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A New Fitness Craze With Big Drama

A New Fitness Craze With Big Drama

The men in the starting line at Hyrox in Berlin in April practically hummed with nervous enthusiasm. A few dozen racers, part of an early morning heat, stood watching the steady tick of a five-minute countdown, displayed on a huge television overhead. Dramatic string music played on tinny loudspeakers. A booming voice intoned a rallying cry, “This is the moment you’ve been training for!” Lights twinkled. Spectators cheered.

For the founders of the fitness race Hyrox, Christian Toetzke, 55, and Moritz Furste, 39, this kind of kitschy spectacle was always part of the plan. The original brief, when they introduced the race in Hamburg, Germany in 2017, was “to create an event that is a 200,000-euro (about $214,000) production that looks like a 2,000,000-euro ($2,144,000) production,” Mr. Furste said.

Hyrox’s “modern entertainment and light effects create a very special feeling,” Mr. Toetzke said, one that he hopes will create a “new proposition for mass participation events.”

A Hyrox race combines running with several functional fitness movements, such as the farmer’s carry, the weighted lunge and the burpee broad jump. It takes about 90 minutes to complete, on average, although elite racers can finish in under an hour. The race has exploded in popularity since the end of the pandemic: More than 175,000 people are expected to participate in the more than 60 races Hyrox has organized for 2024. Races in its most popular markets, including Britain, have sold out within minutes of going on sale.

Hyrox is not the first fitness race to emerge from nowhere and gain a cult following. What distinguishes it from fads like Tough Mudder and Spartan, according to Hyrox fans, is its athletic simplicity.

“Tough Mudder and Spartan are an experience that has a sport aspect to it,” said Hunter McIntyre, 34, a full-time fitness racer who holds the world record in Hyrox. “Hyrox is a sport that is an experience.” When Mr. McIntyre would tell people that he was doing a Tough Mudder, “it was almost embarrassing,” he said. Now, when he tells people that he does Hyrox, “there’s a level of respect to it,” he said.

“Usually when you ask someone if they did a Tough Mudder, it’s like they went with their office, and they got pictures and wore funny outfits,” Mr. McIntyre said, whereas Hyrox, he added, “is truly a sport.”

As a sport, Hyrox draws heavily from CrossFit, including the equipment it uses. Ski Erg and rowing machines, kettlebells, ropes and weighted sleds are common fixtures of CrossFit gyms. Some Hyrox movements, such as the wall ball shot, were created by CrossFit, although CrossFit workouts use these movements only occasionally, following the founder Greg Glassman’s ethos of “constantly varied high-intensity functional fitness.”

Mr. Toetzke said that he and Mr. Furste workshopped the Hyrox format at CrossFit gyms before the race was introduced. He added that while he tried CrossFit himself, he “thought it was a bit too much, a bit too hard, too injury-heavy.”

CrossFit involves many complex Olympic lifts and gymnastics skills, which can be difficult to master and, to some, dangerous to learn. Hyrox has avoided those kinds of techniques, sticking instead to simple movements that, Mr. Toetzke said, “are very hard to do wrong in a way that can hurt your body.” Despite or perhaps because of the similarities between the sports, Hyrox has deliberately positioned itself as the safer, more accessible alternative.

“Look, candidly I think they’re smart trying to leverage that,” Don Faul, CrossFit’s chief executive, said in response to these claims. “When you’re trying to enter a new space, you define yourself against the incumbent, the company that has defined the category. We’ve seen a variety of folks in the fitness space trying to take the same angle.”

Mr. Faul, 47, a former platoon commander in the United States Marines, said that the apparent difference in accessibility between CrossFit and Hyrox is really just a difference in perception.

“The vast majority of people in our gyms are everyday folks, not elite athletes,” he said, adding that people stepping into a CrossFit gym for the first time might be “incredibly surprised by how welcoming and accessible it is.”

While many local CrossFit gyms host their own events, the only in-person competition the company organizes is its annual CrossFit Games, which is for a handful of elite athletes and is meant to crown “the fittest on earth.” That’s another reason CrossFitters often join Hyrox. It offers a chance to test their fitness live.

Though it’s difficult to say precisely how much overlap there is between CrossFit and Hyrox, Chris Hinshaw, a 60-year-old coach who trains athletes in both sports, said that “most of the people who are getting into Hyrox got their start in CrossFit.” Many of the racers on the Hyrox podiums are also elite CrossFit stars, including Mal O’Brien and Mirjam von Rohr, two of the top CrossFitters in the world.

Hyrox claims to have more than 2,500 affiliate gyms around the world, at which athletes can train for the public races. Mr. Toetzke and Mr. Furste initially told The New York Times that “about 10 percent” of these affiliates were also CrossFit gyms. In Berlin, 16 of 18 listed on the Hyrox website also offered CrossFit classes. When asked for clarification, Hyrox revised their estimate to 22 percent. Mr. Faul said that, though CrossFit does not track the number, he “would be surprised if it was that low.”

Mr. Furste seemed vexed to have to address the subject of CrossFit’s influence on Hyrox. “I absolutely don’t like this conversation,” he said. “We don’t want to take anything away from them. We love the training methodology. But in the end, apart from the functional workouts, it has nothing to do with us.”

Each sport seem to be benefiting from the other. Mr. Hinshaw, the coach, said that Hyrox and CrossFit are “really a perfect pair,” pointing out that offering both sports is are a good way for a gym owner to increase member retention. “A lot of people think they’re competitive with one another, and that is not at all true,” he said. “By the nature of who these athletes are, they’re always chasing the shiny new object.”

The question now is whether Hyrox can endure — or even continue to grow — as the blush of novelty wears off.It could also, like CrossFit, deepen in intensity while narrowing in appeal: It might inspire passion but the passion of the devoted few.

Mr. Toetzke doesn’t think so. “I don’t see the risk of becoming a sport only for committed people,” he said. “We are looking to the success and longevity and sustainability of the marathon.”

Becoming as popular as marathon running, of course, is a rather lofty ambition for an organization with events that are a fraction of a marathon’s size. (Hyrox New York, taking place on June 1, will have less than 10 percent of the New York Marathon’s participants.) But that, long term, is the goal.

“We really believe that this is the potential,” Mr. Toetzke said.

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