Bigfork physical therapist Kaci Monroe aims to triumph over the notorious Spartan endurance race

Story by Clare Menzel | Photography by Greg Lindstrom
Kaci Monroe has her own set of monkey bars in her garage in Bigfork. Her father, Tim Calloway, a building contractor, made them for her after the October 2014 Spartan World Championships at Squaw Valley, California, where she leapt for the spinning monkey bars obstacle and landed on her back in the mud. The fumble cost her time and energy – she had to do 30 burpees as a penalty– and it snuffed out her chances of finishing among the top elite female athletes at the grueling obstacle race, the Spartan world’s ultimate test of strength and endurance.

So she added monkey bars practice to her workout. Monroe is determined that the same thing won’t happen again, especially not this year. This is her year to win. A doctor of physical therapy with her own practice, she’s not aiming for gold at the World Championships, where she’ll compete against professional athletes. But she is resolved to see the view from the top of a Spartan elite podium this season.

Monroe has flirted with Spartan success for four years, after she entered her first competition on a dare and won the open division without any event-specific training, also beating the more competitive elite women. Though she’s nabbed a handful of top-ten results since the first race in Bigfork in May 2013, she hasn’t repeated her victory.

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Tough as a Spartan

In the intervening years, she also opened River Bend Physical Therapy and Prevention Care, a clinic in Bigfork that now employs four people. She bought a house. And she married Hasset Monroe, a power lineman she met while completing bachelor’s and doctorate degrees at the University of Montana School of Physical Therapy, which she attended on a running scholarship.

Monroe’s race results show “how driven she is,” Hasset said. “It’s not like she’s had any time to focus on [Spartan, yet] she does amazing. This year she’ll be even better.”

In addition to practicing monkey bars, Monroe has ramped up her overall routine, adding in CrossFit training and holistic conditioning, including a nutrition plan. She’s always taken Spartan races seriously, but this is the year that she’s jumped in knee-deep with multi-faceted training that she hopes will take her to the top.

“I’ve been chasing the elusive podium for a while now,” she said. “This year, that’s what I want, to be consistently on the podium … I’m training better and smarter.”

Still, the competition grows stiffer every year. When Monroe first started racing, the Spartan was an obscure sport. It’s a survivalist race, a punishing mental and physical challenge that can include barbed wire, fire jumps, and 10-foot walls for competitors to haul themselves over. Now its functional fitness is growing more popular – the numbers of participants is increasing, as is the number of people who compete professionally across the globe.

“People who have never felt that extreme athlete pain, they realize it’s uncomfortable, but it’s rewarding,” Monroe said. “We don’t get pushed in society anymore; everyone takes the easy way out. Spartan is something different.”

It demands skills that most people haven’t used since gym class, like the ability to climb a rope. Training the body to remember these basic tasks, survival strengths, is empowering.

“Spartan has definitely impacted my limits, knowing my limits and knowing that they aren’t the absolute end,” Monroe said. “I didn’t think I could open my own practice. That’s daunting. I went to it saying, ‘If I don’t try I’ll never know.’ If you don’t know if you can make it to the top of a mountain, you have to try. I didn’t know if I could open a business and be successful. But we’re here.”

And just as Monroe has overcome the obstacles that running an upstart small new business in rural Montana entails, she plans to finally overcome the obstacles standing between her and the elite podium.

“She has a lot of drive, she’s very competitive and she’s very good at what she does,” said Theresa Berner, co-owner of CrossFit Libertas in Kalispell, with whom Monroe trains. “She has the drive and inner motive to win.”