Laird Hamilton: “My Life Is an Obstacle Course”

Peter Bohler

It’s fitting that Laird Hamilton is getting into the obstacle race business. Between his life in big wave surf, shooting piers, and training like Tarzan, Hamilton admits that a regular day looks a lot like a serious Spartan race. But unlike Spartans, Mudders, and Combines, Hamilton’s new race, called Force of Nature, is built to pummel you with challenges that go beyond the typical wall-climbs and mud crawls, and makes mental toughness a part of the equation. The eight to 10-mile course is packed with 20-some obstacles inspired by Hamilton’s real-life experiences, and incorporate nature’s toughest elements: ice, heat, snow, water. You’ll scale walls with freezing-cold water cascading into your face, hunker down in tents cranked to 130 degrees, sprint through — well, we’ll just let Hamilton explain it. 

How is your race different than other obstacle races out there?
I feel like there’s a little more thought going into ours. It’s not just cattle prods and mud in your face. There’s a certain level of psychology to it — we have obstacles that deal with heart rate regulation, extreme temperature changes. We’re also not using anybody else as an example. The challenges are all genuine to my life —  each is an authentic activity or event or training or obstacle that I’ve experienced. You’ll move through water with heavy weights, just as I do in pool workouts. You’ll switch from a sweltering hot tent to an ice-cold pool, which is similar to my contrast therapy regimen [Hamilton will spend 10 to 15 minutes in a sauna set at 220-some degrees, then sit for five to six minutes in an ice bath].
What do you think will be the most challenging obstacle?
The heart rate control obstacle comes to mind. You do an intense, all-out two minutes on the rowing machine, then before you can move on, you have to bring your heart rate down. You go to a machine and grab what looks like a bicycle handlebar, and that measures your rate; you won’t be able to leave until your heart rate falls to a certain level. It’s amazing how difficult it is to do. We did a test run of the course, and people got really frustrated. And when you get frustrated, that has the exact opposite effect you want — it compounds the situation and you bring your heart rate even higher. It’s the same thing we deal with when the surf is big. You might be in a bad situation, and it might be frustrating, but you still have to regain your composure, and remain calm.”

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Did you design the course to be pretty grueling?
It’s a tricky dance. You can definitely create something impossible. That’s not hard. What’s hard is creating something that the average person with average fitness and strength can do, and still challenge the elite people. I think that there’ll be an obstacle challenging for someone no matter what. You might be great with heat but then the ice will get you. You might be a good climber but you’re not going to like climbing with water getting sprayed on you. You might get stuck at the heart rate thing. Listen, if you go fast and hard it’ll definitely be challenging. No doubt.
What’s your favorite obstacle in the race?
The waterfall climb. When we were kids — and even now —we’d climb these waterfalls that are unbelievably slippery, and the water’s falling on your head, and you may look at the wall, and think, ‘Oh that’s easy to climb that,’ but then suddenly you’re dealing with water crashing into your face, and it’s a whole new game. I like that kind of deceptive stuff.
How should people train for this?
Do cold training, whether it’s cold showers or swimming pools or just cold walks. Try saunas to get acclimated to the heat. Walk over rocks with your feet bare. And practice heart rate regulation —  spiking your heart rate, then calming your mind and body to bring it back down. Then, of course, you’re going to need to be able to climb, crawl, and run.
Why do you think these types of races are so popular now?
Because you really feel like you’ve accomplished something. Go do a regular run, and there’s a certain monotony to it; but there’s a distraction with having to overcome an obstacle, which I think leads to people having a greater feeling of success once they finish a race like this. Obstacles really represent overcoming something beyond what you thought you could do. That’s why it’s an obstacle.
Have you ever done an obstacle race yourself?
Only the ones in my life; the real ones I grew up doing as a kid — climbing up trees, running trails over rivers and through the swamp, traversing rivers and mountains and ocean. I’ve always said my life was an obstacle course. And that’s why the opportunity to design one was exciting. Unfortunately, I can’t bring real waterfalls and frozen lakes and the like to these locations, but we’ve created obstacles that are as authentic to the real thing as you can get.
Will you be running the inaugural Force of Nature race in April?
I won’t be competing, but I’ll go to the race for sure.  I’ll be cheering people on.

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