Welcome to the brave new world of fitness, where glamour and cosmetics are out and functionality and grit are in. Where barbells, kettlebells and medicine balls are favored over most high-priced machines. Where if you’re in your comfort zone, you might as well be in The Twilight Zone.
Generations X and Y have a stranglehold on exercise, and they’re dictating that workouts no longer be predictable or one-dimensional. Your training, they say, should challenge your body in all aspects — strength, endurance, coordination and flexibility — to prepare you to compete in a variety of sports and endeavors. But get this: Competitions also should be fun. Yes, fun, because while young people aren’t afraid to work hard, they also seek enjoyment at all times.
Which explains the recent ascent of the obstacle race, aka “mud run” — a new endurance genre that convenes most every weekend of the year across the country and every day on social media. Running a 5K or 10K is dull to most people; running a 5K while caked in mud and overcoming military-style obstacles along the way is not dull. It’s tiring, it’s challenging, it’s occasionally frustrating, but it’s fun.
Sound like a good time? Of course it does. To get prepared, here’s an introductory guide to obstacle races to absorb before getting your hands (and feet and clothes and entire body) dirty.
WHAT IS OBSTACLE RACING?
- Obstacle racing is like a road race, only with no road and a bunch of obstacles. So actually, it’s nothing like a road race, except that the distances covered are similar. Most races are in the 5K to 10K range (3 to 6 miles), with others covering 10-plus miles up to even marathon and ultramarathon lengths.
- Obstacle racing is demanding. You have to run for distance, but depending on the race, you also have to climb, crawl, jump, swim and do other similar activities you may not be accustomed to doing.
- Obstacle racing, while demanding, is also something you can do at your own pace. Outside of ultra-competitive events, feel free to take your time on the obstacles and finish the race well behind the pack. If you can’t conquer everything on the course, most events allow you to skip obstacles with no serious consequence. It’s very laid-back like that.
- Obstacle racing is location-specific. “If I do five Super Spartans in a year, none of them is going to be the same,” says Paul Buijs, creator and owner of the website MudandAdventure.com, an unaffiliated resource to all things mud running. “I might encounter the same obstacles, but the geography of the courses makes each one its own unique race and difficulty. I raced a Super in Miami, and it was 8 miles all flat. And then I did one in New Jersey, and it was straight up a ski mountain.”
- Obstacle racing is a party. Courses often feature live bands and beer tents. You can skip the race and just party, or you can do the race and party afterward.
- Obstacle racing is something to do with friends. Remember, it’s fun. You can go alone, but it’s much more enjoyable to do with your buddies. All and all, mud runs are joint ventures. You’re often helping others, and they’re helping you. You’re laughing at them as they slip and slide, and they’re laughing at you when you fall on your face.
- Obstacle racing is often a themed event. You might be encouraged to race in a Viking costume. Some courses are designed to mimic the duties of firefighters or a specific branch of the military.
- Obstacle racing is an activity that requires a willingness to get extremely dirty and throw your clothes and shoes in the trash after a race. Because of this, obstacle racing is a sport that always requires you bring a change of clothes, unless, of course, you just came for the party.
WHAT KINDS OF OBSTACLES ARE WE TALKING ABOUT HERE?
Use your imagination. All kinds: climbing walls and ropes, swimming through icy and/or muddy water, scaling steep slopes, walking over unsteady bridges. Some obstacles feature barbed wire, others are on fire. Some obstacles are highly creative, some are just plain difficult, and others are all these things and more.
Obstacle races aren’t free, but if you plan ahead, doing one shouldn’t break the bank. Entry fees typically start at about $60 and go up from there to $150 plus. With most events, the earlier you register, the less expensive it is. For example, sign up and pay six months in advance and it could be $60 (the early-bird special); register at the last second and it could be double that. Discounts for members of the armed forces and students are often available. If you’re driving, expect to pay $10 or so for parking. Carpooling with friends is always wise, especially considering the possible need for a designated driver after post-race festivities.
IS OBSTACLE RACING FOR YOU?
If you’re at least 4 years old and could pass a routine physical, chances are yes. Obstacle racing is for everybody, more or less. Most courses cater to the average person, who may or may not be in great shape. But there are also a number of competitive events to challenge even the most elite endurance athlete. “Obstacle races span both genders and all age groups,” Buijs says. “You have kids’ races now, and you have people in their 60s running these races.”
PREPARING FOR AN OBSTACLE RACE
Should you train for a mud run? That depends on how fast you want to complete the race and how you want to feel during it. Obstacle races are challenging, so if you’re completely out of shape, either it’ll hurt a lot or you’ll have a really slow time — or both. Doing at least a moderate amount of exercise before your first race is highly recommended. Running and high-intensity resistance training (fast-paced circuits) are the best preparation. CrossFit in particular is a great training protocol for obstacle races. If you currently exercise at least a few days a week, you’ll probably handle a basic 5K mud run just fine.
WHAT TO WEAR
Any number of hats are fair game, but remember that head wear can easily fall off in these types of races.
Don’t wear anything that fits too loose or it’s likely to get snagged on an obstacle. It doesn’t have to be a compression shirt, just something with an athletic, formed fit. And absolutely no cotton because it absorbs water like a sponge.
When Buijs races, he chooses between either compression shorts or regular water-wicking running shorts.
“Personally, I like lighter shoes,” Buijs says. “Not Vibrams because I feel every rock beneath me, but that’s a personal preference. The longer the race, the more cushion you’re going to want. And you also want something that drains because of all the water obstacles you’ll encounter.”
Again, nothing cotton, only synthetic. Certain wool socks are actually surprisingly good with water.
Assume it’s going to be sunny on race day. Bring waterproof sunblock so you can avoid skin cancer.
Long before Spartan Race or Warrior Dash came along, these races were blazing a muddy trail.
Tough Guy (est. 1987), Perton, Staffordshire, England; ToughGuy.co.uk
Camp Pendleton World Famous Mud Run (est. 1993), Camp Pendleton, Calif.; WorldFamousMudRun.com
No-No: Don’t try to run with your keys, wallet or other valuables in your pockets. Most race venues have secure areas to check personal items.
THE BIG THREE
New obstacle races are popping up all over the place, but there are three franchises in particular you’re likely to hear people talking about. Each series includes two-dozen-plus events across the U.S. each year, in addition to international races.
Currently the largest obstacle-race series in the world, Warrior Dash is an event that’s accessible to participants of virtually all fitness levels. “Warrior Dash has been touted, not by themselves, as the ‘gateway race’ for getting people exposed to obstacle races,” Buijs says. “It seems to be more inviting to the average person.”
Race Length: Give or take 3 miles (5K). There’s also a longer version, the Iron Warrior Dash, that’s 15 to 20 miles and meant for high-level endurance athletes like ultramarathoners.
Featured Obstacles: Trenches: Crawling beneath logs and barbed wire in muddy trenches. Stay low, get dirty.
Great Warrior Wall: A boot-camp-style barrier consisting of a vertical wall with ropes hanging from it. Use those ropes to scale the wall. Simple but challenging.
Warrior Roast: You run over a collection of fire pits, some with higher flames than others. Yes, flames.
Extra Credit: All participants get one complimentary beer and a “Fuzzy Warrior helmet”; for city dwellers, there’s an Urban Warrior Dash, also a 5K.
More Info: WarriorDash.com
Designed by the British special forces, Tough Mudder is a longer race than Warrior Dash that, according to its website, is meant “to test your all-around strength, stamina, mental grit and camaraderie.” But Tough Mudder, like most other obstacle races, likes to keep the vibe festive. “As hardcore as our courses are, we meet you at the finish line with a beer, a laugh and a rockin’ live band.”
Race Length: 10 to 12 miles
Featured Obstacles: Arctic Enema: A near-paralyzing ice bath that requires complete submersion by going underneath a wooden plank.
Ball Shrinker: Just as fun as it sounds. You walk on a slippery rope while holding onto another rope over a chilly body of water you’ll probably end up wading in.
Cliff Hanger: You climb up a steep, muddy slope with the help of your friends. That’s why it’s called a “Mudder.
Extra Credit: Post-race, Best Costume and Best Mullet/Mohawk awards are presented in conjunction with the Dos Equis beer party.
CrossFit’s Reebok-sponsored sibling, Spartan Race sets a more serious tone than the other big-three events. “How bad do you want it?” is one catchphrase they like to use. There are three increasingly difficult levels of Spartan races: Spartan Sprint, Super Spartan and Spartan Beast. Completing all three in one year earns you admission to the Spartan Trifecta Tribe, which basically means you’re a hardcore endurance badass. (See Page 44 for a first-person account from a new admit.) There’s also a fourth level, the Death Race. It lasts 48-plus hours and most entrants don’t finish it, so never mind that.
Race Length: The Sprint is 3-plus miles with 15-plus obstacles; the Super is 8-plus miles and 20-plus obstacles; and the Beast is 12-plus miles and 25-plus obstacles.
Featured Obstacles:Spartan Race won’t tell you. Here’s what it will say, via its website: “There are some staples in our repertoire. There are also some venue-specific and terrain-inspired obstacles. We will not, however, spell it out for you. As well, you will get no course map to inspect. There is fire, mud, water, barbed wire and occasionally Hell on Earth. There will be obstacles to catch you off-guard. Curveballs, so to speak. Get over it. We’re here to rip you from your comfort zone. If you need a road map for each step of the way, then maybe this race isn’t for you.”
Extra Credit: Spartan Race caters to the competitor, with yearly points standings for elite and open classes. Spartan is also kid-friendly, though; 4- to 13-year-olds can participate in way-less-demanding Spartan Kids races.
Warrior, Mudder and Spartan are the known entities, but local races can be just as challenging and enjoyable — and maybe even less expensive. “There are hundreds of new up-and-coming races that are trying to make it and local ones that are once a year,” Buijs says. “So those guys should definitely be considered. You don’t have to just go looking for the big ones.” The “Event Series” tab on MudandAdventure.com lists more than 50 different races. Check it out.
Photo by Peter Lueders
Spartan Race Report
“I hope I know what I’m doing!”Those are the last words I mutter as I click the “send” button in my email app, beaming Spartan Race headquarters a message proposing this report for Muscle & Performance. When I’d earlier mentioned the idea to Editor-in-Chief Jordana Brown, she was psyched. The more I read about Spartan, the more I hoped some of her enthusiasm would rub off onto me.
Why the second-guessing? My proposal entailed writing three reports, one for each level of what’s surely the world’s most popular obstacle race: the 4-mile Sprint, the 8-mile Super and the 12-mile sufferfest known as the Beast. I was certain my workout regimen — which included weightlifting, trail running, mountain biking and a short-and-sweet kettlebell routine — would see me through the Sprint and probably even the Super. The Beast, however, was a big, fat question mark.
In retrospect, I’m glad I was able to do the three races in order because each served as perfect preparation for the next. Like Mr. T, I pity the fool who does the Super first, and I might even assume insanity if a noob elected to make the Beast his or her first foray into Spartandom. Don’t get me wrong — a twisted task like that certainly can be accomplished; it’s just that most mortals will find it more enjoyable to adopt a progressive approach. Mine unfolded as follows.
December 2012: I signed up for the Sprint, which would take place in the dreamy locale of Malibu, Calif. I’d run several obstacle courses, including a 10-mile Tough Mudder, so I pretty much dismissed the challenge, thinking, “How grueling could a measly 4-miler be?” Did I mention that I’m an idiot at times? Since that weekend, Malibu has entered Spartan lore as one of the toughest races in recent memory. Incessant drizzle transformed the entire 4.6 miles — underpromise and over-deliver seems to be the Spartan motto — into a mountainous mud pit. While most races put you in the muck for a few hundred yards at most, this one had the brown stuff for its entirety.
Furthermore — and I didn’t learn this until later — Spartan Sprints tend to condense all the obstacles you’d find in a longer race into a shorter distance, and that ups the intensity for everyone. Word to the wise: If you want to test yourself on obstacles but dislike running, go for a Sprint.
Photo by Peter Lueders
Among the most challenging parts of the Malibu race: slipping a giant rubber band around your ankles and bunny-hopping uphill. It sounds easy until you remember the mud — so much had caked onto everyone’s shoes that our feet probably weighed an extra 2 pounds apiece. That same problem with stowaway mud increased the difficulty of the box jumps and made the various climbing obstacles slick and slippery.
Malibu also featured an insane barbed-wire crawl. It was so long, so muddy and so steep (yes, it was uphill) that a huge bottleneck formed — which only prolonged the time we had to spend on our already raw elbows and knees. Emerging from that obstacle proved one of the most liberating moments on the course — despite the gouges the barbs had carved into my back.
January 2013: I signed up for a Super Spartan that was scheduled for Temecula, Calif. It ended up being much less muddy — no rain that weekend — and at 8.6 miles, it felt more spread out. By that time, I considered myself an old hand at Spartan races. Another idiot moment. The course did include many familiar obstacles, but there was enough new stuff to throw me, and everyone else, for a loop.
Unexpected stumble: Although I succeeded at the trademark Spartan spear throw at the Sprint, I missed the target this time — right in front of all the spectators and cameras at the finish line. Drop and give me 30! Push-ups? Nah, they’re too easy. Thirty burpees!
A not-so-unexpected stumble came at the traverse wall. Racers were tasked with horizontally negotiating a vertical wall by standing on and grabbing attached pieces of two-by-fours. I fell off in Malibu, and I fell off here. Thirty more burpees!
June 2013: The culmination of my quest was the Spartan Beast planned for Midway, Utah. More intimidating than the course was the weather forecast — it was supposed to be 100-plus degrees by midday. Damn-it moment: My start time meant I’d be running and obstacling during the hottest of the hot hours. I decided to race with a CamelBak for the first time.
Utah’s got some mountains, believe me, and they all seemed concentrated into this 12-mile stretch of trail. Up and down, up and down, with endless obstacles designed to test upper-body strength, balance, pain tolerance and plain old grit. The most physically taxing: Fill a 5-gallon bucket with gravel and then carry it up and down a steep trail, drag a chunk of concrete attached to a chain along a circuitous rutted path, and use a rope and pulley to hoist a concrete block 40 feet into the air. The cool thing about even the most grueling obstacle was that approaching, standing in line and then taking your best shot meant you got a momentary break from the running, which seemed like it would never end.
When all was said and done, it was gratifying to learn that my normal workout regimen — OK, I upped my running mileage for the Beast — had left me in good enough condition to conquer all three events and earn entry into the Spartan Trifecta Tribe. All you training maniacs out there: Don’t think following in my muddy footsteps will leave you with no more battles to fight once you earn your Trifecta medal. Every Spartan Race is purposefully different; even events that return to the same venue each year are changed up. Case in point: In August 2013, the company held a Super in Virginia that took racers longer to complete than the average Beast. The formula Spartan has devised is one that can keep an athlete occupied — and motivated — for life.
—Robert W. Young