Six years ago a doctor told Rob Bowen that he would never walk again. Bowen refused to listen.
"That is one sure way to make me want to do something — tell me I can't do it," said the 34-year-old St. Petersburg man.
On a trip to Thailand in 2006, Bowen contracted a bad case of food poisoning that developed into Guillain-Barré syndrome, a serious disorder that causes the body's immune system to attack the nervous system.
In the years that followed, Bowen battled his way back to good health and peak fitness.
"I had to literally start at zero," said Bowen, an acclaimed interior designer who now works out six days a week. "But now, I am in the best shape of my life. I wake up every day, ready for anything."
Progress was slow at first, but eventually he fell in with a group of adventurous souls who need more than the same old 5K road run to really get their blood pumping. Their solution: turning a basic run into a challenge-filled obstacle course.
"My biggest problem has always been that I bore easily," said Bowen, who is one of the most accomplished interior designers in the Tampa Bay area.
"I'm always looking for something fresh and new. That's the best way to keep a fitness program going."
Now he's working to spread the word — and the fun — to a wider audience. Next weekend, he and his team are adding an obstacle course to an event near to his heart: the annual One Step Closer to the Cure run/walk to raise money for and awareness of ovarian cancer, the disease that killed his grandmother, Celma Mastry.
Bowen and a dozen other men and women who train at Bull Fitness in St. Petersburg formed an ad-hoc team of adventure racers to compete together in events like the Tough Mudder and Warrior Dash, all-terrain footraces that employ a variety of obstacles, similar to the kind you'd see in military basic training.
But they also hearken back to the old obstacle courses kids have loved for generations.
"The bottom line is they are fun," Bowen said. "And anybody can do one, with the right training and preparation."
But Bowen knows that many folks might not believe him. At 6 feet 2, with a body fat percentage of less than 6 percent, he's got the physique of an NFL defensive back, not your average weekend warrior.
So to prove his point, Bowen and his fellow obstacle course racers decide to give people of all fitness levels a taste of the sport he loves.
"Why not take a 5K road race and spice it up a bit," Bowen said, "make it hard enough so you know that you have accomplished something, yet easy so the first-timers won't feel intimidated?"
Obstacles are it
A couple of years ago, the phrase "obstacle racing" was virtually unheard of in local athletic circles. There were only a few off-road endurance events in Florida, and then the market exploded.
"It's the new triathlon," said Pete Williams, a Florida-based fitness expert who has written extensively on the subject. "People are looking for an added challenge. They are tired of pounding the pavement from Point A to Point B."
Events like the Tough Mudder and Warrior Dash have attracted huge followings.
"The obstacles not only provide some variety, but they are more Facebook photo worthy than your typical 5K," Williams said. "Everybody wants a picture of themselves all covered in mud at the end of a race."
Williams, whose book Obstacle Fit: A Training Program for Obstacle Races will be out this year, said there were nearly 50 events of this kind in Florida this year. "There were so many, I lost count," he said.
One step closer
One Step Closer to the Cure drew more than 1,000 runners last year, benefiting the Celma Mastry Ovarian Cancer Foundation. Mrs. Mastry, a well-known philanthropist, died in 2004.
The 5K run/walk steps off at 7:30 a.m. on Sept. 15, followed by a 1-miler at 8:30 a.m. The new event, Overcoming Obstacles, is at 9 a.m.
Jeff Bullock, part of Bowen's adventure run team of friends and the owner of Bull Fitness, said there will be 11 obstacles ranging from balance beams to monkey bars. The course was designed for intermediate to advanced athletes, but he said beginners are invited and can do the course at their own pace. If you find an obstacle is too difficult, he said, simply bypass it.
Racers who are trying to improve their health and their performance will find they're in good company.
"Five years ago, I couldn't even lift a water bottle," Bowen said. "Now I am doing obstacle races, and sometimes even winning.
"The journey may be hard, but if you take it one step at a time, you can literally accomplish anything you want."
Terry Tomalin can be reached at [email protected]