Mud runs and obstacle courses offer athletes a new brand of racing

By Alisa Advani

Mud runs have exploded in popularity. Their insane terrains draw athletes who are bored with slogging away on treadmills and sweating through rote exercise DVDs. This new fitness trend attracts all levels of runners, from the weekend jogger to the serious marathoner who trains to win a spot among the best.

The races are typically off-road, 5K or 10K in distance (3.1 and 6.2 miles, respectively), with lots of mud and obstacles in between. Unlike a regular mini or marathon, participants face multiple hurdles in addition to the distance challenge.

From mud pits to rope climbs, runners will find a bit of everything during these races, explains Callie Stephens, national brand ambassador for Dirty Girl races. Dirty Girl, Indy’s premier women-only race, supports Bright Pink, an organization created to help women recognize the signs and symptoms of breast and ovarian cancer. With clever obstacles like the PMS (Pretty Muddy Stuff) mud pit and the Get Over Yourself wall climb, Dirty Girl participants will at least be amused, if not physically challenged, while playing in the mud. This year’s event takes place on May 17.

Marine Paul Courtaway started the original Mud Run–Warrior Dash, which takes participants through grueling, military-style challenges, such as climbing up an 8-foot tower and leaping into a pit of mud. Chicago-based Red Frog Events, which now manages Warrior Dash, has 35 Warrior Dash races scheduled in 2014. “We are still in the process of planning the international races,” says Stephanie Schell, one of 10 Warrior Dash race directors. “The most we have ever had was in 2013 with 50 races in one year.”

Southside Warrior Dashers will need to make the annual pilgrimage to Tom’s Marine in Crawfordsville to run this year. The Indiana race has been located there since arriving in the state.

Mudathlon-Indianapolis, in its fifth year in downtown Indianapolis, is three miles long with 40 obstacles. “We pride ourselves in having more obstacles and a highly organized and safe execution for a great event,” says Anna Ryan, marketing manager for Vision Event Management.

One of the nice things about these races is the spirit of the event itself, she adds. Groups of friends come out and form teams. Participants of all abilities and all ages arrive to have fun. “Mud runs are a lot shorter, have a festival atmosphere with waves going off throughout the day,” explains Ryan.

The fun vibe of these runs definitely lends itself to team building, and teams are integral to the experience. “About 90 percent of Dirty Girl participants join a team,” says Stephens. “Whether it’s family, friends or co-workers, Dirty Girl (and other obstacle races) are best experienced with pals. There’s nothing better than laughing with girlfriends all the way to the finish line.”

Schell feels that multiple factors contribute to the rising popularity of these races. “First, anyone over 14 can participate,” she says. “You do not have to be in perfect shape to run these races. People of all fitness levels finish. Some choose to walk the course in between obstacles.”

Races are not timed, she adds. “It is more about having fun and participating. Mud runs are not as intense as regular marathons.”

Kevin Brown, a Southport resident and fitness instructor who has been running in races for the past 19 years, says that he considers both his fitness goals and the opportunity to enjoy a sense of community when planning his spring and summer race schedule. “I like running in different events because I get to be around others that share that common goal,” he says. “It’s like runners are a huge family.”

Like most athletic events, these courses are paved with stories of courage, philanthropy and goodwill. “It is exciting to have another reason to tighten your laces and do some good,” says Brown.

As an organization, Warrior Dash has raised just under $7.5 million for St. Jude Children’s Hospital in Memphis, Tenn. “Our St. Jude Warriors who fundraise get access to private showers, food and drinks, a private St. Jude Warrior tent on race day,” says Schell. In 2013, the top three fundraisers for St. Jude each won a free trip for two to any domestic Warrior Dash event in 2014.

At a local event in North Vernon, the last Tame the Terrain racer to cross the finish line in 2013 had tears streaming down her cheeks. “She was overjoyed because she finished,” recalls the Rev. Jonathan Meyer, who is one of the race’s coordinators. Tame the Terrain was created to help raise money for the youths in Meyer’s parish. He and some friends got the idea while training at Muscatatuck Park, also in North Vernon.

Long term, Meyer thinks that the obstacle course is the “new 5K run.” The obstacles break up the monotony with fun challenges along the way. “It’s like playing army or Tarzan when you were a kid,” he says.