You've got to be strong, you've got to be fast and fit, but most of all, you've got to be tough. We discover obstacle running through the eyes of legendary champion Amelia Boone, who is also a full time lawyer...
What did you want to be as a child growing up in Oregon?
I wanted to be a marine biologist and swim with dolphins. Once I grew out of that, I wanted to be a lawyer. I was set on that from high school onwards.
Did you always love rolling around in the mud?
I did actually. I was kind of a jack-of-all-trades kind of athlete. I was pretty good at everything I touched. I played a lot of soccer, softball, team sports. I was always going from one practice to the other. We had this minivan, and my parents used to throw me in the trunk because I was so dirty.
What happened when you grew up?
It was totally conventional. I went to college knowing I wanted to go to law school. I took a little bit of a foray into anthropology, and for a while, I considered going to Africa and playing with bonobos and lemurs instead of law school. But logic got the best of me, so I went straight from college to law school.
Were you always a good runner?
I don’t have a running background. To this day, I’ve never run for a team or run cross country or anything. I’ve actually only run one road race ever in my life. I’ve never run a 5k. I did the half marathon. It was fine, but it didn’t grab me, it was more like a bucket list thing. And it was also training for my first obstacle race, because I wanted to make sure I could run 13 miles without stopping!
When did you first discover obstacle racing?
It was actually my first year at a law firm in Chicago. And I had a co-worker who was like, “man, look at this thing called Tough Mudder”. So I got into it the way that so many other people do. I think I was 27 at the time.
So presumably you did it, and you did quite well...
We took off as a group and then I realised very quickly that I wanted to go out there and tear it up. The team were like “go on...”, so I kinda took off. And at the end, they were like: “Yeah it was cool. Bucket list ticked off let’s move on to the next thing”. But I realised I wanted to do more of these things and wanted to know when the next one was.
What kind of attributes make a good obstacle racer?
You have to be an extremely well-rounded athlete. You can’t just be fast. You can’t just be a good runner. You see people who say they’re super-fast, blah blah blah, but you need upper body strength. And you need to be able to lift your own bodyweight and get up over walls. It’s this combination of speed and strength and endurance that really helps you. And you also have to really kind of like – and not be afraid of – getting dirty and banging yourself up. You’re crawling under barbed wire and jumping into freezing cold water.
You were featured in Outside mag in 2014 and mentioned working 80-hour weeks as an attorney, and fitting workouts in around it. Is it still like that?
It definitely is. I’m still an attorney full-time but I’m no longer at a firm. I work in-house at Apple. For me, it’s a great juggling act, and it actually keeps me motivated. I find that I tend to do better when I’m juggling multiple balls and keeping them all in the air. So it’s been fun.
Do you see yourself as an attorney with a hobby, or as an athlete with a job?
I don’t really know. It depends who I’m talking to. In the back of my mind, I want to keep being an attorney and have this as a hobby. But I have to be realistic – it’s exploded into so much more than just a hobby. It’s really kind of a second career. But I try and keep the fun in it, and not view it as a career or a job. For me, it’s a release, that complete juxtaposition with what I do in my everyday life.
OCR [obstacle course running] and ultra running seem to be about pushing your body to its absolute limits, in ways others would not think possible. So, as someone who has pushed more than most, what can you tell us about what it feels like?
I always try to compartmentalise what I’m going through. So, for instance, World’s Toughest Mudder is a 24-hour race. The worst thing is like four hours in. And you’re like: oh my god. I have another 20 hours of this. What the f**k am I doing? What did I get myself into? That’s the moment people will give up. So for me it’s just about getting through the next 30 minutes, or the next mile. I figure there’s never anything so dire that you can’t get through the next 30 minutes. And that is how I push myself and keep going in those situations.
To prepare for World’s Toughest Mudder, do you have to practise not sleeping for 24 hours?
I never pulled all-nighters in college but I did a few at work. Let me tell you, it’s way worse sitting at your desk for 24 hours than it is to be running around. It’s much much easier when you’re moving. I never get tired during this stuff, it’s the adrenaline. You get physically exhausted but you’re so mentally amped up, [sleep] is not an issue.
Where is the darkest place it has taken you in competition?
It’s actually probably the same answer to that question. The lowest I’ve been was in my first World’s Toughest Mudder in 2011. It was in sub-freezing temperatures and we were breaking through ice in the water. It was so cold, like the coldest I’ve ever been in my entire life – and just so miserable. I remember thinking “why would I do this? Just why?” That was a dark, dark place. But at the same time, when I look back on that, that is the moment that it all kind of came together for me. It’s like, I’ve reached this low and I can get through anything now, y’know? It’s this weird duality.
So the best thing about obstacle racing is looking back on it?
[Laughs.] Yeah. It’s funny ’cause you’re all like “is anybody actually having fun out there or is it only fun in hindsight?” Err... No. It’s totally fun during it obviously, but I think that one of the greatest things is – and this sounds trite – but feeling alive. And using your body, moving your body, doing things you don’t do when you’re sitting at a desk every single day. And really just pushing yourself and experiencing that. It gives a bit of perspective to everything else.
It’s a fairly new sport, so how do you try to get better? There can’t be textbooks or anything.
Honestly when I started, there was nothing. Now there are tonnes. I think one of the things that appealed to me was that everyone was saying to me that I should do triathlons, or do an Iron Man – and I looked at the training schedules and it’s like “you run x amount, you bike x amount and you blah blah blah blah”. It seemed so formulaic, wheras with obstacle racing, nobody really knew how to train for it. The few of us who were doing it [to a good standard] were asking, “Well what do you do?” And so it’s been, over the past five years, this adventure – kind of figuring it out together. And now there are all these gyms that pop up and people have like Ninja Warrior gyms where they practise obstacles and stuff. But for those of us doing this since its inception five years ago, it was kind of just this fun experimental journey. That’s part of what really attracted me to it.
What is the toughest regular obstacle that you do?
I’m not as proficient at things like rigs – the Ninja Warrior type of stuff.
Not so much. If I had to carry a bucket of rocks up a mountain, I would murder everyone. It’s more like technical stuff – so for instance, Spartan Race has spear throws and I’m notoriously awful at spear throws. So anything super technical is a weakness for me.
What does a spear throw actually entail then?
You have a spear which is pretty much just a broom with a nail on the end, and you have to throw it into a bale of hay 30 metres away. If you don’t stick it, you have to do a 30 burpee penalty. Some people set them up in their back yard (to practice) but I live in an apartment in San Francisco. I don’t have a yard, so it’s not something that’s easily replicated!
The woman who won the hammer throw at the Olympics [Anita Wlodarczyk] had nine boiled eggs for breakfast on the morning of her final. What do you eat before a big race?
Really? I actually eat a Pop Tart before every single race. It stems from when I won the Spartan Race World Champs in 2013. There was nothing else in the fridge that day!
Brown sugar with cinnamon. But now I’m cinnamon roll, all the way. They’re actually a very good source of easily digestible carbs. I have peanut butter and almond butter, too. And coffee. I tend to be light before races and not have too much sitting on my stomach.
If you were to design a perfect course, what kind of things would you have in it?
My favourite courses are ones that are on mountains. So I want super gnarly technical terrain. Straight up and down ski hills – that’s what I love. Combining terrain like that with heavy carries... I like carrying heavy sand bags, carrying logs. And those strength-based obstacles, those are kind of my thing.
The perception of OCR racing is very masculine. When I think of it, I think of a bloke from 300 crawling under barbed wire. Is there more gender equality in actual competition?
I think it’s gaining popularity amongst women in the shorter races, pretty much almost equal. The women will still lag behind especially when the races get longer. In the World’s Toughest Mudder, it’s 80 per cent dudes. But, there are more strong women coming into it. And when we’re out there, I don’t even notice guys vs girls because I have goals out there. Sure I wanna win for women but I wanna come in as high overall as I can. So my goal is to come top 10 overall in a race, that kind of stuff.
You’ve been having lots of problems with injury and rehab recently. How are things going at the moment?
I’ve just started to return to running, which is a slow and frustrating process for anyone who’s been out for a while. I was on crutches for three months after a stress fracture in my femur.
What caused that?
Through OCR, I found my love for ultra running. I qualified for Western States [a 100-mile run in California], and I was really excited to run that, but I was training for that and there were a lot of biomechanical issues around how I was running. So three months on crutches and I’m slowly coming back and re-learning running.
What are your goals?
I’d love, love love love to get back for the tailend of this season, the championships season, but I don’t know. It’s a lofty ambition.
There seems to be like a CrossFit vibe to obstacle racing generally – a real camaraderie among competitors. How much does that extend to actual competition when you’re fighting for a top ten finish?
When you’re out there competing, you’re definitely not going to let somebody pass you or help them out. But in World’s Toughest Mudder – it’s a 24-hour race – sure, I stop and help people out over obstacles, because you’ve got 24 hours. With something like Spartan Race where it’s only two hours, you don’t have that luxury. There is definitely great camaraderie.
This thing has only been going five years. Where do you think it can end up? Will it end up in the Olympics?
I see it expanding. Everyone talks about the Olympics and I think that’s a definite possibility. Unfortunately, some of the things that make OCR so unique, you’d have to take away. Like, everything would need to be standardised. You’d have to take away the barbed wire. I think some version of it could end up there, though. I definitely see more cross-over athletes getting into it, from the track and field world – steeplechase, things like that. It’s a new challenge for them once their collegiate career has come to an end.
Did you ever realise the dream of swimming with dolphins and doing bonobos’ hair?
Sadly not. I think my life would be in a very different place had I gone down that track. But then again, I never expected things to work out this way, so...
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