"Spar tan: adjective – sternly disciplined and rigorously simple, frugal, or austere; brave, undaunted."
Though perhaps an accurate reference to the Spartan warriors of ancient Greece, the dictionary definition fails to convey one thing: tough, tough and more tough. Just ask Boise's Jenny Tobin, who competed in the world championships of Spartan racing in Killington, Vt., on Sept. 21.
At 5-feet 6-inches of muscle and sinew, she claims to like the challenge, adding, "It's good for overall fitness: strength, cardio, balance and the all-important mental toughness."
Spartan racing is part of the new breed of competitive obstacle-racing popular with those who seem committed achieving performances more akin to Greek gods than mere mortals.
"Obstacle course racing is the fastest growing participant sport in history," said Steve Youngerman, who brought obstacle racing to Boise with the Mayhem Obstacle Challenge on Oct. 5.
Running is a key element, but challenging obstacles interspersed throughout the three- to 13-mile courses require athletes to demonstrate strength, agility and mental fortitude. Mandatory obstacles include a spear-throw and a rope-climb, but crawling under barbed wire and hopping from one elevated post to another is not uncommon.
Tobin, formerly a successful triathlete, Xterra champion and adventure racer, was cajoled into participating in her first Spartan event in the fall of 2011, which just happened to be the world championships. A race director and friend wooed her with the possibility of a first-place prize of $10,000. For that kind of coin, a little sweat and a few flesh wounds seemed worth it.
Although Tobin hadn't trained much beyond miles of trail running and endless sets of burpees, she took an early lead and felt confident in a situation that would leave most seasoned athletes rocking back and forth in the fetal position. With hands muddied and grip strength annihilated after navigating undulating monkey bars, she faced the final obstacle: a rope traverse across a small lagoon.
"For some reason, I thought to myself: 'piece of cake!'" Tobin recounted with a rueful smile.
Instead, she hung by her knees and elbows, flailing as the clock ticked and her nearest competitor joined her on the same obstacle. In the end, Tobin dug deep and found something that helped her cross the finish line in first place.
But what was it that she found? Unlike standard 10K fun runs or even cross-country mountain bike races, Spartan racing doesn't just favor those gifted with physical talent.
According to the Spartan Race Organization, "We're here to rip you from your comfort zone."
In other words, a diesel engine is worthless if it's not paired with a mind and spirit that embrace adversity. Tobin has it all.
Self-described as "feisty" and "persistent," Tobin's first season of Spartan racing saw her clinch the series title. She was invited to join the Spartan Pro Elite Team, which partners with Reebok in sponsorship and support of the race series.
Tobin's rapid ascent in the sport is no surprise to her friends, who occasionally join her for trail runs, most of which involve sprinting uphill, often before the sun is up. A P.E. teacher at Highlands Elementary School and mother of two, Tobin crams in training when she can, which means that her students don't mess around with dodge ball.
Her classes are often tailored to incorporate anaerobic endurance and upper body strength; they even do a mini-Spartan race as part of class. Tobin also doesn't go to the lengths of some of her fellow racers in the elite wave.
"There are women whose husbands have turned their backyards into obstacle courses," she said. "They've made 8-foot walls to climb, spears to throw and tire tractors to flip. ... I don't have all that stuff--I keep it pretty simple."
Despite finishing among the top three in all nine Spartan races Tobin has entered, her story isn't without hardship. After one year of nothing but dominance in the sport, a simple cartwheel during a P.E. class brought the oft victor to her knees.
Sidelined from running due to an insidious hamstring and sciatic nerve injury, Tobin refused to spend her summer couchsurfing. She cross-trained by mountain biking and swimming, and complemented her aerobic conditioning with hundreds of crunches and pushups daily. Months passed, along with many Spartan races in which Tobin could not participate.
Flash forward to the present, and Tobin is recovering from another World Championship Spartan Race, this time forced to settle for a lower step on the podium. Her approach had to be realistic.
"I was only able to start running again at the end of July," Tobin said.
Still, she snagged fourth place in a sport that rewards competitors who have mastered their emotions, relish a challenge and thrive on opportunities to overcome adversity. In doing so, Tobin has proved again that she's every bit the conqueror that a Spartan warrior was.
Tobin will be back next year with her indomitable spirit and full physical health; and like a Spartan warrior, she's hungry for another victory.