How a team of Naples fitness pros trained for—and overcame—one of the most grueling obstacle races around.
James Del Sordo is not afraid of obstacles that would seem to discriminate against the vertically challenged. At 5-foot-6, he can overcome 10-foot walls just by using his upper-body strength to hoist himself over. A canopy of electrical wires? That’s a different story.
“I’m not even sure they’re going to have that in Miami, but supposedly there’s this thing you have to crawl through,” he says. “If you don’t stay at an Army crawl, if you lift up a little bit too much, you might get zapped. Electricity just sounds scary when you hear it.”
No matter his training regimen, conditioning his body to ignore a current coursing through it might be too much to ask. But the Naples resident believed he was ready for whatever else an obstacle race could throw his way.
A certified trainer at Transcendent Fitness in Naples, Del Sordo is part of a group of Southwest Floridians who trained together and ran the 8.3-mile Spartan Race in Miami earlier this year.
Its appeal isn’t hard to understand. “At Spartan Race, we believe that people are coming back to their roots, and that’s why the appeal is there, and that’s as old as humanity itself,” Spartan spokeswoman Carrie Adams says. “We spend our days behind desks and immersed in technology. We’ve become disconnected from our DNA that tells us we want to run, jump, climb and enjoy our physical selves. And you can’t get all of those things running on pavement. You get to jump over fire and throw spears at our races. These races give us a chance to reconnect with who we are, what makes us human. And it’s fun to do something different, to get dirty and to spend a few hours with your friends challenging yourself in what will probably be the hardest thing you’ve ever done.”
Overcoming obstacles—of all kinds
Obstacles races—also called adventure races or mud runs—combine distance running with physical challenges such as pools of ice, barbed wire and 15-foot walls made slick by oil. Two of the most popular are Spartan and Tough Mudder. The latter, whose races are typically 10 to 12 miles long and have 25 to 30 obstacles, held just three in 2010. That jumped to 35 last year, and the number of competitors skyrocketed from 20,000 to more than 460,000. Spartan, named Outside magazine’s best obstacle race in 2012, has four levels of competition, from 5K to ultra-marathon distances.
Del Sordo, 27, looked forward to facing the challenge 125 miles to the east. One of those who signed up to run the obstacle race with him in Miami was Micah West, owner of Transcendent Fitness. His motivation? “It was probably peer pressure the most,” he says, laughing. “I had a lot of guys at the gym that wanted to do it.” At the same time, he saw the race as a fitness goal. “It’s a lot of fun training with this group because the atmosphere is great. There’s a lot of competition going on during the workouts, which makes it a lot easier to train.”
Transcendent Fitness, which the Illinois native opened in 2011, isn’t a typical gym. West claims it’s the only kettle bell-certified gym in Southwest Florida, and some of its trainers are also CrossFit-certified. He promotes weight lifting and personal training, as well, for the kind of well-rounded preparation needed to survive an obstacle course that happens to use terms such as “Beast” and “Death Race” to describe its levels of competition.
Because their regular fitness routines focus so heavily on metabolic conditioning, which builds energy, there wasn’t much Del Sordo, West and their crew had to change to prepare for the Spartan. The intensity, however, was ratcheted up considerably.
“We did a lot of interval training,” says Del Sordo. “Start off with a light pace until you’re doing sprints. Keep a solid pace but go from mailbox to mailbox; just do a sprint. Then the next one, or the next five, just jog. You have to work on these intervals. Otherwise you’re going to be stuck at the same level.
“But it’s all about how hard you push yourself. It’s the old adage: ‘Mind over matter.’ If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter.”
Still, Spartan Races don’t require their participants to maintain a fast pace over the entirety of the course—they have to stop and overcome the obstacles that are sprinkled throughout. Both Del Sordo and West weren’t big on distance running. “I haven’t run eight miles in … I don’t remember when,” West says.
So Del Sordo and his training partners devised a workout designed specifically for an obstacle race. During an eight-mile run, they stopped every six minutes to do 20 burpees or 20 pushups, then started running again.
Del Sordo also kept up a steady routine of lifting medium weights with high repetitions to build muscle endurance, burpees, 400-meter sprints and thrusters—a front squat that bursts into an overhead press. “Full-body movements,” he emphasizes. “You don’t want to do anything sitting down unless you’re rowing. Rowing is actually really good for metabolic conditioning.”
So did his hard work pay off? Del Sordo wanted to finish in the top four. Finishing among the top three men would have qualified him for the Spartan Death Race, a 48-hour adventure race that 90 percent of competitors don’t complete.
But after the Miami course that featured 21 obstacles, Del Sordo placed 178th overall. Still, his time of 1:37:15 was in the top 5 percent of the 3,934 people who competed. And perhaps the best news? There were several walls he had to scale, but not an electrical wire in sight.