Mud Running 101: Muddy Mayhem

A brief glimpse at the white-hot obstacle-racing craze.

For a growing number of runners, a race is not a race unless it includes obstacles, “Fear Factor”-style challenges and, of course, plenty of sticky, gooey, slippery mud.

Drawing on roots in expedition adventure racing, trail running, parcour and pseudo-military comradeship, the obstacle-racing trend has exploded in recent years.

How big is it? An estimated 2 million people competed in some sort of obstacle race in 2012, a number that will certainly grow as the number of events soars past 500 nationwide this year. Compare that to the roughly 2.2 million marathon and half-marathon finishers last year and you get the idea of how hot the trend is. (The category got started when Bob Babbitt, co-founder of Competitor magazine, launched what would become the REI Muddy Buddy Adventure Series in 1999.)

Social media has been a huge catalyst for the explosion. It seems everyone wants to post photos of themselves, preferably muddy, crawling under barbed wire, getting zapped by electrical cords, leaping from 12-foot platforms or climbing cargo nets.

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“Experience is the new luxury good,” says Will Dean, who started the Tough Mudder series as a thesis project while getting his MBA at Harvard Business School. “This is what people want to brag about on Facebook.”

While there are many different events — Tough Mudder, Spartan Race, Warrior Dash, Muddy Buddy, to name only a few — the intrigue is that that every one is different, with some as short as 3 miles in length or as long as 24 hours in duration. Most require a mix of endurance and strength training, an indefatigable sense of adventure and loads of unbridled machismo. Can’t seem to get over the greased wall? That might cost you 30 burpees on the spot. Don’t want to wade through icy cold water? Drop and do 20 pushups!

“We view it as a sport, and we think that’s why it’s exploding,” says Spartan Race founder Joe De Sena, a former Wall Street financial broker who once completed 12 Ironman triathlons in a single year. “When you look at what you’re doing — running, jumping, climbing, crawling, perhaps throwing a spear — it’s a far more natural sport than football, basketball or baseball.”

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