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Trial by Mud (and Fire, Paint, and More): Participating in 'Mud Runs' and Other Challenges

By Lisa Ziegel



Year round and on any given weekend, you can find dozens of running events taking place across the United States. These consist of 5km, 10km, one-half marathons and marathons, trail runs and increasingly, 'mud' runs and 'fun' runs. In a survey conducted in 2013 by a leading activity-event Web site, more than 60 percent of respondents planned to participate in a mud run or similar event .

But it's not just mud runs that are attracting crowds - - organizers are coming up with new ways to attract numbers to their events. The types of events are becoming more and more unique, elaborate, and even wacky. Examples include 'zombie' runs, obstacle races, races at night, races specifically scheduled in weather that is freezing cold and snowing, races where colored powder is thrown at runners, and more. These are designed to provide an element of fun, competitiveness, and a social aspect. (Many people form teams and talk up events on social media.) They also attract people of all fitness levels, especially beginners who would never think of signing up for a 10km race or a one-half marathon running on a plain old boring course, but who jump at the chance of being stalked by 'zombies' coming out of nowhere as they run on a murky trail.

Although these events sound goofy and more like games than workouts, they do pose a serious fitness challenge. Obstacle races may require runners to scale walls, climb under fences, run/splash/swim through bodies of water, dodge fire, electrical shocks, scale blocks of ice, even jump over cars, and more. Course distances can vary anywhere from 3-4 miles up to 20. With promoters wanting to make quick profits and no regulating body overlooking these events to ensure uniformity and safety, of course, people have been injured. Worst-case scenarios required emergency aid and hospitalization. At the very least, people who were in over their heads but tried to 'tough it out' experience long-lasting pain and discomfort from muscle soreness and scrapes and bruises. This may be why many are hesitant about repeating the experience. But this is a trend that looks like it may not go away soon, and there are many positive aspects about it. As mentioned above, people use 'fun' races as a way to motivate themselves to become more active, as a way to socialize and make new friends or try a new activity that is a challenge. And although running from people dressed as the walking dead is not a life skill one needs to hone, practicing survival skills may come in handy one day, as well as overcoming physical obstacles.

Having said that, here are some tips for deciding if an obstacle-based activity is right for you and how to prepare so that you can participate safely and have a good time as well:

• Get in shape for the event rather than expect the event to get you in shape!
In other words, prepare by planning ahead and achieving at least a basic level of strength, endurance and flexibility before race day. For a beginner that means starting at least six months before the race with basic conditioning to ensure that he or she can run/walk the distance of the course. Adding body-weight strength training is essential, using basic movements such as push-ups, pull-ups, squats and rows. Flexibility is also essential, so a basic stretching program should be part of any routine. Once the trainee has progressed, 'power'-type movements may be added, such as box jumps and 'burpees.' Training with battling ropes, kettlebells, or body-weight suspension systems can also add necessary elements of stability and core strength. There are indoor classes in some commercial gyms that help people prepare for outdoor obstacle runs, or you can train outdoors in parks (some have a 'Par Course' or even playground equipment that you can climb over and crawl under to simulate obstacles and are free to the public) or on beaches. If you are unsure about how to train, consult a professional to help get you started!

• Have realistic expectations and set realistic goals
It's easy to get caught up in the moment and feel like you are 'superman' and can jump over tall obstacles and leap over fire in a single bound. But it is better to know ahead of time exactly what you're getting yourself into and know your limits. Each race should have detailed explanations of what it entails and information about the course and each obstacle. Many provide videos on social media websites (although they are usually professionally edited and may not provide an accurate picture). In addition, if you are a 'newbie,' plan to put your competitive drive on hold and see how it goes before going all out. If you encounter an obstacle you're not sure about, skip it. It may cost you time or you may be penalized for it, but you will be better off safe than sorry, and you can work on training for it later so that you will be better prepared next time.

In addition, a 'fun race' or obstacle course is not the time for you to decide to face your fears – so if you are afraid of water, ice, fire or heights, (or 'zombies') or don't like being covered in mud or soapy foam or colorful vegetable dye powder, you will definitely need to find a way to de-sensitize yourself beforehand. People have been known to panic unexpectedly, and this can cause chaos and obviously poses a hazard during the race.

• Research the race organization
Although this can be a sketchy proposition, you can check out reviews of past races online. You can also check out the background of the organizers – how many races have they produced in the past? What is their safety track record? Has any legal action been sought against them? What safety precautions do they have in place? Do they have adequate staffing and medical personnel on hand at events? Do your homework. A poorly organized race is not only no fun, it could end badly for you if you get injured due to negligence or oversights.

If you are looking for a new challenge when your fitness routine gets stale, or if you are looking for a spark to get you started on the road to getting fit, if you have a competitive spirit, or if you love the motivation and encouragement of being on a team, then a 'MOB™' (for 'Mud, Obstacles and Beer' because yes, most event organizers have cold beer waiting for you at the finish line) event is for you. Being well-prepared and having realistic expectations are essential – but it you are well-prepared, go out and have some fun. Just be sure to wear your old clothes and beat-up shoes!