Ooutdoor Sports

Obstacle course craze has Floridians getting down and very dirty

 

cclark@MiamiHerald.com

Tara Wetzel was crawling on her hands and knees through mud and under sprinklers when she was zapped with one electrical shock after another — up to 10,000 volts at a time.

“You learn as a kid that water and electricity don’t mix,” said Wetzel, 27, a licensed cosmetologist. “It was kind of terrifying.”

But the stinging “Electroshock Therapy” wasn’t the worst part of the 10-mile Tough Mudder obstacle course Wetzel paid $180 to experience last December on a ranch near Sarasota. No, the worst part, she said, was jumping into the “Arctic Enema,” a pool of green-colored ice water.

“They literally had an 18-wheeler there full of fresh ice,” Wetzel said.

All she got for finishing was a tacky orange headband and a beer. But, the grueling experience was so exhilarating that Wetzel was planning to do it all again — along with about 4,200 other gluttons for punishment and fitness adrenaline junkies — at South Florida’s first Tough Mudder, which is taking place this weekend at Homestead Miami Speedway.

Tough Mudder is a leader in the growing obstacle course racing craze, spreading around the nation and the world.

“It’s probably the fastest growing outdoor sport in the country, and Florida is the epicenter due to the weather,” said Garfield Griffiths, a Fort Lauderdale-based Brit who founded Mud Mingle for singles and The Challenge, a five-mile test of brains, brawn and endurance.

Last weekend, about 10,000 participants slogged 9.3 miles of rugged terrain in mud-caked sneakers that felt more like cement blocks. They climbed towering walls, crawled under barbed wire in thick mud and negotiated some 20 other military-grade obstacles in the Florida Super Spartan at Oleta River State Park in North Miami.

Participants never know what to expect, but the Super Spartan was especially surprising. A natural forest fire broke out in the park, causing the fire department to reroute racers after the elite men category had started, according to the race organizers.

“Some of the elite guys were told to go the wrong way and we ended up carrying a 50-pound brick about 600 meters, instead of the 200 meters we were supposed to,” said Allan Ajoy, who proudly admits to being an obstacle course racing addict.

He had never heard of a mud race until June 2010, when he saw a handbill for one called Tarzan’s Cup in Miami. “I went there with no expectation,” he said.

Now, rarely a weekend goes by that Ajoy — a regional manager for the Lincoln Road clothing store French Connection — isn’t covered with mud somewhere. He has done the Superhero Scramble, Hog Wild, Beach Beast, the Savage Race and Run for Your Lives, a 5K obstacle course infested with zombies.

Oh, and he’s also done Muddy Buddy, the Gorilla Gauntlet Games, Sqwish Sqwash, the Warrior Dash, American Mud Race, the Merrell Down & Dirty and the Jungle Cup

“For me, it’s my getaway,” said Ajoy, 36. “Monday through Friday I’m all about fashion. On Saturday and Sunday, I’m a superhero.”

Saturday, Ajoy he participated in the Homestead Tough Mudder as a member of the 800-strong Mudfunrun team.

Tough Mudder was conceived about five years ago as Will Dean’s entry in the Business Plan Contest at Harvard Business School. In 2009, Dean — who had worked in financial counterterrorism at the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office — launched the company with a childhood friend on a shoestring budget of $20,000. The next year, Tough Mudder held three events. Today, it’s a global brand that has made a reported $75 million. Its 2013 calendar boasts up to 52 events, including 15 in Europe, Australia and Canada.

“Whilst people might say it is a fad, we have to look at what an endurance competition like Ironman has done,” Dean said in an email interview. “It is now a phenomenon.”

Tough Mudder, Spartan Race and the Warrior Dash, all less than four years old, are the leaders in an estimated $250 million industry of mud obstacle course racing. More and more competitors are seeking a share of the market, which has lured more than two million participants and such corporate sponsors as Reebok, Degree, Dos Equis and the U.S. National Guard.

Who knew mud would become so popular? And so lucrative?

“There are a lot of copycats that have showed up,” said Joe DeSena, who in 2004 co-founded the Death Race, a Vermont event catering to elite competitors at a time when mud runs were mostly unheard of outside of Southern California and England. In 2010, Desena branched out, developing the Spartan Race for the “other 99 percent.” He’s working to make obstacle racing an Olympic sport.

Mud runs in the United States date back to at least 1981, when Col. Alfred Allega founded the Volkslauf Mud Run at the Marine Corps Air Station in Tustin, Calif. It featured the “Rambo Death Ditch,” a quarter-mile-long trench filled with three feet of mud, and was wildly popular among military personnel and civilians.

Except for 1991, when the host Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 163 could not put on the race because of Desert Storm, the mud run was held annually until the base’s closure in 1998. A nearby military base carried on the tradition, and this year the “Camp Pendleton World Famous Mud Run” will celebrate its 20th anniversary. Its website says: “Participants experience a day in Marine Corps life hanging with the few and the proud.”

But obstacle races remained mostly local events until the past three years, with social media fueling the rage. YouTube videos and Facebook posts of average Joes and Janes having a blast covered in mud have lured many others to sign up for the fantasy — to recapture the fun of their youth or escape humdrum cubicle lives. Many of the obstacles require the help of friends — and strangers — to complete.

“I saw everybody help one guy over a wall in his wheelchair,” Wetzel said.

Once people try an obstacle course event, the addictive powers of mud, camaraderie and out-of-your-comfort-zone challenges keep many coming back for more.

Kipp Clemons of West Palm Beach has done 12 Tough Mudder events — including the World’s Toughest Mudder in 2011. “It’s a nice change of pace from sitting at my desk all day listening to people bicker about various things related to medical software,” he said. “You get to run out and be sloppy messes, and there’s a little bit of Christmas giddiness that you could get electrocuted.”

Clemons has run events with a group that carries around a giant teddy bear named Mr. Bubbles in honor of a friend’s deceased mother. He’s also dressed up as fictional NASCAR driver Ricky Bobby in a scene where he’s on fire wearing tighty whities.

In addition to the fun, Clemons likes that Tough Mudder is a large supporter of the Wounded Warrior Project, which provides programs and services for wounded service members when their active duty is over. So far, Tough Mudder has raised more than $5 million for the cause.

In December, Obstacle Racing magazine, the first publication dedicated to the industry, launched its first issue online. Its first print edition will come out this spring. “People just want to get off the couch; they’ve sat on it for too long,” said Editor-in-Chief Matt B. Davis.

And unlike most participant sports, many of the obstacle events charge spectator fees because they are so fun to watch.

Websites have sprouted up to keep track of the “muddy world.” Paul Buijs, a graduate of Florida Atlantic University, started www.mudandadventure.com. “I have a day job and had to take vacation to add all of the new events to get caught up,” he said.

His site now lists 693 upcoming mud runs or obstacle races in the United States and around the world.

With the market becoming saturated fast, newcomers are looking for a niche. In co-founder Ryan Hogan’s Run for Your Lives, participants can hang with the dead. People dressed as zombies try to grab three flags off belts of participants as they run the muddy obstacle course. The race, originally developed to raise money for Hogan’s clothing line, War Wear, became unexpectedly popular.

“If you survive with at least one flag, you’re not infected and survive the apocalypse,” said Lauren Gambler, customer service manager with the Baltimore-based Reed Street Productions, which runs the races.

This year there will be 22 zombie events around the country, including one in Hialeah in April at Amelia Earhart Park. It has become a popular place to hold mud runs. “They’ll let you do almost anything if you return the park to the way it was,” Griffiths of Mud Mingle and The Challenge said. “I’m going to be digging 10-foot pits and making quicksand with oatmeal like they do in Hollywood movies.”

Mud run participants must purchase special insurance. At Tough Mudder, medical personnel monitor the event in golf carts. “We’ve never had any deaths or major injuries, but we have had hundreds of cuts and scrapes and sprained ankles,” said Matt Johnson, chief marketing officer for Tough Mudder. “We take safety seriously, while still developing a ridiculously badass obstacle course.”

One of its signature obstacles is the Electroshock Therapy. While 10,000 volts sounds like a lot, the average police Taser puts out 50,000 volts.

Daniel Diaz, a cameraman for the Miami Univision station WLTV-23, dressed as Captain America for the Superhero Scramble and did the Spartan Race last weekend: “You push your limits and see what strength, will and determination can do to keep you going and get you to the finish.”

Diaz was gearing up for Saturday’s Tough Mudder, as well — including the electric shock part.

“I watched the YouTube videos and the only thing I see as torture is the electric shock,” Diaz said. “I saw someone take off their Camelbak [water holder] and use it as a shield from the shocks. I thought, ‘Hmmm, do I want to cheat like that?’ I’m thinking about it.”

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