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April 15, 2013

Hit the Dirt: The Latest Workout Craze

Women across the country are ditching their Pilates mats and Spinning shoes for a new hard-core workout craze.


Photo Credit: Larry Deklinsky/ AP Photo

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On an otherwise pleasant spring day in upstate New York, I stood before a starting line drawn in ash. The air was redolent of beer and barbecue while a troop of shirtless men bellowed a testosterone-fueled "hoorah!" With just enough time to toss my husband a feeble smile, I was off, wearing a hot-pink tank top and running shorts, charging up a dirt path and into dense woodland with my "wave" of 50 other runners, including several groups of 20-something girls with greasepaint slicked beneath their eyes. Adrenaline pumping, we surged onto a 3.15-mile course littered with mud pits, water traps, and a dozen other obstacles. Within minutes, I was panting, and my shoes, sopping wet, felt like cinder blocks. Welcome to the fitness industry's newest craze: the mud run.

Not for the faint of heart or weak of muscle, mud runs—the most extreme of which include belly-crawling under barbed wire and dodging live electrical wires—have taken off since 2010, when a Harvard Business School graduate founded the Tough Mudder series of intense 10- to 12-mile races. Last year alone, 150 similar events were held across the United States. And while most of their 1.5 million participants were male, a growing number—up to 35 percent—were women.

I had my husband to thank for landing me here. We'd originally planned to go ice-climbing in Pennsylvania that spring, but warm weather foiled the trip, and he'd found the Survival Race online. I agreed to go, and then put it out of my mind. That morning, though, as I faced the course and signed a "death waiver," second thoughts tumbled to the fore.

"The events can be intimidating," acknowledges Carrie Adams, 31, of Omaha, Nebraska, an endurance athlete who left a career in finance to join Spartan Races, a group that organizes obstacle-course runs. And "this isn't just a men's race. It's in our DNA, too," she says of the mud run's primal allure. My biggest fear beforehand had been the wet and the cold—small ponds pockmarked the course. But as I stumbled through them, the water felt refreshing. Still, I hadn't anticipated how hard it would be to run in muddy shoes. One obstacle, a wooden board slung across a deep ditch, gave me pause before I steeled myself and clambered across it.

The surprise of the obstacles is part of the races' appeal. And Melissa Rodriguez, senior research manager for the International Health, Racquet, and Sportsclub Association, says the opportunity to have a life-changing experience with friends or coworkers attracts runners. It's easy to fall into a gym rut. Mud runs "bring a social component to fitness," she says, with big groups signing up together. One offshoot of the mud-run craze is a new crop of women-only races, with names like Dirty Girl, Kiss Me Dirty, and Pretty Muddy. Time clocks are absent, and obstacles, with tongue-in-cheek names like Wood You Rather or H2OhMyGod, are optional. Costumes are encouraged. Last year, a group of women ran a Kiss Me Dirty race in Salt Lake City wearing wedding gowns from marriages that had since ended.

I forged ahead on the course, scrambling out of a pond and scaling a slippery bank. Rounding a green bend, I picked up speed, passing runner after runner, something inside me spurring me on. As I approached the finish line, my husband, running nearby, turned back and grabbed my hand, and we crossed together. For the first time, my pre-race nerves ebbed away, and I noticed the sunny blue sky, a light breeze smelling of freshly cut grass. A DJ played music, and someone passed out free beers. As I hugged my kids and hightailed it to a hot shower, I couldn't believe how great I felt—not tired, but high. Once home, I signed up for another race. Then, a few weeks later, an e-mail from my husband popped up, subject line: YOU ARE A CHAMPION. Clicking on the link he'd sent, I saw I'd come in first in the female 30 to 34 age group. Astounded, I grinned. A bit of that race-day adrenaline resurfaced. I couldn't wait to feel it again, and I couldn't wait to get back in the mud.

Check mudrunfun.com for a list of races near you.

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