Leukemia Survivor and Spartan Racer Denver Martin Shares His Fitness Journey

Denver Martin was diagnosed with leukemia at age 2. At a time when many kids were running around on their newly discovered legs, Martin was getting weekly treatments at the hospital until he was in remission at age 5. In his teenage years, he sat in front of a computer playing video games as many as 12 hours a day.

Martin, who lives in Fullerton, California, with his wife and works as a project coordinator for a telecommunications company, just finished his first Spartan Beast race in Tahoe, completing his Spartan Trifecta (Sprint, Super, Beast). His passion for health and fitness has been a lifelong process, one that led him and his wife to Spartan two years ago. The 24 Hour Fitness member currently works out with a personal trainer and is training for his next Spartan Sprint.

24Life asked Martin to share his fitness journey and his advice to those starting out on their own journeys.

24Life: Tell us about your fitness journey—where does it begin?

Denver Martin: Growing up, I wasn’t that good at team sports. My parents got me into soccer and baseball. I would never score a goal. I was horrible. I would never hit the ball. I would never get a run at all in baseball.

But then I did karate when I was 12, and I was pretty good at it. So me and my best friend, we started doing karate, and that gave me some confidence in my athletic ability. And then I got addicted to online video games when I was a teenager. I had my own computer in my room, and I would play eight to 12 hours a day. I was really good at that because there was a competitive aspect to it. I’ve always been pretty competitive. But when you step into that world, “real life” tends to suffer. So my grades weren’t the greatest. My social life in the real world obviously was extremely lacking.

24Life: You were a video gamer growing up. How did you discover physical activity?

DM: My senior year, that’s when it all changed. I joined the weightlifting class and started getting into working out. I took a break from video games that summer going into my senior year, and I started taking creatine and weightlifting and I gained 40 pounds. I remember people’s reactions. They were like, “Wow, you look completely different. You look good.” And that motivated me to keep going. But I kind of relapsed, so to speak, after high school into my college years. I played more online games.

After I graduated from college, I got back into health and fitness, and I listened to a lot of podcasts. In particular, I listened to the Joe Rogan podcast. He was talking about how he would get on the elliptical and he would do high-intensity training intervals. At my work, there happened to be a small gym within the office complex, and pretty much every day, I would sneak off to that gym and just sweat it out. Doing that three to four days a week really jump-started me into my health and fitness transformation because it felt really good.

24Life: How did you get into Spartan races?

DM: I met my wife, and she got me into a running club called the Sloppy Moose Running Club in Sacramento. Through that group, I met this guy named Nick and he did Spartan races. He was pretty obsessed with [Spartan]. So he got us into that. We did our first Spartan Race, and we had a really slow time. It was like 1 hour, 30 minutes for a Sprint, which is not that great, but we finished it. It felt good doing it, and that segued into wanting to sign up for more of these events.

24Life: What keeps you motivated to stay the course? Where do you find motivation?

DM: It’s definitely intrinsic. Where do I get that? I just love feeling good, and I remember all those hours spent on a computer and what it did to me—it zapped the life out of me.

Truth be told, I think the motivation is fear. It’s fear of the past and not wanting to be like that anymore.

24Life: Are there moments of self-doubt? What do those look like, and how do you overcome those?

DM: All the time. For example, I trained a good amount for this recent Spartan Beast I did in Tahoe, and I thought I was prepared, but there’s always factors you can’t control. I think that’s what Spartan is all about—overcoming obstacles.

So the day of [the event], I was a little sick. I wasn’t feeling too great, but I had some caffeine, had a pre-workout, and my wife and I start the race. It was going all right, but around mile 9, I hit the wall hard. Honestly, I thought I was going to have to quit. But there’s no way I can quit. That would be so embarrassing.

So I took it really slow on the cargo net when I came down the mountain because I didn’t want to fall. I was very dizzy, and I approached the rope climb not really energetic or motivated, but I managed to do it. I rang the bell, I came down and ate a gel, and I got a little more energy from that. It was mainly just the confidence knowing that I just had completed an obstacle that made me think, I can do this. I didn’t have to do burpees. If I had to do burpees, I might’ve quit, honestly.

My confidence kept building as I kept going through, and I didn’t have to do burpees on three obstacles. So from that extreme self-doubt early on and then being able to do those obstacles, I thought, I can do this. I can push through. It’s mile 9. There’s 4 miles to go. I can do this. And then there was a tire flip, and I did that no problem. I don’t know why I doubted myself before. If I can do all these obstacles, I can finish this race. After that, it was tough, I’m not gonna lie. It wasn’t easy, but my wife and I were able to finish it together.

It was incredibly satisfying to finish that race, and I felt very proud of myself and my wife. There were some parts where it was pretty torturous, but it was good because you push past your barriers at the same time.

24Life: What has surprised you the most about yourself during your fitness journey?

DM: The inner fire that I have. I don’t know if it was anger at my previous self or at the people who doubted me—just that desire to transform myself from who I was before into the new me.

24Life: What advice do you have for others who are just starting out on their fitness journey or want to quit?

DM: You have to really look into yourself and figure out why you’re doing it. You have to figure out the “why.”

Why do you want to transform yourself? Why do you want to go on a diet? Why do you want to look better? Whatever it is, you have to find that “why,” and if that “why” is strong enough, then there’s no way you can quit. So my advice would be to don’t be discouraged, and keep your “why” strong enough. Don’t give up. There’s a lot of information on the internet and personal trainers at 24 Hour Fitness you can go to if you’re really not feeling it and try to get that spark.

24Life: What’s next for you? Do you have any current goals that you’re going after?

DM: The Spartan Beast was a lot harder than I thought. I knew it was going be hard and I really do want to continue doing Spartans, but I think my abilities are better suited to the shorter ones. I’m really looking forward to the Sprint coming up on November 2.

I want to get better at sprinting. So I’m trying to increase my glute strength. I’m doing a lot of hip thrusts, and I’m focusing my training around developing speed and power and increasing my running efficiency. I want to get under an hour on the Sprint I’m doing on November 2. That’s my main goal right now.


What is your go-to workout?

Chest and back.

Where do you find inspiration?

Other people. And online—YouTube.

What are you passionate about besides what you do?

Hanging out with my wife and being with her and having fun together and enjoying life.

What book’s on your nightstand (or podcast is topping your list)?

Current podcast is “Planet Money” by NPR, and current book I’m reading is “Tribe of Mentors” by Timothy Ferriss.

What song is at the top of your playlist?

I really like electronic music and dubstep. My go-to song is “Nuclear” by Zomboy.

What’s your power food?

Five eggs, buckwheat porridge—and the buckwheat has walnuts, cacao nibs and coconut flakes—and some sausage, too. So a big breakfast basically.

What’s your secret to getting a great night’s sleep?

Sleep in a very dark room, no light at all. Put all the phones on airplane mode. Make sure to get some sunlight during the day. If not, take some vitamin D in the morning. Use blue light blocking glasses if you are watching TV or looking at a screen at night. Bonus items would be, if you have time, take a bath with bath salts like magnesium or just rub magnesium oil on your body.

And if you’re still sitting there lying awake, do some box breathing where you breathe in for 10 seconds, breathe out for 10 seconds.

Mainly, just be very active during the day and you’ll fall asleep very easily.

What’s your No. 1 stressor and top stress buster?

No. 1 stressor is work because it’s high pace and we have to hit our targets for the month. No. 1 stress buster is working out and ashwagandha. It’s an herb that reduces your stress and reduces your cortisol, and it’s also an adaptogen. So depending on the time of day that you take it, it has different effects.

So if you take it in the morning generally, you’ll get more energy. It depends on the person, though. It’s kinda like magic in a way. If you take it in the evening, it tends to zonk you out. So buy some ashwagandha if you are stressed out and take it. It’s way better for you than Xanax, and it balances your hormones in the process.

What’s the best fitness advice you’ve ever received?

I don’t know if it’s an exact quote. But Arnold Schwarzenegger said to try to make the most out of every moment you can in your waking hours. That’s not the exact phrase, but he was able to do all these things and go to school and become a professional bodybuilder. Try to make the most out of every moment, whether it’s productive or whether it’s just you enjoying the moment and living in the moment.

Photo credit: Courtesy of Denver Martin