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Since When Do Running Races Include Mud, Costumes and Monkey Bars?

Ryan Litwiller/Flickr

A writer and runner chronicles the evolution of competitive running, from races to events.

Back during the running boom of the late 1970s, races were for the hard core.  Thin, almost skeletal-looking men with grim expressions logged many, many miles to better their race times.

But over the last three decades, racing has become more egalitarian.  While there is still serious competition at the elite level, running is a much more inclusive sport.

And in the recent past, the trend has shifted from races to events – things like the Dirty Girl Mud Run series, or the Spartan Race, or the Tough Mudder, and many thousands of people participate. 

Writer Tom Held is a runner himself and an endurance athlete who has done eight marathons, dozens of bike races and 10 American Birkebeiner Ski Races. He set out to explore this brave new world off the beaten path.  His article in the June issue of Milwaukee Magazine is called “The Rundown."

He says nowadays, people who sign up for these events aren’t so much competing as they are participating.

"Running has been around for eons, but in the last five years – even the last three years – you’ve had events that didn’t exist that are now drawing close to a million people a year," he says.

Tom Held produces The Active Pursuit blog and writes about endurance sports for and local magazines. In his work, he says he's seen a boom in "obstacle runs."

Held says they are appealing because "as kids we ran, we ran all over the neighborhood and we played in mud, we jumped on things, we climbed over things." 

He's speaking of runs like the Warrior Run, a franchise of 5k obstacle courses where runners crawl under barbed wire, run through fire, and climb walls. There are over 90 of these more-than-just-running events in Milwaukee and the surrounding counties, this summer.

Held says these events draw not only the big crowds, but also the big bucks, with revenues in the tens of millions of dollars nationwide. That money is often pumped back into growing the race in different parts of the country, and some revenue is given to charities. But Held says the charity aspect of these runs are fairly over hyped.

"What are proceeds? In many of these cases that's 2.5% of your actual registration fee or maybe upwards of 5%," he says. 

Nonetheless, Held offers up his picks for intriguing run events to try out this summer:

Warrior Dash

  • Where: Johnson's Creek
  • When:August 3rd
  • What: Obstacles and more obstacles, like jumping over fire, climbing walls, and crawling through mud and under barbed wire

The Color Run

  • Where: Milwaukee
  • When: August 11th
  • What: A run follows a drenching of bright colored dyes on all the participants

Dirty Girl Mud Run

  • Where: Waukesha
  • When:August 17th &18th
  • What: An all-girls muddy obstacle course with bright colors and costumed runners