‘It’s like walking through fire’ – the rise of competitive fitness
From log carrying to trail running, events such as Tribal Clash and CrossFit are growing fast. What’s the appeal of this hardcore approach to training?
You probably didn’t notice but at the end of this summer, on the sandy beach of Bantham near Kingsbury in South Devon, 960 men and women gathered for a gruesome battle. For an entire weekend this stretch of English coastline saw teams of furious humans dashing across hilly trails, hoisting atlas stones and lugging a 240kg sandworm, both in the blistering heat and torrential rain.
But this wasn’t a Viking re-enactment (too much compression gear for that) but an annual competitive fitness event called Tribal Clash, the appetite for which is almost as strong as the participants’ mettle. Since launching in 2013 Tribal Clash has almost doubled in size, from 100 teams of 4 to 160 teams of 6 and has begun holding a second annual event in Portugal now too.
It’s almost certainly inspired by the growth of CrossFit, the high-intensity, competitive strength and conditioning programme that’s captured the heart and lungs of hundreds of thousands of people around the world and in 2016 was reported to have 13,000 gyms in more than 120 countries (that’s more than the 12,500 or so Starbucks locations in the USA apparently).
Yet whilst CrossFit competitions like Battle of The Beasts and The CrossFit Games have become inundated with elite athletes and bodybuilders (as well as garnering huge prize money), these new-wave competitive events like Tribal Clash, Wild West Fitness, The Superhuman Throwdown and nationwide gym chain Fitness First’s own-brand competition, Fit Brit, remain all-inclusive and considerably less fiscally lucrative.
“There are no qualifying events or age divisions in Tribal Clash,” says one of the many event organisers, Heidi Clover. “Sure, you need a base level of fitness but some teams just enter for fun whilst for others this is like their Olympics – they train all year for it – but it’s great for beginners because there are no technical moves like Olympic weightlifting.”
“It hurts though,” she adds. “It’s hard, and we’re always looking for ways to enhance the athlete experience. This year we staged the biggest ever Stand-Up-Paddleboard race and we added a little twist to our trail run in the form of a 150m uphill sprint section where times were scored separately.”
Unsurprisingly people get injured doing these kind of events. Beginners are especially vulnerable because their bodies just aren’t conditioned for it, says former CrossFit coach Stretch Rayner, co-founder of remote Personal Training business, The Sustainable Training Method (https://www.thesustainabletrainingmethod.com/): “Connective tissue strength is critical for example and that can take 230 days to build! Muscle strength can take 90 days and for many athletes it takes years of hard work and dedication to reach a high level.”
But clearly the brutality of a weekend spent doing a vast range of physical activity under very competitive conditions isn’t a deterrant (more likely, an attraction). Spots in Tribal Clash are £110 per head not including accommodation and travel but are snapped up a year in advance within twenty-four hours of going on sale.
So what exactly is the appeal? 30-year-old Tribal Clash finisher, Magdalena Rotsztejn, who works as a Delivery Manager for a Technology firm, says: “For me competing means finding my limits and going beyond them. There are so many moments in an event when the adrenalin kicks in and I surprise myself with what I’m capable of. I feel independent, powerful, like I can achieve anything, and then that carries over in a positive way into the rest of my life.”
41-year-old Renata O’ Donnell works as operations manager for a small investment bank in Central London and has competed in Tribal Clash for the last two years. “I love that it takes the vanity out of fitness and gives it more purpose,” she says. “It’s helped me give my training more focus and stick to a healthy lifestyle, but more than that I love the team aspect because it’s about communicating and working together as a unit, because you’re only as strong as your weakest link.”
O Donnell also finds these events very inspirational, she adds, describing the final race, a log-carrying event, in 2016 at Tribal Clash in Blackpool Sands. “There was a team with a girl who had sprained her ankle and the task was to run around the arena with the log, go out into the sea and swim with it. All six members had to be involved and have their hands on the log at all times. Rather than drop out, this team put the injured girl on the log and ran the course with her on it. She was able to do the swimming part as it didn’t hurt her ankle. Yes, they came last but it was tough as nails and the most brilliant display of teamwork I’ve seen in a long time.”
Competitive fitness is inspirational, motivational and perhaps also educational, then? CrossFit Coach and competitor, 38-year-old Alexis Rufus, certainly thinks so (http://crossfitperpetua.com/). She was part of the winning team at The European Championships this year (previously known as CrossFit Box Battles) but insists that regardless of one’s competitive level, the personal discoveries are limitless: “Most people ask themselves the same questions when entering a fitness competition. Am I really good enough? Will there be lots of people watching and judging me? Will I mess up? Will it be too hard? But do you really know how your body works under pressure? Can you truly know what will take place? Physically I’ve found the competitions I’ve entered seriously tough, but the greatest challenge by far has been mental. Sometimes what I have to put myself through is like voluntarily walking through fire.”
So why do it?
“It’s simple,” says Rufus: “I love competing. I love testing what I am capable of doing and constantly pushing those limits. I actually enjoy walking through the fire and seeing what comes out the other side. Because if I didn’t try then I would never know and the only real failure is not trying.”
– By Lucy Fry
First appeared in The Guardian.