Fitness didn't always involve barbed wire. Now people pay good money to scurry through the muck beneath it, to lug tree stumps through waist-deep water, to run forever under an angry sun.
Fitness didn't always involve barbed wire. Now people pay good money to scurry through the muck beneath it, to lug tree stumps through waist-deep water, to run forever under an angry sun. This is the world of obstacle course races and mud runs, a popular phenomenon in recent years that signals an underlying shift in fitness.
Traditional workouts were pretty standard for generations: free weights, treadmills and machines, all in uniform rows. That's still the rule rather than the exception, but there are many new options now. Some hardly look like exercise at all, while others have conventional components but are practiced in new combinations and new settings, focusing on intensity or stamina rather than just weight. Many of these modern regimens stress functional fitness: training muscles to perform real-life activities like climbing barriers and hauling heavy objects. If the big-box gyms of old are for sculpting polished, gleaming bodies, new fitness is all about overcoming obstacles.
Columbus Monthly has highlighed four locals who embody that mentality-a CrossFit champion, an obstacle course ninja warrior, an Ironman and a pioneer of parkour. Their workouts are diverse-CrossFit and parkour could hardly be more different-but each regimen emphasizes expanding the limits of physical ability. The various disciplines are relative newcomers; the Ironman triathlon is the most ancient of the four and it's younger than Kanye West. Columbus has even played an integral role in some of their development and growth.
They also share another attribute-they can be fun, despite their daunting or demanding nature. That's where the obstacle courses and mud runs factor in; they're the mainstream manifestation of grand physical feats as a test of overall fitness. A treadmill is easier, a bicep curl safer, and these new-age fitness warriors aren't shimmying under barbed wire for survival. Yet people line up by the thousands for the strange joy of seeing how much they can endure, how much they can conquer.Michelle Warnky, ninja warrior
Favorite outdoor training spot
The stairs at Alum Creek and Hoover Dam; running the hills at Highbanks Metro Park; climbing the wall at Scioto Audubon Metro Park
Advice for ninja warrior newcomers
If you're curious, just do it. It's fun and worth it-don't let fear or hesitation hold you back. For someone who's aiming for American Ninja Warrior, join competitions like the National Ninja League because the producers keep an eye on those results.
Michelle Warnky seems custom-built for the American Ninja Warrior craze. She has superb strength, natural athleticism and a diehard cheering section. Her popularity is fueled by her dramatic and exuberant performances; she glances wide-eyed at the crowd after each obstacle, offering a sly smile with her tongue protruding playfully. That look says it all-Oh my goodness, I can't believe I just did that. I want more.
The Worthington resident spent most of her early life preparing for this turn as a modern-day ninja warrior without even realizing it. She began rock climbing with her family in second grade and ran track and cross country from middle school through college, developing a powerful combination of endurance and upper- and lower-body strength. She even loved the schoolyard obstacle courses during field day. More than anything, she has always pursued a challenge. "You have to push yourself, you have to learn, you have to fail a lot and then grow from that," she says of ninja warrior competitions.
"It's supposed to be hard."
Her life-changing discovery of a new fitness passion came in a time of transition. After teaching English in Kazakhstan for five years, she was settling back into life in the U.S. when three friends all recommended she check out American Ninja Warrior, this crazy show airing on NBC. Oh my goodness, I have to try this, she thought as she watched in amazement. Warnky was drawn to the difficulty of the budding sport.
She found a gym in New Jersey that was built specifically for ninja warrior training, replicating many of the show's obstacles. She made the nine-hour drive, and within a day had bested two of the most daunting obstacles, the salmon ladder and the warped wall, which co-owner Chris Wilczewski had never seen a woman do. She was hooked. Warnky convinced the owners of Vertical Adventures, where she'd just started her own personal training business, to help her build obstacles and host ninja warrior events at their gym on the north side of Columbus.
Meanwhile, she made an audition tape and was accepted to compete on ANW. Her breakthrough moment happened on the show's second season, in 2014. She became a star in just over three minutes, running through the St. Louis qualifier and hitting the buzzer at the end, jubilantly dancing alone on top of the warped wall. She was part of a watershed season for women, becoming just the second to complete a city qualifier course.
In August 2015, she partnered with Chris and Brian Wilczewski to open Movement Lab Ohio in the Polaris area, based on the brothers' New Jersey gym. They currently teach classes for ages 5 and up, training parkour, specific obstacle skills and general conditioning. Movement Lab is also a qualifying site for the National Ninja League, a months-long series of competitions among affiliated gyms across the country.
She continued to appear on subsequent ANW seasons, competing in four city qualifiers and three city finals while reaching Vegas as a wild card four times. But for all her success, Warnky frequently talks about failure. It comes with the territory for a sport in which almost no one reaches the finish line-only two men in ANW's history have hit the buzzer atop the final course of Mount Midoriyama. Everyone else has fallen, and those letdowns are broadcast for the American public.
"Just like any sport, you're constantly being judged. You're constantly being evaluated," Warnky says. "So you have to have a balance of using that to push you, but not letting that get you down. … It's not easy to have your failures displayed for everyone to see."
The 32-year-old hopes to make another ANW run in 2017, and she's returning for the second season of the Esquire Network's Team Ninja Warrior spinoff, which features relay teams speeding through identical courses side by side. What was once just a chance to prove herself has spawned an entire ninja warrior career-a gym and fitness training program, a spot in a nationwide, grassroots league and regular appearances on two TV show competitions. Through it all, though, the motivation remains the same.
"Ninja warrior is a very, very humbling sport," Warnky says. "All of us who do it, I think, really like a challenge."Ben Meer, ironman triathlete
Favorite outdoor training spot
Running around his Grandview neighborhood; taking the bike path toward Campus
Advice for new triathletes
Get a training buddy, someone to hold you accountable. There are a lot of good people in Columbus involved with triathlons, and they're happy to help. Train around positive people who will push you to keep your commitment, who won't let you quit or fail.
Somewhere around mile 90, Dr. Ben Meer realized he had a problem. Well, two problems. First, both his bike tires were flat. Second, they'd deflated in the midst of a lava field, so while he worked to fix the tires, he baked under the Hawaiian sun. There was no shade, no place to hide. It took him only 15 minutes to hop back in the saddle, but by then it was too late-he felt like his body was on fire. He made it 20-some miles to the town where the Ironman competitors were set to make the next transition, and then he had a decision to make: Do I start the marathon now?
A marathon is an ambitious undertaking for most people, but for Ironman competitors, it's merely the last leg of a grueling three-part race that typically takes well over eight hours to complete, even for the sport's best. To attain that elite level of fitness requires a significant time commitment, a lifestyle of devotion, says Meer, a Pickerington dentist and Grandview resident. He works out every day, and during the most intense training cycle for a full Ironman race, he runs 50-60 miles, rides 10-12 hours and swims between 10,000 and 15,000 meters each week.
He started competing in triathlons in earnest in 2009, and he's run between 20 and 30 of varying distances since then. His favorite is the half-Ironman, but he's also completed five full Ironman races. He likes the half because he can race hard, and it only takes him a little over four hours. He's sore afterward, but he's done by noon and home early in the day. He discusses it casually; this is just a thing he does. It's normal. Some people tend to their gardens, or they go bowling, or they watch every episode of CSI: New Orleans. He swims and runs and bikes himself nearly into oblivion before lunch.
This past July he competed in the Ohio half-Ironman in Delaware, finishing third overall. It was a nice warmup for the Ironman in Hawaii, that land of the lava fields. The Kailua-Kona Ironman is the most prestigious triathlon on the planet, the world championships where the best in the sport come to compete. He has qualified for Kona five times and competed there three times. Some outings were better than others.
In October, after fixing the two flats, he ultimately decided to run the marathon. Kona is too iconic to just give up. Even after he overheated to the extent that he started to feel cold in the 90-degree heat, he still finished, in 11:30:24, his worst result ever. But it was just bad luck; nothing he could do about blown tires in a lava field. He could dwell on it, he says, rue his wasted time and tell himself it was terrible, but in the end he learned a lot about himself, his training and how his body reacts.
And for Meer, that's the appeal-the painstaking difficulty of aligning everything to complete a successful race in a sport so brutal, so demanding. It requires proper nutrition, strategic training and perfect race-day execution: achieving his target time on the swim, hitting his numbers on the bike, pacing himself, getting enough fluids and calories to run his best. "It's really hard to have a good day," he says, later quoting a friend who claims that Ironman racing is "one big math problem." Among triathletes, it's all about The Process; finishing position isn't Meer's main focus.
But he's had many good days; he placed seventh overall in the 2015 Louisville Ironman. At Kona in 2013 he put up a personal best of 9:23:04 (more than seven minutes faster than Louisville), which was good for 173rd in a field of 2,134 of the best triathletes on the planet.
Regardless of whether the goal is to finish first or just to finish, if it's a good day or a bad one, it's always an enormous challenge, and it all weighs heavy on the individual and his commitment.
"When you're out there racing, there's really nothing to hide behind. You can't blame a referee, you can't blame a different player, you can't blame anything," Meer says. "It's you, and you've got to kind of account for that." He pauses, then he laughs. "My favorite part's probably being done."Joseph Torchia, parkour pioneer
Favorite outdoor training spot
Olentangy Trail; hiking through Metro Parks
Advice for parkour newcomers
Come to a class. Now there are gyms, coaches and online resources for learning more. Parkour is especially appealing for fans of American Ninja Warrior and obstacle course races, or those who want to be active but don't enjoy traditional sports.
It's rare to find training so new and unique that coaches don't exist yet, but such was the case for Joseph Torchia when he first discovered parkour. As a freshman at Ohio State University, he was mesmerized by an online video that featured a young man running and jumping acrobatically across a cityscape. Soon he found other videos, which led him to a parkour website. But there was no training to speak of, nothing to guide him on how to practice it himself.
Torchia grew up playing traditional sports: tennis, hockey, rowing. But he was immediately enthralled by parkour. It has familiar features-like elements of gymnastics and a combination of agility, physicality and the mindfulness promoted in martial arts and yoga-but it's also entirely different. In parkour, traceurs overcome the obstacles of the natural and architectural world, from crossing a creek to scaling the edifice of a building, as if it was all a jungle gym created just for them. Torchia was attracted by the raw athleticism and the lack of structure, which allowed him to improvise and be creative with his movements.
He eventually watched the documentary "Jump Westminster" about the first parkour classes in the world, run by a group called Parkour Generations in England. The documentary attributed a drop in crime and antisocial behavior to the introduction of parkour to Westminster's youth. As a political science major who was also interested in fitness, Torchia thought it was an ideal way to mesh his social and physical aims. He tried to start a college club, but it was shut down before it got traction because there was no coaching certification, no insurance, no governing body.
So Torchia set out to create it.
"We organized the first parkour coaching certification in the Western Hemisphere," he says. Eventually his training took him to France "to learn from the founders because there was no organization of any kind really for parkour training or teaching."
Torchia reached out to the people in Parkour Generations and brought them to the U.S., along with the discipline's founders, to host some of the first workshops in the world. Many of the trainers now teaching around the country were first introduced to the founders here in Columbus, he says. They worked to set precedent and to take a fringe discipline from the Parisian suburbs to the world at large.
At the same time, Torchia was practicing parkour himself, finding that it pushed him to the edge of his abilities, stretching his limits physically and mentally. He began holding classes outdoors, eventually moving into community centers around Columbus. Parkour teaches many essential skills for obstacle courses, mud runs and American Ninja Warrior, and as those events grew more popular, so did his classes. Torchia opened Parkour Horizons in Worthington in March 2015.
The gym offers a variety of modular obstacles so that instructors can create different environments every week, focusing each one on new themes and patterns of movement. Although parkour isn't a competitive sport by nature, the gym recently held its first competition as a way to appeal to those who are drawn to obstacle course races. The event included a skills competition, a ninja warrior-style challenge and a speed course that utilized elements of flow-a term for stringing together movements to overcome a series of obstacles.
Parkour can now be found across the pop culture spectrum-in viral YouTube videos, commercials, video games like Minecraft and movies like "Brick Mansions," starring David Belle, one of parkour's founders. Its rise to prominence helped spread the discipline, but that shift has made it less accessible for some. What was once a practice for mastering your body's movements is often depicted as a gravity-defying, acrobatic spectacle, making it intimidating to the average person. It doesn't have to be like that, Torchia says; it's just about building the skills, strength and confidence to overcome obstacles.
"There's always moments in parkour where you're kind of pushing the edge of your movement ability," Torchia says. "Coming directly in contact with your own limits physically and mentally and then overcoming them, it really builds a good mental model for self-confidence, for the sense of autonomy and empowerment."Shellie Edington, CrossFit champion
Favorite outdoor training spot
The obstacle course and running paths at Scioto Audubon Metro Park, which is adjacent to Fit Club
Advice for CrossFit newcomers
Give it a try and don't be afraid. If you're scared, go anyway. Don't be intimidated by the CrossFit athletes you see on TV-those are the best in their sport in the prime of their athletic prowess. "Remember CrossFit is just exercise," she says. "It's heavily modifiable and scalable. You can do it-anyone can do it."
Shellie Edington remembers two things from the beginning: the pain and the message. First came the pain. She walked into a CrossFit gym, or box as it's known among disciples, in 2010 at 46 years of age, a former competitive gymnast who'd devoted the past decade to her family and her business. Edington's initial workout at Fit Club in the Brewery District ended with her on the floor in a puddle of sweat, humbled by her loss of strength-she could barely run or do burpees, and pushups and pullups were out of the question. She was still shaking and struggling to recover an hour later.
"The thought of going back was just terrifying, and that made me very angry, that I was afraid to go back to a gym," Edington says. "And I said, 'Well you're going back because you're scared to go back.'"
When she returned to Fit Club, she noticed a message scrawled onto a whiteboard. You are here, it read. Now get better. Curiosity initially brought her into the gym-the box's CrossFit for Kids program resembled the sports-readiness training offered by her business, Tumblin4Kids-but Edington's first CrossFit workout inspired an epiphany: She needed to get back in shape to continue coaching children. The message was a catalyst.
She began training regularly, pushing herself through the pain. Fit Club owner Mitch Potterf prodded her to participate in the 2011 CrossFit Open, the online qualification period that marked the beginning of the annual CrossFit Games season. Though only an exercise platform at first, CrossFit spawned a competition, beginning in 2007, in which athletes vie for the self-styled title of the "fittest on earth" through a wide range of workouts. Participants worldwide can submit videos of themselves completing standardized regimens as part of the Open, and the workouts are scored and ranked. The top finishers after five weeks of routines are eligible to proceed to live regional competitions, and the best of those continue on to the CrossFit Games championship event in July.
Edington agreed to compete in the Open, placing 70th in the world in her masters-level age bracket. She wasn't thrilled, but Potterf and her coaches encouraged her to continue. The competitive lure of the Games kept her engaged, compelled her to finish the exhausting workouts, and she was grateful that CrossFit would let "an old person" like her participate. In 2013, at the age of 48, she finished 19th at the Games. She made the podium in 2014, finishing third overall, and ranked first in the 2015 Open before slipping to fifth in the finals. She was dejected; she thought she'd glide to a win. She hired a sports psychologist this past year to quiet her anxiety.
"It helped tremendously because I just had to learn how to win the war between my ears," Edington says. "I had everything going on physically that I needed to do-I was strong enough, I was fast enough, I could do all the skills consistently enough to place well."
She did more than place. At 51 years old, she stormed through the 2016 Games and finished on top of the podium for her age group, a world champion who couldn't do so much as a pushup during her first CrossFit workout six years earlier. Her victory represents an evolution of ability beyond just her own. "What they expected of us in 2010 compared to what they're expecting of us now in 2017 coming up is light years apart from each other," Edington says. "We're doing things that they said masters could never do."
As she prepares to defend her title in 2017, she's reflecting on her prior disappointments more than her recent success. The feeling of those losses motivates her-it's about embracing the chip on her shoulder, she says. Edington still remembers that message on the whiteboard when she could do so little. You are here. She has ascended to the top, but the next step is still the same: Now get better.Rogues and Champions
CrossFit has flourished nationwide, and Columbus has opened its arms to the wildly popular regimen.
On about 30 acres of long-vacant land, a massive warehouse-style building has materialized from a former industrial brownfield in the Milo-Grogan neighborhood just north of Downtown. Rogue Fitness has planted an enormous flag in this dirt, as the company's quick ascension to fitness industry leader has mirrored that of the CrossFit phenomenon.
In the early days, CrossFit founder Greg Glassman struggled to find a home for his unorthodox training style, getting kicked out of gym after gym before striking out on his own in Santa Cruz, California. Rogue had similarly humble origins. Founded in 2006 in Toledo by Bill Henniger, it began as a garage gym and e-commerce fitness equipment company. It moved to Gahanna not long thereafter and began manufacturing some of its own equipment, much of it specific to CrossFit workouts. Rogue quickly found its niche, becoming the official equipment supplier of the CrossFit Games and its regional qualifiers. In 2011, CrossFit hit its tipping point.
"What really made it explode was Reebok getting involved and televising the Games [in 2011]," says Brandon Couden, who purchased Rogue's Gahanna affiliate with Graham Holmberg in 2009 after the company moved to a larger facility. Now, 16 years after its official founding, CrossFit has more than 4 million enthusiasts in 13,000 independently owned gyms, known as boxes, according to a 2016 article on CNBC.com. The increasing popularity of the regimen-turned-sport spurred more growth for Rogue, which shipped 2 million pounds of equipment (about 50 semi-trailer truckloads) to Carson, California, for the 2016 Games, says Henniger via email.
As Rogue continued to grow, the company sought out a location to consolidate its three existing facilities, eventually settling on the Milo-Grogan site of the former Timken plant, which once employed thousands of people but closed in 2001. The new headquarters is a 600,000-square-foot building that includes administrative office space, manufacturing and distribution.
"The Timken site represents the old-school manufacturing feel that we were looking for," Henniger says. "We wanted to be in the city versus moving to the outskirts. This will allow people to live in the surrounding neighborhoods and simply walk or bike to work." Rogue's distribution is already operating there, with the goal of opening the headquarters and retail components by March.
Columbus' leadership was excited to retain Rogue, says Quinten Harris, the city's deputy director of jobs and economic development, and they hope the company will contribute to the area's revitalization. "Milo-Grogan was a neighborhood that was on the rebound," he says.
Neighborhood residents were divided, though, with some wanting the land to be used for a variety of non-industrial purposes. As part of the deal for the Rogue purchase, which included city income-tax and property-tax abatements, the company promised to create 90 new jobs. It has hired 150 since the project began, Henniger says-some of whom have come from the surrounding neighborhood, according to the city-and Rogue is in the process of hiring 100 more.
Meanwhile, the CrossFit community in Columbus has grown alongside Rogue and now boasts three champions of the Games. Former Ohio State University basketball star Caity Matter (who later married Henniger) won in 2008; Holmberg took the title two years later; and Shellie Edington became the third in 2016.
Couden says Holmberg's victory attracted attention to their gym from some hardcore enthusiasts, but popularity really spiked when the Games hit the airwaves. Columbus had five or six CrossFit-affiliated gyms at the time, he says, and seemingly overnight the number ballooned to about 30. He and Holmberg eventually left the Gahanna box to open CrossFit Grandview in 2012, and then Holmberg split off to start his own Hilliard affiliate, Eleventh Element, about a year later. Couden estimates the current number of CrossFit boxes in the Columbus area is approaching 40. He's done his share of traveling-he's been to the Games once and regionals three times-and has friends at affiliates around the country; Columbus has embraced CrossFit like few others.
"Outside of LA," Couden says, "I've never seen anything like it."