Runners getting down & dirty

Obstacle races have athletes pushing their limits to climb walls, crawl through mud and cross over fire

Participants run among pits of blazing firewood for the “Fire Walker” obstacle during the Tough Mudder obstacle race.
Participants run among pits of blazing firewood for the “Fire Walker” obstacle during the Tough Mudder obstacle race.

Obstacle racing is no ordinary marathon, it’s an uphill battle.

As I simulated training for an obstacle race, with mud splashing up my back while I ran over hilled and uneven terrain, I was distracted by my own clean-freak nature.

It took me a while of running through a forested ravine before I could shake my disdain for the mud and began to feel more primal. I felt like I could have been training for the Hunger Games.

Obstacle races, like Tough Mudder and the Spartan Race, are a popular alternative to the ordinary five or 10 kilometre run. Typically arranged on ski hills, they feature skill-testing obstacles such as crawling under wires through the mud, or rope climbing.

For some new racers, however, a lack of experience and knowledge of the course can leave them unprepared.

Without knowing what to expect from an obstacle race, many first-timers find they’re training blindly.

When Tiffany Miller, ArtSci ’14, ran her first Spartan Race in June 2013 she was unsure of what she had signed up for.

“One of my goals for the summer was to get in shape and be fit and be active, and I thought that by registering for something like the Spartan Race, that would be a motivation to achieve my goals,” Miller said.

However, upon arriving at the site of her course, Miller said she was disappointed to find the race set up on a steep ski hill, hindering her ability to run.

“I don’t know what exactly I had been mentally prepared for,” she said. “Realistically, I should have done some more upper body training because [the race] involved a lot of lifting and climbing, but I mainly stuck to cardio.” Miller said that throughout the five kilometre race, dehydration became an issue for her teammates, as the race took place in 30 degree weather, and only one water station was set up on the course.

“I think the website did warn participants that there wouldn’t be a lot of water provided,” Miller said, “but then again, I don’t understand how someone can lug around a water bottle when you’re crawling under wire in the mud.”

The rough conditions of the race can sometimes put participants at risk, resulting in dangerous and occasionally lethal consequences.

Two men in Kansas City, Missouri, collapsed from the heat and died while running the Warrior Dash in 2011. Three people developed E. coli infections after running a Tough Mudder event in Scotland in 2012. In the same year, 30-year-old Tony Weathers was found dead in the water during Fort Worth, Texas’ Original Mud Run.

Despite the challenges, Miller said that she still values her experience at the Spartan Race as an obstacle that she has overcome, finishing in the middle of the large pack.

“I’m just really proud that I can say that I did the Spartan Race. It was something that I set out to do and I completed it and I didn’t die, so that was good,” she said. “But, I also learned that for me, because I was mostly training as a runner, I really should stick to five or 10 km runs instead.”

Training for obstacle races becomes a lifestyle for dedicated competitors, though not all obstacle races follow the same pattern.

While both races focus on overcoming obstacles, team work and camaraderie, every race has its own flavour, explains Oleg Vinokurov, Sci ’13, who has completed two Tough Mudder races and six Spartan Races in the last year.

“In Spartan Race, competitors are timed with little electronic chips and ranked, and there’s a much more competitive spirit in general,” Vinokurov said, “whereas Tough Mudder is not a timed race, but rather an event or challenge where participants work together to complete the challenge, with a big party aspect thrown in at the end.”

The variety of mental and physical challenges propels Vinokurov to continue to compete in obstacle races, he said, because it shows him what he’s made of.

“There’s nothing more rewarding than completing a race during which you are pushing your sanity and wanting to quit,” he said.

As a promotional representative for the Spartan Race, Vinokurov says he has become a firm believer in the whole culture that surrounds adventure racing.

“There are so many stories out there of people completely turning their lives around when it comes to obstacle course racing, and a lot of times these people are a lot more physically disadvantaged than the average person who just says that they can’t do it,” he said.

Vinokurov said that the only thing preventing someone from running an obstacle race is the belief that they won’t be able to.

“If they can do that despite the difficulties that they face, they really overcome these challenges and these races and that motivates me to be even more competitive in it and reach for the high level,” he said.

Vinokurov’s competitive spirit fuels his constant, year-round training, which includes any kind of simulation of what he may encounter on the course.

“This includes a lot of hill sprints and balance, and carrying heavy stuff uphill and downhill, a lot of bodyweight training,” he said. “You need to be aware of your body and able to handle it really well.”

While Vinokurov’s training and experience leaves him feeling prepared for each course, first-time participants must work hard before arriving at the starting line.

After learning about obstacle racing a few months ago, Danielle Pereira, ArtSci ’15, decided to sign up for her first Tough Mudder race, hoping that it would be a fun way to challenge herself.

“I have been working out six days a week, with more of a focus on muscle training in hopes that I will be prepared for all of the obstacles,” Pereira said in an email to the Journal.

With her Tough Mudder race scheduled to take place in a few weeks, Pereira said she looks forward to the event, but as a first time participant, she’s nervous.

“The only obstacles I am really worried about are the greased monkey bars because I am unsure how I will be able to do them, and a bit anxious about the “electric shock therapy” obstacle [where you run through many high voltage wires],” she said. “I have no idea what to expect for this.”

Racing for the top

Obstacle races are designed to challenge participants and push them out of their comfort zones. While they encourage camaraderie and overcoming obstacles like mud, climbing, lifting and crawling, not all obstacle races are alike.

The Spartan Race

Founded in 2009 with events currently held across North America, Europe, Australia and South Korea, the Spartan Race is a timed obstacle race, featuring physically and mentally challenging obstacles, in which the participants are ranked. The Spartan Race comes in three varieties to accommodate all fitness levels:

  • The Spartan Sprint: 5+ km with 15+ obstacles.
  • The Super Spartan: 10+ km with 20+ obstacles.
  • The Spartan Beast: 20+ km with 25+ obstacles.

Tough Mudder

This isn’t a timed race but places a focus on using teamwork to overcome challenges. Tough Mudder began in 2010 and has events around the world, including North America, Europe, South Africa, Asia and Australia. The race requires teammates to work together to achieve completion through obstacles like mud, fire, ice-water, and 10, 000 volts of electricity. The Tough Mudder course is 16-20 km in length and has a 78 per cent rate of successful completion.

Run For Your Lives

Featuring events across the United States with its first event in Canada this year, Run For Your Lives is no ordinary obstacle race. While it still features natural and man-made obstacles, the speed, strength and endurance of participants will be tested as they’re chased through the 5K course by zombies. With the option to participate as a runner, or as a fully made-over zombie, participants get covered in mud and zombie guts. They’re greeted at the finish line with an apocalypse-themed party.

Mudd, Sweat & Tears

A mud run with events in North America, Australia, Germany and Belize, Mudd, Sweat & Tears is available as a 5K or 10K obstacle race situated on extreme sites, like high altitude ski slopes. The race incorporates natural obstacles as a part of the course, as well as signature obstacles exclusive to the event that are designed by Army Cadets trainers.

Katie Grandin

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