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From Nude Model to Elite Obstacle Course Racer

Former competitive runner Laura Messner finds her groove in obstacle course racing


Laura Messner started the transformation into the popular obstacle-racing elite and social media star three years ago, though back then, no one knew her real name.

Today, people know her for her signature “Messner Pose,” popular posts on Facebook and Twitter and recognizable smile. She’s one of the most well-known obstacle-course racers in the world, in fact, even though she doesn’t quite match up with top elites such as Amelia Boone.

But on Aug. 10, 2012, Laura Messner was in fact a different person under a different name, and she knew nothing about obstacle course racing.

She was nervous and yet intrigued at the Spartan sprint race in Amesbury, Massachusetts. She loved the gym, was stronger than most women and needed to stay fit for modeling and singing, so she wasn’t intimidated. She entered the race for a fun workout.

The first sign that this race would be something more than that came before her wave, when a storm brought a sheeting rain, turning her mascara and war paint into black waterfalls that ran down her face. Again, she was a model, and her messy face made her self-conscious, and yet the people around her didn’t seem to care. Instead of staring at her or judging her, they fist-bumped her and asked her if she was ready to kick some ass.

She lined up and did this weird chant, the Spartan “aroo,” as if they were all tribal warriors, and about midway through the race, a funny thing happened. She found herself not caring about her face either. It was fun to be muddy and sweaty and blow snot rockets across her legs. That was, honestly, who she was. Growing up, she was a tomboy who liked to get dirty. But she craved approval, like most people, and after a lifetime of searching for it from her father, she found it from a photographer who got her started in modeling. She changed her voice, lifting her gruff tone to more of giggling lilt. She changed her hair from red to blonde, a blonde so extreme she had to sign waivers that absolved the salon of any responsibility if her hair fell out. She changed her name.

When she crossed the line that day, she was elated. She stared at her finisher’s medal dangling from her neck, and she realized she was not only happy, she was proud of herself.

She’d made herself happy. She hadn’t experienced anything like that in a long time.

And she didn’t need to take off her clothes to get it.

* * * *

Today, Messner is one of the most popular athletes in obstacle course racing, at least if you go by social media. On Facebook, for instance, you will find hundreds of examples of everyday Spartan racers in her signature pose, tagging it with #StrikeAMessner. Thousands follow her on Facebook and Twitter, and her posts, almost all of which are inspirational messages, garner hundreds of likes. More than a few ask to have their picture taken with her at races.

Her popularity is astounding, especially when you consider her ranking among the elite women. Messner, 25, is an elite competitor, and she places regularly in the top 10 (18 times in 25 races in 2014) and will typically win her age group. But she rarely finishes on the podium, even with her third-place finish in a Spartan race in Arizona earlier this year. She’s not a member of Spartan’s pro team, instead relying on a bevy of sponsors she got herself to cover travel costs to the more than 20 races she finished last year.

Messner, though, believes that may be part of her appeal. Many don’t know about her past as a nude model, but they can sense that Messner gets the same thing out of obstacle racing that they do, rather than just a desire to have a career.

“I’m more driven from the mental part of it,” Messner said. “I focus on how this is making me better as a person.”

In 2014, Messner decided to totally devote herself to OCR, and so she does consider herself a pro. Not only did she travel to all those events, and trained hard for them, she works as a personal trainer with MYLO Obstacle Fitness in Austin, Texas. She enjoys inspiring others, and she loves all obstacle-course racers, from the elites to the age-groupers to the ones just hoping to finish.

Messner needs the income from being a personal trainer, and that’s part of her motivation as well. Giving up nude modeling meant giving up her career, and she hasn’t found a way to replace the bulk of that income. It was a lucrative job, she said.

But just as she did as a pop singer or a model on the margins of popularity, she’s building her brand, only now she considers it giving something back to the people who she believes helped rescue her from what she now realizes was an unhappy life.

“She had a following, even a big one, as a model and a singer, but she was depressed from the emptiness of it,” said her mother, Abby Collins. “She believes the people in OCR like her because they genuinely admire her and love her. There’s just such a difference. She’s working her fan base now just like before. She’s always posting a picture and a message. But now she’s enjoying it as opposed to seeing that as a chore.”

Messner was a shy girl—“pretty much the opposite of what I am today,” she said—until the sixth grade, when she had a solo at a school choir concert. She loved the way she connected with the audience. She got lead roles in school plays and had an acting coach for a few years. She sang and posted professionally filmed videos singing covers on YouTube and Facebook.

She also loved to get pictures taken. Modeling, she said, was a natural next step from all that. It was fun and people told her she was good at it. In 2010 at age 20, she met up with a photographer who told her he could help her build her portfolio to help her do it full-time. “Show me a shoulder,” he said, and it went from there.

“I was nervous as hell the first time,” Messner said, “but I didn’t want to disappoint him. He probably picked up on that.”

Messner, in fact, craved the approval the photographer gave her, and the response she got from the resulting nude photos was all she needed. Messner threw together a persona and dove into modeling. It wasn’t a huge stretch—Messner was comfortable being naked her whole life, Collins said, and her mother admits she wishes she had her daughter’s body—but Messner knew even then she was pretending to be someone else.

She loved her mother, and her stepfather, a military man, helped her get through her most serious issues, such as an eating disorder that started at age 12 because he would command her to eat. But she wanted approval from her father most of all, and he never gave it. If anything, her new career drove him away even more, and yet she needed her career to make her feel special. Nude modeling became her specialty and her escape. It some ways it even lifted her out of the deep depression she felt from her father’s physical and emotional absence. She thought it was what she needed.

“Sexuality is an easily approved business,” Messner said. “It makes them feel good in the moment. It’s like a drug.”

She became so wrapped up in it, she wanted to legally change her name to the one she was using for her modeling and sometime singing career. (She doesn’t want that name in this article, for obvious reasons.)

Four years ago, she says a magazine offered to make her a centerfold, although a representative killed the deal after she refused to sleep with him, she said. Others approached her to star in porn movies, waving thousands of dollars in her face. Some of the photo shoots she did were pretty crazy, she said, but she never did hard-core images with another man. She’s proud of that today.

“At the end of the day, you start thinking about their story,” Messner said. “I view sex as something very personal and passionate, and I would have felt like a rag doll. I pictured myself watching myself doing that, and I asked myself if it would make me feel sexy. The answer was just the opposite.”



* * * *

The transformation from nude model to OCR elite was a slow one, even if she credits that first race for first putting the thought in her head.

Obstacle-course racing is demanding, both from its intensity and the scrapes and bruises it brings, and though Messner had the endurance and the muscle thanks to her long hours in the gym, her body had a hard time adjusting to the punishment.

“I remember, after a race, a Spartan Beast (the longest race of the three Spartan events), looking at my ankles and seeing that they were as big as my calves,” Messner said, “and I told myself I was done.”

But that’s also how she fell in love with the sport. When she hurt her knee, racers who loved the sport as much as her asked her about it. It hit her that these people were asking because they cared about her, not because they were worried about it looking bad in a shoot.

“Once I got involved in OCR, I had actual, real friends,” Messner said. “I figured out that people will love you for who you are.”

She took a little time off to heal, and to figure out what was going on in her head, and when she returned, in a race in Miami in early 2013, she decided to enter as Laura Messner, not under her old name. She’d already made some Spartan friends, and they ran up to her and addressed her by that old name. Messner corrected them and, rather than explain, allowed them to offer flustered apologies.

It was a good start to reclaiming herself, but it would still take time. Even when she was correcting people at the race in Miami, she was still doing some nude modeling under her old name during the trip. Messner posed nude because that’s how she made her living, and it’s also how she paid for her trips to OCR events.

Around the same time, Messner began to see her time in OCR as a way to relax and have fun. That’s how she came up with what’s known as the Messner Pose. The pose looks like something a pro wrestler would do—it’s close to Hulk Hogan’s move during his Hulkamania days—and she never expected anything to come out of it, even after Spartan posted the photo on its Facebook page her first time in a 2013 race. When she did it again later that year, a fellow elite called it her signature pose.

By that point, Messner had built a loyal fan base by adding hundreds of fellow racers to her Facebook page.

People began to recognize her at races, and she would pose for pictures with them. Others did the pose when she wasn’t at a race and tagged it with #StrikeAMessner. After her races in the elite waves, she hung around all day, greeting other racers and even running with them at times.

By being herself, and doing something she loved, she actually became far more popular in the OCR world—and got far more affirmation—than the model taking off her clothes.

“I never had people want to take my picture with me when I was modeling,” Messner said. “I was cocooning myself. But now I think it’s awesome. People are excited to see me. That helps me want to push forward. That’s very inspirational. I come early to the races now just in case for that. And I stay late just for that.”

* * * *

Even though she hasn’t posed nude in more than two years, Messner’s past as a nude model doesn’t seem to have affected her too much, other than drawing a few snickers. Her sponsors haven’t pulled back either.

“I can totally see why people don’t respect it,” she said. “If I didn’t know myself, I’d probably be a little iffy about it myself. I’ve had people voice some opinions that they don’t like that about me. But for the most part, people are gracious and haven’t gossiped about it.”

As for her ability, Messner is comfortable with her place among the elite racers. She was ninth in points among the Spartan females in 2014, and she was proud of that, although she admitted that was partly a result of her frequent racing as it was her ability.

“I’m a little above mediocre as far as they go,” she said of the top elites. “To be honest, I don’t know if I can get as fast as, say, Amelia (Boone, a past Spartan world champion). But I’m OK with that.”

Then again, Messner is only 25 (she turns 26 in December), and she’s in her second real year devoted to racing. There are already signs the racing and all the training are both paying off. She could always breathe during races, but her legs got weaker as it went on, and she had to pull back near the end. But as the season went on, her legs got stronger, and she finished the races stronger.

In August of 2014, she hired Yancy Culp, one of the top coaches in OCR, to up her game. She thinks she can be a serious contender this year. She needs to work on her running, both on her technique and her tolerance for it. She’s especially strong for a female, and the obstacles don’t bother her. She placed seventh in her age group in the 2014 Spartan World Championships but only 175th overall. Even against an exceptionally strong, elite field, she hopes to do much better this year.

She moved out of her mother’s home in New Hampshire this spring to work at MYLO. She got along well with her mother, but she also thinks the move will make her a better racer.

So far, results, honestly, have been great for an average racer but only OK for a racer who wants to be considered elite. She’s ran many BattleFrog races and a few Spartan races, and though she continues to do well in her age group and finish in the top 10 in gender at all races, she also tends to finish in the 40s overall. She’s also battled various injuries.

RELATED: 2015 Obstacle Course Racing World Championships



* * * *

Messner still works as a model.

She had a paid modeling gig in August, but it was a fitness shoot. She was clothed, she said and laughed. She also recently got a gig with Michelob Ultra in a marketing campaign with a few other elites, including Isaiah Vidal. She sounds downright giddy about the Michelob ads.

“I see my face in gas stations and Circle Ks and all over,” Messner said, “or even a billboard sometimes, and I’ll think to myself, ‘Dang! That’s me!’”

There are those who worry about her going back to nude modeling, she said, because it’s easy money. But she made enough money to sustain her for a while, even if she had to live with her mother for a while and drive a crappy car that breaks down on her all the time. She is staying with a friend now in Austin but hopes to be on her own soon.

“Now I can focus on me,” she said “and become that role model I want to be for other people.”

For now, she’s just happy to have a significant spot in her new world. She has many friends, something she’s never had in her life, except maybe for a handful in high school, and many chances to find her own victories. She hasn’t had that either.

“I’m really happy she seems to have found her thing,” Collins said. “It gets her excited to get out of bed and do it again. I haven’t found that myself yet, and she already has.”

That wasn’t as apparent in the Amesbury Spartan race last August, the one where she celebrated her two-year anniversary. The week before, though, she did the Battle Frog Race in New Jersey, an event loaded with obstacles. One near the end of the brutal 15K race was a slick, 90-degree wall with a single, skinny rope to help her up. In order to finish the race, all participants had to complete every obstacle, rather than just take a burpee penalty, as Spartan allows. Many elites had to give up.

But here’s where she gets something out of obstacle racing that other professionals may not. Messner knows the struggle. She’s used it to give up a lucrative career and make herself better. And so she Messner refused to give up. She skidded her feet, slipped and, using the rope, clawed her way near the end of the wall.

And then she later posted on Facebook, for her fans and supporters and friends, and most of all herself, this simple message: “AND I DID IT!”