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  • Writer's pictureStephanie Ashby

Winning At Health and Fitness Even After A Catastrophic Injury

Updated: Jun 20, 2023

On Friday 7 May 2021, 45-year-old Gary Rothwell fell 20 feet down a gushing waterfall and landed on his head, fracturing his skull and dislocating his knee. Five months later, in October, he entered and won a HYROX global fitness race in Birmingham. Now, he’s preparing to go to Las Vegas to compete in the World Championships against athletes from all over the world.

Rothwell says he’s a regular guy - he’s no super-human. His recovery is down to his mental outlook and inner strength. When you learn about his accident and what HYROX entails, though, I’m not so sure.

Who is Gary Rothwell?

Rothwell comes from Rochdale, a large town at the foothills of the South Pennines in Greater Manchester. Positive and upbeat, he is the owner and director of The Empowered Man, which specialises in empowering professional men over 40 to regain control of their health and fitness. This is a topic very close to Rothwell’s heart. He established his business after 24 years in the British Army, during which his experiences taught him that you need to treat your body with respect to get the best from it.

A vegan for four years, Rothwell says his fast recovery and success in the HYROX competition can be attributed to his healthy lifestyle, physical condition, and mental attitude. And, he believes health and fitness are achievable for everyone - if you can just attain the right mindset.

How Hard Is A HYROX Race?

During a HYROX race, athletes run 8km, pausing after each kilometre to tackle a functional, weight-bearing exercise. The eight workouts test stamina, strength and endurance to the max. At the end, the athletes with the fastest times in their division can win money and earn a place at the HYROX World Championships to compete to be crowned World Champion of Fitness Racing.

It’s fun to watch. The atmosphere is electric. Music pumps, bodies work, sweat pours, and the energy is palpable. And it’s tough - comparable to a sprint triathlon or a fast half marathon - and you need to be aiming for an average finish time of 1.5 hours.

So how did Rothwell do it in 01.11 and come first in his age category?

“I‘m at a good level of fitness, and I work hard to maintain that. And I love competition!” says Rothwell. “But what really makes me different is my mindset. I plan and prepare well - and I never give up, no matter what. Quitting is just not an option for me. I’m there to do my best, and that’s exactly what I’ll do.”

The Accident

Rothwell says he only decided to enter HYROX Birmingham when he was recovering in hospital from a head injury that was so serious it could have killed him.

His accident happened at a waterfall at a beauty spot in Ashworth Valley near where Rothwell lives. Taking photographs, he slipped and fell 20 feet down a vertical drop.

A number of things were against him that day. There were two trees at the top that could have broken his fall if he could have reached them in time, but he couldn’t. To make things worse, he was training, so he was wearing a 20lb weighted vest. And he was on his own.

Somehow, though, Rothwell managed to scramble out of the cold water. Bleeding and in shock, he walked three-quarters of a mile to a place where his wife could pick him up and take him to hospital.

Medical staff attribute Rothwell’s survival and speedy recovery to his level of health and fitness. He was training six times a week in preparation to complete a challenge scheduled for August to scale Scafell Pike 10 times in 24 hours. Which he did. In 23 hours 27 minutes. At an elevation of 978 metres, Scafell Pike is the highest mountain in England, making a total of 9,780 metres.

Competing at HYROX Birmingham

Once Rothwell had made the decision to enter HYROX, he says it was a case of building his strength and cardio fitness and honing in on specific areas to focus on the muscle groups he would need for the functional exercises.

His hard work paid off. On the day of his race in Birmingham on 30 October 2021, he came 1st in his age category and 7th overall in the HYROX Men’s Division. His success secured him a place at the HYROX World Championships in Las Vegas on 14 May 2022.

To prepare for Vegas, Rothwell is entering the HYROX Pro Division in Manchester on 29 January 2022 to get a feel for what the competition will feel like.

“In the World Championships, all participants have to compete at Pro level, which involves lifting heavier weights or longer distances. Manchester will show me where I need to concentrate my final weeks of training,” says Rothwell.

“In HYROX Birmingham, the atmosphere was terrific. I could hear people cheering and shouting my name when I was racing, and the commentators were great. So were the other competitors.

“When I finished, I turned to the bloke that came in straight after me in my age group and invited him up on the podium with me. It was such a positive vibe. He said to me, ‘So, are we going to Vegas?’ and I looked back at him and said, “Yeah! Let’s do it!”. It’s such an exciting opportunity to represent my country, and I can’t wait.”

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