As obstacle races like Tough Mudder circle the globe, thousands drop traditional road races.
By Phil Lindeman
Photo special to SneakPEAK
It’s a scene pulled straight from reality TV: Hundreds of racers clambering over walls 20 feet high, sweating through jungle gyms from hell, and daring fields of electrified cattle prods, all for little more than a few new Facebook photos. There’s no enormous prize at the end – usually just a beer and unceremonious hosing down – but thousands of people across the world are ditching traditional 5-kilometer foot races for courses with intimidating, ultra-masculine names like Warrior Dash, Rugged Maniac and Spartan Race.
“It’s something new, something fresh – it has that ‘wow’ factor,” says Scott Ruff, the general manager of the Gypsum Recreation Center, who competed last year in Copper Mountain’s Warrior Dash. “These races just aren’t boring. Everyone loves tackling something they aren’t sure they can do. People rally around each other, and you have that camaraderie that goes missing with individual races.”
Thanks to the harrowing terrain of the Rocky Mountains, Colorado has become a hotbed for obstacle races, with events springing up in Vail, Gypsum, Colorado Springs and along the Front Range. This weekend’s Tough Mudder at Beaver Creek is one of the most diabolical of the lot, promoted as the brainchild of a British Special Forces agent. The course winds roughly 12 miles across the front side of the mountain, forcing racers nearly 2,500 vertical feet to the top of Centennial Lift and over obstacles with weird nicknames: “Twinkle Toes” for balance beams hung over a mud pit, and “Shock on the Rocks” for a pit covered with electrified netting like barbed wire.
“We want people to feel like they really accomplished something amazing – you can’t just jump off the couch and do this,” says Tim Baker, the executive director for Beaver Creek Resort Company, who’s in charge of coordinating the event with national Tough Mudder staff. “Beaver Creek is pretty unique and interest for this race is through the roof.
As a national race series with more than 50 venues globally, Tough Mudder has the clout to attract enormous crowds, particularly young athletic types like Ruff who are bored with normal racing. In its first year in 2011, the Beaver Creek event had 10,000 racers, and Baker estimates this year will draw up to 16,000. Kate Portz, a lift dispatcher at Vail Mountain who competed in the inaugural Tough Mudder, returns this weekend with the Vail Ski Patrol team knowing there’s no way to be fully prepared.
“I thought I was training for it, but in all reality I should’ve been sprinting straight up ski runs,” Portz says. “It was one of those weird things where you were in so much pain, but it was so much fun. It’s not just going out and cranking through a running race. If I set out to just run 12 miles, I would never finish.”
Mud, blood and social media
The Tough Mudder is one of hundreds of obstacle races, part of a trend that has grown exponentially in the past five years. The concept is a blend of military training, adventure racing and a triathlon on steroids, all with the youthful energy of a music festival. Ever since the trend was sparked in 2005 by the 48-hour Spartan Death Race in Vermont, most obstacle races have toned things down, opting for traditional 5-kilometer and half-marathon formats.
The 5K Warrior Dash, a precursor to the Tough Mudder founded in 2009 by Chicago-based Red Frog Events, is now the largest running series in the world, according to race director Alex Yount. Halfway through the 2012 season, the Warrior Dash has already seen 750,000 participants, an explosion from 2,000 in 2009. Yount predicts 20,000 will show for the third-annual race at Copper in August, making it the largest obstacle race in the state.
Along with the challenge angle – what Beaver Creek’s Baker calls the “mystique of an Ironman event” with an everyman appeal – the trend’s growing popularity is rooted in social media. On Facebook, the Warrior Dash page has 850,000 “likes,” surpassed only by the Tough Mudder with more than 2.2 million. The mix of digital chatter and a barbaric format separate obstacle races from the old-school triathlons and road races they’ve started to displace.
“I honestly think these races are something people enjoy bragging about,” Baker says. “It appeals to that social-media set, and that aspect has become extremely addictive and important for participants.”
Facebook chatter is one thing – actual participation is another. That’s where the insanity of obstacle races comes into play: The crazier the course, the higher the interest. Cheryl Cannataro, who works at Vail with Portz, is taking on the Tough Mudder for the first time this year. In the week before, she flits between excitement and nervousness.
“It sounded like fun, and I had friends who did it before,” Cannataro says, then laughs jokingly. “It seemed scary, but I wanted to challenge myself – I think I’m going to pee my pants.”
As females, Portz and Cannataro aren’t anomalies in the world of obstacle racing – despite the “hoo-rah” culture, most races see an even split between males and females. The events have even become tourist attractions: Cannataro will compete in the paint-splattered Color Run in New York this summer, and Baker sees the Tough Mudder as a vital part of the Beaver Creek aura, much like the Birds of Prey ski races.
“High-profile athletic events have been a part of Beaver Creek’s DNA for years,” Baker says. “For us, this is about extending the Beaver Creek brand.”
Down and dirty for a cause
Like the Susan G. Komen breast cancer walks and runs, most obstacle races support a cause. The Tough Mudder has raised $3.2 million to date for the Wounded Warriors Project (a national organization for recently-injured vets), a major reason Baker wanted the resort to be a host venue. It was also a selling point for Portz, who initially balked at entry fees over $100.
After partnering with St. Jude Research Hospital this year, Yount says the various Warrior Race events have raised $1 million in just five months, with the bulk of summer racing still to come. As expected, each different series injects the fundraising process with personality: At the end of the Tough Mudder, Baker says people will make an enormous pile with their battered shoes, which are then cleaned and donated to local thrift stores.
Perhaps one of the most interesting facets of obstacle race culture is a lack of hard-nosed competition; unlike regular races, timing means very little. At the Tough Mudder, people can opt out of any obstacle, but many make it through with the help of friends. Portz says each of the 30-odd members of her team completed the race last year and expects more of the same on Saturday. For organizers like Baker, this zeal for friendly competition is fresh and exciting.
“A lot of folks who enter that race aren’t doing it to compete. It’s a participatory event built around camaraderie and teamwork,” Baker says. “We have people who say this created lifelong memories. They come for the challenge and the culture.”
Do you have what it takes?
Local obstacle races like Tough Mudder and Warrior Dash join hundreds of other events across the country, with dozens more added each summer. Here are two of the wildest trendsetters:
Spartan Death Race – 48 hours of hell
Held on June 15 in rural Vermont, the Spartan Death Race is one of the original – and by far most grueling – obstacle events in the country. During two days of “racing” across a 40-mile course, participants are at the whims of sadistic organizers who invent challenges as they go. Racers have chopped wood while reciting memorized poetry, hiked non-stop up mountains carrying logs, or built fires after swimming for several hours. Since 2005, more than 90 percent of participants quit before the finish, willfully giving up the $900 entry fee. It has spawned several easier courses, including 5K and 10K runs at 30 different venues.
Run for Your Lives – zombie-infested 5K
On July 14, the world’s first undead obstacle race shuffles and groans into Denver. Along with the requisite tire fields, rope walls and mud pits, runners will dodge a horde of super-charged zombies a la the horror flick “28 Days Later.” The zombies aren’t hired guns: They’re registered racers, and although undead spots are already filled in Denver, the stop is one of 11 across the country. Chances are you can get your zombie on elsewhere for $87.