Who doesn’t love to be dirty now and again? It’s a primal drive. We spent the first 100,000 years of our existence living in the dirt. As children we splashed in puddles, mashed our hands in mud. There are few phrases more painful to a child’s ears than “go wash your hands.” And now we wash our hands obsessively, use enough anti-bacterial soap to create armies of super-strength mini-Godzillas. This might be why mud runs are quickly becoming the newest race obsession – combining fitness with the playfulness and abandon of youth.
Everyone wants to be a kid again, if only for 5K. Dye runs, bubble runs, there’s one that even features bounce houses. But mud runs are by far the most popular. There’s the Tough Mudder, the Civilian Military Combine, the Spartan Race, the Gladiator Rock ‘N Run, and more popping up every day. The Tough Mudder alone hosted around 700,000 competitors this year. But it’s not all fun and games. If you’re not careful, someone might get hurt.
The Rise of Falling
In fact, reports of injuries are rising. One report recently detailed the injuries sustained in a single mud run which sent 38 people to the emergency room. Those injuries included twisted ankles, dehydration, electrical shocks, burns, and more. On the other hand, when any sport rapidly gains in popularity, injuries are bound to skyrocket, simply because more people (most untrained) are participating. Similarly, injuries from yoga and Cross Fit have gone through the roof in recent years, and controversy abounds. Does that mean you should stay away? Well, you’ll have to make that decision for yourself. But despite all the research I’ve done on Mud Run injuries, I keep coming back. I am lured by the siren call of splintery inverted walls and pools of ice-filled, breath-sucking fetid water. So if, like me, you insist on spending a couple of weekend hours with hordes of other crazy (but super-nice and helpful) lunatics, here are five top tips for not only surviving the event, but enjoying it as well.
1. Watch Your Step – This might seem painfully obvious – stress on the “painful” part – but a staggering number of runners skip right over this. During my last race I witnessed at least three twisted ankles first-hand, helped another two poor souls to the sidelines, and ran past at least four runners being treated by race volunteers. The terrain will be rough. Obstacles are slippery with mud. Unless you are an elite racer running for time, GO SLOWLY AND WATCH WHERE YOU’RE STEPPING. Twisted ankles are probably the number one injury at mud runs. Be aware of your surroundings and keep your eyes on where your feet at all times. Except when there’s a low wall threatening to take your head off.
2. Protect Yourself Before You Wreck Yourself – You’re going to take a beating. There’s really no getting around that. So come prepared. The three most vulnerable parts of your body will be your hands, your knees, and your hair. You can laugh, but when you lose your high ponytail on a string of barbed wire you won’t be crying from laughter. Keep your hair as close to your scalp as possible. Ladies, that means a low ponytail or braids. Headbands and bandanas are good choices. Your hands are going to be grabbing all kinds of things – wood, rope, gravel, lots of other people’s body parts (when helping or being helped over obstacles). A pair of running gloves with rubber grips on the palms can be life (and skin) savers. But there’s no body part you’ll see more damaged than the humble knee. You’ll be crawling through mud and gravel, dragging those knees over walls, and pounding them into all kind of barriers. I saw more bloody knees than a hundred asphalt playgrounds have ever seen. Wear long pants or invest in knee pads. You’ll be glad you did.
3. Don’t Dress to Impress – Have the perfect pair of Lulu pants? Want to test out your new trail runners? Always run races in your favorite sports bra? Don’t wear anything you ever want to see again. By the end of the race you’ll look like an extra from the Walking Dead. Anything that can tear, will. Stains will permanently set in embarrassing places. Sure, you can toss your shoes in the washing machine when you’re done, but trust me – they’ll never be the same. Many mud runs have a place you can donate your shoes to charity after the race. Do yourself and someone in need a favor and run in the shoes you were about to replace with the newest colorway.
Speaking of clothing, have you ever run three miles in wet cotton? I have. It is not enjoyable. Cotton is your enemy. You will see teams in matching outfits with cute names like the Dirty Dozen and 50 Shades of Cray-Cray emblazoned on their all-cotton American Apparel tees. And you’ll see them peeling those cute shirts off and tossing them into the grass with abandon. What you want is close-fitting, technical fabrics that dry quickly. And if it’s warm enough, you guys may want to go shirtless. You’ll be pleasantly surprised at how mud can be molded into some semblance of a six-pack.
By the way, bring a change of clothing and a garbage bag to stow the wet, muddy remains.
4. Form a Gang – if ever the phrase “strength in numbers” was apt, this is it. Surround yourself with friends, colleagues, and family. It is perfectly acceptable to help your teammates, and be helped by them, during a mud run. The shorter runners might need help over high walls, the taller members might need a more diminutive, nimble friend to climb an obstacle first and help pull them over. And everyone will need some moral support at some point. It is true, there are no more helpful and gregarious people in the world than mud runners, and you will find yourself aided by strangers at every turn who truly just wish you well. It’s an amazing atmosphere. But when the going gets tough, there’s nothing like having your loved ones around to push all your buttons and get you moving.
One caveat – ladies, you will notice that there is always a man around to help you get over a wall. In fact, some men seem to hang out for hours at the walls, generously lending a hand (on your butt) to get you over the hurdle. Look for the men NOT hanging around, the ones that just happen to be reaching the obstacle at the same time as you. He may get a thrill from boosting you over the wall and getting a free view (and grab) as you make it over, but at least he’s monogamous.
5. To Train or Not to Train? – Eight weeks before my first run, I asked a Barry’s Bootcamp trainer how I should train for my mud run. He laughed in my face. I run four times a week and lift weights at Barry’s – he said I was more than ready. He was mostly correct. There’s not much training, other than increasing your cardio endurance and building upper body strength, that you can do to prepare for a mud run. However, certain skills do come in handy, and there is a growing legion of training centers popping up that aim to take advantage of the growing popularity of the, um, sport. Camp Rhino in Las Vegas has an obstacle race training course, and posts videos on YouTube demonstrating how to pass the most difficult obstacles. It couldn’t hurt to view the videos on how to climb a wall when you’re tired or how to climb a rope.
But don’t let this scare you. Mud Runs are as egalitarian as any 5K. People of every shape and size, every level of athletic ability participate. Doubtful? Check out 74 year-old Linda Barber conquering the Spartan Race. And if you already work out at Barry’s Bootcamp, you’re in luck – my mud runs were easier than any Barry’s class I EVER took.
Teddy Tenenbaum is a screenwriter and regular at Barry’s Bootcamp who participates in mud runs because his Writers Guild of America health insurance covers all kinds of horrible injuries, and because he is always looking for horror movie inspiration.