Why you should care
Because Charlie is squatting somewhere in the bushes eating rat meat while you’re laughing at what we just wrote. (Apologies to Francis Ford Coppola.)
In modern societies where “grit” can mean having to wait a few extra minutes for your double soy latte before you complain that it’s either too hot or a skosh too cold, you perhaps could understand an inner hunger for something more… intense. If so, then you can grasp what might motivate the approximately 70,000 people worldwide who’ve waded into the deep end of extreme adventure races or ultramarathons. For these athletes, a run-of-the-mill 26.2 miles doesn’t quite scratch the itch: because hardwired into our species’ make-up is a curious tendency to magnify what’s good by 1000 percent in the belief that it will only get better.
And sometime it does: Tough Mudder, which was started back in 2010 by two Brits, Guy Livingstone and Will Dean, has grown into a moveable feast of endurance events that in 2013 will host 53 races across the U.K., America, Canada, Australia and Germany for some 4,500 competitors per event. The brand differentiator with Tough Mudder is not the ultra distances — it is a relatively meager 10 to 12 mile race — but that it is equal parts muddy obstacle course and basic training. Minus the live ammo. Moreover, each race comes complete with scramble courses of electrical wires and flaming fields of burning tar. Yes: Burning. Tar.
“It’s funny,” said 2013 participant Matt Rothstein who also dabbles in judo, wrestling, and Brazilian jiu jitsu. “But as gender roles get more fluid in the interest of equality, the more we want to do stuff that’s traditionally masculine. But even the women there seemed to have a blast doing it.”
One of the women there, 34-year-old photographer Anita Barcsa seconded that emotion, despite finishing with an ankle shredded from landing wrong off of a jump from a 12-foot wall. “People here are very serious, but this race is actually less about racing and more about finishing together.” Indeed, unlike most foot races, Tough Mudder requires team building and cooperation with a nod to its involvement with the Wounded Warrior project. And, despite the physical demands, you do hear a lot of loose talk about mud-filled, nearly electrocuted “fun.”
Extreme endurance events like Tough Mudder and Marathon des Sables exist to press participants past human limits.
Not so much with the Marathon Des Sables (MdS), or Sand Marathon, arguably the toughest endurance race of them all, with its six-day, 151-mile run straight through the Sahara Desert. The MdS takes runners over sand dunes in blazing heat that can top out at 136 degrees Fahrenheit, through both sandstorms and freezing night temperatures. Runners are required to carry everything they need in a backpack and take rationed water breaks. It’s Africa, after all. Despite the punishing conditions, Marathon des Sables has to date only seen two competitors die, one from a heart attack. Not bad for a half-insane race that’s had 11,000 participants since its inception 27 years ago.
These are hardly the only crazy-ass races out there: there’s the Badwater Ultramarathon (135 miles in the dead of summer in Death Valley, where pavement temps can hit 170°F, so hot runners’ toenails regularly pop off mid-run like popcorn); Kalahari Augrabies Extreme Marathon; 6633 Extreme Winter Ultra Marathon; 4 Deserts; and our favorite: the Self Transcendence 3100 Mile Race, wherein racers make 5,649 laps around one extended block in Queens, New York within 52 days (an average of about 61 miles a day). Transcending self and tedium, apparently.
Would we run one? Maaaayyybbeee. (Uh, probably not.) Are we glad other folks do? Insofar as proving the mind’s power over the body: most certainly.