Rose Wetzel thinks of her groceries as an opportunity to train. Same with anything that resembles a bucket. Or a hill. Her unconventional training methods helped her transition from a track and field athlete to a premiere female obstacle course competitor.
“I started doing some goofy stuff,” says Wetzel, a Spartan Race pro and American Ninja Warrior athlete. “I just would walk home from the grocery store with groceries in a bucket. I was getting used to carrying heavy stuff in the bucket.”
As a personal trainer and coach in Seattle, Wetzel takes every opportunity to carry a heavy load. Say she’s training someone at the far end of Kerry Park, where the view is pristine. She’ll haul whatever she can in her trusty bucket, such as a pair of 20-pound dumbbells. Then she’ll go haul out sandbags, just because.
“I’m kind of working it into my day, the heavy carries,” she says. And instead of just an eight-mile run, she finds a hill and adds 10 burpees and eight pull-ups—off a tree, if need be—every mile “just to get that feeling of my arms exhausted along with my body. I seek out hills as often as I can.”
Wetzel started competitive running as a teenager and carried it over into a scholarship on the track and field team at Georgetown University. But after missing out on the Olympics by a couple of seconds at the Olympic Trials, Wetzel wanted to keep up the opportunity to compete, even if it meant tossing her watch off and just “battling in the woods” in some sort of “primal” race.
About two years ago Wetzel started switching her training over. Now she is a Spartan Race-sponsored pro with a television persona on NBC’s American Ninja Warrior, which she says helps with crossover strength.
The next step is for Wetzel and her husband to move their life to Colorado for six weeks in order to train at altitude—and with more substantial elevation gain than sea-level Seattle can offer—while in preparation for October’s Spartan Race World Championships outside Lake Tahoe.
Changing her competition style took some getting used to, especially for a racer who fed off the pressure of having someone right next to her on the track the whole time, someone pushing her, forcing her to think strategy. In the obstacle-filled Spartan Race, Wetzel says her natural speed comes into play. “I like to go fast, I like the wind in my face, going faster than my thoughts can,” she says. But with a race winding through woods, Wetzel can find find herself alone in the multi-hours of competitions. “The level of intensity isn’t quite the same as when you're being hunted,” she says. “I’ve had to learn to really push myself in the longer races even if I can’t see anyone in front of me. I’m being creative and imagining a lion chasing me down.”
The lion doesn’t catch her, though.
Part of making sure the imaginary lion stays at bay is the 33-year-old's constant focus on nutrition and training. Sure, she has “treat days," or mental breaks from nutrition, every now and then, but never before a race. The longer the race, she’ll increase her carbohydrate intake a few days before, mainly sticking to meats, vegetables and starch-filled carbs—Wetzel prefers potatoes over pasta.
Beyond those crazy bucket-filling daily insertions of weight, Wetzel does put a focus on training the upper body during cardiovascular exercise, a practice she recommends for someone starting out on obstacle racing training. “You want a good cardio base and you should add hills in, but you just want to make sure you are used to having your heart rate jacked up by 30 burpees and then jacked up again by a hill,” she says. “If you can work those elements into a run—every lap or so you do a different activity or step-up on the bleachers—you are doing strength training within running as opposed to going for a run and then doing strength.”
For Wetzel that may include wearing a 10-pound weight vest and making stops at the local playground to work the monkey bars. Of course, doing such training may attract onlookers. One recent playground visit pitted Wetzel next to a 4-year-old practicing his American Ninja Warrior moves. The pair kicked off a conversation and it turned out the youngster was a big fan of the show and knew Wetzel.
“I’ve made it,” Wetzel jokes about being recognized by a 4-year-old. “He got all excited.” But what that represents for Wetzel, whether recognized on the playground or at a Spartan Race, is all the encouragement she hears from others who say she has inspired them to race or given them quality coaching tips.
“I got lucky,” she says about the show. “That many more people are able to be a part of the community because it is a national primetime show. I got a lot of love on that show and I got to showcase Spartan Race training.”
She was also able to showcase her Wonder Woman-inspired persona. Following Georgetown, Wetzel started entering local road races to stay in shape. Many of them were costume-themed. She embraced it, whether it was a Wonder Women outfit or a leprechaun. Having fun with the races brought back the feeling of freedom she had as a kid whenever she was loosened from her strict home. That feeling of freedom and wearing costumes gave her a confidence—Wetzel is quick to point out the psychological benefit of the look good, feel good, play good mantra—that carried over when she entered her first Spartan Race. She was told that competitors there also wore costumes, so she donned one. She was the only one in a costume for her heat.
But she had a great time. “It is fun, but also empowering,” she says. “You are more confident than you really are. If I stand with my hand on my hips (in a Wonder Woman costume) and look at the course like I got this, I start to really think, ‘Oh, I do got it.’”
Buckets of weight. Monkey bars. Empowering costumes. Imaginary lions. Wetzel uses it all to let the wind hit her face while staying in the front of the pack.
Tim Newcomb covers stadiums, design and gear for Sports Illustrated. Follow him on Twitter at @tdnewcomb.