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How to Dominate Mud Runs and Obstacle Races Part I

August 30, 2012 - Uncategorized -

      There’s only one better feeling than the rush associated with competing alongside your friends in a grueling physical and mental challenge such as The Tough Mudder, Civilian Military Combine, or the Spartan Race, and that’s crossing the finish line ahead of everyone else. 

Let’s face it, those who compete in events such as these and who take their fitness seriously want to perform well.  No one wants to train their ass off for months, only to the disappointment of finishing with a time or score right smack in the middle of the results page.  The middle represents the average, and no one wants to be average.  Now don’t get me wrong, events like the Spartan Race, which attracts 4000 or some other crazy number of people on race day, are going to have their share of college kids who want to get a cheap thrill, drink a beer, and have a good time.  To each his own, and that’s great for them, but since you decided to read this article past the title I assume that your interests lie within a more competitive realm.  Maybe you’ve completed one of these races already and you know what it takes to cross the finish line.  Or perhaps you just want to be popular and are thinking about participating in the next event that your friends just won’t shut up about. Regardless on where you stand one thing is for sure, you want to perform the very best that you possibly can.  

Many people do have the will to succeed.  They work extremely hard in the gym or outside on the field in order to obtain a goal that they have set for themselves.  Faster run times, a quicker 40, a stronger shot, or a better physique are amongst some of the popular goals.  But unfortunately, after following the workout of the month from a magazine or a popular blog for a while, many people often don’t accomplish what they set out so ambitiously to attain.  Disappointed in falling short of their personal goals, people usually end up in one of two outcomes.  The first leads people to believe that they either don’t deserve or can’t achieve the goal at hand, and so they quit; tail between their legs, they decide to put their efforts into something else and forget all about the goal.  Or perhaps they choose the other and more common solution of gritting their teeth and adding 2 more training days to their routine in response to the oh so common “logic” that they just didn’t work hard enough. Maybe this has happened to you?  Ever hit a plateau on your bench press and have absolutely no idea how to get over it?  Don’t feel bad, you and many others have been there too.  Proper programming for all fitness goals past an intermediate level is both a science as well as an art – often times requiring a professional to step in and help.  That’s why personal trainers and strength coaches exist (I hope).  Tiger has Foley, Rippetoe had Starr, and even Rocky had Micky.  No Olympian ever won a medal without a coach, and no serious athlete trains without a plan put together by someone who knows what he or she is doing.  

Perhaps an Olympic success analogy is a bit of a stretch in relevance for this conversation, but the point is once a certain fitness level is attained, one really has to start doing certain correct things to improve past a given point.   Lack of hard work is not the problem for most people.  Lack of hard work focused on the correct training program is.  If I wanted to learn how to fly, I could flap my arms as hard as I want, but at the end of the day, I’m just going to get exhausted, feel defeated, and look stupid.  The same principle applies to fitness,  and without the correct program, a lot of hard work is often times done in vain.  
This article will cut through the myths and trends and give you what you need to know in order to prepare most effective, so that after the smoke clears and each person has squeezed out every last available molecule of energy that their body could produce to complete the challenge at hand, you will be able to come out on top.
    Work output for our purposes simply means: the maximum amount of energy one can produce to complete a physical challenge. It is the variable that is most directly correlated to winning or losing.  The gold medal winner, or the first place finisher, had the highest work output, and omitting disqualifications, injuries, or other technical issues – the last place finisher had the lowest.  So the million dollar question is:  how do we maximize our work output?  
First we will discuss each of the components of work output, namely: VO2 max, strength and GPP. We’ll also discuss how to improve them,  and how to decide what we should focus on in order of training priority based on the demands of the specific event.
Yep, not every mud run and obstacle race are created equal.  All require a solid aerobic and strength base, however, depending on the event, some require more of the latter and less of the former, and others require more of the… well, you get the idea.  Now this equation taken out of context is not appropriate for every competition.  Let me be clear…  Every race that falls under the category of mud run or obstacle race are different and requires different expressions of athletic ability.  For example, the Civilian Military Combine’s famous “PIT” requires a great deal of strength and aerobic ability to excel in, whereas its 4-7 mile run portion relies almost solely on VO2 Max and a well trained cardiovascular system. 
To say that one training program will prepare someone to win any competition they want is just plain silly, and while group fitness and WOD’s are great, they are only going to take one so far in preparing to accomplish one’s goals.  That being said, I’d like to add that group fitness and Crossfit are great and can be very beneficial, and I hope all you Crossfit nuts will keep reading on because I want to show you how to take your Crossfit to a whole new level in order to help you crush the competition.  
Component #1 – STRENGTH
      The most important component to precede any goal whether it be aesthetic related or performance related is strength.  Strength is the foundation for all human locomotion and it is vital for one’s success in an obstacle related race.

Muscular Strength is defined as the maximum amount of force that a muscle can exert against some form of resistance in a single effort and is commonly measured through a 1-5 rep max. (someone who squats 2x their bodyweight has stronger legs than someone who can’t) Now, you may notice that I clearly and specifically titled this variable “strength” and not “hypertrophy” or “endurance”.  You may also notice that I didn’t name it “the amount of sets you can do in a workout until you feel a great pump” either.  The title is “strength” because that is the only thing that matters when it comes to kicking ass in an obstacle race or mud run.  Let me explain…
Bodybuilders are popular for muscle hypertrophy – or making their muscles as big as possible.  Hypertrophy training protocols call for a lot of volume (sets and reps), and less intensity (weight).  This kind of training is popular with people who want an aesthetically pleasing body and who want to look sexy at the beach, however, this kind of training is going to have very little carry over into athletic performance for several reasons.  This is partly due to the nature of the training, i.e. isolation exercises that don’t train the body to work as a full functional system, as biology has intended, or the sets, reps, and rest periods associated with those exercises.  However, the lack of efficacy of hypertrophic training is mostly due to the fact that this kind of training after a certain point stops making you stronger and just gets your muscles bigger and concordantly, based on societal norms, makes you look better.  
The person who does squats, lunges, leg presses, hamstring curls, and calf raises will almost always be athletically trumped  by the person who is only focusing on improving his squat.  The same goes for the person who works on increasing his overhead barbell shoulder press rather than the person who has “shoulder and tricep workouts”.  The reason for this is that a correct deep squat, when performed correctly, is the most important skill one can master when it comes to lifting weights, if one’s goal is performance related.  Agility, power, speed, strength, jumping, and all overall human movement are improved when the (correctly executed) squat improves.  No other exercise trains the nervous system and muscular system in such a way like the squat, and no other exercise adequately trains the posterior chain I.e. hamstrings, spinal erectors, adductors and glutes (all the muscles that are necessary for most athletic movements), as efficiently as a correctly performed deep squat.
**If all you do during the off-season is increase your squat and deadlift 100 lbs each, you will be able to do more thrusters, kettlebell swings, complete Fran faster, climb A-frames more efficiently, and build some sexy legs…  I promise.
  WOD’s will only take you so far in getting stronger.

Strength for athletic purposes is best measured by 1 rep maxes in the 4 main barbell movements. If strength training represented Mt. Olympus, then the squat, deadlift, bench press and overhead press would be its gods.  These 4 exercises represent full body total strength and if any kind of performance is your goal, then these should be the main focus of improvement during the off-season when you step into the gym.  This doesn’t just apply to those who want to dominate an obstacle race either.  All athletes, regardless of their sport, work on increasing their max strength during the off-season and work to maintain it in-season.  This rule remains consistent for pretty much all athletes except for those who compete in elite endurance events.

Now here are the meat and potatoes of this section.  I unequivocally suggest that if you are looking to build your base of strength that you follow Mark Rippetoe’s Starting Strength program.  It is absolutely the best program out there for people who want to get strong – fast.  
3×5 Squat
3×5 Bench press / Press (Alternating)
Chin-ups: 3 sets to failure or add weight if completing more than 15 reps
3×5 Squat
3×5 Press / Bench Press (Alternating)
1×5 Deadlift
3×5 Squat
3×5 Bench Press / Press (Alternating)
Pull-ups: 3 sets to failure or add weight if completing more than 15 reps

**Now even with the correct program, most people will not make progress from lack of correct technique.  I implore you to check out Mark’s website startingstrength.com to read FAQs about technique, form, and this program.
It is not until a few months out from competition or “preseason” that one takes all the raw strength (and power) they gained during the offseason and begins to translate it into athletic ability by increasing more sport specific activities into one’s training and decreasing the amount of work being done under the bar.  This is considered GPP work and will be discussed later.
The below image represent one’s individual genetic strength curve.  The main lesson that should be learned from this image is that the first 3-6 months of correct strength training techniques will build an amazing foundation of strength that can be applied to any skill or event.  

**Many of my clients increase their raw numbers anywhere from 70% on their presses to 300% on their squats and deadlifts in only a 2-4 month period.  When athletes are shown the correct way to perform the movements along with a sound program, these numbers can easily be 
attained by anyone during their first 4 months of correct barbell training.  Follow the link below and read Rip’s article on the “Novice Effect”  to learn how to grow big and strong at the rate comparable to “young farm animals”.
The rate of strength gain over a training career.  Note the steep slope characteristic of the novice period; these are the fastest gains a lifter will ever make, regardless of the quality of the program. The better the program, the better the results.

Really interested in getting stronger?  Then Mark Rippetoe should be your Zeus.  One of the best strength coaches ever, Rip has been trying to get the truth to the general public on how to get stronger for the last 20 years.  He has spent the latter part of his life educating the masses on how to obtain results that until recently were reserved for elite athletes and those fortunate few who had access to great coaches.  Take advantage of his efforts. Check out his website startingstrength.com and you can find out all the info you need to increase your lifts.  For a little taste, here is what a correct (low bar) back squat should look like:

Getting stronger requires the use of a coach who is trained in the barbell lifts as well as the proper progressions and programming.  Unfortunately these people are hard to find, and with all the convoluted information and advice out there now-a-days, who knows who to trust anymore.  If you can find a good coach that’s great.  If not, start doing some research on the subject.  If there were only 2 books any coach or athlete could own they would be “Starting Strength” and “Practical Programming for Strength Training”.  I recommend you get both. 

Component #2 – VO2 MAX 
     VO2 max is defined as the maximum capacity of an individual’s body to transport and use oxygen during incremental exercise.   If this were a peer reviewed article on VO2 max, this could get a lot more technical, but for our purposes lets keep it simple and simply say that VO2 max represents one’s aerobic capacity, or how aerobically fit one is.  It is commonly measured in “mls of oxygen per kg of bodyweight per minute” (ml.kg-1.min-1), and can be directly measured through a VO2 max test.  Ever see those videos of an athlete running on a treadmill hooked up to a set of hoses coming from their nose and mouth?  Well, that’s a VO2 max test, and those hoses are measuring the amount of oxygen they are consuming and how much carbon dioxide they are producing.  It can also be indirectly measured through several other methods.  To find your own estimated VO2 max, you can follow the Bruce Protocol on a treadmill.  Here is a link to Top End Sports’ website, and will give you detailed instruction on how to do this.

Just as building a solid base of full body strength is vital to maximize performance in anything that requires the use of the human body to move an object or itself, building a strong aerobic base to increase one’s VO2 max is vital for any activity that requires some sort of energy requirement from the body’s aerobic or anaerobic endurance systems to complete, and can’t be disregarded. 
The aerobic energy system is the main energy system utilized by the body to produce energy during any type of easy to moderate sustained effort such as a long run, bike, or any kind of race lasting over 3-5 minutes.  Aerobic literally translates to “living in air” and requires the presence of oxygen in order to break down fats, carbohydrates, or even sometimes protein to provide energy.  One’s aerobic fitness or lack thereof is directly correlated to one’s VO2 max and is expressed by one’s ability to either complete a bout of exercise or having to stop and “suck wind”. This energy system provides the main source of energy for anyone competing in a mud run or obstacle race. 

**There are a ton of other intricacies within the systems that the body uses to produce energy, but these are the broad strokes.
The anaerobic energy systems are the main energy sources during any moderate to vigorous effort, lasting either less than approximately 30 seconds, or greater than the point at which the body can no longer solely rely on the aerobic system for energy (anaerobic threshold).  There are 2 main anaerobic energy systems that provide energy without the presence of oxygen.  The first is the ATP-PC system.  This system provides energy through the breakdown of the molecule phosphocreatine to supply energy for the first 10-15 seconds of any activity.  Examples of activities that mostly depend on this system for energy include: 1-5 rep max lifting bouts, 100 meter sprints, or jumping out of bed after you oversleep, not hearing your alarm clock, and realize you’re late for work.  The second anaerobic system is the anaerobic glycolysis or lactic acid system, and is named so due to one of its byproducts – lactic acid.    Examples of activities utilizing this system for most of its energy supply include strength training, 400 meter sprints, or most WOD’s.  These systems will be discussed more in depth later in the final section. 
It is important to note that regardless of the duration or intensity of an effort, both aerobic and anaerobic energy systems are working simultaneously to supply energy to carry out a specific task.  It is perhaps more helpful to think of these energy systems working as a ratio.  To complete a marathon, one may produce 90% of the energy from the aerobic system and 10% from anaerobic glycolysis, whereas to complete Fran, the body’s energy may be provided by 60% anaerobic glycolysis and 40% from the aerobic system.  Neither system ever works completely independent of the another.  However, the efficiency of one’s aerobic system will determine the efficiency of one’s anaerobic system, and therefore the development of a strong aerobic base strongly impacts the potential of the anaerobic system’s capabilities, and by extension, how well one performs come race day. 

For instance, let’s hypothetically take runner Pete.  Pete can run a 6 minute mile at anaerobic threshold (the point at which the body stops using oxygen as its main source of fuel and the anaerobic glycolysis system begins to kick in) and a 7 minute mile at aerobic threshold (the fastest speed while still using oxygen as the main source of fuel).  We start Pete off 12-14 weeks prior to the Spartan Race on an aerobic base training program, in which he conducts his runs slowly and aerobically at around 8 minute miles. After 8 weeks Pete can now run a 6:30 mile – aerobically, due to many different cellular adaptations that occurred during his base training.  This is now Pete’s “base” to work off of for the  4-6 weeks pre competition.  Similarly to building a strength base, Pete now has a better starting point to increase his stamina and to start building and refining his anaerobic endurance.
Unlike proper strength training, the understanding of and programming for aerobic fitness are much more widely agreed upon amongst coaches and exercise professionals.  As a result, this has led to much more sound information circulating the “fitness ether” available to the general public.  An appropriate example of this point is the observation of how many people run marathons versus how many people are ever able to correctly back squat 2x their bodyweight with a full ROM.   The latter is much more difficult to attain without a coach’s eye, and frankly most people just receive bad information on how to get strong, e.g., magazines, blogs, websites, etc. Even with the correct programming, it takes much more time to develop muscular strength than it takes to get aerobically fit.  All in all, developing a base of aerobic fitness is much easier to coach and thus much easier to attain. Proper strength training is so dependent on correct form and technique, and proper technique must be coached, unlike running in which all I need to tell you to do is, well, run.

**Increasing one’s VO2 max is done most efficiently by activities such as biking and running – not by doing squats until you can’t squat anymore.  

VO2 max and aerobic endurance are vital to crushing a mud run because, as the name of the race suggests, it is mostly a run, and running capacity is directly related to VO2 max, not strength.  And luckily, as described in the  aforementioned paragraph, aerobic endurance is much easier for one to attain.  In this respect, I will refer to Hal Higdon’s training programs as a template on how to become aerobically fit.  Hal Higdon is an elite runner and fitness enthusiast.  He has written over 36 books related to the subject, and has been a contributor to major publications like Runner’s World for decades.  His programs are the perfect tools to follow if you are looking to improve your aerobic base, which everyone competitor should be trying to do 2-4 months out of a competition.  Below is the link to Hal Higdon’s website where you will find all his training programs. Depending on your current fitness level, I recommend following his half marathon training guide for either Novice 1 or Novice 2 programs.  His Novice 1 program is designed for people who have never run before, and his Novice 2 program is designed for seasoned runners who want to improve their half marathon time.  The Intermediate model is for seasoned marathon runners and I find it to be overkill for our purposes.

Note:  When building an aerobic base, it is CRITICAL to perform your runs with an aerobic heart rate. Duhhh right? Well, not so much.  Trust me, you are going to want to run faster than this.  I implore, you slow down and heed my advice.  A general recommendation is to run at a heart rate no higher than 60-80% of your heart rate max (220 – age).  Start with the lower end and slowly work your way up to 80% in the latter half of your aerobic base building cycle. Every serious competitor should own a heart rate monitor.  It is necessary to keep your workouts measurable and to help control scalability.
Running with a heart rate above an aerobic level will obviously start to push your body into the anaerobic zone and it is more beneficial to build a solely aerobic base first and then build anaerobic capacity later, in the final 4-8 weeks before competition.

The Final Component – GPP
     GPP refers to General Physical Preparedness.  GPP includes race specific techniques and skills, as well as event specific metabolic conditioning (anaerobic conditioning), that are required to perform optimally at any given event.  This is the refining period in which we take the raw strength built over the entire 4-6 month offseason, and the aerobic base that we’ve building over the last 2 months, and translate it into sport specific abilities.
 If I were to take a soccer player who has been focusing on increasing their strength, power, and aerobic fitness for the past 4 months but hasn’t been playing much soccer, they wouldn’t be much of an asset on my team without any GPP.  They may be stronger boxing up against someone for a ball and may never run short of breath, but movement and specific skills such as changing direction, passing, dribbling, and shooting would be at the very best – sluggish.  They need time to work on their ball skills, footwork, and other soccer related abilities before their increase in strength and power can be translated to their soccer performance!  This is why teams gather weeks before the competitive season during the  “preseason”.      

Barring race specific skills,  anaerobic conditioning will bear the brunt of our GPP work.  This is due to the fact that most mud runs and obstacle races don’t heavily rely on the competence of too many specific skills in order for one to perform well come race day.  
Ok, so It is now 8 weeks out from your event and you have worked extremely hard over the past 6-8 months or so (or 2-3 months depending on how serious you are) on a nice solid strength and aerobic base, and it is time to work on translating all that hard work into demolishing the competition. In order to do this, we need to now determine what GPP is going to be required for your event.  Lets take the Civilian Military Combine for example.  
The CMC is an extremely intense adventure race that tests not only one’s strength and aerobic conditioning, but one’s will to succeed as well.  Now the CMC is broken up into 2 events: the PIT, and the obstacle race.  Now the PIT mimics a Crossfit metcon which is composed of 4 different exercises (thrusters, burpees, box jumps, and kettlebell swings).  Each exercise is completed for max reps for 90 seconds with a 30 second rest in between before departing on a 4-6 mile obstacle run.  Now, lets take an objective look at this event to understand what we need to do. 

GPP for the CMC:
  1. Technique – box jumps, burpees, thrusters, KB swings.
  2. Anaerobic conditioning – to prepare for the PIT, and for competing the obstacles/running uphill.
  3. Running outside – to mimic realistic situations.  (Treadmills are comfortably stable and we need to get used to unstable running surfaces)
  4. Hypertrophy (bodybuilding training) – More volume (sets x reps), and less intensity (weight) in the weight room, to replicate the demands the obstacles will have on our bodies.
Now, the PIT is mostly dependent on strength and endurance but technique is going to be a limiting factor if you don’t know how to perform a box jump correctly.  As you can probably understand, a marathon runner with no strength is not going to be able to do burpees or lift a heavy kettle bell too well, and a powerlifter is going to need an AED after the first exercise due to lack of conditioning.  However, since you have worked on your aerobic AND strength bases, you are going to do just fine.  But fine is boring, so let’s get you to do great instead.  If I were writing your program now, I would add 1-2 days a week on focusing on your technique on the 4 PIT exercises so you can be sure to be a master of all of them come race day.  But besides your technique on these exercises, a certain tweak must be made on your aerobic conditioning as well.  This would now be the appropriate time to start to add in some heavy anaerobic training as well as decreasing our distance on your aerobic runs.  
Regardless of whether or not your event is the CMC, Spartan Race, Death Race, or whatever other crazy event will be invented post-publishing of this article, this is the time when you will be increasing your body’s anaerobic efficiency.  Now is the time when we can perform higher intensity cardiovascular activities with a barbell, bodyweight movements, a kettlebell, or what some would call “circuit training” with little rest.  Group fitness classes or performing more WOD’s are also an applicable change as well.  I say this because for you Crossfit or group fitness folk, this is what you will do regardless of my suggestions so I will be general with my recommendations and say if there were a time to start to increase your participation in these activities, your GPP cycle is the time to do so.  That being said, In very few circumstances will I ever recommend anyone other than a competitive Crossfitter to perform barbell movements, heavy kettlebell swings or worse – Olympic lifts for anaerobic conditioning when the body is in a fatigued state and inadvertently subject to crappy technique under load.  It is at the very least, impudent.  There are just much safer and efficient ways.
Now, the programming for each of the training cycles discussed in this article has called for some sort of linear progression.  Adding 10 lbs. to one’s squat every workout or running an extra mile are both examples of this.  Linear progression allows for a more controlled training environment that is conducive with maximizing progression and offsetting plateaus, and should be utilized whenever time constraints and equipment allow for it.   Programming for anaerobic conditioning is no different. Unfortunately, however,  similar to most styles of training, linear progression is often times ignored. Or perhaps, just not understood.  
     Performing WOD’s are a good example of not following a linear progression.  People show up, work hard, sweat, run short of breath, and do it again tomorrow but with a different randomized workout.  On the contrary, running intervals with timed rest and work periods is a good example of linearly programmed anaerobic training.  On Monday, Brad runs 5 forty yard sprints at maximum effort with 90 seconds rest in between each sprint.   Next Monday he runs 6 sprints.  We know that Brad increased his work  load by 1 forty yard sprint.  His progress is measurable and allows for a linear increase for the weeks to come (6, 7, 8, 9,… sprints).
Now, there are hundreds of different ways to train full body general physical preparedness: WOD’s, group fitness classes, tabata workouts using battling ropes and tire flips, sledge hammers, yolk carries,  and the list goes on and on.  However, since the majority of adventure runs and obstacle races rely mostly on the lower body to be anaerobically fit, it is in the author’s opinion that some version of interval running or other lower body effort be most appropriate for our purposes…
I present to you all the prowler.  The prowler is THE BEST tool for building anaerobic endurance, power endurance, or even strength when used correctly.  In order to keep this an article and not a novel, I will briefly explain why.  First of all, work output done using the prowler can be completely controlled.  If I load 90 lbs of weight, push it 40 yards at a 85-95% effort, rest 90 seconds and do that 5 times, I know exactly what I did, and know how to make it harder next time.  This makes for linear progress, and we like linear progress.  Second, pushing the prowler is a totally concentric exercise. In short, we know that soreness is caused by stretching muscles under load (eccentric muscle actions), i.e. negatives and the downward components of squats and RDLs. However, with the prowler, there is no eccentric loading of the muscles and supporting structures.  This results in less metabolic and structural fatigue and a reduced impact on the body’s comprehensive recovery processes that would normally accompany the eccentric component of exercise, as are often found in performing barbell, free weight, or bodyweight exercises done in “circuits” with minimal rest periods such as WOD’s and group fitness classes.  Because of the absence of an eccentric component in the use of the prowler, there is minimal residual fatigue in the hours and days after a hardcore prowler session, meaning that precious training time isn’t wasted because of intense soreness. 
So we take a totally concentric movement which trains the body’s lactic acid system like no other, avoids the soreness and inherent risk associated with circuits or WOD’s which use weights and load the spine and body in a fatigued state, and remains low impact on the joints when compared to running interval sprints.  Now couple it with the fact that workouts can be completely controlled and increased linearly, put it all together, and you have the number one thing on my Christmas list this year. 
The prowler will be your new best friend if you are a serious athlete.
Reasons why people may not like the prowler:  It’s hard.  It’s not fun. It loses its novelty after a few workouts; these are examples of piss poor excuses and aren’t acceptable reasons.  If you want to take advantage of this great tool, you can find it at http://www.elitefts.net/
For more information regarding programming and anaerobic conditioning check out DEATH BY PROWLER by Matt Reynolds

In conclusion,  the purpose of this article was to review some of the basic physiology of the body, and how it pertains practically to performing well in mud runs and obstacle races.  Hopefully the suggestions above will help you gain a better understanding of what you need to work on for your next race.  Dozens of strength and distance running programs are available.  Mark Rippetoe’s strength program and Hal Higdon’s aerobic programs are just my suggestions.  They are the programs which I use for myself and which I’ve used to obtain the most consistent results for my clients.  
      Building a base of strength, endurance, and then putting it all together with general physical preparedness are just the broad strokes.  There is a lot more information regarding specific periodization of the three cycles, how they are transitioned from and to, and other training advice to be shared.  Stay tuned for the next article “How to Dominate Mud Runs and Obstacle Races Part II – The Civilian Military Combine”  for more in-depth programming advice and other pre-race strategies.
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