Brakken Kraker, a professional obstacle racing athlete from the US, and his wife recently spent a few days in Nelson, New Zealand.
We sat down with Brakken the day after the race to hear his thoughts on professional obstacle racing, training and coaching, and what he thought of racing in New Zealand at the Wairua Warrior. Below is the transcribed interview.
Brakken Kraker: Interivew
ORNZ: Is this your first time visiting New Zealand?
Brakken: Yes, first time. We’ve been wanting to see New Zealand for years. When I saw the Lord of the Rings movie, probably in High School, I saw at the end it was filmed here and it was so beautiful that we immediately put it on our list.
ORNZ: Have you had the chance to see much of the country?
Brakken: As much as we can see in the few days we’re here. We shortened our trip a bit as this is our first time going longer than 24 hours away from our children. They’re young, we have a 4 year old and a 2 year old who has trouble sleeping so we didn’t want to leave her for too long. We’ve been up the coast from Nelson about an hour and inland about an hour. We’re trying to see everything around the region.
ORNZ: And you have another child on the way?
Brakken: Yes, Lisa’s about half way done with her third pregnancy.
On professional obstacle racing
ORNZ: The professional level of OCR is in many ways so far beyond the current New Zealand scene of the sport, so can you talk about what a pro obstacle racer even is?
Brakken: Well you have to understand that a pro obstacle racer wasn’t even a concept when OCR first started. I started racing in 2011 and it was like anything else where you paid you dues and went to a race, and then you went home and waited until someone announced another race. Then about two years into that Spartan Race came up with the idea for a pro team where they would get a bunch of the best obstacle racers together in the United States and make them the showcase of their company by sending them around to race and see if they could advance the sport.
At first it was just you received a couple of flights each year and you didn’t have to pay to enter the races, and they called you a pro. We were all really excited, like “Hey someone’s going to fly me to a race… of course I’ll do that. Someone’s paying me to do my hobby!” But there was no real professionalism to it, as we still all worked our day jobs and had to ask our bosses to take off work if we wanted to go race. That limited the scope of what being a pro was.
But then as the sport grew and the participants grew, the ability to make a living off racing grew as well. Sponsors started coming in, and as soon as that happened it legitimised the sport and put more money into the pro pool. So instead of just receiving the flights to a race, now somebody was giving you the flight, and the hotel, and the car and your food for the week. Then that progressed to paying you to show up for a whole week, and that progressed to some people being paid to represent sponsors and just be a part of things.
Over the past seven years it developed into what it is today, where you have a handful of athletes who don’t work their jobs anymore, they just race. It’s still not a very lucrative career but it exists now that you can be a full-time obstacle racer.
It’s a progression that none of us ever imagined would even be a possible path.
ORNZ: So what is the distinction between an elite obstacle racer and a pro obstacle racer?
Brakken: Anyone who signs up for an elite wave, I suppose, can call themselves an elite racer. It’s strange when people name themselves that on social media, as it’s really a hobby but maybe we should just pursue it and have fun with the idea, you know.
Some other sports define a pro as earning above the poverty level, whatever line that is, solely through your sport. So let’s say that $25,000 per year is the government defined poverty level, if you earn above that then you’ve hit the definition of a pro athlete. Right now there’s not a whole lot of racers in the world who fit that description. $25,000 is a lot to make off obstacle racing. You can either be an extremely good racer and win a lot of races and make a lot of money to get you over that theoretical line, or you can have a lot of good sponsorships that support you and those get you over that line. And then some people have a mix of both: they race well and they have some good working relationships with businesses. That’s my definition – if you can subside and exist solely off your racing then you’ll be a professional at it.
Now, by other definitions a professional is somebody who receives money for what they do. So I guess technically if you won $100 for third place at a race you could say you’re a professional. In our collegiate system the NCAA, our university system in the US, they define amateur as not receiving money. I think their definition is over $2,000 or $10,000 perhaps, but if you receive money then you lose your amateur status. So you could argue that if you’re not amateur then you’re infact professional.
It’s not as glamourous as being a professional football or baseball player where their whole town can subsist off their earnings.
At the start it was if you receive a small amount of money then you’re a pro, and now it’s if you make, say, half your living off racing then you’re a pro, and then eventually it may be, if the sport grows, that if you’re not making six figures then you’re not considered a pro.
ORNZ: You’re on the Spartan Pro Team, are there pro obstacle racers earning a living from OCR who aren’t on the Spartan Pro Team?
Brakken: Yes. The Pro Team is just Spartan’s collection of athletes. Perhaps half of the best racers in the US are on the team, but there’s plenty of good racers outside of it. If you look at the Spartan Race World Championships the past few years, a Spartan Pro Team member hasn’t won it in probably three or four years. They place well, they do well at it, but the world champion each year has been from outside of Spartan. If you look at the OCR World Championships, a Spartan Pro Team member has never won it. They’ve placed top five, top three, but never won it.
The obstacle racing talent is growing very quickly, and Spartan has a lot of it but they don’t have all of it.
ORNZ: Spartan kick-started people taking obstacle racing to the professional level?
Brakken: Yea, Spartan had ideas which seemed a little crazy at first. Paying people to go run obstacle racers – people looked at that and thought who are these people and why do they deserve that. But the idea of it caught on, and then another pro team started up and then another.
Love them or hate them, Spartan got the ideas on a lot of things rolling which opened the doors for obstacle racing to be accepted as a, borderline, mainstream sport at this point.
ORNZ: From what I understand obstacle racing is quite unique in that a racing brand itself, ie Spartan Race, is one of the main sponsors, as opposed to clothing or footwear or other companies outside of the sport being the major sponsors. Does this situation happen in other sports?
Brakken: It is very strange. Take NASCAR for example, racing is the sport and NASCAR is a brand, but people know NASCAR as stockcar racing. Or the PGA is a brand, they didn’t invent golf but they’re well known as golf.
ORNZ: Or Ironman and triathlon is an example people throw around a lot.
Brakken: Yes, Ironman is triathlon in most people’s minds, but there’s an Olympic version that’s totally different.
It’s strange, in theory, that a brand is the sport in OCR, and I think some people are looking to get away from that but other people see it as a positive thing. It really comes down to what do you do with it. The brand is ok being the sport if it helps grow the sport. So that’s Spartan’s path to choose: are they going to grow the brand or grow the sport, or try to do both at the same time.
ORNZ: It seems they’re doing a good job so far I think, from looking at it from the outside.
Brakken: There’s a lot of detractors from time to time. But at the very least Spartan got the ball rolling on everything. Tough Guy was the first race I believe and Tough Mudder was there, but without Spartan I don’t believe the competitive side of OCR would’ve grown into what it is today.
ORNZ: Do you have sponsorships outside of the Spartan Pro Team?
Brakken: I do. I work with a health company that makes nutritional supplements of basically all those buzz word superfoods and all those things that the experts tell you that you should be eating more of, they put that into a powder form. One of them is called Boku Superfood. My diet is ok, but I’m not very good at eating my greens, and they allow me to fill in the gaps I’m missing.
And I work with a brand called MudGear. They make OCR specific clothing. I slept in their compression socks last night after the race, and they also make shirts, shorts, all kinds of things just for OCR.
Spartan, Bocu, and Mudgear are the three I work with the most.
On training and coaching obstacle racing
ORNZ: Your background is in track and field. How did you find making the transition fitness-wise from running a shorter distance to longer distance running for OCR?
Brakken: In theory the transition was very easy because prior to track and field, and even during it, I played a lot of other sports. From time to time I’d bump heads with my college coach because I kept playing basketball throughout track season, “You’re going to hurt your knee, you’re going to roll your ankle”, but I loved other sports so I couldn’t give them up. From doing other sports I was always a little larger for a runner and I liked working out and that kept more mass on me, so that made the transition from running to OCR very smooth and the obstacles were never a huge challenge for me.
But going from short distance to long distance that was the big challenge. My attention span and my endurance level were primed between two minutes and four minutes, and the average obstacle race is around 90 minutes for me. So that took a massive expansion of endurance and it’s been a painful learning process.
ORNZ: Coming out of track and field where you had a coach, did you have a coach for OCR or did you train yourself?
Brakken: I trained myself.
I did coach both track and cross country myself, and in my last year of college I was doing student practicum on-the-job experience. Always doing that, I couldn’t practice with the team. I followed their schedule somewhat but I also started playing around with how to change it to my own needs, and I really enjoyed that. So right from the beginning I realised coaching is what I want to do, and when I started OCR it was a natural progression to switch from coaching running to coaching OCR. So basically I coached myself the entire time. I enjoy being self-coached and I really enjoy coaching.
OCR is an interesting sport because there aren’t any experts in OCR that were pre-existing. So the only way to know how to really coach OCR is to have raced in it. There are successful coaches out there who don’t race, but most of them have some sort of racing experience themselves. For running coaches it’s established what works for running and a lot of that carries over to OCR but there’re a lot of things that a pure running or track running coach couldn’t tell you to do, unless they had been on the race course yesterday and had felt the things you and I felt.
ORNZ: You have an online coaching program, LeaderBoard. I listened to a podcast interview where you explained how the platform works, but I got confused over whether it was a closed program or if it was open for new members. How would someone who wants to train with you go about joining LeaderBoard?
Brakken: It’s now fully open, so when you listened we were doing our trial and allowing 15 or 20 athletes in, as we really wanted to test it make sure we could handle it on a small basis. Since then we’ve had our proof of concept and we’ve opened it up.
People can go to leaderboardfit.com and they can signup for a free trial of what we call the takeoff board where they have two weeks of workouts and testing, and then at the end of those two weeks they can choose a coach, if they want to continue. We have myself and Robert Killian, who was the Spartan Race World Champion in 2015, as coaches and we each have our own unique program based on how we train.
The theory behind it is each coach trains his or her athletes the way they personally train. So the things I believe in and the workouts I use, people get those adapted to them. And whatever Robert Killian does in his training, the things he believes in and his style of scheduling, that’s what his athletes receive.
People get a one-on-one talk and the end of it, we do a video chat to talk about what someone wants, what they need, their strengths and weaknesses, how they’re going to progress, and then they get to make a decision at the end of that.
We’ve got a pretty good team going right now, a good mix of athletes. It’s Saturday right now in the States so it’s race day and everyone has just been sending their race results in. We have our own little community online with private messaging, it’s cool to watch.
ORNZ: So someone from New Zealand could signup to your coaching program even though you’re based in the States?
Brakken: We already have a New Zealand athlete! We have a Kiwi, two from Dubai, one from Saudi Arabia, three from Italy, and a couple from South America. That’s the wonderful part about it being an online platform, we can connect from anywhere. When this started I trained only with people who lived near me, they could come and workout with me each day, and then I started corresponding via email, bu then when LeaderBoard started it clicked where we can train anyone, anywhere, anytime and it’s just beautiful.
ORNZ: You’re a believer in being race ready year-round, can you explain how this works considering traditional sports coaching is about periodising and peaking and etc?
Brakken: Periodising as a training schedule is a scientifically-sound way to approach endurance sports. It’s been proven over time and it’s worked. But we’re very unique in OCR in that we have races from January through to December. In New Zealand you guys don’t yet have the volume of races that other countries have access to but it’s growing. In the US you could race every single weekend, outside of maybe Christmas and Thanks Giving. You could race 50 weeks of the year if you wished, and we had some athletes who did that. One of our masters athletes set a goal, it was 40 or 50 podiums over the year, and he made it. He went top 3 in the masters races 50 times. So how do you periodise for that? It’s very tough.
For athletes who want to have a couple of good races per year, having that structured periodised level of training is the way to go. And we offer that through Leaderboard. Robert Killian does a periodied style of training where they train through some events, they back off a little bit from some events, but they really sharpen coming into a couple of big races throughout the year.
My coaching on LeaderBoard is developed for the athlete who wants to be able to race at any point throughout the year. I try to include a mix of any possible OCR and running skill that you could ever need for any style of race year-round. In a typical training schedule, you may not do speed work in your off season or you may not do threshold work or hills during certain parts of the year. But I include everything all the time.
I work in four-week microcycles and 8-week macrocycles, and throughout those I use every skill I could need in racing. We still have a natural progression, such as little points of emphasis early in the year where we have base-building and then we have different speeds throughout the year. But for the most part you walk around in the best possible fitness you could be in, or close to it, every single week. You just get incrementally better throughout the year. It personally works for me because it keeps me injury free as my body is used to doing everything so nothing could surprise it.
Whereas if you had to periodise and race 20 times throughout the year, you just kind of have to accept that you won’t be very good for the first part of the year, and you might be burnt out by the end, but your middle is going to be really good. It’s a personal choice an athlete has to make, but I personally have had success with staying fit, sharp, and race ready all year-round.
ORNZ: There’s the Spartan Race World Championships, the US OCR Championships branching out from the World Championships, and I recently saw announced another US Championships from OCRUSA (and there might be others I’m not aware of) are you planning to race in all of these?
Brakken: Yea, there’s a lot now but each one’s an opportunity to test yourself against the best athletes out there. As this grows, for example last year we had a bunch of foreign athletes and this year it sounds like some Kiwis are going to make the trip, every year you get the chance to find out where you stack up on a global level as opposed to just a regional or national level. They’re opportunities I can’t pass up. Yea, I’m going to race all of them.
They won’t all be my prime focus for the year, but I will be fit and gunning for it every single time they happen.
ORNZ: Would you describe yourself as a competitive person? And does the individual nature of OCR appeal to you over team sports?
Brakken: For team vs individuals I don’t really have much of a preference. I grew up playing team sports and I really love team sports. My brother and I have on-and-off lived together for the past few years and whenever we live together we wind up signing up for a basketball team, and I love the team aspect of that.
For me it’s just the competitive part – I love to compete. And that was one of my biggest fears leaving college, “What am I going to do with myself now?”. All I’ve known since I was a child was athletics. I had competed in something every year, and suddenly that was done.
Luckily OCR was there for me. And it’s a healthy outlet. I don’t want to be at home needing to beat my kids at monopoly or go fish, you know, I don’t need my competitive side coming out in everyday life, so OCR is my outlet for that. I get to compete as hard and as fiercely as I want on the obstacle course, and then be happy and relaxed in the rest of my life.
On the New Zealand Wairua Warrior
ORNZ: What did you think of the Wairua Warrior course?
Brakken: I was blown away! …whenever we get offered to come to a race generally people, if it’s a smaller race or a growing race, start making little apologies for the race before you get there. They say, “Oh keep in mind we’re new” or “we don’t have the big budget of a Spartan or a Tough Mudder”, and so you start to learn to expect that when people say those things you’re going to see an unfinished product missing a lot of things. And shame on me, as I came in with a bit of a preconceived notion that I was going to get into one of those events. I was very excited to see New Zealand, but I wasn’t sure the level of race I was going to see. But the race just blew me away.
The course, the race could stack up against almost any race I’ve ever done, anywhere around the world. It was phenomenal. The way I’m feeling today, you know we’ve been talking earlier about how beat down we are the day after the race, I’ve probably only had three or four days like this in OCR in the last seven years.
The terrain was speculator. I can only think of one or two other events I’ve ever done that had this mix of terrain. This race might have had the best mix of terrain I’ve ever seen. It had everything from steep climbs to long gradual climbs, it had running through what felt like jungle to running through what felt like a redwood forest. It was like all these different areas of the globe were all combined into one area which was the course. There was Keith’s Corner which was a very technical and slick like only six-inch wide, single track. It was really nasty in that track – and it was incredible. And then to have the race open up to an ATV path, it was perfect.
The course setup was prefect too. Often times what I see in newer or smaller races is a lack of experience with how to setup a course. Bottlenecks happen, there’s not very good marking of the course and it’s easy to go the wrong way, or things don’t flow from one area to the next with any purpose. But right from the start of the Wairua Warrior I was thinking “Oh I see what they did here, this was really smart.” It avoided bottlenecks, it avoided any stoppages on the trails, and any time there was single track coming up there was something prior to it, like that tyre drag which opened up the race a little so there were gaps where people could move through. Even something as small as getting a token at each out-and-back section which you had to drop off when you returned to prove that you ran the correct course, so that anyone who cut the course couldn’t get away with it. Things like that were very well thought out.
ORNZ: That’s exciting to hear. That’s some good praise.
Brakken: Lisa and I were talking, the whole experience this weekend from the reception we got when we got here and the acceptance of the people here, everyone here has just gone out of their way to be nice to us and welcome us and include us in everything.
And then afterwards they invited the entire population of the race to a bar/restaurant, and we thought it would just be a get-together but they had the whole thing catered at no charge to us. You don’t see that happening at other places, you don’t see that kind of attention to detail elsewhere, they took care of everybody. This was one of the, if not the, best full, all-encompassing race experiences we’ve had.
The numbers don’t match up with a US race, but the US is five years ahead of where you guys are at. In terms of the quality of the experience this is a race that deserves to be recognised on the global level. People need to come down to New Zealand and do this.
ORNZ: To start the day’s racing, the opening of the elite heat featured a traditional Maori wero ceremony where a warrior from the homeground comes out to challenge the visitors to see if the come in peace. And you were asked walk out and accept that challenge. How did you find that experience?
Brakken: It’s cliché but there aren’t any words I have that can accurately describe that experience. It was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. We don’t have that type of culture in the US. We all have national pride and we’re all very patriotic but we don’t really have a deep-rooted connection to our history. We don’t have tribes that we’re connected to or the connection with the earth that they have here. Standing there and having the warriors locked eyes with me the entire time I was walking to accept that challenge, it was a powerful ceremony and a once in a lifetime opportunity. It added a whole new element to the race for me.
ORNZ: The token offered during the wero, to show you come in peace, is usually a small branch. After accepting it I hear you ran the whole race holding onto it?
Brakken: I did. I was told I cannot break eye contact with the warrior, so I picked up the token and walked backwards through the river maintaining eye contact, which is very difficult walking backwards through a river without being able to look down at your feet. That was the first obstacle of the day for me. When I got back to the start line I felt it would be disrespectful to place the token down, so I kept holding it. And then the race started and I realised I was still running with it, and I thought you know maybe this is part of my personal challenge to accept for this experience. It became a little personal challenge for me to carry it and complete the whole race with it still intact.
ORNZ: What was the most challenging part of the course for you?
Brakken: The most challenging obstacle was the first sandbag carry. It was 35kg, but it had been rained on so it wasn’t sand by the time we got to it. It felt almost like concrete so it was probably closer to 37 or 38kg.
ORNZ: Some of the organisers said they were aiming for 35kg so they of course filled them up more just to make sure. And then plus the rain.
Brakken: Yea. It could’ve been 40kg. It was very very heavy, and the carry was so long. It was a whole kilometre which was the same distance as the carry at the Spartan Race World Championships and that was considered the longest sandbag carry that people had seen. So it was very long, very heavy, and very steep. I went back over my GPS data, and there were times we went up I believe a 49% incline. There was 30%, 35%, 40%, 45%, and 49%. I got to the top and I was really hurting but still feeling like I was in-control of myself. Although going back down the hill, and trying to run and trying not to fall with all the weight, that was a grind going back down 40% with 40kg on my back.
The sandbag carry was the hardest obstacle, but the hardest part overall was just the downhill terrain. There was no let-up on the course. We had several flat sections but they were sandwiched inbetween very hard descents.
ORNZ: Did you end up doing any burpees for failing obstacles?
Brakken: I didn’t. I almost fell off the second balance obstacle. I was flailing and windmilling my arms, and I had a split-second thought of what we talked about at the seminar the day before where if you’re out of control sometimes the best thing you can do is let go and launch yourself forward and let your feet go because sometimes they know what to do better than you do. So I did that, I just started running and my feet took over and I made it across.
ORNZ: Will you be back next year?
Brakken: If you guys will have me I’ll be back next year. The race itself was such a good experience that I have to experience it again.
And there’s so much of New Zealand that I have not seen yet. You’ve got a lot of mountain ranges I haven’t run yet and there’s a lot of tracks even here in Nelson that I haven’t finished exploring yet. Next year Lisa, theoretically, won’t be pregnant so she’ll be able to spend more time out running in the mountains with me.
ORNZ is honoured to have had the opportunity to meet Brakken and discuss obstacle racing on the global level. We’re feeling pretty inspired right now. If you’re looking for your next race, check out our comprehensive list of upcoming races in New Zealand.