Take 5: Elite athlete Orla Walsh talks Breckenridge Spartan Race
June 9, 2015
Meet the Vermontster.
For nearly two years, Orla Walsh has proudly brandished the nickname to intimidate the hell out of competitors at Spartan Races — the ridiculously difficult obstacle courses known for mud, fire and burpees. The 29-year-old Vermont native now lives in Breckenridge, but, when she first got into the larger-than-life racing scene in early 2014, she wanted to make a name for herself — literally and figuratively.
"I just try to stand out from other people, you know?" says Walsh, who even includes the nickname on her Facebook page. "I just wanted to scare people I guess, like, 'Watch out, the Vermontster is coming!'"
And it's worked like a frightening charm. She has competed in nearly 20 Spartans and made the podium seven times this year alone, including a first-place finish at the Miller Park stadium race in Milwaukee on May 23.
Her sights are set on another win this weekend when Breckenridge hosts its inaugural Spartan. On Saturday morning, she'll duke it out with fellow elite athletes at the Spartan Sprint — a 5K course with 20 or more obstacles — then head back to her 9-to-5 as a Summit County paramedic come Monday.
Before braving the unforgiving altitude of her adopted hometown, she spoke with the Summit Daily sports desk about her nickname, the Spartan community and how she'll celebrate once the torture is over.
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Summit Daily: Let's start with the obvious: Why put yourself through the torture of the Spartan?
Orla Walsh: I just found a passion for doing these kinds of races. I'm incredibly competitive, so I guess there's torture, but it really does make me happy. It makes me smile. The community around these races is just a big family. Sure, you have professional athletes out there making money, but, to go from the couch to the 5K to the Beast (12-plus miles), that's just a very cool thing I think.
SD: Talk about your first Spartan. What convinced you to try it out?
OW: My mom passed away my senior year of high school. It was hard, and, ever since then, I was struggling, just having a rough go of life. I needed something to just challenge me, so, for my first one in Canada — I can't remember the name of the town — my friends literally just dragged me with them. I'd never even climbed a rope before, but I was so determined after that one to come back and do more. When I went out there, I felt like Katniss, you know, from "Hunger Games" (laughs).
SD: When you're at the line, what's the final thing going through your head before the starting gun?
OW: Oh man, I sometimes get butterflies in my stomach. Just talking to you is giving me butterflies. But, when you're at the line, you just talk yourself through it, say you're going to do your best, you're going to kick ass. It's so easy to play mental games with yourself, get nervous about the people ahead of you. I just keep those positive thoughts going — I don't get caught up on the other people out there.
Obstacle races are funny in the way that they don't always end up the way you should, and they always spring new obstacles on us. The newest one was the multi-bar. I failed that thing miserably once, so I told myself I wasn't going to fail it again. I decided to rig something up in the gym to get better, and people were just looking at me like a crazy person.
SD: What obstacle is making you nervous right now, even before seeing the course?
OW: I think the mountain itself will be the biggest challenge. That's really my biggest fear. Sure, there's the multi-bar, and the spear is always a 50/50 — it takes a lot of practice — but even for people who live up here, elevation can affect us. I know a lot of people are nervous and scared about that, and I'm really nervous about it, too. This will be the highest Spartan I've ever done. Even the world championships at Tahoe might not go this high — they definitely start lower.
SD: How do you unwind after a Spartan?
OW: Well, this one I was thinking about going for a hike along the course on Sunday, the Beast course. It might be kind of fun to see it when there aren't a ton of people out there. But, for most races, I like to go out with my friends the night before, maybe get a little rowdy if I can handle it. Then, the next day, I'll go for a nice, slow jog or walk, just trying to loosen things up. I might even go sit in the pool, get that recovery going quick, so I can start training for the next race. If you race too much, you never have time to recover and get better. It's TLC — just love your body, be kind for it, don't go for a hike. Maybe I actually won't go up there on Sunday. That's not too smart (laughs).