Obstacle course racing is growing in popularity. The types and difficulty of races vary and you can see larger ones like the Spartan on ESPN. I got the chance to talk with obstacle course race athlete Bill Nowitzke recently and he broke down his training history, racing, why he loves a garage gym and how you can get prepared to do your first obstacle course race. Check it out!
Obstacle Course Racing Beginnings
Bill, everyone’s fitness journey starts somewhere. Let’s talk a little about yours. Let’s begin with how you started exercising. Was this in a gym, when you were a kid? Did you play sports in school?
I started about four years ago, one brother had just left for college and he was playing football; my other brother had just come home from college and when he left he was a skinny little kid and when he came back he was well built—he had been hitting the gym hard at school. I was just sitting there getting fat and I said, “I’ve got to start working out!” So I just started and got into a rhythm and have been running with it ever since.
How tall are you and how much do you weigh now?
I’m 5’9 and right now I weigh 160lbs.
I asked that because you’re an obstacle course race enthusiast. Do you find that you’ve got to keep your weight down in order to remain competitive in your sport? Or does it just happen naturally because of the high energy output from an ocr?
I think it happens naturally. I know that there are some guys, the pro guys, that are a lot heavier than me but generally the field of athletes that do it are probably in the 140-160lb weight range.
What’s your competition history? I believe you primarily, or maybe exclusively compete in Spartan Races. Is that correct?
I’ve done five races so far. I started with the Spartan Stadium Sprint at City Field in New York. That was the one where I pretty much fell in love with the sport but I didn’t do all that fantastic. I did what I kind of expected to do; I did it in an hour and seven minutes; the guy who won the race, did it in thirty-five!
How many miles was that?
That one was I think 3.5 total. Up and down the stadium steps over and over.
Oh definitely, it’s not like you’re just running three miles. You go from one place to the next and do something hard then run again!
Then I did a real small mud run in New Jersey; it was
called Z Mud Run. It was a 5k. It was like bare minimum as far as obstacles. Just go through some mud, some hurdles, nothing too crazy that one wasn’t even timed so that one was just for fun. I did a competitive at the Terrain Race in New England and came in fifth place.
That’s where I can pat myself on the back. It actually let me qualify for the Obstacle Course Racing World Championships. I didn’t go, because I wasn’t ready and I couldn’t afford it. It’s in Canada at Blue Mountain, near Toronto and it just wasn’t worth it this year. So if I can qualify again this upcoming year that will be great.
So you’re not a sponsored athlete?
No not yet. I’m hoping. Then I did the Spartan Super in New Jersey with my brother. I dragged him along. It ended up being 10.5 miles. He was a wreck doing it. He was not ready. I stuck with him the whole time so I didn’t’ get a good feel for how I did myself but I had a lot of fun. I know I could have really done well but I can’t say for sure. I felt good when we were done. I wasn’t tired.
How many races do you like to do a year?
Well, those four so far and then I did a road race a couple of weeks ago. Just a 5k. Next year, I’m probably going to do eight obstacle course races, so probably between five and ten every year I’d like to keep up with.
The Savage Race that I did, you get a medal. I know that the Warrior Dash you get a Viking helmet which is just the ultimate pointless man goal. What do you win for the Spartan Race? If you say a Spartan helmet, I’m signing up!
Ha, ha! No I wish! You get a medal and a t shirt. And with Spartan you’ve got the different distances—you’ve got the Sprint, the Super and the Beast. So if you do all three of them in a calendar year, you get what is called a Trifecta. And then you can do multiple Trifectas and get a special medal after each one. They end up getting really huge, like I saw somebody who had a twelve times Trifecta and it looked like he had a dinner plate around his neck!
There is a difference between the Spartan Race and the Spartan Death Race. Have you done the Death Race?
I have not done the Death Race and they’ve actually got rid of the Death Race now.
Hope nobody died, ha ha!
No, not that I know of ha ha! They kind of rebranded it and it’s now an Agoge, it’s basically like you go on a 60 hour self-discovery journey with a group of people. I haven’t done one yet, I would like to but not any time soon! It’s a big jump from doing something that’s between five and ten miles and then going out for three days.
Yeah definitely, I’ve done one obstacle course race; I did the Savage Race recently. We weren’t running, I’ll tell you that now. I told her, “We’re not sponsored, let’s just have fun. If you want to be more competitive next year, so be it but today, let’s just have fun.” Still, I turned to my wife in the middle of it and said, “This is like everything I did when I was a recruit at Parris Island compressed into one day. It was like the Crucible, random confidence courses, everything at Leatherneck Square. You know how there’s like a logjam at certain obstacles while you wait for the people ahead of you to get through it?
This guy was asking me about Boot Camp, I don’t even know how he found out I’d been in the Marine Corps, probably the way I negotiated a few obstacles, I don’t know. He was trying to determine if he was tough enough to do Marine Corps Boot Camp. For you was this a test yourself thing, a vision quest? What led you to it?
Probably a little bit of both. I’d been working out for two and a half years before I thought of doing one of these things. I just wanted to see, you know, could I do it and how well could I do it? I never anticipated doing more than one, so I signed up; did the first one and loved it! Now I’m trying to do it as often as I can!
I sent you that podcast from the Art of Manliness about The Rise of what they call “The Sufferfests”. Did you find that it’s true that a lot of people are there trying to test themselves in ways that aren’t as easily accessible to people at least in the West nowadays?
I think so yeah. There’s a large group of people, especially the first timers that go out to do it because, I guess they get bored with the day to day of their lives so they want to do something totally out of the box and so they sign up and get out there.
Let’s talk training. How do you divide up your training? As a competitive athlete, you’ve got certain training markers that you’ve got to hit, certain skills you’ve got to maintain especially for a competition that combines muscular endurance, strength and agility so how do you balance everything?
Now what I’m doing is a lot of Olympic or compound lifts and then like doing some type of running immediately following. So for instance yesterday, I did German Volume Training, I did squats, I did pullups, I did dips. I started with squats, did ten sets of ten. Instead of transitioning straight into pullups, I ran a mile. Came back, did the pullups, ten sets of ten, ran another mile. Dips, ten sets of ten, ran another mile. Because when you’re doing the race, you have to be able to transition from, you might have just ran a quarter of a mile and now you’ve got to go climb a rope, or climb a cargo net.
That’s something I noticed right away. I came out of this, I would probably rather be shot than ever do this again–
There’s an obstacle which is basically like walking through a slushie or Slurpee. I remember getting there and wondering how it was even an obstacle, it was so low to the ground, water didn’t look deep. I didn’t pay attention to the refrigeration truck hooked up to it.
Ha ha (I only put a couple of laugh quotes but Bill was laughing at me during this entire story! Not fair at all.)
–Then I stepped into it! I got stuck too, you’ve got to dive under a wall about midway across; and I’m bald too! My traps got stuck on the bottom of the wall as I came back up. So it was like being stuck halfway up in a squat but underwater! I don’t even remember how I got out. But the point is; I had to move to the next obstacle and perform. My legs weren’t really working but I had to run up a steep ramp, grab a rope and climb over. So yeah, you’ve got to be able to transition from what you just did, even if it was an epic disaster, and focus on attacking the next thing.
But then I’ve got to ask you, so why don’t you just do Crossfit?
I tried to do Crossfit, but I don’t know. Maybe it was just the combination of I didn’t like the Crossfit and maybe I was thinking in the back of my head the whole time, like, “I’ve got to be able to run so much longer than whatever the Crossfit workouts do.” I mean, I do throw them in there occasionally but it’s not a consistent Crossfit training. I guess I combine powerlifting, Crossfit and endurance running? Kind of combine them all into one.
Have you tried any of Brian Mackenzie’s stuff from Crossfit Endurance?
I’ve done maybe four or five of the workouts. I’ve never really tried to stick with it.
Oh man, he’s a powerlifter, he’s got a 700lb squat and deadlift and he runs ultramarathons. Yeah, he’s a big dude and it’s hilarious seeing the pictures of him; ’cause especially coming out of the water if it’s a triathlon; he looks like the dad with his kids at the pool. Because he’s so much bigger than everybody else; he looks like he’s their dad. I’ll link to him within this article so everybody else can learn about him.
Ha, ha! Nice.
But anyway, so you’re more of a hybrid athlete?
What are your favorite exercises to help you with your pulling power? You mentioned pullups is there anything else that you like to go to?
Yeah, I do a lot of deadlifts, a lot of bent over rows. I also have a tire that I have a rope attached to and I can throw weight on it and drag that. So it adds a little bit more of a different resistance ‘cause you have to drag it.
I prefer tire sleds to the metal ones actually because it doesn’t make as much noise so I’m not as restricted as to what times I can train. You have kids don’t you?
Yeah, that’s why I train at home.
Yeah, so you have to be able to flow with what’s going on, family obligations; outside stuff. Was having a kid the main factor in you training at home or were their other?
No, that was the main factor. I just wanted to be close by rather than being just at a gym. So I could be easily accessible if something should happen.
Garage Gym Set Up
Your first gym; where was it and what did you have in there?
It was the garage. Because I knew was going to be doing it, so I got a power rack, Olympic barbell, I got an EZ bar, and adjustable bench that had like a preacher bench on and it had the leg extension accessory.
Is that the Powertec one or the Weider?
It’s an X Mark, I think the name was.
Oh yeah! I’ve heard their name. I think I follow them on Instagram. What’s the quality of their product like? Is it sturdy?
Yeah, it’s very sturdy. It’s not like the one most of the box gyms have. It’s probably more for one or two people training at home. If it was something that was being used all day long I don’t think it would hold up too much.
Are you the only one who uses your gym?
My wife uses it occasionally but she does more of the Beachbody type workouts like Insanity and that stuff.
Does she do that in the house or does she do it in the garage with you?
Depending on the weather, she changes. But most of the time she’s in the garage too.
How do you handle the dynamic? What I mean, is with Beachbody you’ve got to have something to watch it on. I guess she could stream it through her phone with headphones but if not you’re going to hear it. So how do you manage to stay focused while she’s doing her workout? So that you don’t get distracted and so that you don’t distract her with your grunting and slamming bars down in deadlift?
Ha! That’s a good question. I guess when I’m in there, I’m just in the zone so I block out whatever is going on around me so I can focus on what I’m doing.
Because if I’m not focused, I’m not going to give it my all and then I’ll feel like I wasted my time. I have no idea if I’m distracting her.
Apparently it’s working. How long have you been training in the garage and how many days a week do you guys train?
I train almost every day. And she does it based on what the current Beachbody program is, so sometimes it’s five days, sometimes it’s four.
How has your gym changed since you started training at home?
Well, at the beginning, my routines were pretty much bodybuilding based just because that’s what I was doing. No competitions, just to stay healthy. So it was just that. Now, I threw in the tire with the rope. I’ve got a bucket full of rocks because that’s one of the tough obstacles during Spartan, so I can practice doing that.
Yeah, you’ve got to carry it like up a mountain. It’s usually like a quarter of a mile total but you’re carrying it up and down. It is killer!
Obviously that’s not something you ordered; or maybe you did? Where’d you get the rock bucket? Did you go to a local creek?
I just went to Home Depot and got whatever people put in their yards for decoration and threw them in there. The bucket weighs 85lbs with the rocks in it so it goes for a tough workout.
Have you ever tried any of the old strongman exercises? If you ever see any of the old bodybuilding pictures from the early 1900s, you see them in these awkward positions trying to lift things. There’s a variation where you could deadlift a railroad tie for example to work on grip strength
I haven’t tried any of that but it sounds pretty interesting.
I ask because in the race that I did they had several obstacles with implements from Rogue Fitness like the Grandfather clock grips; you’re hanging from weirdly shaped things as you try to swing through obstacles so you have different challenges for grip. So what do you do for grip strength?
I put up a couple of two by fours in the rafters of the garage that I can hang from, just for dead hangs. A lot of the races now on their rigs, instead of monkey bars it’s got rock climbing holds or baseballs that you’ve got to swing from. So I put up baseballs that I can just do pullups or just do dead hangs on. Just stuff like that, that’ll really change up how you have to work your grip strength. So I’ve got those up now. I am planning on putting up a small climbing wall in the garage. Something that I can just go back and forth on. I don’t necessarily have to go up or down.
Where did you get your equipment, aside from your Home Depot rock purchase?
I actually got everything on Amazon. I had no issues. It’s the only thing I’ve ever put together that I’ve had no issues doing.
I’m a huge believer in the role environment plays in having good workouts. I actually took one semester of Interior Design in college. It actually was fairly interesting. I learned how you weight a room and how colors affect your mood. So I use it when I set up the gym. Everything from where equipment is placed to what I hang on the wall is geared to put me in the right frame of mind to train hard. How have you set up your workout area to make it a productive training environment?
I have it set up so on one side of the garage is where I can do all of my weight training. I have hooks so I can hang up my weight belt, all of the accessories if I was doing cable work. So it’s all easily accessible so I don’t have to dig around or take time to try to figure out stuff is. And then the other side of the garage is completely empty so I can go over there if I’ve got any plyometrics that I’d want to do. So I’ve got a pretty good space in there that I can easily work in.
Beginner Tips For Getting Started In Obstacle Course Racing
What advice would you give to someone reading this who may have just decided to start training at home?
I would guess that you would tell them that the bare minimum you would need is a barbell and some dumbbells. You don’t really need to go too crazy to start. But I would recommend working out at home to anybody. I think it’s so much better than having to go to the gym and you’ve got to wait for people who are there working on the same equipment you want to work on. I think some people also get a little intimidated at the gym. When you’re at home, you get to do it on your terms. Sometimes when you’re at a box gym, you might try to do too much because you’ve got people who might be watching you. I think that working out at home is just great.
What about if someone is interested in competing in a Spartan Race, how would you advise them to get started?
I would recommend for their first one, to be the shortest of the Spartan Races; what they call a sprint. They’re generally between three to five miles. And to train for them, do a lot of stair work. Whether you do a Stairmaster at your gym; or in your office building you can do some stair intervals or do it at home. Because the hardest part of the race, in my opinion, is when you hit one of their steep mountain hills and you’ve got to climb this thing and it just kills your legs. Without your legs doing these races, you’re screwed.
Do they always do the races at Joe De Sena’s place?
No they’re all over now. I haven’t done the one at Killington, at Joe De Sena’s. That one’s like, you’ve got to be insane. I don’t know if I’m ready for that yet.
So how do you sign up, just go on Spartan Race.com?
Spartan.com. At Spartan.com you can find a race, they’ve got them all over the place now.
What’s this Team Me versus Me?
I was researching on how to train for these because there is no set standard on what you should be doing for racing these obstacle course races. I was on one of the websites, mudrunguide.com or obstacleracingmedia.com and there was an article about the Team Captain of Me Against Me. I read it and thought it was really cool. He just really wanted to make a team of people from everywhere that really didn’t know too many people. That came together as a team so you had other people at the races that you can just go hang out with, build up some camaraderie. So I emailed them and they let me join the team and that’s that. Just a group of people that enjoy doing the races.
So you guys push each other during the races and hang out afterwards at the food tents?
Yeah, they’ve got beer, they’ve got food, they’ve got all kinds of vendors trying to sell you their protein and their shoes.
How can people contact you if they want to keep up with your training?
Pretty much all of what I do as far as the training is on Instagram. @bigbillblast but they can get me on Facebook too. Just Bill Nowitzke.
Anybody you want to shout out or thank before we close?
My wife for putting up with me through all of this nonsense.
Ha! Smart man!