I wrote the following story for both the Charlotte Observer and The News & Observer; it ran in both papers May 31, 2011. It runs here in an expanded form with links.
They go by names such as the Gladiator, Warrior, Rugged Maniac, Spartan and Tough Mudder. They feature obstacles ranging from mud pits covered by barbed wire to a gauntlet of dangling, live electric wires. To pitch themselves they use adjectives like “grueling” and “insane,” boast that the Navy SEALS and British special forces had a hand in their design, and feature promotional videos of paramedics carting bloodied contestants off the field of battle.
They’re the new breed of 5Ks: 3.1-mile races peppered with obstacles that vow, in the words of the Tough Mudder, “to test all-around strength, stamina, mental grit and camaraderie.”
The races have become enormously popular in the past five years. Ask anyone who’s done one why and they answer pretty much like 41-year-old Craig West of Raleigh: “They’re just fun.”
West was one of 776 fun-seekers at Cary’s WakeMed Soccer Park in May for the Triangle’s inaugural 5K obstacle race, the Gladiator 5K.
For a first-time event, nearly 800 runners isn’t a bad showing. But it’s peanuts compared to some of the more established races around the country that draw 20,000 or more and have to be held over an entire weekend. This weekend’s two-day Warrior Dash in Logan, Ohio, has sold out its 25,000 allotted spots.
The races represent an evolution and marriage of fitness and fun. The multidiscipline events — which typically require crawling, climbing, shinning and swimming in addition to running — reflect a logical outlet for the growing legions of boot camp and CrossFit exercise buffs.
And the races are in the same fitness-for-fun vein as military-style mud runs and “harrier hashes” — a mix of running, orienteering and drinking thought up by bored British military officers in Kuala Lampur in 1938 and revived here in the 1990s as an entertaining break from the tedium of training runs.
Adding to the obstacle 5Ks’ allure: There’s often live music, and alcoholic beverages are sometimes served.
This year, there are 35 Warrior Dashes scheduled, 32 Spartan races, 13 Tough Mudders and a handful of Gladiators. Races in the Carolinas include the Metro Dash June 11 at the Charlotte Motor Speedway; the Second Annual Marine 5k Fun Run, also June 11, in Pinnacle; Carolinas Super Spartan June 25 in Winnsboro, S.C.; and the Warrior Dash the weekend of Aug. 27-28 in Huntersville; the MS Mud Run Sept. 24 in Stem; and the Timberjack Challenge Oct. 1 in Princeton. For more details on these races, go here.
“The darn things have really taken off,” says Butch Robertson of NCRaces of Raleigh, which has been in the race management business since 1978.
A good example of their soaring popularity is provided by the Warrior Dash series. It debuted in Illinois in 2009, there were 10 WDs held in 2010, and this year there are 35.
According to Warrior Dash Broadcaster of Buzz Lauren Shield, it’s not just about the race.
“Participants make a whole day of getting muddy on the course, drinking beer with friends and enjoying live music in the festival area,” says Shield, with WD’s promoter, Chicago-based Red Frog Events.
Of course, some of it is about the race.
“There is a challenge in Warrior Dash for all levels,” she adds. “It appeals to ultra marathoners to people who have never run a race before. Some challenge themselves to get their best race time while others are just looking to complete the obstacles and course.”
Curiously, the races have a wide-spread appeal.
Hurdling a wall of fire, navigating a junk yard (a feature of the Huntersville Warrior Dash) and those dangling live electrical wires (an element of the Georgia Tough Mudder that prompted one contestant to write on Facebook, “This is the only obstacle I can’t do … [my] pacemaker/defibrillator could be damaged”) might seem the domain of “Nitro Circus”-addicted 20somethings hopped up on Red Bull. Yet at Cary’s Gladiator earlier this month, 297 of the 776 runners — 38 percent — were over 35, and 26 were over 50. The field was nearly equally divided between males and females, and there were a number of Gladiators along the lines of Kadesha Roach.
Roach, a self-described “big girl,” got talked into doing the Gladiator in January by her friend Jennifer Hampton. A fitness challenge at their church inspired the two. To a degree.
“We tried to train,” said Roach, 31. “But it didn’t work out.”
Still, after the race, Roach had only one complaint. “I came out here this morning cute!” she said, examining her mud-splattered pink and black outfit.
Regardless of the courses’ obstacles, which could send contestants home blood splattered as well as mud splattered, Warrior Dash’s Shield says there’s one overriding factor for every event.
“Safety is a number one concern of ours, and as far as mud and fire pits go, we do everything to comply with local authorities and always have a medical team on site.”
Because of the unorthodox nature of the 5Ks — and because beer is often a feature — the races tend to be held at venues more accustomed to higher-risk activities: paintball parks and motocross parks, for instance. But that doesn’t necessarily rule out a more staid municipal park as a venue.
For instance, the Gladiator 5K in Cary initially was to have a fire obstacle. But it wasn’t the town of Cary that put the kibosh on the feature, says William Davis, who oversees athletics facilities for the Town of Cary.
“Any event that involves fire would require getting the fire department involved,” says Davis. That would have been up to the promoter to handle, he adds. “I’m guessing they didn’t want to do that.”
If the promoter can get get liability insurance for an event, Davis says the town doesn’t get that involved in an event.
Another key difference between these 5Ks and their obstacle-free brethren: the price of admission. While next weekend’s 2nd Annual Marine 5K Mud Run has fees comparable to a typical 5K — $25 in advance, $35 day of race — most of the obstacle races cost at least twice that. The Carolinas Super Spartan June 25 in Winnsboro costs $95 if you register by June 8, $105 if you procrastinate.
The races are unorthodox, too, because the person who brings up the rear can feel as much the victor as the jackrabbits up front.
Asked what she liked most about the Gladiator 5K, Roach didn’t have to think for long. She crossed the finish with the race’s second-slowest time, but based on the crowd reaction, she might as well have been 27-year-old Benjamin Eades of Zionsville, Ind., who finished with the fastest.
“The highlight,” said Roach, “was people cheering me on like I was a superstar.”
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Nothing paints a picture like a bunch of pictures strung together in very fast succession. For a sense of the Warrior Dash experience, check out these pictures strung together in very succession.
For a taste of the Gladiator 5K, you’ll find more strung together photos here.
Photo at top: Runners at the Gladiator 5K scamper over a cargo net.