The Queen of Pain

Elite obstacle course racer Amelia Boone speaks frankly about coming back from injury, her fear of failure and her love of pro wrestling.
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Elite obstacle course racer Amelia Boone speaks frankly about coming back from injury, her fear of failure and her love of pro wrestling.
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May 20, 2017, probably wasn’t very remarkable for most people. Likely it was spent stocking up on beer and chips and ice and other Memorial Day essentials for the forthcoming holiday weekend. For Amelia Boone it was also a memorial occasion — the day she returned to obstacle course racing.

“What do I fear more than anything right now? I fear my own return to racing.”

Imagine stumbling into a sport on a whim, deciding it was your calling, then within a year you were topping the leader board — and staying there. This is Amelia Boone’s narrative, and to date she is easily one of the most decorated obstacle course racers ever — male or female — with more than 50 podiums and 30 victories in the sport. But in 2016, Boone was knocked out of competition by an overuse injury — a stress fracture in her femur that cuffed her smartly into more than a year and a half of rehab, including four months on crutches, and nine months without running. For someone used to doing two-a-day workouts, running 80 to 100 miles per week and racing just about every weekend in obstacle course events, it was the equivalent of exercise incarceration.

May 20 marked the first time Boone had set foot on an obstacle course since her injury — and she was scared. “The hardest part was facing that starting line and that fear that something that used to be so commonplace now felt so foreign,” says Boone. “I had no idea what to expect and I felt so rusty. Everyone says it’s like riding a bike, but I fell a bunch on that bike that weekend.”

In the end, Boone came in second place and cried when she crossed the finish line. “People asked, ‘Are you crying because you didn’t win?’ And I was like, ‘No, I am crying because in the last year there were points when I didn’t think I would ever cross that line again.’”

“The physical part is easy — it’s the mental part of injury that haunts us.”

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Any athlete who has incurred a severe injury has low points during recovery, and Boone was no different. After receiving her sentence of minimal activity and crutches-only locomotion, she spent some time wallowing in self-pity. Yet, she quickly found ways to cross-train around the injury, simply doing what she could to keep a routine and maintain as much of her elite fitness as possible.

“For the first month the only thing I could do was get into a pool and swim with a buoy between my legs because I was not even allowed to kick — just use my arms,” she says. Soon she graduated to a rowing machine — using just one leg — and did a few scant exercises at the gym to maintain some semblance of upper-body strength. Her workouts had become Spartan in the true sense of the word.

Despite her best efforts, Boone watched the “giant mountain-climbing quads” she used to brag about disintegrate before her eyes, and she began to question her future. And though she dryly joked on her blog that she had a “case of the femurs” when speaking about her layoff, Boone was anything but waggish at home.

“For two or three months my attitude was, ‘Yeah, this is a temporary setback and I will be right back in there. No big deal,’” she recounts. “But as the months turned into a year, and then into 18 months without racing, you start to worry as an athlete that you’ve kind of lost it, that maybe you’ll never get back to that start line and maybe you won’t be the same athlete you were before. You’re starting over from a place of being a beginner and you feel that pressure to come back as a world champion and you don’t know if you can. It’s a very humbling process.”

“Don’t call it a f_ing comeback.”

After much introspection, Boone gave herself permission not to be herself. “I am not trying to get back to being that same athlete — I am becoming a new athlete, a smarter athlete,” says Boone, who openly spoke at length about her fears and realizations on her blog. “In putting that out I was afraid people were going to say, ‘Oh, woe is Amelia, she’s afraid she’s not going to win any more races.’ But what I realized is that everyone, despite their sport or their level, everyone experiences this doubt, this vulnerability, and it was very relatable to people.”

New Amelia adopted a new normal, adapting her training and looking forward rather than backward. “Instead of waking up and hitting the trails, I would hit the pool. And instead of smelling like dirt, I smelled like chlorine,” she says. “I went to all the races that I couldn’t run and supported people and cheered them on. I volunteered. And being there and being part of the community kept me just as busy.”

After months of physical therapy and mobility training, she soon shelved the crutches, and in late 2016, Boone was able to run — a little. She worked with trainers and gait experts to alter her stride to help prevent future injuries, and added mobility training and strength work in multiple planes and directions because, “Runners are only very good in one direction — forward,” she says.

Finally, in spring 2017 Boone felt ready and did a “short” half-marathon to test her legs — and her spirit. Both seemed sound, so on May 20 she entered and ran that nascent “post-femur” Spartan.

“I am not going to run away from fear. Instead I am running toward it.”

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At the time of this writing, Boone planned to run a half-dozen races prior to the Spartan Race World Championship in North Lake Tahoe, the World’s Toughest Mudder 2017 and — fingers crossed — an ultramarathon at the end of the year.

Does she still have fear? Sure, but she is dealing with it from a new standpoint. “It is difficult to learn to trust my body again, because every ache and pain makes me think I am broken,” she says. “I have realized that I need to embrace and be grateful for what I can do. There will be a point where I will get injured again — it’s part of being an athlete. But I won’t let that stop me from doing what I love.”

*Quotes are from Amelia Boone’s blog “Race Ipsa Loquitur” on her website, ameliabooneracing.com.

Q&A with Amelia

How do you manage two full-time careers — attorney and racer? 

I have two passions and I am lucky that I get to do both of them. I don’t necessarily have the greatest social life, but to me this is very fulfilling. Define your universe by what is important, then it is possible to do what you want.

When do you work out? 

I am a morning person so I am up at 4 a.m. and out hitting the trails. I’m done by 7 a.m. Then I go to work, and do mobility and/or strength work in the evenings. The tough part about obstacle course racing is that nobody has a course set up in their backyard, so you have to mimic the skills that you need in other ways. So my strength sessions focus on grip strength, heavy carries and other skills you need. Once I did set up a spear throw in a park when I lived in Chicago to practice. It was really just a long stick and a target, but the police chased me out of the park anyhow.

Do you find that training for a race helps you work out issues and problems at your desk job? 

Completely. I do some of my best thinking and planning and plotting during my morning training. It’s when I figure out my day. There is that cliché that if you want something to get done give it to a busy person. That is true for me. I found that when I was injured I was less productive because it was almost like I had too much time. I am much more productive when I am juggling multiple balls.

You were angling toward an ultrarunning alter ego. Has that been sidelined?

It is something I still aspire to do. For me, racing has always been about finding the next big challenge, and I have done really well in obstacle racing and will continue because I love it, but the next thing to conquer is ultrarunning. I won’t be ready for those for a while because I am not running that type of mileage. I am working to correct a lot of mechanical issues with my running form so [that injury] won’t happen again.

What do you need to correct?

It is basically about imbalanced muscles around the hips and glutes especially, so getting those to be active and to work properly has been a process. It’s funny, you do the PT drills and the clamshells and such, but the hard part is getting that to translate into real running or competing. It’s about neuromuscular firing patterns so when I am running, I actually touch my butt a lot because it reminds me to engage.

How do you keep moving during a long race when your body wants to quit?

I try to sing to myself in long races. Every race has a different song, and if I look back through my racing history I can associate that race with a song. I also try to distract myself by talking to other competitors, focusing on the people around me and on the volunteers.

What is your all-time favorite race?

I would have to say the first Spartan race I ever did, which was the Ultra Beast in 2012. It was 28 miles. I had already run a Tough Mudder and a World’s Toughest Mudder — but I was not expecting this Ultra Beast, which went up and down a mountain in Killington, Vermont. It took nine hours to finish — but I was thinking, “This is amazing!”

How do you compare Spartan and Tough Mudder races?

I think Spartan is a bit more rough around the edges. A bit more gritty. You have things like heavy bucket carries and log carries — things you don’t see elsewhere. And because they don’t have such big, massive obstacles, Spartan Races can be on more mountainous terrain, which I love. Tough Mudder has a lot of massive, glitzy obstacles that are fun and which have a really high production value.

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On your website it says you love to watch wrestling. Really?

I love professional wrestling! I don’t find it embarrassing, but other people think so. It’s like a very athletic soap opera.

Truth: Do you drink the beer at the end of the race?

I wish I could; unfortunately, beer does not like me, so I drink wine after races. I am very classy.

BIO

Name: Amelia Boone
Birthdate: September 27, 1983
Current Residence: San Jose, California
Occupations: Full-time corporate attorney for Apple Inc.; Spartan Race Pro Team member
Sponsors: Reebok, RockTape, BeetElite, Spartan Race
Major Race Accomplishments: World’s Toughest Mudder (winner: 2012, 2014, 2015); Spartan Race World Champion, 2013; Death Race Finisher (summer and winter 2012, summer 2013)
Website: ameliabooneracing.com
Twitter: @ameliaboone
IG: arboone11