Crawling through mud under barbed wire. Swimming through semi-frozen trenches. Mastering 40-foot rope climbs. Running up ski slopes.
It’s another weekend of “fun” for Amelia R. Boone.
It’s a term she uses sarcastically, but she relishes every minute of obstacle course racing, a sport that involves running, mental challenges and impediments similar to military boot camp training.
“Every race is different,” she said. “The terrain is always different, the obstacles are different. Every race is a unique challenge, so it’s never boring.”
For a sport that has only been around for a few years, Boone — a 30-year-old Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP corporate restructuring attorney — is already one of obstacle racing’s superstars.
She has finished on the podium in every race she has run and taken the top prize in multiple world championships — including the 2012 World’s Toughest Mudder, 2012 Winter Death Race and 2013 Spartan Race World Championship.
The obsession with these events started with a Tough Mudder race — a 12-mile competition littered with obstacles — that she ran with other Skadden attorneys in July 2011.
The Skadden group had previously run a half marathon together and thought it would be fun to take on the 12-mile course in Wisconsin.
Boone played soccer, basketball and softball through high school, so she’s always been naturally athletic and competitive. And this new type of contest hooked her right away.
“I loved it,” she said. “They all had fun too, but for some reason, I was enthralled and wanted to keep doing more and more of them.”
Suffering trumps speed
Obstacle course races are marked by uncertainty — the order of the obstacles and terrain is always different.
For Boone, that makes the competition more fun than a road race where everyone knows every turn ahead of time. The races are also a stress release, allowing her to spend time in nature.
“It’s really just an opportunity to go out there and confront new challenges,” she said.
Boone does 10 to 15 small races each year, taking her to rural, often wooded, areas around the country. Those standard courses range from 5 to 15 miles and include 20 to 40 obstacles. Along the way, racers swing themselves over vertical walls, climb ropes, flip large tires, swim and take on other challenges.
But it’s the big endurance races that have defined Boone.
Unlike road races where runners compete for the fastest time, the World’s Toughest Mudder has athletes doing the same course repeatedly over a 24-hour period. The winner is the person who completes the most laps.
Racers each get a tent they can use to grab a change of clothes, food and maybe even a little rest.
“But if you want to win, you can’t sleep,” Boone said.
In the inaugural World’s Toughest Mudder in 2011, Boone was one of only two women to finish the race. In 2012, she did 90 miles — nine laps of a 10-mile course — to become the top female finisher and second overall.
The winter and summer versions of the Death Race, meanwhile, can last from 36 to 72 hours and involve hiking mountains, carrying heavy objects and mental tasks. Participants are given a “gear list” of items to bring, including a small ax or a handsaw for wood-chopping or cutting challenges.
Mountain courses are her favorite. Originally from Portland, Ore., she knows that terrain well from trail running and hiking while she was growing up.
But training for races in the flat urban environment of Chicago can be tough at times. Some of the highest inclines in the city are parking garage ramps — so she runs them wearing weight vests or a backpack with large rocks or bricks.
Boone excels at climbing obstacles (monkey bars and ropes) and strength-based obstacles (carrying a 60-pound sandbag uphill for a mile or dragging tires).
A few of the races also include mental challenges: puzzle games or memorizing a phrase or number and repeating it to a course official 3 miles later.
Trying to make an origami crane after being awake for more than 40 hours is “pretty hilarious” to say the least, she said.
“Last summer, we had to tie our feet together with zip ties and hop to the top of this mountain,” she said. “And when we were up there, we had to memorize this picture and then come back down the mountain — without breaking the zip ties — and draw the picture for the people at the bottom.”
If there’s one thing she especially dreads, though, it’s the electroshock obstacles — solar-powered wires carrying an electrical charge that competitors either run through or climb under. The Tough Mudder courses are famous for them, and Boone once blacked out from going through one — a “disconcerting feeling,” she said.
There’s always an inherent risk in doing such intense races, she said, so the important thing is to listen to warning signs the body sends.
The races do take a toll — she often has banged-up knees and barbed wire scars. She’s only quit a race once — when she felt frostbite on her toes after emerging from a river with subzero temperatures.
“I think the longer they (races) get, the more the mental aspect comes into play,” Boone said. “I tell people that I’m really good at suffering. I’m not the strongest person, I’m not the fastest person, but I handle the suffering part really well.”
Plastic skulls and spears
Boone’s success at suffering has made her a celebrity in the growing obstacle course racing world.
The NBC Sports Network did a special on last year’s Spartan race, and Boone now has sponsorships with Reebok and Epiq, a vitamin supplement company.
Boone even has a trading card. After she won the World’s Toughest Mudder, Topps included her in a non-baseball line of world champion trading cards and had her autograph a set. Once word got out at the office, many of her co-workers wanted an autographed card, too.
Her colleagues have been very supportive of her athletic endeavors, she said, which she appreciates since races often make her unavailable by cellphone on weekends.
“Once they (co-workers, family and friends) got past the initial ‘OK this is scary, this is weird, this is strange,’ now everybody is extremely supportive and always just really interested,” she said.
Emma S. Glazer, a Skadden associate now based in New York, said everyone is impressed with Boone and respects her for being both a successful attorney and athlete.
“I think a lot of people who do this have great athletic ability, but she has this don’t-give-up-mentality that makes her successful,” Glazer said.
Skylee J. Robinson, an attorney at Stoel, Rives LLP in Seattle and a friend of Boone’s from law school, said the physical training and mental prowess needed for obstacle course racing is perfectly suited to Boone’s personality.
“She works really hard at everything she does, whether that’s being a lawyer or being an obstacle course racer,” Robinson said.
Boone has collected some unusual trophies from racing over the years, ranging from headbands to plastic skulls to wood blocks and spears.
Some of those items now sit on her desk at work, including a Tough Mudder sign that says, “Remember, you signed a death waiver.”
The sport has become flooded with enough prize money and sponsorships that Boone could become a professional racer, but she says she likes being a lawyer too much to even consider giving up her day job. She gets up at 4 a.m. for workouts, and is able to train 12 to 15 hours per week, depending on her legal workload.
“After races, I’m generally hobbling around the office. It’s a lot of shock and damage to your body,” she said. “I joke that I’ll never be a leg model. But I’m not too concerned about that.”
Since she never set out to be a world champion, the unexpected fame feels weird at times. But she does appreciate hearing from people who say she’s an inspiration for juggling a successful career and competition.
“I just kind of fell into it and because I enjoyed doing it, I kept doing it,” she said. “It’s been a fun journey.”