Mud races are a growing trend for people who want to test themselves

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“We are on a mission to rip 1 million people off the couch and into a healthy lifestyle,” says Spartan Race organizers.

When its competitors are added in, that goal already has been surpassed. There is no faster growing trend in sports and fitness worldwide than mud racing, also known as obstacle course racing.

Since the first in 2009, nearly 2 million people have participated in 212 Warrior Dashes in 37 states and nine countries, according to parent company Red Frog Entertainment.

More than a million people worldwide have participated in Tough Mudder events since that company was founded in 2010, its executives say.

Spartan Race reports it's had 120 races and roughly 1 million participants so far.

Thousands more have participated in mud races sponsored by smaller companies.

The first mud race organized in the early 1980s at a now-closed Marine Corps air station in Tustin, Calif., was known as Volkslauf — German for “people’s run.” By 1997, about 1,500 civilians and military personnel joined in.

In Louisville, Neb., in 2012, more than 20,000 took part in a single Warrior Dash.

Most of the obstacles — and the mud — are familiar to those who’ve served in the Army or Marine Corps.

That is no accident. The Tustin race was sponsored by a group of Marines to raise money for charity. Tough Mudder CEO Will Dean, who used to work in British counterterrorism, based his race on obstacles in the selection course for the SAS and SBS. Other mud race courses are modeled (loosely) on Navy SEAL training.

That so many are willing to pay to go through what they endured in training may astound some vets, but for those with no military experience, a mud race has considerable allure.

Mud racing isn’t mere sport, its promoters say. It’s a lifestyle, a test of courage and character.

“Our Warriors can be of any age and fitness level,” said Warrior Dash director Emma Haley. “They are looking for a personal challenge. They are looking for an enjoyable outdoor activity to do with friends and family.”

Tough Mudder “is not a race, it’s a challenge,” that company says. “It’s about pushing yourself to the limits and helping others to do the same.”

“We aim to change people’s lives … by asking racers to lay their guts on the line and push their limits,” Spartan Race proclaims.

Nick Rassler, 25, earned a degree in general management from the University of Pittsburgh in 2011. That December he took part in one of the first Tough Mudders, a fundraiser for the Wounded Warrior project. He said he’s done a five or six since.

“I liked it because it’s so different from what I do every day,” said Mr. Rassler, who grew up in East Liberty and is now a district manager for Dollar Tree in Philadelphia. “My normal is interacting with people in a clean, well-dressed environment. It’s a change of pace.”

Another attraction of mud racing is “it gives you the opportunity to almost be a kid again,” said Warrior Dash race director Alex Yount.

“Remember when you were a kid — when you would not only walk toward a puddle but also stomp right in the middle of it, making as big a splash as you could?” the Spartan website says. “When was the last time you went through the mud instead of around it?”

While you test your manhood or womanhood, and/or relive your childhood, you’ll have a good time, the mud racing companies say. Most throw a big party at race’s end. Warrior Dash’s motto is: “Mud, Sweat and Beer.”

Mud racing is a great way to get filthy, get fit, and to have fun. And for some, to get hurt.

The “Walk the Plank” obstacle in a Tough Mudder in West Virginia last year required climbing a wooden wall to a platform, then jumping 15 feet into muddy, frigid water.

A woman who jumped right after him landed on top of Avishek Sengupta, 28, of Ellicott City, Md., preventing him from rising to the surface, his mother alleged in a wrongful death suit she filed April 18.

Big Mudder had no lane divider to keep participants from hitting each other after jumpin, no system for tracking participants from the time they jumped until they exited the pool, the suit alleges. Up to 10 minutes elapsed before safety personnel pulled Mr. Sengupta from the cold, muddy water.

Tony Weathers, 30, competing in the Original Mud Run in Fort Worth, Texas, in 2012, drowned while trying to swim across the Trinity River.

After competing in a Warrior Dash on a hot, humid day in Kansas City in 2011, two men died of heat stroke.

Four deaths out of about 4 million mud racers isn’t very many. The statistical probability of dying in a mud race is not much greater than the odds of being struck by lightning, less than the odds of dropping dead while running a marathon.

But there have been a host of lesser injuries. In the Tough Mudder race in which Mr. Sengupta drowned, 13 other participants were transported by ambulance or helicopter to local hospitals.

Most had injured a knee or ankle. But several were treated for hypothermia after crossing water obstacles, in particular the Arctic Enema, where participants wade through a pool of ice.

The obstacles in a Tough Mudder event vary from race to race. They’re scaled down from what soldiers and Marines encounter in training. But there is inherent risk in navigating them, especially for the unfit.

A signature Tough Mudder obstacle is “electroshock therapy,” which requires participants to run through live wires containing up to 10,000 volts of electricity.

He enjoyed it, Nick Rassler said. “It’s more of a mental challenge. It wakes you up.”

After a Tough Mudder there last June, the Lehigh Valley hospital in Allentown, treated five patients for injuries caused by electric shocks. One had symptoms comparable to a heart attack, another comparable to a stroke, said Marna Greenberg, an emergency medicine specialist.

“A reasonable, prudent person would choose not to participate in that obstacle,” she said.

They take safety very seriously, the mud race companies say. Just 0.17 percent of 22,000 participants in the Allentown Big Mudder wound up in Dr. Greenberg’s emergency room.

But danger is an element of the marketing pitch. Management advises you to sign up for the Spartan Death Race, a 40-mile course containing 15 to 20 especially arduous physical and mental challenges, only if “you have lived a full life to date.”

And until U.S. Obstacle Course Racing was formed in January, there was no governing body to set safety standards.

If you plan to participate in any mud race, train hard beforehand. It’s (mostly) the unfit and unprepared who get injured. Most companies offer training tips on their websites. Spartan Race has training camps. If you’re thinking of competing in the Spartan Death Race, it would be a good idea to attend one.

Jack Kelly: or 412-263-1476.

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