For her 42nd birthday last August, Debbie Moreau got a new obstacle: Her dad, Jean Castonguay, built her an 8-foot climbing wall in her Greene yard. Goes nicely with Moreau’s other home-made training tools, which include five-gallon cement-filled buckets for hauling up a tree via a pulley system and a straw man for heaving spears at. Good times.
And now that the snow is mostly gone, Moreau’s psyched to get back to normal training for Reebok Spartan races, in which she’s a top-level competitor, finishing No. 1 in her age division, the seventh female overall, in U.S. Spartan 300: Elites last season. At least, inasmuch as it is possible to train for events that make you vault over flames, scamper up a sloping wall basted with grease, roll through mud with barbed wire inches above you, etc. (Check out spartanrace.com to sample the full flavor.)
This enthusiasm Moreau shares with best friend and fellow Spartan athlete Natasha Leighton, whose younger daughter pointed out that Leighton is “not like most moms” partly because she doesn’t mind rolling in the mud.
Leighton, 40, of Naples, and Moreau have competed with distinction on the Maine road racing circuit for years. They are both marathoners. Moreau has done 31; she set her PR of 3:09:15 at the 2008 Mount Desert Island Marathon, which she had won two years earlier in 3:16.
Readfield native Leighton has 22 marathons to her credit, finishes consistently in the 3:30s, and is running Boston for the ninth time on Monday. Maine was her first marathon in 1997 when she was Natasha Meikle not long out of USM. At about mile 17, she hit the wall, figuratively, and collapsed, literally. Then she got up in a daze and finished in 3:37.
That’s the kind of pluck that propels a woman into multi-obstacle, off-road, varying-distance races like the Spartans. As trails, triathlons and even rollerblade races have lured many longtime racers away from the monotony of years on the roads, adventure races are doing so now.
In 2012, “I did the Spartan (in Amesbury, Mass.) because road races seemed tedious to me and the adventure of climbing and crawling and jumping, the intensity of these challenges, appealed to me more,” said Heidi Turner O’Connor, a mom of three who lives in Bar Harbor, will test for her black belt in karate next week, and will do that Spartan Sprint again, on a team including husband Ezra, this summer.
Maine has no Spartan events, so travel is always part of the regimen for devotees. Moreau and Leighton met a few years ago when both lived in Turner, and Leighton, out for a run one day, passed Moreau raking her yard and asked if she knew of any local trails. Today, both full-time nurses, both moms of two, they are a dual phenomenon and last weekend ventured down to the Miami Super Spartan – eight-plus all-terrain miles with 21 obstacles to menace you in the Florida heat.
In the open, every-person divisions, your time tends to inflate while you wait for the person ahead of you to stop dropping the 65-pound Atlas ball, or whatever. Moreau and Leighton compete in the elite heat, essentially unobstructed and thus mistresses of their own fates.
The catch for everybody is mess up on an obstacle and you are penalized 30 time-and-energy-consuming, stand-squat-kick-jump burpees. Moreau’s least favorite challenge is the spear throw; her favorite is the 15-foot rope climb, even though she stands exactly one-third its length. Leighton, also 100 pounds, is marginally shorter. Such economy of frame can be an advantage if you’re crawling under barbed wire, or not if you have to jump to seize nylon-rope monkey bars or tote a sandbag.
But in Florida, racing on Saturday and Sunday by the way, both women finished with accustomed, mud-drenched aplomb. Moreau was second, behind April Dee of Colorado, in 1:31; Leighton was the 19th elite woman of 76 in 1:55.
Moreau, whose fiance, Norm Koch, is a Spartan course-designer and race director, won the Circuit Paul Ricard Spartan Super in France last November; Leighton has finished very high, too – e.g., third in the hilly Virginia Super last August.
This Spartan season will climax mountainously with the World Championship Beast (“12+ mile Obstacle Race from Hell”) at Killington, Vt., on Saturday, Sept. 20. It’s a 40-obstacler with rich prize money, and both women will compete.
The next day sees the coming of the Ultra Beast: distance a bit over the marathon’s 26.2, with 60 obstacles to play on.
Leighton may run it. Moreau did both races last year, in 5-plus hours and 13-plus hours respectively, was the ninth woman overall, and hopes to finish in the top 10 again. Whatever her and Leighton’s results there, they have already succeeded brilliantly in hitting their goal of avoiding boredom on the roads.
John Rolfe of Portland writes a weekly column for the Telegram. He can be contacted at 791-6429 or at firstname.lastname@example.org