Full disclosure: I never been a fan of obstacle races. So this is a totally biased piece. It is a my blog, not a piece of journalism. Anyhow, for me why spend over $75 when you can get muddy for free at your favorite trail. As for the obstacles, if I wanted to climb over walls or crawl under barbed wire, I would have joined the infantry.
Throughout the spring and summer of 2012, I have seen a lot of friends go to one of these challenges, deal with the crowds and horrendous parking and other logistical disasters only to have witnessed or themselves returning with injuries – some serious enough to have affected their running plans from a few weeks to an entire season.
Trail racing also has some inherent risks. Race directors often ask runners to run over some extreme terrain. But there is a difference between trail running and obstacle challenges. One race director told me very succinctly, “Having a runner race a trail is one thing. That rock has been there for a million years. But as soon as you put something manmade on that path, then you get into a real “gray area”.
Throughout the season I have heard rumors about a lawsuits from those who have been seriously injured. Even though participants sign a waiver that they understand the risks, there is a blurry line between what is an acceptable challenge and something that is “designed to harm” or worse. Then there is negligence. This summer I have heard friends describing things like jagged rocks unknowingly hidden under the surface of the water/mud, or poorly-designed slides that tossed participants off course and into the trees. One friend had this experience:

“There was one obstacle that paint balls were shot at the contestants. There was no regard to safety in this and a girl in my group was shot on the top of the eye. I actually threatened the shooters and escorted her to someone to get her help. If the shot was less than 1cm lower, the girl would likely have lost the sight in one eye.”

Then a few weeks ago I learned about Tony Weathers, a 30-year old with over a half-dozen obstacle races under his belt, who drowned at a river crossing in the Original Mud Run near Fort Worth, Texas in April of this year. (There is some controversy surrounding his death. Was it a fluke?
Then some eyewitnesses claimed that safety ropes were improperly prepared and lifeguards were overwhelmed. Also Mr. Weathers wore boots and pants to the event that might have filled up with water and weighted him down.) Another runner in another race was paralyzed after diving into a mud pit. The complaint describes, the crowd around the man was urging him, chanting, “Hit it!” and “Dive! Dive! Dive!” (Read more about the death of Tony Weathers and safety concerns about the sport at the end of this blog.”
The event that my friend described about the girl nearly shot in the eye was from an upstart and not one of the “Big Three”: Warrior Dash, Spartan Race, and the Tough Mudder. The Warrior Dash, which began in 2009 with one race and 2,000 people, is predicted to field more than 800,000 runners this year. The company that runs it expects to earn $65 million. Spartan Race also began in 2009 and will host around 750,000 this year. Tough Mudder, again in its third year, is on track to rake in $70 million in 2012. Those are just the majors. Florida alone will host 40 different mud runs before the year is out. This meteoric rise is one of the biggest challenges facing these races. How are these races ensuring that participants are safe?
Don’t look for any help from the insurance companies. Sports insurer ESIX covers 50,000 events annually, but rejects applications from almost all mud runs. “Insurance companies can wrap their arms around events that are consistent and require certain standards to be met before the event is allowed to happen,” says company president Mike Price. “Mud runs have no sanctioning body to control the standardization, which greatly contributes to the potential risk.”
Even the “Big Three” aren’t immune to controversy – not from the risks of the sport – but from each other. These races are big business (a quarter of a billion dollars, this year alone). Currently the cutthroat marketing and business tactics from these companies rival something you would read in an Aaron Sorkin script. For starters, Will Dean, the creator of the Tough Mudder, visited the founders of England’s Tough Guy competition wanting to know everything from organizational information, planning procedures, financials, and customer databases for his thesis at Harvard Business School. The Tough Guy organizers presented Dean with a nondisclosure agreement that recognized “the commercial importance” of the operations and financial accounts of Tough Guy and stated that “this information may not be used to any commercial end whatsoever.” Dean signed it but then went on ahead to create the Tough Mudder. (Read the link below called “Playing Dirty” for more about the battle among and between “The Big Three”.

All negativity aside, obstacle races are popular. The organizers have realized that there is value in boasting to your friends, co-workers, and posting on Facebook and/or tweeting that you have participated and finished these challenges. And for some it means more than that. For a dear friend of mine, the experiences he had over this summer has been life-altering:

I don’t like to just run. Running, for me, needs to serve a purpose, such as eluding bears, staying close to the action on the field (I’m a soccer referee) or saving kids from oncoming traffic. So yeah, I’d run once in a while to keep my fitness level up and keep the pounds off. But it was so BORING! Then in January, I was looking through a list of 5k races in Pennsylvania, and something caught my eye. It was called a “Spartan Race”. I clicked the link, watched the video, and was instantly hooked. I called my brother that same day and asked him if he wanted to try to do a race together this year (he’s always been a fitness guy). He said “Yeah, have you heard of a Spartan Race?”

So I signed up. Now, for those of you who are unfamiliar with this concept, a Spartan Race is one of a growing crop of events collectively known as ‘obstacle racing’. It combines trail running with–you guessed it–obstacles every quarter to half mile. The obstacles are things like 7-foot walls, crawling under barbed wire, or traversing a set of monkey bars.

I was not ready for this, but I needed to set a goal in order to push myself to work out. (I’m not a gym guy, either.) I needed that date on the calendar, staring me in the face, telling me “You’re gonna embarrass yourself if you don’t train your ass off.” So I started running off those holiday pounds in February for my race in July. After 2 months of running and daily pushups, I felt pretty good. Then the real training started. I bought a copy of P90X, and from April 14 until July 14, I trained 6 days a week. I ate what they told me to eat, worked out like they told me to work out, and rested when they told me to rest.

Whenever I wanted to skip a day, I looked at that calendar, looked at what I had written on my bathroom mirror (I was tracking my weight and all workouts that I skipped by writing with dry-erase marker on my bathroom mirror–accountability) and got my butt down to the basement to work out.

I worked out Friday, and had my wife take my ‘after’ pictures. Later, I drove to a friend’s house near the race site so I’d have a short trip the next day.

The race is still a blur. What I do remember isleaving my fitness-obsessed brother in the dust on the first steep hill, and that as I approached obstacles, I was afraid that I would fail. I was afraid that my training would be inadequate. And I remember the feeling after successfully completing the obstacles–accomplishing things that I had never been able to do with my body, like climbing a rope, or scaling a wall higher than my head, or carrying heavy loads up long hills without stopping to catch my breath.

I finished 13th for my age group, out of 414 racers. That put me in the top 3%. I was stunned when I saw the results. Others were stunned when I posted my ‘after’ pics and race photos on Facebook.

I had been holding back for too long. I would give up or not try new things for fear of failing. After just 6 months of training, I had changed not just my body for the better, but my self-confidence was found. I can do anything now. I finished 5 minutes ahead of my brother on the 5 mile course. I had never beaten him in anything before. Most importantly, I proved to myself that I CAN do anything, as long as I properly plan, then execute that plan.

I am proof of the saying that “The person who finishes the race is not the same person who started the race.” That 5-mile course was my crucible, my proving ground. I don’t have to prove anything to anybody ever again. And it’s all because I don’t like to ‘just run’.

In preparing for my blog, I have talked to more people who have had good experiences than bad. Then there are a few like my friend’s that because of these races, it was the catalyst to a healthier lifestyle. He recently finished his third race. I hope that the organizers of obstacle races would know that for some these races were more than about bragging rights and that they will start looking after us all.

Some links: Mud Runs Brings Risks With All The Filthy Fun. Mens Health

Playing Dirty from Outside Magazine. About the business behind the sport.