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.