Why we’re flocking to obstacle races and ultra marathons

Danielle Petze powers through a challenge at Tough Mudder
Millennials and women are helping to drive the popularity of obstacle course races, such as the Tough Mudder. Here: Danielle Petze, left, powers through a challenge.
(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

In April, Caroline Crawford, 37, started intensive training runs with the Los Angeles Ultra Ladies, a group of about 30 women who recently ran 35 miles within 12 hours in Griffith Park. They were preparing for races such as the punishing Javalina Jundred in October, a 100-mile race through the scorching Arizona Sonoran desert — nearly four 26.2-mile marathons — with hardly any stopping or sleeping.

It is a goal that would have been unthinkable four years ago. In 2015, Crawford found out she had the autoimmune disorder Graves’ disease and was forced to retire from her job as a nurse. Panicked that her new diagnosis would define her, she sought a grand life-affirming gesture and signed up for a half-marathon at Disneyland.

Crawford made a deal with herself that she had to run only the best four miles through the theme park. But by mile six, she discovered her body could keep going. “I was so worried I wouldn’t ever feel like myself again, but running helped me feel in control of my life,” says Crawford of Valley Village. “I’m proving to myself what I can do.”

Now, with her doctor’s blessing to keep running, she plans to go a lot further.

Crawford is part of an increasing number of everyday people performing superhuman feats. For these individuals, 5Ks, half marathons and marathons, for example, no longer hold the allure they used to. Participation in 5Ks was 3.4 million in 2016 and has declined by 13% since then, half-marathon participation declined 25% over the same period (down from 2.9 million), and marathon participation was flat during the same period, according to a report released earlier this year on the state of running by and the International Assn. of Athletics Federations.


But interest in ultra racing, defined as more than 50 kilometers (about 31 miles) and usually on trails, continues to surge, as does obstacle course racing, particularly among millennials.

In North America, there were 2,129 ultra races in 2018 — nearly quadruple from a decade ago — according to Ultrarunning Magazine.

Crawford already experienced pushing her body to the brink last October, when she finished the junior version of the Javalina Jundred (it’s only 62 miles). She managed to make it to the finish line in just under 20 hours, alternately running and walking while shoving ice cubes in her bandanna and sports bra. She ate Oreos, pumpkin pie and chicken noodle soup to keep up her energy. But during the last 20 miles, her ankle was screaming in pain, and all she wanted to do was collapse by the side of the road. “The fatigue can make you crazy,” she says. “The idea of going another 40 miles seems nearly impossible.”

Tough Mudder racers climb an obstacle
Up and over: A climbing obstacle at the Tough Mudder race held at Glen Helen Raceway in San Bernardino.
(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

Not content with merely running insane distances, other athletes prefer to add challenges, such as crawling under live electrical wires or carrying 50-pound buckets of gravel up a hill, as part of obstacle course racing.

Participation is up among millennials and women at two of the most popular franchises, Spartan Race and Tough Mudder, which will hold 250 and 123 events, respectively, this year around the world. The Spartan obstacle course racing series, which registered about 1 million racers worldwide in 2017, is on track to see 1.2 million racers at the starting line by the end of 2019, according to Jonathan Fine, a Spartan brand representative. “We’ve found the largest growth between the ages 18 to 29,” Fine said.

For the first time last year, a record number of women participated in the elite Badwater 135-mile race from Death Valley to Mt. Whitney in the peak of summer.

And not to be left out, there are now 41 Ironman competitions, compared with 18 in 2010. (That’s swimming 2.4 miles and biking 112 miles in addition to running a marathon.)


Humans have always been intrigued by competition and a desire to push our limits.

Omar Rivas shakes off water at Tough Mudder
Competitor Omar Rivas shakes it off as he comes out of a water hurdle during the Tough Mudder in San Bernardino.
(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

But what’s behind the current need to do so in calf-crippling agony while vomiting and staying up for 24 hours straight?

Experts say the trend is about more than fighting back middle age or showing off on Instagram: We’re hungry for a particular type of camaraderie.

A recent study of Polish runners published in the December issue of the journal Psychology Research and Behavior Management found that ultra runners were motivated more by life meaning and social belonging.

By comparison, people who ran shorter distances were more concerned with weight loss, self-esteem or personal goals.

“A marathon is running on a road with thousands of strangers. But an ultra marathon is in beautiful nature with a community,” says Daniel Frankl, a kinesiology professor at Cal State L.A. who studies the psychology and sociology of sports.

And obstacle course racing, often done in teams, gives participants a taste of the intense bonding experienced by Navy SEALs. “It’s like a band of brothers,” says Frankl, a former combat fitness officer in the Israeli army. “As we used to say in the army, if you share the pain, you have half of it.”

Christian Brown-Johnson, 24, of Madera loves the shared sense of purpose and socializing during and after Tough Mudder obstacle races. He’s participated in more than 30 events, including four 24-hour World’s Toughest Mudders, and is signed up for the SoCal event in Lake Elsinore in November. “I’ve met people from all over the world,” says Brown-Johnson, who runs an agricultural services business and also works as a real estate agent and firefighter. “We’re all here to accomplish our own goals, but the community just increases the enjoyment of the event.”

Audrey D'Antonio at Tough Mudder
Audrey D’Antonio looks like she’s having fun as she crawls through a mud hurdle during the Tough Mudder obstacle race in San Bernardino.
(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

As soon as he arrives at a race, he scans the crowd to find a familiar face. After the event, he hangs out in Mudder Village, for the free beer, food trucks, live DJ, group dance challenges and tug-of-war competitions. Then a group usually heads out for dinner and drinking. “It’s just a great time with a bunch of new friends,” he says. In fact, a couple of years ago he met his best friend at a post-race bar crawl on Fremont Street in Las Vegas.

There’s also something about being part of a club with people who understand what it means to make it through the ice bath obstacle called the Arctic Enema, which requires swimming under a board in 34-degree water.

“Only people who do Tough Mudders understand the mental grit needed to accomplish these courses,” Brown-Johnson says. “Other people think we’re crazy.”

Kristina Marshall, an English and history teacher at Ruth Musser Middle School in Rancho Cucamonga, managed to persuade four friends to join her in a Spartan sprint race in honor of her 49th birthday last year. “We all were completely nervous, but we decided that we were going to stick together, and the goal was just to finish it,” Marshall says. The sprint version consists of three miles of running with 20 obstacles; for every failed challenge, a Spartan racer must pay a penalty of 30 burpees (a demanding full-body exercise that includes squatting and planking).

During the first race, Marshall missed seven, and her friends waited while she suffered through 210 burpees. “I can honestly tell you that making it to the end was the hardest thing I have ever done, but it was like no other feeling,” she says.

She and her friends, who range in age from 34 to 53 and call themselves the Spartan Squad, have completed nine races together and have several more planned, including a 13-mile and 30-obstacle Spartan Beast in October.

“We get together multiple times a week now either to work out or for happy hour,” Marshall says. “It’s become my social life.”

For Brandon Iwai, 29, overcoming the physical challenge of training for a Spartan two years ago served as a psychological metaphor for making it through the worst time in his life: His son was born with a rare liver disease and had to undergo a transplant at 7 months.

“I was at a pretty low point. I was mentally drained, emotional-eating fast food and not exercising,” says Iwai, an air conditioning and heating contractor from Monrovia. After his weight topped out at 213 pounds, he saw an ESPN ad for the Spartan World Championship and began training.

Now, he’s down 45 pounds, runs six miles daily and is fixated on mastering the most hated Spartan obstacles in time for October’s 30-mile, 60-obstacle “ultra” race at Tejon Ranch in Lebec.

“One of the obstacles I can’t do is the spear throw. It’s a 4-foot wooden pole with a tip that you have to land in a hay bin,” Iwai says. “But I think about what my son went through lying in a hospital for a month. You can’t surrender. You just say ‘Let’s push through it.’ ”

A common theme among such athletes is their ability to exceed limits beyond their imagination.

And the bar keeps getting raised.

In 2018, there were six 200-mile races in the United States —leading to questions about how much the human body can take.

Common sense would dictate that one’s knees can take only so much pounding. Some say it’s bad for the heart too. In a 2013 widely cited editorial for the British journal Heart, cardiologist James O’Keefe argued that “extreme endurance exercise may exact a toll on cardiovascular health.” After one to two hours of peak intensity, the heart can get overloaded. Over time, scar tissue and irregular heartbeats can develop, and the heart can age faster than normal.

Yet Dr. William Roberts, a sports medicine specialist at the University of Minnesota, says his own research failed to find a link between increased coronary plaque in men and women who frequently run long distances over many years. “My general advice is that as long as you feel healthy and you’re not having chest pains or pressure and your joints feel fine, then you should keep doing what you enjoy,” he says.

Alex Nemet, 44, of Encinitas has completed the so-called “triple crown of 200s” (200-mile-plus races in Washington state, Tahoe and Moab, Utah). But he says the 6633 Arctic Ultra — billed as the “world’s most extreme marathon,” which involves running 380 miles while pulling a sled over six days — nearly killed him but gave him the ability to put life’s trials into a big-picture perspective.

He lost 26 pounds during the race and barely slept at the rest stations set up along the course. “It’s amazing what your mind and body can go through. People used to think, ‘No one can run 100 miles.’ Now they say, ‘200s are the new 100s,’ ” says Nemet, a furniture entrepreneur who could barely run three miles at age 30.

Now he’s addicted. “Doing these races strips you to your core and helps me be in the moment. I escape the daily stresses of life, and I have time to reflect on what’s important, like my family, my legacy and my purpose,” Nemet says. “It’s a fuller way of living.”

Intrigued? Here are 10 extreme races to shoot for — if not in 2019, perhaps in 2020.

Spartan Stadion at Angel Stadium, Anaheim, 3 miles, 20 obstacles. The race is Aug. 3, but there’s always next year.

Bulldog 50K, Calabasas, dubbed SoCal’s toughest trail run, Aug. 24

Santa Barbara 100, 100K and 100 miles, Santa Barbara, Oct. 12

Highlander 100, 50K up to 100 miles, Mount Baldy, Oct. 12

Rocky Peak Trail Runs 50K, Simi Valley, Oct. 19

Spartan SoCal, obstacle race in Tejon Ranch, Oct. 26-27

Javalina Jundred, 100K and 100 miles, Fountain Hills, Arizona, Oct. 26-27

Tough Mudder SoCal, 8- to 10-mile race with 25 obstacles in Lake Elsinore, Nov. 2-3

Ironman Arizona, Tempe, Ariz., Nov. 24

Angeles National Forest Trail Race, 50K and 60K run. 2020 date to be announced.