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Rose Wetzel-Sinnett Determined to Keep Spartan Races Fun

Against the gray backdrop of the Gravel Pit north of Las Vegas, where dust hung in the dry air and rocks littered the ground, Rose Wetzel-Sinnett looked like a fairy in a prison.

Many of her competitors in the elite wave of the Vegas Super Spartan wore black tank tops and shorts, which fit the stark setting. Rose chose a rainbow tutu that fanned out from her sprite-like but well-muscled frame, a Tinkerbell with biceps.

It was hard to spot the leaders, Amelia Boone and TyAnn Clark, among the startled elite guys as they flew past, even if you squinted through the powder and grit and sun. But you could see Rose just a few steps behind. That tutu was hard to miss.

A few rolled their eyes at the practicality of it. Wouldn’t it snag in the barbed wire? Or wasn’t it silly? Spartan officials seemed to think so: They would later ban costumes in the more visible events, such as this year’s upcoming world championship. And at least one person called her out in a Facebook post, a person whom Rose called a friend. That person wrote that anyone who was wearing a costume at a Spartan event, deep down, just wanted attention.

But the costume was a part of Rose’s long-term plan. It’s a plan that kept her from burning out during a track career that flirted with the U.S. Olympic Trials but fell short, and it’s a plan that keeps her going during the demands of being one of the top pros in obstacle racing, a member of the Spartan team and the wear and tear that comes from being 33 and an active, aerobic athlete.

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Rose wore the tutu in early 2014. She always does early in the year. She emphasizes training, not racing, in the beginning of the season, and the tutu is a reminder for her not to be disappointed with the results.

However, she’s rarely disappointed once the season starts. In the 2014 season she won 8 out the 15 races she entered, more than any other Spartan, male or female. She placed in the top 10 in the grueling, 16-mile Spartan World Championships after hurting her ankle on the course, then later placed in the top 5 in the much shorter, speedier Warrior Dash World Championships a few weeks later. In 2015, she’s won five races and sits at the top of Spartan points standings for women.

This year, after training for beating the world record in the beer mile, and then ditching that plan, she tried something a little different to mix things up. She wanted to have fun again.

Inspired by the success of Kacy Catanzaro, Rose auditioned for the NBC show “American Ninja Warrior” this past spring. The show, after all, challenges constants to work through a series of obstacles, just like her sport.

She competed in the Houston region qualifiers and tied with Ninja Warrior superstar Kacy Catanzaro for going the furthest for the women that night. She has a high chance, she said, of making the wild card for the Las Vegas Finals, which will air Aug. 31.

“I do think variety is the spice of life or the spice of my life,” Wetzel-Sinnett says. “I’ve been able to have fun. I enjoy the process. I enjoy it the whole time.”

Rose may be 33, but she still enjoys having fun, much like a kid. Maybe that’s because she had to learn how.

• • •

One of Rose’s first childhood memories was of being left at a rest stop during a road trip. Eventually her parents came back for her, but the lesson stuck.

“You could be forgotten,” Rose says. “So you have to be loud. Be noticeable. Be noteworthy.”

Rose now manages all three with ease, and that’s not just because of the costumes. One question usually brings a flurry of words so fast and furious from her that you’d be tempted to crouch in a foxhole if she didn’t temper the torrent with a smile that threatens to swallow her face and an intense sense of humor. She’ll warn you she can talk, and then she’ll talk. A lot.

The talking, though, has a purpose. Others in her family were quiet. One brother meditated in the woods. Some of her brothers battled clinical depression. Rose worked hard to make them smile and bring a glint to their lifeless eyes. That’s how she learned how to smile herself. It’s how she learned how to laugh. It’s how she learned the importance of fun.

She loved her family, and today her relationship with them remains strong, but growing up, love and affection in her family were doled out in small quantities, especially compared to the fire and brimstone, so much so that when she began dating Tim Sinnett, his posse of friends both male and female drove her crazy with jealousy. She had to learn that love and affection weren’t limited resources, and someone like Sinnett, now considered one of the top personal trainers, had an endless supply. They’ve been married four years.

Still, her hardscrabble childhood gave her a reason to love running. Her parents couldn’t reward her with money because there wasn’t much to go around, or food, because at times there wasn’t a lot of that, either. When she finished her chores, her parents gave her freedom, because that was free, and she would go outside and run the way a puppy attacks the backyard, reveling in the way her hair blew in the wind. Getting to run meant she had pleased her parents. That positive association with running, coupled with some natural ability, made her a track star in high school and earned her a scholarship to Georgetown University. Her hard work and dedication resulted in a solid college career, which included fast PRs in the 800-meter run (2:07.87), mile (4:42) and 5K (16:14).

Now she calls her family her biggest inspiration. She wants to earn enough prize money to buy them a “much-needed” vacation, she says. She also wishes there were more races — or, heck, one race—to benefit those who struggle with mental illness and possibly find ways to curb its effects.

“Watching my parents and older siblings tackle huge obstacles in their lives has given me the courage to stand tall and tackle my own obstacles confidently,” Rose says, “both in life and in obstacle racing.”

• • •

Running was fun, but it was also hard, and she saw how it consumed others once she got to college. Some of the other runners had eating disorders, and practices were intense. She had her own demons as well, from the leftover insecurity she felt when the other girls made fun of her for wearing hand-me-downs in school to the anxiety from the pressure she put on herself to excel academically at at running. She made some deals with herself to keep herself from going mad.

Number one, she would make friends with her competition, so if she won, it was great, and if she lost, her friends won, and that was great too. That’s something she tries to carry over today (and indeed, some of her closest friends are other OCR racers, and others are fellow contestants on “American Ninja Warrior”).

Number two, she would smile and laugh at the starting line. And number three, she would start to wear costumes to casual races when she didn’t have to wear a track uniform for Georgetown. The costumes reminded her to enjoy racing, and therefore, helped her fulfill the other deals. There was a spiritual quality to racing, too, something she related to more than Catholicism. Races, the costumes reminded her, were fun. She also noticed the ways others watching the race would smile when she ran by. Maybe she was bringing a little light to someone else battling demons just like her brothers.

So Rose didn’t think much of it when she wore a Wonder Woman costume to a Spartan race. The same lessons she’d learned from track applied there. In fact, the costumes helped her plan out her season, a unique trait that Rose believes gives her an edge over other OCR racers.

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As a runner, Rose for years had worked off periodization, a racing season of tapering, hard workouts and sharpening and an off-season of strengthening, endurance and building base miles. She refined those tactics while coaching and working as a personal trainer, something she’s done for nine years. So at the beginning of this year, even though OCR was still new to her, as she’d been in it for just a few months, she divided her obstacle racing season into three phases. In the first phase, she would continue to build base miles and refused to taper for her races. She would run them hard and try to win, but if she didn’t, she wouldn’t worry about it. This was one reason why she wore the tutu in that Vegas race in January: It helped temper her natural competitive instinct. In the second phase, she would wean herself from the costumes, and in the third phase, she would taper before the races and sharpen her speed in time for the world championships.

Rose’s approach is tired and true in the running world, but it still seems like a new concept with obstacle racers, who may not have the background in competitive running that she did. Many of the elites will tell you they race too much, and there’s always another competitive event every weekend, either from Spartan or Bone Frog or the Warrior Dash. Spartan flies elites on its pro team out to races, and for many that’s at least twice a month. It’s hard enough for runners to race their best that often, but obstacle racing, where scrapes, bumps and bruises are common, serves up a higher level of wear and tear.

“She’s been able to utilize her years of knowledge, and I’m playing catch up,” says TyAnn Clark, who was one of Rose’s strongest rivals before having to take some time off this year because of health problems. She remains one of Rose’s good friends and has a background as an elite marathoner. “Most people in this industry do multiple races all year, and our races are held every weekend, sometimes in several states. I don’t quite understand how she periodizes as she races as much as everyone else.”

Rose says again that it’s her training that she adjusts, not her racing. She goes as hard as everyone else, even when she’s wearing a costume. Those adjustments give her endurance, strength and speed as she tapers for races leading to the world championships. It should be no surprise that she’s getting stronger as the season goes on, Rose says, and she believes she will peak for this year’s world championships. Last year’s grueling, 16-mile beast, where she twisted an ankle, was a disappointment, she says, and smudged what was otherwise an incredible season of winning most of the shorter races. She plans to do better this year and will move to Colorado to train at altitude for this year’s Spartan World Championships in Tahoe.

“Rose has some serious speed,” Clark says. “Sometimes it doesn’t even matter how fast she is on obstacles because she can make it all up in her running.”

• • •

Spartan, more than any other obstacle racing company, rebels against the goofy image that the OCR world still has in many social circles. Spartan’s worked hard to make OCR an Olympic sport, and Joe DeSena, the founder of Spartan, derisively refers to some of his competitors such as Warrior Dash and Tough Mudder as “parties.”

So the organization recently told its pro team members and a handful of other elites not to wear costumes for televised races or the world championships because officials wanted their pros to look like serious, focused athletes competing for prize money and a place on the podium, not frat boys or sorority girls in horned helmets out for a crazy, wild time.

Rose understands that OCR still fights that frat boy image, and she even buys the argument that costumes help feed that image. She would have voted to get rid of the costumes in televised events as well. But she hopes Spartan doesn’t ban them permanently.

“Costumes can serve a higher purpose than just a costume,” Rose says. “People are just too quick to write them off as being silly.”

That tutu, for instance, was a statement to Self magazine after the publication made fun of a woman racing in one. As it turns out, the young woman had cancer and the story went viral. Rose’s hair, not her tutu, got caught in the barbed wire, so the costume didn’t slow her down.

Wonder Woman, she says, doesn’t make a political statement, but that costume empowers her.

“You get people yelling, ‘Go Wonder Woman,’ and I feel good. I feel strong,” Rose says. “It’s fun to feel strong. It’s empowering to feel strong. As crazy as it sounds, those doggone costumes may help me perform better.”

Rose may help make OCR more popular with her appearance in “American Ninja Warrior.” She got into the program after she had given up on it because she didn’t have time to put together a video. Producers from the show noticed she had started to apply and urged her to finish it. She and Tim threw together a three-minute video of her messing around on her backyard gymnasium.

“We literally hit the submit button at 11:59 p.m. the day of the deadline,” Rose says. “But the opportunity was too awesome to pass up. It’s such a cool show right?”

Rose joined a rock-climbing gym to train, but there was only so much she could do in five weeks, she says, to get ready for the specific obstacles of the show. Still, she feels good about her performance, and she continues to train for it, only saying that she hopes it will be a part of her life for years to come. She feels the same way about OCR. She won’t race as many Spartan events, but she will target the televised races and, of course, the world championships. She remains sponsored by Reebok, which continues to push an OCR line of shoes, and BeetElite, a supplement, as well as Panasonic. This allows her to support herself through obstacle racing, though she still works a bit as a personal trainer.

“The obstacle course racing has taught me to think on my feet and be prepared for everything,” Rose says.

A few may deride her costumes, but most don’t seem to mind them, and some, like Clark, appreciate the fun behind them. Chikorita De Lego, another elite OCR competitor, says Wonder Woman inspired her as well. Clark says she wears a few herself.

“I love her costumes,” Clark says. “It just helps you to not take things so seriously. Costumes are a part of the OCR world. You will see all kinds of people dressed up throughout.”

Life can be serious, and growing up, Rose discovered it can be far too serious. Wearing the costumes early in the year will ensure that she lines up to race relaxed, ready to feel the wind on her face, and once again appreciate being fast and free.

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