The Hunter Athletes

A new generation of hunters is taking preparation to the next level through physical fitness and training. Michigan Out-of-Doors Editor Drew YoungeDyke takes a look at the movement through the first Train To Hunt Challenge held east of the Mississippi River. (All photos by Damaris Schuler)

This article appears in the Fall 2016 issue of Michigan Out-of-Doors. Subscribe by joining Michigan United Conservation Clubs here!

TIME WAS, HUNTING PREPARATION meant pulling the deer rifle and flannels out of the closet a few days before the opener, sighting in at a few cans and buying your back tag. Maybe it included a spring or summer weekend at deer camp to build box blinds and trim some lanes.


Lately it has also evolved to setting trail cams, planting food plots, and practicing or shooting in 3D archery tournaments, ensuring that the hunter is a proficient shot with his or her equipment. Now a new generation is taking hunting preparation to the next level with a focus on tuning the most important piece of equipment a hunter has: the human body. 

The modern “hunter-athlete” movement, as it’s called, started out west where mountain hunters have always needed to be in top physical condition to go after backcountry elk and mule deer, and, most importantly, get both themselves and their game meat back. The movement is catching like wildfire and spawning entirely new sub-markets of the hunting industry marketing to athletic hunters through companies like Mtn Ops and Wilderness Athlete. Hunters are sharing their workouts with each other on social media and listening to podcasts about how to train better and eat right for peak physical performance. They’re competing in contests that fuse shooting with physical conditioning, like a Tough Mudder or Spartan Race with bows and arrows.

Beyond all the hype, though, runs an undeniable constant: hard work. That’s what was on display at the Train To Hunt Challenge this July at the Ambridge Sportsmen’s Club in the hills on the outskirts of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. I went to the Train To Hunt Challenge not just to write about this growing subculture of hunters, but to compete with them in the most grueling competition ever devised for hunters. And that’s where I met Ray Bickel of Vasser, Michigan. At least, that’s where I met him in person.

Ray and I already knew each other from our Instagram accounts. When I started trail-running to get in shape for hunting in the early Spring of 2015, Ray was one of the first people to start following the posts of my runs, which helped to keep me accountable for staying on track with them.

I started following his. We both followed Cameron Hanes, who has inspired the entire movement by running ultramarathons, hunting the most remote backcountry on the planet, and sharing his “Run, Lift, Shoot” lifestyle for anyone interested in following. I soon learned there was a whole nationwide community of hunter-athletes, and Train To Hunt is where they tested their progress against each other in the offseason.

Train To Hunt is a competition that fuses 3D archery, trail-running with a heavy pack, and a CrossFit-style challenge course. It grew out of a training program developed by Kenton Clairmont of Washington and Dan Staton of Idaho. I first got really interested in Train To Hunt after attending a CrossFit workout coached by Staton during the Archery Trade Association (ATA) Show last winter, which also included Cam Hanes, Josh and Sarah Bowmar, Train To Hunt eastern director Will Bradley, his Natural Born Hunter podcast co-host and 2014 Train To Hunt Champion Phil Mendoza, and Gritty Bowmen podcast host Brian Call.

When Bradley, who’s from upstate New York, told me there would be a Train To Hunt Challenge in Pennsylvania, the first east of the Mississippi, I signed up for it and got to work.

I joined Spartan CrossFit in East Lansing, where I worked out (and still do) three to four days a week. They let me set up a 3D deer target outside the gym so I could shoot immediately following workouts while my heart rate was still high. I wore a backpack with weights in it during my trail runs. And that was just to try to keep up.

Take Ray, for example. He was the only contestant other than me from Michigan at the Pennsylvania qualifier. He trained by running with a 120 pound pack and a Training Mask set to 15,000 feet that simulates the thin air at higher elevations.

This might make sense for western elk hunters packing out of the mountains, by why would Midwestern whitetail hunters go through all this?

“Some people don’t like to work out, and that’s fine,” said Bickel. “I think it’s going to help, I honestly do. You know, being under pressure, getting your heart rate up. I mean, you get in your treestand, just climbing to the top of your treestand, and then you have this buck of a lifetime walk in a minute later, you’re out of breath. Pull your bow back, now you have to hold it back for thirty seconds. Not a lot of people, I don’t think, could do it.”

Ray should be able to do it, though: he won the men’s individual open division at the Pennsylvania Train To Hunt Challenge.

The two-day challenge consisted of three events. On the first day, contestants shoot a 20-target 3D archery course, but one unlike any other. In addition to the difficulty of the shots, which can range out to 60 yards, everywhere in between and at steep angles, certain targets require specific shots based on realistic hunting situations. For instance, one shot is point blank. Others require a kneeling shot, or draw while kneeling, stand up and move left, right and forward before shooting. One requires two shots in ten seconds, another requires the archer to hold at full draw for thirty seconds before shooting. Oh, and no rangefinders.

I personally did terrible on this portion of the course. While I missed few targets completely, I hit few fives and threes (bullseyes and outer rings). I was sitting in last place at the end of this event, by a lot, which was bad news: When asked about the most important part of winning the competition, Bickel didn’t hesitate. “Shooting. You really have to focus on your shooting.”

“You can’t outrun your shooting,” added David Celano, from Wildwood, Florida, who finished second.

Zach Smith, from eastern Pennsylvania, finished third and had the top score on the 3D event.

“Shooting is key,” he said, “and being able to tell some distances.”

So, pretty much like real hunting. Except that Train To Hunt doesn’t stop there, as most off-season preparation does. The next event tests conditioning for the pack out: the aptly-titled “Meat Pack.”

For the men’s open division (under 40 years old), contestants had to carry a 100-pound sandbag in their backpack, as well as their bow, over a hilly trail course about a mile long. For time.

There is nothing so humbling as a 100-pound meat pack. Whatever kind of shape you thought you were in, the meat pack will let you know that you were wrong.

“It’s very humbling,” said Derek “Tex” Grebner, who won the traditional division. “You cannot be over-prepared for it.”

The thing about the meat pack is that once you’re out on the trail, there’s no way out. You have 100 pounds plus a bow on your back, and your legs have to move it and yourself downhill, uphill, downhill, uphill, downhill, uphill, downhill, uphill, downhill, and uphill again. I mean, you could quit, but the kind of people who would quit generally aren’t the hunters who sign up for this kind of thing. The last time I felt like I did during the meat pack was when my cousin, Scott Youmans, and I dragged my three-and-a-half year-old eight point buck uphill, downhill, uphill, and downhill again from where I shot it back to deer camp last November. As close as my cousin Scott and I were before that drag, we certainly built a stronger camaraderie during the course of that drag because we were suffering through it together.

Somewhere during the meat pack, you realized the camaraderie you were building with the other contestants, too, for the same reason. You were no longer competing against the other contestants, you were competing with them. The only thing you were competing against was the temptation to stop. Which is just as it is when you’re hunting.

No matter how far from camp, or the road, or your truck, or how many hills in between, you owe it to the animal you’ve killed to pack it or drag it out and to make use of it. Hunter-athletes are not just training to be more efficient killers, we’re training to be ethical and safe hunters by making sure our bodies are conditioned to get the animal and ourselves out of the woods or off the mountain.

I made up a little ground in the meat pack, finishing sixth out of eight in that event. I was still in last place in my division, but I had closed the distance going into the second and final day.

This is where the camaraderie revealed itself: Zach Smith, who had the highest score on the 3D archery event, had shot in my group during that event. Zach works at an archery shop, and noticed some issues with my form. Even though we were competing in the same division, he shared with me that he noticed I was gripping the bow too tight and that I should relax my grip more. That night, after getting some new arrows, I spent two hours working on it with my dad, who accompanied me on the trip. And it helped.


(Photo by Damaris Schuler)

Imagine you’re hunting elk out west, or even still-hunting whitetails in a public land state forest up north. You climb up a hill. You glass them across a valley and jog a little to close the distance out of sight and downwind. You get to the top and there it is! Can you make the shot? Maybe you just helped drag your buddy’s deer out of the woods, start down the trail, and there it is: can you make the shot? Maybe you just had to haul firewood for the camp stove, or carry your treestand, or climb your treestand, or climb down, or make a long stalk uphill, or your heart’s just racing because “Oh my God look at that deer!” or you just did any of the million different tasks requiring physical exertion while hunting and then there’s your opportunity: Can you make the shot? That’s what Day Two of Train To Hunt is all about: the Challenge Course.

It’s different every year, but it always combines physical challenges, trail-running and archery. It’s worth double the points as the other events. Contestants had to wear a pack during this event too, a relatively light 20 pounds for the men’s open after the previous day’s meat pack.

This year, the Challenge Course started with a tire pull. Then you picked up your bow, sprinted to the first target, and took your shot. A 3D doe at about 35 yards. Then you ran up the trail to the second station, shot the target, took off your pack and did 15 backpack get-ups, which are like a sit-up while holding the 20-pound pack to your chest, standing up, crossing a line, turning around and doing it again.

Then run down the trail to the next target, shoot it, and do a sandbag shuttle run. You put down your bow, pick up a 60-pound sandbag on your shoulder, pick up your bow, and run it around an obstacle and back. Of course, they placed the obstacle downhill, ensuring that you had to run it uphill to return it! The last time I felt like that was when I packed out my button buck on my shoulder (which I mistook for a doe) on last year’s archery opener, while carrying my bow.

Run down the trail to the next target, shoot it, and do 15 ground-to-shoulder-to-other shoulder-to-ground lifts with a 50-pound sandbag. Run and shoot, 15 burpees (down-ups for my old high school football teammates), run and shoot, 15 box step-ups, run to finish the course.

Accuracy mattered even more in the Challenge Course. For any bullseye, 30 seconds was deducted from the total time; for any body shot outside the vital zone, 30 seconds was added; and for any complete miss, 30 seconds was added and you had to do 20 additional burpees.

It was physically brutal, maybe even harder than the meat pack. Personally, I did a little better on this one. I had only the sixth fastest time but I didn’t miss a target and even got a couple 30-second deductions by hitting the bullseye, though I had one 30-second addition by hitting the leg on a 50-yard shot. Zach’s advice from the day before and my dad’s help practicing it paid off and I moved up a couple spots to sixth in men’s open in the final standings. But by then, that didn’t even matter as much as I thought it would.

It was the people, the community of hunter-athletes that mattered most at that point. It’s funny, but I don’t think anyone locked their vehicles at the event. We all left our equipment out whether anyone was around or not. I would never expect any of them to steal a treestand, or a trail cam, or claim a downed buck that wasn’t theirs, or anything like that.

I think it’s partly because of the work they’ve all put into hunting and training for hunting. Whether it’s the type of people willing to put in that work or how the work itself tranforms people, no one who’s worked that hard would take away what others have worked for. Wouldn’t that be great if the whole community of hunters behaved like that? Imagine what that would do for the image non-hunters have of what we do?

The hunter-athlete movement is having a positive impact on the image of hunters, though.

“As we try to move hunting, and the image of hunting, I think this is where it needs to go,” said Cerrano. “I think a lot of anti’s – whatever, you don’t have to hunt, I understand that – but they just picture the old image of hunting, people cracking a bunch of beers, cruising around in the truck and shooting out of the truck, and that has had a bad image on hunting. I think a lot of that is going to change – and there’s some people you can’t turn – but I think [the hunter-athlete movement] is the way it’s going to go.”

Watching my new friends win medals in the shape of compound bow cams, I couldn’t have been happier for them. We had cheered each other as we crossed the finish line, helped each other take our heavy packs off, offered each other water bottles, shared trail mix, compared protein shake recipes, offered and accepted tips on shooting better and how to rig up a pack to carry 100 pounds, and were genuinely happy for each other’s successes without jealousy from below or condescension from above.

I hope this movement catches on, because I want to see that dynamic at play throughout the entire hunting community. Where hunters are happy for each other when they get a big buck and don’t look down on small ones, where everyone helps each other because they know their success is dependent on their own hard work, and there’s nothing to gain by putting anyone else down.

There are some critics of the hunter-athlete movement. In a recent post on his Antler Geeks blog, Tony Hansen, who also writes for this magazine, wrote:

“Just because it’s all the rage these days to load a backpack up with rocks, to run around a trail with a bow in your hand and shoot arrows at extreme distances as part of the ‘Ultimate CrossBite Bowhunting Road Warrior Pound It Until You Puke Challenge’ doesn’t mean it has anything at all to do with killing a big buck this fall...What will help you? Confidence. Repetition. Preparation.”

He’s right to a point, and he’s certainly put enough mounts on the wall to prove it, but the hunter-athlete movement is about more than just “killing big bucks,” and confidence, repetition and preparation are exactly what contestants build through the Train To Hunt Challenge and the training leading up to it. It is, after all, “Train To HUNT.”

There’s more to hunting than the killing part, though. And while shooting is the most important element of Train To Hunt, the physical challenges train the body for other elements of hunting like getting there, performing under pressure, and getting out.

“I’ve been out West, I’ve been in Canada, on the West Coast,” said Celano. “To prepare for those hunts, I used the Train To Hunt training program on a lot of that. And without that, a lot of those hunts probably would have been unsuccessful.”

“I have to agree with that,” added Bickel. “You’re shooting from a treestand, still shaking and you’ve got that buck of a lifetime, if you can’t hold for 30 seconds, that’s going to make or break you.”

Personally, I’ve experienced more hunting success in the year and a half of training my body in preparation for it than I ever had before that. I was 0-for-the-decade before I started running trails, lifting and shooting more often. For my style of hunting, still-hunting public land as far from a road as I can get, it made the difference both in bow and firearm seasons. It wasn’t about “killing big bucks,” but it put venison in my freezer that lasted until summer. My goal this year is to get enough venison to last until the next season, and that’s what I’m training for.

You don’t need to work out to kill a deer, but it won’t hurt.

If you’re healthier, you’ll be able to hunt longer, both on a given day and longer into your lifespan. You’ll be able to help get yourself and your game out of the woods without a heart attack. You’ll have more energy to move a stand or take the long way around to stay downwind of your quarry. That doesn’t mean you have to run trails, or pack 100 pounds, or do CrossFit, though.

Since we returned from Train To Hunt, my dad has been walking around the block nightly with my mom. At first it was a couple blocks, then it was up to a mile. I think he’s up to a couple miles now. That effort makes him part of the hunter-athlete community, too. The effort, and the mental toughness to put forth that effort even when it’s hard. And that’s what Train To Hunt is all about.

“Truthfully, it’s a very humbling experience,” said Tex Grebner, “but it’s worth it. It is intimidating, but all you’ve gotta do is make up your mind that you’re going to do it and not quit.”

“It’s 90% mental,” said Zach Smith. “You get to that point, you get halfway, you’re looking at the ground going ‘I’m not making this,’ but you’ve just gotta push through.”

“It’s a lot of right foot, left foot,” added Celano.

“You can’t let a bad shot, or a bad day get to you,” said Bickel. “You’ve just got to forget about it and go, and I think that’s the biggest part of the mental challenge.”

Ultimately, it’s all about hunting. The physical endurance, the training, the preparation, the shooting; it’s about being more prepared in the field and putting as much work into making sure your body is just as prepared for hunting season as the rest of your equipment.

For this generation of hunters, that’s as much a part of preparing for the season as checking trail cams, scouting, planting food plots, and pulling the camo out of the closet.

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  • commented 2016-09-01 16:53:22 -0400
    Well written brother. Good luck this year!