Obstacles Test Athletes’ Grit

NEW YORK TIMES

BOSTON — Kelly Syms’s face scrunched up as she inched a 55-pound concrete weight up a rope pulley higher and higher into the air. Her target was the top of the 25-foot Hercules Pull, one of 22 obstacles in a 2.5-mile Spartan Race held during the weekend at Fenway Park. Her husband, Erik, stood next to her, rooting: “You got it, Kell. You can do it.”

“I’m feeling nauseous,” answered Syms, 46, a lawyer from Marblehead, Mass. Legs bent, her body leaning so far back she almost grazed the ground, Syms kept her eyes fixed on the dangling weight. And then, in one final heave, she made it.

Nearby, two young men who tried the same obstacle with an 85-pound weight and failed were doing 30 penalty “burpees,” a combination push-up, squat and jump before jogging a few feet to the next obstacle: scaling four 16-foot A-frame walls.

The participants were among 7,000 who came out to the fabled Fenway, home of the Red Sox and the oldest ballpark in the major leagues, to experience it transformed into a giant obstacle course. A few even competed in Red Sox uniforms.

Spartan Race, like other leaders in the obstacle course business, including Tough Mudder and Warrior Dash, has grown dramatically since it began holding races three years ago. This was the first time an event was held at a stadium, a testament, organizers said, to the sport’s surging popularity.

Events are designed to be tough yet accessible to the mere mortal. Spartan Race has its “sprint,” usually three miles, and longer races: 8 miles, 12-plus miles and, finally, for the uber-rugged, a 48-hour “adventure” race on land and water with the ominous moniker Spartan Death Race and the Web site link youmaydie.com to match.

At Fenway, participants appeared at a distance like worker ants running up and down and across the bleachers. On outside decks, they scaled walls that increased in height to 10 feet, landing, like superheroes, on their feet. Or occasionally on their backsides.

In varying states of fitness, they alternately sped between obstacles, jogged or even walked, taking in red brick views of old Boston mixed with a downtown of silvery skyscrapers.

Inside the stadium, the sun glinted off the stands and onto the vast green of the baseball field below. Sox fans swooned at the chance to run through the stands of the Green Monster, Fenway’s left-field wall.

Matt Topolewski and a friend traveled here from Parsippany, N.J., to run in their fifth Spartan race. Topolewski, a 26-year-old accountant, worked long hours as a volunteer firefighter in Hurricane Sandy’s wake. As the pair hauled 40-pound jugs of water in either hand up and down a long staircase, they joked that their recent experience lugging gasoline cans to feed their generators had been good training.

Next they carried concrete blocks and did required burpees in between. As they ran off, they gave each other a high-five and called out behind them, “See you at the finish line.”

At the start, Ron Zastocki, 31, also from New Jersey, jumped up and down and stretched his legs to warm up.

“I don’t like to just run,” he said, his entry number, 2972, written on his head in black marker. “I rather challenge myself with obstacles like climbing walls or under barbed wire. I got hooked.”

Zastocki promotes Spartan Race through both social media and people he meets in person to subsidize his obstacle course addiction, about 20 events a year. In line waiting for his heat, he saw runners ahead doing 10 burpees before being released to start.

Recognizing Joe DeSena, the Spartan Race founder, in camouflage pants leading them in the task, he observed, “He likes messing with you.”

He recounted a race he ran with DeSena in which runners had to push tractor tires up a mountainside.

DeSena, 43, was an endurance racer and former Wall Street trader before he came up with the Spartan Race enterprise.

He said obstacle courses were less boring than what he described as the monotony and mental weariness of triathlons and marathons.

“It’s a lot more fun on obstacles,” he said. “You get to feel like a Navy Seal or an Army Ranger for a day. Everything is completely unknown. You don’t know what’s around the corner.”

There’s also the trademark mud featured in most obstacle courses, usually lots of it and often in pools or ditches that must be waded or leapt over or crawled through under hundreds of yards of barbed wire.

At the race on Fenway, there was, alas, no mud.

It was something Nadia LeBlanc, 41, a high-tech worker from Hollis, N.H., said she missed. But she was kept occupied, she said, with an onslaught of fast-paced, no-time-to-breathe-in-between obstacles.

Five feet tall, her face beaded with sweat, she dumped the sandbag that weighed nearly half of her own 104 pounds after lugging it multiple times up and down and across the stands near center field.

“It was hard, but it’s a great feeling, a great sense of accomplishment,” said LeBlanc, who has already done the Spartan Beast, the 12-plus-mile race.

Jeff Godin, director of Spartan Race coaching and a professor at Fitchburg State, where he teaches exercise and sports science, said that for overall fitness, obstacle-course runs beat running straight 5- or 10-kilometer races because they require strength, flexibility, balance and agility, and not just aerobic endurance.

And then there is the fun.

“I think the big part of it is it brings people to being kids again,” Godin said, “frolicking in the obstacles, playing in the mud, climbing over obstacles, climbing under obstacles. For most people it’s real good fun. It’s one big playground for adults.”

Tough Mudder, a 10- to 12-mile military-style obstacle course also focuses on the fun that Alex Patterson, its chief creative officer, said was rooted in teamwork that tests physical and mental grit.

Among their obstacles is “electroshock therapy,” a dash through 10,000 volts of live dangling electric wire. There is even an “obstacle innovation lab.”

“It’s an off-site facility which tests all new concepts to make them seriously tough but also really fun,” Patterson said.

There are also many local 5-kilometer obstacle runs and those that have gone national with names like Rugged Maniac and the Swamp Dash n’ Bash, which promises a good barbecue party at the finish line. There is even an event called Run for Your Lives that is known for the “zombies” who chase participants.

New Yorkers will have a chance to test their obstacle-course mettle Jan. 17 when Spartan Race is scheduled to hold a one-mile demo run in Times Square.

“There will be a whole bunch of obstacles,” DeSena said. “Hopefully it will be snowy by then, so people can jump in cold water.” That obstacle is a nod to the wintertime Spartan Death Race, in which participants race to a hole in a frozen pond.

The last one out of the water wins.

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