Mud Runs Are the New Frontier in Adventure Racing

Sick of the typical 10K or triathlon? A new type of off-road obstacle course is gaining popularity—and is coming to the Washington area soon.

Mud Runs have become popular options for athletes looking for more of a challenge. The Spartan Race took place in Virginia in June. Photographs courtesy of Nuvision Action Image

Are you bored with your competitive fitness routine? Perhaps you’ve entered one too many 10Ks or triathlons, and you’re looking for something a little more challenging than road racing. How do you feel about mud? What about something named “electroshock therapy”?

Whether you call them mud runs, adventure races, or endurance challenges, boot-camp-inspired obstacle runs represent a growing trend in fitness. They attempt to push the boundaries of active living—and they’re coming to a city near you.

“Mud runs and adventure runs are popular because people are seeking something new,” says Jane Di Leo, public relations manager for Tough Mudder, the international series of obstacle events that bills itself as the one of the toughest on the planet. “Endurance sports should push you but also be enjoyable, and that is what we are trying to redefine in the endurance field.”

“I started off as a road runner and pounded pavement for most of my races,” Spartan Race brand manager Carrie Adams says. “You get bored and want a new challenge. I started trails and triathlons; then I found this and never looked back.”

Along with Tough Mudder, there are Columbia’s Muddy Buddy, Primal Mud Run, Warrior Dash, Spartan Race, RunAmuck, and a slew of others. All have slightly different formulas and vary in length and intensity. Many tour nationally and internationally, and the Mid-Atlantic region is a popular stop-off.

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It’s obvious from the numbers that there’s somewhat of a take-to-the-woods competition circuit building. Tough Mudder has been around for little more than a year, but already 14 events—attracting between 10,000 and 20,000 people each—have been scheduled for this year, followed by 28 in 2012. Warrior Dash began in 2009 and is expecting a total of 700,000 attendees for its 2011 season. Popular events usually include the following: a grueling obstacle course that promises to get mud in places you didn’t know mud could go, crazy costumes, and some type of after-party.

The Red Frog Events team, which hosts the 5K Warrior Dash, promotes the fun its racers have after the finish line—think turkey legs and Viking hats—almost as much as the course itself. “Participants make a whole day out of getting muddy on the course, drinking beer with friends, and enjoying live music,” says Alex Yount, media relations director at Red Frog Events.

Spartan Race wants its participants to have fun, too, albeit in a more family-friendly environment. Adams stresses that competitors put a lot of focus on training, so they can make it to the finish. Spartan’s series includes a 5K Spartan Sprint, an eight- to ten-mile Super Spartan, a 12-plus-mile Spartan Beast . . . oh, and the Death Race, a 48-hour survival test that 90 percent of participants won’t even finish.

Signature components of a Spartan competition usually include an 18-inch barbed wire crawl (the miliary standard is 24 inches), a slippery wall doused with dish soap, and a heavy carry of a sand-filled bucket or bag. You can choose to bypass an obstacle for a penalty of 30 burpees.

“Our races are very challenging,” Adams says. “We promote a lifestyle of very physically active, healthy living. But that’s what makes the finish line even sweeter. You earn it.”

Tough Mudder doesn’t consider itself a race, but rather a mental and physical test of endurance. Participants aren’t timed, and emphasis is not placed on finishing first. Instead, you must rely on teamwork to get you through the demanding course. “On some of our obstacles, the person who gets there first must wait for others to catch up so that he or she can get through,” Di Leo explains. Other hurdles along the way have names like Berlin Walls, Walk the Plank, and the Fire Walker. “Probably the two most notorious obstacles are Electroshock Therapy and Chernobyl Jacuzzi,” she continues. “Electroshock Therapy has participants sprinting through a field of live wires, some of which carry a 10,000-volt shock. Chernobyl Jacuzzi is a massive, body-numbing ice bath.”

But getting through the course has its rewards, Di Leo says. “If you ever stand at the finish, you will note all the endorphins running around. People feel a true sense of accomplishment and camaraderie.”

The Virginia Super Spartan won’t be back until August 2012, which leaves plenty of time to train for what Outside magazine calls the “best race to land you in the E.R.” (Adams assures us that all necessary precautions are taken to make the race as safe as possible.)

“Our mission is to get people off their couches and trying things they didn’t think were possible—to redefine what is considered normal,” Adams says. “The athletes in this world are amazing people and have done phenomenal things. It’s a really inspiring community to be a part of.”

Tough Mudder comes to Virginia Saturday, October 22, and Sunday, October 23 (the event is sold out for racers, but there is still room for those who want to watch; find details on the Web site). It will be held in DC in May 2012. The area’s next Warrior Dash will be May 2012 in Maryland.