You may know Kirk DeWindt from season 6 of The Bachelorette, where he tried—and failed—to win Ali Fedotowsky’s heart. Or you may have heard about his epic run on season 2 of Bachelor in Paradise, where everyone thought he’d be dropping down on one knee in front of Carly Waddell, only to shatter her heart in the finale instead. But while his run on national TV may have sparked his social media fame, it was another show—the Spartan World Championship—that landed this certified personal trainer where he is today. And that is on top of podium after podium in Spartan races across the country.
The 34-year-old just started racing Spartan a little over a year ago, but he’s already killing it. So we caught up with him to figure out how he managed to come so far in such a short time, and what the rest of us can learn from his success.
SPARTAN: When did you start doing OCRs, and what motivated you to start racing?
DeWindt: My one-year anniversary racing OCRs was [a few weeks ago] in Chicago. My story is interesting—I think it’s probably common—but I was at home over Christmas and the Spartan World Championship was airing on NBC. I was with my family and I literally locked them out for an hour, and I was mesmerized by this thing. So then I went to my computer and looked up the first local race I could find because I was so pumped about it.
__That’s awesome. What was it about it that got you so fired up? __
I was a collegiate All-American in track, in the 1,500 meters. So I have a running background, and I was doing a few races but I wasn’t really excited about them anymore. And now that I’m a trainer and my life is in the gym, I developed this strength post-college. I had this endurance background, along with functional fitness and strength, and when I saw the show I was like: “Oh my god. That’s perfect for me.” Because I’m a more well-rounded endurance athlete now instead of just this skinny runner guy. It made perfect sense.
__It sounds like it was a perfect blend of what you were already doing. __
Yeah. I was training for it for years and didn’t even know it.
__Have you done any races outside of Spartan? __
Yes, but Spartan is hands-down my favorite. The whole setup is phenomenal. I think the obstacles are challenging—appropriately challenging—so I dig it. Nothing quite compares to the test that Spartan brings. It’s been a true competition. I think there’s an allure to truly comparing yourself to others, and I think anything worth doing is worth doing right, and Spartan gives me that.
__So for you, you really love competition and you’re there to win. __
Yeah, absolutely. I think it gives good perspective when people candidly see how they perform against others.
__You shot up to the podium pretty quickly for only doing this for one year. What would you say motivates you to compete at that level? __
I’ve felt humbled in Spartan races more often than I’ve felt victorious. Some days they’ll throw a double sandbag at me that just breaks me. And I oddly like that sort of push, you know—maybe not in the moment, but after—and so I think that Spartan helps keep me humble. It keeps me honest. You can’t get comfortable with a Spartan race. You constantly have to figure out the puzzle and how to train properly for it. And right when you think you’ve got it figured out, they throw something at you that just ruins you in a race. It’s a constant need to improve. You can get comfortable in other sports—like running—but in Spartan you can’t, really. And so I like that it’s a constant challenge. It’s never going to be easy, and there’s a lot of appeal in that.
You’re a glutton for punishment, it sounds like.
I think everyone who competes in these is a little bit, aren’t they?
__Tell me about your decision to jump in on the Sprint race, too, after winning the Super distance in Chicago. Why did you want to do it? __
I’ve done a few Sprints before, but since I was going down to Chicago and making a little trip out of it, I knew I wanted to race both days. If it were a mountain course or a ski hill, I don’t think it’s a smart move to race back-to-back days because of the breakdown your legs take from climbing and descending. But since Chicago is a flat course, I thought it was ideal to do a double.
__What do you find is different between the two race styles? Do you think one is better than the other? __
What’s interesting is my average pace per mile was slower in the Sprint than it was in the Super. And I think the difference is that often the Sprint course is more challenging terrain. They like to punish you if it’s going to be shorter. And the obstacles can be more condensed. So even though the race was half the distance on Sunday, I still competed slower because of the obstacle density. That’s something that people may not think about—sometimes obstacles are closer together and occupy more of a percentage of the race.
So you have less time to recover from an obstacle when you’re running in between.
Yeah. In the Super, sometimes they let you run, like truly run, for well over a half-mile sometimes, or even up to a mile. In the Sprint you don’t have that luxury. You’re really banking on your strength coming through and helping you perform. Sometimes the Sprint is better because of the frequency of obstacles, whereas with the Super I think you start getting into the true runner’s wheelhouse.
So when you were strategizing, how did you approach each distance?
I think if you’re going to do a double, you can only think about one race at a time. So my goal that weekend was to lay the throttle down from the gun and treat the Super like it was a Sprint. So I went out way harder than I typically would and had to trust my fitness that I could hang on to the win. And so I executed that perfectly.
__What made you decide to go at that balls-to-the-wall pace? __
Often there are obstacles that really punish you. They really put you in oxygen debt and you’re miserable. But there’s also time in a Spartan race—let’s say when you’re doing a Z-wall or rope climb—that’s actually a time for you to bring your heart rate back down. It’s what I call flight recovery periods. You can go hard into Twister or The Rig because your heart rate is still going to come down and your legs are going to get a rest. I was starting to realize that in a few of my races, thinking that maybe I could go a little harder in the run portions. Because even though a bucket carry is very difficult, it still lowers your heart rate and you can almost recover—well, the easier bucket carries, anyway.
__When you’re going for a pace that’s so physically demanding, do you have any tricks for pushing through so you’re not mentally giving up? __
This might seem contradictory, but I developed this recently and it seemed to work [in Chicago]. No matter how much I’m hurting or how much my legs are burning, I keep telling myself to run relaxed. The more loose you stay, the more you conserve energy in case you need a big push for something. So when I find myself getting tense or when I start to hurt, I tell myself to stay relaxed. I shake out my arms, make sure the shoulders are relaxed. I fill my lungs a few times and get a full exchange of oxygen—I find that can reset me too, because once you go into oxygen debt, you start breathing hard and your breath gets a little shallower. So I just make a point to slow it down and suck some air down to the bottom of the lungs a few times.
__When you are in the middle of a race, things don’t always—or ever—go according to plan. How do you deal with setbacks? __
Those mishaps are exactly what keep me coming back. It’s not over until it’s over in a Spartan race, and I think that’s been proven time and time again. You’re never out of the race as long as you keep pushing and don’t mentally give up. My second Spartan race ever, I had my first lead in a Super and I failed four obstacles in the second half of the race. I came in sixth place. It was probably one of the most devastating races of my life, but you want to know what I did the next month? I worked on everything that could potentially go wrong. So you’ve got to take them as learning moments.
__What are some of your favorite ways to train for a race? Go-to moves you feel like helped you the most? __
The transition from regular running to Spartan racing was hard for me, because you have to be able to run hard when your rhythm is broken. So running on tired legs is important. I may go for an 8-mile run, but every half-mile I may throw in 20 burpees, 20 jump lunges, and 20 jump squats before continuing for another half-mile. And your legs become fried, yet you’re forced to go back into a running motion. I find that breaking your rhythm translates to racing nicely. Because that was one of the things I struggled with when I first started Spartan racing. I would jump over an 8-foot wall and I’d be gassed. I wasn’t used to that.
The other thing is grip strength. I work a lot on grip strength at 90 degrees. So let’s say I’m doing a dead hang from a pullup bar, I like to keep my arms at 90 degrees to keep good bicep engagement. I find working your grip strength at 90 degrees is more beneficial for a race, so anything from moving at 90 degrees across ladders to farmer’s carries, those things seem to go a long way with me.
I also think the first thing that people need to focus on, more than anything, is their run fitness. They’ll sit there in the gym and get strong and they think that’ll be enough to get them through, but then they’re very humbled when they realize how much running is involved.
If there was one thing you’d tell Spartan racers not to focus on, what would it be?
I don’t know how much good a bench press does somebody. Even though they’re in the gym and lifting weights, I think focusing mostly on your pull and grip strength is really going to translate the best for OCR. A lot of the pushing doesn’t need to happen. So you can get rid of those in the gym and focus on your pulls.
__Are you training differently when you have a Sprint coming up on your calendar, instead of a Super? __
I’m always training for the Super distance. I feel like if you train for that distance well, if you had to you could bump up to a Beast race, and of course you can drop down to a Sprint distance. So training for the Super distance seems to be more all-encompassing and gives you a good base, and then you can bump up or down as you need to.
You’ve been a personal trainer for 12 years. Now that you’re doing these Spartan races, is there anything you’re getting out of them that you weren’t getting from being a PT?
Well, the cool thing is that just because of the little success I’ve had, I have a number of athletes on board that are training for Spartan races. Most of them are novices—a lot of people who are looking to get into the sport because I talk about it very excitedly and that seems to be contagious. I really like watching my clients succeed and getting pumped up about things. It’s reinvigorated me as a trainer.
__Lastly, do you have a favorite and least favorite obstacle? __
You know, I failed a spear throw this year—I stuck it in Chicago in the Super, but then it fell out and I’ve never had that happen before. Luckily, I had enough of a lead to still do my burpees and win. But the spear throw is one of those things that is such a game-changer and it still sits in the back of my head more than anything. I’m learning to like it, though.
I would say my favorites are the sandbags, especially the doubles. I carry a little more muscle on me, so I think the heavy carries seem to be the difference makers lately. So I’m going to have to go with those.
Ready to give Spartan a try? Here’s everything you need to know to find your race.