Tough Mudder is best race you've never heard of

Wed, Jun 22
Alex Tehrani for ESPN The MagazineCross the finish line of the Tough Mudder and you get free beer. Costumes optional.

This story appears in the June 27, 2011 issue of ESPN The Magazine.

THE FIRST TUTU FALLS EARLY at Tough Mudder. I'm running the 10-mile obstacle event with about 5,000 other people on a chilly Saturday in late May at Snow Valley ski resort, about two hours east of LA. As I sprint past the muddy skirt, I wonder why its owner threw it away. Guys are wearing leopard-print unitards, big-hair wigs and those minuscule neon shorts from the women's section at Sports Authority. Some have even forsaken shoes -- one explained his decision to go barefoot by scrawling "Shoes are for pussies" across his chest. Maybe, but I've just shimmied through a corrugated tube filled with wet gravel (the Boa Constrictor) and belly-crawled through muck below barbed wire (Kiss of Mud), and I can only say I'm happy my feet are covered. Just as I'm reading the barefoot Mudder's chest, I see another runner pick up the filthy tutu and slip it on over his spandex tights. "Pretty," I tell him.

I'm actually about as dirty as the tutu, which is funny because, as I was hiking to the start, I'd shirked from the snow-blowing machines pelting icy sprays. Why? Because I didn't want to get wet. When I first heard of Tough Mudder, the best known event in the burgeoning obstacle course field, I thought it sounded like a cross between Survivor (in one obstacle, we run through a field of wires, some charged with 10,000 volts) and a fraternity party. It also seemed like a crappy way to spend a Saturday. Why run around and get dirty with a bunch of pseudo military types with bad tattoos when I could be having Bloody Marys and a bacon sampler? At the very least, a cash reward might be nice. Or a T-shirt. What's a Mudder finisher get? Circa-1970, Day-Glo orange headbands and free beers. Sign me up!

I'm running the Mudder with friends from the University of Texas at Austin: Julien, a 32-year-old business analyst from Houston, and Hoa, a 35-year-old video editor who lives in LA. And as soon as we start the event, I begin to understand its draw. Although I'm not usually one to enjoy an exercise in paramilitary torture, romping through a gauntlet of mud and obstacles is surprisingly fun. A blast, even.

It turns out, there's liberation to be found in the muck. As soon as I stomped in my first puddle, during the Braveheart Charge (a mad dash down a steep hill), I morphed into a filthy child, thrilled to be free, dreams of brunch long forgotten. Failure wasn't even a deterrent to the fun. When I was stymied in my attempt to cross greased, spinning monkey bars, I had to slog through a chest-high mud pit instead. I didn't care. I was grinning ear to ear, like Swamp Thing on laughing gas. By the time I emerged from a swim through a Dumpster filled with water and ice (Chernobyl Jacuzzi), I was convinced there wasn't enough fun in my life.

Read More