Weekend Warriors: Obstacle-Course Racing's Unlikely Star

Amelia Boone is arguably the most successful obstacle-course racer in history. Reebok Spartan Race

If you live in a high-rise in downtown Chicago, there simply aren't many places to practice throwing a spear.

At least, there aren't many places that won't attract police attention. "I actually had to speak to the cops once," says Amelia Boone, a two-time World's Toughest Mudder champion and Spartan Race world champion. The police shut down her spear-throwing practice in the park, so she hauled a hay bale down to a secluded spot by Soldier Field, where the train tracks come in -- and where, presumably, no one would notice. And early in the morning, before she had to clock in as a corporate bankruptcy attorney at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, she would practice throwing a long, sharpened stick into that hay bale.

The slight 31-year-old has won the women's competition in nearly every obstacle-course race she's entered -- and beaten most of the men, too. Along the way, she's become obstacle racing's first and arguably its biggest star, signing autographs for young fans and garnering a sizable contract with Reebok.

Yet there's nothing about her that would hint at this kind of physical dominance or this capacity for suffering. When she did her first Tough Mudder with co-workers, in 2011, Boone couldn't even do a single pull-up.

Around the country, in empty fields, on farms and in former dirt-bike parks, obstacle-course races are held nearly every weekend. Spartan Race and Tough Mudder are the biggest, but there are many, many others, with names like Atlas Race, Warrior Dash, BattleFrog and Muddy Buddies. There are dozens of companies getting into the obstacle-course and mud run business -- it's perhaps the fastest growing individual sport in the country, and it's not even really sure it's a sport yet.

"Some people have estimated that more than 4 million people participated in obstacle-course racing last year. If you want to put that in perspective, in 2013, which is the last year Running USA had stats for running races, about a half million people did a marathon and 2 million people did a half-marathon," says Erin Beresini, author of "Off Course: Inside the Mad, Muddy World of Obstacle Course Racing." "So obstacle-course racing, in the course of five years [since the Spartan Race and Tough Mudder were founded], grew bigger than marathons and half-marathons combined."

Obstacle-course races are, generally, run on trails of varying lengths with an indeterminate number of obstacles to conquer along the way: climbing ropes, hauling rocks, throwing spears, scrambling under barbed wire and sometimes, in the more masochistic races, getting electroshocked and plunging into ice-filled water.

You rarely know exactly what you're up against until you get to it. That's supposed to be part of the fun.

The Spartan Race was started in 2010 (the same year as Tough Mudder), and its founder, Joe De Sena, wants obstacle-course racing to become a respected and legitimate sport. To this end, Spartan sponsors a professional team of 10 athletes who fly around the country racing in its events and competing for the world championship title. Today, Boone is one of those athletes.

But before all that, she simply agreed do an event with her co-workers. She'd always been athletic -- she grew up in Oregon playing soccer, softball and basketball, and once ran a half-marathon in a respectable though not mind-blowing time of 1:32:44. She figured she'd just do this Tough Mudder thing for fun, as a bonding activity with her co-workers.

But something about how hard that first one was -- and it was very hard -- spoke to Boone. She struggled to get over the high obstacles and pull herself up the weirdly shaped monkey bars. She didn't enjoy being electroshocked or cut by the barbed wire, but she did enjoy the accomplishment in the end.

Shortly after that first race, she received an email telling her she was eligible for Tough Mudder's new 24-hour World's Toughest Mudder race. The idea that she had qualified for something even harder and crazier was too much for Boone to pass up -- even if she had no idea what she was doing.

"I can't tell you what possessed me after doing one race to go ahead and sign up for this 24-hour event," she says. "Nothing in the world made me think I could do it. I didn't even pull all-nighters in law school."

That first World's Toughest Mudder, in 2011, turned out to be notoriously insane. The cold and wind created mass hypothermia. Almost all of the 1,000 racers dropped out, even those with serious credentials. Only two women were still going at the 24-hour mark. And Boone was one of them, though she was very nearly broken by the experience -- stumbling to the finish and relying on another racer for help when her legs or arms failed her during the race.

Boone has no explanation for why she managed to stick with it, offering only, "I was pretty bad at a lot of these obstacles in the beginning. I just survived better than others, I guess."

But she wasn't satisfied with simply finishing. She wasn't happy with walking when her feet and face were frozen or needing a boost to get over the tall walls. She wanted to be better, to see what she was capable of. So she actually started training.

She joined a CrossFit box nearby and started training every morning before work, determined to be strong enough the next time that her body wouldn't fail her.

Then she signed up for the Death Race, which De Sena also founded before he started the Spartan Race. The race is designed to push racers to their absolute limits: They often don't know when the race will start or how long it will last, and it includes things like chopping wood for six hours or memorizing Bible passages that competitors have to recite word for word after hauling logs up a mountain.

It is not the kind of thing you show up for on a whim, but somehow Boone won it in 2012, the first time she attempted it. Then she returned to the 24-hour World's Toughest Mudder.

"At the end of [the first 24-hour race], I felt like she'd probably do it again," says Carrie Adams, a friend who met Boone through the obstacle-racing community just as Boone was starting out, "but not seriously, not competitively. I never envisioned that she would come back and blow it out of the water."

But that's what she did. The next year, she didn't just win the women's race at the World's Toughest Mudder. She was second overall, including men and women.

And then in 2013 she won the Spartan Race world championship as well, and there was suddenly real money and real stardom on the line. Reebok signed her as a sponsored athlete. De Sena named her to his professional team. Soon she was making appearances outside of the obstacle-racing world, and was featured as the face of the sport in a CNBC documentary and on the cover of Runner's World.

Boone now has a schedule that starts at 4 a.m. each day with a run and a strength workout. She still does a lot of traditional CrossFit exercises, but skips heavy weights in favor of bodyweight moves. Though she's mostly stopped her illicit spear-throwing, she admits she's still terrifying the residents of downtown Chicago on some mornings with all-out sprints around the block and drills where she drags a weight behind her on the sidewalk. She's at work by 7:30 a.m. and, when she's there, she focuses solely on work.

Those same co-workers who did the first Tough Mudder with her have seen her on TV and magazine covers, but they don't talk about it much. It's just something she does. "You do your work and you have this strange hobby on weekends outside of work," she says. It's only when she has to go into a meeting with people who don't already know her, covered with bruises and scars, that it comes up.

She's out of the office 10 to 12 hours later, sometimes fits in a small evening workout, and then heads to bed to do it again.

Her success in the sport goes well beyond her physical capabilities, though. She has the capacity to suffer, and to take things long past when it'd probably be smart to quit. Combine that with the ability to focus - to dedicate herself completely to the task at hand without thinking about anything beyond - and it creates the perfect combination for obstacle-course racing.

That makes her sound extremely intense, which she is, and boring -- which she's not.

She's also funny and laid-back and taking this all in with the attitude of someone who's on a crazy ride that might be over soon. She's not going to give up her love of ketchup and Pop-Tarts and wine, but she did cry when she had to skip the 2014 Spartan world championships to get knee surgery instead.

She could have become a full-time professional obstacle-course racer. Others have, and she was the first athlete to sign a contract with Reebok. But she likes being a lawyer, too. And it wasn't about being a star or being a professional athlete. It was just something that Amelia Boone, the corporate bankruptcy attorney, did on the weekends to see how good she could be.

"I was worried if it became like, 'I have to go and win this race so I can pay rent next month,' then it wouldn't be fun anymore," she says.

Besides, soon she'll move on to something else. She's tried the CrossFit Open -- her official bio reads, "If this was obstacle course racing, I'd be better at it" -- and she's recently gotten into hilly ultra-running trail races. They sounded like a new challenge that she could pour herself 100 percent into. And they too sounded like fun.