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Spartan: Ten Haken brothers take on obstacle course challenge

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. -- For some, climbing up a Slip Wall covered in mud and slime and water doesn't make for a very fun day. For Paul Ten Haken, however, it's all part and parcel of something he'd do again in an instant.

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SIOUX FALLS, S.D. - For some, climbing up a Slip Wall covered in mud and slime and water doesn’t make for a very fun day. For Paul Ten Haken, however, it’s all part and parcel of something he’d do again in an instant.

“I’ve been doing obstacle course racing for probably about three years competitively, and probably about four or five years total,” Ten Haken said in a Friday phone interview. “The big obstacle course series is called Spartan. I spend most of my time preparing for Spartan races.”
A Spartan race features an obstacle course consisting of challenges that the majority of people in the world could never endure. To a Spartan racer like Ten Haken, who grew up in Worthington and now lives in Sioux Falls, they’re a way of life. So when he heard through like-minded friends about an upcoming reality television show featuring a Spartan race, he jumped at the opportunity.
“I tracked down the casting information and submitted a video plus the paper application and honestly, on the day I submitted it, I got a call from the producer,” Ten Haken said. He said, ‘We really liked your video and we want to consider you for the show. What does the rest of your team look like?’”
Ten Haken’s response, after swallowing his surprise, was, “No problem, I can round them up quickly.”
The teams needed to consist of two men and two women. Ten Haken contacted two female friends in Sioux Falls who, while not obstacle course racers, were excellent athletes.
“I said, ‘Here’s the deal, I’ve got a warm lead at NBC. They want to cast me in the show and they want to see what the team looks like, so if you want to do this I need to know right away.’ They jumped on it and sent in their applications.”
Then he needed the fourth member of his team. His choice, ultimately, made them a show favorite.
“I called my brother,” revealed Ten Haken. “Mark was an athlete in college and he’s always been athletic, but he’s also been a dad for the last eight years so he’s kind of gotten out of shape and he would be the first one to admit that. So I called him a little bit nervously, but I knew that if we wanted to have a great time doing this then he’d be the one to have.”

Mark was up for the challenge. He, together with Tracy Kuipers and Natascha Krempges, filled out the team, which was ultimately named Juice Box Mafia, marrying the toughness of the mafia with the bond they all shared - being parents.
That all happened last August. It didn’t take long after they applied for them to be chosen as one of 32 teams for the show.
With a taping date of December, it meant that Ten Haken and his new teammates could spend a few months training to be on national television. For Paul, his training didn’t change too much. He had just finished the racing season, so he was in peak shape.
For his brother Mark, it was a little more of a challenge. It turned out, however, to be a blessing. Mark often trained by running - sometimes for eight to 14 miles - with his special needs daughter, Ruby.
Mark began to run while pushing 8-year-old Ruby in a rugged stroller, and she loved it. Ruby has the mentality of a four-month-old, and there is very little that she and her dad can do together on a meaningful level, but running together is something they both love.
This story of a father-daughter bond ensured that Juice Box Mafia would be a heart-warming favorite of the show’s producers.
“Our story really kind of gravitated with the producers,” Paul said. “They even went out to Michigan (where Mark and his family live) to film the family there. This is a big producer with a lot of shows to his name, but he was in tears while filming Mark and Ruby. We don’t know what the package (about Mark) will look like exactly, but it should be good.”
When December finally rolled around, Paul and his teammates were flown to Atlanta for a week to film. They were matched up with a “real” Spartan once they arrived. Some of the Spartans were professional - some were not - and there were both women and men.
Juice Box Mafia’s Spartan was Melissa Berke, who, while not professional, was deemed an excellent athlete to help lead their team.
“The first three days there in Atlanta there were a lot of producer interviews and medical checks and uniform fittings,” Paul offered. “One night we spent a couple hours walking through the entire course so we could see it and ask questions. There would be no time for questions during the actual event - it was filmed in real time.”
Then came four days of competition.
“Some days we ran a (qualifying) heat in the morning and then another in the afternoon,” explained Paul. “It was a short course, less than two miles. That makes for good TV.”
The Slip Wall, particularly, made for good television. Despite its horrors, Paul still says he’d do it all again in a heartbeat.
“The Slip Wall was unbelievable,” Paul admitted. “It is the hardest obstacle I’ve done in a race. We were soaking wet when we got to it, so that didn’t help. That sucker was a challenge. It was terrible. You’re stepping on people’s faces, making a human ladder.”
Yet he still calls the whole thing “probably the coolest experience of my life.”
Part of that coolness was getting to hang out with people Paul has looked up to in the Spartan world.
“The bonds I made with other teams were really cool,” Paul enthused. “For me as an obstacle racer, I looked up to these professional racers, and I still look up to them and now they’re my friends. We keep in touch. That was part of what made it so great.”
Another worthwhile aspect of the show was when Paul stood at the starting line for a race, and a producer came up to him and told him to look into the crowd. There, sitting in the stands and waving, were his wife and two oldest kids.
“I didn’t know they were coming to watch the filming,” he said. “It was great. So my kids will be on the show, too.”
Now that the rigor of the taping is over, there’s nothing to do but wait for it to air. Well, and train for the next big thing.
“I’m continuing to train for a lot of Spartan races,” Paul said. “In fact, a couple weekends ago in Ohio, I just cracked the top 10 n the world in my age in a Spartan series. That was a big goal that I set a couple of years ago, so that was cool.
“Now the primary focus of my training is I’m doing Iron Man in September (a qualifier in Wisconsin). Going to Kona (Hawaii, site of the “real” Iron Man race) is not even on my radar. I’m not trying to qualify, but trying to finish and be able to go hug my wife and be alive at the end.”
“Spartan: Ultimate Team Challenge” (from the producers of American Ninja Warrior) premieres at 9 p.m. Central Time June 13 on NBC.

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