Overcoming obstacles: Jack Morse’s Navy Seals-inspired obstacle course in Cummington is an extreme fitness regime

  • Jack Morse goes through a morning workout at his obstacle course at his home in Cummington. The course has become a regional attraction for people looking for an exercise challenge during the pandemic. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Jack Morse navigates the obstacle course he has made on his Cummington property, along with his dog Ronan. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Ronan, Morse’s Irish wolfhound, waits for him to make it up the hill along the grueling course in Cummington. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Jack Morse goes through his morning workout with his dog Ronan at his obstacle course at his home in Cummington. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • One of the many obstacles that Jack Morse has built on his property in Cummington. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Jack Morse throws a spear as part of his morning workout at the obstacle course at his home in Cummington. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Jack Morse reaches for the bell as he finishes moving across the monkey bars, which are part of the obstacle course he has constructed at his Cummington home. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Jack Morse goes through his morning workout with his dog Ronan at his obstacle course at his home in Cummington. Morse said sometimes Ronan goes over the board as well. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Jack Morse, an Iron Man and canoe marathon competitor, has built an elaborate course at his home in Cummington that’s become a bit of a draw. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Jack Morse climbs a wall that’s part of his morning workout at an obstacle course at his home in Cummington. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Jack Morse goes through his morning workout with his dog Ronan at his obstacle course at his home in Cummington. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Jack Morse navigates one of the more than 30 obstacles in his challenging backyard course. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Jack Morse carries a boulder as part of his morning workout at an obstacle course at his home in Cummington. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Jack Morse goes through his morning workout with his dog Ronan at his obstacle course at his home in Cummington. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • After the morning workout Jack Morse and his dog Ronan go for a swim in the river by his home in Cummington. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Jack Morse goes through his morning workout at his obstacle course at his home in Cummington. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Jack Morse goes through his morning workout at his obstacle course at his home in Cummington. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Jack Morse goes through his morning work out with his dog Ronan at his obstacle course at his home in Cummington. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Sage Antonio trains on the obstacles course that Jack Morse built at his home in Cummington Thursday afternoon, July 15, 2021. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Isaac Bowles wears a 20 pond vest as he trains on the obstacles course that Jack Morse built at his home in Cummington Thursday afternoon, July 15, 2021. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Isaac Bowles wears a 20-pound vest as he trains on the obstacle course that Jack Morse built. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Sage Antonio trains on the obstacle course that Jack Morse built at his home in Cummington. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Sage Antonio trains on the obstacles course that Jack Morse built at his home in Cummington Thursday afternoon, July 15, 2021. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Isaac Bowles wears a 20 pond vest as he trains on the obstacles course that Jack Morse built at his home in Cummington Thursday afternoon, July 15, 2021. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Sage Antonio trains on the obstacles course that Jack Morse built at his home in Cummington Thursday afternoon, July 15, 2021. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Staff Writer 
Published: 8/14/2021 8:18:21 AM

Not even grueling heat could keep Jack Morse from training on the Navy SEALs-inspired obstacle course he built in his backyard. Morse started his workout routine at 6 in the morning, as he does every weekday, even as temperatures climbed into the high 90s during a recent heat wave in late June.

“It’s kind of a battle,” said Morse about working out in the humid heat. “You have to shake off the rust from the previous day’s workout.”

Over the past seven years, Morse has built an elaborate obstacle course in his backyard on his nearly 13-acre property in Cummington. He started with building the “gauntlet” — which is 35 feet of ascending and descending monkey bars — and now there are more than 30 obstacles. With a background in engineering, and as the owner of a roof tiling business, he had the know-how to build the course himself.

Obstacle course racing is the latest challenge for this 58-year-old fitness enthusiast. For the past 25 years, Morse has competed in marathon canoe races professionally, mostly in New England, and taken part in what he estimates to be hundreds of Iron Man and triathlon competitions throughout the course of his life.

In the past decade, obstacle course races have soared in popularity for people seeking boot camp-inspired races that push their abilities to the limit. Some of the first competitions include the Tough Guy Competition in England, which dates to the late 1980s and consists of cross-country running, slalom runs up and down hills, running through 6 feet of mud, and water-filled ditches.

Another popular event, called the Spartan Race, has blossomed into a worldwide phenomenon that’s been franchised in more than 30 countries. The Spartan Ultra event challenges competitors to more than 30 miles of running and more than 60 obstacles.

“You do it to get lost,” Morse said about training and participating in the competitions. “At the elite level, it’s for bragging rights.”

The introductory level at most competitions involves running a few miles with 10 to 12 obstacles that are “fairly easy,” Morse said. The course sometimes includes swimming across a small portion of a river. At the elite level, the competition can include anywhere between 9 to 28 miles of running with hundreds of obstacles, doing them over and over again, from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., he said.

“Whoever does the most laps is king,” Morse said.

Meeting the challenge

Morse is about 5 feet, 8 inches tall. He has dirty blonde hair, and is built like an Olympian, with a large chest and arms toned from years of training for and competing in daylong canoe races. He talks casually about carrying hundred-pound stones, running triathlons and crawling through the mud, like a hobbyist might talk about fishing or golf.

“My motivation is when someone throws a challenge down,” Morse said.

A doctor friend of his once mentioned how he heard about somebody who did the Navy SEAL Murph challenge once a week for a year. The challenge involves running a mile, then doing 100 pull-ups, 200 push-ups and 300 air squats followed by another mile run.

Morse recalled saying, “I think I can do more than that.” He did the Murph challenge every day for 100 days last year.

The course Morse built in his backyard has become a draw for neighbors, fellow Crossfit gym members, and friends of Morse, especially last year when pandemic lockdown measures kept many gyms and other recreational areas closed.

“People will come and spend all day here,” Morse said. On any given weekend, there could be up to 50 to 60 people who come out to test themselves on the obstacle course. “They might do the course for 50 minutes and then stay for another couple of hours watching other people and encouraging them.”

People from all different backgrounds come to the course: veterans (Morse himself served in the Navy), lawyers, doctors and high school students.

“Running through the woods, in the mud, it sounds primal,” Morse said.

One of the people who has trained at Morse’s obstacle course is Sage Antonio, a Southampton resident and rising senior at Hampshire Regional High School. Her mother is friends with Morse’s wife, and when Antonio visited his house last summer, she immediately wanted to run the course.

“I was not dressed for it at all,” Antonio said about her first visit to the course. Antonio had not known about it until she visited Morse’s house one day last year. Once she saw it, she asked if she could run through some of the obstacles.

“I was able to come back and do it every other weekend last fall,” Antonio said. “It’s such a fun way to exercise and train, and after learning about the competitions, I’m interested in trying them out.”

One of Antonio’s favorite obstacles involves climbing over and under PVC pipes without touching the ground. “You have to be really flexible and some guys can’t do it, and for me it’s no problem,” she said.

A more difficult obstacle involves climbing down a rope hanging between two trees while upside down. “It feels like you are in some action movie,” she said. “You have to complete it before the blood rushes to your head.”

The obstacle course also provided people an opportunity to stay active with others while outdoors and socially distancing last summer.

“That was one of the funnest things I did last summer,” Antonio said. It also helped get her ready for her first season as a member of her high school’s wrestling team. “I felt like I did a lot better at wrestling practice, and I did the obstacle course at the same time. Wrestling practice helped me run the course faster, too.”

‘People need to be pushed’

When there are large groups of people working out at the course, it can inspire people to push themselves a little harder, Morse said. Sometimes, people might give up at a certain obstacle, but when they see their friend complete it, Morse said, it lights a little fire under them.

“People need to be pushed a little bit,” Morse said.

Another person who could not get enough of the course is Worthington resident Isaac Bowles, who attends the online public school Tec Connections Academy Commonwealth Virtual School, or TECCA.

Bowles said his family is friends with Morse, and when he found out about the obstacle course over the past winter, he decided to knock on Morse’s door one day to ask if he could try it out.

There were a few obstacles Bowles could not do because they were covered in snow. He said he wasn’t even sure which direction you were supposed to run it, but he was hooked after that first time.

A half-year later, Bowles was preparing for his first obstacle course competition called Bonefrog, a competition created by Navy SEALs that took place at Berkshire East.

“Jack recommended it, and I trained really hard, about every other day, for it,” Bowles said.

And the hard work paid off. Bowles placed fifth in the race overall, and first for his age group — even after he ran into a hitch on the course.

The race involved running nearly 3 miles up the steep and rugged terrain of the mountain. The obstacles were easier than at Morse’s course — he purposely built them more challenging — and Bowles was breezing through the race and found himself in second place halfway through.

Then he got bad directions from race organizers. He recounted how three different race organizers sent him the wrong way in the race and how he ended up back at the starting area. He had a timer running to keep track of his time and a Bonefrog organizer said, “you’re screwed.”

That is until Bowles decided to take the mountain’s chairlift up to the top, ran back down halfway, and found the course’s correct path to the finish.

“At the finish line I thought I finished last,” Bowles said. “I printed out my time and it was one hour, 17 minutes. The winning time was one hour and nine minutes.”

He felt disbelief, but one supporter was proud instead.

“He just flew through it,” Morse said.

“The guy who won was in fifth place and he was quite a bit behind most of the race,” Bowles said. “The lead guy got burned out and ended up third or fourth. I had a chance to win it, and I hope to place” at the next competition.

Morse said that “no one actually knows what they can do until they actually come here,” and “most say it’s the most fun they’ve had in a long time.”

Luis Fieldman can be reached at lfieldman@gazettenet.com.

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