Mud runs and obstacle course races (or obstacle course runs) are the latest rage in the U.S. and absolutely huge in the UK and Australia as well. They quite probably make up the fastest growing participatory sport in the world. Events are now popping up all over the globe. What’s the draw? Why are so many people from so many different demographics leaving the safety of clean roads for the dirty unknown of trails, often challenging obstacles and mud? With events and races of different difficulties and each with a unique theme, they really offer something for everyone.
Mud runs and obstacle races are basically the same thing. Both involve some amount of running and require participants to traverse either natural or man-made obstacles throughout the course. Mud runs are heavy on the mud with varying amounts of obstacles involved while obstacle races will usually take you through the mud once if not several times throughout a more obstacle rich course. In this piece I’ll just refer to them all as obstacle races moving forward (even though some are considered challenges and not races).
I could go into the nitty-gritty of describing each of the different race and event series out there and and how they‘re all different (from 3 mile fun runs to ultra distance races and things like zombie and fire fighter themed events in between) and what kind of person should do which but there are literally entire books being written about this. Instead I’ll tell you what draws me to them and why I enjoy them.
Like the average American runner I did a lot of 5k road races. Occasionally I’d do a four or five miler. I really dislike, er, disliked, running any further I and still do if it’s on the road or by myself in the trails. I was in the Marine Corps and a timed three-mile run was the basis of our fitness test. Now years past since I got out of the military, organized 5K road races have provided what I thought was a fun way to continue to gauge and pursue a general, and what I think is respectable, level of cardio vascular fitness. I liked the energy of large crowds running together. The bigger the race, the more energized I got. But I was never motivated enough to run further for longer races. That all changed around 2007.
My first obstacle race was a hybrid 10K trail run in down in Miami. It followed the same trails I’d normally ride my mountain bike on. The organizer threw in a couple of natural obstacles such as stream crossings and had a tiny obstacle area set up at the end of the course (a wall that had to be climbed over and some logs I had to crawl under). Despite the race being of a distance that I would normally hate to run I was hooked on a new sport and I didn’t even know it.
That first obstacle race was a small race with maybe thirty people in the group that chose that distance. I didn’t get to feel that energy from thousands of runners running alongside me that I got and wanted from a road race – the same energy that I’m sure motivates many others to the starting line of road races. But what the race lacked in group energy was more than made up for in personal challenge. As the runners spread out throughout the course I found myself running at my own pace, not trying to keep up with any group or individual that I had to beat or who shouldn’t be beating me based on any biases towards body types I may have had. I had one goal in my head – finish. Even though I was in the outskirts of Miami, a short walk to the nearest grocery store, I envisioned myself running in some remote forest qualifying for an elite military unit. I felt tough just being out there running, let alone finishing (which I did).
Over the last few years as these types of runs have taken off in popularity and obstacle racing has become more organized, the 5k’s have all but disappeared from my race schedule. Obstacle races now have the group energy of road races. In fact the energy is much more intense (check out the start line of a Tough Mudder).
Besides the personal challenge and the energy, OCR brings something else that I didn’t find in regular running – camaraderie. I now have friends all over the world that I’ll often run into randomly on the racecourse. We’ll talk excitedly about how great or bad a race was (usually depends on the quality of obstacles or logistics such as trail marking or crowd bottlenecks). Run with someone for a few miles, help each other over a wall, share your race snacks with each other and before you know it you both have new friends. Some people enjoy the camaraderie so much they run the full course with their friends with the goal of not achieving a certain finishing time but that the group finishes together.
I used to have a running blog to document my quest, training and just my general struggle to achieve my personal holy grail of running – a 21-minute time for the three-mile. On that site I had a page of upcoming races I wanted to do. Now I maintain Mud and Adventure a whole website devoted to upcoming obstacle races and mud runs broken down by state and country so I and others could find and keep track of which events to do.
Now my race schedule is 95 percent obstacle course type events and I’m actually closer to that coveted 21 minute time than I have ever been before. I still have a while to go but I have found myself motivated to run more – to train for that next event and to be able to test myself further in more challenging events.
I’ve gotten to the point where I’ll do a 13-mile race and during the last few miles I’ll tell myself, that after this, I’m never running a race longer than 8 miles again. What do I of course do after that? I signed up a for a 75K ultra survival/obstacle race in the middle of Nicaragua on a (double) volcanic island. So a few months later and miles and hours up the side of a volcano there was another long moment there that I said never again as well. A fellow racer called it race amnesia. A month after the race I am now signed up for the same race again next year in Nicaragua. This time I am motivated to train more than five miles at a clip. Heaven forbid I finish the whole thing. What will I want to do after that??! Maybe one day it won’t be as much about the personal challenge as much as it is about the competition – coming in first and winning. For some it already is. There are a lot of things, many, many unmentioned, that draw people to this new sport.
While I’m not a true lover of running (hm, maybe I am?) , I like to challenge myself and I love climbing things. Obstacle racing gives me a fun environment to be both – where its perfectly acceptable and even encouraged to feel like a kid again – totally carefree and focused on the task at hand.
If you are reading this and have never done a mud run or obstacle race and this all sounds really intense and perhaps intimidating, I suggest you do short well-organized race like a Warrior Dash or a Spartan Sprint at a stadium with the sole intention of showing up and going through the course at your own pace. These are gateway races – because if you enjoy one of these you’ll be among the hooked.