Obstacle course races gaining a footing among the hardy (and maybe foolhardy)

Vicky Hallett
Fit editor, Express July 5, 2011

How does it feel to sprint with a medicine ball, vault over a trio of boxes, scurry through a tunnel, pull yourself over two pommel horses, climb a cargo net, hoist a sandbag while ascending a flight of stairs, run up an eight-foot wall and then flip a tractor tire 10 times? You could ask the crew gathered at Urban Evolution, a year-old gym in Alexandria — if they weren’t all flopped on mats, drenched in sweat and struggling to catch their breath.

This is Competition Training. It’s the brainchild of owner Salil Maniktahla, who didn’t want anything to stand between his students and the obstacle course races that have starting popping up across the region over the past five years. Most, such as Warrior Dash and RunAmuck, are mud runs that require participants to rappel down ravines, cross streams or face other hardships to get to the finish line. Coming up Saturday is Metro Dash, a 30-obstacle course at National Harbor that won’t leave you dirty as much as dog-tired.

Vicky Hallett is a MisFits columnist and the Fit editor for Express. View Archive

The idea of the weekly class (Sundays 4-5:30 p.m.) is to rearrange the gym to mimic whatever challenges they’ll be up against next, and then some. “We’re wearing weighted vests. We’ve added obstacles they don’t have. The tires and medicine balls are way bigger. Metro Dash obstacles are going to be a joke to us,” vows instructor Sean Hannah. Beyond just drilling the moves, he provides pointers on how to climb walls, tackle cargo nets and lift tires.

For 29-year-old Sean Coyne, these lessons are a way to make sure he achieves his goals at Metro Dash. “I want to finish it and not puke everywhere,” he jokes. But despite some nerves, Coyne’s psyched to get the chance to try an event that plays to his strengths — namely, strength — and lets him relive his childhood, when he used to watch the obstacle-based game shows “Double Dare” and “Guts” on Nickelodeon.

These days, he should probably be flipping the channel to G4 to study “Ninja Warrior,” Japan’s considerably more grown-up version of what an obstacle course can be, or “American Ninja Warrior,” the spinoff that invites folks in the United States to compete for an opportunity to go to Japan.

They’re both must-see-TV around Urban Evolution, which is so obsessed with the shows that it has held four “Ninja Warrior” nights for members to test their skills on routes inspired by the program. The gym has even built its own versions of two of the obstacles: the salmon ladder (grip a bar and jerk it up two ascending rows of hooks with a series of flying pull-ups) and the cliffhanger (get along a groove by gripping with just your fingertips).

If both of those sound ridiculously difficult, it’s because they are. And that’s precisely what’s fueling the programs’ popularity, says “American Ninja Warrior” co-host Matt Iseman. In sporting events, we’re used to seeing a winner. That’s often not the case with “Ninja Warrior,” which is overwhelmingly populated with losers. Of the 2,600 folks who’ve attempted the course in Japan since 1997, just three have made it to the end. “Odds are you’re going to fail and fail hard,” Iseman says.

But unlike other obstacle course TV shows (think “Wipeout”), the thrill doesn’t come from the schadenfreude of watching competitors slip and fall into water, he says. It’s from hoping these athletes can keep their balance on spinning bridges, hold on as they swing terrifying distances and rocket to the finish in time.

When Iseman’s show returns for its third season July 31 at 8 p.m., the stakes will be higher than ever with a $500,000 K-Swiss endorsement deal on the line. It’ll be more visible than ever, too, with the finale airing on NBC. And maybe it’ll produce an American who will emerge as a champion.

One thing we know for sure is that the winner won’t be Levi Meeuwenberg, the 24-year-old “American Ninja Warrior” legend who’s attempted the course in Japan five times. He couldn’t make auditions at Venice Beach, Calif., in May because he was doing stunt work for a movie. But that’s good news for people in Washington, which is where Meeuwenberg recently decided to move.

He’s now teaching at Primal Fitness, a D.C. gym that boasts a salmon ladder and a cliffhanger as well. As of last week, it also has a regular class (Fridays 7-9 p.m.) geared specifically to “Ninja Warrior” devotees. Meeuwenberg promises to pass along the techniques he’s developed, including the salmon ladder strategy he honed with help from all-star contestant fisherman Makoto Nagano.

Because of his traveling, Meeuwenberg won’t always be around, but three of the gym’s other instructors just got back from the Venice Beach tryouts full of info of their own. That includes Michael “Frosti” Zernow, 24, who figured his typical parkour regimen would be plenty, not realizing that “Ninja Warrior” dreamers have built obstacle courses in their back yards and specifically strengthened for the show. Same goes for Natalie Strasser, 26, one of the few women picked to participate. (There’s no separate course or competition for them.) Her tip? Get a grip. The more advanced obstacles often resemble rock climbing.

Participants in class won’t all be seriously training to earn a spot on the show, says 23-year-old instructor Travis Noble Graves, who also went to tryouts. “There are a lot of people who are ‘Ninja Warrior’ enthusiasts who think it would just be fun — recreational ninjas,” he says. Besides, leaping, climbing and sprinting is an effective way to exercise for life as well, which is why he’s pleased to see Metro Dash and other local events helping popularize it to the masses.

“It’s about time people caught on,” Graves says. Now they just need to learn how to hang on.

More from Wellness: Follow @postmisfits on Twitter and read more fitness coverage at washingtonpost.com/wellness.

Metro Dash:

Adding obstacles normally keeps people away. But not when it comes to Metro Dash, which was originally a four-mile race scattered with functional fitness pit stops. For last year’s events, one of those was the “gantlet,” a mini-obstacle course involving tire flips, kettlebell swings and a sled pull. “The feedback was everyone loved the gantlet, so we took the running out of it,” creator Sean Ofeldt says.

The concept has proved popular, boosting attendance from 500 in the District last year to a sellout field of 1,800 expected from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Saturday for the race at the Plateau at National Harbor, Harborview Avenue and Oxon Hill Road. Participation in the event has also increased across the country, which Ofeldt attributes to the fact that it has tapped into a community of exercise enthusiasts who don’t normally get to compete. “Runners can go out there any weekend and race,” he says. “But CrossFitters, boot campers, where do they stand?”

One selling point is that the format takes much less time than typical races. Speedsters can tear through the course in six or seven minutes. Even on the slower end of the spectrum, it’s over in less than 20 minutes. That doesn’t mean it’s easy, of course. “You’re constantly stressing your body in every plane and switching it every few seconds,” Ofeldt says. The course is designed to maximize difficulty, so monkey bars come right after you’ve pooped out your arms and upper body hauling 35-pound kettlebells around.

Just remember that you never have that far to go. “People who try to catch their breath get to the end and think, ‘I should have pushed harder,’ ” Ofeldt says. “Don’t pace yourself and you’ll walk away happy.”

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