In Defense of the Dirty Name

Dirty Name.jpg

Mud Run Guide recently posted an article titled “The Sternum Checker Needs to be Chucked,” laying out the case that this particular obstacle is too dangerous and needs to be eliminated from all races. The author made some valid arguments, but also made some that are so far wrong that I felt the need to respond. Each race handles obstacles a bit differently, and I admit that some are pushing the limits of safety, but this would be a call for adjusting the design of the obstacle, not eliminating it entirely.

I am only giving excerpts below, full article can be found here. Here is a list of points that need addressed.

The challenge is to get yourself over the second and higher of the two logs. This is usually done by running at it, stepping up onto the lower “launch-pad” log, and jumping at the upper log.

It is this way of attacking the obstacle that is causing the injuries. It is supposed to be a controlled jump from one log to the next. Note the instructions from the military field manual:


A brief exposé of the origin of this obstacle is in order. It was developed by some forgotten sadistic genius as part of the world of military boot camps. Note that this is not “bootcamp-style” group training, but actual, real, brutal military bootcamps. The goal here is not to get you all into shape and to have fun while getting fit. Nay-nay. The goal here is to break people before rebuilding them into perfect fighting men and women.

The author is misunderstanding so much here. Let me just say that the field manual lists a purpose for this obstacle that does not include breaking things. It is the rare soldier who can continue training with a broken clavicle or spine.

Sternum Checker is the only regularly used obstacle that I have come across that is designed to hurt you even if you do it right. The initial and obvious challenge is to absorb the impact against the log (failure = bruised or broken sternum, xiphoid, ribs, ruptured spleen, bruised liver, broken wrist, broken clavicle, broken jaw, lost teeth).

If you do it correctly, you might get a bruise. I get bruises from any wall taller than 6 feet, it’s part of the race. The injuries you are describing come from doing it wrong, going at it way too hard, or the obstacle being set up improperly. More on that last one a bit later.

Let’s compare and contrast likely fails on the Sternum Checker with the most likely fails on other common obstacles.

  • Fail the rope climb, and you slide down the rope. Maybe some rope burn, maybe a twisted ankle.
  • Fail a warped wall, and you slide back down. No likely issues.
  • Fail a Rig, and you tumble a couple of feet to the ground. No likely issues.
  • Fail the Irish Table and you swing back down to the ground, or maybe fall a foot. No likely issues.
  • Fail Dragon’s Back, and you slide or fall the steeply pitched ramp. Maybe you injure an ankle or wrist or knee if you miss your grip and tumble down.
  • Fail the Sternum Checker, and you could easily wind up out of the race or in the hospital or a wheelchair or in the ground.

If the racer fails correctly, most of these are true, but not everyone fails correctly. I have seen a few racers (including myself) lose grip and fall from the top of the rope. If your feet make the jump on the Dragon’s Back but your hands fail to find a grip, you are likely to hit the ground head-first (feet have support off the wall but the rest of the body does not.) If you fail the sternum checker correctly, you do a back breakfall, maybe have a bruise on your butt, and go about your day.

I will throw out here that there are several safety concerns with the way that particular races arrange this obstacle, most notably lack of padding underneath to help break the fall, and unpadded lower logs where you could fall back and hit your head on them. The solutions for this are either a) add padding as noted in the military instructions above, or b) make the first log high enough that racers will safely fall underneath it, as the photo at the top of this post has done. Some races have also tried to make it harder by making the dimensions of it much wider, which causes safety problems as well.

Now to the sexism argument:

The 1st sternum checker was far and away the biggest gender gap obstacle at the 2015 OCRWC. It is not unreasonable to extrapolate from this that failure rates among women at non-championship races with a lower average caliber of athlete would be even higher…65%, 75%, 80%+. The gender gap on SC1 sticks out like the proverbial sore thumb. There was much post-race discussion after OCRWC 2015 about SC1 being unfairly hard for shorter racers, which demographic stats will tell you are mostly women. Looking at these numbers, you can make the case that they had a case. Historically, the Platinum Rig is the big band-breaker at mandatory completion races. However, these women handled both Rigs significantly better than they did SC1. 

This is an upper-body strength obstacle that requires reach and thus favors taller competitors. There are always going to be obstacles that favor one body type over another. Many tall guys who rock the sternum checker have a devil of a time getting through spider-web type obstacles. You are never going to build an obstacle that is equally tough for everyone. There are men’s and women’s lanes at some obstacles already, why not this one?

There are many safer alternatives that offer similar physical challenges such as the Irish Table and its variants, without risk of serious injury If you want a mind-f&*k confidence obstacle, then something like Toughest’s Dragon’s Back fits the bill perfectly, again without the high risk of serious injury. Heck, even something as simple and harmless as a 10-15 foot jump into water would stop and balk many racers, with almost no risk of any remotely serious injury.

All of those offer pieces of the challenge but do not duplicate all of it, sort of like pushups, squats and jumping jacks are great, but they still are not quite burpees. The hardest part is the controlled jump off of a balancing position (rather than a stable surface like Irish Table or Dragon’s Back). This is what people are often trying to avoid when they try to hulk-smash their way through it (see “launch-pad log” method above), and if you try to hulk-smash anything you are going to get hurt (unless you are, in fact, the Hulk).

I call for all races that use this obstacle to make adjustments for safety that they should have been doing all along (that safety section of the field manual above has been there a LONG time), but it is a unique and challenging obstacle that deserves to be kept. More importantly, the most common comment I saw about this topic was “Never had a chance to do that obstacle, but would love to give it a shot.” There are a lot of racers out there that deserve to have this on their course.