The hottest thing in running is not a new shoe or energy drink. It's mud. And fire. And other things that get in the way of running but manage, for some, to make racing more fun.
Obstacle-course events that send participants into mud pits and under barbed wire, over walls and through flames, across monkey bars greased with butter and into a forest of live electric wires, are popping up like blisters on an Ironman's feet.
While they sound hard core, some of these races appeal especially to casual runners because the obstacles break up the running and take the focus off finish times. A spirit of fun (people wear costumes) and camaraderie (strangers help each other along the way) helps blunt the competitive edge.
And for serious runners, it's something new.
"I've done 5K races since I was little," said Alex Lenz, 27, an engineer who lives in Hampden and plans to do the Warrior Dash when it comes Maryland for the first time this spring. "I ran the Baltimore marathon, the San Diego marathon and a couple 24-hour races. This was just something real different and fun."
Lenz took part in last year's Warrior Dash, a 3.1-miler billed as "a mud-crawling, fire-leaping extreme run from hell." That race was scheduled to be held in Perryville, but so many people signed up that it had to be moved to a larger venue in Quarryville, Pa. Some 13,555 people are registered for the May 21-22 race in Mechanicsville.
The Warrior Dash started with a single race south of Chicago in 2009. Last year, the event went national and attracted 120,000 participants to 10 races. This year, organizers expect about 500,000 people to participate in 35 Warrior Dashes in the United States, Canada and Australia, according to Alex Yount of Red Frog Events of Chicago, which puts on the races.
That sort of exponential growth is happening with other obstacle-course runs with names like Muddy Buddy, The Spartan and Rugged Maniac. Timonium-based Mud Chasers will put on its first 5K April 17 at Oregon Ridge Park in Cockeysville — with plans to stage another dozen races across the United States and Canada.
Tough Mudder, launched last May with a race at Bear Creek Mountain Resort near Allentown, Pa., has scheduled 16 challenges this year. Billed as the most demanding of mud runs, Tough Mudders range from 7 miles to 12 miles and require running up black-diamond ski slopes, dunking in 38-degree water, dashing through flames (participants are sopping wet from that dunk, so they don't catch fire) and enduring zaps from live electric wires (said to be strong enough to jolt, but not injure, runners).
None of that seems to be scaring anyone off. (All 10,000 slots for the April 9 and 10 Tough Mudder in Allentown quickly sold out.) But maybe it should.
"It's like you go to the beach, and I see these knuckleheads running on the sand; I just want to run up behind them and give them my card because they're going to get injured," said Dr. John Senatore, chief of podiatry at Union Memorial Hospital and a lifelong runner. "You're at a higher risk for spraining your knee, your ankle, whatever, without sure footing. When you run, everything's meant to go straight ahead. When you have mud underneath the running shoe, you go not only forward, you go sideways. I just can't believe they do this."
Senatore sees the value of obstacle courses for the military. Not so for weekend warriors.
"The Marines, their lives may depend on going through an obstacle course," he said. "You get some 45-year-old accountant, what's the point? ... I always thought the purpose of exercise is to build one's own health. You're taking a significant risk."
"I just hope there's good liability insurance involved," he added. "It's ridiculous."
Dr. Bill Howard, director of the Arnold Palmer Sports Health Center at Union Memorial, wasn't quite so wary.
"It's kind of fun," said Howard, who last tackled an obstacle course 20 years ago, when he was sent as an Army reservist to Fort Campbell during Operation Desert Storm. "It would be great to say, 'I completed the Mud Dog. What did you do last Sunday? Watch football?'"
Competitors at such events are "pretty evenly split [between] people who are serious and want to prove something and people who want to have a ball crawling through the mud," Howard said. "It takes you back to your childhood. And this time, people are cheering instead of being scolded by Mama."
When it comes to training for mud runs, Howard suggests getting into good running shape and developing upper-body strength with push-ups and pull-ups. And on race day, he advises: "Take it slow" and "Don't worry about your hair because it's going to get messed up."
While the wisdom of competing in them might be in dispute, there is no question that muddy obstacle-course races have become wildly popular. What accounts for that? Theories range from the influence of "Survivor" and other reality-TV shows to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. (Several of the obstacle courses claim to be based on "special forces" training and some of the events have tie-ins with charities for service members, such as Homes for Our Troops and the Wounded Warrior Project.)
Perhaps the appeal simply stems from athletic ennui. Runners bored with road races are embracing events that provide both silliness and a sense of accomplishment, said Will Dean, chief executive officer of Tough Mudder.
"We definitely get the fitness crowd — triathletes, the marathon runners — and we also get guys who are in the gym all the time but would never do a race — don't want to destroy their knees or the boredom of having to train," Dean said. "We are getting people who are fit, but it's definitely not a competitive event. You're going to fall over and you're going to get muddy and you're going to get beaten by a guy in a 'Borat' thong. If you're the kind of guy who enjoys practicing changing your socks so you can shave 10 seconds in a triathlon, there's no way you're going to enjoy this."
Mike Joyce, a 58-year-old Howard County resident, did the Tough Mudder in New Jersey in November and is signed up to do it in Allentown in April.
"The Tough Mudder is tough, but it's way more fun than doing a marathon or anything," said Joyce. "I don't think … I can adequately explain how people were laughing when someone fell, shoes got lost. We were laughing and kidding around with each other. It is not a competition from that perspective."
Some obstacle-course events do not even record times and purposely describe themselves as challenges, not races. Joyce, who did Tough Mudder with his 28-year-old son, Conor, said participants helped each other complete the course.
"No man was left behind," he said. "Tough Mudder is all about teamwork and working with other people, including complete strangers, to be able to complete such a bizarre event."
Some runners enjoy the party atmosphere and post-race socializing as much as running the course.
"They had great bands afterwards, lots of food and drink," said Lenz, the Warrior Dash veteran, who sampled turkey legs and beer after the race. "Everyone's covered in mud and kind of, like, really having a good time.
"When you do a 5K, a lot of times, the whole race might be a half-hour long," he said. "'Why did I do all this training but it was really only half an hour?'" After the Warrior Dash, Lenz said, he enjoyed "two or three hours of socializing, kind of like a tailgate."
The double-dare aspect of obstacle-course races seems to be a big part of the appeal, said Jim Adams of the Falls Road Running Store. Adams sees the same phenomenon with a conventional 10K billed as "The Dreaded Druid Hills," which attracts people who "look like [they] shouldn't be doing this."
"You get people you would not expect at a 10K, and they're there because they want the challenge," he said.
Adams notes that obstacle-course races call on skills beyond running. "There's strength and agility components in addition to the endurance-running component," he said. "It's an entirely different challenge."
One he's not about to take up, even though it sounds a lot like the training he did years ago with the 82nd Airborne Division.
"Right now, I'm 65 years old and starting to get a lot of aches and pains," Adams said. "I might consider doing that, but at this point, I might be thinking about the next morning, what it would feel like trying to get out of bed."
Muddy obstacle-course races in Maryland and the Mid-Atlantic region:
Warrior Dash, a 3.1-mile "mud-crawling, fire-leaping extreme run from hell," comes to Maryland for the first time this year. The May 21-22 race takes place in Mechanicsville. The Chicago-based event will go to 35 locations this year in the United States, Canada and Australia. warriordash.com
The Spartan, which stages 5K, 8K and a 48-hour "Death Race" with barbed wire, mud and fire-jumping. Launched last year, the Massachusetts-based organizer has scheduled 34 races this year in the United States and the United Kingdom. While the name of the Death Race says it all, the shorter versions are meant to be approachable. On June 18, the 5K version comes to Pev's Paintball Park in Aldie, Va. spartanrace.com
Mud Chasers, brand-new this year, promises "3-5 miles of off-road running, mud, challenging obstacles, mud again, fun and a spectacular post-race party." The first race, a 5K, is April 17 at Oregon Ridge Park in Cockeysville. The Timonium-based organizers hope to stage another dozen events across the United States and Canada, including one in Ocean City, though only one of those has a firm date (April 22 race in Union Point, Ga.). There is a Mud Chasers Endurance, which has participants run in all five heats of the race, and a Mini Mudders version for 5- to 10-year-olds. mudchasers.com
The Muddy Buddy Ride & Run sends two-person teams mountain biking, running trails and tackling obstacles for 6 and 7 miles. Just before the finish line, teammates crawl through a 50-foot long mud pit. Muddy Buddy, which unlike the many newbies has been around for 12 years, comes to Richmond, Va., on May 1 on its 16-city tour. muddy-buddy.competitor.com
Rugged Maniac takes place May 14 at the Virginia Motorsports Park in Petersburg, Va. A 5K, the race loops through woods and a motocross track bedecked with "barbed wire, fire, tunnels, mud pits, pools of water, barricades, cargo nets … swinging pendulums." There will also be a course for kids under 13. ruggedmaniac.com
Tough Mudder is a 7- to 12-mile obstacle course that claims to be much tougher than the other mud races. "Only 78 percent of participants at our last event in New Jersey finished," says the event's website. Launched last May with a race at Bear Creek Mountain Resort near Allentown, Pa, Tough Mudder plans 16 challenges this year. All 10,000 slots for this year's event in Allentown, on April 9 and 10, quickly sold out. toughmudder.com