Triathlons Are for Wimps

Obstacle-course racing is taking off. And Tough Mudder leads the way

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I'm five miles into tough mudder, the 12-mile extreme-obstacle-course event that has developed a crazed following, and have already survived the Arctic Enema--submerging my entire body in a vat of ice--and the Kiss of Mud, a crawl through a thick mud patch while practically making out with the muck, since barbed wire hovered a few inches above my head. Now I've come upon the Electric Eel: dozens of yellow live wires dangle above more mud that I'm supposed to crawl through. I have to contort my 6-ft. 4-in. body around the wires to avoid a 10,000-volt shock. That's like trying to drive an SUV through a car wash without getting it wet.

I cower in the face of currents. I won't kiss my wife on a carpet for fear of getting zapped. Which is a problem when you have wall-to-wall carpeting in your apartment. Me and the mud are doing more smooching than me and my spouse.

I squirm halfway through, then bzzz. AGH. Two more times: bzzz. OWWW. Bzzz. AHHH. How the ?!$% did that happen? I didn't touch the wire, I swear! I power through the last bit and get half my body out of this evil mess, finally feeling some relief. But then the Electric Eel twists the knife, rippling one last shock up my back. Bzzz. AAHHHHH! REALLY?

No rational human should choose to do this. But in 2012, some 460,000 people actually paid from $95 to $200 for such hell on Tough Mudder courses. Tough Mudder was hatched four years ago in a business-plan competition at Harvard (What was the challenge? Separating fools from their money?) and launched in 2010. The company generated $22 million in revenue in 2011 and $70 million last year. This year there are 53 Tough Mudder events scheduled in 47 cities.

Other obstacle outfits, like Warrior Dash and Spartan Race, have also grown, making this a $150 million-plus industry. More than 13,500 people signed up for my Tough Mudder race in Sarasota, Fla., in early December. Traffic to the event, at times, was backed up for almost four hours. It was like going to a college-football game, but people munched Power Bars, not nachos.

Tough Mudder preaches that its event is "not a race, but a challenge." At the starting line, participants kneel and recite the Tough Mudder pledge: "I do not whine--kids whine. I help my fellow Mudders complete the course." Runners really do keep this promise: the camaraderie is almost religious. Several Mudders helped boost me over various walls. "You're awesome," I found myself telling them.

An M.C., Sean Corvelle, tries to pump up the participants at the start. "If you brought it today," Corvelle shouts, "give me an oohrah!" "Oohrah!" the Mudders shout back. "I'm telling you, Florida, I'm so proud to share a nation with you," Corvelle says. "Everyone here is so freaking awesome." He reminds Mudders to seek medical attention if necessary. "First!" he shouts. "Aid!" the crowd responds. "First! ... Aid!" People are actually doing a "first aid" chant.

Enough already, I'm thinking: we're running a nonrace here, not doing some civic duty. But I'm also having way less fun than everyone else. "It's a cult," admits Yensys Loyola, 36, a fireman from Sarasota running his second race.

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