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Obstacle Races

Author: Stan Reents, PharmD
Original Posting: 04/14/2014 12:00 PM
Last Revision: 04/05/2017 05:56 PM

Have you heard of "obstacle races?" If not, you will.

According to USA Obstacle Course Racing (yes, there's actually a national organization for these races!), there are currently 8 million people participating in obstacle course races in the US (press release March 8, 2017). This figure includes not only obstacle course races and mud runs, but, also, Cross-Fit competitions, American Ninja Warrior, and "adventure" competitions. In fact, obstacle races are now the #1 most popular mass participation sport in the world...larger than marathons, half-marathons, and triathlons combined! Today, several events even offer obstacle races for kids.

HISTORY

Obstacle races first appeared in the US in 1995, the first year that Mark Burnett's Eco-Challenge was held in the Utah desert. Primal Quest was first held in 2002 in Telluride, Colorado.

But other obstacle races were already in existence: Raid Gauloises was first held in 1989 in New Zealand. This is the event that inspired Burnett to create the Eco-Challenge.

Raid Gauloises, Eco-Challenge, and Primal Quest were ridiculously difficult. Less demanding obstacle races were created: Muddy Buddy was the first, in 1999. After Muddy Buddy, 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 began 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.

Obstacle races quickly became national, and even international events. 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.

More corporate sponsors got involved: REI signed on as a partner for Muddy Buddy with a portion of those proceeds benefiting the Prostate Cancer Foundation. SHAPE magazine launched Diva Dash in 2011, the first women's-only event.

OBSTACLE RACES vs. "ADVENTURE" RACES

So what's the difference between an obstacle race and an "adventure" race?

There's definitely a blurry line here. They're all "obstacle" races. But, we might define them like this:

• Obstacle races are shorter than adventure races and, thus, easier. Most individuals who are reasonably fit can complete some of the shorter obstacle races described below. 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 enter fail to complete races like this.

Here's how we might categorize them:



OBSTACLE RACES ADVENTURE RACES
Distance: shorter longer
Types of Obstacles: man-made natural and
man-made
Specific Races: • Dirty Girl Mud Run
• Muddy Buddy
• Rugged Maniac
• Savage Race
• SHAPE Diva Dash
• Spartan Race
• Tough Mudder
• Ultimate Athlete Games
• Warrior Dash
• Cowboy Tough Race
• Eco-Challenge
• Primal Quest
• Raid Gauloises
• Saab-Salomon Mountain-X
• The Death Race

We'll cover adventure races in a separate review. Here's a quick look at some well-known obstacle races that are not multi-day events:


RACE DISTANCE NO. OF
OBSTACLES
Dirty Girl Mud Run 3.1 miles 14 obstacles
Muddy Buddy (unclear
at this time)
(unclear
at this time)
Rugged Maniac 3.1 miles 25 obstacles
Savage Race 5.9 miles 25 obstacles
SHAPE Diva Dash 3.1 miles 12 obstacles
Spartan Race multiple distances (see below)
Tough Mudder multiple distances (see below)
Warrior Dash 3.1 miles 12 obstacles

These are reviewed below, listed in alphabetical order:

DIRTY GIRL MUD RUN

The Dirty Girl Mud Run (GoDirtyGirl.com) originated in 2011 for women only. As of 2015, over 900,000 women have participated. It is a 5-K (3.1 mile) fun run (ie., not a timed race) with 14 obstacles. Completing every obstacle is not mandatory and there's no penalty for skipping.

Ladies who don't want to jump in a mud pit should check out SHAPE Diva Dash (see below).

MUDDY BUDDY

Muddy Buddy 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. It grew to 9 events each year. In 2013, Muddy Buddy reported that over 160,000 people ("Partners In Grime") had participated.

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

NOTE: On multiple attempts during April 2017, the MuddyBuddy.com web site was not accessible, instead, forwarding to the Rock 'n Roll Marathon Series web site. Thus, the status of Muddy Buddy is uncertain at this time.

RUGGED MANIAC

Rugged Maniac (RuggedManiac.com) gives you the option of doing it as a fun run, or, being timed. The course is 5-K (3.1 miles). According to MudRunGuide.com, the obstacles here are more challenging than Warrior Dash but not as tough as in Spartan Race. Obstacle completion is not necessary and there's no penalty for skipping.

SAVAGE RACE

Florida-based Savage Race (SavageRace.com) was launched in 2014. The average race distance is 5.9 miles and includes 25 obstacles. They hold 12 events per year, all in the eastern half of the US.

They offer 3 types of races:

  • Savage Race: a non-timed race
  • Savage Pro: a timed race for competitive athletes
  • Savage Jr: a non-timed race for kids

Some of their obstacles include:

  • Colossus: an enormous 43-ft obstacle with a 16-ft quarter pipe ramp followed by a free fall water slide
  • Tree Hugger: here, you must maneuver across a series of vertical wooden logs; only 58% have done it successfully so far
  • Sawtooth: a 35-ft span of up-and-down monkey bars requiring tremendous upper body strength; only 40% of racers have completed this one!
  • Davy Jones Locker: a 15-ft drop into murky water

According to their web site (accessed April 2, 2017), over 103,000 people participate in their races annually and 81.6% finish the entire race. Savage Race has made donations to a variety of charities including Autism Speaks, BASE Camp Children's Cancer Foundation, Boy Scouts of America, Cambrian Foundation, The Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, and the Make-A-Wish Foundation.

SHAPE DIVA DASH

The SHAPE Diva Dash (DivaDash.com) is an obstacle race for women only. It is produced by Adventure Fit, an event marketing company (see below). The first Diva Dash was held in Austin, TX in 2011. Races were held in 10 cities in 2013. The national charity partner for Diva Dash is Girls On The Run.

The race is 3.1 miles (5-K) and contains 12 man-made obstacles of varying degrees of difficulty. If an obstacle is too challenging, it does not have to be completed. Unlike many of the other events, SHAPE Diva Dash forgoes the mud, the barbed wire, and the fire for fun obstacles that challenge your agility, balance, strength, and speed. Competitive runners can sign-up to be in 1 of 4 timed waves, while casual runners and walkers can participate in other groups.

NOTE: A review of the DivaDash.com web site on April 1, 2017 reveals this message: "The Diva Dash is taking a break in 2016. Please stay tuned for future events."

SPARTAN RACE

The first Spartan Race (www.Spartan.com) in its current form was held in 2010 in Vermont. 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. 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. 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!)

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.

Spartan Races currently lists these events on their web site (accessed April 2, 2017):


SPARTAN RACE: DISTANCE NO. OF
OBSTACLES
"Sprint" 3+ miles 20 obstacles
"Super" 8+ miles 25 obstacles
"Beast" 12+ miles 30 obstacles
"Ultra-Beast" 26+ miles 60 obstacles
"Hurricane Heat"
(team event)
3 - 4 hours (unclear)
"Hurricane Heat 12-hr"
(team event)
12 hours (unclear)
"Agoge"
(team event)
60 hours (unclear)

The team events are arguably better classified as "adventure" races than "obstacle" races. Spartan calls them "endurance" races.

MudRunGuide.com does not recommend the Spartan Races for first-time beginners. The obstacles in Spartan Races are more challenging than either Rugged Maniac or Warrior Dash. And Spartan Race will penalize you if you fail to complete an obstacle: 30 burpees on the spot! Let's not forget who the mastermind is behind Spartan Races: Joe DeSena!

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.

On their web site (accessed April 14, 2014), they describe their events as follows:

"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."

Originally, the race course was 10-12 miles and contained 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 they are pretty unique. These give hard-core obstacle/adventure racers a broader variety of ways to challenge (punish!) themselves.

Check out the great pics on the Tough Mudder web site for some sadistic viewing pleasure! (click on the pics on that page to get more details about each specific obstacle):

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

"Electroshock Therapy": At this "obstacle," competitors must endure electric shocks from cables hanging down while they attempt to run through them.

According to their web site, the main (full-length) Tough Mudder race has been held over 200 times in 6 countries. Over 2.5 million people have participated and $10 million has been raised for charity.

Over time, new versions of the race evolved. According to their web site (accessed on April 1, 2017), Tough Mudder now offers 7 races, including one for kids: the "Mini Mudder":


RACE DISTANCE NO. OF
OBSTACLES
"Mini Mudder" 1 mile (unclear)
"Tough Mudder 5-K" 3.1 miles 10 obstacles
"Tough Mudder Half" 5 miles 13 - 14 obstacles
"Tough Mudder Full" 10 - 12 miles
(not timed)
20+ obstacles
"Tougher Mudder" 10 - 12 miles
(timed)
20+ obstacles
"Toughest Mudder" 8 hours (unclear)
"World's Toughest Mudder" 24 hours (unclear)

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. 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 fun runs are untimed and contain 12 obstacles. MudRunGuide.com recommends this event for first-time beginners. Warrior Dash obstacles are not as challenging as those for Rugged Maniac or Spartan Race.

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?...running through live wires that give you shocks?....These "obstacles" might seem that they would only appeal to Navy SEAL-wannabees, but, average weekend warriors are participating in races like this in droves.

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.

The fact is, some people just like extreme challenges. Both Spartan and Tough Mudder continue to push the limits with races that last 12 hours, 24 hours, and longer. Spartan plans to offer the "Agoge," a 60-hr team event. And then there is Primal Quest which lasts for 10 days!

SHAPE's Diva Dash takes the opposite approach: obstacles and races should be challenging, but fun. They used to call out a random bib number at each race and give away a trip to Aruba! And, enjoying a couple craft brews with your friends and teammates afterwards certainly doesn't hurt either! So having fun is a big part of these events.

In addition, many of these races are not timed events. Not only are you encouraged to help total strangers complete an obstacle, some obstacles can't be completed without teamwork. The goal is to succeed, not necessarily to win. There's something cool about that.

So, if you're looking for a totally different style of race, or, just want to challenge yourself, consider one of these obstacle races. But, be prepared to get muddy!

QUESTIONS

Q: What is "Parkour"?

Running and jumping using structures within an urban environment appears to have originated in France in the late 1980's with the evolution of a sport called "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.

FOR MORE INFORMATION

The national governing body for obstacle course racing in the US is USA Obstacle Course Racing: www.USAOCR.org. USAOCR is based at the US Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, CO.

Adventure Fit (AdventureFit.com; Boulder CO) is a sports marketing company. Their premier event -- Urban Assault Ride -- debuted in 2003 when they were based in Austin, TX. In 2005, they moved to Boulder, CO. They produce SHAPE Diva Dash, Ultimate Athlete Games, and Urban Assault.

If you're considering your first obstacle race, here's a good book to get you ready: The Essentials of Obstacle Race Training.

Readers may also be interested in these reviews:

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.

REFERENCES

A good resource on specific obstacle course events is MudRunGuide.com. See: "Best Mud Runs for Beginners".

ABOUT THE AUTHOR



Stan Reents, PharmD, is a former healthcare professional. He is a member of the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM), the American College of Lifestyle Medicine (ACLM), and holds current certifications from ACSM (Health & Fitness Specialist), ACE (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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