Ryan Atkins races through obstacle courses like Tarzan roams a jungle. Atkins, 28, of Caledon, Ont., is a rope-climbing, wall jumping, burden running, monkey-bar swinging, tight-rope walking machine who rules adventure and mud runs.
Employing an unrivalled combination of strength and endurance, Atkins has been crowned World’s Toughest Mudder for three consecutive years in the 24-hour obstacle event that includes 160K of mountain running.
He’s won countless Battlefrog Series and Spartan Race titles and he’s a straight-up ultra running champion, his latest victory coming at The North Face 50 Mile Endurance challenge at Bear Mountain, New York in April. With the OCR World Championships coming to his backyard in Collingwood, Ont. in October, he will line up as the event’s top seed.
“I’ve never been in a jungle — it sounds like fun — you couldn’t keep me out of the trees when I was a kid,” says the young man who retains much of his boyish charm.
The factor that makes Atkins unique is his combination of endurance and strength. His ability to run fast, seemingly for endless amounts of time, is what gets him ahead of the pack. While he has never raced an official marathon, he’s timed some 42K training runs in about 2:30, an elite time in any field. When you throw in events that require competitors to carry weights up a hill, climb over walls and jump off cliffs, Atkins makes like a kid in a playground, while others wilt.
“You have to be fast, strong and co-ordinated for obstacle racing — all these things that I have inadvertently been training for by virtue of the life I lead,” says Atkins. “It’s not like cycling where you are riding your bike all day. You need to have good endurance and there’s always some way of getting better that’s going to be a lot of fun — carrying sandbags up a mountain or running roads.”
The eclectic pieces of his life include kudos as world unicycle champion (think downhill MTB minus one wheel) and a World Cup mountain bike racer. He’s got a mechanical engineering degree from the University of Ottawa and has spent time clearing trails in the Ontario wilderness and climbing ice-covered mountains in the Rockies.
Atkins shifted from wheels to feet when a friend invited him on an 80K trail run in Killarney, Ireland. “It was my introduction to ultra running and it totally kicked my ass. I loved the challenge and it immersed me into running at a time when OCR started becoming more prevalent,” he says.
Atkins’ entry into the OCR world came at Mud Hero in Toronto. While most folks completed their single lap of the course, Atkins “ran it all day and had a blast.” He signed up for another event where first prize was an all-terrain vehicle. He won the race and traded his ATV for a mini-excavator that he employed to launch his trail-building business. Swinging a pickaxe and hauling logs, every day on the job was another workout.
“Lots of running — that’s the main determinant of success in OCR, then having the strength to make it through the obstacles,” says Atkins. “Training is focussed on moving your body through time and space in the most efficient way possible.”
Atkins sizes up the length and number of obstacles in upcoming events to guide his workout schedule. Typically, twice a week he works on all-round strength with bodyweight exercises, plyometrics, pull-ups and rock climbing to develop grip strength.
While he has a muscular physique, he shies away from lifting weights, lest he put on too much muscle and slow his foot speed. It’s a problem few of us have.
He builds cardio riding his mountain bike and running up to 160K a week on all manner of terrain. And how does he fuel it all?
“The bulk of my nutrition comes from fruits and vegetables. I eat meat, but not a lot,” he says. “You can obsess about diet, but I think you need a healthy relationship with food.”
OCR encompasses a variety of events from mud runs to military style challenges. Distances can vary from 5K races to ultra-marathons with hundreds of obstacles in play. Mud runs tend to attract a bit more of a party crowd with the emphasis on having a good time. The difficulty levels ramp up with extreme races such as World’s Toughest Mudder. Most races will send off an elite group first then waves of participants follow in turn, with some events moving up to 15,000 racers through in a weekend. All you need is shorts, a t-shirt and running shoes.
The OCR World Championships at Blue Mountain will feature a 14K course with 50 obstacles: walls, inverted walls, nets, ropes, monkey bars and much more.
“Being able to provide world-class athletes like Ryan with an independent and neutral platform on which to compete for the title of world champion is an honour,” says Adrian Bijanada, owner of the OCR World Championships.
Obstacle course racing is a fabulous conduit to leading a more healthy and active life.
Atkins revels in the fact that his training partner is his life partner. He’s engaged to marry Lindsay Webster this summer, also a top-ranked OCR athlete.
“Lindsay is really fit and strong. In 2014, she was training for mountain biking and I suggested she come race Spartan Worlds,” Atkins says. “She came 4th and said, ‘when can we do this again!’ We train together two to three times a week.”
Atkins grew up in Ottawa and took a job as a design engineer after university. A summer job helping to build obstacle courses segued to his current career as a racer and designer of OCR courses all across North America.
“Obstacle course racing is a fabulous conduit to leading a more healthy and active life,” Atkins says. “People make really intense, crazy goals — like climbing the Himalayas — but anyone can take a weekend and have a fabulous adventure close to home. Nature does provide the best gym. People just need to commit to it and get out there. The fitness you gain will prepare you well for all sorts of adventures.”