Greg Melville

If you think an ordinary 5,000-meter race is kind of boring, just add water. And dirt. Then throw in a few military-style obstacles for good measure, and you’ve got a mud run. It’s part serious, grueling athletic competition, and part excuse for thousands of people to act like kindergarteners. Mud runs are booming in popularity, and popping up in different forms -- and degrees of difficulty -- around the country. 

“It’s slower to run in than a road race. And a lot messier. So you don’t care about time, you just compare yourself to how your friends do,” says Jim Gallivan, who entered the Merrell Down and Dirty Mud Run outside Los Angeles this spring, wearing a Beetlejuice costume -- complete with white makeup. (He won a prize for it, by the way.)

Gallivan was one of 3,000 competitors in the sold-out event, which is part of a series of Down and Dirty races -- all in their first year of existence -- being held in four cities in 2010. Another brand-new set of races is the Tough Mudder, which considers itself more punishing than the rest. It doesn’t keep track of entrants’ times, because the goal is just to finish. It’s organizing four events this year and 11 (including an overall championship) next year.

Both the Down and Dirty and Tough Mudder owe their startup success to the granddaddy of mud runs: the Columbia Muddy Buddy Ride and Run Series, created in 1999 and drawing more than 40,000 entrants for its 18 annual competitions. It’s the least intense of the three. “We try to make our competitions as user-friendly as possible. We want just about anybody to be able to do this,” says Bob Babbitt, the Muddy Buddy founder.

Here’s a rundown of each series -- what each event involves and what’s expected of you:

Columbia Muddy Buddy Ride and Run

Fitness level: All levels

Competitors per team: 2

Equipment: One bike per team, running shoes

The competition: Each team completes a 6- to 7-mile course that has five obstacles (like crawling on a cargo net, scaling a low wall or crossing a set of monkey bars). Team member No. 1 rides the bike on the dirt course while Team member 2 runs it, until they reach and complete the first obstacle. The team members then switch running and riding duties. The final challenge before reaching the finish line is to crawl through a massive mud bog. If you can run 3 miles in an hour, you can physically compete in this race.

Average race time: One hour

Costumes: Optional

Benefits: Challenged Athletes Foundation

Merrell Down and Dirty National Mud Run Series

Fitness level: Able to handle a 5K or 10K race

Competitors per team: One

Equipment: Running shoes

The competition: The Down and Dirty is essentially a mud-filled, obstacle-strewn trail-running race. You can compete on the 5K or 10K course. You might find yourself scaling a mountain of hay bales, doing the combat crawl under a cargo net or using a rope to climb a wall -- and definitely ending the race by dragging yourself through the mud. The race is geared toward anyone in decent shape, but prep with cardio work and core strength training.

Average race time: About an hour for the 10K and 45 minutes for the 5K

Costumes: Encouraged but optional

Benefits: Operation Gratitude

Tough Mudder

Fitness level: Excellent physical condition required

Competitors per team: You can compete as an individual or within a team of any size

Equipment: Running shoes, leather gloves (for ropes events), a swim cap

The competition: A gauntlet of 17 obstacles designed by British Special Forces is placed along a grueling, hilly 7-mile route. You’re very likely to confront a cargo-net climb, underwater tunnels, stream crossings, an obstacle course of flaming straw bales, steep hill ascents and mud. Tough Mudder offers a 17-exercise training program (including a sprint workout, shoulder press, decline push-ups, chin-ups and squats) on its website so you’ll have the proper strength and stamina for the race and its obstacles.

Average race time: 2 hours and 30 minutes

Costumes: Encouraged but optional; free head-shaving is supplied on-site for the Best Mullet contest during post-race bash

Benefits: Wounded Warrior Project


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