By Pete Williams
MINNEOLA, Fla. – Maci and Clint Lowery thought they were ready. Longtime triathletes, marathoners, and ultra-distance racers, they entered a few obstacle races last year and couldn’t believe how gassed they were after a few simple challenges.
The Lowerys weren’t weakling runners struggling to carry a log or pull themselves over a wall. She’s a firefighter and he’s a paramedic. She’s played in professional women’s football leagues. Both have backgrounds in strength training and the lean, camera-ready physiques to prove it. (Maci appears on the cover of our book Obstacle Fit, crawling under barbwire.)
It’s not like the Lowerys struggled to finish the obstacle races. But they weren’t accustomed to being pushed so hard for a relatively short 5K or 6-mile course.
“We’re used to being able to run forever,” says Maci, a six-time marathon finisher. “But two races and we were just gassed.”
Maci already was looking for a different training regimen to prepare for football, which at the moment is in hiatus. Clint, a three-time Ironman finisher who lost 35 pounds during the popular late ’90s ‘Body for Life” program, is always up for a new challenge. Together they discovered CrossFit, perhaps the biggest fitness phenomenon of the last five years. But rather than just joining a box, they created one, purchasing a personal fitness studio in March and transforming it into “The Sweat Factory,” an official CrossFit affiliate.
CrossFit has aligned itself closely with obstacle racing since it shares a similar demographic: athletes in their late 20s to early 40s looking for a more challenging, group-fitness experience and sense of community. But many CrossFit boxes place little emphasis on running. CrossFitters typically power through obstacles during races, but struggle with the running, especially in longer events.
That’s where The Sweat Factory is different. At first glance, it’s a modest (though well-equipped), 1,500-square-foot endcap unit in a strip mall/office park right off of US Highway 27 on the border of Clermont and Minneola. Some of that square footage includes an outdoor deck they added.
But the game changer, besides the couple’s background in endurance sports, is that The Sweat Factory is adjacent to a bike/running trail that goes on for miles in either direction. That enables the Lowerys, both CrossFit-certified coaches, to prescribe runs of a quarter-mile, half-mile or even longer into a typical CrossFit workout of the day (WOD).
The trail goes in one direction for a mile and a half to a waterfront park. That makes for a perfect 3-mile loop that the Lowerys have used to create their own obstacle course featuring Burpees and push-ups in the lake, tire pulls on the beach, and various stations along the way, including a half mile of jump squats while carrying a medicine ball uphill.
The winner of the inaugural 5K last month was an Ironman finisher who navigated the loop in 28 minutes and said it was the toughest 5K he’d ever done. Like the other athletes, he had to jump 20 times in a bounce house before reaching the finish line.
“Sounds easy until you do it at the end of a race,” Clint says.
It’s early Friday morning and Clint is standing on the deck, which along with nearby pull-up bars still has that freshly-built look. There are tires of all sizes, along with sandbags, a pile of sand, sledgehammers, and 5-gallon orange buckets. “It’s amazing how much of this comes from Home Depot,” he says.
Maci is inside coaching a group through a WOD consisting of Spartan pushups, sit-ups, ring dips, jumping rope, and other fun. In less than six months they’ve built a membership of 160 with little marketing beyond Facebook, a website, and word-of-mouth.
Not bad considering they projected it would take a year to draw 100 members and they now must compete with a newer box a half-mile away. And definitely impressive considering they maintain the typical full-time schedules of first responders, working 24-hour shifts followed by 48 hours off.
On this morning, they’ve come directly from a shift. They’ll work through the morning classes, go home to handle paperwork and other gym-related matters, and then return for classes from 5 to 8 p.m. They’ve hired several other coaches, including a firefighting-couple that typically works opposite shifts at the station. “It’s been a crazy six months,” Maci says.
More than 6,000 CrossFit boxes have popped up on every corner of America, even in this sleepy northwest Orlando suburb best known in the endurance world as the home of a USA Triathlon national training center.
Obstacle training, Maci says, is one differentiating factor for The Sweat Factory. When the Lowerys surveyed prospective members about what they were looking for in a box, everyone checked the obstacle racing box. The Sweat Factory plans to field a large team for a Monster Challenges obstacle event on Sept. 14 in Clermont.
No doubt they’ll be prepared. The Sweat Factory WODs show athletes how to recover quickly from obstacles and keep running. Clint created the programming, which includes interval training, tempo runs, and other lactate threshold work.
“Most boxes don’t run as much as we do,” Maci says. “That attracts a lot of people and might keep a few away. But that’s part of our background and it makes sense to incorporate it.”
Clint has Sweat Factory members keep track of their three-rep max for various Olympic lifts. “CrossFit is known for getting people extremely ripped, but not always stronger,” he says. “This way they can see how they’re also gaining strength.”
Clint says The Sweat Factory could move to a bigger location, but would prefer to stay near the running trail. There’s a grassy field behind the strip mall where they plan to build obstacles, including walls. They easily could expand by taking down a wall if they can convince their neighbor – a church group that only meets on Sundays when The Sweat Factory is closed – to move.
For now they’ll continue with perhaps the most creative slate of programming of any CrossFit box. There will be a firefighter-themed WOD with all Lake County fire departments on Oct. 12 at the Lake Tech Institute of Public Safety, with proceeds going toward the families of the 19 firefighters who perished recently in Arizona.
The Sweat Factory also will host another obstacle-themed 5K on Aug. 26 at 6:30 p.m., with a party to follow.
“Regular gyms can be so intimidating,” Maci says. “We’re able to mix CrossFit with the obstacle element and people are just having a blast with it.”