Last April I took part in the 20th Anniversary of the USMC Ultimate Challenge Mud Run, held twice a year near Columbia, SC. In a time when OCR is expanding so rapidly, it’s worth thinking about an event that has been around that long. The big brands in the field (Warrior Dash, Tough Mudder, Spartan Race) have all been in business for a fraction of that time, and it would appear that many of the new races do not have the staying power that their organizers would hope to see.
How to explain this race’s longevity? Quite simply, they do it right: solid organization, strong support from the community, and staging a good event all encourage return customers. Also, when so many races that have emerged are interchangeable, this race has a few elements that make it stand out from the crowd.
For starters, this is a team event. There are no solo participants, and several of the obstacles require teamwork (unless everyone on your team is capable of scaling a twelve-foot wall). Other obstacles encourage teamwork, so that forming a team with less-than-equal abilities is not a hindrance to enjoying the race.
The obstacles themselves were not unfamiliar: walls to scale, tunnels to crawl through, and plenty of mud to wade in. A difference here was the sturdiness of the equipment. The venue is used for military training (or so we’re told), and the obstacles are built for year-round use, not the kind of rickety lumber that other races cobble together.
Finally, what sets this race apart was its position in the community. Simply put, everyone in town knows about this race. Columbia isn’t large: the population is about 130,000, with the major employers being the state government, the university, and the army (nearby Ft. Jackson is the army’s largest training post). When an event happens twice a year, every year, and hosts thousands of participants, everyone is somehow connected to it. After the race I went to the local farmers market, where I met a man who had done the race for the past few years. He was passing on it this time, as he had a fresh tattoo and wasn’t sure the mud would be good for it. At dinner, my waiter explained that he had been at the race that morning with his young son for the Devil Pup Challenge children’s race. When a marathon comes to town, people know about it (mostly because of the traffic it causes), but how often have you heard of an obstacle course race with this kind of awareness?
I enjoyed the race, but I should point out one or two logistical problems. I signed up for a coveted early morning slot (I should point out that teams leave every fifteen seconds, so I did not see any bottlenecks waiting for obstacles to clear). However, I didn’t have my team in place until the last minute, and I ended up racing with three, rather than four on my team, which is allowed. One of the quirks of the organizers is that they do not publicize the location of the venue until the last minute, which made navigation a little tricky (directions like “follow the state troopers off the highway exit” can be tough to enter into Google Maps). For most in the crowd, which has been there year after year, this isn’t a big deal, but it struck me as unnecessarily secretive.
Should you sign up for this race? If you live in the area, of course you should. One innovation for the next running of the event, in October, is that you can register “to compete” or “to complete”, i.e., if you want to race as fast as possible, you will be put in a separate heat from teams that are more focused on finishing the event in one piece. If you like the idea of participating in a team event, you should definitely consider this (as well as the Bulldog Challenge in nearby Charleston). If you like a high obstacle-to-distance ratio, this is definitely an event for you. With 36 obstacles spread out over six miles, the focus is not on running. If you don’t like getting dirty, you may want to give this one a pass: you will find yourself crawling through a muddy ditch early on in the event and not get much cleaner as the race progresses.
I’ll be back next year. Anyone want to race as Team Mud and Adventure?