I have had this conversation more than once, but there are officially too many “adventure race” series to keep track of. While the Warrior Dash and the Tough Mudder have carved out a niche as the bellweathers by which other series seem to measure themselves, in recent years the adventure running scene has seen an influx of pretenders to the throne, especially in the shorter distances. In addition to the Warrior Dash and the Tough Mudder, I now receive promotional emails from the Spartan Race, the Hell Run, and the ridiculously-literally-named Rugged Maniac series. When we as a society have reached a point where there exists a race series called the “Rugged Maniac” because all of the better names are already taken, that’s surely a sign that the market is saturated, no?
My good friend Dan Solera (a recurring character in this blog) and I have joked that we are going to start up our own outdoor race series along these lines, preliminarily called the Bad Dude Racing Series (“Are you a Bad Dude? THEN COME PROVE IT ON OUR COURSE, IT’S THE ONLY WAY!!!!“), and the kind of sad thing is that it would totally work. The formula for putting on one of these “adventure races” is simple:
- Scout out a farmer with a large-enough plot of land, who is willing to host the event;
- Create a number of obstacles, with varying degrees of difficulty, for participants to navigate during the course of the run. Bonus points if someone who has ever served in a branch of military ever in their life has some nominal input into course design, because you can advertise that;
- Charge an arm and a leg to compete in the event;
- Market the event in as testosterone-fueled a manner as possible, so that your race becomes synonymous with words like “BADASS” and “EXTREME.” Bonus points if you can talk shit about traditional distance running as well.
If you think I’m making this up, consider these following claims, taken directly from each race’s website(s):
- The Tough Mudder markets itself as, “Probably the toughest event on the planet” (which tens of thousands of people complete every year, mind you), featuring “hardcore 10-12 mile obstacle courses designed by British Special Forces to test your all around strength, stamina, mental grit, and camaraderie.” Tough Mudder is “more than an event, it’s a way of thinking.” How do they feel about marathons, you ask? “FACT #1: MARATHON RUNNING IS BORING. The only thing more boring than doing a marathon is watching a marathon. Our obstacle courses … are meant only for truly exceptional all-around people, not for people who have enough time and money to train their knees to run 26 miles.” Well, then.
- The Warrior Dash refers to the running of its 5K course as, “The Craziest Frickin’ Day of Your Life.”
- The video shown on the Spartan Race’s website openly asks about its race series, which can cover as little as 3 miles: “Could a race change your life?” It goes on to claim, “YOU ONLY HAVE ONE LIFE TO LIVE, WHY NOT STRIVE FOR GREATNESS!”
- The Hell Run claims to be, “The most kick-ass mud run on earth!”, as well as a “mud crawling, obstacle conquering, beer drinking run to hell and back,” one that features “insane obstacle after insane obstacle.” This also feels like a good time to point out that the Hell Run Chicago’s post-race headline performer will be Coolio.
- The Rugged Maniac, which I’m not sure truly deserves mention, calls its 5K obstacle course “An Epic Day of Rugged Adventure”
I won’t criticize anyone for running any race of any distance (seriously people, get out there and run!), but that chest-pounding false bravado from the race organizers is what bothers me. Tough Mudders are one thing entirely, but I don’t see how a 5K obstacle course that takes 45 minutes to complete could ever be more “epic” than running a marathon or half-marathon, though maybe I just have a limited world-view. Still, I’ve tried to keep an open mind about everything. And so when some of my DC friends asked me if I would be willing to run a Tough Mudder with them in the Mid-Atlantic region this coming September, I decided to give it a shot….if nothing else, I wanted to try it once to see what all the fuss is about. I don’t foresee myself getting hooked on this race genre, but what do I know? Much like live-band karaoke, ordering from food trucks, and Absinthe, you can’t knock it until you try it.
And then, at some point after I registered, I started to get nervous. Tough Mudder events are 11-14 miles of trail running, with obstacles thrown in for good measure — would my notoriously fickle back hold up to the strain? I felt as if I needed a warm-up, and so when my friend Kyle asked if I wanted to run a Warrior Dash with her, I jumped at the chance, even though the $60 registration fee felt a bit steep. Whether the race itself lived up to the hype or not, this would be my 3rd unique race in the span of 2 days, which made me feel pretty boss no matter what.
Kyle picked me up around 2:30pm on Sunday, and we embarked on the drive out to rural Channahon, IL, which is about an hour and a half southwest of Chicago. Upon arriving, we were disappointed to find that the Warrior Dash organizers were being pricks about parking, and they were charging each vehicle $20 to park. This “parking lot” was just a giant field, with nowhere else to park nearby within miles (read: we were forced to park there), but still they decided to fleece us for the twenty bucks on top of our individual race fees we’d paid. Yeah, it’s that kind of race.
Our starting heat was to begin at 4:30pm, and Kyle and I finished up with gear check right around 4:25– we’d cut it closer than either of us would have liked, but as it was a hot day with temperatures in the high-80s, we were glad to not be standing around in the sun for too long before we started. I generally run races a bit faster than Kyle, but we’d decided to stick together no matter what, and I brought my waterproof camera along to document the event.
I won’t add a ton of commentary here, since the pictures more or less speak for themselves. First up, some costumes at the starting line — nice touch, fellas.
After a bit of running, we came to a shallow creek, which Kyle splashed through:
One of the first legitimate obstacles we approached was a short 10′ or 15′ rock-climbing wall. I scrambled up ahead of Kyle and tried to get a badass action shot of her climbing, but instead was only able to whip out the camera in time to capture her looking confused as to why I was taking a picture as she reached the top.
Next, a crawl under barbed wire:
Both Kyle and I assumed that only the first row or two of wire was ACTUALLY barbed, and that the rest would be twine or something. However, I heard one guy shout “Ow, son of a BITCH!” about halfway through the crawl, so I guess it’s a good idea we each stayed low.
Next was a traverse through some sort of V-shaped channel, where you were supposed to brace your feet against the walls on either side of the ‘V’ to make your way through, and there was an obnoxious line just to get into the obstacle. In this “race,” there was a wait of about 5 minutes to climb into the obstacle. The Rugged Maniac’s website contains some language along the lines of, “We won’t make you stand in line just to get to some lame-ass obstacles!!@$!”, and it was clear that they had the Warrior Dash in mind.
Thankfully, the buildup in front of this obstacle seemed to be just about the only true bottleneck, and the running crowd thinned out past that point. The next obstacle that we came across had funneled some tarps into kind of a waterslide-type deal, which was pretty fun to hurtle down. My favorite part was the fat redneck with a hose at the top of the hill (not pictured), who smiled at me and muttered, “Best day of your life, man,” when we accidentally made eye contact. So there you have it, ironclad confirmation that my entire life is all downhill from here.
That pool at the bottom was deeper than I thought it would be, maybe 5 feet. I took this next picture while completely airborne, right before I went under:
It was at this point of the course where Kyle and I legitimately started to have fun — instead of jogging across flat, scorched grass from one obstacle to another, we were now running down steep muddy hill, as people were slipping and sliding all over the place around us. After successfully making it down and around the hill, we then clambered over the “junkyard”:
After that, it was time to tackle the….well, I don’t know what this next thing was called, but it was basically a wooden lattice that you had to climb over as muddy water rained down from above:
After that little guy came what I felt was the most challenging obstacle on the course, which was challenging mostly because of the physical condition of the obstacle: a rope-climb over a 10-foot wall. The footholds weren’t all that wide and the ropes had no knots in them, but what made it difficult was that each rope was coated in slippery mud. I saw a few people fall back down to the ground after making it halfway up. On the lower-left, you will get your first glimpse of my future ex-wife Aida (the girl in the black tank top, with her hands on her hips), who had been running near us for the entire race. I had saved her from a wipeout in the mud about a mile back, and we shared a bond, which then dissipated quickly once she called me “Matt.” Such is life.
Then over a 20′ cargo net climb, where you get to see Kyle emerging from over the top:
Then we found ourselves jumping over a little bit of fire, which every one of these adventure races builds up so much (“Come run our race, and FINISH WITH SOME EPIC JUMPING-OVER-FIRE, OMFG IT’S SO BADASSSSS”), but in reality the flames don’t get more than a foot or two off the ground:
And after a final belly crawl through some mud under MORE barbed wire (really, bro?), we finished:
And finally, a finisher’s photo — I’ve realized that my beard is starting to get a bit unruly:
All told, the course was just under 3 miles, with somewhere between 12-15 obstacles over the course of those 3 miles. As you might imagine, you want to be wearing extremely crappy shoes for something like this, which you then have the option of donating post-race (which both of us did):
After the race, participants were given one 16-oz. Miller Lite and no complimentary food, but of course everyone had the option to purchase food at an additional cost. I should also mention that runners were strictly prohibited from bringing any outside food into the event area, so the only option for food within a 10-mile radius was to buy food on-site. Yeah, it was that kind of race.
In order to describe the overall vibe of the Warrior Dash, allow me to paraphrase my old roommate’s crude description of a very nice — but ultimately forgettable — girl that he used to hook up with: “She was like…she was like toast, do you know what I mean? Toast generally adds to the meal more than it takes away, but it’s not the first thing you’re going to remember about your meal, either. Toast is good, but nobody goes crazy about toast. As long as it’s not burnt, it’s tough for toast to be bad. It’s just, you know….toast.” And that’s more or less how I feel about the Warrior Dash. It was like toast.
The obstacles were novel, but they weren’t overly challenging. They definitely added to the enjoyment of the event, and I had a great time during the 40-ish minutes I was out there, but I don’t think I would drive an hour and a half each way to do that specific event again. And that’s before I bring the cost into play– $63.08 after fees. I understand that this event is a lot more expensive to put on than a regular 5K or 10K, since there are all these obstacles to construct (and presumably higher insurance premiums to pay), but it felt like they were pinching pennies by charging for parking and offering no complimentary post-race refreshments aside from one beer. Personally, I’ll take an old-school European-style cross-country race like the Cross Country Challenge in Gilberts, IL any day of the week over the Warrior Dash, where there are no man-made obstacles (just natural ones), but everything is catered to the runner and the post-race buffet is overflowing with mostaccioli and fried chicken.
Still, I got my moneys’ worth out of the race in two different ways: I got to run my first race with Kyle in almost a year (since last August), and this one actually made me excited for the Tough Mudder in September. When the Warrior Dash ended, I wasn’t exhausted, but rather I found myself thinking, “That was pretty enjoyable…I just wish it weren’t over already.” My back held up great, and I was ready for more. We’ll see if I still feel that way when I’m 9 miles into the Tough Mudder in another 3 months, but for now, the fear of the unknown is gone, which is priceless in its own right.
In all, my 3 races in 2 days couldn’t have gone much better: I shattered my previous-best and gained a level of personal redemption on the Steamboat Classic 15K‘s hilly course, then I successfully ran a 6K while borderline-blackout drunk (and finished in the top 15% of all finishers, too boot), and then I followed up those performances by completing an obstacle race without causing further injury to myself. Aside from the cuts and scrapes on my legs, which wouldn’t fully bloom until days later, I came out of the weekend unscathed:
I was utterly spent by the time I returned home, but all in all, it was a pretty damn good weekend of racing…even if it’s one that I’m not eager to repeat anytime soon.