The Spartan Race is a circuit of grueling obstacle courses that includes slithering under barbed wire, running through flames, carrying buckets of water and throwing spears. Nobody does it better than Hobie Call. WSJ's Reed Albergotti reports.
The "Death Race," a 24-hour obstacle-course competition that begins Saturday in Vermont, is advertised as so difficult it "will make giving birth seem like a walk in the park." Typically, fewer than a quarter of participants are able to finish.
This year's 200 competitors include accomplished triathletes, military special forces and a person who has been called the "world's fittest man."
The race's organizers, though, are focused on Hobie Call, a 34-year-old father of five who installs air conditioning for a living.
When Mr. Call learned that owners of a series of obstacle-course races were offering a $100,000 prize to anyone who can win 14 of them in the U.S. this year, he announced he was going to pull off a sweep. "I didn't believe him," says Joe De Sena, co-founder of the Death Race. "There just are not that many people who have that "
Details of the 24-hour-plus obstacle-course competitions are kept secret so participants can't train specifically for them.
But so far, Mr. Call has won six in a row. Now, the race owners are intent on stopping him, saying that if he wins Saturday's Death Race, they'll give $20,000 to anyone who can beat him in the future.
The Death Race is part of a circuit of obstacle-course competitions in the U.S., Canada and the U.K. known as "Spartan Races." They are as frustrating as they are physically grueling.
Organizers force racers to do just about anything, including crawl through muddy troughs covered in barbed wire, jump through flames, solve puzzles, chop wood, carry water and learn Greek. It also helps to be very fast. The Death Race, the longest of the Spartan races, usually covers 45 miles. It lasts at least 24 hours, but has gone on for as long as 72. (Participants won't know exactly how long until it's over; they are given instructions during the race.)
"It emulates life," says Mr. De Sena. "Everything that can go wrong, will go wrong."
In February, Mr. Call left the suburbs of Salt Lake City in a 10-year-old Dodge Caravan and drove 11 hours to Temecula, Calif., to compete in his first Spartan Race. Mr. Call, who has the fastest known time for lunging a mile (24:56) and has run marathons, thought it would make for a fun vacation. He packed his own food and slept in his car. The next day, he blew away his competition in a race that involved climbing a slippery wall, running through flames and solving one side of a Rubik's Cube.
Since then, Mr. Call has gone to extraordinary lengths to win six Spartan Races in a row. He sold his TV, he says, to buy a plane ticket to a race in Austin. Thanks to a cult following, fans and competitors have helped cover some expenses and offered up their hotel rooms so he doesn't have to sleep in his car.
Race organizers are looking for someone to defeat him. Mr. De Sena, an institutional trader, says he invested his life savings in the series and will have to pay $100,000 out of his own pocket if Mr. Call reaches the goal. "We were told we should get insurance," he says. "We laughed and said no one could do this."
Spartan Race staffer Jason Rita has been charged with finding the perfect athlete to beat Mr. Call. He has asked everyone from mixed martial-arts studios to the Navy SEALs to send someone. All have declined. In one race, Mr. Call nearly lost when he was asked to drag bricks using a rope. A competitor caught up to him, but Mr. Call out-sprinted him to the finish.
Mr. Call looks nothing like the hulking Spartans in the Hollywood film "300." He has the stature of a distance runner, wears glasses and has a quick smile. "I don't have that rough look, but when it comes time for the race, I have that rough mentality," he says.
He says runners don't have the upper-body strength to beat him and the buff guys are too slow. "It's my combination of strength and speed," he says. "Good luck finding somebody."
The Death Race began in 2004 with fewer than a dozen competitors. It grew in popularity and last year, Mr. De Sena expanded it into a series of events called Spartan races. This year, there are 30 Spartan races scheduled in the U.S., Canada and the U.K. Organizers say the vast majority of competitors—who pay a fee to enter—just want to finish.
The Spartan series is one player in a fast-growing industry of obstacle-course events, billed as grittier alternatives to triathlons and marathons. Other companies putting on similar events include Muddy Buddy. Warrior Dash and Tough Mudder.
The obstacle-race industry is "one of the fastest-growing things that the running industry has seen for some time," says Mark Sullivan, editor of Running Insight, a trade magazine.
Because he doesn't know exactly what the race will involve, Mr. Call has been training by running around his neighborhood, wearing a 30-pound vest and repeatedly tossing a 30-pound stone. Occasionally, he has thrown the stone down a ravine and chased after it.
"He's training exactly how I would train," says Mr. De Sena. "He's obviously smart, which you need to be for this event."
If Mr. Call wins the Death Race, organizers hope the $20,000 bounty will draw enough top-caliber athletes to defeat him. Mr. De Sena thinks team-sport athletes are too pampered and would be among the first to drop out of the Death Race when a frustrating obstacle is put in their way.
"When I think of a real athlete, I think of the gladiator in the Coliseum," he says. "You have to deal with the unknown. You have a couple of lions coming at you. The ref is certainly not in your corner. He's looking for the lion to eat you."
A great Article by Wall St...