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Growing genre of races boasts gritty obstacles

Extreme races

Staff Writer
Austin 360
Participants tackle obstacles during the USMC Ultimate Challenge Mud Run in South Carolina, Saturday, April 21, 2012. The mud run is presented by the Greater Columbia Marine Foundation.

DALLAS — For most runners, getting dirty is an especially undesirable side effect of racing. Yet for a select and growing number, mud makes the race.

With names such as Muddy Buddy, Run for Your Lives and Texas Spartan Beast, these events stress their own definition of fun — fire to leap over, fences to crawl under, walls to scale, beams to crawl across, zombies to outrun.

Earlier this month, though, one such event took a tragic turn. Tony Weathers, 30, died while crossing the Trinity River in the Original Mud Run in Fort Worth.

This was the first fatality in the 14 years the Mud Run organizers have been producing mud-style adventures, said Eric Lindberg. His own company, DFW Runs, manages marketing and promotions for such events as the Original Mud Run and the upcoming Wild West Adventure Race.

"In any extreme event," Lindberg said, "whether an adventure race or a marathon, there's the potential for loss. Any race director worth his salt will do anything he can to mitigate that, not only with strict safety guidelines but with instructions to participants and supplying appropriate emergency personnel on site." In a statement, organizers expressed condolences to Weathers' family and friends.

For the most part, these ever-growing events stay true to their spirit of fun, adventure and getting dirty.

"The mud runner-adventure category has exploded," Lindberg said. "If it's not the fastest-growing category in active lifestyle, I don't know what is."

Such races present a different challenge than a regular road race, Lindberg said. "People may work out in a gym and run four to six miles a week, lift weights. They're fit, just not interested in getting on the road and running three or six miles or a half-marathon."

Garland's Mark Olateju, 50, competes in at least six races of all kinds every month.

"You can't compare these to regular races," he says. "If I go through mud, I go slowly. I don't want to scrape myself. I've seen people run and dive right through the mud. The crowd yells, ‘Dive! Dive! Dive!' It's a party atmosphere, kind of like a frat party."

When you're finished, he says, "You have mud in areas you didn't even know existed."

Though Lindberg said such events have been taking place for about 20 years, in the last five or so their popularity has exploded.

Fitness goes through trends, said David Chambers of Southern Methodist University; these races echo the away-from-machines-and-back-to-basics movement.

"People are looking for that additional challenge," says Chambers, associate director of programming for the Dedman Center for Lifetime Sports.

"There's the possible ego component that goes along with it as well," he says. "That aspect makes it interesting."

Plus, he says, the races reflect popular culture. "Look what's going on — ‘Survivor,' documentaries about Green Beret and Navy SEAL training. It's the challenge of being as tough as you can. Every time you raise the bar, others follow."