Anthony Sanchez’s hurdle form wasn’t perfect. As he lept over the the finish-line flames at the 2015 Las Vegas Super, his arms were out and his legs tucked beneath him, like the yellow Batman logo on his black tee. Still, the 28-year-old cleared the fire line, and his mom was about to follow his lead. But as she planted her right foot in the Nevada sand just short of the fire, her right hamstring cramped.
The 44-year-old tried to lift her left leg over the flames, but the gap was too wide for her 4-foot-11 frame. With a still-seizing hammie, 167 pounds of Karla Leon tumbled onto the fire.
Anthony spun back and rushed to pull his mom from the flames. Then a paramedic arrived, but Karla waved him off. The ambulance could wait; despite the wipeout, she hadn’t been this ambulatory in years.
Karla had second-degree burns to her left leg, hand, arm, and back. She wore them like battle scars from a hard-won scuffle with her former self, the one who ate too much, drank to excess, and weighed 219 pounds at her heaviest. By the time she ran her first Spartan race, just three months before the fire incident, she had managed to drop down to 190 pounds. But her battle was still heating up. “My first race ... that made me stronger,” Karla says. “I didn’t want to give people an excuse. I could’ve given up, I was nowhere near my weight-loss goal. I thought this is not going to stop me; this is going to make me stronger.”
Four years earlier, the SoCal eye-care specialist decided she had to make a change. She watched her mom and other people around her get sick from being heavy, and Karla herself started to realize that she was folding inward. She was avoiding social engagements or any place that risked a surprise photo opportunity. She was ashamed of letting herself go.
She tried slimming down on meal replacement shakes for two years, and by the end of 2015, she was at 190 pounds. But she still didn’t feel like her best self. She needed a goal, so she decided to aim for 119 pounds—a full 100 pounds below her 219 peak, and a realistic number for her frame. After that, everything else has purpose. Karla quit drinking—sometimes circling the L.A. suburbs to avoid sitting at home where she'd be tempted—and started meeting with a series of personal trainers.
It was one of her trainers who introduced Karla to Spartan, which she countered with cautious skepticism. “I was really scared,” she says. “There’s fire ... and why do we need to take headlamps?” Fortunately, she had the perfect helper. Her son Anthony runs an obstacle training program called OCRLiveFit, and she recruited him to race with her. The pair did the Vegas Super together, and Karla was still recovering from her burns when she set out to earn her first Trifecta. By the end of the year, she'd conquered that, too.
Karla earned her second Trifecta in 2016, and today she’s down to 125 pounds—just 6 pounds shy of her goal of 119. She’s already completed four races this year, and she’s training harder than ever with a combination of OCRLiveFIt sessions, SGX workouts, HIIT classes, and 3-mile trail runs on the daily. Even lunch breaks are training opportunities: She leaves her office to run the bleachers at Pasadena City College or to meet up with Anthony for a midday workout.
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Karla turned 45 in 2015, and on her birthday, she felt compelled to give back to the Spartan community that gave her a new life. She began recruiting for team Teach Them Young, a free Wednesday obstacle-racing class she still coaches. It keeps kids and teens outside and active. Her young team has 30 members, and parents are trickling in, too. “They don’t care if it’s cold or hot or anything,” says Karla, chuckling. “They never cancel.”
They don’t know it, but the Spartan kids give something back to Karla, too. In 2015, she told herself she wouldn’t drink for a month, and she hit 30 months sober in July. “That’s what keeps me accountable,” Karla says. “My kids that I train ... you have to be the example. Somebody that someone looks up to.”
2 Keys to Karla’s Transformation
Karla Leon flipped the switch on her lifestyle and never looked back. Use her experience to guide your own transformation.
1. Embrace the hard way “Life happens, believe me. During my journey, my wife had spinal surgery and I had to take care of her for a year. Currently, I’m taking care of my mom, who started dialysis. Hard is what makes it great. You can’t buy the feeling you have after a workout or a Spartan race. It’s something that’s earned.”
__2. Eat real food __ “I do a carb cycle. I have a high-protein diet, so I do protein on certain days and carbs three times a week, along with fruits and veggies. Proper nutrition is healthy meats, fruits, veggies, and healthy carbs. Never eliminate all carbs.”
Ready to give Spartan a try? Here’s everything you need to know to find your race.