'Toughest Mudder' goal is year-long pursuit

On a scenic morning, with a mild snowstorm winding down in Laurel, Tony Fontana took a walk in Gorman Park.

While certainly not the only one to take advantage of the blanket of white Jan. 3, Fontana's trek was unique in that he carried a 30-pound piece of wood with him and his journey lasted about 6 miles.

And it was 3 a.m.

Perhaps that should be expected for a Laurel resident who is part of a four-member team called the 3AM Waterfalls, who have competed in nearly 20 Tough Mudder endurance events since 2011.

Tough Mudder events are obstacle-course challenges, with 10-mile trail runs over rough terrain, with about 20 obstacles along the way. Fontana, 34, who lives in North Laurel with his wife, Debbie, and two young children, is joined by John Fagan of Sykesville, Jeremy Bucalo of Shrewsbury, Pa., and Kevin Lasko of Brooklyn.

"What pushes me personally is the team camaraderie," Fontana says. "It puts me back in the high school team sport frame of mind. And it keeps me in shape. I am not doing it for the glory."

"It pushes you to your mental and physical limits," Fagan said.

The team name comes from early-morning workouts — sometimes together, sometimes on their own — and their goal is to push themselves to a breaking point. "We haven't found it yet," Fagan said.

The 3AM Waterfalls made all of those early-morning workouts pay off in November when they won the 2013 World's Toughest Mudder team event in New Jersey. The squad covered 80 miles in about 25 hours and took home the winning pot of $12,000.

"My personal opinion was I thought we had a better than 50 percent chance of making the top three," Fontana said. "Now after the fact there were some doubters that thought we would never get close."

There have been more than 100 Tough Mudder events in the United States since 2010, according to spokeswoman Carol Gottshall, with 1.3 million people taking part.

Fontana, who grew up in Pennsylvania and works for the federal government, took part in baseball and basketball leagues as a young boy. He was a seldom-used guard for his high school basketball team who scored just 10 points in his prep career. He also played three years of baseball but was certainly not a star.

"I am not the body type for basketball and baseball," says Fontana, who is 5-foot-9, 165 pounds.

He began running as a senior in high school and tried out for the track squad at the main campus of Penn State but did not make the team. Fontana later transferred to Penn State-York, where he played basketball as a senior and had success in cross country while competing against mostly younger students.

Fontana graduated from Penn State-York in 2001 with a degree in mathematics and pursued his interest in long-distance running.

"I ran in some local events and in some marathons. I qualified for the marathon in Boston when the times were reasonable," Fontana said. "I did Boston one time and did not do so well. I enjoy running marathons at a leisurely pace."

He has finished six marathons and also finished two 50-mile races and a 24-hour event in Philadelphia.

Fontana took part in his first World Cup Tough Mudder event in 2011 with Fagan and Bucalo.

"We did that and we were hooked," he said. "We did pretty well, in the top 25 out of 800. It was brutal conditions that year. I bowed out the second year [in 2012] and John and Jerry did it again. I joined them again last year."

Fontana said that he trains about four or five times a week for a total of about 10 hours, and they run more on trails than roads, to limit the physical pounding.

The sport can be dangerous: a man from Ellicott City drowned during a Tough Mudder event last April in West Virginia.

"As far as safety concerns … we rarely go out individually. I think we just listen to our bodies," Fontana said. "We are not action junkies. We try to be smart about it."

Fontana was on his own the morning of Jan. 3, after a few inches of snow fell in the Laurel area.

"The snow put a damper on things. I hiked out about 3 miles at Gorman Park and 3 miles back. I found a log that was about 5-feet long and 30 pounds and I walked home with it," he said.

Fontana, who keeps wood in his backyard, had another log to add to his collection.

Reporter Blair Ames contributed to this story.

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