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Hurts so good


July 2015

You shouldn’t rapidly go from "zero to a hundred" at the beginning of the outdoor exercise season, according to Sara Ziegele, doctor of physical therapy at Froedtert & the Medical College of Wisconsin Sports Medicine Center. But Ziegele says even people who carefully build up their levels of physical activity are prone to injuries — injuries she treats for different sports on a regular basis.

It is a sentiment that has endured for centuries — the noble pursuit of endurance itself. Athletes are our modern-day warriors. Many push themselves past the widely accepted limits of pain and are rewarded with millions of dollars. But many more put their bodies through severe training regimens and the accompanying agony merely to satisfy a self-enforced goal.

"A bit of that is what’s the carrot at the end of the stick?" says Brent Emery, a cycling silver medalist at the 1984 Summer Olympics who co-owns cycling and fitness shops in Milwaukee and Menomonee Falls. "Why are you even there?"

Emery, now 57, has raced competitively for 43 consecutive years, continues to train for and enter 100-plus-mile cycling events, and has raced in 20 countries on five continents. "You have to put yourself in a frame of mind that overrides the temporary discomfort," Emery says. "What is pulling you to the finish line? What is the goal?"

Emery says endurance athletes are motivated by the sheer personal challenge of accomplishing something they never thought they’d be able to accomplish, or more inspiring still, proving to others who doubted that they could succeed.

"Motivation comes in many forms. It’s vastly different for different people," says Emery, who is most driven by the goal of remaining his doctor’s star patient. "My doctor tells me nobody my age has good health numbers like I do. There’s a reason for those good numbers. It’s called exercise. I like to stay healthy. I choose not to feel lethargic. I’ve competed for 43 years, and I’d like to do it for another 30."

Becca Clifford has only been alive for 20 years, much of that time spent in athletic endeavors. She played volleyball and soccer and ran track at Waukesha West High School, excelled in all three sports, kept up her training when she entered UW-Milwaukee, but felt like something was missing until she competed in the Spartan Race in Chicago in September of 2014.

"I’ve always trained really hard," Clifford says. "When I transitioned from high school to college, I’d kill myself in the gym and for what? When I did the Spartan Race, I thought, this is perfect for me."

Perfect, if you like leaping over flames, crawling under barbed wire in the mud, climbing over walls 4 to 8 feet high and carrying tires, rock-filled buckets or sandbags over obstacle courses ranging from a mile to marathon distances. Clifford did so well in her early races that she was signed by Spartan to be on their national team, competing in events across America.

"Training is different. It’s a lot higher intensity than other sports," says Clifford, who has suffered stress fractures in her foot and "nagging injuries I can push through" during her intense preparations. Such "preparations" include pushing a 300-pound tractor tire (a "present" she requested from her parents for Christmas) and scaling a wall in her backyard.

"I’m a really mentally stubborn person," Clifford says about dealing with pain in her training and competitions. "When I really want something, injuries don’t hold me back from anything. I try to mentally push myself through that."

Clifford is "training every day," gearing up for the Spartan World Championship in Lake Tahoe, "the Holy Grail of Spartan races," in October and the World’s Toughest Mudder event in Las Vegas later this fall. She aims to be one of obstacle course racing’s best competitors and an ambassador to grow the sport.

Clifford will apply to UW-Milwaukee’s nursing school for the spring semester, where she’ll get a clearer clinical understanding of what she’s putting her body through. "It’s totally worth it," Clifford says. "I’m totally obsessed with it. I love it."


This story ran in the July 2015 issue of: