Mud Pits and Barbed Wire: 'Adventure Racing' Faces Identity Crisis

By STEPHEN REGENOLD

“The hottest trend in adventure racing is negotiating obstacles like barbed wire and burning hay bales.” That quote comes from Outside magazine in reference to an article in the publication’s January edition, “American Gladiators,” which covers the rising trend of obstacle-course races like Muddy Buddy, the Spartan Race, Tough Mudder, and Warrior Dash. To anyone who has bushwhacked, mountain biked, paddled, and navigated with a map and a compass for hours or even days on a traditional adventure race like Primal Quest, the Wenger Patagonian Expedition, or Odyssey’s Endorphin Fix (myself included!), the “barbed wire and burning hay bales” reference is perplexing at best and perhaps insulting to dedicated “AR” athletes who have spent years honing wilderness skills and training their bodies for the rigors of an ultra-endurance sport.

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Military-style mud crawl under barbed wire at Spartan Race

To be sure, the Spartan Race, Tough Mudder, and their ilk are bonafide challenges. They are undeniably popular, too, attracting almost 1 million participants last year, according to the Outside story. But can they be called “adventure races,” and does this increasingly common categorization of mud/obstacle races dilute the definition of traditional AR?

Not so says Paul Angell, president of Checkpoint Tracker, an organization that oversees a national ranking system and runs a popular adventure race series in the United States. “To the man on the street, any event that involves racing and anything they consider adventurous is ‘adventure racing,’” Angell said. He continued, “worrying about [the categorization] is a fool’s errand because the horse has left the barn.”

But Joe Desena, co-founder of the Spartan Race series, disagrees with Angell, citing major differences that delineate an obstacle race and an adventure race. Desena comes from traditional adventure-racing roots, including experience in multiday wilderness events. In a blog post last month, “Adventure Racing vs. Obstacle Racing,” he writes that the two terms are often used interchangeably “to the detriment of race organizers and competitors alike.”

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Feat of strength: Racer hauls a load in obstacle challenge

Desena continues, “when it comes right down to it, the only similarities that obstacle racing has with adventure racing is the running component and the use of obstacles.” In a race like the Spartan, participants face multiple military-inspired challenges the likes of crawling on their bellies uphill under barbed wire. Traditional adventure racing is more about deep wilderness, orienteering and navigation, teamwork (coed, four-person teams are the norm), route strategy, and managing exhaustion and sleep deprivation on checkpoint-laden courses that might take hours or even days to complete.

Checkpoint Tracker’s Angell, as noted, does not care so much about the categorization. But he agrees that the format and physical requirements put on participants of these two types of events differs widely, explaining that other than the fact that both take place outside there is not much in common. “Sure, some traditional adventure races include a mud pit,” Angell said. “Beyond that where exactly is the similarity? Navigation? Team format? Length? Disciplines?” His answer is a “no” to all points above.

Angell said obstacle races are easier than adventure races and the skill set required is less demanding. “If you can run, jump and climb you can show up at one of these obstacle races and you’re in.” Surprisingly, Desena agrees to an extent, writing that “certain adventure races involve a lot more hardship and deprivation than a two-hour obstacle race.”

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Nasty challenge: Traditional adventure racing has mud, too!

But obstacle races vary in distance and challenge level, Desena said, from three-mile races with mud pits to half-marathons that include walls, burning debris, and electrically-charged barriers you need to avoid. “Nothing against adventure racing,” Desena wrote, “but a well-designed obstacle race will push, intimidate, and even break those brave enough to try it.”

As cited, almost 1 million people signed up for an obstacle race last year. This far outshines traditional AR, where big events might attract 100 people. Obstacle races typically measure sign-ups in the thousands. Desena explains the participation gap by writing about how “adventure races are only feasible for the top 5% of obstacle racers.” He said the requirement to be proficient at navigating, mountain biking, kayaking, running, and operating on very little sleep makes adventure racing “not for everyone” whereas almost anyone in good shape can sign up for an obstacle race and jog their way through a delineated course, confronting the obstacles at their own speed along the way.

Desena’s “not for everyone” comment is important. Participation in traditional adventure racing has hit a plateau. Conversely, things like Tough Mudder and Warrior Dash are huge and gaining steam each year. Desena plans to run 35 Spartan events in 2012, and the company is immensely more successful than anything in the wilderness-racing realm.

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Spray-down at a Spartan race

Paul Angell said the formula for success is obvious. “First and foremost, you don’t have to commit an entire weekend and a paycheck to participate [in an obstacle race] and I’m not sure if it’s more complicated than that.” He continued, “all you need is the will and a decent pair of trail runners.”

I asked Angell how adventure race directors might attract some of the people who do obstacle races to try AR. “I think adventure racing promoters should be going after these athletes with the message that when they’re ready to stop playing in the mud we’ve got something for them,” Angell said.

Traditional AR purists can see obstacle races as gimmicky. But barbed wire and burning hay bales aside, both sports — obstacle and adventure racing — can be bonafide physical and mental feats. Angell respects the success of obstacle races and thinks the world of adventure racing can learn a lot from the masses of people signing on to play in the mud. Overall, Desena notes that both genres can yield “a greater sense of satisfaction, reward, and much better stories” than traditional endurance sports like marathon running and triathlons. In the end, it’s the stories you come home with, born from those moments outside in the woods or on a mud-coated military wall, that will keep people coming back to face a challenge, push limits, and once again feel that primal pain.

—Stephen Regenold is founder and editor of www.gearjunkie.com. He wrote recently on the state of adventure racing in the article “Dysfunction and Dueling National Champs.”

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Finished! Spartan racers revel in mud and a course conquered with brute force and animal abandon

Posted by Andrei Karpoff (aka Space Monkey) - 12/19/2011 12:57 PM

Obstacle races and AR – its like good pop music and opera.Everyone can enjoy good,quality pop music (do obstacle race) and opera is opera :) everyone can try it,but not everyone can enjoy it..AR is require good physical shape and orienteering skills.Not marked route in a wild is totally changing the game..Both sports a awesome,they r just different. AR and Opera never gonna be mass produce..its just the way it is… :)

Posted by Mark VanTongeren - 12/19/2011 01:27 PM

“I think adventure racing promoters should be going after these athletes with the message that when they’re ready to stop playing in the mud we’ve got something for them.” But how? We need strategies to accomplish this. In West MI, we’ve decided to bridge the gap between the two sports. Our races (www.grUrbanAdventureRace.com) maintain the core of adventure racing – navigation, open course, unknown course, running, biking. But we start and finish in urban areas and throw in some Amazing Race-like challenges. In our first race, we drew 600 people (85% of the field) who had never done an adventure race. In one race, we’ve shown them the inherent superiority of navigation and endurance over mud and they are ready for traditional AR. It works and it’s highly profitable. Try it.

Posted by Ed - 12/19/2011 01:35 PM

Each to their own, but, I must be one of those few who don’t get the obstacle racing. Pay a bunch of money to swim in a mud hole so you can post your pic on FB? I’m ex-army so I did this crap for free. I prefer 12-36 hours of getting lost in the woods with friends. I like the comment -when you’re done playing in the mud, come see us.

Posted by John - 12/19/2011 02:14 PM

ED,

If you dont get obstacle racing… why commment about it? I have done quite a few obstical races and find them quite fun. To run an 8 mile Spartan race is MUCH harder mentally and physically than any half marathon Ive done. Think about that… Many runners are getting board of the pavment pounding races we’ve done for the last 10+ years. If race promoters can push us in a different way, and still retain the running aspect of the race, why not give it a try? As for AR I say bring it on, id love to hear more about what these super races have to offer! Thanks, great article.

Posted by jared - 12/19/2011 02:27 PM

There are two things going on here, one is the sport and two is the business. Maybe in an ideal world the better sport would also yield the better business, but it is certainly not the case here. The mud fests do so well because they package a discrete, fun and adventurous day for participants. Even moderate-core adventure seeking folks (which is where I consider myself) seem to not be the target market as we can find our own adventure and get dirty doing it. But I think most folks want some spice in life and this is a good, safe way to get it.

Posted by Mike (Spartan Race RD) - 12/19/2011 02:58 PM

Great article, Stephen. Ed: We’ve got a handful of AR folks within the Spartan Race organization (we’ve raced around the world in both long and short stuff). What’s awesome about a long AR is that you are taken out of your comfort zone and forced to work as a team leveraging many skill-sets. We come home with some awesome stories and experiences. We hope to create a more accessible means for people to get that same experience. As the sport of Obstacle Racing grows, so does the scope of our races. Our 12-mile BEAST in Killington, VT this past summer was mile-for-mile one of the hardest races I’ve ever seen. I’d love to see athletes from Obstacle Racing transfer over to AR. Many of our athletes have never even done a trail run before! We are getting people active again and hopefully this trickles back up into AR.

Posted by Scott - 12/19/2011 03:08 PM

I too would love to attend and compete in an actual multi-day adventure race. As a former US Marine its right up my alley but whats not is the hundreds and thousands of dollars in registration, insurance, and equipment costs that go along with adventure races.For sixty dollars and yes that is the actual price of a Spartan sprint with early entry I can go out have a good time and blast my body and mind. Its easy to forget that there’s a recession going on and most people simply cannot afford to blow half a months wage on a race. It’s just about having fun, and for you hard core athletes Spartan Race hosts the yearly Death Race. Two days long and 48 plus miles. Come on out next year and join us, what do you have to lose?

Posted by Carrie - 12/19/2011 03:28 PM

I agree with Andrei. I think that what is being overlooked by some of those commenting is that not all participants are looking for 12-36 hours of getting lost in the woods. That’s why there are variations on a concept that involves challenging yourself that appeals to all levels of athlete from weekend warrior to seasoned veteran. A 5K doesn’t appeal to me any longer, and it hasn’t for a long time, but it’s where I started and I wouldn’t be running the miles I am today if I hadn’t found my first 5K. This is a gateway for many. Drawing attention to non-traditional endurance challenges is a great way to talk about AR and introduce the concept to those who could be future participants. Obstacle races are a good way to initiate that.

Posted by mike - 12/19/2011 04:12 PM

the one quote that explains it all is “adventure races are only feasible for the top 5% of obstacle racers.” Traditional adventure races, even the 12 hour “sprints” require crazy good shape as well as the ability the navigate and think critically while physically and mentally tired. Obstacle races are fun but are for relative wimps compared to traditional AR’s. There was the one comment about using obstacle races to bridge the gap, and up participation in adventure races by saying something like “you think your good at this [obstacle racing] well here is the next level of challenges.” The article stated that a big traditional AR only has about 100 participants, it is important to note that the races themselves usually have to limit this number themselves because of difficulties like the need to monitor competitors safety during the race and the availability of identical kayaks/canoes/climbing equipment, etc.

Posted by andy - 12/19/2011 04:43 PM

Here’s my take – adventure races, at least at their origins – were an attempt to marry actual outdoor adventure and racing. Some have, and still do continue to successfully do this. To attract more folks, and give people a way build towards adventure racing, however, many AR (especially shorter distance ones) have watered down the adventure and instead focused on being simply a race with certain standard disciplines – paddling, mt. biking, trekking/running, and orienteering. ‘Real’ AR, however – at least in my opinion – is a different beast entirely – and can’t even reasonably be compared to obstacle racing. Real AR is fun in retrospect. Seasoned racers can learn to recognize the beauty in suffer-filled and sleep deprived moments, but most people, if they are not pretty extraordinary athletes – are pushed to the point that they have to really overcome some mental hurdles to finish a race. Think about it this way – In the article, Desena is cited as saying maybe 5% of obstacle racers might be successful at real AR events. So what is the confusion? The NY city marathon is insanely popular – its accessible to elite athletes and the everyman/everywoman. Do you think ultra marathon trail runners are sitting around scratching their heads wondering why their sport doesn’t enjoy that success? and a note to scott (and shameless plug) – not all AR are expensive…. I run a 24 hour expedition style AR up in ND (ENDracing) that only costs $125 and is pretty epic – here’s a video showing some of the action

Posted by Rich - 12/19/2011 05:55 PM

I wouldn’t catagorie these as “Adventure Races”, but why do we have to categorize them at all? I’ve done Tough Mudder, Spartan Race, Merrell, Warrior Dash, Rugged Maniac…you name it. They’re fun and they’re challenging. They require all around fitness (to do well) and mental grit. I’ve run a marathon and countless other road races. Challenging? Yeah, but BORING! These events are something for the physically fit to do on a weekend. Let’s leave it at that.

Posted by T.C. Worley - 12/20/2011 10:16 AM

$125 for a one day event is not expensive?—Depends who you ask. I totally get why more people are not attracted to traditional AR. How many people outside your AR circles do you know that even own a compass. It is a bit of a lost art, and a little too much adventure for the modern man. These races are a good way to dip a toe in “adventure” without a major commitment to training, skills and equipment. Perhaps a small percentage will cross into “true” AR events, but my guess is that most of these races will be gone within 5 years. We the public are notoriously fickle and fad-driven. Heck, anything that gets an American off the couch and into a sweat zone is A-ok by me.

Posted by MW - 12/20/2011 12:14 PM

Obsticle races and adventure races cannot and should not be compared, period. They are different, accept it and move on. I personally choose adventure racing and most likely will never participate in an obsticle type race. AR is not for everyone – it’s expensive, skill and real wilderness experience is needed to compete, and you must have the time to train for all disciplines. As a race promoter and racer, I like it this way.

Here is what urks me about the obsticle races -THE HYPE.

“Most demanding race on the Earth”
“Toughest event on the planet”
Tough Mudder – “Probably the toughest event on the planet”
“The Tough Mudder is so tough it puts a triathlon to shame” (on MSN.com’s front page this morning!!)

Are you freaking kidding me!! I know a few Ironmen and Adventure Racers that would disagree….

I agree with TC, most of these races will be gone sooner than later. Until then market the hell of them, make your money, and quit calling them adventure races.

Posted by jpea - 12/20/2011 01:53 PM

It seems that it’s mostly a disagreement over verbiage. If the obstacle races weren’t lumped into AR by the media, would there even be any contention over the two? There are so many parallels of cool, yet super niche ideas that get taken over by the general public and the “core” people feel really hurt that they’ve been co-opted by something super popular and mislabeled in their eyes (bands – “I knew them before they were big!”, greenwashing – “real eco-friendly things vs companies just hopping on the bandwagon, et al).

Posted by Rosie Manning - 12/21/2011 12:10 PM

I loved my Spartan Race. I did the beast at Killington VT in August and I’m signed up for next years September 2012 Beast. Can’t wait til 2012, hope to do 4.
www.rockbodies.net www.rockbodies.bodybyvi.com

Posted by Joe Fox - 12/21/2011 03:17 PM

Here’s a different take…Would I love to do a multi-day, lost in the woods, find my soul, confront my demons, find my way back out of the woods kind of race? Hell yah. However I have a full time job, two young kids, and a wife that works full time as well with very little discretionary funds. Dropping $127 for the Spartan BEAST and committing just a full day for travel down and back and competing in the event is a challenge but doable for my lifestyle. I don’t think a single person who did the BEAST would argue or take any respect away from more traditional endurance contest participants. Bottom line- I know many people whose lives have been transformed by getting after it in these kind of events. Anthything that gets fat lazy Americans off the couch is a good thing. No doubt- It’s trendy and super commercial and all, but it’s still a really damn good time and killer physical undertaking. It’s like when someone says “5K’s are easy.” Really? Are you a national champion in your age category? All I’m saying is whatever you do, go hard and give it your all. There is no need for hating among disciplines.

Posted by Miles - 12/21/2011 03:21 PM

So, I am reading that AR says that they used to do orienteering for fun before, then OR used to do AR for fun, then Military saying that they used to do AR and OR for fun before, or any sort of combination of OR, AR, Orienteering and trail running that was better than the other.
So I am just going to top it…. I used to do all of that plus: bike, kayak, orienteer, AR, OR, trail running and more when I was 6 years old and I was a Boy Scout….. FOR FREE! Any takers

Posted by Josh - 12/21/2011 06:52 PM

The OR I did was lots of fun, but it was a run, not a race. AR’s are wher it’s at…

Posted by Flyar - 12/22/2011 01:03 AM

I have done over 100 ARs, including 17 expeditions (3 days or longer). One of my first “adventure race” was a “hi tec” sprint race. (10 years ago!). Teams of three biked, ran, and paddled inflatable sevlars. But there were also mud pits, challenges (like disassembling your bike to get it through lattice work), rolling field stones, climbing up nets or over greased walls. We used to call these “special tests”. The fifth discipline of sprint AR, after biking, running, paddling, and orienteering. The point is these were great fun and served as a gateway for me. I think the obstacle races are great. The longer races, it turns out, are about suffering. And you might find yourself questioning your sanity in a race like primal quest. Most people don’t find this fun and aren’t willing to endure the challenge. A participant in this years raid the north extreme paid for a helicopter evacuation from a remote checkpoint, because he was done. An avid trail runner on another team in her first expedition melted down and refused to go on. But let me testify there is bliss in doing what you think is impossible and completing an adventure race. Obstacle or AR. The greater the obstacle, the greater the accomishment. You can think of an expedition AR as a non-stop obstacle course that goes on for a week.

Posted by Joe Mama - 12/22/2011 11:07 AM

At least in my neck of the woods, short AR is more accessible than the comments would lead you to believe – many varying fitness levels can finish the course. You can also do well with modest equipment (who doesn’t already have a mountain bike?), and since entry fees in many sprint races are less than obstacle races, it’s not necessarily a tremendous financial burden. A friend linked to a zombie run and it cost as much as my last 15 hr race!

Posted by John - 12/22/2011 09:13 PM

Let’s not forget that all of these events have to be sustainable businesses in order to survive. I see obstacle races as part of a progression that starts with these basic events and culminates in multi-day adventure races. Similar to the 1950’s GM model of selling cars; start people out with cheap Chevys and get them to aspire to Buick and finally Cadillac. Simple progression of preferences and intensity. No doubt not many will make it all the way to multi-day, but it is likely that fewer would have if they didn’t get started at a pretty basic level.

Posted by YK - 12/23/2011 02:47 AM

Hi guys, I just got back from Tassie and the AR world series. I don’t think anyone disagrees that it’s great that people are getting out and exercising. Both are great activities. It just irks me that obstacle courses are lumped with AR. They are just different. At the world series, I experienced all of life in 8 days. It was incredible, tough but the team work, the decisions you have to make and live by that is something you will never get out of an obstacle course. My toenails are black but I can’t wait for another shot of awesomeness

Posted by Ian - 12/23/2011 12:17 PM

My favorite races by far are adventure races. However, neither type of race is better than the other. I’ve seen obstacles used in AR, so an Obstacle Race could be considered a training tool for adventure racers. I often do orienteering meets, MTB races, trail races, and other activities as training activities for AR. In most cases, the shorter activities, expose me to people who are faster than me in the individual discipline which motivates me to take my skill to a higher level. I can’t wait to work an Obstacle Race into my training schedule.

Posted by DiamondGirl - 12/23/2011 03:44 PM

The simplest distinction is that an Adventure Race requires a map and an obstacle race does not.

Posted by Sean - 12/26/2011 02:22 AM

I find it funny how some people criticize obstacle course racers as nothing more than fb-glory seekers – why does this have to be yet another “I’m tougher than you” showdown? Lets just drop the semantics war, and you enjoy your thing, I’ll enjoy mine. Haters gonna hate.

Posted by Mike - 01/30/2012 10:22 AM

I agree with Sean. People have some real issues if they are going to criticize others that like to perform in courses like Tough Mudder, because you don’t enjoy them. How about supporting each other in actually going out and training for these activities to stay in shape, work on team work, and have some fun.

Posted by Dan Barrett - 11/06/2012 04:24 AM

I have a background in AR, from 5 hour courses up to multi-day events. These events are extreme endurance challenges! I currently manage/operate The Jungle Cup 5k Obstacle Race. AR or OR, it’s all good!

Posted by Tomoyolemon - 06/12/2013 04:02 AM

But like everything else, surviving during the zombie apocalypse or fallout, in the real world it takes a brain. Which I’m pretty sure half these people don’t half. Since they are paying to crawl through mud. I mean really? where’s your solar fallout shelter, and your backup plan. What happens if that plan gets ruined, do you have another plan? I don’t but then again, I’m living my life and not worrying about the next atom bomb someones gonna drop on me.

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