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.)
Courses for the muck racers
Cross a road race with an obstacle course and you get the newest trend in running: events boasting fire, barbed wire and above all, mud.
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