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Tough Love

Get off that treadmill! Brutal workouts and daunting obstacle races take “no pain no gain” to the next level

by Molly Eadie on January 16, 2014


You just ran miles uphill only to be dunked into ice water, crawl through dark tunnels and get shocked by live wires. Imagine you’ve done this voluntarily—for fun and fitness.

The Tough Mudder, a 10- to 12-mile obstacle course, is one of the many brutal, tough-ass races to become popular in recent years. According to the Outdoor Industry Association, participation in obstacle races, like the Warrior Dash and the Spartan Race, increased 85 percent between 2006 and 2010.

Some of these races, like the Dirty Girl Mud Run, are lighthearted and fun, and some obstacles, like walking though a giant pool of mud, can be skipped. Others seem outright sadistic—the Spartan Death Race in Vermont lasts about two days, and the url for the website is YouMayDie.com.

Runners put themselves through these hellish challenges for a variety of reasons: bragging rights, fitness, teamwork, runner’s high, the rewarding feeling they have afterwards, and masochism.

“I just want to be able to rub in it people’s faces,” says Yochabel Ubiera of Albany, who plans on running the Spartan Race with her brother this spring. Ubiera, who completed her first half-marathon in Lake George last year, used to just run on the treadmills. Now finds herself doing resistance training, including pull-ups and push-ups to build her upper body strength. She’s excited for the challenge, but fears the punishment—if during the race, she can’t complete an obstacle, she’ll be forced to do burpees. “That’s the last thing I want to do,” she says.

These events promote cross-training and challenge people to try new exercises and workout routines. They disown the idea of constant, long cardio workouts, and encourage a more well-rounded approach to fitness. CrossFit, a fitness company founded in 2000, has become popular for its alternative gym-going experience.

When Karen Southwick walked into her first CrossFit gym session, she felt a little intimidated, despite feeling very secure in her own fitness. She saw people doing exercises she hadn’t seen since elementary school gym class, like pull-ups and rope climbs, or didn’t recognize at all, like snatches and Turkish get-ups.

But two years later, she’s a convert. Southwick recently opened a CrossFit gym in Guilderland, CrossFit Aevitas, with her husband.

CrossFit features a workout of the day (WOD). Everyone participates and does the same workout, scaled to their ability and under a coach’s careful watch for safety and form.

“To become a better, healthier individual, you need to do different things all the time,” says Southwick. “Running on a treadmill for 45 minutes six days a week will not make you a better athlete, just a better treadmill runner.”

Southwick says a constantly changing workout routine helps you train for life. “When you get out of a chair, you’re squatting. When you pick something off the floor, you’re deadlifting.”

Floating around the Internet are videos of unsafe weight lifting at CrossFit gyms. Southwick says if you find yourself at a CrossFit gym where the coach isn’t paying attention to your form, “Run the other way, and fast!”

Whether you force yourself on 100 kilometer race through the Arctic (that’s a real event) or make yourself try the most daunting of workouts at a CrossFit gym, you can at least take comfort and motivation in knowing you won’t be alone in the agony. Maybe because these things are too terrifying to endure solo, or maybe because suffering can create a bond, most who participate in these crazy, tough-ass workouts agree that teamwork is important.

Ubiera says one thing that keeps her excited about running the Spartan Race is knowing her brother will be with her.

“We said, ‘Let’s stick together regardless of who’s going faster,” says Ubiera.

“When you’re the last one to complete a workout, you can bet there are at least five people cheering you on and helping you push through to the finish,” says Southwick of her CrossFit gym. She had the same experience running the Tough Mudder with her friends. “It brought all of us closer to cheer each other on and make it to the end, even though when you think about it, it’s just a silly race that means nothing.”