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Rise of the Spartans

Obstacle race building an empire

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This particular gash is taking forever to heal, David Magida explains as he points to a triangular scab on his shin. The other angry red marks crisscrossing his legs, however, are nothing serious. They're just the natural result of sprinting through the woods while ignoring errant branches, pointy rocks and the absence of a trail.

"So let's start running," Magida says encouragingly as he takes off into Washington's Rock Creek Park.

I only manage to keep up for a few feet. Then he's suddenly on the other side of a small stream and scrambling up a hill, and I'm still stuck contemplating how to cross the water via mossy stones without twisting an ankle.

Worrying isn't something Magida, 27, spends much time doing these days. The devoted obstacle racer is way too busy crawling beneath barbed wire, hopping across logs and scaling award podiums. Usually, he's engaged in these activities at Spartan Race events as a member of the Spartan Race Pro Team. That's an elite group of 10 men and 10 women who are ambassadors for the series, which has set its sights on dominating the burgeoning sport of obstacle running.

There are plenty of other hard-core obstacle runs out there, most notably the Tough Mudder -- or "the orange guys," as Magida calls them because of the race's signature colour. But while most of those events are about finishing, the Spartan Race is focused on winning.

The business strategy seems to be exactly what goes through a participant's mind at one of these races: Be prepared to do whatever it takes.

One tactic Spartan Race has employed is offering prize money to lure top competitors. That's built up a loyal following among athletes such as Magida.

And it's growing like crazy. Spartan Race expects to have a million participants in more than a dozen countries in 2014, including Canada (for Canadian events, go to: ca-en.spartanrace.com).Not bad, especially when you consider it started in 2010 in Vermont with 500 people.

This month, Spartan Race chief executive and co-founder Joe De Sena is releasing Spartan Up! a book that lays out the philosophy behind this movement. "We forgot we're animals. We sit inside perfectly climate-controlled environments all the time," says De Sena, a seasoned ultramarathoner and extreme-adventure racer. It can be scary to run wild, he admits, but it's what we were born to do.

His dream is to turn obstacle racing into an Olympic sport.

For now, the plan is to encourage more people to commit to doing a race -- one that's only a few kilometres. If they do that, there's a good chance they'll get hooked on doing more and going farther, just like Magida.

"I knew from that first eight-foot wall," Magida says, reminiscing about his debut obstacle event in 2011. "It was a trial by fire. Literally, because there was fire."

Spartan Race recently developed its own group exercise program, Spartan Coaching.

Magida is an instructor certified in the Washington area. To get a feel for how this will work, I asked Magida to let me tag along for one of his workouts. That's how I ended up chasing after him in Rock Creek Park, crawling across stones, bounding over roots and losing my footing repeatedly.

Mercifully, that run ended pretty quickly; it was just the warmup. But another one was about to begin. We moved over to a muddy field, where Magida instructed me to pick up an 18-kilogram sandbag, a.k.a. the Spartan pancake. He sometimes takes it on long runs, but all I needed to do was sprint with it across the clearing and back.

Again, I found myself lagging far behind, only now I had streaks of mud running down the backs of my legs. When we stopped, it was time to get the fronts of our bodies equally dirty by pumping out a set of mountain climbers.

As soon as we completed a six-minute interval of assorted exercises, we sprinted again with the sandbag, then launched into another interval: squats, kettlebell swings, pushups, switch lunges. We repeated that sprint and interval structure a few more times, always with different moves to tackle.

I wasn't surprised one of them was the burpee. (Squat down, put your hands on the ground, jump your feet out, do a pushup, jump your feet back to your hands, then jump up with your hands overhead.) In a Spartan Race, if you can't complete an obstacle, the penalty is 30 burpees. (According to De Sena, that's because of an analysis the race organizers did: "It's painful enough punishment to motivate you to try the obstacle.")

My muscles were screaming and my heart was pounding when Magida finally told me to stop and handed over a spear. Being able to calm yourself and throw with accuracy is one of the most difficult challenges a Spartan Race participant faces, he explained.

I missed on my first throw. "Not terrible" was Magida's official review.

He then showed how he could back away and still sink the spear directly into the centre of the dead tree stump he uses as a target.

I tried to copy what he did and sent it instead into a patch of grass. Quite a few times. Just as I was ready to give up, I heaved the weapon once more, and it flew from my hand and stuck in the stump.

I was tired. I was muddy. But I felt pretty darn good.

 

-- The Washington Post

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 3, 2014 D16

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