by Beth Connolly

What is the definition of a true Spartan athlete?  To answer that question, we look to you, our Spartan racers.  I was lucky enough to get a good idea of an answer to that question after I spoke with Georgia native Terry Nelson, who competed in our Atlanta Spartan Race on April 30, 2011.

Terry started his career in the US Army Infantry, where he proudly served for seven years.  But when he was 23, his heart valve became infected.  When his body tried to fight off the infection, a calcium deposit broke off and lodged itself in his leg.  He became extremely sick, and his illness did not respond to antibiotics.  So the doctors decided to operate and remove the blockage from his leg.  Just one week later, Terry had heart surgery, in which doctors replaced his aortic valve with an artificial one.  The whole ordeal kept him in and out of the hospital for nine months, and he left the army afterward with an honorable discharge.

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by Beth Connolly

Intense athlete, Spartan Chick, and up-for-any-adventure girl Shannon Roche is the only racer I’ve ever interviewed who talked herself down.

“Are you sure you want to interview me?  I’ve fallen off the wagon,” she wrote in an email before we spoke on the phone.

Then, at the end of our interview, she brought it up again.  “Am I intense enough?  I don’t feel like I measure up to the other athletes you’ve profiled on the blog.”

Chatty and modest, Shannon most certainly does measure up.  This 36-year-old real estate agent, who describes herself as 36 going on 26, just takes her challenges in stride to such an extent that they don’t seem like a big deal.  At least not to her.

She’s always been athletic, starting from her school days of track and volleyball.  But after college graduation, she moved to New York and realized that she needed goals to keep her motivated in her fitness.

So, back in 2006, she started training for a half-marathon.  Having successfully completed that, she moved on to a marathon in 2007 and a triathlon in 2008.  Then, in 2009, she really got serious and signed up for the Escape from Alcatraz, a unique event in San Francisco that she describes as the best racing experience she’s ever had.  To begin the race, a ferry drops off 2000 people in the frigid San Francisco bay  (she estimates temperatures were around 55 degrees F when she did it).  After a 1.5 mile swim to shore, racers face an 18-mile hilly bike, and an 8-mile run over hard and soft sand, including a timed 400-stair climb.

After her Alcatraz adventure, Shannon found herself “bored” once again.  So she decided to join Warrior Fitness Boot Camp in NYC midtown, where she met Kat Dunnigan, who told her about the Spartan Race.  That was all it took for Shannon to sign up for the 8-mile Super Spartan taking place in September 2011 in Staten Island.  “I feel like I’ve done everything else and I’m wanting to try something different,” she said of her decision to compete in a Spartan Race.

Shannon thinks that Warrior Fitness Boot Camp is the perfect way to train for a Spartan Race.  “It has all the elements,” she said.  “Nothing I’ve ever done has pushed my heart rate as much.”  The Boot Camp is an indoor obstacle course run by former Marines who “yell at you with a smile on their faces and push you.”  When she first started last fall, she couldn’t climb all the way up the six-foot tall wall and she couldn’t make it all the way across the monkey bars.  But after just one or two weeks, she noticed improvements in her performance at the course and felt herself getting a lot stronger every day.

Beyond the physical improvements, Shannon loves the camaraderie and encouraging atmosphere she has found at Warrior Fitness, and she’s even convinced her friends to join her as well.  I bet we’ll see them this September, too.

If Shannon’s past performances are any guide, I think that she’ll blow the Super Spartan out of the water.

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by Beth Connolly

Vanessa Muff isn’t your typical 16-year-old.  Yes, her schedule is chock-full of typical high school activities like dance lessons, rugby and volleyball practice, and homework, but she also dedicates hours upon hours to volunteer service each month (300 just since she started high school!) for organizations as diverse as the Alzheimer’s Society of Toronto, the World Wildlife Fund, and the Sunshine Foundation, for which she is spokesperson and chair.  “I enjoy helping people,” she said in a recent phone interview.  “You get a good feeling when you give to others.  I’ve been volunteering since the age of nine, and it’s made a difference in my life.”

And there’s something else that makes this Toronto teen unusual—she will be representing Canada at the Miss Teen International pageant in Chicago on July 28, 2011, with volunteerism as her platform.  She has been doing beauty pageants since she was six years old, but she is not your typical pageant candidate either: she proudly admitted that she was the captain of an all-male football team a few years ago, when she was in middle school.

“What?”  I was speechless.

“I’m the girliest tomboy you’ll ever meet,” she replied.  When I asked for more details, Vanessa explained, “I had never played football before, and I really like trying new things.  It turned out I was good at it, so I became captain.  The other guys on the team were cool with it, and if anything, it was a good advantage for us.  I was intimidated and nervous at first, but I got used to it.”

Vanessa has never let nervousness stop her from doing something that she really wants to do.  That’s why she eagerly anticipates running in and volunteering at the Toronto Spartan Sprint on June 19, 2011, even though it is a different sort of volunteer event than what she usually does. “Usually when I go to volunteer events it’s not that physically demanding,” she said.  “[But] this is right up my alley, I’m totally pumped.”  An athletic, active person already, Vanessa said that she does not have to change her fitness routine in order to train for the race.

And I doubt she would have time to.  Despite her numerous extracurricular commitments, when I asked Vanessa how she manages her time, she was down-to-earth and centered.  Even though she’s busy and often on the go, she said, “I know I have to keep my priorities straight, and stay on the honor roll.”  Vanessa dreams of going to a teacher’s college and becoming a high school science teacher.  In that position, she could also coach high school sports teams.  “It would be everything I love to do all in one job—basically reliving what I’m living now,” she said with a laugh.

She’s off to a good start—her original “20-element rap,” created with her best friend, became a quick hit on youtube.  But the notoriety didn’t really excite Vanessa.  What excited her was scrolling down to read the comments viewers had left beneath the video.  “The video really helped kids remember the elements!”

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by Beth Connolly

[Editor's note: This piece is part of our Spartan Military Profile series, in which we tell the stories of Spartans who serve their country.  Check out the first post in the series here.]

Nick and friends on race day (Nick is 2nd from left)

If any first-time racer could run an eight mile Super Spartan course, break his ankle twenty feet from the finish line, and still cross it in relatively good humor, it would have to be Nick Nakamura, 31.  Whether it’s the L.A. County native’s laid back California mentality or his military training after nine and a half years in the Navy is anyone’s guess.  All I know is that during our phone interview, when I asked him to tell me how he broke his ankle, he cracked up and said, “It was pretty funny…I think it was funny, anyways.”

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by Beth Connolly

[Selica is director of Quebec and Ontario Spartan Race Markets. Richard is the director of the UK Markets.]
If you want to know how exactly Spartan Races came into existence, you have to look to the story of Selica Sevigny and Richard Lee, the British-Canadian couple that literally stumbled into Pittsfield, VT in spring 2009.

Montreal native Sevigny, 26, was working for Global television in Montreal in 2008 when she met Iron Man finisher, and endurance athlete Richard Lee, 29.  He was on vacation and it was love at first sight.

In spring 2009, the pair was hiking south on the Appalachian trail to help Richard recover from a broken leg.  After 2000 miles, they hit Pittsfield, VT only a few days before the start of the Death Race, Joe De Sena’s brutal 48+ hour test of mental and physical endurance.  Richard was confident he was up to the challenge of the Death Race, and he dared Selica to do it with him.  She agreed, although she had never competed in an endurance race before.  But, she said in a recent interview, “I’m just a very determined individual.  When I set a goal, I try to stick with it and get through.”

Remarkably, despite his lack of preparation, Richard finished first in the race.  He said though he found the Death Race psychologically more difficult than the training he received before sustaining military career-ending injuries. Selica, who said the race was “by far the hardest challenge I’ve ever experienced in my life,” developed hypothermia during the race and was unable to finish.  She said, “Many times during the race, I could only put one foot in front of the other, but I thought, as long as I’m moving, I’m still in the game.”  Her determination and persistence led her to return for the winter Death Race  in December 2009, where she placed third.

Needless to say, the race made an impression on both.  “It’s so unpredictable that you can’t really train for it, and we really liked the idea of not knowing what’s coming,” Selica said.  “In a marathon or triathlon, you know exactly what’s coming.  In the Death Race, you don’t know the obstacles and you don’t know how to react.”

The day after the Death Race in 2009, Richard broke his foot, effectively stranding the couple in Pittsfield for a month.  In that month, they spent some time hanging out with Joe, and the idea for Spartan Races was born.  Selica and Richard, both inspired by the sense of accomplishment and confidence they felt after competing in the Death Race, wanted to offer that feeling to a much wider audience.  Due to its extreme nature, the Death Race is open only to the most elite athletes—those who have the time to train extensively.  “We wanted to invite just anybody, regardless of fitness level, to give it a try,” said Selica.

Why Spartan?  “We brainstormed to come up with iconic images of strength, bravery, and ingenuity.  Spartans were a small group, but they overcame so much adversity.”  Plus, the fact that the Spartans were an ancient people offers an appealing alternative to the questionable values of our modern society.  “The essence of what we’re doing is encouraging people to return to their ancient roots,” said Selica.  “Our ancestors lived in the woods, hunting and gathering as a daily lifestyle.  Now we depend so much on technology that people use a GPS system just to go for a walk.  Not only are we living a pampered life—we live a life where people get stressed by little things like having to wait for an elevator or being stuck in traffic.  We want to encourage people to return to the days of running in the woods, getting lost, challenging themselves, getting dirty.  Even just getting in contact with that for a day is fantastic.

“If the race inspires people to just get out of their comfort zone for a day, or if it inspires lasting change, then we’ve done our job.”

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by Beth Connolly

[Editor's note: this post introduces a new series that will appear on the blog: "Spartan on the Road."  Read on for more information!]

Not just anyone can spend ten months on the road.  Imagine it: you’re separated from your friends, your coworkers, your girlfriend.  Driving from city to city, mostly staying in hotels.  It’s a lonely and exhausting life.

Now, imagine living on the road and completing exhausting CrossFit workouts every day.  Sound impossible?

Maybe other racing companies know the meaning of the word “impossible.”  Spartan Race does not.  Nor does Ben Killary, our intrepid Spartan On The Road.  Just a few weeks ago, he embarked on the journey of a lifetime.  Over the next six months, he’ll be travelling from state to state, from Crossfit Box to Crossfit Box, spreading Spartan toughness to Crossfitters across America.  He’s also embarked on a simultaneous, equally challenging journey: getting into shape the honest, brutal, sweat-bathing Crossfit way.

“If I’m doing this the right way, I’ll be a machine by the time I’m done,” Ben said in a recent Skype interview.  “What I’m doing is awesome.”

Ben might not strike you as a stereotypical “elite athlete.”  At least not yet.  A May 2010 graduation of Vermont’s Castleton College (major: Sports Administration, minor: coaching), Ben says he packed on the pounds from his wild college lifestyle.  Now, though, sick of being teased as the “chubby Spartan,” he’s dedicated himself to the Crossfit-approved Paleo diet, eliminating sweets, dairy, and gluten.

Ben was a devoted Spartan even during his crazy college days.  He’s proud to say that he’s been with the company since day one—he started at Spartan Race as an intern in January 2010, distributing fliers door-to-door in college dorms and garnering Spartan Race’s historic first 5000 Facebook fans in just one week.  After graduation, he started working at Spartan full-time, doing whatever necessary to get the young company off the ground.  Since then, he got sick of being constantly referred to as “the chubby Spartan,” and he joined Crossfit a few months ago.

He saw results immediately and loved the camaraderie he felt with the other athletes.  “I’m in love with Crossfit now, I’ll never stop,” he said.  “I feel like I have to work harder and get better.”

The Spartan on the Road concept developed as a way to get the Crossfit community involved in Spartan Races.  “I truly believe that the Crossfit athlete is the elite athlete to be in our sport, based on the way they train,” said Ben.   Crossfit workouts challenge athletes both in strength and cardio training, thereby creating an ideal, balanced athlete—not the narrow-focused athletes we’re familiar with, like distance runners and bodybuilders.  Who better to compete in a Spartan Race than an athlete trained for speed, precision, strength and focus?

Ben was honest about the difficulties of life on the road.  “I’m alone all the time,” he said.  He battles the physical fatigue of his grueling workout schedule, not to mention the long hours of transcribing notes and driving.  He left his good friends and girlfriend back at home in Boston.

But Ben is no stranger to personal adversity, nor to overcoming it with grace.  He struggled through a childhood of verbal abuse at the hands of his stepfather, a man who routinely told Ben he’d doubtless end up in jail or worse.  At 14, Ben’s mom gave him up, and Ben spent the rest of his teenage years in foster care.  “I was pawned off to the state because at the time my mother thought I was the problem.  I might have had a smart mouth, but that was the worst of me,” Ben said.

After bouncing from family to family, Ben eventually ended up with a wonderful family.  The mother was “the sweetest lady in the entire world,” and he considered her children his siblings.  Though less than 1% of Vermont State’s foster kids have ever gone to college, Ben went—and graduated.  “My caseworker had seven hundred kids in his career.  I was the only one who ever got a degree,” Ben said.

The difficulties Ben has faced in his past only motivated him to try harder, to excel, and to succeed.  “I’ve never blamed fucking up on my past,” he said.  “I’ve just taken responsibility.”  And his stepfather?   He’s and Ben’s mom have since divorced, and Ben and his mom are on good terms.  “Now it makes me laugh,” Ben said, “because the magnitude of what I’m involved in is incredible.”

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