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Part 1: By Dave Sherman
As much as I love obstacle races, most tend to centre around a fixed formula of ‘mud + climbs + carries (+ a pinch of humiliation for any weaklings) = an OCR’. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve taken part in some awesome events and have great memories from certain races, but after a while they start feeling a bit ‘samey’. However every now and then something different comes along which stands out from the crowd…
Before I get started on my review, here’s a short video of the Commando Series course from a participant’s perspective to give you an idea of what we experienced on the day…
Now after watching that video some of you may think ‘well that looks easy’ and to be totally honest, you’re not wrong! The beauty of this race is the fact all obstacles are do-able by all abilities. For example, you’ll have noticed quite a few kids in the video and while some of those guys were smashing their way through the course while their parents were lagging behind, Commando Series offer 3 difficulty options to cater for all abilities. ‘We are family’ features slightly easier versions of each obstacle designed for participants with young kids, with ‘Just get me round’ Commando instructors will help participants with special tips for each obstacle, and finally the option we chose – ‘Treat me like a Commando’ – basically tells the instructors to make each obstacle as hard as possible, then throw in some press-ups, burpees and a few other challenges to make it that little bit tougher! If that still seems too easy you can bump up the challenge even more by opting to carry 21lbs of marine webbing (including a wooden rifle) or even completing the course twice bumping up the total obstacles encountered to 36!
I should also point out that while I’ve featured all 18 obstacles in my video, I’ve been careful to keep some of the experience a secret and although the race was only launched last year, Commando Series are making a huge effort to ensure the event keeps evolving (3 new obstacles were introduced this year) so there’s every chance it will have changed again before November 2017. It’s also worth noting how I’ve edited the video to keep the length manageable, so Tunnel Rats, Smarty Tubes, and the Catacombs of Doom were actually much longer than you’ll see in the video – the Catacombs alone took us a while to get through in the pitch black!
The course runs around Hever Castle taking in various parts of the grounds, and I have to say the venue is part of the reason I keep coming back to events at this place which this year have also included a Colour Run and Triathlons. The trails around the castle offer a varying range of surfaces including mud, concrete paths, grass and gravel with some tough uphill climbs made considerably tougher when it’s cold and slippery, but with the castle as a backdrop and surrounded by trees filled with beautiful autumnal oranges and reds, the sections between each obstacle flew by and it was a great day for a run.
When registering you’re provided with a green cotton Commando Series t-shirt, and when you eventually cross the finish line you’re greeted with a pair of Commando Series ‘Dog-tags’ in leau of a medal (something I requested last year when we only received a single dog-tag, although this years were a bit thin so we’re still not quite there!) and a nice hot cup of Ribena (apparently something real Commandos enjoy after a training session) and best of all Commando Series have laid on hot showers, again drawing on techniques used by the real Commandos using fire-pit heated water and buckets suspended on ropes, along with a heated changing tent so you can get cleaned up before travelling home – definitely something other Obstacle Race event organisors could learn from.
A number of sports journalists will choose to brush over an event’s bad points for fear of not being invited back, but at Trek and Run we pride ourselves on honest reviews and this is where Commando Series are brilliant as last year we pointed out a few areas for improvement and rather than ignoring us, every critique was addressed this year making for a great experience and one we’re proud to promote and recommend to our readers. Commando Series are planning to spread out across the country, possibly utlising venues such as Cholmondley Castle and Castle Howard where the Castle Series triathlon events are held, and if you can’t make it to Hever Castle then I’d definitely recommend checking out one of their other venues once they’re launched. Just remember to ask to be ‘Treated like a Commando’ if you want the full Commando experience!
Part 2: By Steve Kimberley
It was a hectic day at the office when my phone lit up with a message from Dave asking if I was free to run the Commando series race. After being torn momentarily between a Saturday morning in the gym, or a mud-filled, high-octane assault on the body complete with wire crossings, caves and frogmen…
For me, this was one of the easiest decisions of 2016.
Thinking back to the very first Commando event, in 2015, I remember being completely surprised by how much I enjoyed the race, and how the whole ‘commando’ military theme did not come across as at all gimmicky but was one of the most enjoyable aspects of the event. So this time, I was donning my trail shoes, washing my headband, practicing my push-ups, working on my salute and really looking forward to a good day out.
Taking place once again at the historic Tudor grounds of Hever Castle, we walked into the race village on this grey and damp morning, yet the general atmosphere was one that overcame the seasonal setbacks and seemed to beat with positivity. In the background an imminent wave of runners were being put through their warm-up drills by real-life commandos (who’s vocal chords can probably be measured using the Richter scale) as we collected our race shirts, once again opting for the green wristband meaning ‘treat me like a commando’.
Our warm-up was one of the most vigorous that I have ever done before an OCR and left us wet, muddied and with no remaining illusions that this race would be clean and easy. A huge change from last year that I noticed, being a bit of a USP for Commando Series, was that they now let children run in the adult waves, providing they stay with a parent wearing a yellow wristband. I was struck for a moment with the idea of being stuck in a bottleneck behind children on our way around, but they were obviously taking things a bit slower, so we didn’t see any of the family groups after the first few minutes of the race.
Many of my favorite obstacles from last year were still there, including a cave which must be navigated in pitch darkness, the wire crossing, numerous muddy tunnels, and of course the dreaded ‘sheep dip’, which seemed to knock the wind out of me far less than last year.
At one point (and if you check out our race video, you will see this) as I was heading down a particularly muddy slope towards one of the obstacles, I was being my usual ditsy self when I felt the earth beneath my feet play an awful prank on me. Just as I was about to put my foot down (as sure-footedly as a mountain goat,) the ground beneath my feet must have moved as when my foot came down it found nothing but air, resulting in me tumbling hilariously onto my bottom. I was further dismayed, when I realised that Dave had caught the whole thing on camera.
I found that a big difference from last year was that the race marshals seemed to have developed a better sense of control and dramatis persona from last year. We were singled out far more for wearing the dreaded green wristbands and made to carry out numerous additional drills and tasks, which added to the whole idea of an authentic commando experience.
Once again, the Commando Series was an extremely testing but immensely enjoyable race and happily it had overcome some of the first year teething problems, which gave it a great sense of professionalism and control.