Throw together a ridiculous amount of mud and water, hundreds of live wires, several ice water-filled dumpsters, cargo nets, 15-foot walls, and the product that remains is a sustained trend in America -- one of endurance events. Also known as obstacle races, this adrenaline-fueled sport has exploded in popularity. More than 1 million people this year are expected to enter races of this nature in the United States. Who knew mud, sweat and barbed wire could bring as much allure as it does misery. We are not talking about a fitness trend, but what Running USA calls the “Second Running Boom.” These obstacle-style races combine mud and insane terrain with boot-camp obstructions and mind games. The courses are designed to challenge its participants to their outer most physical and mental limits, which has proven to be much of their appeal.
Current obstacle course racing has only been around since the mid-1990’s, but from the Stadion, the oldest event of the Olympic Games, to the contemporary era steeplechase, obstacles of some sort have been presented to athletes for thousands of years. The concept of using obstacles for an endurance event is a modern-day phenomenon. The Tough Guy claims to be the oldest obstacle race, with its first in 1987.
In obstacle course races, runners start on their feet, but eventually end up on their stomachs, sides, even backs as they traverse through mud (and lots of it), hurl themselves and their teammates over 12-foot vertical walls, and make their way across netting of mangled rope. The most mentally strong will choose courses where they will run across fire, crawl through water as live wires zap them from above, and plunge into dumpsters of ice water. Ready to sign up? OK, burning and shocking may not be for everyone, but all courses are not at the same intensity level as another. Most are filled with obstacles that are challenging, not painful. They will test your strength, stamina, and mental toughness and require a decent level of fitness. The Spartan Race, created in 2005 by seven ultra athletes and a Royal Marine, was one of the first major obstacle course races. Other quasi-military events to follow include the Warrior Dash and Tough Mudder. There are more than 50 races and series across the United States, from the difficult, fire-and-electricity types to entertainment-slanted ones like the Run for Your Lives 5K, where participants are chased by zombies. Obstacle races are all based on the same basis principles of testing competitors’ limits in unique ways no matter the distance and types of obstacles. The Tough Mudder, arguably the most difficult in the genre, features up to 25 obstacles over 10-plus miles.
Outside of the physical and mental benefits gained, participants can also join a team racing for a worthy cause, raising money for a favorite charity. They become part of something bigger, part of a solution. The Tough Mudder has raised to date more than $5 million for the Wounded Warrior Project. On a smaller scale, more than 200 people signed up for the Ryan Rawl Warrior Challenge on July 4th at the State House in Columbia that benefited the college funds of Rawl’s two children. Rawl was killed by a road-side bomb in Afghanistan one year ago while serving as a member of the S.C. National Guard 133rd Military Police Company. Teams in events like these are in it for more than just themselves. They are giving back. The grueling trail in a race can feel like a community where camaraderie and encouragement are king. “Leave no Mudder behind.”
Known as Spartans, Gladiators, Mudrunners, people who take part in obstacle races are some of the toughest, though some would call crazy, athletes around as they forge a bond between mud and guts. If you can call yourself a participate in one of these races, you know they can be brutal and may push you to the edge of stamina and pain … and you (we) absolutely love it. Perhaps it’s a part of our primal nature to seek out danger and adventure, and to see how far we can push ourselves. I know it works that way for me. There is a certain high you get when crossing the finish line, a deep sense of accomplishment that is hard to let go of and sends us back for more, one muck-filled shoe at a time.