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Messner

Laura Messner leaps over the traditional final obstacle in a Spartan Race, the fire pit, while hamming it up for the camera. One of the elite obstacle course racers in the country, Messner will be in Bigfork on Saturday for the second annual Montana Spartan Race, competing for one of the top spots and the accompanying cash prize.

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To look at the facts, Laura Messner’s career arc is a case study in dichotomy. 

For more than three years, the New Hampshire native worked to build her own business in order to manage her modeling and singing careers. It was a successful pursuit, but it was also, she eventually realized, an empty one as well.

“It’s a very judgmental, very negative world,” she said of modeling. “People only want what they can get from you, and then they don’t want to talk to you anymore.”

So, when she agreed to run with a friend in an August 2012 Spartan Race, the 180-degree difference between that and her normal world was stark.

Suddenly, she was caked in mud, hair a mess, makeup streaking down her face.

And she didn’t care.

“It just sort of clicked with me,” she said. “It was a freeing experience. I just didn’t care what others thought of me in a visual aspect. I was able to just be me and race for myself, alone on the trails just dueling it out with myself.

“OCRs, you go there and it’s like a family every time. Nobody is judging you, there’s nobody pointing fingers trying to bring you down. Even the other girls you’re competing with, they support you and cheer you on. There’s very little room for negativity in that lifestyle.”

Today, Messner is among the nation’s elite female obstacle course racers. She’s a fixture on the Spartan Race circuit and will be running for a podium finish Saturday in Bigfork. She estimates she’s completed at least 30 Spartans and is eager for that number to grow. She’s also eager to continue in the transition from model to racer and personal trainer.

That, too, is a bit of an about-face. Because while she’d been involved with sports like softball and field hockey, she spent most of her gym time circuit training.

“I was never a runner. Never ever, ever,” she said. “The obstacles were my game. I was very good at balancing and climbing, but then when it came to running, I was not on my game at all.”

She so immersed herself in her newfound passion that it became too much. Her body wasn’t ready for the change and soon rebelled. Her knees ached so much she wasn’t able to walk without pain. For five months, she was unable to do much of anything.

It was a depressing time, but it’s helped Messner grow. So when she hit the Spartan circuit in earnest last year, she was finally ready for the challenge, both mentally and physically. That success, paired with her warm personality and willingness to meet and encourage her growing fan base, has turned her into one of the sport’s ambassadors.

It’s a role she’s fully embraced. And she’s hoping to continue to encouraging people — specifically women — to give OCR a try.

While most road races show an even split in men and women participants, obstacle racing leans heavily toward the men. But that’s changing.

A primary example is the Spartan Chicked movement — to be “chicked,” in race lingo, is for a man to be passed by a woman on the course — started just a few years ago with little more than a dozen women. Today, the group boasts a membership of nearly 10,000 women who collaborate and support one another in their quest to live healthier, fuller lives.

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Margaret Schlachter is, in the words of Spartan Race founder Joe De Sena, “the Amelia Earhart of Spartan Obstacle Racing.” She was one of the few women to get in on the ground floor of an exploding industry and, like Messner, is an elite racer.

Schlachter — who, for a short time, lived in Whitefish — placed third at last year’s inaugural Spartan Race Montana. That course was, according to many veteran racers, among the hardest at that distance they’d endured to date. And they all, Schlachter included, loved every mile.

Schlachter runs the website dirtinyourskirt.com, which provides “a community for women to get healthy, active and excel in all aspects of life.” Like Messner, she wants to encourage women to step out of their comfort zones and conquer fears. She also has published a book entitled “Obstacle Race Training: How to Beat Any Course, Compete Like a Champion and Change Your Life.” It’s the first book written from the female athlete’s perspective on OCRs, and has received glowing reviews.

“As we begin to grow as a community and reach out to more females who are willing to share their story and their grounding in the OCR world, the other girls aren’t so scared of it,” Messner said. “For me, I found self-discovery. You’d think, ‘How would you find that in a race covered in mud, where you can’t breathe?’ But you collect a lot more and gain a lot more from these races than you’d think.

“I had no idea what I was going to gain mentally from this. I learn something new about myself every race. You have a lot of reflection time. And you find that you’re able to do so much more than you think you can.”

And that knowledge, Messner continued, carries over into everyday life as well. It’s been an integral part of her personal growth, and she knows it can do the same for others.

“You’re training your brain to get past the ‘I can’t’ and replace it with ‘I can,’” she said. “There’s a lot more to it than people think. And once people experience that, they will also realize what you can gain from it far outweighs the intimidation of it. This isn’t a race against all these fast girls. It’s a race against yourself.”

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