In Tough – Obstacle Racing

Obstacle course runs like TOUGH MUDDER and SPARTAN RACE are exploding in popularity. Why do runners want to get down and dirty?

Launching off the platform at the Walk the Plank obstacle at the 2012 Toronto Tough Mudder
Launching off the platform at the Walk the Plank obstacle at the 2012 Toronto Tough Mudder

As I trudge straight up the mountain at the speed of a sloth, my calves screaming, I look around at the carnage around me. One guy is on his hands and knees heaving, and another big, muscular guy is on his back screaming in pain while a woman helps him stretch out the cramps in his legs. Hundreds of contorted faces show the agony of burning leg muscles, pushed to their limit. All of us have our eyes set on one thing: getting to the top. It doesn’t get any easier after conquering this task. We have to run back down and then straight up another huge hill many more times, covering 16K, while tackling 19 military-style obstacles. This is the course at the first Toronto Tough Mudder at Mount St. Louis in Moonstone, Ont., a mountain that’s meant to be skied down rather than run up. Nearly 19,000 people have signed up to find out if they are tough enough to make it through the course.

I raced on a team of four with my husband Michal and two of Toronto’s best female ultra runners, twin sisters Melanie and April Boultbee. I knew I’d be the slowest, but as the website states, “Tough Mudder is not a race but a challenge” and it isn’t timed, so my teammates and I agreed to put our competitive nature aside and do this for fun as a team.

Obstacle racing has grown exponentially since 2009, stirring debate among some members of the running community as to how these events compare to the more traditional road races. In an ongoing thread started in 2011 on the popular forum letsrun.com, one runner commented, “Is this the new fad for people who are no good at running, and want to conceal that fact, and so they figure they can avoid being exposed at normal races and just do this?” The debate continues: “Tough Mudders are picking up the people who don’t want to commit to the training needed for the marathon/half, but also want to feel like they are applying their CrossFit/P90X workouts to a running event,” states another message board post. “It’s brilliant marketing. Probably a matter of time before RnR (Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon) picks up on it and has companion races with their marathons.”

Despite this criticism, the popularity of these events is undeniable. Tough Mudder launched in 2010 with 20,000 participants taking part in three U.S. events. By 2012, the series swelled to 35 events worldwide with an anticipated 460,000 entrants and projected revenues of $70 million. In 2013, organizers plan to expand to 70 events throughout the U.S., Canada, Europe, Japan, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand, hoping to crack one million entries and $200 million in revenues. Canadians are lapping up Mudder mania, too, with Tough Mudder’s first two Canadian events in Whistler, B.C., and Toronto in 2012 attracting a combined 35,000 participants. Toronto’s Mudder had 19,000 participants, a record for the biggest one yet. Next year, Tough Mudder is adding races in Montreal and Calgary.

Tough Mudder’s closest two competitors have seen similar growth. Warrior Dash, which launched in 2009 with a sold-out first event, projects 750,000 competitors in 2012 with 49 events in the U.S, Canada and Australia, making it the fastest growing running series in America, according to race director Kendra Alley. The first Canadian Warrior Dash was in Ontario in 2011, with a second one added to the schedule in B.C. in 2012. The last of the big three obstacle runs, Spartan Race, started in 2010 with four events, including one in Mont Tremblant, Que., and a total of 5,000 participants. By 2012, the series was up to 38 events with an expected 750,000 participants. In 2013, Spartan Race will expand to include Hawaii, Mexico, India, Australia, Slovakia and a second Canadian event in Quebec City. “We will be bigger than Ironman – that’s our goal,” says Montreal’s Selica Sevigny, Spartan Race director and one of its founders. There are many Ironman finishers on the Spartan Race staff. “It would be an honour to match or supersede their success,” she says.

Taking on the Funky Monkey obstacle at the 2012 Vancouver Tough Mudder
Taking on the Funky Monkey obstacle at the 2012 Vancouver Tough Mudder

Tired of ‘Boring’ Marathons
Although these obstacle courses involve a lot of running, they’re being heavily marketed to differentiate themselves from running events, and to appeal to many types of competitors, runners included. Tough Mudder co-founder Will Dean, a former U.K. counter-terrorism officer who has an MBA from Harvard, says he found marathon running “a little pointless, boring and anti-social.” He created the 16K to 20K courses with 25 obstacles as an antidote to the monotony of traditional running. Tough Mudder’s website reinforces this view, stating in all-caps: “MARATHON RUNNING IS BORING.” Organizers continue on this theme, pitching future participants. “At Tough Mudder, we want to test your all-around mettle, not just your ability to run in a straight line, on your own, for hours on end, getting bored out of your mind.” With obstacles named Arctic Enema, Berlin Wall, Electroshock Therapy and Funky Monkey, Tough Mudder is far from monotonous. On average only 78 per cent of participants reach the finish line. Tough Mudder’s focus is mainly on camaraderie and teamwork, says race director Ashley Ellefson. “Our courses are designed so that it is nearly impossible to get over obstacles without your teammates. Our challenges are not timed. It doesn’t matter how fast you complete a course, only that you leave no Mudder behind,” she says.

Spartan Race, designed by seven ultra runners and a Royal Marine, is a timed race with three standard distance options: the 5K Spartan Sprint with 15 obstacles; the 10K Super Spartan with 20 obstacles; and the 20K Spartan Beast with 25 obstacles. The obstacles are kept secret until race day, creating an extra mental challenge. “In life, no one tells you what your journey will be like, what obstacles you will face, how to overcome them,” says Sevigny. “You simply find a way and get through it.” Like Tough Mudder, camaraderie is also a focus in the Spartan. “Sometimes, you think you can race alone and then Spartan Race throws you a curve ball along your journey and you have to eat a slice of humble pie and ask someone to help you,” says Sevigny. To add to the competitive factor, Spartan Race also has a point series tracking competitors worldwide, with the largest prize purse in obstacle racing of $500,000 in cash and prizes in 2012.

Warrior Dash, also a timed event, attracts participants with a broad range of athletic abilities from the couch potato to novice runner to extreme athlete, says Alley. “Our events create an alternative to the classic 5K,” she says. “[Runners] tackle the course and then celebrate their accomplishments with beer, food and live music.” Signature obstacles include the Warrior Roast, where runners jump over two fire pits, and the Muddy Mayhem forcing runners to crawl through a mud pit under barbed wire.

Medical officials are at these events and the odd injury does occur. Globalnews.ca reported a few serious injuries at the Toronto Tough Mudder, including a few people with hypothermia and heart problems, and a man temporarily knocked unconscious underwater at the Walk the Plank obstacle when another person jumped on him. At the Spartan Race, it’s usually minor scrapes, sprains and a few broken bones, “but that’s for 10,000 people,” stresses Sevigny. “Our responsibility is to provide a tough but safe course. We pride ourselves on our low stats and want to keep it that way. It’s a perceived risk. People know what they are signing up for. It’s no casual walk in the park.”

While obstacle events don’t track how many entrants are traditional runners, it was clear at the Toronto Tough Mudder that the majority were non-runners. “Tough Mudder participants are from all walks of life,” says Ellefson, adding that about 80 per cent are male and the average age is 29. “They may be runners who are bored of seeing how fast they can go in a straight line. They may be the finance guy who just wants to get back to his glory days as an athlete. There is not one type of Mudder. There are weekend warriors, pageant queens, and even 81-year-olds.” Warrior Dash sees an equal breakdown of men and women compete, mostly 20 to 30 years old, while Spartan Race has a 60/40 split between men and women. The fitter people like CrossFit athletes and top-level runners usually choose the Super Spartan distance or longer.

Obstacle races are clearly attracting a whole new cohort of followers, but nobody is suggesting that they’ll lure many road racers off the pavement for good. “Obstacle races like Tough Mudder are appealing not only to runners, but to those who might find marathons, half-marathons, etc., boring,” says Ellefson. “We don’t believe these events are taking people away from [road] races, but rather offering another outlet for both runners and those who are not as fond of traditional races.” Alley agrees that these events simply provide an alternative to traditional road racing.

John Halvorsen, race director of the Ottawa Race Weekend, also agrees. “It’s a different challenge,” he says. “I can definitely see someone saying it will be a blast and I’ll have a good time. They’re motivational, and because they are rounded – you compete in so many different events – it attracts all different types of fitness levels and athletes.” He feels, however, that there is a distinct difference in the type of competition offered at obstacle races versus road races. “You may do the fun and challenging things at an obstacle event, but at the end of the day people like to talk about their measured level of fitness, and you can’t do that [at an obstacle race] because obstacle races are all different. But you can measure your fitness with a 10K or 5K. People are drawn to certified events like Ottawa.” Halvorsen believes road racing will continue to grow. In the past five years, the Ottawa Race Weekend has seen a 29 per cent increase in participants, from 32,970 in 2008 to 42,573 in 2012. In addition, the races are selling out quicker – it took until mid-April for the Ottawa half-marathon to sell out in 2008, but this year, it was full by early February. Road races, he says, are limited in numbers only by logistics, but the demand is still on the rise.

Jumping fires at the Warrior Roast obstacle at the 2012 Ontario Warrior Dash
Jumping fires at the Warrior Roast obstacle at the 2012 Ontario Warrior Dash

Appeals to Inner Child
Many runners who take on the obstacle challenge simply see it as a complement to road racing. “I just wanted to try something different, something less competitive than the ultra running,” says my teammate April Boultbee. “I still prefer the competition and [official] time of the ultra running races.” Her sister Melanie agrees, saying she would choose an ultra over an obstacle course race if they were on the same date.

But Kenny Dionis believes that obstacle course racing might lure some serious runners away from the roads. Dionis, a 25-year-old from Beamsville, Ont., has been running for 10 years and says he would choose an obstacle race over any running race. “I try to pick the toughest races to go in,” he says. He does prefer, however, that obstacle races be timed. “It really drives you a lot more when you’re competing for your times. The camaraderie is all very good, but you also want to know how you finished against 17,000 people, so it would have been a nice touch.” Dionis’s teammate Michael Sokyrka, a 30-year-old carpenter from Niagara Falls who has been running for eight years, also prefers obstacle racing. “It’s a totally different world,” he says. “This takes a lot more concentration. There’s more to focus on. Your body’s going through a lot more punishment than with road racing.”

In addition to the strength and mental challenges, teamwork provides a major adrenaline boost – an added value for the obstacle course events. “At the Everest obstacle, I think we spent 10 minutes helping strangers scale that half-pipe,” says Robin Quelhas, 41, who ran the Toronto Tough Mudder on a team of eight. “The sensation of looking someone you don’t know in the eyes and saying, ‘I’ve got you. You won’t fall,’ is something you can’t replicate in a road race. In that moment, you feel like a bit of a hero and that’s worth coming back for.”

The energy at the Toronto Tough Mudder was extreme and contagious, so it’s easy to see the appeal of these mud runs. “We used to do it as kids, get muddy, climb obstacles and jungle gyms,” explains Sevigny.

In my first Tough Mudder experience, the first obstacle had us slithering commander-style through mud under barbed wire while powerful hoses soaked us with water. The Arctic Enema was next, which was as painful as it sounds. It forces runners to jump into a massive tank of ice-cold water with about a foot of ice skimming the surface. Then you have to swim under a barrier and climb out the other side. (The reports of hypothermia and heart troubles were all related to this frigid challenge.) Throughout the race, we tested our strength by climbing monkey bars and carrying logs, faced our fears by jumping from heights into deep pools of muddy water and enduring electric shocks. We showed our team spirit by making human chains to reach the top of “Everest,” a quarter-pipe wall.

Finally, our team rounded a corner and the finish line was in sight. But the course took one last turn, up one last hill. My legs nearly seized up, but as I watched my teammates charge ahead, my mind forced my body forward. Melanie and April saw me struggling and each took one of my hands to pull me up that last hill together. Michal cheered us on and we all crested the hill together. There was just one last obstacle in sight: Electroshock Therapy. Dangling wires zapped us with 10,000 volts as we bolted through the mud together, wincing and yelling with each shock that rippled through our bodies on this final challenge.

The average time to complete a Tough Mudder event is 3:30, and my team finished in 2:38 (self-timed). We submitted our time for the World’s Toughest Mudder, the gruelling 24-hour championship event comprised of repeated laps of an eight-mile course with 40 obstacles. Only the top five per cent of finishers are granted entry and we made it. It felt similar to the feeling I had qualifying for the Boston Marathon. Our reward was an orange Tough Mudder headband, a glass of beer, and entry into a new club. It was clear to us that obstacle racing could be a welcome jolt to any runner’s road race schedule.

Dianne Kapral is the photo editor for Canadian Running, Triathlon Magazine Canada and Canadian Cycling Magazine.

Outrageous Obstacles Across Canada

Obstacle race mania is spreading throughout Canada and race options have expanded beyond the big three. Check out some of the other options across the country.

1 ) Mud Hero: 6K races in Calgary and Toronto: www.mudhero.com

2 ) Mud Run: 5K and 10K races in Toronto: www.themudrun.com

3 ) The Punisher Adventure Race: 5K race in Hamilton, Ont.: www.punisherar.com

4 ) Dirty Donkey Mud Run: 5K race in Winnipeg: www.swampdonkeyar.com

5 ) Mudd, Sweat and Tears: 10K races in Ottawa and Kelowna, B.C.: www.muddsweatandtears.com

6 ) Urban Warrior: 10K race in Toronto: www.gourbanwarrior.com

7 ) Baddass Dash: 7K race in Kitchener, Ont.: www.badassdash.com

8 )The Zombie Race: 5K race in Milton, Ont. : www.thezombierace.ca

9 ) Run For Your Lives: 5K race in Toronto: www.runforyourlives.com

10 ) Met Con Blue Mountain Adventure Race: 5K race at Blue Mountain Resort, Ont.: www.metconrace.com

Tough Mudder’s Toughest Obstacles

MOST PAINFUL

Arctic Enema: Plunge into a dumpster full of frigid water with about a foot of freshly poured ice skimming the surface, swim under a wooden barrier and make it to the other side. Climb out as fast as you can and catch your breath. Worse than a Polar Bear dip.

Electric Eel: Slither face-down on your stomach through mud, water or ice underneath hundreds of live electrical wires. The website states “Be sure to protect your head, otherwise you might experience a brain reboot.” Take this advice very seriously.

TEAMWORK TEST

Berlin Walls: Scaling three 12-foot vertical wooden walls means asking for a little help from a friend. Get one team member to the top and all a team needs is a pull from above and push from behind (literally) to reach the other side.

Everest: Climb a greased-up and muddy quarter-pipe with the help of other Mudders. A human chain or a sprint-and-catch technique should get you to the summit.

MADE FOR MUSCLE

Funky Monkey: Upper body strength makes all the difference on these monkey bars that are set on an incline, then decline. In an added twist, some bars are greased with mud and butter, and if you lose your grip, be prepared to fall into the icy waters below.

MAKES YOUR STOMACH LURCH

Walk the Plank: Fear of heights? Summon all your courage and take the 15-plus foot plunge into deep muddy waters. Get out of the way as soon as possible, because other Mudders are right behind.

Outrun the Zombies
If military-style obstacles aren’t enough of a challenge, try also facing off against hundreds of brain-hungry zombies whose only purpose is to take your life. The Zombie Run on Oct. 27 in Milton, Ont., is a 5K obstacle race with nasty zombies littered along the race course, trained to bring you down. Runners get a belt with two flags representing life. Zombies will walk, run, climb and crawl in an attempt to steal the flags and the goal is to reach the finish line with at least one flag, meaning you’re half alive. Finishing with no flag means disqualification for the awards. The website states, “In the movies (we call them documentaries) it is never the fastest one to survive, only the smartest.” The Run For Your Lives 5K race in Toronto, normally in September, works in a similar fashion. This zombie-infested 5K obstacle course features 12 man-made and natural obstacles involving climbing, crawling, ducking and diving to the finish line. Know someone who’s simply a fan of zombie flicks? Organizers also need volunteer zombies to transform and terrorize. In 2012, the Run For Your Lives zombie registration was full before the runners registration was.

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