ST. ALBANS — Run up and down a mountain with 20 pounds of rocks in your backpack, drag a cement block or carry a massive sandbag up a grassy hill, throw a few spears and maybe do an hour of weightlifting, and then you’ll have completed one of six workouts 28-year-old Orla Walsh’s does for training each week.
Walsh – who grew up in St. Albans and whose father, Sean Walsh, twin brother Brian, and 6-year-old brother, Jonah, all live in Fairfield – is a Killington resident with a passion for pushing her limits and believing she can do more. She is a Spartan Racer, covering obstacle courses of anywhere from three to 12-plus miles, which are classified by the following names: Sprint, Super or Beast.
Coming up on completing her first year of Spartan racing and having just joined the 2014 Spartan Pro Team, Walsh said in an interview during a training session at the Hard’ack recreation area last week that she is amazed by progress she’s made and the love she has for the sport.
“I never thought I’d be competing at the level I am now,” she said. “Girls are really amazing athletes.”
An unexpected sport
Though Walsh is fairly new on the Spartan scene, she’s no stranger to races or intensity. She was a track sprinter and cross-country runner in high school and college, and she’s also done plenty of road races post-collegiately, including The Great Race sprint triathlon held in the St. Albans Bay each July.
Walsh also has been an emergency room nurse for five years, a face-paced, trauma-filled job that requires intense focus. “I see a lot of crazy stuff as an ER nurse,” Walsh said. “I’m a trauma junkie.”
So when a friend offered Walsh his spot in a Spartan race in Mont Tremblant, Quebec, Walsh thought she could be well suited for it. She had done one obstacle race before, but not a Spartan race.
“I had no idea what I was getting myself into,” said Walsh.
Walsh loved her first Spartan experience, even if she couldn’t climb the monkey bars, ascend the rope, or swing herself through the rings, for which she had to do 90 burpees at the finish line. Shortly after, she entered and completed a Beast Spartan Race, a 14-mile obstacle-ridden affair that took Walsh a long six hours to complete.
“The Beast last year wasn’t something I was prepared for,” Walsh admitted. But her enthusiasm was un-dampened, and after those two races, Walsh said she was hooked. In describing the thrill of dashing through the woods, jumping, climbing and throwing her way through obstacles, and finishing the challenge of those Spartan Races, Walsh said, “I felt like I was Katniss in ‘The Hunger Games.’”
She added, “From that point on, I was like, ‘I’m going to get these obstacles.’ I instantly thrive off of getting better.”
Over the past year, Walsh has transitioned into the lifestyle of a Spartan Racer. She moved down to Pittsfield to train with some racers who are based there, joined several fitness programs at gyms across the state including Fitness Zone in St. Albans, shifted to part-time nursing to accommodate her sometimes twice-a-day workout schedule, and took on all of the challenges that come along with dedicated physical training: nutrition fueling during races, rest, traveling to training destinations (which could be as far north as Jay Peak or as far south as Killington Mountain), weight lifting, proper gear, and mental toughness.
“I’m just educating myself,” said Walsh.
Walsh appears to be a fast learner – she’s earned podium places in half of the 10 races she’s done this year. Walsh was also just welcomed as a member on the Spartan Pro Race team this summer, and has already garnered several sponsorships. She said she’d like to become a full-time Spartan racer if she finds more sponsors, and even if she doesn’t get to do that, she plans on continuing competing as long as she is physically able.
“I’ll never stop racing,” she said.
Though Walsh may be an outlier in her dedication to what she’s trying to accomplish, she said that she hopes her quick ascent to racing well will encourage others, especially women, to try the sport out.
“I hope to inspire young girls, young women, older women,” she said.
Walsh will be competing in the Spartan Race Championship on Sept. 20, when competitors from all over the world will gather in Killington to race a Beast-level obstacle course on the mountain. This year, she expects to be in much better shape for the long and grueling course.
Believing is succeeding
Walsh attributes her success so far to several factors: listening to her body to avoid injuries, working out with training groups and fitness friends, the belief that she will get better, and a mental toughness that allows one to forget pain.
“You really have to get into that zone,” said Walsh, noting that she enters a state in races where she crosses the threshold of pain. “It’s an ‘‘I’m not feeling this pain,’ place,” she said.
The friends Walsh works out with at Fitness Zone got a special shout-out for her growth as an athlete. “They’re the ones I can really thank,” Walsh said. “They’ve all really supported me.”
Walsh spoke about the value of support and having people believe in her – both things, coinciding with running, helped Walsh get through a difficult period during college, just after her mother died.
“I was in a really rough place,” she said. Walsh added that her sprinting times were growing steadily worse, and she was struggling outside of athletics as well. “I couldn’t find my niche.”
After taking some time off, Walsh entered her fifth and last year at Townsend University in Maryland, and she tried out cross-country running. She said the coach encouraged her to run with the team.
“He saw my potential and believed in me,” she said. “I didn’t believe in myself for a long time.”
Walsh fell in love with running 5k races, and after school she continued doing road racing, which eventually led her to where she is today with Spartan Racing. Now, Walsh said she feels like a part of the obstacle running community, one that is welcoming to any people who are willing to challenge themselves.
“We’re normal human beings taking on a challenge,” said Walsh. “You’re capable of chasing after your dreams.”
Walsh said that she is pursuing her own dream, one that she loves. “I’m living the life I want to live, and I’m so happy,” she said.