Hartley Mahfood never set out to be the superlative at anything. Certainly nothing athletic, he would’ve told you just a few years ago, had you asked the 35-year-old whether he harbored any lingering aspirations of greatness. But then, the sailor Ishmael had no idea where Captain Ahab would take him at the beginning of Moby-Dick, and Mahfood’s Spartan journey is a lot like that.
He’s now finished 23 trifectas, a Spartan race world record. He’s raced all over America. He blitzed the courses in Barcelona and in Morzine, France, and in Sparta, he hoisted a replica Spartan shield given to him by the mayor when he broke the trifecta record.
But although his racing schedule is rigorous, Mahfood can hardly train like a professional athlete: he’s the president of HM Tech Services, a tech support company in Rockville Centre, New York. When he can, he travels with his eight-year-old son and meets his girlfriend, Irena Michalcik, at the start line (Michalcik lives in Montana; Mahfood lives on Long Island). He’ll fly to Europe over the weekend and make it back to New York for work on Monday. “Now I’ve been doing stuff where I’m running an average of 50 miles a week, training like a pro athlete,” he says. “It sucks.”
Embracing the suck, though, is part of who Mahfood is: a fiercely competitive average Joe. The weekend warrior who entered the sport in 2015 and took the obstacle course racing world by surprise saw something he wanted and attacked it. “I saw some guy with a 10-trifecta medal and something clicked,” he says. “I asked, ‘You ran 30 races?!’ That was after my second Beast. I worked, took off on weekends—I just wanted a 10-trifecta medal.” Now that he’s doubled his medal count, Mahfood can take us through three lessons from the most productive man in Spartan history.
1. Humility Goes a Long Way
Mahfood ran his first Spartan race in 2015 at Citi Field, home of the New York Mets. Watching TV one night, he saw a commercial for MuckFest, another OCR event. “I talked to my son and said, ‘Hey, do you want to run one of those races and get dirty?’” he says. “Sure, Dad,” his son replied. In a pattern of behavior that would follow him through his career, Mahfood signed up for every available race in the surrounding area.
The sprint tested him. He’d entered the elite section by accident, and he hadn’t played many sports growing up in Jamaica. Since he arrived in New York City at age 17, he’s mostly excelled at desk jockeying. The 255-pound Mahfood didn’t know what a burpee was, so the first missed obstacle was a rude awakening. “They’re looking at me like I’m strange. They said, ‘You see what they’re doing?’” he says. “‘You gotta do 30 of those.’”
He finished 10th from last, got his shirt, and left, but he started to meet other obstacle course racers in the area who guided him through the Northeast OCR gamut. He ran the Tri-State Sprint in Tuxedo, New York, and began doubling up on race weekends to get as much work in as possible. “[Tuxedo] kicked my butt and I had a wakeup call,” he says. “They had it again next week. I was something like 30 minutes faster.”
Mahfood went from not being able to run a mile to running sub-seven minutes, in part because he got his ass kicked every weekend and kept coming back. “No matter how hard you train, the first race is going to kick your butt,” he says. “You reassess and keep pushing. As long as you don’t quit, your body is going to adapt and you’re going to be motivated to be better.”
2. Surround Yourself with Success
The race-work-race schedule Mahfood maintains leaves little room for a social life, so it follows that many of his friends are fellow Spartans who live in different states and countries. “I’ve met people from South Africa, I’ve met people I could barely understand,” he says. “There’s something about Spartan racing—everyone sharing the same experience.”
Traveling to European races keys Mahfood into the training and lifestyle habits of racers from across the globe. “Most of the time I don’t know anybody,” he says. “And I leave with several friends who can barely speak English.” He’ll communicate via the translate feature on Instagram, and he appreciates his competitors’ advice because in his assessment, the European races are where the real action is. “In Europe, it’s all about pain.” Mahfood says. “You go over to Europe and it humbles you.”
Being away every weekend isn’t ideal for a stateside romance, and Mahfood has split with past girlfriends over the issue of his commitment to racing. Thankfully, that’s not a problem anymore. “I met her in Seattle, but I saw her for the first time on Instagram,” he says. “She knew I was trying to break the record, and I thought she was cute.”
Irena Michalcik, a Bozeman, Montana, middle school music teacher and Spartan brand ambassador, started racing in 2014. “He was very outgoing,” she says of the Seattle meeting. “And there’s something very transparent about him.” They both decided to be transparent: they wanted to meet again, and after meeting for a race in Slovakia, they started dating.
Their rule is to see each other once a month, typically at a race. Michalcik is no slouch; the 2018 European Championship qualifier showed Mahfood the elite Spartan lifestyle, and both can relate to each other’s training gripes and physical pains. “If I get up at 5 a.m. to run or I have to go train, she gets it,” he says. “She knows what I’m trying to do.”
3. Always Level Up
The main reason Mahfood did 23 trifectas in particular was that he wanted to secure the feat by a considerable margin. The record was 18, and the most any other racer could finish that season would be 20, so he did nine more races just to be sure. Now that he has the record, it’s time to get serious. He got a coach at the end of 2017, and Michalcik is helping him fine-tune his diet for maximal performance.
“In 2015, after the race season finished, I didn’t go to the gym anymore,” he says. “I just went back to working 60–70 hours a week; I was never trained for this.” Keen to avoid repeating the same mistakes, Mahfood is finally training like an elite athlete, rising early to run and hit the gym between races. He’s also found a nutrition coach to work on his fueling; he didn’t know he wasn’t supposed to race on an empty stomach.
“To most people’s standards, I do OK,” he says. By his own standard, he’s done more than OK. Mahfood got off the couch to get in shape and active with his son, and through relentless dedication to the sport, he can’t seem to stop leveling up. “To my standards, I’m comparing myself to professional athletes; that’s why I started to do this stuff. This year’s going to be different.”