There’s the game, and then there’s real life.
Outside observers would never consider Train to Hunt competitions games, of course. Games are supposed to be fun, and the elite hunter-athletes running up and down Powderhorn Mountain Resort’s steep runs in the July heat were not having fun. In fact, most of them were cursing.
“Smile,” their fellow participants yelled from the sidelines. “It makes it hurt less!”
Believe it or not, overcoming the brutal physical challenges at Train to Hunt’s national competition really is fun for the bow hunters who participate. It means they’ll be more than ready for the real-world challenges they’ll face during the hunting season.
“Honestly, when I finish this thing, I’ll say that it was fun,” said Chris Denham, 54, an outdoor industry celebrity and a member of Train to Hunt’s Super Master class—hunt-ers age 50 and up. “When you’re in the middle of it, you’re like, ‘This is stupid. Why did I do this? This hurts, this is no fun. I’m never doing this again.’ But as soon as you’re done with it, you’re looking forward to the next one.”
Train to Hunt is a national organization dedicated to improving the performance of hunters through intense, CrossFit-like exercise programs designed to simulate conditions faced in archery hunting. It offers seminars on fitness, nutrition and hunting, and hosts Train to Hunt Challenges across the country each spring and summer.
During the 2017 national competition, male and female regional qualifiers from across the U.S. ran up and down the mountain with heavily weighted packs, shot targets along a difficult course and faced a number of athletic obstacles. Ultimately, it’s as mentally challenging as it is physical, said Mike Ruspil, 59, a Super Master who played a vital role in bringing Train to Hunt to the Grand Valley and coordinating the event, but who did not compete this year.
Super Masters are in some ways better prepared for the competition than their younger counterparts. They know that the challenges are about more than winning—they’re about fellowship.
“That’s what’s cool about the Super Masters,” said Denham. “We call it the Yoda class. We’ve all been there. We’ve all competed in stuff at different points in our lives. So even though we’re all here to win, if someone goes down out there, I guarantee one of the Super Master guys is going to stop and do whatever it takes to get him off the mountain.”
A sense of community pervades Train to Hunt events. For these hunter-athletes, first place comes second to survival in the real world’s harsh conditions. They train to improve their own hunting, but also so they won’t fail a comrade in need during an actual hunt.
“There have been times when one of the most beautiful sights I could see is two little blips coming towards me on the GPS screen and knowing the boys are coming and it’s going to be okay,” Ruspil said.
In the case of the Super Masters, they also train because it keeps them healthy.
“I don’t know how much faster I am because I train, but I recover faster,” said Denham. “If you go one day, you’re able to go the next day. Your body’s used to the beating and so your ability to recover is just better.”
Both he and Ruspil have found that the training—as intense as it is— keeps them in better condition than many of their contemporaries.
“I call it finding your crucible. You have to find that one thing in life that motivates you to get into better shape,” Denham said.
Train to Hunt is a unique competition. Athletes may be strong and quick, but it doesn’t mean anything if they’re not accurate.
“You can’t outrun bad shooting,” said Ruspil.
That’s another area in which the Super Masters excel—they may not be at their physical peak, but they’ve been shooting for decades.
“Two years ago, the old guys were actually the most competitive group,” said one younger hunter. “They were crushing everyone on the mountain.”
“We’re just glad to still be on the mountain,” he said.
Not all the qualifying Super Masters attended the national competition. Several of them had the chance to go on hunts they’d waited to attend for years. After months of preparation for the event—intense workouts, sleep monitoring, diet tracking and more—the goal had changed.
They were no longer training for a game. They were training for the real world.