You’re dirty, bruised and sore. So are the people around you. Paying upwards of $90 to run (sometimes bike) and crash through military-style obstacles isn’t exactly the typical way to spend a Saturday. So why are adventure races gaining in popularity? Because in addition to the sore, muddy bodies, there are smiles. Simply put, these races aren’t just about competition. They’re fun. And that fun keeps people from around the country coming back to mix up their workouts in multi-event adventure races.
Ted Stauffer knew that he had to make fitness a priority. His doctor told him so.
“So we brought a treadmill into the house,” says the 46-year-old father of three. And he started using it. He started by walking.
“Being a person driven by data, I strived to better my pace each time I went out for a walk or jog,” he says.
Stauffer ran the 2010 Bolder Boulder. And he finished it. He signed up for the Warrior Dash and Avery Brewing’s “Four on the Fourth” 4k. He finished both.
But something about the Warrior Dash — and adventure racing in general — sparked Stauffer’s interest, and kept him motivated to train.
“What? An obstacle course for adults? And I don’t have to join the armed forces? Sign me up!” he says. “Like any kid who loved running obstacle courses, it recaptured my inner child.”
Stauffer says he’s looking forward to another Warrior Dash in summer 2012, and is hoping his friends will come along for the ride. He’s even started a Facebook group to encourage his pals to join him.
And he’s not alone in his zeal for adventure racing. Judging by the ever-growing number of mud runs, scavenger hunts and even zombie trail races, adventure racing seems to be increasingly popular among athletes of all ages and abilities.
Jordan Wirfs-Brock, 26, is an ultra-marathoner who specializes in trail races. She used to run marathons, focusing on achieving personal bests and pushing herself to get faster.
“And then it wasn’t fun anymore,” says Wirfs-Brock. “It was fun in that it was a challenge, but it wasn’t doing it for me.”
So she moved toward trail running. For Wirfs-Brock, the trails provided a more unpredictable atmosphere where self-sufficiency and problem-solving (and not just pure speed and endurance) became key features of success.
Wirfs-Brock, who has already completed two ultramarathons this summer, is also participating in a non-traditional race that’s more fun than competition: a zombie run.
The “Run for Your Lives” is a 5k obstacle course taking place in Lakewood as well as 10 other locations nationwide. It not only involves mud and obstacles, but hordes of “undead” volunteers who chase you through them.
Wirfs-Brock is volunteering to be a zombie for this race, and says she’s excited to be doing something new.
“Staying fit should be something you enjoy doing. It shouldn’t be a chore,” she says.
That seems to be the overall philosophy of these adventure races, especially the ones involving mud.
The LoziLu Women’s Mud Run, held for the first time in Colorado in May, strives for just that. Founded by four former University of Wisconsin athletes — two of whom have relocated to Colorado — the LoziLu run focuses on camaraderie and training, striving to eliminate the pressure of competition.
“All four [of us] have done multiple Iron Mans,” says Francis Donovan, co-founder of LoziLu. “We love that stuff, but at the same time it’s very nerve-wracking. … Competition, no matter how small, gets your nerves going.”
Donovan and his co-founders strive to bring excitement rather than nervousness or intimidation to the participants. They don’t even keep times at their events, opting to focus the racers on personal accomplishment.
“[Adventure races are] just really fun, it’s kind of like being a kid again,” Wirfs-Brock says. She also points to the diverse nature of conditions and obstacles on the courses.
“Because it is something that you can’t prepare for, it takes some of the pressure out of it,” she says. “To me, it’s less stressful.”
The concept of the nontraditional, mud and fun run isn’t new.
Bob Babbitt and his friends have been running them for almost 20 years. What started as a casual event in the mid-’90s to benefit a friend who was hit by a car and paralyzed has turned into the Columbia Muddy Buddy.
“We wanted to put on something that was really fun and not the most serious thing in the world,” says Babbitt.
The roughly six-mile race was a no-permit, rogue race with about 500 participants for years. But by 1999, it had grown to the point of being unwieldy, and Babbitt organized it into a sanctioned event.
Today, the Columbia Muddy Buddy has grown to include eight events across the nation with more than 30,000 competitors last year.
“We wanted you to bring the family,” says Babbitt. “You could do this with your wife, your kid.”
There’s even a “Mini Buddy” event designed especially for 4- to 11-year-olds. The race includes the crowd favorite “mud pit” obstacle.
The Boulder event takes place in August at the Boulder Reservoir.
According to Babbitt, races like this attract a diverse group of athletes.
“You have the ‘endurance buffet’ — I can do a 5k one weekend, next weekend the Muddy Buddy, the next a century ride, the next a triathlon,” Babbitt says. “When I started racing 25 years ago, if you were a runner, that’s all you did. Now people don’t categorize themselves.”
Some sports medicine professionals say they are also seeing many types of athletes entering the races.
“Adventure races and mud runs seem to attract a different type of athlete than a 5k or marathon,” says Adam St. Pierre, clinical exercise physiologist for the Boulder Center for Sports Medicine.
“It’s more of a ‘weekend warrior’ vibe,” he says.
Denise Knutson, a certified athletic trainer with CU Sports Medicine, has not only given advice and treatment to mud run athletes, but has participated in them herself.
“Those events appeal to the playful nature that people have and that you put aside for being an adult and being responsible,” Knutson says. “It’s an excuse to get muddy, get wet, swing on monkey bars — all those things we did as a kid.”
Knutson competed in the Columbia Muddy Buddy run and bike race last year. She recommends overall strength training for anyone who plans to compete.
“There was a part of it where I had to walk through 75 yards of the Res,” she says. Before diving in, she suggests “not just working on your lower extremity strength, [but] working opposing muscles, working your chest, back, working your core.”
St. Pierre concurs, recommending strength and balance training for all participants, and an evaluation for those with longer histories of injury.
“The type of event and obstacles dictate the type of risks,” he says. “Uneven surfaces increase the risk of twists and sprains, similar to what you’d see in a standard road race. But if you’re climbing a wall, it puts you at risk for an upper body or shoulder injury. If you’re jumping over something, you risk traumatic lower body injury like a torn ACL or knee injury.”
He says he hasn’t seen many injuries specifically resulting from these events. However, there is a higher risk for acute injury due to the specific set of obstacles and demands of mud runs — rather than a stress injury from overuse or repetition seen in a lot of road racers.
Some adventure races do carry a weightier intimidation factor. The Tough Mudder, a national race occurring in multiple cities each year, is known among adventure racers for putting its participants through more dangerous obstacles. That race boasts an obstacle called “Electric Eel” that combines live electrical wires with water and another called the “Fire Walker,” which is, well, exactly what it sounds like.
Regardless of the dangers posed, the Tough Mudder enthralled over 100,000 hardcore adventure racers in its second year (2011), and anticipates 400,000 participants this year.
The concern posed off-course for these races is their price. Most of them cost more than $50.
Wirfs-Brock is avoiding the cost of her zombie run by volunteering at that particular race. Others, like St. Pierre, say they just aren’t ready to commit the cash.
But the allure of the mud pit, and the prospect of getting to play in it with your friends and a few hundred strangers, is still enough to make him consider the prospect.
“They look fun,” he says. “So maybe someday.”
Interested in participating in one of these races? There’s still time to sign up.
Down & Dirty Mud Run and Obstacle Course Deadline for entry: day of the race Event: June 24 Location: Aurora Sports Park, Aurora
Run for Your Lives Zombie Run Deadline for entry: June 29 Event: July 14 Location: Thunder Valley Motocross, Lakewood
Columbia Muddy Buddy Deadline for entry: August 8 Event: August 12 Location: Boulder Reservoir, Boulder
Warrior Dash Deadline for entry: August 6 Event: August 18 & 19 Location: Copper Mountain Ski Resort