By Pete Williams
The formula by now is a familiar one. Take a 3-to-12 mile off-road course, position a dozen obstacles, add water, and mix.
Voila! Instant mud run.
It seems like a new event emerges every month in the loosely defined category of “obstacle mud runs.” At least 22 such events representing 17 different race series will take place in Florida this year and it’s getting tougher to tell them apart.
Maybe it’s because they feature similar obstacles, themes, marketing, and a Web design that seems borrowed from the same template. Most races offer one free post-race beer, charge $10 for parking, and about $75 per entry.
It was only two years ago that Muddy Buddy had a near monopoly on the concept. But the unbridled growth of endurance sports during the recession combined with the emergence of CrossFit and adventure racing has created the perfect opportunity for events that are part running, part Survivor, and part Jackass.
Unlike triathlons, mud runs can be taken seriously or not so seriously. They can be done solo or in teams. There’s no need to worry about attire since it’s a good idea to wear black and old shoes that can go into the trash. Where else can you exert yourself and get covered in mud with friends and loved ones?
Then there’s this theory, as Original Mud Run founder Paul Courtaway told The San Antonio Express-News recently. “Eighty percent of the people who run (in the Original Mud Run) have never run a race in their life. You know who this appeals to, crazily? College sororities and groups of girls who love to get together and do things they normally wouldn’t be expected to do. Young moms and mom groups. Sixty percent of our runners are female.”
Given our Florida weather and demographics, it’s no wonder each of the nine national series – including the recently-launched Primal Challenge by the Tampa-based World Triathlon Corp. – pays at least one visit to the Sunshine State.
The numbers are staggering – crowds of 2,000 are commonplace and the Warrior Dash draws up to 20,000. Muddy Buddy introduced a second Florida race late in 2010 and considered a third for 2011.
The category shows no signs of topping out. But can a state that already leads the nation in number of triathlons, running events, and now stand-up paddleboard races also absorb what presumably will be at least 25 mud runs in 2012?
Since it’s getting tough to keep track of them all, we’ve provided a scorecard in alphabetical order beginning with the national events.
Which is your favorite and which do you think will be the most successful?
NATIONAL SERIES EVENTS
Debut – April 26, 2010 – Los Angeles
Origin: Created by Michael Epstein Sports Productions (MESP), best known as the outfit that produces popular triathlons in Malibu and South Beach that attract paparazzi and feature special transition areas for celebrities.
Number of Races in 2011: 9
Next Florida Race: TBA (Last was in Miami on May 1)
Distance: 5K and 10K
Degree of Difficulty: 5
Signature Features: Inspired in part by the Merrell sponsorship, race organizers recently added a barefoot running division for those wearing minimalist shoes or no footwear. The final event of this season (Oct. 30 in Sacramento) features a Halloween theme and takes place at night.
Outlook: The race with the unwieldy name – Merrell Down & Dirty Presented by Subaru National Mud Run Series – hasn’t mushroomed like some of its competitors, but it’s consistently drawn 4,000 to 5,000 athletes to off-road courses featuring obstacles of above-average difficulty, steep terrain (where possible), and lots of mud. MESP tends to fly under the radar in the endurance world, even with triathlons that attract celebrities, so this could be a series to watch in 2012, especially with its major corporate backing. J-Lo and Anna Kournikova have competed in MESP triathlons, so perhaps Epstein will draw some A-listers into the mudpit.
Debut: 1999 – San Diego
Origin: Created by Bob Babbitt, the Forrest Gump/Zelig of endurance sports, who was inspired by a similar leapfrog event involving horseback riding.
Number of Races in 2011: 16
Next Florida race: Nov. 20 – Zoo Miami
Distance: 6-7 miles
Degree of Difficulty: 2
Signature Features: Two-person, bike-and-run format. Athletes, many of which compete in costume, must navigate foot-deep mud pit together before crossing finish line.
Outlook: As recently as two years ago, Muddy Buddy shared a near monopoly on the adventure mud run category with The Original Mud Run, at least at the national series level, routinely selling out its annual Orlando spring event with 4,000 athletes. At just 6 to 7 miles, with easy obstacles and much of the course completed on bike, Muddy Buddy is not much of a challenge for hardcore endurance types. It’s still the event of choice for folks who don’t race much, but the series is losing those looking for greater challenges. (Muddy Buddy quietly postponed what was to have been its inaugural year-end world championship in Punta Gorda in December.) Still, Muddy Buddy is bankrolled by the well-heeled Competitor Group and this year has added a couple of more challenging obstacles and an elite division.
Debut/Origin – 2006, though Mud Runs LLC head Paul Courtaway, an ex-Marine, has been putting on family mud runs on military bases for 12-plus years. Hence, the “original” mud run.
Number of Races in 2011: 11
Next Florida Race: TBA (Last one was in Jacksonville on March 26)
Degree of Difficulty: 2-3. There are competitive and recreational divisions.
Signature Features: Lots of obstacles and the Original folks are kind enough to let you in on some of them online beforehand. Knowing how to swim is recommended, but non-swimmers are given alternative challenges.
Outlook: This race or Muddy Buddy can lay claim to the longest-running national series of mud runs. Both court the masses, though the ‘Original’ brings far more mud and obstacles to the table.
Debut – September 16-18, 2011 – Charlotte
Origin: This is a new partnership between the Tampa-based World Triathlon Corporation (aka Ironman) and the United States Marines Corps.
Number of Races in 2011: 2
Next Florida Race: Nov. 4-6, Lake Wales
Distance: Billed as 12 to 20 obstacles over 3 to 5 miles
Degree of Difficulty: Unknown
Signature Features: This being an Ironman-affiliated event, you can count on a bit of organizational arrogance and a T-shirt with at least three dozen sponsor logos on the back. Hopefully the Marines can organize Ironman’s race-day staff, which thankfully includes Kip Koelsch, a veteran Central Florida adventure race director recently hired by WTC.
Outlook: You know a category has jumped the shark when the WTC is getting involved. The Ironman folks have been chasing everything from women’s half-marathons to Olympic-distance triathlons to youth events. No word on whether there will be an announcer to say, “You…are…a…Primal Man!”
Debut: May 16, 2010 – Burlington, Vermont
Origin: Created by a team led by Joe DeSena, who also launched the event now known as “The Spartan Death Race” in 2005 after deciding Ironman triathlons and other ultra events weren’t challenging enough.
Number of Races in 2011: 27
Next Florida race: Feb. 25, 2012 – Oleta River State Park, Miami
Distance/Degree of Difficulty: 6 (for the 3-mile Spartan Sprint); 7 (for the 8-plus mile Super Spartan); 8 (for the 10-to-12 mile Spartan Beast); 10+ (for The Death Race)
Signature Features: Guys dressed as movie extras from 300 guard the finish line and pummel athletes with giant mallets, sort of a cross between American Gladiators and Wipeout. Organizers adapt the course to the venue. The June race at a paintball course in Northern Virginia, for instance, featured a sniper using athletes for target practice.
Outlook: This race has evolved in just one year. One writer ripped one of the first races last summer in New York for being too easy and some reported the February event in Miami was easier than expected. It’s a bad idea to call a Joe DeSena race easy as the Death Race creator has ramped up the challenges in recent months, introducing longer versions and making the Spartan Race essentially a shorter version of The Death Race, by far the most demanding event in this category – or perhaps any other. Only 80 percent of the field finishes a Spartan Race. That’s not bad considering 80 percent don’t finish the Death Race.
Debut: Allentown, Pa. – March 2, 2010
Origin: Will Dean, who worked in counter-terrorism for the British government, thought it up as a Harvard Business School project while working on his MBA.
Number of Races in 2011: 14
Next Florida race: Dec. 4-5 Tampa (Dade City)
Distance: 10-12 miles
Degree of Difficulty: 8
Signature Features: Billed as “Iron Man meets Burning Man,” Tough Mudder draws from an arsenal of obstacles, including the charged “Electroshock Therapy” challenge. Orange headband to finishers, Tough Mudder tattoos at finish line (optional).
Outlook: This 10-to-12 mile obstacle course was designed with input from the British Special Forces and encourages athletes to participate as teams to help each other through challenges. The ‘Mudder’ and has taken the lead in national publicity, including a recent spread in ESPN the Magazine. Organizers say only 78 percent of the field finishes.
Debut – July 18, 2009 – Chicago
Origin: Joe Reynolds, now 31, launched Red Frog Events in 2007 after watching an episode of “The Amazing Race.” The Great Urban Race came first, followed by Warrior Dash.
Number of Races in 2011: 35
Next Florida race: March 31, 2012 – Live Oak, Florida
Distance: Roughly a 5K.
Degree of Difficulty: 3 – Tougher than a Muddy Buddy, but not nearly as challenging as a Spartan Race or Tough Mudder.
Signature Features: Huge numbers. A typical Warrior Dash draws an average of 20,000 participants in many waves over two days. You get a Viking helmet and free beer.
Outlook: Warrior Dash is a grittier version of Muddy Buddy without the bike. It’s slightly more difficult with more mud and obstacles, bigger crowds, and venues that tend to be in the middle of nowhere. That adds to the post-race atmosphere but does make for a longer day between travel, dealing with crowds, and clean-up. Warrior Dash offers neither the challenge of Tough Mudder/Spartan Race nor the easy access/low barrier to entry of Muddy Buddy. Some view it as the best of all the races – others the jack-of-all-trades-master-of-none. Either way, Reynolds is arguably the most successful endurance sports entrepreneur of the last three years, which is saying something.
Other national series events:
Gladiator Rock and Run – Coming to Florida in December, 2011 – TBA
Rugged Maniac – Feb. 25, 2012 – Jacksonville
Debut/Origin: 2006 – Sarasota
Number of Races in 2011: 3
Next Florida Race: Nov. 13 – Tampa
Distance: 6 miles
Degree of Difficulty: 3
Signature Features: A different twist on the mud run, The Dirty Duo consists of two-person teams on one bike covering two three-mile loops. You can race solo but must run the entire course. Unlike the Muddy Buddy, which has designated bike drop points, Dirty Duo participants can choose when they switch.
Outlook: The one existing Florida-based series got a bit overshadowed by the mudslide of national newcomers that invaded the Sunshine State in 2011. A proposed South Florida date has been postponed until 2012.
Debut – July 23, 2011 – Bartow
Origin: Jonny Simpkins, a veteran endurance athlete and motocross enthusiast, created The Highlander after doing the Warrior Dash in January.
Number of Races in 2011: 2
Next Florida Race (after debut on July 23): October 15
Distance: 3 and 6-mile courses
Degree of Difficulty: 5 (estimated)
Signature Features: This might be the most unique piece of real estate for a run in this category, with thousands of acres available. The property is used for an occasional hare scramble off-road bike event and its multiple elevations will make athletes feel like they’re in Georgia. Among the final obstacles is a steep 150-foot waterslide. Spectators will be able to view 75 percent of the course from an elevated area and can take free hayrides to see the rest. The event also features The Highland Games, a celebration of Celtic culture featuring bagpipes, colorful quilts and many challenges such as the hammer toss.
Outlook: Perhaps the darkhorse of the series and not just because Simpkins and his staff have distributed flyers at virtually every Central Florida event since February. With a family-friendly festival atmosphere, unusual obstacles, and unusually elevated terrain for Florida, the Highlander could stand out in a crowded field.
Debut: Oct. 22-23, 2011 – Fort Meade
Origin: Recent arrival onto the mud scene, Iron Mudder makes its debut in Florida in October and expands to five additional states for 2012.
Number of Races in 2011: 1
Next Florida Race (after debut Oct. 22-23): Oct. 20-21, 2012
Distance: 3.5 miles
Degree of Difficulty: 6 (estimate)
Signature Features: Held at the Dirty Foot Adventure Ranch, the Iron Mudder obstacles include the Fire Gauntlet, Doom Slide, Lunatic Logs, and Quicksand Pit.
Outlook: Though not affiliated with Ironman or Tough Mudder, the Iron Mudder is billed as “a challenging mud/obstacle course to challenge your strength, endurance, stamina and determination.”
Debut – August 27, 2011 – Clermont
Origin: Created by Sam Abbitt, a Central Florida CrossFit enthusiast, and billed as the “most badass mud and obstacle race yet” with “extreme obstacles, fire, mud, and bruises,” this race debuts in Clermont, home to many endurance events.
Number of Races in 2011: 1
Next Florida Race: Debut
Degree of Difficulty: Unknown
Signature Features: The course features a 70-acre lake, so there figures to be some true water obstacles, though non-swimmers presumably will have alternatives.
Outlook: Nearly 900 athletes are registered for this event on IMAthlete.com. There’s a CrossFit connection to several events in this category, so expect this one to be higher on the degree-of-difficulty scale.
Champions Mud Bash – Debuted June 18, 2011 – St. Cloud
Florida Running Obstacle Challenge – Debuted May 7, 2011 – Daytona Beach
Mud Run MS – March 24, 2012 – Jacksonville
Redneck Mud Run – Debuted June 4, 2011 – Punta Gorda
Mudslide: Mud Runs Overwhelm Florida – Feb. 24, 2011
Tough Mudder Coming to Pasco County – March 19, 2011
Muddy Buddy 2.0 a Success – April 11, 2011