Train like a Spartan: Week 3

Justin D'Ancona (center) works out during a Relentless Fitness Spartan Race prep class in Washington Square Park in Philadelphia. (Stephanie Aaronson /

Cheers! We’re at the quarter mark of our training and journey toward the Philadelphia Spartan Race.

Every week, the workouts have progressively become tougher and more demanding. Before we dive into the 60-minute hell owner and trainer Roger Dickerman put us through, I want to shed some light on a totally awesome gesture Relentless Fitness is responsible for and the incredible organization they’ve partnered up with.

Several months ago Roger, along with partner/gymnastics coach Marissa Pellegrino, attended a conference about all things paleo. It was there that they met one of the event’s sponsors and another personal trainer, Steve Liberati, who was promoting his personalized PaleoKits.

The trio, united by fitness and nutrition, shared another passionate characteristic – generosity.

Steve is the executive director of Steve’s Club, a nonprofit based in Camden, N.J., focused solely on helping the underprivileged youth of a ravaged city. He offers free or subsidized access to fitness classes they normally wouldn’t have. When the final bells ring throughout the high schools in the area, kids flock to Steve’s Club, taking full advantage of the opportunity to not only become better at squats or burpees (something you’ll soon find out I need help with as well), but to take advantage of the sanctuary Steve’s Club offers them instead of the street’s constant knocking.

They come to become better students. To become better friends, better brothers and sisters, better sons and daughters.

They come to become better people.

“He’s so focused. He’s there for the kids. The kids absolutely love him,” Marissa said.

Marissa came in as a guest gymnastics coach and couldn’t wait for the opportunity to team up with Steve’s Club again. The Spartan Race only made perfect sense.

Relentless Fitness has been taking donations to sponsor kids from Steve’s Club so they can run with our team in September. In less than a week, enough money has already been raised for five athletes to join the team and take what they’ve been working on almost everyday in the gym onto the diamond of Citizens Bank Park.

“We’re very appreciating,” Steve said. “I’m excited about sending kids over there to get started. Despite the challenges and struggles, the kids apply their upbeat attitudes to life, school and fitness. That’s what I’m most excited about. That will show on race day.”

Having them as part of the team is generating a ton of excitement throughout the studio, with Marissa on top of our cheerleading pyramid.

“I can’t wait for them to come race! They can come show off everything they’ve worked for. They’re going to be in a new city, a new environment, and they’re going to kill it. They’re going to kill it,” she said.

That leads us into our own training for the race.

Our group grew much larger this time, as new faces joined familiar ones sporting a tan from mini-vacations.

We met at the studio before making that traditional jog over to Washington Square. After a few warm-up exercises that included inchworms and jumping jacks, we migrated over to the fountain at the middle of the square for our first leg of training.

Our first sequence was a timed workout that consisted of a bodyweight movement, followed by cardio, for four total sets. Everyone fanned out along the fountain to begin the workout.

First thing on the agenda – pushups. Roger gave us the option of doing them one of three ways to accommodate our own fitness level. The easiest method was placing your hands on the edge of the fountain and using the structure for support, do a push-up. The porridge-just-right option was your basic pushup on the ground, and the advanced method was placing your hands on the ground and putting your feet on top of the fountain for an incline.

I went with the incline.

After banging out fifteen reps, there was a run to the entrance of the square and back before turning our attention to the next set which called for 15 Bulgarian squats on your left leg followed by another run to the entrance and back. Being as it was timed, some of the rookies (can I call them that yet?) thought sprinting would be a good idea. I don’t think they’ll make that mistake next time. Fifteen right leg Bulgarian squats were waiting as we returned, followed by another run. The last portion of this circuit was 15 fountain jumps. They’re box jumps, but fountain jumps just sound cooler. Another run down and back, and Roger, dishing out high fives, shouted our times as we touched the fountain.

After I managed to remove my hands from the knees on my hunched over body, I used them to grab some much needed water.

The next workout was pretty much identical, but with a slight twist. We did those same bodyweight exercises, but this time, instead of running in between exercises, we incorporated the cornerstone of all Spartan Races – the burpee.

FYI, if you fail to complete a challenge during the race, the penalty results in burpees. Trust me, after about 30 of these bad boys, you’d opt to take a punch in the stomach from The Rock, than do another rep.

We did the same exercises 15 times again, then added 10 burpees, before moving on.

My legs are toasted at this point. The pump in my quads was insane, and I made the mistake of telling myself that the hardest part was over.

Roger then leads our air-gasping posse over to a grassy section of the field. He’s mapped out a distance of 100 yards and explains to us how the next workout will go down.

We have 15 seconds to sprint from the starting line and go the full 100 yards. From there we casually – or gingerly – walk back 100 yards to the starting line. We have 30 seconds to make it back before he restarts his stopwatch and sends us sprinting down the field again. We did this a total of five times.

I honestly loved this part of the workout. For a guy who had four ACL tears, it gives me the opportunity to really test myself, and I’m always up for a challenge. I was relatively quick back in my heyday, and I even think I might have won one of the sprints. There’s a strong possibility I jumped the gun and my time would have been disqualified if this were the Summer Olympics, but hey, give a man his moment!

That has to be it, right? Who knows the time? Is our hour up yet?

Not quite.

Another guarantee of any Spartan Race is you’ll be forced to climb over some sort of obstacle and/or wall. This next potion was designed so we could train for those hurdles.

We all fan out again; this time around the four-foot walls enclosing the square. Using the barrier, we propped ourselves up so our arms were extended and elbows were locked before returning our feet to the ground to complete one rep. We did 15 of those before running about a third of a city block and back. The next exercise used the same motion, except we lifted our left leg up onto the wall as if we were going to jump over. When your feet came back down on the ground, it counted for completing one rep. Another jog, and we did the same for the right leg.

More running.

The final part of this circuit was called a squat pulse. What you do is get into a squat position and lower yourself to the bottom of the movement. From there you go up a few inches and then back down, creating a “pulsing” motion. Thirty of those and one final run was all we had left.

Or so I thought.

“Just a little more. One final thing and we’re done,” Roger said.

Let me paint this picture. We all have our hands on our hips or are shaking our water bottles trying to get that final droplet as if were in the Sahara, and this guy has the audacity to say, “a little more”?! He even held up two fingers like he was trying to crush people’s heads with his thumb and index finger to signify just how little the remainder would be.

Alright, Roge, what’s it gonna be?

Our final workout was definitely the worst one, because he brought those damn burpees back. We did the same four exercises from the prior, but instead of doing that short run, we did 10 burpees.

Here’s the optimist’s approach to the finale: “Well, hey, burpees are an essential part of the race and practice makes perfect, so lets go guys!” 

My much more realistically irritated approach to the final routine: “We gotta do $%#^ing burpees again?!”

Brutal. Absolutely brutal. The tail end of my burpees looked like the last ditched effort of a fish out of water, trying to make it back into the lake, only to land flat on its side, realizing the struggle is over. It’s amazing how quickly your form deteriorates when doing those nuisances.

My energy level died very quickly, and I was one of the last people to complete that part of the circuit after having done so well in the prior four.

The most surprising aspect of the day was not completing the workout, it was Roger allowing us to walk back to the studio. I thought for sure we were running. 

It honestly was a great workout. I love exercising outside with a group. It creates the perfect balance of competiveness and camaraderie. You begin to push yourself harder, but still encourage your friends when you see they’re on the verge of giving up. 

It really is the ideal relationship. 



Relentless Fitness

249 S 10th St, Philadelphia, PA 19107

(215) 351-6260