When Utah runner Hobie Call received an e-mail from a friend telling him to check out a series called Spartan Races, he clicked on the link to the races, saw an image of a mud-spattered girl crawling under barbed wire, and almost immediately brushed it off as "not his style." Then he noticed that organizers were offering $100,000 to anyone who could win all 14 races in a year, including the grueling multi-day Death Race. The competitions involve a variety of challenges: 3-to-12-mile runs, wood chopping, boulder moving, river swims, and even board games and puzzles.
“Any weekend warrior can sign up, but it takes an extraordinary individual with unshakable discipline to actually win such a demanding event,” says competitor Alec Blenis. “The races are designed to mentally and physically break even the strongest of athletes.”
Call showed up to the start of the first race and announced that he was going to win all 14 events and take home $100,000. Roughly 57 minutes later, he crossed the finish line first.
When he won five more races, people started paying attention. He appeared in numerous national articles, including a piece on the cover of the Wall Street Journal. Race organizers were terrified Call would accomplish the goal—they never thought anyone would even take up such a challenge. Word spread that they'd tried to recruit an ex–Navy SEAL to race and beat Call. In the end, after 30-some hours in the Death Race, Call dropped out because of near hypothermia from the water obstacles.
Losing the Death Race put him of out of the running for the $100,000, but Call is continuing with the grueling races anyway. I caught up with him to find out why.
What did you think of the first race?
Well, the first race [an eight-mile obstacle course] was way more fun than I expected. I felt like a kid again—crawling under and jumping over things, running through water. And then I was in my final sprint, pushing toward the finish, and I heard these little voices calling me, “Hey, wait! You have to solve the Rubik’s Cube!” I was like, What? And so I had to run back and solve one side, and then go back to sprinting. At first I thought it was stupid, but now I think it is genius.
So the races are fun, but they are also torturous, and most don’t include prize money.
Now that I’ve lost a couple, I just want to win the rest. Being punished has never stopped me from doing anything. There’s always a bump in the road, but you can’t quit. And just in case the future doesn't work out and I retire this year, I'm going to make sure I make the most of it. Besides, the tougher it is, the more fun I have; I really am having the time of my life. The final race of the year has a $20,000 prize, so if I have a good day there I should come away with something.
Some people speculated that the race organizers engineered the Death Race against your strengths—that they openly recruited someone to beat you.
People were saying that, but I don’t think so. The cold got to me. All of the water and coldness that was part of the race definitely didn’t favor skinny guys like me. But I don’t think they did it on purpose, no. I think he [race owner Joe DeSena] is relieved he doesn’t have to pay, but he’d have been happy if I won it all, too.
You install air-conditioning full-time and have five kids and no sponsorships. How are you staying motivated to train and race?
Even though I lost the Death Race, there’s still so much fan support, and people still want to see me race. That’s something I didn’t expect. If nobody cared, it’d be hard to stay motivated. Sometimes I come home and there is a check in the mail, for $10, or a $100, to help with expenses. A businessman, Rob Eberle in Boston, liked my story and has helped me out a lot. He just wanted to be able to show his clients and employees that he's helping me out and that he wants his company to live by the motto that they will do anything to be the best—like how I have to be able to do anything to win these races. He asked me what it would take to be able to continue racing and then agreed to sponsor me for five races. Even the race organizers are helping me get to races now, too.
I’m not going to quit my job or anything, but I am getting by now, and it is easy to get to the events. My boss has been really good about giving me days off that I need, but we are so busy. If I don’t need them off, I don’t take them. But it would have been nice at the last race to have another day or two and not show up on the East Coast at 9:15 p.m. the night before the race—that’s not great if you want to do your best.
Where does training fit in to all this?
To train I used to get up at 3:30 a.m. before work, but this whole year I have been training after work. It’s tough. My workouts are quite epic. Ninety percent of people I know can’t even do my warm-up. I do interval running with a weight vest, and a lot of lunges. Then I do upper body workouts. And my kids were really supportive, until we sold our TV to buy a plane ticket to the third Spartan Race. Then they were a little less supportive. But then Joe DeSana said if I lost the Death Race, he’d buy us a new TV. So he bought us a 55-inch one to replace our 27-inch one.
What’s the next step for you?
I might do the Spartan Races next year. I’m trying to get them to do the $100,000 challenge again, but I think they are just going to offer prize money at each. I’m not sure. I do have a marathon project I want to do, though.
You're going to run a bunch of marathons?
Not exactly. My goal is to break two hours in the marathon.
(The world record is 2:03:59.)
I was on track to run a 2:13 marathon a year ago, but then I got injured. My best time so far was 2:16 a couple years ago. That was all while working full time. So I think I can do it. I just need the opportunity. What I hope for is financial support so I can work out full time. Technically, it's so I can properly rest between workouts. I can break two hours. I have the knowledge. I have the discipline. I have the right attitude. All I need is the opportunity to train full time for one and a half to two years. Eighty thousand dollars is nothing. Countries and organizations have spent millions trying to accomplish what I can do for mere pocket change. Maybe that's why I keep running all of the races: in the hope that someone will believe in me.
(In case you wanted to know more about Call—like we did after he answered that last question—here you go: Call holds the Guinness World Recordsfor fastest mile of lunges, which he then repeated wearing a 40 pound weight vest, although Guinness didn’t accept that record. He also qualified for the 2008 Olympic trials in distance running and set the course record at the 2007 Top of Utah Marathon with a time of 2:16:38.)