Tough Mudder 2012: Why Jason Bourne-Style Mud Races Are So Addicting

Now, I'm not all that fit. After high school, my studies, work, and the discovery of beer (I know, beer!) meant that ‘staying fit’ quickly turned into: 'Let's not put on another 35 lbs.’ I went through phases when I mustered the discipline to get myself to trim down and get into reasonable shape, but I was cautious. I entered quick, accessible  challenges: Sticking to sprint triathlons and 5k runs before slipping back again. But then that I signed up for the 12+ miles of hell promised by Tough Mudder.

Tough Mudder was born out of a business plan contest for Harvard Business School. It emerged as a new kind of fitness challenge, and Tough Mudder isn’t the only one. Spartan Race, Run Amok, Mud Warrior, and many other races or series offer experiences in the same vein. Some are quick and dirty while others are grueling, marathon-length slogs. But, all have experienced an explosion of interest in the last few years. They have drawn a different crowd than traditional athletic competitions as well, quickly becoming popular with both serious athletes and the adventurous-but-un-fit.

Why the wild success? Mud + obstacle events tap into an unstable part of the human brain: they seem cool. Sure, it's awesome to be able to tell stories about them, but the obstacles also made the race itself more fun. I’ve never felt like the last mile of a running race is 'fun.' At all. I'll be happy when a normal race is over. But how about running through live electric-fence wire with the finish line in sight? Oh, it's awful, no doubt. But it's cool! Like sharks, rocket ships, and Steve McQueen smoking.

I think that’s the X factor for these races. The challenge is being tough, fighting through fatigue, the cold, and the spiky/electrified bits to get to the finish, where beer, live music, and headbands frequently await contestants. And as much as organizers are right to encourage rigorous training for mud races, most of them are really an every-(wo)man event at heart. I had a severely out-of-shape friend join our team, and even he finally, proudly finished.

Tough Mudder gave me and my friends the chance to push ourselves past our limits. It made us feel hardcore. Some people do badass stuff like this all the time. For them and their hardened-athlete brethren, I imagine these races are at best a satisfying challenge, a way to break up the routine of their other, more grueling competitions. But I don’t live like that.

I sit in my chair. I tele-commute from the one table in my studio apartment. But that doesn’t matter. My team and I made it under barbed wire, over 12-foot walls, and through underwater tunnels to the finish. We had a blast. I was able to finish right alongside (okay, long after) people who were pretty much exactly like Jason Bourne, if Jason Bourne wrestled dinosaurs and only ate rocks, twigs, and raw meat.

To someone thinking about a mud race: Get after it. Do your research, target a race with a difficulty you think you can manage, and go. 

Mud races are a blast. They take us out of the familiar and help us push boundaries. I figure that can only be healthy. It’s immensely satisfying and a lot of fun, like tapping into your inner- awesome with a little mud and cold water. Oh, and electric wires. Can't forget those.