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, 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 12 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. Spartan Race
The personal favorite race series of both Schlachter and DeCillis — which is now featured on an NBC show — the Spartan Race series is no joke. It was voted the best obstacle race by Outside magazine in 2012 and is now international, with races in countries like Taiwan, Chile and Indonesia. 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, 20-plus obstacle course. Or, choose to do the Spartan Super; an 8-plus mile, 25-plus obstacle giant. Then there’s the Spartan Beast, featuring 12-plus miles and 30-plus obstacles. Only 80 percent of the participants actually complete the Beast. And finally — brace yourselves — there’s the Ultra Beast, which is about marathon distance (more than 26 miles) and has more than 60 obstacles.
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 and rope climbs. Oh, and if you skip any obstacles, you have to do burpees instead. The choice is yours.
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 nearly 20 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 Dirty Girl finisher medal. This year alone, the race series has raised $150,000 for Bright Pink, a national charity dedicated to the prevention and early detection and breast and ovarian cancer in women. Even better, Dirty Girl has given out 3,500 free entries to 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. The Zombie Mud Run
Oh, you know, just your standard mud run — with zombies! The Zombie Mud Run 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. 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 mud slides, electric shocks 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 Human Salvation Party.
Cost: $25-$40 for zombies; $55-$85 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, under the Tough Mudder umbrella. The five to seven mile races, located in the U.S., Canada and Australia, 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 ShockTop beer — all while supporting the Futures Without Violence charity.
Ages: 18+ (16- and 17-year-olds can participate with a chaperone)
6. Warrior Dash
With 2.5 million people participating since it began in 2009, Warrior Dash is the largest of the obstacle race series, and Schlachter and DeCillis agree it’s a fun choice for beginner and intermediate mud runners. This series has also raised more than $13.4 million for St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital since the start. 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 at least 12 intense obstacles that take you 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. 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 a top obstacle race director and an experienced Crossfit coach, ensures that this race series is a true test of endurance and overall fitness. But before runners even start to think about the five-mile event, they must first make it through “the PIT,” a high-intensity AMRAP (as many repetitions as possible) workout that consists of kettlebell swings, box jumps, burpees or barbell exercises. The CMC also supports the U.S. Army MWR, which provides stress-relieving and strength-building services to soldiers, civilians, families and military retirees.
Ages: 4+ (kids have their own PIT and course)
8. 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, 12-foot walls to scale and a 50-foot water slide to survive. Off the course, there’s beach volleyball 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 prizes (like free race entry and season passes) exclusively to Rugged Maniacs who raise money for the American Cancer Society.
9. Savage Race
The average six-mile Savage Race 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 43-foot slide with a near vertical drop. 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.
10. 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 $10 million to date for charity, including organizations like Team Rubicon in the U.S. and Wounded Warriors Canada. Teams must overcome more than 20 military-style obstacles, including swinging off a 12-foot platform, swimming in ice water and conquering a field of live wire.
Unsurprisingly, only 78 percent of entrants actually complete each course. But if they do, they are greeted at the finish line with a beer and live music. There are even on-site tattoo artists to get inked with the official Tough Mudder logo. Want to try a Tough Mudder, but need a shorter distance to start? They now offer the a 5-mile Tough Mudder Half, where you’ll still get plenty of mud, plus fire, ice and electricity.
11. Down and Dirty Obstacle Race
According to DeCillis, 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, both courses feature more than 20 obstacles, including balance beams, eight-foot ladder walls and heavy sand bags to lug. 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
12. BattleFrog Obstacle Race Series
Navy SEALs helped design the at least 25 obstacles on this course, so you know it’s going to be test your strength. Expect 12-foot walls, jungle gym swings, inverted ladders and rope climbs. And you might want to re-think skipping any activities. If you do, you have to drop and give ’em ten 8-count bodybuilders aka beefed-up burpees that require full push-ups and plank jacks. If you want to run farther than the typical BattleFrog Open (8k or about 5 miles), sign up for the BattleFrog Xtreme, which means you can run the route as many time as you want in one day. You can also opt to compete for some cash prizes — we’re talking anywhere from $3,000 all the way up to $40,000 — if you choose the BattleFrog Elite option.
Ages: 18+ for BattleFrog Open; 13+ BattleFrog Xtreme; 16+ BattleFrog Elite
No matter which of these 12 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.”
Additional reporting by Mallory Creveling.
Originally published September 2013. Updated August 2016.