d like to defend my title at the World’s Toughest Mudder. And I think I’d really like to win the Spartan World Champs this year and the Battlefrog Championships as well. I think if I focus on the Spartan World Champs the others will kind of follow.
The fitness demands are pretty similar.
Is this similar to American Ninja Warrior at all?
I was actually at an American Ninja gym last night (in Miami), it was my first time playing around there. It’s similar for sure. The strength demands are way higher than in obstacle course racing, obviously. In obstacle course racing, you need to be able to do a couple pull ups and have decent grip strength, but the obstacles aren’t nearly as hard as they are on American Ninja Warrior and they’re spread out by a couple minutes of running. You do get the chance to regain your stregth in your arms, whereas with the Ninja Warrior, it’s just bam, bam, bma, bam, one after another. The obstacles are similar.
You going to enter one?
I don’t know. I don’t know if I’m quite at that level to really throw down on one of those courses. I think that I’m strong, but I’m not at that level. I would only go in it if I had a legit chance of doing well.
What’s the future of obstacle course racing?
I really don’t know. I think from an elite perspective the obstacles ned to get harder. Especially for elite males. SOmething between what they are now and American Ninja Warrior grade obstacels. That being said, you can’t put obstacles that are that hard out on the course for everyone else to do. The failure rate will just be so high that it will discourage a lot of people. From a selfish perspective I’d like to see harder obstacles, but from a realistic perspective, that may not happen. It’s a cool sport in that it’s a sport for the masses. Companies still need to cater to the general public. I’m not sure what the future’s going to be. I’m pretty excited about it.
Advice for anyone?
I think people train too much for strength at these races. Especially if you’re a guy. If you want to do well, at an obstacle course race, you need to run a lot because the race is mostly running. Especially for males, the strength demands are there, but they’re not that high. most guys, with two to three days a week of basic strength traning should be able to get through the obstacles. Their focus should be on general fitness, some work on their grip strength, but mostly on running. Don’t forget to run.
On average, women are a little less strong than men, so I think women need to focus on strength a little bit more. So doing some pull-ups, and body weight exercises. They don’t need to go overboard.
Anything else to add?
The only thing is that lots of people get psyched out by these kinds of races, whatever the event is, but most people, if you are active and you run, and you have some strength, you’ll be able to get through the course. For people who are hesitant to sign up, just do it. Because it’s a lot of fun.