© CBS/Million Dollar Mile
Today’s interviewee is all-round badass Orla Walsh: obstacle course racer, Broken Skull Ranch winner and, more recently, ‘defender’ on the US game show, Million Dollar Mile. Orla lives in Vermont where she works as a flight nurse, squeezing workouts and races into a busy schedule that includes tough nursing night shifts, yet she still managed to bag the title of Spartan Race Stadium Series winner.
I caught up with Orla over the phone to chat OCR, CrossFit and, diving a little deeper, overcoming adversity and how fitness and sport helped her through anxiety and depression following the death of her mother and best friend.
Tell me about your background growing up. Were you always sporty?
I did all the sports as a young kid from when I was five-years-old – all the way from skiing to soccer with the boys. I remember my little boyfriend in first grade handed down his old cleats to me. So I’ve always been into sports; soccer, softball, I was on the swim team. Then I dropped swimming when we moved to Idaho when I was in eighth grade – it’s weird but I didn’t want to do individual sports because I had false-started off the blocks in swim team and was just getting insecure. At the age of 13, I was feeling insecure for other reasons, probably.
So I dropped swimming to do track and field and that’s when I found I was really fast – I was a 100 and 200 sprinter.
Did you continue your sprinting through university?
I always wanted to be a Division 1 athlete in track and soccer, and soccer was actually more of my passion than running. So I got a track scholarship for a Division 1 college on the East Coast and walked onto the soccer team. My best friend had cystic fibrosis and I really missed her, so I thought if I could be on the East Coast I could see her a little more.
Your mum died from breast cancer when you were 18. Did you find sport helpful at that time?
A lot of things were helpful through college. Unfortunately, I drank a lot, which I’m pretty open about. I know as undergraduates most people seem to drink and party as a normal thing; I was doing it for very different reasons. My mum died on my high school graduation day; I was with my twin brother, the two of us graduated, but she died that day. It was hell on earth when I started college – that’s when it hit me. I think I walked into the counselling office two times a week for a while. For a long time, I’d go there and cry, and then be drunk for the rest of the time.
I don’t know how I did nursing school and three division one sports – each season I had a sport going; I did track, indoor track, cross country before that. Then I was doing soccer before I joined cross country. And then I had two part-time jobs. I stayed really busy and I sucked as an athlete. I couldn’t get the times I used to run, by a second, which is a lot as a sprinter.
I struggled all through college and then when I graduated my best friend ended up dying from cystic fibrosis and from there I struggled for a solid year. And then I found this Spartan Race thing; I had no clue, I didn’t know anything about obstacle course racing. That’s kind of how it got me out of the rut of drinking. I got really into Spartan Racing and the fitness aspect. I felt like I was sort of saved by obstacle course racing.
So how did you come to find Spartan Racing?
My friend had entered a Spartan Super but hurt his leg and he was like, ‘Hey, you should take my entry, you can run as me.’ He thought it would be so up my alley because we were doing go-rucks [at the time]. The guys remind me that I used to show up on a Saturday morning [to go-ruck] with a bag of encyclopaedias as my weight for my backpack: “Hey guys, I don’t have any weight, I just have these encyclopaedias,” and they were like, You’re a wack job. So I fitted in pretty well [laughs]. From where I am now from where I started, it’s pretty funny. I’ve never forgotten where I came from.
So yeah, I did the first obstacle race, a Spartan Super, and I always tell people that I felt like Katniss from the Hunger Games, minus the killing. Literally flying through the woods up in Canada. Mentally, I still struggled a lot when I first started Spartan Racing. After that first race, I was like, ‘That’s crazy, I just did really well. I should go try another one’. So I did, and I think I won it. From there it was like, wow, this is my second chance. I had a really rough go as an athlete in college and I’m not one to harp on it, but for a while I couldn’t let go how good an athlete I was at high school. I just couldn’t figure it out. [In college] I wasn’t eating healthy, I was drinking; I thought being an athlete I could do all that but I couldn’t and I didn’t understand it.
You’ve done Broken Skull Ranch, Million Dollar Mile, OCR – do you have a training focus?
It took me a while to really trust a process or trust a coach online, trying different avenues of what was working and what I wasn’t doing right. Finally, in the last two years I’ve been going to my local CrossFit gym, Mountain Trail CrossFit. The owners are my friends and they were like, just stick to the plan – STFP:Stick to the Fucking Plan– stop questioning it. So I just go to CrossFit now. My coaches and I do intuitive training; I don’t have a heart rate monitor, I don’t have a specific diet, I don’t track my macros. If I feel good, I go hard but we don’t do the heart rate stuff because I know when I’m fatigued. I work nights and shifts so my coach sees me walk in in the morning after my night shifts so she knows if I’m pooped it’s not going to be a hard workout.
You probably talk to athletes who have adrenal fatigue or they’re injured all the time, or they’re so exhausted because now they have to go run 13 miles. I don’t have to run. If you ask me how much mileage I do, it would be really embarrassing because I barely get to do any, but I do really high intense things; metcons and AMRAPS. I’ve just run 5 x 400ms with some overhead squats. I hold onto the barbell longer; that’s my grip strength. I’ll do some extra core stuff. So I use CrossFit and I add in some extra stuff if I need it, like spear work, because you don’t throw a spear in CrossFit [laughs].
So you’re up all night working and then you go straight to CrossFit? How do you do that?
I’ve been a nurse for ten years, so I guess I have experience. [At work] we definitely have down time working on projects and committee work so it’s a rest period – a reprieve. Sometimes, it’s crazy-busy from bell to bell and other times it’s slower pace. I’ve worked my ass off in nursing to get to this point – not that I deserve it by any means – and it’s a hard job. Flight nursing is not super-sexy because we’re dripping in sweat in our helmets and underneath our flight suits. It can be really crappy and you have to just roll with the punches. If it’s that bad, sometimes I won’t go workout after a night shift, and I need to sleep all day, that is definitely still a possibility.
The fact is, rest is more beneficial than a hard workout sometimes. I’ve learned it’s insane what a restful day can do instead of throwing yourself into exhaustion just to get another workout in.
Being a defender on Million Dollar Mile – where you chase down a contestant – looks nerve-wracking. Did you feel the pressure?
It was really exciting and it was stressful. I look back thinking it was more stressful than I felt in the moment, maybe. In the moment, we’re just like: ‘Let’s do this’. I have the experience, I have the grip strength. And we don’t want to lose the million dollars. Granted, it’s not my money, but I didn’t want to be the one who gave away the most money! I didn’t want to be the person who let a million dollars go. So there’s probably a little pride that kept us going a little harder; it’s a competition between the defenders as well.
It was stressful. One of the shows I did, I fell off [an obstacle]. It was cool to show [viewers] because it shows that we’re human, but it was one of the hardest episodes that I did. They didn’t tell anyone but I had done two races for the show on Thursday night into Friday morning, only had an hour’s sleep, then got on a plane to fly to Boston from LA for a Spartan race on Saturday morning East Coast time, stayed out a little too late Saturday night and then flew back Sunday to then have that race on Monday night. I won the Spartan race and the 2018 Spartan Stadium Series [that Saturday], but they didn’t say that I was exhausted from flying across the country twice – or that I raced and won!
How do you fit it all in? It sounds super-busy…
I have to be careful. I have a very high tendency to overdo things. Like, I’m playing second league soccer tonight, I CrossFitted this morning, and I do biathlons. I do a lot of cross training. I didn’t run at all in the winter, I did all these biathlons, skiing, skimo races. I just love being busy. People are like, ‘Have you always been like this?’ and I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t. It’s crazy to some people who ask me if I ever sit down. Kind of. I lay down when I’m sleeping!
Would you describe yourself as a high energy person?
Yeah. I almost would say I have some ADD (attention deficit disorder) in me of some sort. Sometimes, I do have attention deficit in terms of paying attention. But when I clock into my nursing job I’m a different person, I’m very focused, I’m very neat. I’m very safe, very purposeful and very serious when it comes to my safety and my partner’s safety in the aircraft. When I clock out, I’m goofy but my job is really serious.
I give 110% in everything I do, which could be a fault in me sometimes, but I wouldn’t take something on where I couldn’t give 110% so I guess that’s sort of the way I live. Even when I show up to soccer and I’m like, ‘Guys, I’m really tired, I think I can only give 70%’ and they laugh because my 70% is still someone else’s 100%.
Going back to obstacle races. Do you have any pre-race rituals?
Yes, I do. I do Spartan Races only now, in the stadiums which is really fun for me. It’s my jam. Pre-race I eat chicken or salmon and have a glass of red wine with dinner the night before. I don’t carb load per se because it’s only 30-ish minutes, but a glass of wine to cut a little bit of the nerves. I love the taste of wine, but just one.
The next morning I’ll eat some oatmeal with almond butter and a little bit of black coffee, always, pre-race. And then I listen to DMX Party Up on repeat until the race. Like, once I get my shoes, socks and race attire, it’s DMX Party Up all-day, every day, before a race.
Do you have loads of adrenaline when you’re on the starting line?
I do, yeah. I’m nervous because I’m like, ‘Damn, this is going to hurt so bad!’ But I think, ‘It’s OK, you want this.’ I have some mantras like, ‘You want this. And if you want this, you have to go’ and ‘It’s going to hurt, but you want this’. I keep saying certain things. I kind of go into what people call a flow state, where I stop thinking and just go. Once I start thinking, it actually messes with my workouts. I face the wall a lot when I’m working out – I don’t want to make eye contact with people. I go into what I call my deep, dark place but it’s a flow state, a meditative space. It’s pretty cool.
Have you trained to achieve a flow state or is it just something that comes naturally?
It’s always come naturally. I just did a workout this morning and got into it. That’s like the biggest high – I get the runner’s high, and the flow state. I don’t do drugs, but if you get me after a workout? Oh my god, the endorphins – that’s the best drug that I’d pay a lot of money for. And I do pay money to go workout! It’s a ‘hobby job’ is what I call it. I do take priority in getting to the gym. I’ve got to work out. I can’t sacrifice a flow state. My mental health and my job, that’s my priority. It’s super-important to me.
Do you find working out is good for your mental health?
For sure, 100%. There’s a chance I could break my leg falling out of the aircraft; we’re all worried it might happen someday. So working out is definitely a big part of my happiness. I have some baseline anxiety and some depression I’ve always battled with since my mum and best friend died. And drinking and numbing does not make me happy. It’s been 15 years since my mum died and only in the last three have I truly, finally, been happy. Fitness brings me so much joy and the feeling of how I check out into that flow place, I think about the workouts, the movement and the people I surround myself with who do what I love to do. I would probably be on some anti-anxiety or depression meds if I had to quit working out completely.
I’m in a good place now and I’ve been engaged for a couple of months too. I met this guy a little over two years ago. Ever since I’ve met him, I haven’t missed my spear throw – knock on wood [laughs]. It’s really grounded me. I’m really fortunate that I’ve been through a lot and I finally deserve to be happy. I’ve put a lot of self-love and attention towards myself to get there – it’s sort of been a Mount Everest hike up for the last 15 years, and for the last three years I guess I’ve been just walking down feeling so peaceful. And I know life will bring more obstacles and other people might die, not that I’m preparing for it, but I’ve really learnt some great coping mechanisms and I’m in a really good place. It’s great because life has sucked for a while!
How often do you tend to train – do you take rest days?
I’d like to say I spend around 5 days a week on fitnessing. I take days off for active recovery, so I’ll maybe go for a hike, a bike ride or a rock climb. I’ll be doing open water swimming soon once it gets warmer here. Nature and fresh air is like food for my soul – I love being outside. We’re moving closer to the mountains in Vermont so I’m really excited; just to be able to get on a trail head within minutes. There’s fresh water swimming holes…
You’ve been on Broken Skull Ranch twice. Did you know what to expect before you went on?
I knew Cassidy Watton – now Cassidy Nicholas – was the reigning champ for way too long. We used to go against each other in the stadium races and she was beating me; I kept missing my spear and mentally I wasn’t into the training and racing as much as I am now. I felt she really shouldn’t be beating me as my fitness was ahead of hers. So I was like, I got to get on this Broken Skull and kick her ass on the obstacle course. So, the first time, they gave me a Skype interview and it was such a bad interview – I’m not really ‘mean’ enough. Some of the shows I’ve been on, I’ve been doing this, ‘Oh, I’m hungry, I’m going to eat a bitch’ thing, trying to be mean when everyone knows what I’m really like. So I didn’t know much about it and they didn’t offer to fly me out the first time I interviewed, so I thought, you know what, they wanted me to say more angry things, but this is not me, so that’s fine.
Then the next year they called me and asked if I wanted to come out and be on the show. I had no idea how to wrestle and didn’t even think to ask someone for advice. So I was up against a Team USA jujitsu girl, and she was super-strong and flipped me out of the ring straight away.
How did your second appearance come about?
So I lost that and then they were like, ‘We have this redemption episode with all the girls who lost in the rings wrestling and you could win $25k.’ I really didn’t want to wrestle again because I hated that aspect but you have to do it to get to the obstacle course part. So a day or two before I flew out, I asked a friend of mine if they could give me 40 minutes of their time and give me some basic [wrestling] advice. His little techniques were useful, and I had a better endurance tank, so I got my opponent out and I ended up winning the all-star episode and my first $25K, which was really cool.
What was the obstacle course part like?
The obstacle course is hard if you go really fast. The other girl decided to go first and went out so hard she blew up and couldn’t get up the rope. They told me she didn’t finish and I was like, Shut the fuck up. They didn’t tell anyone on the show, but I had 20 minutes to do the course, basically. I did it easy, 75% of my energy, in 9 minutes, which was the second fastest of the course. They couldn’t tell me how much time I had left, so technically if it had been more than 20 minutes, I wouldn’t win either. You don’t know how time moves in that situation. It was so cool when I got to the rope though, going, ‘I’m going to win $25K’. I’d never won such big money before. All the time, the work, the sweat, the tears, it completely paid off. And with Million Dollar Mile, the same thing. I’ve just paid off my student loans, which I’m really pumped about.
Do you have any favourite items of kit for racing and training?
For stadium runs, my footwear is different to mud runs because of the cement we run on. I’ve been running in some New Balances which I really like. They’re like race flats. I wear Darn Tough American Flag socks every time I race, the tall under the knee socks. They’re like a staple. I hope one day Darn Tough might add me as an athlete [laughs].
Are you sponsored by anyone right now?
My gym, Mountain Trail CrossFit, is a sponsor and also Yancy Camp but in terms of full-on sponsors, I’ve decided not to go on the Spartan Pro Team this year and turned down the contract.
I’d love to be sponsored, but people aren’t really interested in the stadium races that much, which is too bad. But I also have a fulltime job and I’m not really actively seeking sponsors. I used to stress about emails and sponsors and it wasn’t fun. As I continue to love what I’m doing, and it’s my hobby job, then I’ll continue doing it. If sponsors come, that’s great, but if not, I can’t spend my life stressing about it!
What are your plans for the rest of the year?
I’ve done two Spartan Races this year and I’ve won both of them. I have more in June and some LA races later. I’m going to take some time and enjoy being outside, stepping away from CrossFit for a hot minute – kind of like a mini off-season. Then I may look at the NorAm really short race down in Vermont, the North American OCR Championship. I wasn’t training last year enough for running, as I was trying to train for TMX which was a pretty cool [super-short] race, so when I did the 3K in Vermont I was ill-prepared for hills and running. I’d be interested in doing it again this year if I was fit and healthy.