Taking it to extremes Gyms add more challenging obstacles to fitness training
Anthony Edwards / Staff Photo An obstacle is seen at Shale Hill Adventure Farm in Benson on Sunday.
Steven Beckwith was desperate. A friend had convinced him to sign up for a Spartan Beast, a notoriously tough obstacle course race stretching more than 12 miles, and he knew lifting weights and running on a treadmill at his regular gym wouldn’t prepare him to, say, spider-man across the flat face of a wall or climb a 20-foot rope.
Then, as he drove to his parents’ house in Benson in the spring of 2012, Beckwith recalls that he spotted a man putting up a fireman’s pole and a cargo net, and building a ramp. He stopped to inquire. It was Rob Butler, a builder and obstacle course race enthusiast who also couldn’t figure out where to train.
Butler has since built 60 obstacles on his 150-acre farm in Benson and runs the Shale Hill Adventure Farm full time. Beckwith makes the 40-minute drive from Middlebury twice a week to train, while members of the New England Spahtens (not a misspelling), an amateur racing team, regularly travel about four hours. Other clients come from as far as 15 hours away to practice on the course five or six times, Butler said.
“You can crawl under barbed wire without practice,” he said, referring to one common race obstacle. “But most people can’t go climb a rope without learning some tricks and techniques on an actual rope.”
Soon obstacle course race hopefuls won’t have far to go to find places to practice. Shale Hill is one of roughly two dozen gyms that have opened in the past three years — most of them in the last 18 months — specializing in training for mud runs and obstacle course racing, a category of event that has grown rapidly in the last four years. In 2009, there were a handful of races; now there are about 250 companies operating events, with industry giants like Tough Mudder and Spartan Race expected to draw more than a million participants apiece this year.
Traditional gyms like Anytime Fitness and Town Sports International, the owner of New York Sports Clubs, offer six-week (mostly obstacle-free) race prep courses. But many race participants want to train on obstacles all year, making the specialty gyms their primary destination. (In August, a couple who train at Shale Hill plan to marry at the start of the course and celebrate by running with their guests, who have been mailed death waivers and race numbers in lieu of invitations.)
Josh Elyachar and his fiancée, Emily Ng, tried David Barton and Barry’s Bootcamp before picking Epic Hybrid Training, a 1,500-square-foot space in New York City, which they attend six days a week.
“We honestly were looking for the hardest gym, and this kind of knocked our socks off,” said Elyachar, who has a love-hate relationship with any obstacle involving heights. This month, Epic will open a second gym, this one 2,500 square feet, because the first is at capacity, said Alexander Nicholas, the owner.
It’s not enough to survive a single race. Participants want to repeat and improve their performance, sometimes two and three times in a weekend. (For the Spartan Race, where failing an obstacle carries a penalty of 30 burpees, an explosive squat-push-up-vertical-leap combination, a popular goal is to finish without doing any.)
For nearly a year, the Spartan Race has been offering coaching certification in its proprietary training for $600 a session. Plans for “stand-alone gyms globally” will be announced this summer, said Joe De Sena, the race’s founder. Even universities may get in on the trend. An early design proposal for a $34 million extension to a wellness center at Towson University in Maryland includes a boot camp where students will have to climb ropes to reach the space, said James Braam, senior project designer at 360 Architecture.
Mud run-type events are heavily populated by men — they make up 70 percent of Tough Mudder’s participants, according to company figures — but the training gyms are, in some cases, as much as 90 percent women. There’s also a growing segment of women-only races like Mudderella and Dirty Girl.
Ed Puente, who in August opened the two-acre Overdrive Fitness in Los Fresnos, Texas, near the state’s southernmost tip, said: “Men don’t want help. We think we’re going to wing it somehow.”
Elizabeth Tiseo of Dallas drives four hours to train at Mylo Obstacle Fitness in Austin, Texas. It has 10 acres with more than 25 obstacles, and women make up roughly 85 percent of the classes’ participants.
“I’m 5-foot-1, so I’m not getting over an 8-foot-wall without help unless someone teaches me,” Tiseo said. After a year of work with Mylo Villanueva, the gym’s owner, Tiseo finally scaled the wall twice at a Spartan Race in May.
These gyms are competitive places, and the race is on for bragging rights to the toughest obstacles, ones that make the ones at actual events seem almost easy. Gym owners scour videos of race footage and NBC’s “American Ninja Warrior,” mine any former military training, and in the case of Ben Broussard, the owner of Hot Lava in Austin, his background as an actor and writer of B horror movies. (There is lava pit that is a 4 feet deep.)
Butler of Shale Hill said that few people can finish his Tarzan ropes, where athletes must swing for 60 feet, then gather momentum to get over an 8-foot wall. Andres Schwartz, a former member of the Navy SEALs who has added obstacles to his FTX CrossFit gym in the Chicago area, said his “weaver,” a 30-foot pyramid of bars users must wend through horizontally, was built of “painful memories of my field training.” And Nicholas of Epic used plumbing pipe to create extra-thick monkey bars that are tough to grip and that also spin, forcing users to move from bar to bar quickly. “It came out harder than I wanted, and all the members appreciate it or curse me out about it,” he said.
One thing most of the gyms still struggle to train clients for is the mud aspect. Every year as racing season approaches, Cynthia Conde, an owner of the Fitness Loft in Manhasset, N.Y., hopes for rain so she can take her charges outside. Edwin Lopez, the owner of Jungle Fitness Miami, has clients jump into a nearby lake, then run his course. When Nicholas opens his new gym, he plans to have members sink their arms in buckets of ice water for a minute before taking on the obstacles.
“This is New York and people have to go back to work, so I can’t do mud,” he said. “But this should make their muscles cramp and give them a feel for it.”
Of course, there are things no gym can train you for, such as Tough Mudder’s infamous “electroshock therapy” and “electric eel” obstacles, where participants are hit with 10,000 volts of electricity.
Never mind the liability. Villanueva, a former Marine, said: “If I had that obstacle, I’d have to show them how to get through it and I’d have to get electrocuted every single time. And it hurts a lot.”
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