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Obstacle course events have roots in the original fitness bootcamp, SEALPT

It's safe to say people will pay for pain. But before the mass of obstacle course racing events, there was SEALPT, the original fitness bootcamp.

In 1912, Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton was seeking volunteers for an expedition to the South Pole. He placed the following ad in the London Times:

“Men wanted for hazardous journey, small wages, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness, constant danger, safe return doubtful; honor and recognition in case of success.”

The next morning, 5,000 men lined up to volunteer.

This story, presented by renowned author and historian Steven Pressfield in his work The Warrior Ethos, is apparently, not an altogether uncommon one.

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Based on the sustained popularity of Tough Mudder, Warrior Dash and every mud-filled, obstacle race in between, it’s safe to say that people will pay for an extreme challenge. But before the current craze of races with rope climbs, mud crawls and ice bath obstacles, there were fitness bootcamps. SEALPT claims to be the original.

In this course, there are no nicknamed obstacles, no half pipes and no warped walls. There is no festival, hashtag or corporate sponsor. And there’s no ring of fire or other gimmicks to scare you—the places your mind takes you will do that just as well.

“It’s really easy to get into rut,” says SEALPT founder former U.S. Navy SEAL veteran Jack Walston. “It’s something everyone wants to do. Lots of people want to push that button.”

In 1997, at the suggestions of some of his crewmates from an oilrig he was working on, Walston began offering civilians a chance to test themselves the way he and other elite American warriors had been tested.

“It exploded,” Walston says. “I never predicted for it to go more than three or four years.”

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Now, after 20 years, SEALPT has laid the foundation for the current fitness and obstacle courses, building on the same, fundamental human need: People want a challenge. They want some discipline in their lives, a training regimen, and a goal. And they want friends and teammates to share the experience with. Most events offer that experience, with fun and demanding obstacles. SEALPT offers the same—but in the original bare bones flavor.

Walston uses functional fitness and exercises as the base: running, pushups, sit-ups and squats. But when he says it’s time for pushups, you do them until he tells you to stop.

“I never really do a set number of reps,” he says. “One, its foolish, and two, 99% of guys can’t do it.”

On an obstacle course, you can see the finish line and track your progress. With SEALPT, you’re in the dark, and for many, that’s far more terrifying than crawling under flames. The SEALPT program enlists you in two weeks of commitment, but the rewards after the full 14 days include increased performance and endurance, discipline, self-confidence and more. And you don’t need to be a stellar athlete or a modern day Adonis to finish this course. In fact, being an average-Joe might be your advantage.

During his Basic Underwater Demolition School (BUD/S) training, Walston—at 5’9” with a self-described average build—was put up against the best athletes the country had to offer.

“College athletes, professional athletes, star footballers, to the man, every one of them quit,” he says. “Regular sailors, veteran marines, they made it.”

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In Walston’s opinion, his bootcamp “proves to people that it’s not physical. It’s about your mental toughness.” (It’s also proved, in his experience, that women tend to be tougher than men). At the bottom of a SEALPT pushup, or at the top of Tough Mudder ladder, it’s all between your ears.

There are no medals or timed finishes in Walston’s camp. The only physical keepsake you walk away with is a t-shirt that reads, “I took the challenge.”

Whether it’s SEALPT or another obstacle race, these events promote training and discipline, tap into mental and emotional needs, all while pushing people to the physical limit. Plus, at their most basic, they offer a great excuse to go outside and run around with friends.

SEALPT offers the same catharsis. It set the principles and spirit that later events and versions built themselves upon.

What American hasn’t wondered if they have what it takes to be a SEAL?