Obstacle Course Racing Athlete Katie Purcell is the Sport’s Real-Life Super Heroine

Obstacle Course Racing Athlete Katie Purcell is the Sport’s Real-Life Super Heroine


Spartan Race Brand Ambassador Katie Purcell is the woman on the course with the face paint. She’s the one posting to the Spartans of the Northeast Facebook Group and giving advice to anyone that asks. After seeing her social media posts, I decided to approach the obstacle course racing (OCR) athlete at the 2016 Citi Field Spartan Race, where I introduced myself and of course, I asked her about the face paint. Part of her reasoning for wearing the face paint, she said, was that she was skeptical of how her eyebrows looked and that the face paint covered them. I replied with, “I’m sure your eyebrows look just fine, Katie.” This was the short version of the face paint story. When I reached out to the “Pretty Fierce Spartan” nearly a year later asking about the face paint again, she elaborated on the history behind the popular design.

“I’m a bit critical of pictures of me so before my first Spartan Race I thought, ‘What if I don’t like the photos they take? They own them and they can post them wherever they want,’” Purcell says. “Then, I figured, if I put on face paint in a cool design, even if it was a terrible picture, I’d like the face paint.”

Purcell and her OCR buddy Kristi Nayden tried out a couple of different face paint designs and came up with the current one. Nowadays, Purcell is recognized at courses by her face paint and has heard it all in regards to the design.

“Some people think I’m doing it because I’m trying to look like Iron Man and others think I’m trying to look like the late Ultimate Warrior from WWE,” says Purcell. “At least 6-7 times this season people have called me Laura because they get me confused with [Spartan Ultimate Team Challenge winner] Laura Messner. I think it’s funny. I can understand because we both wear face paint and have long hair. I just say, “I’m not Laura, but thank you, I’ll take it.”


Face paint or not, Purcell is an elite OCR athlete who completed 25+ OCRs in 2016, including five Spartan Race Trifectas and the Bermuda Triple Challenge on the island of Bermuda where she qualified for the 2016 Pro Division of the Obstacle Course Racing World Championships (OCRWC) in Canada. Purcell went on to test her skills at the 2016 OCRWC where she competed against the best obstacle athletes on the planet. Most recently, Purcell won the 2017 Bermuda Triple Challenge which qualified her for the 2017 OCRWC, plus she’ll be competing in the United States Obstacle Course World Championship in September in Texas.

“I already booked my hotel for the 2017 OCRWC since I had so much fun last year,” Purcell says. “Blue Mountain is it’s own little town and it’s compared to Olympic Village because there are people from all over the world there. It was fun to try different obstacles from various races all in the same course.”

What makes Purcell unique is that she is public and open about her past struggles on the Internet, the place where most people don’t want their private information. For someone who spends a large amount of time under a mask of red, she keeps it real when it comes to talking about her past eating disorder, which brought her to the brink of death. Ultimately, it was the OCR community, and the feeling one achieves after conquering a course, that helped Purcell become the busy MBA student she is now.

“I had a severe eating disorder for 15 years; I was never skinny enough or looked good enough and I had a lot of self doubt,” Purcell says. “I was in recovery for that and one of my friends asked me to run an OCR with her so I started training for a tangible reason rather than just running on the treadmill to burn 1,000 calories. I used not to be able to walk up a flight of stairs without blacking out and all of sudden I had run through a whole baseball stadium. I struggled, cried, and clawed my way out of a deep dark hole and now I have a new lease on life and a second chance.”


In Spartan Race, there’s an “Elite” category of around 200-300 competitors per race that sign up for the first heat. The top finishers get cash prizes and the rest try to climb the ladder to get a podium spot. Purcell competes in the Elite heats of Spartan Races and sticks to a consistent strength training and running program to prepare for races. Yet the Connecticut native claims she’s actually not “super competitive.”

“I do OCR to supplement my life, NOT to define it and this is meant to be fun and relaxing,” Purcell says. “That being said, I place relatively well in the Elite heat and that’s why I continue to run Elite.”

The reality is that outside the OCR bubble, if you consistently run Elite waves and train weekly, that means you’re competitive at a sport. In my opinion, Purcell has left the race to be thin and entered the race towards better OCR times. And that’s admirable. To train for OCRs, Purcell trains five days a week where one day is a long incline walking/running session, one day is a 45-minute high intensity interval training session followed by a 5K run, one day is an 8-12 mile run, one day will be a stadium session with an arms workout, and the last day is an OCR bootcamp at Fitness Appeal in Lawrence, MA.

“Some things I do intermittently are burpee broad jumps, pullups, bucket carries, jump roping, monkey bars for grip strength, sled pushes, sprints, one-handed dead hangs, and squats into a kick on a heavy bag,” Purcell explains. “If you’re doing five trifectas, you can’t necessarily tailor your training to specific race lengths. I try to hit everything as holistically as I possibly can.”

Purcell’s OCR gym of choice is Fitness Appeal, where there’s everything any ninja or obstacle enthusiast could wish for including a high wall, incline wall, rig setup, monkey bars, Z wall, spear throw, and Devil’s Staircase (a popular course obstacle). After moving from her home state of Connecticut to Boston to get her MBA with a concentration in entrepreneurship, Purcell connected with Victor, owner of the Lawrence, MA gym, and now she takes their 90-minute OCR bootcamp on the weekends.


Spartan Race Brand Ambassador Katie Purcell and her "Mini-Me" Theresa.

Spartan Race Brand Ambassador Katie Purcell and her "Mini-Me" Theresa.

Purcell likes posting to social media and within the OCR community, she’s famous, but she does more than just post professional modeling, OCR, and gym photos. Purcell inspires others in many ways, but the three main ones are by the heart she displays on courses, how she’s always available to respond to questions about preparing for a race, and being a positive in-person influence on young women’s lives. Purcell provided me great anecdote about how she was crying while trying to complete the Tip of the Spear obstacle at a BattleFrog (R.I.P.), because her hands were ripped open and bleeding. With the encouragement of her teammate, she got up and completed the obstacle.

“Later on, I got a Facebook message from someone I didn’t know and had never met, saying he saw me at Tip of the Spear, and that I didn’t give up, which inspired him to keep going even when things seemed impossible,” says Purcell. “Getting that message probably inspired me as much as seeing me inspired him.”

In what is the cutest OCR story I’ve ever heard, somewhere out there in the world there is a mini-Katie and she aspires to be just like the real Katie. Theresa De Rosa (aka Little T), age 8, does her face paint just like Purcell and the duo have known each other for more than two years. Purcell and her younger obstacle conquering counterpart ran the Spartan Kids Race at a Spartan Race in Connecticut in 2016 and made the Connecticut Post newspaper together. The duo plans to do a “Minifecta” in 2017 by running at least three kids races together, the first of which will be the Citi Field Spartan Race in 2017.

“The other day, Paul (her father), asked me what I was wearing the race because he said she told him she even wants to match my outfit,” Purcell says. “It makes my heart melt. I love the idea of showing girls from a young age that strong is beautiful. I think getting girls into OCR early is even a step further than getting them into traditional sports because unlike soccer or softball, girls and boys run together in OCR, showing them early that they can do anything boys can do.”

Virtually, Purcell responds to direct messages about how to get over obstacles, what to wear to a race, and how to train for them. Then, she’ll get follow up messages weeks/months later thanking her for the advice and letting her know how the event went. In a community that’s known for opening its arms to everyone, Purcell sets the standard for embracing newcomers into OCR.

“I try to focus on being authentic as possible and it has seemed to work pretty well so far. Every time I step towards the start line, I’m happy just to be alive and able to enjoy it.”

Katie representing the US at the Obstacle Course World Championships at Blue Mountain in Canada.

Katie representing the US at the Obstacle Course World Championships at Blue Mountain in Canada.

Age: 30
Residence: Boston, MA
Number of Spartan Race Trifectas Completed in 2016: 5
Instagram: @pretty_fierce_spartan
Katie’s Discount Codes:
Spartan Race: SRBAPRETTYFIERCESPARTAN for 15% off of any U.S. race in 2017, including endurance events.
ORAL IV: kp20 for 20% off

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