By Vicky Hallett
The Washington Post
This particular gash is taking forever to heal, David Magida explained as he pointed 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 said encouragingly as he took off into Washington’s Rock Creek Park.
I managed to keep up only for a few feet. Then he was suddenly on the other side of a small stream and scrambling up a hill, and I was 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 color. 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, who often is able to cover his rent with his earnings.
To build name recognition, the brand has partnered with Reebok, which just introduced a line of shoes specifically designed to stand up to Spartan Race staples such as slippery surfaces and sharp objects. (A pair of All-Terrain Supers sells for $120.)
And it’s growing like crazy. Spartan Race expects to have a million participants in more than a dozen countries in 2014. Not bad, especially when you consider it started in 2010 in Vermont with 500 people.
In May, 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,” said 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.
What’s crazy to him is seeing an athlete afraid of messing up a pair of shoes. “As soon as they hit a mud puddle, they stop short,” said De Sena, who’s on a mission to make athletes comfortable with getting dirty.
His dream is to turn obstacle racing into an Olympic sport. (There’s already a U.S. sanctioning body, which is a step in that direction.)
For now, the plan is to encourage more people to commit to doing a race – one that’s only a few miles. 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 8-foot wall,” Magida said, reminiscing about his debut obstacle event in 2011. “It was a trial by fire. Literally, because there was fire.”
For the athlete – who grew up in Montgomery County, Md., and spent his school years on track, soccer and football teams – this sport felt like the ultimate combination of his skills and strengths. He just needed to improve his abilities in a few additional areas, including log-carrying and spear-throwing.
Sound like the basis of a solid fitness plan? Spartan Race thought so, too, which is why the company recently developed its own group exercise program, Spartan Coaching.
Magida is the first instructor certified in the Washington area, and he’s planning to put his training to use when he opens Elevate Interval Fitness in June. The facility will offer high-intensity classes using rowing machines, TRX straps and “other toys of my choosing,” Magida said, with the aim of getting clients strong enough to do races.
If anyone wants a more true-to-life obstacle experience, they can sign up for his Spartan Race classes, which will be outdoors.
“I like to simulate races as much as possible,” Magida said. “It’s one thing to do a 5-mile run. It’s another thing to run, go over a brick wall and then transition back to running again. Or run with muddy feet.”
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 a 40-pound 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.
More than running
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, push-ups, 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 push-up, 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 center 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