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Participants warm up at the O Course (Matthew Sherwood for The Globe and Mail)
Participants warm up at the O Course (Matthew Sherwood for The Globe and Mail)

Basic training, military style: ‘Just show up and man up’ Add to ...

I’m marching through knee-deep water one moment, racing across heavy sand the next, all the while carrying a rifle and being screamed at to “Go, go, go.”

No, I’m not in basic training, I’m at O Course, but it’s pretty much the same thing. Run out of a soccer dome at Toronto’s Polson Pier, the Saturday morning military-style obstacle course is intended as both a standalone workout and a means of preparing for such herculean events as Spartan Race, Tough Mudder and Warrior Dash. Blissfully unaware of what adventure racing entailed, I signed up expecting a 60-minute boot-camp-style class. Three hellacious hours later, I consider myself schooled.

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After I check in and sign the mandatory waiver, I’m instructed to grab a two-foot-long wooden post, which weighs five pounds and is to be my “rifle.” After some milling about among the other 179 participants, I strike up a conversation with the woman to my right. She asks me if it’s my first time – she could tell from the look of fear in my eyes. On that encouraging note, we head to the “briefing” from Tony Austin, a former U.S. Marine Corps drill instructor.

His provenance is quickly apparent. “No talking! Keep your rifles up! I said, keep your rifles up,” he barks as he leads us through a non-stop series of squats, sit-ups and rifle raises.

“I was the guy who got the fresh new recruits off the bus, like you see in the movies, and then started screaming and yelling at them,” Mr. Austin tells me later. He began running O Course this past April as a seasonal extension of the boot-camp classes he leads at Fit Factory, a downtown Toronto gym. Thanks to a steady stream of recruits, he now plans to run the sessions year-round. (As an indication of the overall popularity of adventure racing, the first-ever Ontario Tough Mudder – to be held on Aug. 18 and 19 at Mount St. Louis Moonstone ski resort – is expected to attract more than 15,000 participants, while Warrior Dash events recently held in Ontario and British Columbia drew more than 17,000 contenders in total.)

“People tell me that they’re going through a divorce, they’re fighting for their kids, and they need to get out and do something,” Mr. Austin says of the sport’s fervent fan base. “It gives them a new lease on life, it’s addictive and spiritual.” How often can that be said about a 45-minute round on the elliptical?

He also maintains anyone can finish O Course, regardless of their fitness level: “Just show up and man up.”

Back at the dome, a handful of roving instructors patrol the crowd and sound an alarm if they spot anyone lowering their rifle. The punishment? Mr. Austin restarts his count for whatever exercise we’re doing while making us scream such hear-me-roar phrases as “I didn’t show up to give up” and “I can do one more of anything.”

Forty-five minutes – and countless dropped rifles later – my arms are burning and I’m filled with fiery rage: toward Mr. Austin and his lack of mercy, toward the participants who extend the torture, and toward myself for signing up for this ill-fated mission in the first place.

We head outdoors for the next round – “deploying” to Lake Ontario with our rifles, followed by 50 burpees in the sand, 20 minutes of walking in knee-deep water with our rifles overhead, running two kilometres on legs that now feel like jelly, walking through the water again, and then running back to the dome with a pit stop for push-ups. It’s exhausting just recounting it.

Finding myself near the end of the pack on the run to the beach, I’m dead last after the burpees. But at least I am honourable, which is more than I can say for a handful of cheaters who obviously fudge their reps. (“They’re only cheating themselves,” Mr. Austin says. “I know the true warriors.”)

During the two-kilometre run, every single one of my fellow warriors passes me by. Several offering well-intentioned words of encouragement; this only makes me want to hit them over the head with my rifle.

My spirits start to rise as I head back and manage to overtake a few stragglers; the fact that I’ve run a few marathons finally seems to be paying off. Nearly three hours have passed since the warm-up, and the end is surely near – at least judging from the mud-splattered but victorious types posing for photos inside the dome. (The fastest male participant completed the entire outside course in just under 54 minutes, the fastest female in 1 hour, 14 minutes.)

As it turns out, there are three other circuits to complete – a series of exercises on the soccer field (including tractor-tire flips and walking with a weighted backpack), another in the beach-volleyball pit (hoisting cinder blocks, carrying buckets of sand) and sundry other challenges including a “sniper crawl” through a mud pit. (“For refreshment,” says Mr. Austin.) The ever-expanding length of the course, he says, is “a shock to everyone.”

It’s at this point that I go AWOL, much to Mr. Austin’s chagrin. “You had more to give,” he tells me afterward. “You just got shut down mentally.” He encourages me to come out again, describing O Course as “the perfect way to spend a Saturday morning,” and I’m tempted. It turns out Mr. Austin is as motivational as he is sadistic.

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