In 2010, Margaret Schlachter saw a Facebook friend post about a new mud and obstacle run called the Spartan Race. She thought it looked like fun and signed up on a whim.
“It was only a few miles and I didn’t even like to run,” she says. “So I figured, ‘Great! I can rest at the obstacles in between.’” Schlachter finished in the top 10 of that race and proceeded to run home to sign up for more. Today, she holds the title of the first professional female obstacle course racer, along with ultramarathoner, coach, founder of Dirt in Your Skirt and author of Obstacle Race Training: How to Beat Any Course, Compete Like a Champion and Change Your Life.
So why are so many people like Schlachter signing up to willingly roll around in the mud, wade through ice water, leap over fire, scale giant walls, army crawl under barbed wire and even get electrocuted —for “fun?” To most participants, mud runs are about the camaraderie of teamwork rather than the thrill of a new personal record. And to many of the muddiest runners, connecting to your primal nature can become addicting, too.
Rob DeCillis, C.S.C.S, SNAP Supercandy brand ambassador, trainer and mud run expert who coaches athletes through obstaclecourseracing.com, recalls his very first mud run, also a 2010 Spartan Race. “I went and got absolutely killed,” he says. “And I fell absolutely in love with it.” Now with 50 races under his belt, DeCillis says he craves the competition.
“When you get smacked in the face with a huge challenge and you fail, you will want to take it on again,” he says. “It gets under your skin if you can’t do something.”
Now before you too fall head over heels (into a big ol’ pile of mud that is), it’s important to find out which mud run is best for you. The following 13 races are tests of your endurance, mental fortitude and your aversion to getting dirty. Depending on how far you want to run, the types of obstacles you want to try (or avoid!), or just how muddy you’d like to be when you cross the finish line, we’ve got plenty of fun and filthy options for you to choose from (in no particular order).
1. Merrell Down and Dirty
According to DeCillis, the Merrell Down and Dirty has the best mud. “I don’t know what they do to it, but it’s like a black, cakey mud and there is no way to not get dirty,” he says. Dirt-loving beginners may also enjoy the choice between two distances — 5K or 10K — and not having a time limit. Benefitting Operation Gratitude, the race series has events in 11 U.S. cities and both courses feature more than 20 obstacles, including balance beams, eight-foot ladder walls and heavy sand bags to lug. More experienced runners can take it one step further (no pun intended) as the race awards special prizes to anyone who runs in Merrell Barefoot shoes, Vibram Five Fingers and those who go totally barefoot. After getting the dog tag finisher medal, you can rinse off at the post-race party or join the challenging pull-up contest.
Ages: 13+ for 5K; 14+ for 10K
2. Dirty Girl Mud Run
The Dirty Girl Mud Run, a women-only 5K, promises plenty of pink and lots of PMS or “pretty messy stuff.” Schlachter says no matter your running background, 5Ks “are a good gateway to see if you like the race style, without committing yourself to three or four hours of torture.” At any of the more than 40 Dirty Girl events in the country, runners are untimed and encouraged to only complete the obstacles they’re comfortable with. So grab a team of ladies and tackle tubes and tunnels, slides and ladders and mazes and nets on your way to the finish line, where you’ll receive a custom Dirty Girl jewelry charm. The race series has raised $250,000 for Bright Pink, a national charity dedicated to the prevention and early detection and breast and ovarian cancer in women. Even better, Dirty Girl also reserves 300 free entries per race for cancer survivors.
3. Muddy Buddy Adventure Series
Have a favorite running pal? Time to test your teamwork! The Muddy Buddy Adventure Series, which began in 1999 and benefits the Prostate Cancer Foundation, is currently in nine U.S. cities with three different races to choose from. The Muddy Buddy Mud Run is three to four and a half miles with eight to 10 military-style obstacles including slides, rope climbs and a 50-foot mud pit at the finish line. The catch? You and your buddy must stay together at all times — you literally have to hug each other to get through one particular obstacle. There’s also the Muddy Buddy Bike and Run, where teams of two (one mountain bike only) cover six to seven miles and five obstacles. Finally, the littlest mud enthusiasts can participate in the Mini Muddy Buddy which has up to four fun obstacles for kids to try.
Ages: 12+ for Mud Run; 14+ for Bike and Run; 4-11 for Mini
4. Run for Your Lives
Oh, you know, just your standard mud run — with zombies! The Run for Your Lives races are fit for fans of The Walking Dead or anyone who needs the fear of blood-thirsty zombies chasing them to motivate them over and through obstacles. With 23 races in the U.S. this year, participants have the choice of registering for the 5K race as either a runner or as a zombie — full makeup transformation included! The obstacles include a blood pit, electric shocks in the “Smokehouse” and a maze with zombies lurking around every corner hoping to steal the runners’ flags (which, we guess equates to eating their brains). To “survive” the race, runners must keep at least one flag intact when they cross the finish line. Then, they can head to the Apocalypse Party to get rid of all those zombie guts in the decontamination zone.
Cost: $35 for zombies; $45 for the undead
Designed by women, for women (though men are allowed to join in the muddy fun by invite), the Mudderella events are from a different type of fairytale. They are, after all, organized by the same team responsible for Tough Mudder. The five to seven mile races, located in the U.S., Canada, Australia and the UK, encourage runners to “Own Your Strong” through 12 to 15 obstacles including mud crawls under barbed wire, hay bales, an icy dip and a few muddy piggy-back rides. After earning a purple headband at the finish line, there’s a high-energy post-race party with showers, food, music and some well-earned Strongbow Cider — all while supporting the Futures Without Violence charity.
6. Warrior Dash
Fifty races on four continents make the Warrior Dash the largest of the obstacle race series, and Schlachter and DeCillis agree it’s a fun choice for beginner and intermediate mud runners. Since it began in 2009, this series has raised more than $7.5 million for St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital. But what does it take to earn the coveted Viking warrior helmet, turkey leg and stein of beer waiting at the finish line? Trek through three to four muddy miles of 12 intense obstacles over barricades, up cargo nets and through the fire of the “Warrior Roast,” where burning flames lick your heels. At the post-race party, there are also awards for craziest costume and best beard, so gentlemen, start your stubble.
7. 5K Foam Fest
If you can’t bear the thought of being completely covered in mud for an entire race, try foam instead! 5K Foam Fest — which hosts racing events in more than 20 U.S. cities — promotes a “filthy clean” and kid-friendly mud run. There are plenty of the muddy obstacles, but you’ll also ride some sudsy slides, jump around a foamy moon bounce and dive through a 50-foot slip and slide track along the three-plus mile course. If you’ve ever wanted to know what a car wash feels like, this might be the race for you.
Ages: 10+ (ages 10-15 must run with an adult)
8. Civilian Military Combine
Many mud runs feature military-style obstacles, but the Civilian Military Combine (CMC) invites ordinary folks to join the ranks for a day. A course designed by leading strength and conditioning coaches from the CrossFit community, members of the United States Armed Forces and USA Triathlon race directors, ensures that this race series is a true test of endurance and overall fitness. But before runners even start to think about the three to seven mile obstacle course, they must first make it through “the PIT,” a high-intensity AMRAP (as many repetitions as possible) workout that consists of kettlebell swings, box jump burpees and push presses. The CMC raises funds for organizations including 31 Heroes, Operation Homefront and Heroes of Tomorrow at its races held in Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania and Virginia.
Ages: All ages
9. Rugged Maniac
The Rugged Maniac is comprised of unforgiving terrain with more than 20 obstacles (more per mile than Tough Mudder and Warrior Dash) including hanging mud tires to traverse, 20-foot walls to scale and a 100-foot “suicide slide” to survive. Off the course, there’s muddy tug-o-war, adult bounce houses and a mechanical bull. Tired from the race? Stick to the after-party with live bands, food and beer and plenty of cold showers to hose off. The Rugged Maniac series also offers free entry to anyone who fundraises for the USO at its races in 20 U.S. cities.
10. Savage Race
The four to six mile Savage Run holds the title for the most obstacles per mile. Traveling to multiple U.S. cities nationwide, the downright barbaric events have competitive and non-competitive waves, but all runners will go up against the “Colossus,” the fastest 40-foot slide (with a near vertical drop) and the tallest quarter pipe in all obstacle racing. That’s in addition to hauling giant logs in “Lumberjack Lane,” taking your chances on the “Nutt Smasher” balance beam (sorry, fellas) and crawling under the “Me So Thorny” barbed wires. Finishing teams will enjoy a post-race barbecue with beer, music and awards for the most savage costumes, while knowing they helped raise money for charities including the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, Autism Speaks and the Make-A-Wish Foundation.
11. Tough Mudder
We’re sure you’ve heard of this race before — or at least seen some of your friends sporting the signature orange headbands (and a lot of mud) in photos. The 10 to 12 mile Tough Mudder has events on five continents and has raised more than $5 million to date for the Wounded Warrior Project. Teams must overcome 25 military-style obstacles designed by British Special Forces, including a 40-foot, 45-degree angle muddy cliff, an ice water swim, a field of live wire and a four-foot high fire pit. Unsurprisingly, only 78 percent of entrants actually complete each course. But if they do, they are greeted at the finish line with a beer, live music and costume contests in categories like best and worst costume, least clothing and best mullet and mohawk. There are even on-site tattoo artists to get inked with the official Tough Mudder logo for a $70 donation.
12. Spartan Race
The personal favorite race series of both Schlachter and DeCillis, the Spartan Race series is no joke. It was voted the best obstacle race by Outside magazine in 2012 and is now international in eight countries. Maybe that’s because it has a little something (heavy on the mud) for everyone. Option one is the Spartan Sprint; a three-plus mile, 15-plus obstacle course. Or, choose to do the Super Spartan; an 8-plus mile, 20-plus obstacle giant. Then there’s the Spartan Beast, featuring 12-plus miles and 25-plus obstacles. Only 80 percent of the participants actually complete the Beast. And finally — brace yourselves — there’s the Ultra Beast, a marathon, 26.2-mile mud run held in Vermont. According to Spartan Race, “Every Spartan Race is a baptism. The Ultra Beast is considered an exorcism.” There’s even the Reebok Spartan Race World Championships each year to wrap up the season. The courses are constantly changing and none of the events reveal their obstacles prior to the race, to keep you on your toes. But we can guarantee there will be a lot of muddy pits, dark tunnels, rope climbs and a few dozen Spartan volunteers trying to whack you with pugil sticks along the way. Oh, and if you skip any obstacles, you have to do burpees instead. The choice is yours.
13. The Death Race
It’s the only race on this list DeCillis says he won’t ever try. “It sounds evil and like nothing I would want to do,” he says. “It’s more of a test of how much pain you can put yourself through and I know that would make me quit very quickly.” Held in Pittsfield, VT, twice a year, the Death Race is a 48-plus hour adventure created by a few (totally mad) Spartan Race founders and — if you can believe it —takes it to an even more extreme and sinister level, with additional tasks like wood chopping and deep water diving. This is not a race for someone who is just looking to get stuck in the mud for an afternoon. The insane mental and physical challenge is “designed to break you,” with only 10 percent of its participants actually making it to the finish line. “The word ‘race’ is a term I’d use loosely,” says Schlachter, who competed in the Death Race in 2012, but after 24 hours called it quits before the finish. “It’s really a race against your mind and against yourself. It peels away all the layers and you find out what’s left at the core of who you are.”
No matter which of these 13 races you choose, Schlachter says most mud runners cross the finish line a changed person, regardless of the amount of mud caked on their face.
“Something clicks in their brains out there on the course when they have to go up against something they were afraid to try,” she says. “But once they do, they walk away with the ability to apply that courage and confidence to their everyday lives.”
Did your favorite mud run make our list? Which one do you want to try the most — or avoid at all costs? Sound off in the comments below!