Adventure racing has hit the mainstream – there is no doubt about it. Our Twitter and Instagram feeds are littered with photos from Tough Mudder, Spartan Race and Warrior Dash and a plethora of smaller races. Adventure races were once the province of affluent, somewhat masochistic individuals, who would venture to far off places like the desolate Arctic, the scorching Sahara desert or the untouched wilds of Patagonia. Now every weekend warrior can compete in an adventure race. The fervor for all things extreme is, in many ways, spearheaded by legions of Crossfit aficionados who take a perverse pride in the fact that Crossfit is often associated with serious injury.
The two most popular and well known adventure races are Tough Mudder and Spartan Race. Amongst the millennial generation, these new-age races have successfully tapped into a desire by athletes for something different than marathons. If you’re going to do something hard, the logic goes, it might as well be different and fun. An enduring emphasis on fun is something both organizations stress.
Tough Mudder awards its competitors with a beer upon completion. There is a certain irreverence in their branding, as if to say “You’re going to get your ass kicked, but you’ll be smiling.” Equally important is that you never do it alone. While there are competitors who focus on their individual times, the majority race as teams. There is much more camaraderie than in your typical marathon or triathlon. Many of the obstacles are designed to encourage teamwork. As with most of life’s travails, the going is a lot easier when you’re not alone.
This powerful concoction has developed a cult-like following. While there are those who just race once, as a bucket list accomplishment, increasing ranks of repeat racers travel far and wide while improving their times, experiencing different courses and loving the competition. Communities of Mudders and Spartans wear their pride in the form of branded merchandise and other “in the know” gear.
Courses vary wildly in length, difficulty and the sort of obstacles encountered. Each race has a handful of signature obstacles and a general theme. For the Spartan Race, there is an unsurprising Greek warrior approach that evokes images of Gerard Butler’s chiseled stature from the film ‘300’. Obstacles include the Spear Throw – a thirty yard throw at a target, the Herculean Hoist – lifting of a giant rock using pulleys, and the (discontinued) Gladiator Arena – a run through a row of gladiators aiming to knock you down with their pugil sticks.
Obstacles at the Tough Mudder are, perhaps, even more outlandish. The Arctic Enema sees competitors plunge into a dumpster filled with ice, while Electroshock Therapy has them running through a field of mud with live wires overhead offering shocks as they go. This sort of absurdity is precisely what attracts people, who come in droves. Spartan Race and Tough Mudder, combined, have had nearly three million competitors participate in their events since their founding in 2010 (by coincidence, they started within months of one another). And the growth has been rapid – in 2015 Tough Mudder will have nearly 50 events, a twenty percent increase from the year before (Spartan Race’s trajectory has been similar). The market will surely become more crowded before we see just how big the market for hardcore adventure races can get. If my Instagram feed is any indication that may be a long time.