Holbrook “Hobie” Call, one of the best competitors in the history of Spartan, plans on calling it quits this year. He’ll run in just two more races, he says, and then he’ll retire. No, seriously, for real this time. At 40 years old, Call plans to walk away from obstacle course racing forever. For anyone who’s followed his career, or raced against him and wondered if he was really made of flesh and blood, it’s the end of an era.
If you don’t know the full story of Hobie Call, it’s a doozy. A Salt Lake City, Utah, native and father of five, Call was determined to make his mark in marathons and the Olympics. When those hopes fizzled away shortly after he turned 30—you can find out what happened in the video above—he fell into a depression and gave up on his dreams, at least until a friend told him about Spartan in 2011.
Call was intrigued, especially after learning that Spartan was offering $100,000 to anybody who won all 14 races in a year. For a guy who earns his living installing air conditioners, it was an intriguing challenge. He came close to achieving it, but fell short at just one event, a Spartan Death Race in Vermont. He didn’t get the ending he wanted, but Call didn't leave empty handed. (It’s a long story. We’ll get into the specifics later.)
Call went on to become one of the biggest stars in obstacle course racing, even getting featured in the Wall Street Journal. It seemed like nothing could stop this force of nature, and nothing did. At least until this summer. It took Hobie himself to finally bring an end to the era of Hobie.
We caught up with Call to talk about how champions are made, and how the guy winning all the glory isn’t the only one making all the sacrifices.
SPARTAN: How long have you been racing?
HOBIE CALL: Since I was ten.
No. I was just always running.
Were you being chased?
*[Laughs.] *No, no, nothing like that. I was just a reckless kid. I had constant energy. We lived in an old church house growing up, and it had big long hallways. I always ran down the hallway, always, always. Why would I walk? It takes twice as long to get there.
That’s brilliant kid logic.
I still think that way today. It’s all I’ve ever wanted to do with my life. And since I was ten, I wanted to be the best at it.
How much of your day is devoted to training? What kind of hours do you put into it?
Here’s the thing, the hours of training aren’t that much. I might train on average for an hour and a half every day. But there’s more involved than the time you’re actually working out. The workouts are the easy part. It’s the other 22 and a half hours of the day that’s difficult.
Every time you stick something in your mouth, by darn it, it better be healthy, and it better be helping you to be a better athlete. Every calorie needs to count. And even beyond that is the recovery. If you want to do solid workouts and actually get better because of them, you need to recover from them.
You have a job and five kids. It’s not like you have a lot of down time.
That’s right. And my job is a full-time manual labor job. I have to find a way to work at a pace where it feels like a recovery workout. Any moment I can get an extra ten minutes of true relaxation, I’ll take it. Otherwise, I just won’t have the energy to do the workouts anymore. Or I won’t recover and I’ll burn out.
Do you think it’d surprise people to learn you have a day job?
Because running Spartan races hasn’t made me rich? [Laughs.]
__Well, that’s the misconception. We think of star athletes, or even athletes with any kind of media recognition, and we just assume they’re being endorsed by some big commercial brand. __
That never happened for me. I never got a commercial endorsement.
But nobody sees that. So nobody considers the financial sacrifices.
I think most people don’t have the slightest clue how much sacrifice is involved. When I win a race, I’m Mr. Popular for the day. People are like, “Oh, I wish I could do what you do. I wish I was you.” Right then, at that moment, I’m sure they do. But that’s one day. Maybe I do 15 races in a year. During those 15 races, my life looks amazing. But the other 350 days of the year, my life is nothing to envy.
Is it really that bad?
It’s a grind. I get up before I want to get up, I go to work, and my life is never my own. I’m always thinking about races. So every meal has to count. Every time I want to do something with my kids, I have to think about how it fits into my workout schedule, and how it’ll affect my recovery periods. It is not an envious lifestyle, I promise you. It’s brutal.
But it's still worth it?
I find it worth it. Most people by my age are established in a career and are making money. For me, every extra moment in my day is just training. Unless I make money winning races, I’m actually suffering big time financially. Even though I’ve been winning this year and the purse money has been decent, I’ve still got a wife and five kids and my job doesn’t pay the bills. I’m still broke. If my car breaks down right now, I’m living without a car, that’s just the way it is.
But you have a TV.
[Laughs.] That’s right, sure, I have a TV. A pretty impressive one.
It’s a fantastic story. Can you walk us through it?
Well, this is going back to 2011. I’d just gotten involved doing Spartan, and it was tough on us financially.
Which was nothing new to you, right?
No, not at all. I’ve been sacrificing my whole life. When I was trying out for the Olympic trials, we sold our house, moved into a friend’s guest house so I could quit my job for a few months and train like a real athlete. So I’ve put my family through some things.
But nothing like depriving them of TV.
Okay, okay, wait. *[Laughs.] *We’re talking about maybe a 27-inch flat screen TV. You’re playing this up for the drama, right?
Of course we are.
It was nothing fancy by today’s standards at all. But this was the first TV we’d ever bought in our life. All we had before this point were these big, bulky hand-me-down tube TVs. So we got a tax return and a little bit of money, and it was our anniversary, so I went out and bought this 27-inch flat-screen TV. It was the greatest thing in the world. And my kids were like, “We have our own TV! Now we can get a Wii!”
And who was paying for that?
They did. All of them, they’d saved up their money, counted all of their nickels, waiting for the day we’d get a TV so it’d make sense to get a Wii. They went and bought it, and about a month or two later, I had to buy tickets to get to a race. We sold the radio control cars we’d bought for me and the kids that Christmas, and we didn’t have anything else of any resale value. This was it. So I was like, “We’ve got to sell the TV.”
There’s no way they’re okay with that.
They weren’t. I mean, they were supportive ...
But they’re still losing their TV so that I could fly off to a race. And they’re stuck at home with no TV to watch. And now the Wii is worthless. All the money and sacrifice they’d put into buying it meant nothing.
But you could still win it back for them.
Yeah. If I win this race, I could get the $100,000, and then of course I’d buy them another TV. A bigger TV even.
The only thing standing in your way is Joe De Sena.
Joe didn’t want me to win that $100,000.
Well obviously. What do you think, he likes giving money away?
He included the Death Race as part of the $100,000. I don’t think it was originally part of the deal, it wasn’t included in the races you were supposed to finish, but because he’s in charge, he just said, “Oh yeah, you have to do the Death Race too.”
Yeah, sorry. You wanted it to be easy?
They couldn’t find anyone to even get close to me in all of these regular races. It was looking like my odds of making $100,000 were actually really good. But then Joe is like, “There’s the Death Race.” There’s no rules, he can do whatever he wants until he finally kills me.
C’mon! Joe doesn’t want to kill you. He’s just raising the bar, man.
Whatever. So they set it up that way, and I’m not complaining in any way ...
[Laughs] I’m not! I knew from day one, this was how it was gonna be. I was okay with it. I was just going to see if I could overcome it and do it anyway.
But you couldn’t do it.
I couldn’t. The Death Race took me out.
And your kids are like, “Don’t bother coming home.”
Before the race was even over, my kids went on Facebook and wrote, “Our dad sold our TV and all our remote control cars just to get to this race. If he doesn’t win the Death Race, we think Joe should at least have to buy us a TV.”
Interesting logic, but okay.
So sure enough, I drop out of the Death Race, and there goes $100,000. A few weeks after that, I’m at a Utah race, a hometown race. My whole family is there—not just my kids but my brothers and sisters and my dad. After the race, at the awards ceremony, they called the whole family up there. We all went up, there are probably 20 of us there. And then they came walking out with this huge 60-inch TV.
As a gift?
Yeah. Nothing we were expecting. I didn’t even know if Joe had heard about me losing our family’s TV. So of course my kids are screaming, they’re so excited. It’s like Christmas and their birthdays wrapped up into one. And I’m just trying not to cry.
You’re not crying for the TV obviously.
No, it’s bigger than that.
Your family has had to endure a lot.
Just to support me.
You’re not the only one making sacrifices.
Not at all. But as a father and a provider, it can be terrifying sometimes. There have been so many times over the years when it’s been the end of the month, and my wife and I have no idea how we’re gonna pay the rent. We don’t have a clue where the money is coming from. And somehow, miraculously, we make it work. But there are always a few days of panic, when you realize just how close you are to being financially ruined.
Does that go through your head when you’re competing?
It used to. In the beginning, there were times when all I was thinking was, “I’ve got to win this race or we’ve got nothing. If I don’t win, I’m calling my boss cause it’s time to go back to work.” For real. If I didn’t win the $1,600 or $2,000 for a race, I was in trouble. That happened over and over and over again. I managed to keep winning, and it was, “Okay, I’m good for one more month.” [Laughs.] Or two weeks.
$2,000 only goes so far.
But I can keep on going. When I finally committed, and said, “This is what I’m doing,” I decided the money’s not going to matter. If all else fails and I end up $10,000 in debt, and I don’t have a job that will pay the bills and I’m totally screwed, then so be it. That’s the way it’s going to be. I would’ve found a way to dig myself out of it.
Is any of this the reason you’re retiring?
It sure sounds like it, don’t it? [Laughs.]
It kinda does. It sounds exhausting.
Yeah, I guess so. Maybe a part of it is that we’ve struggled long enough as a family. If I only got to second place in every race I ran in this past year—which isn’t that bad, if you think about it.
Second place is still impressive.
But it would have put us in some serious debt. I’ve had to win literally every race for us to be even somewhat okay financially. So you have to ask yourself, can I keep doing it at this level? Even if I do well enough to get to second place, I’m done. We’re on the brink of financial ruin.
That’s an insane amount of pressure.
And the other thing is, you realize the sacrifices aren’t just financial. I like to say that the things I’ve sacrificed that I really care about, I’m really just putting them off. “I can get to that in a few years when I retire.” Well, some things disappear with age and you can’t get them back. Some opportunities are gone forever.
Like my kids. My oldest is going off to college. There are all sorts of things I hoped we’d do together. But nope, he’s gone, he’s out of here. I can’t go back in time to when he was younger and spend more time with him. It’s done, it’s done. Those are the true sacrifices. I can’t go back and get a do-over. Life doesn’t wait for you. It moves on with or without you.
You’ve got two more races, right?
Yeah. Just two. Then I’ll be done.
If you win them, and you get a little extra cash in your pocket, how’d you like to reward your family? What could you do for them to thank them for all the sacrifices they’ve made?
Probably ... [long pause] probably just a family vacation. Maybe we’ll go to Disneyland or something. I wouldn’t want to buy a thing.
They don’t need more stuff?
No. Stuff isn’t important. The TV was nice, but you realize as you get older that the things you miss are mostly time. And when I retire, I’ll have more of it. There’ll be days when I get to say to my family, “Let’s do something together. Let’s go on a real camping trip.”
You never went camping with them?
Never! It’s always been one of those things I wanted to do but never felt like I could afford to. Not financially, I mean I can’t take the days off, cause then I’m doing the wrong kind of exercise, or I’m not exercising at all. When you’re planning for a race, every day counts. But none of that will matter anymore. I can be more spontaneous. “What do you want to do this today? You want to go to the movies and stay up too late but it doesn’t matter because I don’t have to wake up early tomorrow for my workout? Sure!”
You think you’re capable of sleeping in?
I’d like to try it. It sounds like fun. Maybe I’ll get sick of it after a few weeks.
Do you think some of your competitors will be happy to see you go?
Oh yeah, absolutely. I’ve heard the groans when I show up at races. It’s usually like “Oh crap, Hobie’s here. Well, I guess we’re all fighting for second.” And I understand that. But I wish ... I don’t know. I wish for them to have the perspective that I didn’t.
How do you mean?
When I was 30, I was in the best shape of my life, right? I went to a Spartan race, and there was this guy who was 43 years old, and he kicked my butt. I was super-angry about it, because I was like, “His day has come, he’s retired, he’s over the hill, it’s my turn.” I knew who he was, and I wanted to show him that I was the new boss in town. But he just left me in the dust, and showed me I wasn’t half as cool as I thought I was.
That pissed you off?
Let’s just say I didn’t handle it well at all. I was pretty upset that a 43-year-old could beat me. It was very defeating to me. That’s because I was young and dumb. Now that I’m 40 myself, I think what he was able to accomplish is super-inspiring. I look at it totally different now.
Hindsight is always 20/20.
But it shouldn’t have to be. I wish when I was 30 I’d been able to look at this guy in his 40s, who was kicking my ass, and appreciate what it really meant. And I hope my competition is able to be wiser than I was. Instead of saying, “Jeez, Hobie’s 40 and he’s beating me, I must suck.” Instead of thinking that, maybe they could be thinking, “Wow, look what I could still be doing ten years from now, 15 years from now. If he can still do it, maybe that means it’s possible for me.”
That’s a great point. We should be excited when somebody in their 40s is stronger than us. It means that maybe we haven’t peaked in our 20s and we could always get better.
Right, exactly. When they’re starting to feel old at 32, it should be, “No, look at Hobie. He’s eight years older than me and he’s still doing it. I can keep doing it!” That’s what I hope people will get from this. I want them to be inspired and to keep pushing themselves, and to realize that just because you’re 35, that doesn’t mean it’s over. It means you’re just getting warmed up.
Postscript: After reading this interview, Joe De Sena sent me an email. “Let Hobie know,” he wrote, “that Disneyland for he and his family is on me.”