Rule #1 about mud runs: You do not shut up about mud runs

If you're following me online at all, you may have noticed that I'm into these obstacle races like the Spartan Race and Tough Mudder (and I'd like to say that "I did them before they were cool").

I have to admit that the mud runs are brilliant. They cater to two large groups of the population: The first one being people who feel tough and want to validate themselves - military, Crossfitters, etc. The others are desk jockeys who try to let out the primal side in them that they think they have - very much like Chuck Palahniuk's Fight Club, except with the thick hint of irony that they spend a lot of money in order to escape consumerism. In the end, these mud runs are essentially money printing machines.

I'm making fun of them, but I'm not denying that I love them. I fall smack into the second category - despite spending most of my time sitting at a desk, I get a big kick out of climbing over a big wooden structure using a rope and saying to myself "yep, I still got it". It's an empowering feeling. For a few hours, you don't think you're stuck in your monotonous cycle of sleep-work-family. You get to jump into mud and basically do things that your mom told you to lay off once you turned 8.

You  don't do this every day. Image Credit: Liz Archard
The easiest way to describe them is probably to talk about both the Spartan and Tough Mudder and compare those two.

Course and location

The races are typically somewhere out in the sticks, preferably somewhere with absurdly mountainous terrain. The Vail Lake Resort in Temecula is a favorite for both of them. The Spartan comes in three flavors (Sprint, Super, Beast, ranging from about 3 miles to 12), while the Tough Mudder is always 10-12 miles.

And not only is the terrain rough, the course planners typically try to fuck with you as much as possible and include as many ups and downs as they can fit in. If there's a lake nearby, you can be sure that the course will somehow find its way there and you'll wade butt-deep through the water.

The warm-up

Before the race starts, an MC will get the racers (a few hundred every 20 minutes) into the mood. And it is here that the Spartan Race loses to the competition before the race even started. The Spartans typically have lousy MCs, many of them deem it hilarious to talk very fast and get through their job as quickly as possible. They breeze through a prepared speech about honor, glory, testing limits, and other hollow phrases. By now, I'm glad that they talk so fast, it makes them shut up faster.

Then there's Sean Corvelle, Tough Mudder's special weapon. He opens up most Tough Mudders, and he has a fantastic speech every single time with personal stories and inspirational words, presented in an energetic way that prepares you for what's coming up. He fires people up.

Sean Corvelle! Image Credit: Julie Krehan
The race

Most non-marathon running people start groaning when they hear about these races because of the distance. 12 miles for a Tough Mudder? But once you'll actually run one, you'll realize the distance is the least important factor here. It's everything else that gets to you - the hills and the obstacles.

Even though Spartan and Tough Mudder are very similar, the obstacles have a very different character. Spartan has a bit of a Crossfit feel to it - here's a partial list of obstacles from a recent trace: Climb a 6" wall, carry a heavy bucket with pebbles, climb a 7" wall, lift a 150lbs sandbag with a pulley, climb a 8" wall, carry a heavy sandbag, climb a slanted wall, pull a heavy plate, climb over and under a wall, carry a heavy rock, flip a heavy tire. See a pattern there?

There are other obstacles, but the main focus is lifting heavy stuff and climbing.

Tough Mudder has these obstacles as well, but it puts a bigger focus on just fucking with you. Obstacles include getting shocked with 10,000V, going through an enclosed area with a teargas-like
substance, jumping into ice cold water, jumping onto a trapeze and then letting go to fall 15 feet into a pool of water, building a human ladder, etc. It's about overcoming your fears and pushing yourself.

Some of these wires carry 10,000V. Good luck. Image Credit: Mark Montreuil

In addition to that, Spartan punishes you for failing an obstacle. You failed the spear throw or rope climb? 30 burpees. In Tough Mudder, punishment for failure is the embarrassment of falling into water because you couldn't hold on to those greased monkey bars.

More importantly, Tough Mudder puts a big focus on teamwork. Some obstacles simply require team work, like pyramid scheme. You need to get people over an incline that is too tall to negotiate yourself, so you'll need to build a human pyramid. Also, Tough Mudder deliberately doesn't time you so you're not penalized for hanging around for a few minutes at an obstacle and helping others.

Pyramid Scheme. Image Credit: Tough Mudder
I made some GoPro videos that give you a decent idea of what these are about.

Tough Mudder in November 2015:

Spartan Beast in Temecula, September 2014. It was 103 degrees throughout most of the race. That one was actually not fun.

If you're not bored yet, here's another one from a Spartan Sprint that focuses more on the terrain.


The Spartans are masters of marketing. From the get-go, they knew how to spread the word. It started off with giving away the professionally taken pictures during the race for free. That's unheard of in the racing scene - normally, you pay a fortune for a single picture. But there they were, giving out these pictures.... and of course everybody had to share those cool pics of themselves crawling through the mud on their favorite social media site, and it quickly spread. They understood the power of people's desire to show off, mudrunners are like vegan Crossfitters.

It took the Tough Mudder a while to catch up to that. But the Spartans kept on going: Clever cross-marketing with Reebok and TomTom, while the biggest name associated with the Tough Mudder was the disgraced Wounded Warrior Project. Now, Spartan started a horrible TV show that features the worst of reality TV - extreme mickey-mousing, artificial drama, and manipulative editing. I don't mind what they're trying to do though - they're paving the way to making these races household names to a point where they could go as far as becoming Olympic disciplines.

Another smart idea - the Spartans have three aforementioned types of races, and running all three in the same year gets you a special Trifecta medal, so of course people are now encouraged to run three Spartan races a year. Also, by having a 3-mile option, it makes it more accessible to entry-level runners who want to try it out.


Likewise, the Spartans understood much earlier that it's clever to add kids to the mix. Having a special kids-only race brings more parents to the venue who can then be tapped to become Spartans themselves. It turns the whole "tough people only" club into a family activity.

The big guys

In the grand scheme of things, both Spartan and Tough Mudder are pretty mainstream already, and I would say that despite the deliberately scary appearances, most people would be able to complete them with little training.

They both have more advanced versions - TM has the "World Toughest Mudder", which is a 24-hour nonstop competition to see who can do the most laps through the 12-mile course during that period. Spartan has an UltraBeast, which is two Beasts back-to-back, and a Hurricane Heat, which is a normal Sprint except that they spice it up significantly.

But they have nothing on those races that don't cater to the desk jockey crowd. There are races like the GoRuck, which in its easiest form is an 8-hour continuous torture where you get to walk with a backpack full of bricks and do fun exercises like push-ups or squats with that "ruck" on your back. There are more flavors, like the GoRuck Challenge, a 12-hour variant, or the Heavy, which goes for about 24 hours. Or even the HCL, which is a Heavy, then Challenge, then Light with just a couple of hours of break inbetween.

A Viking-themed GoRuck.

If that's not enough, why not try the GoRuck Selection? It's 48 hours nonstop walking, crawling, carrying, suffering, with the added bonus of having the cadres trying to break you mentally, shouting at you and trying to find a weakness to exploit. There are many Selections where 100% of the participants drop out. Usually, only a couple see it to the end.

Do you want more? The Spartan actually used to have another level beyond Beast called the "Death Race", advertised on a separate website aptly named that urged you to train thoroughly before signing up because "death sounds cool until you actually die". The death race used to last up to 60 hours, with such charming exercises such as "hike one mile up a hill, see a list of names that you have to memorize, then hike back down, recite the list, and if you fail, hike back up and try again". The website is still somewhat up, but the event in its old form does not exist anymore.

If you want to read more about them, I recommend an interview with the great Jonathan Hurtado, or his detailed description of his participation in the GoRuck Selection. It will make people doing Spartans and Tough Mudders feel small again.

That said..

Do it. I used to be into running half and full marathons and stopped after I discovered obstacle races. Running is boring. Even nice races like the Carlsbad Half Marathon with its picturesque course along the Pacific Ocean or the Long Beach Half Marathon along the beach lose their luster after a while. And letting your primal side out has a great therapeutic touch to it.

Image Credit: Liz Archard