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The Mad, Muddy World Of Running

We take a look at the mad, and often very muddy world of obstacle racing...

Unless you've been living under one of those camouflage nets for the past decade, you’ll have noticed the growth of adventure and obstacle racing. Adventure racing, also described as a multi-sport challenge, grew out of the multiple-day mountain-race culture of the late 1980s and early 1990s. Obstacle racing, in which competitors scoot, slither and slide over whatever happens to be strewn in their path over a more modest distance, has really come into its stride in the last 15 years or so.

There’s no denying that these types of events have become incredibly popular. Just getting in to some of them can be a feat in itself. Tough Mudder events are a case in point, with hundreds of runners sat poised by their computers at the very hour these races open, ready to enter and benefit from that all-important 'early bird' price – something you’d associate more with securing front-row Take That tickets than with paying for the privilege of jumping hay bales. So why are we literally falling over backwards for obstacle and adventure racing?

A lot of it simply has to do with our desire to break free from our working life, long hours and family responsibilities to challenge ourselves physically in a totally different way. It’s a release from the seriousness of modern life – but it’s also a release from the racing clock. Although these events are timed, the sheer variety of obstacles or the distances involved make your finishing time almost an irrelevance. Even better, in many of these races, courses and conditions change from year to year, making comparisons impossible. It’s not about a PB; it’s about the here and now. This fact makes obstacle racing a compelling combination of instant gratification (as you complete each task) and long-term reward (as you collapse at the finish line).

So, what can you expect at an obstacle race? Rat Race designed their first Urban Adventure in 2004 turning a familiar city environment into a series of physical challenges. Competitors could just show up, run and have fun, without marathon levels of training. As a result, the format appealed to gym-goers, runners and urban-sport fans alike. When it comes to obstacles, mud is in a category of its own; Total Warrior's Great Northern Mud Run (Leeds) offers runners miles of manky mayhem.

The more extreme side of obstacle racing is typified by what can only be called the ‘military’ end of the spectrum, as well as by events like the Spartan series. Their most challenging race, The Beast, is billed thus: 'The ultimate Spartan test; a soul crushing half marathon with 30 obstacles. You’ll rarely find a Beast on flat ground, so your legs will burn with brutal ascents and descents. The Beast is notorious around the world for its difficulty!'. It’s fair to say that this race isn’t for everyone, but even Greek warriors need to start somewhere; the Spartan Sprint has a measly 20 obstacles and only the faintest whiff of certain doom.

But if crawling under barbed wire is a bit too much, and just running isn’t quite enough, multi-sport adventure racing might be for you. If you’re not sure about kayaking or mountain biking, for instance, these supported events provide a great introduction. The Trail Plus Adventure Challenge Series, for example, offers three disciplines, and no time limits. This type of racing also has an appealingly strong – often mandatory – team element, something that isn’t always present in the ‘every man for himself’ world of a competitive 10K.

Race organisers’ desires to keep raising the bar (often quite literally) means that there is something for everyone in this mad world. You can treat these events as full-pelt races or just wade at your own pace. Most mainstream obstacle races ask competitors to have nothing more than reasonable fitness and a sense of fun. Even adventure races can be taken at a pace that suits.

In short, adventure racing offers something for both the Ironmen and Rustymen among us, and obstacle racing is a fairly sure way to put a smile on your face. Who can turn down the chance to run through the mud like a kid again? The only downside is having to do your own laundry!

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