If I asked you on a 12-mile run, would you think much of it? Now, what if I told you that along the way, you’d be required to sprint through a field of burning kerosene-soaked straw, dive into an ice pool, swim in a pit of mud, summit a frigid glacier, nimbly avoid the clutches of barbed wire, carry a log on your back “Rocky IV” montage-style and ultimately barrel through a field of dangling 10,000-volt live wires? Oh, and that you'd have to pay good money to do it? If that scenario didn’t make you want to run away screaming, you’re the target demographic for Tough Mudder, Warrior Dash, Spartan Race, Mud Run and a whole slew of other grime- and pain-saturated obstacle runs now taking the world by storm.

The concept may sound masochistic, but people love it. Tough Mudder, which boasts 10- to 12-mile courses designed by the British Special Forces (think James Bond), has attracted more than 700,000 participants since its inception in 2010, and this year has 50+ runs scheduled across the United States, Canada, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Europe. The similar Spartan Race, which also launched in 2010, has seen comparable growth, with 50 events in the U.S., Canada and England on the docket for 2013. 

So what's all the fuss about? According to those who participate, the appeal is twofold: The runs offer an incentive to stay fit and a more interesting, more social alternative to the typical road race.

“I signed up for my first 5K mud run as motivation to keep showing up at the gym in the morning,” says Ashley Endlich of Wood Ridge, New Jersey. “Then when I finished, I realized that it was the most amazing feeling to complete something so grueling.” Endlich has gone on to participate in more than 20 obstacle runs, including Tough Mudder, Spartan Race, Warrior Dash, Rock Solid, Military Combine and Run for Your Lives (a zombie-themed race, in case you were wondering). “I have run my share of road races, and find them incredibly boring,” she says. “Anyone can run a 5K, but can you do it while being electrocuted? I look at my bruises as badges of honor, every callus as proof of hard work.” 

Boomer Reisinger of West Hollywood, California, concurs. “Jumping over walls and then crawling face-first through deep mud pits after a grueling uphill 10K is simply exhilarating,” he says of the Original Mud Run, which he’s doing for the third time this year. “I think people are looking for an exciting alternative to traditional exercise, and deep down they just like to get dirty and have a good time.”

Both Reisinger and Endlich also appreciate the fact that many of the runs aren’t technically races. They’re untimed and the goal is simply to finish, so they encourage camaraderie among the participants. “Need help getting over a 10-foot wall?” asks Endlich. “Well, there's no better way than grabbing the guy next to you and crawling on his shoulders, then finding him afterward and having a beer together to celebrate.” Oh, did we not mention that most of these runs dole out beer to finishers? Reisinger is a fan of this practice. “Hey, it gives you more to look forward to than a finishing time,” he says.

If all of this talk of mud swimming and beer swilling has sufficiently convinced you that an obstacle run is in your future, the next step is picking which one. To this end, we’ve put together a guide to some of the more popular runs that may soon be bringing the pain to a town near you. Happy (and dirty) trails!

TOUGH MUDDER

Why It Rules: Custom-designed by British Special Forces for each race, the 10- to 12-mile courses are loaded with amusingly named obstacles, like the Arctic Enema (a pool filled with ice), the Ball Shrinker (a rope walk over frosty waters) and the Gauntlet (where you get sprayed from both sides with the same high-pressure hoses often used on rioters). The post-run party is pretty cool too. Dos Equis beer flows freely (you get one gratis), and awards are doled out for best costume, most respect and best mullet/Mohawk. Start growing yours today!

SPARTAN RACE

Why It Rules: Unlike the Tough Mudder, this is a race where time counts and tough-as-nails competitors battle for supremacy. Four levels of racing are offered: the Spartan Sprint (3+ miles and 10+ obstacles), Super Spartan (8+ miles and 15+ obstacles), Spartan Beast (10+ miles and 18+ obstacles) and -- for the truly hardcore -- the aptly named Spartan Death Race, described as a “48-hour race from hell.” As for those obstacles, all the Spartan Web site guarantees is this: “There is fire, mud, water, barbed wire and occasionally Hell on Earth.”

WARRIOR DASH

Why It Rules: Great for those who want to get their obstacle run done in a hurry and move on to the after-party (which includes a free beer and prizes for best costume and best Warrior beard), this timed race is usually around 5 kilometers in length -- but still packed with tons of obstacles. Some of these may include climbing up a cliff, storming a barbed-wire beach and zooming down a mudslide.

THE ORIGINAL MUD RUN

Why It Rules: The name says it all. This run -- with obstacles that include a rope swing over a mud pit, a climb up 20- or 30-inch rungs and various surprise “skeletons” -- is the one that started the craze, and it caters to participants of every level. There are several races: noncompetitive 5K and 10K, a competitive 10K and even a kids’ fun run. Because what kid (and parent) doesn't like to get dirty?

COLOR RACE

Why It Rules: Rather get sprayed with paint than crawl through mud? The Color Run, which debuted in 2012 and has already logged 600,000 participants, is right in your wheelhouse. The self-proclaimed “happiest 5K on the planet,” the run is untimed, family-friendly and douses participants with paint at every kilometer. Be sure to wear white.


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