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Extreme Cross Country

Competition Meets Carnivale in XCX

by David Navarrete

sundown mountain, kid skiing
XCX competitor Chris Beckley soldiers on through obstacles and rough terrain.

Did you know that the wooded creeks and back trails of the Midwest are fertile ground for the most colorful of fitness sights? Farmers report spotting caped crusaders, two-legged zebras, and ostrich-riding cowboys running amuck in the hinterlands of Iowa and Missouri. And that was last November. .

Going to Extremes

“Running alongside thousands of people along a winding trail definitely has unique challenges,” says Chris Beckley, who ran his first extreme cross country (XCX) race last fall near Des Moines.

“It felt like a video game because you must run in every angle to dart around a crowd that’s bobbing its way around trees and fallen logs, steep ravines, slippery hills, you name it—we run over it.”

The temperature back then was a balmy 29 degrees, which made the icy stream crossings quite a motivation to finish the race. “It’s quite something to run and not be able to feel your feet,” says Anatole Openshaw, who competed in his third XCX extravaganza last year.

“You have to trust your body’s rhythm and modulate your pace according the terrain, pick your best spots to push harder, and pick other stretches to recuperate a bit. It’s like no other race out there,” he adds with a big grin.

“Oh yeah, then there’s the outfits,” he notes.

Apparently, crisscrossing the trickiest terrain west of the Mississippi among masked wrestlers, ballerinas, and the odd zombie is a great way to get to celebrate your fitness in a fun, crazy way. No matter whether there are icy cold creeks in fall or slimy mud pits in spring, runners around the country flock to these events in droves.

Outdoors & Loving It

But that’s not unusual, since most fitness-minded people love the idea of open country. Musty brown and mossy green trails call out for a brisk morning walk, a cool sunset jog, or even an invigorating long-distance run. Despite the latest spin on getting fit, nothing seems to beat the simplicity of grabbing a pair of shoes and stepping out onto a wooded path.

Cross country running offers a visual richness that engages all the senses and spares everyone the scourge of running on treadmills and tracks. Open air running rewards every step with the rush of vivid scenery, a fresh new twist on the trail, and always holds the promise of an undiscovered vista that takes your breath away.

But if scenery is not enough to motivate you to the great outdoors; what about the camaraderie? The cross country offshoot called XCX attracts the nuttiest kindred spirits you’ll ever share the trail with.

Mardi Gras on the Trail

Extreme cross country is usually a fun-loving race that demands the stamina and endurance of long distance running while featuring a host of unpredictable elements, like seriously uneven terrain, outlandish hurdles and obstacles, any-weather conditions, plus the most ruckus you can tack onto a seven-mile race. It’s winning hoards of fans every season with its wacky brand of hardy competition, spontaneous atmosphere, and hilarious carnival theatrics. Now, that’s hard to beat.

Where else would a pricey Nike outfit land you squarely in the top ten worst-dressed competitors of all time? That type of gear is definitely not going to win you any friends on the course, and in XCX racing, you just might need to make allies with at least one Elvis or Na’vi native to get you over the torturous hump of a bale of hay.

XCX makes cross country the most fun you’ve had since last Halloween. Make no mistake, a fair number of these fashionistas, jailbreak inmates, and runaway brides are in shape. And everyone is having a ball lunging over logs, dodging brush, and jumping into mud pits and other unavoidable surprises.

Believe it or not, this is no fringe sport. The Living History Farms XCX race in Urbandale last November attracted over 8,000 participants, some from as far away as Colorado, Utah, and Vermont. Whether costumed as Spartans or Santa and his reindeer, these racers come dressed to impress and race like it’s Mardi Gras in the boondocks.

“I definitely recommend training before you try any of these races,” says Chris. “Training for a longer distance than you plan to compete in helps you stay fresh during the race, plus training on trails with diverse inclines teaches your body to adjust and keep in rhythm.”

So if XCX sounds like fun to you, start running! Get a leg up on training at the Mud Run on Saturday, May 14, 2011, at the Sleepy Hollow Sports Park in Des Moines. This way, by fall, you will have mastered the art of racing in the wild with a muddy smile on your face. 

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