While the wisdom of competing in them might be in dispute, there is no question that muddy obstacle-course races have become wildly popular. What accounts for that? Theories range from the influence of "Survivor" and other reality-TV shows to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. (Several of the obstacle courses claim to be based on "special forces" training and some of the events have tie-ins with charities for service members, such as Homes for Our Troops and the Wounded Warrior Project.)
Perhaps the appeal simply stems from athletic ennui. Runners bored with road races are embracing events that provide both silliness and a sense of accomplishment, said Will Dean, chief executive officer of Tough Mudder.
"We definitely get the fitness crowd — triathletes, the marathon runners — and we also get guys who are in the gym all the time but would never do a race — don't want to destroy their knees or the boredom of having to train," Dean said. "We are getting people who are fit, but it's definitely not a competitive event. You're going to fall over and you're going to get muddy and you're going to get beaten by a guy in a 'Borat' thong. If you're the kind of guy who enjoys practicing changing your socks so you can shave 10 seconds in a triathlon, there's no way you're going to enjoy this."
Mike Joyce, a 58-year-old Howard County resident, did the Tough Mudder in New Jersey in November and is signed up to do it in Allentown in April.
"The Tough Mudder is tough, but it's way more fun than doing a marathon or anything," said Joyce. "I don't think … I can adequately explain how people were laughing when someone fell, shoes got lost. We were laughing and kidding around with each other. It is not a competition from that perspective."
Some obstacle-course events do not even record times and purposely describe themselves as challenges, not races. Joyce, who did Tough Mudder with his 28-year-old son, Conor, said participants helped each other complete the course.
"No man was left behind," he said. "Tough Mudder is all about teamwork and working with other people, including complete strangers, to be able to complete such a bizarre event."
Some runners enjoy the party atmosphere and post-race socializing as much as running the course.
"They had great bands afterwards, lots of food and drink," said Lenz, the Warrior Dash veteran, who sampled turkey legs and beer after the race. "Everyone's covered in mud and kind of, like, really having a good time.
"When you do a 5K, a lot of times, the whole race might be a half-hour long," he said. "'Why did I do all this training but it was really only half an hour?'" After the Warrior Dash, Lenz said, he enjoyed "two or three hours of socializing, kind of like a tailgate."
The double-dare aspect of obstacle-course races seems to be a big part of the appeal, said Jim Adams of the Falls Road Running Store. Adams sees the same phenomenon with a conventional 10K billed as "The Dreaded Druid Hills," which attracts people who "look like [they] shouldn't be doing this."
"You get people you would not expect at a 10K, and they're there because they want the challenge," he said.
Adams notes that obstacle-course races call on skills beyond running. "There's strength and agility components in addition to the endurance-running component," he said. "It's an entirely different challenge."
One he's not about to take up, even though it sounds a lot like the training he did years ago with the 82nd Airborne Division.
"Right now, I'm 65 years old and starting to get a lot of aches and pains," Adams said. "I might consider doing that, but at this point, I might be thinking about the next morning, what it would feel like trying to get out of bed."
Muddy obstacle-course races in Maryland and the Mid-Atlantic region:
Warrior Dash, a 3.1-mile "mud-crawling, fire-leaping extreme run from hell," comes to Maryland for the first time this year. The May 21-22 race takes place in Mechanicsville. The Chicago-based event will go to 35 locations this year in the United States, Canada and Australia. warriordash.com
The Spartan, which stages 5K, 8K and a 48-hour "Death Race" with barbed wire, mud and fire-jumping. Launched last year, the Massachusetts-based organizer has scheduled 34 races this year in the United States and the United Kingdom. While the name of the Death Race says it all, the shorter versions are meant to be approachable. On June 18, the 5K version comes to Pev's Paintball Park in Aldie, Va. spartanrace.com