To celebrate women in sports this month, we sat down with one of the biggest names in endurance racing: Amelia Boone.
In the 6 years since obstacle course racing exploded onto the endurance scene, Amelia has racked up an impressive 30+ victories and 50+ podiums, including the title of Spartan Race World Champion and World’s Toughest Mudder Champion three times over.
She fractured her femur in 2016, but she’s not sitting out. We talked about how she got her start in obstacle course racing, what’s next on her calendar, and how she keeps moving forward.
Q: You started obstacle course racing just 6 years ago. Were you always into running and fitness? What made you decide to try OCR?
I was never into running. I grew up playing team sports – soccer, softball, basketball – and I was pretty good, but I never had any ambition of playing beyond high school. Going through college and law school, I would stay in shape or go out for a run to relieve stress, but I never had an inkling to compete.
After I graduated and started working at a law firm in Chicago, I had a coworker convince me to try an obstacle race with them. We went, and I just fell in love with the sport and began to sign up for more and more obstacle course races.
Q: What made you really get addicted?
It’s funny, because I always thought running races would be boring. But what really attracted me to obstacle course racing was that every course was different, and the running was broken up. You might be doing a 10-mile course, but the longest you’re running at a single time is maybe a mile. It’s always broken up by something different, and it’s challenging beyond just your legs and your lungs. You need to be strong, you need to have some skill, and it’s always a puzzle trying to figure out how to train for and conquer these obstacles.
Q: What is your favorite (and least favorite) obstacle?
I absolutely love heavy carries. Spartan Race makes you carry a bucket of rocks up a mountain, for instance. Most people hate this one – it’s hard, it’s long, it’s heavy… and all you want to do is set the bucket down. But I just love that pure grit and that grind.
My least favorite is the spear throw! You basically just toss a spear into a bale of hay, but I’m really bad at it, just notoriously awful. I’m better than I was, but I’ve always lived in cities where I don’t have a place to set up a spear practice. It’s very much a skill obstacle and it’s actually cost me a fair number of wins in my career.
Q: You’re now pursuing ultrarunning in addition to obstacle course racing. What advice do you have for someone who is starting a new sport or transitioning from one to the other?
The most important thing is to go in with no expectations. A lot of runners start obstacle course racing and think they’re going to crush it because they’re fast. But they get discouraged because they start failing obstacles; you think, “Why in the world can’t I get across monkey bars?!” and many walk away from the sport. The truth is it’s a very steep learning curve. I failed so many obstacles in my first race! It requires technique and strength and if you stick with it, you will learn.
So understand that you’re probably going to suck your first time around. It’s definitely a good idea to go out with friends the first time around and have it be more a pressure-free environment. If you’re not competing to win, a lot of the obstacles can be done with help from others, and it can be a very fun, social activity.
Q: How has your training changed in the transition to ultrarunning?
I’m still figuring out the balance, but I think that’s part of the fun. I’ve definitely ramped up my mileage because you can fake your way through a 10-mile course, but you can’t fake your way through 50 miles or 100k. So you have to spend time getting comfortable with the distance while realizing you can’t neglect the strength aspects of other sports, and the rest of your body.
Q: Between ultrarunning and obstacle course racing, you seem to enjoy the more ‘extreme’ races. Are there any you would just say ‘hell no!’ to?
Not as long as it’s running on my own two feet! Everyone tells me I should get into the Ironman and things like that, but I have an aversion to being on wheels. I’m not a biker; I don’t like being on bikes. But name me a running race and I’m there – desert, Antarctica, wherever!
Q: You’re also a full-time lawyer. How do you balance training with the demands of your personal and work life?
I don’t sugarcoat it; it’s not always a perfect fit and it does require sacrifice. The key is to find a time where your training will be uninterrupted. For me, that’s really early in the morning. I get up at 4 in the morning because that’s when nobody will need me; if I wait until the evening, there’s a possibility that something will come up or I’ll still be at work. I block a lot of my training for the weekends, too, when I won’t have as many commitments. Other people use their lunch hour; it’s really about finding the rhythm that works for you.
Q: We’re celebrating women in sports this month and you’ve won more obstacle course races than any other woman and beat a lot of men, too. What’s been your experience competing in a male-dominated sport?
When I first started racing, it wasn’t really something that made a difference to me. But now I don’t compare myself to other women. I love being able to measure myself against everyone – I’m not content to just be the top of my gender; I want to see how I place overall, if I can make the top 10 overall. That’s most meaningful to me, especially considering that as the races get longer, the gaps between the men and women get smaller. We’ve seen this wave over the past few years of emphasizing strength and function in women, and that’s really what obstacle course racing is all about: you have to be a strong, useful human being to lift heavy things and carry your own body weight, and I think the sport can be really powerful for women in that way.
Q: How do you feel about being referred to as a ‘female athlete’ versus an ‘athlete’?
Honestly, I’m conflicted. There’s this term of “getting chicked”, which has always had this derogatory connotation. In obstacle courses, the women start 15 minutes behind the men. When the top women would start to catch up, guys would be semi-rude about it because they didn’t want you to pass them. It’s gotten better as they’ve started to realize that more and more women are going to pass them, so in a weird way, it can be a term of empowerment. But, at the same time, I also think it emphasizes the divide between the genders. I think at some point we need to stop thinking about female athletes versus male athletes and just think of all of us as athletes. I don’t know if we’re there yet, but I hope we get there.
Q: What’s been your reception in the media?
It’s been really positive. I’ve actually been very flattered by the attention since it’s not something I ever expected to become a second career; it was really just for shits and giggles when I started. It’s really something I embrace, though there are so many female athletes out there doing the same thing as me. It would be great to see more features about those athletes because I think the more we can get this in the public eye, the more it encourages other women to get out there as well.
Q: You’re 33 and already have many accomplishments to your name. What’s next? On your bucket list?
I was injured in 2016 and was out all last season, so 2017 is really going to be a year for me to reconnect with the sport. It’s scary and daunting – I’ve never been out of a sport for an entire year – but I plan to be back racing Spartan Races, doing other obstacle courses, and eventually moving into some ultras as my mileage increases.
When it comes to my bucket list, the problem is that there are so many races and I want to do them all! I was supposed to do Western States last spring but couldn’t due to my injury, so I would love to eventually try to re-qualify and get back into that. I think my ultimate bucket list item would be to one day take on the Barkley Marathons. They’ve never had a female finisher and, while I don’t think I could be the first, I would love to have the opportunity to try and fail miserably.
Q: Finally, what advice do you have for other athletes who are recovering from an injury?
If you think you’re coming back slow, come back slower. Your mental and cardiovascular system is going to recover way faster than your bones and your muscles; you have to realize that you’re going to have to alter your training and respect that. The hardest part of coming back is honestly the mental challenge. I try to think of recovery not as getting back to where I was, but recreating a new athlete. That mental shift is really important. You have to celebrate the little victories; if you haven’t run in 6 months, running a mile can feel like the greatest thing in the world! Forget that you used to run 100 miles and be happy about that one mile that’s pain-free. Looking at those little milestones whenever you get frustrated is so important!
If you think you’re coming back slow, come back slower.