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Obstacle Races

Author: Stan Reents, PharmD
Original Posting: 04/14/2014 12:00 PM
Last Revision: 01/15/2016 08:23 AM

Have you ever heard of "obstacle races?" If not, you will. Organized races with obstacles are rapidly growing in popularity.

HISTORY

"Off-road" obstacle races first appeared in the US in 1999 (the first year that Muddy Buddy was held).

Running and jumping using structures within an urban environment appears to have originated in France in the late 1980's with the evolution of the sport of "Parkour," however, Parkour is not an organized race. Somewhere around 2005, Men's Health magazine began hosting "Urbanathlon" races. These are obstacle races in an urban setting....kind of like an organized Parkour.

Let's ignore urban events like Parkour and Urbanathlons and focus only on off-road races with man-made obstacles...

After Muddy Buddy in 1999, Warrior Dash was launched in 2009. The first Spartan Race in its current form was held in 2010, though it evolved from "The Death Race" which was first held in June 2007. They then changed the format to appeal to a wider audience (see below for more details). The first Tough Mudder was also held in 2010.

Since then, these events have quickly gone national, and even international. After only 2 years, Outside magazine voted Spartan Race "Best Obstacle Race" in 2012. By then, Spartan was already holding "World Championships." The 2013 Spartan Race World Championships were held in Kellington VT in September. That race offered $250,000 in cash and prizes with Reebok as a corporate partner and was televised on NBC Sports.

So far, over 1.3 million people have participated in Tough Mudder races, and over 1 million have participated in Warrior Dashes. In May 2014, Adventure Fit announced they were launching "Ultimate Athlete Games."

Several of the more popular off-road obstacle races are reviewed below:

MUDDY BUDDY

Muddy Buddy (MuddyBuddy.Competitor.com) was launched in 1999; that year, they held 4 events.

The origin of Muddy Buddy dates back to 1981 when founder Bob Babbitt was recruited to be on a 2-man team to negotiate a 28-mile course alternately running then riding a horse. It was fun, but, using a horse was problematic.

Based on that experience, Babbitt created the Muddy Buddy Ride & Run Series which was a 6-mile course, with obstacles every mile. Instead of a horse, the teams would utilize a mountain bike. At the end, the competitors had to crawl through a mud pit. Racers congregated in the beer garden afterwards.

The popularity of this event took off. As of 2013, Muddy Buddy reports that over 160,000 people ("Partners In Grime") have participated. There are 9 events each year. REI has signed on as a corporate partner and a portion of the proceeds benefit the Prostate Cancer Foundation.

Muddy Buddy races require you to compete in teams of 2. Some of the obstacles require teamwork.

You have the option of an event that requires only running, or one that requires a combination of running and biking. For the combo event, one partner starts off running and the other starts off on the bike. They switch at each obstacle. When the cyclist gets to the obstacle, the bike is left for his/her partner. When the partner who is running gets to that obstacle, he/she hops on the bike and races to the next obstacle, passing his/her partner on the way. At the next obstacle, they switch again: the cyclist drops the bike and starts running. This creates a leapfrogging pattern. Pretty creative! Both members of a team must cross the finish line together.

Of course, before they get there, they have to crawl through a mud pit!


MUDDY BUDDY
RACE:
DISTANCE NO. OF
OBSTACLES
• "Mud Run" 3.0 - 4.5 miles 8 - 10 obstacles
• "Bike &
Mud Run"
6 - 7 miles 5 obstacles

SHAPE DIVA DASH

The SHAPE Diva Dash (DivaDash.com) is an off-road obstacle race for women. Each race is 3 miles (5-K) and contains 10-12 man-made obstacles. Obstacles have varying degrees of difficulty. If an obstacle is too challenging, it does not have to be completed. Competitive runners can sign-up to be in 1 of 4 timed waves, while casual runners and walkers can participate in other groups. Races were held in 10 cities in 2013. The SHAPE Diva Dash is produced by Adventure Fit (see below).

SPARTAN RACE

The first Spartan Race (www.Spartan.com, www.SpartanRace.com) in its current form was held in 2010. It evolved when 8 "insane ultra athletes" (according to their web site) wanted to create challenging off-road races as a spin-off of The Death Race (see below). One of the members of that group was Joe DeSena, whose personal athletic achievements are even more extreme than these races:

(The following content was excerpted from their August 18, 2013 press release):

Joseph DeSena, 44, has been an entrepreneur since his pre-teens. From selling fireworks at age eight, to starting a T-shirt business in high school, to building a multimillion-dollar pool business in college, to creating a Wall Street trading firm, DeSena is a living definition of the word “entrepreneur.” Currently he is a managing director for ICAP, a brokerage agency.

DeSena knows what it feels like to succeed outside the office, too – and that’s the feeling he seeks to bring to the world’s athletes with the Spartan Race series. Throughout his lifetime, he’s competed in any extreme sports adventure he could find, testing his mental and physical endurance against nature.

Growing up in Queens, Joe’s mother valued healthy eating and living and passed along that value system. He worked hard growing up and ultimately got to Wall Street, where he made himself a small fortune. Then he moved his family to Pittsfield, VT, and quickly entrenched himself and his family in the local landscape. Joe moved to Vermont in an attempt to get back to the way things used to be.

Joe's racing resume is the stuff of legends – over 50 ultra-events overall and 12 Ironman events in one year alone. Most of his races are 100 miles or more with a few traditional marathons in the mix. (He once said that running a 26.2 marathon distance was “adorable.”)

To put it in perspective, he did the Vermont 100, the Lake Placid Ironman, and the Badwater Ultra… in one week! For those who don’t know anything about Badwater, temperatures soar into the 120’s and the elevation climb is over 8,500 feet up to Mt. Whitney.

Joe has also biked cross-country. It’s no wonder his favorite quote is, “Death is the price we pay for life, so make it worth it.”

In 2005, Joe decided that the world needed a new race, something that had never been done. And so, together with Peak Races, he created The Death Race, a 24-hour mental and physical test filled with unknown obstacles (www.YouMayDie.com). Racers couldn’t and wouldn’t know what to expect. The fear of the unknown would either break or motivate, and all they could do was try to survive. The race waiver includes three words: “I may die.” It doesn’t get any more real than that. No way to train, no way to prepare, just show up and make it to the end. And don’t expect any love from Joe or the volunteers. They want to break these people, make them quit. Joe’s been quoted as saying, “There’s no light at the end of the tunnel. We’re basically holding your hand to help you quit. The same way life does, right?”

The winner of the fourth installment of The Death Race was Second Lt. Richard Lee of the British Royal Marines. Richard Lee, Joe DeSena, and 6 other ultra-endurance athletes (the “Founding Few”) wanted to create another event, something that captured the extreme spirit of the legendary Death Race, but was modified and accessible to a much wider racing audience. And so the Spartan Race was born in 2010.

Says DeSena, “We are looking for inspiring men and women who have changed their lives through Spartan training and racing – from the best athletes to the weekend warrior who just loves to run, jump, climb and play. We know they’re out there. Our mission is to turn couch potatoes into athletes and inspire people to live a fitter life.”

Spartan Races were originally offered in 3 distances: the 3-mile "Sprint," the 8-mile "Super," and the 12-13-mile "Beast." The "Beast" has been called the toughest obstacle race in history, a "half-marathon from hell."

Then, they took these events to the next level: do 2 Beasts back-to-back. Yes, that would be the "Ultra-Beast." (Making competitors run a course twice, meaning that, after getting a clear view of the finish line, they then realize they have to start over and thus adding further psychic torment to the ordeal, somehow only seems appropriate!)

Spartan Races are summarized below:


SPARTAN RACE: DISTANCE NO. OF
OBSTACLES
• "Sprint" 3 miles 15 obstacles
• "Super" 8 miles 20 obstacles
• "Beast" 12 miles 12 obstacles
• "Ultra-Beast" 26 miles 24 obstacles

Since their first event in 2010, Spartan Races have grown rapidly. Obstacle racers from all over the globe -- including former Olympians and other elite athletes -- competed in their World Championships in Kellington, Vermont in September 2013. Spartan Race claims that over 650,000 racers participated in 65 events worldwide in 2013.

TOUGH MUDDER

Tough Mudder (ToughMudder.com) has been around since 2010. They have gone international, with offices in New York City, London, Melbourne, and Berlin.

Tough Mudder describes its events as follows (from their web site, accessed on April 14, 2014):

Tough Mudder events are hardcore 10-12 mile (18-20 km) obstacle course challenges designed to test your all-around strength, stamina, mental grit and camaraderie. With the most innovative obstacles and over one million participants globally to date, Tough Mudder is the premier obstacle course series in the world.

Tough Mudder is more than an event; it’s a way of thinking. It’s about pushing yourself to the limits and helping others to do the same. It’s not a race, it’s a challenge. If we timed you, what would be your motivation to stop and give someone a hand? When you run a Tough Mudder, you’ll meet new people and overcome challenges when you get through the course -- together. Running a race gets you busted knees and a medal you’ll never wear again. At the end of a Tough Mudder, you get an orange headband to proudly wear to work on Monday morning, a pint, bragging rights and membership into Mudder Nation. And it gives you an excuse to get all your friends together and start a tradition.

They have 6 different courses:

  • Arena Course
  • Backwoods Course
  • Open Range Course
  • Off-Road Course
  • Mountain Course
  • Muscle Course

Each course is 10-12 miles and contains 25 "military style" obstacles. According to their web site, the obstacles were designed by British Special Forces. If you take a look at descriptions of their obstacles, you may agree that these are the most unique. These give hard-core obstacle/adventure racers a broader variety of ways to challenge (punish!) themselves.

Here's a sample (Check out the pics on the Tough Mudder web site for some sadistic viewing pleasure!):

"Arctic Enema": Here, the racers must jump into a mud pit loaded with ice cubes.

"Electric Eel": At this "obstacle," competitors must endure electric shocks from cables hanging down while they attempt to crawl under them.

One unique aspect of Tough Mudder events is that they are not timed races. The goal is to give competitors extreme challenges to see if they can complete them. Tough Mudder also encourages competitors to help each other during the events.

As of December 2013, Tough Mudder has held over 100 events in the US since 2010, with over 1.3 million participants. In 2013, there were 53 events with 750,000 participants. There are 10,000-15,000 people per event (70% male, 30% female), with the average age being 29. In addition, they have raised $6.5 million for the Wounded Warrior Project.

ULTIMATE ATHLETE GAMES

On March 1, 2014, Adventure Fit announced the launch of Ultimate Athlete Games (UltimateAthleteGames.com). Since this is a brand new event, not much info is available. However, according to their web site (accessed May 6, 2014), there will be 3 courses:

  • SPEED Course: quarter-mile
  • AGILITY Course: half-mile
  • STRENGTH Course: 1-mile

The first race is scheduled for July 19, 2014 in Chicago, and the 2nd is scheduled for October 18, 2014 in New York.

WARRIOR DASH

Red Frog Events, an event company based in Chicago, launched Warrior Dash (www.WarriorDash.com) in 2009. The first one was held in Joliet, IL.

Warrior Dash claims to be the world's largest obstacle race series. According to their web site (accessed April 13, 2014), over a million competitors have participated in over 150 events in 6 different countries. In 2013, they held over 50 races. Even cooler, their events have raised over $7.5 million for St. Jude Children's Hospital. They also encourage competitors to bring old running shoes, or, donate their muddy event shoes after the race. Some shoes will be recycled, keeping them out of landfills, and others will be donated to less fortunate people around the world.

Their 5-K races contain 12 obstacles. Recently, I went to the 2014 Warrior Dash in Phoenix (no, I did not compete): it had an estimated 6000 competitors! It was a 5-K race that was loaded with challenges, culminating in jumping over an open flame, traversing a rope net, a drop down a water slide, and, just before the finish line, a 30-meter crawl through a mud pit under strands of barbed wire.

After completing the race, competitors and fans can stick around for music, Warrior grub, and cold beer.

"OBSTACLE COURSE".... or "TORTURE TEST?"

Some of Tough Mudder's "obstacles" seem more like a torture test than a test of physical skills and endurance: jumping into a mud pit filled with ice cubes?...crawling under live wires that give you shocks?....These "obstacles" might seem that they would only appeal to Navy SEALs-wannabees, but, average weekend warriors are participating in races like this in droves: over 1.3 million people have participated in Tough Mudder races since it was launched in 2010.

MUD, SWEAT, and BEER EQUALS "FUN"

Why have these events gotten so popular so fast? Why would someone crawl through a mud pit, or, endure electric shocks during a race?

Well, the answer to that likely differs for each athlete, but, it probably has a lot to do with fun and excitement. Let's face it, riding a bike for 100 miles, or, running on a treadmill at the gym 3 days per week year after year gets pretty boring! Obstacles add excitement and new challenges to competitions. And, enjoying a couple craft brews with your friends and teammates afterwards certainly doesn't hurt either!

QUESTIONS

Q: What's the difference between an "obstacle" race and an "adventure" race?

ANSWER: There's definitely a blurry line here. Our unofficial explanation goes something like this:

• Obstacle races are shorter than adventure races and, thus, easier. Most individuals who are reasonably fit can complete obstacle races. According to the Spartan Race web site (accessed April 13, 2014), 99.9% of competitors who have entered the 3-mile Sprint have finished the course. According to the Tough Mudder web site (accessed April 14, 2014), 78% of participants complete their events.

• Adventure races (also referred to as "Expedition" races) tend to be longer (Primal Quest is a 500-mile race that lasts 10 days!) and can literally be life-threatening. Many who try do not complete races like this.

Here is how we might categorize them:



OBSTACLE RACES ADVENTURE RACES
• Distance: shorter longer
• Types of Obstacles: man-made nature-made
• Specific Races: • Muddy Buddy
• Spartan Race
• Tough Mudder
• Ultimate Athlete Games
• Warrior Dash
• Eco-Challenge
• Primal Quest
• Raid Gauloises
• Saab-Salomon Mountain-X
• The Death Race

The first Primal Quest was held in Telluride in 2002, however Eco-Challenge and Raid Gauloises (perhaps the defining event for adventure races) were already in existence by then. (Eco-Challenge was created by Mark Burnett, creator of "Survivor" and "The Apprentice.")

FOR MORE INFORMATION

Adventure Fit (AdventureFit.com; Austin TX, Boulder CO) is a sports marketing company. They produce SHAPE Diva Dash, Urban Assault, and their newest: Ultimate Athlete Games.

Readers may also be interested in these reviews:

Oh, and by the way, The Death Race is still held. See: Peak Races: www.Peak.com

EXPERT HEALTH and FITNESS COACHING

Stan Reents, PharmD, is available to speak on a variety of exercise-related topics. (Here is a downloadable recording of one of his Health Talks.) He also provides a one-on-one Health Coaching Service. Contact him through the Contact Us page.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR



Stan Reents, PharmD, is a former healthcare professional. He is a member of the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) and holds current certifications from ACSM (Health & Fitness Specialist), ACE (Personal Trainer, Health Coach) and has been certified as a tennis coach by USTA. He is the author of Sport and Exercise Pharmacology (published by Human Kinetics) and has written for Runner's World magazine, Training and Conditioning, Club Solutions, and other fitness publications.




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