Most of the people in their 20s and 30s that compete alongside Tony Phinisey in Spartan Races — known as one of the world’s most challenging obstacle races — are unaware he and members of his team are two or three decades their senior.
“They don’t know if we don’t tell ’em,” Phinisey said Saturday while training with five teammates — including his 9-year-old grandson, Tyson — on the hill at the overpass on Highway 182 that leads into downtown Columbus. “No, we just get in there and we just make it happen. It’s kind of funny.”
Spartan races are made up of a series of military-influenced obstacle races for men, women and children that span from three miles to marathon distances.
Phinisey — a 53-year-old Columbus native and UPS delivery driver — only started taking part in the races at age 50 after his nephew introduced him to a Warrior Dash, a 5K obstacle course race.
The lifelong fitness aficionado — a certified personal trainer who played college football for a time and works as the wellness expert for his UPS division — soon decided he wanted to take his participation to the next level.
“I wanted to challenge myself,” he said. “This is the number one obstacle race in the world. It’s major, the top level.”
Soon Phinisey’s son-in-law, Evan Webber, 28, and a slew of Columbus friends — most of whom are also past what many would consider to be prime age for such activities — joined in. They include Larry Dixon, 53; Earnest Lang Jr., 22; Earnest Lang Sr., 52; and fellow UPS-driver, Richard Morgan, 52.
Thus far, they’ve competed in Spartan’s Mississippi Sprint, Alabama Super, Dallas Beast Weekend, as well as the non-Spartan hosted Warrior Dash in Jackson and the Crucible Challenge in Starkville.
They plan to compete in Spartan’s Houston Sprint in March, the Chicago Super and Sprint Weekend in June and then the Dallas Beast Weekend again in October. Phinisey calls that particular race “the one you love to hate.”
“The terrain is tough,” he said, adding the elevation, at above 700-feet, was a challenge for the flatland dwellers. “We just have these little, itty-bitty hills to train on. But nothing stops us.”
Phinisey said he “looked for the longest time” for a hill to train on, before one day realizing what was right in front of him while driving his UPS truck into Columbus. “I said, ‘That’s my hill.'”
While Phinisey said he and his teammates still have day jobs, and thus cannot train as often as many of the other competitors, they do “pretty well.”
While many who compete in Spartan Races sustain injuries like broken ankles or have heart issues during the races, Phinisey remembers only one such instance himself: He had to swim after running three miles and suddenly could not use his legs.
“I’d taken swimming classes at (Mississippi University for Women), so I just flipped on my back and did a survival swim,” he said, adding they’ve since removed most of the swimming at Spatan events, and now require life jackets when it is included, since many competitors were having similar issues.
He said people must research the races before joining.
While many of the obstacles are unknown ahead of time, Phinisey said he tells his teammates to view them just like obstacles in life.
“I told Richard (Morgan) several years ago when we started, ‘This is life. We negotiate obstacles. We don’t know what’s going to happen, and they’re going to happen, but we just need to be prepared,'” he said.
Morgan said such teamwork has brought the friends closer.
“This gave us a bond that’s unbreakable,” he said.
The schedule, the training
They train, often as early as 8 a.m., on Saturday mornings at the hill, where they do exercises like pushing large tires up the hill and jumping over them — and whenever else they can work into their schedules. Sometimes, they’ll train at different sports fields, running, jumping, practicing wall jumps, or sprinting 400 to 500 yards after doing 15 to 20 burpees. Other times, they’ll run the trail around Lake Lowndes.
“One thing the guys like about me, it’s never the same,” he said.
Tyson Phinisey, 9, who recently competed in his first kids’ Spartan race, agreed.
“One thing I know about (his training), it’s gotta be different,” he said.
Tony Phinisey said he emphasizes surprising the body.
“You’ve gotta fool the body; make sure it’s not one-sided,” he said. “If you can run this hill two times a month for about 30 minutes, it’s gonna tone you up. It’s a great cardiovascular workout and it doesn’t beat your knees up like running on asphalt…I can’t say enough about it.”
As part of a plan to eventually compete in Spartan Races full-time, Phinisey also looks to expand his personal training business and continue to encourage people to workout no matter their situation.
“If you’ve got grass or a hill, all you really need is right here,” he said. “I want to help people realize they don’t need stuff to be all they can be.”
He also would soon like to involve more youth in the races.
“This helps in all aspects of life and not everyone’s geared toward traditional sports, but kids love to climb hills, crawl through mud, and climb walls,” he said, adding such activities are needed to contrast the often-sedentary lifestyles of many children. “Sitting in their classroom, homes all day… When we were young, we went outside. Now they’re all bottled up and that’s why they want to tear up everything.”
Personally, Phinisey said participating in the Spartan Races is just an extension of his love for physical activity.
“It just makes me feel good. It makes life better,” he said. “I feel guilty sometimes being 53 years old and being able to do the things I do, but it keeps a smile on my face. It’s my getaway. Everyone needs something to take them away. This is my drug.”
Those interested in joining Phinisey for Spartan or other training can reach him at 662-549-8914.
Sam Luvisi is news editor and covers education for The Dispatch.
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