Her lips were blue. Her teeth were chattering. Her legs had become dysfunctional logs that could barely walk, much less run.
For four hours on a sunless Arizona day in January, with 30-degree windchill over 121/2 miles of steep trails, 28-year-old Keri Dionizio of Fullerton was covered in mud, soaked to the bone and freezing.
She had jumped with three teammates off a 30-foot plank into a muddy pond. She'd crawled on hands and knees through water-filled tunnels, scaled 12-foot wooden walls and 40-foot nets, carried a giant log over her shoulder for 100 yards and plunged into a pool of ice water, fighting through 3 feet of giant ice cubes to reach oxygen.
With the finish line yards away, she was knocked face-first into the mud by a coil surging with 12,000 volts of electricity.
"I said, 'Never again, never again,' " recalls Dionizio, an administrative assistant at a real estate company, but within days, she and her pals were putting together a 10-person team for another Tough Mudder event. "You don't get an adrenaline rush like this at a half-marathon -- or the camaraderie."
Tough Mudder. Spartan Race. Warrior Dash. Rugged Maniac. Muddy Buddy. All are part of a new genre of athletic event -- obstacle mud runs -- that has exploded across the country.
An estimated 1 million people showed up last year at these down-and-dirty races, most of which did not exist four years ago. In 2012, the number of events -- typically all-day festivals with beer gardens, food booths and rock bands -- is rising fast.
What's the attraction? "At a certain point, regular running is boring and triathlons get too nerdy, expensive and linear," says Alex Patterson, chief marketing officer at Tough Mudder, which began in 2010 and this year will stage 36 events, up from 14 in 2011. "Experience is the new luxury good -- the cool stories you get to tell at work on Monday morning or post on Facebook."
Plus, he adds, "Modern life is too easy. Once or twice a year, you need to be an animal: get dirty, sweaty, use your whole body, discover your inner bad-ass."
Anastasia Paver, a 28-year-old phone saleswoman from Murrieta, discovered hers at the Tough Mudder in Big Bear last May. "I was being a mom but not a person," she says of her life. "I needed a challenge." She got that -- plus hypothermia when it snowed during her race -- and was thrilled to earn her orange finisher's headband. "It's even better that you get to share it. In fact, you have to." Like most people, she needed help scaling the 12-foot "Berlin Walls."
The mud race concept dates to the 20-year-old Camp Pendleton Mud Run and another category, Muddy Buddy, founded in 1999 by Ironman triathlete and Competitor magazine publisher Bob Babbitt (it drew 40,000 participants last year). Considered more family-friendly than the other events, Muddy Buddy has teams alternately run and mountain bike between a series of obstacles. It also has run-only races.
Teamwork is often necessary at obstacle mud races, though some stress it more than others. Tough Mudder, which drew 140,000 participants last year and averaged six people per team, does not time racers and even asks them to recite its "Leave no mudder behind" pledge at the starting line.
But competing mud events such as the category giant, Warrior Dash -- a self-described "mud-crawling, fire-leaping, extreme 5K run from hell" that drew 700,000 to 33 races last year -- do time and rank participants, as does Spartan Race, which stages 3-plus-, 8-plus- and 10-to-12-mile events.
"We put 'race' in the name for a reason," says founder Joe Desena, 43, a former stockbroker inspired by his experiences in the Eco-Challenge and Iditarod adventure races. "People train for our events and are more invested. They drink a lot less beer after ours."
The untimed Tough Mudder sees itself as the "Ironman of the breed," Patterson says. It ends each year with a 24-hour Toughest Mudder Championship for selected elites.
One of those was 2011 champion Juliana Sproles, a 42-year-old fitness trainer and triathlon coach from Ojai who still has numb toes on her right foot after the subfreezing final in New Jersey in December. She's looking forward to reuniting with her teammates at the Tough Mudder in Big Bear this July.
"I've been a runner for 30 years and a triathlete for 23, but I value my orange Tough Mudder headband as much as any medal," she says. "You get a human connection overcoming this together that you just don't get in a race or normal life."