I’m afraid this whole fad will turn out to be almost as flattering as Jazzercise after a few years. In an effort to juice the traditional road running event, creative race directors have dreamed up a variety of wacky “runs” that are proving wildly successful, mainly when it comes to attracting young, white-collar people who have a deep passion for running, provided it’s disguised as a beer commercial.
The Warrior Dash, for example, has swept the nation, offering participants the chance to crawl on their bellies through mud, scale obstacles and leap a line of fire near the finish line (and even nearer to a cameraman taking souvenir photos).
The Spartan race series has struck a chord with desk jockeys who have watched 300 and Navy SEALs a few too many times and pine for a more strenuous existence, provided it’s over by 3pm on Saturday. This race features its own gauntlet of unique obstacles, including dudes who dress up like warriors and bop runners with those big foam batons made famous in American Gladiators.
The Color Run is drawing legions of (mainly female, it seems) runners nationwide with the promise of getting splattered with colored powders throughout the 5K. By the end, everyone looks like a bag of Skittles exploded in their vicinity. I’ve resisted joining a Color Run on principle based on the facts that A) There is no clock kept during the event and B) The race describes itself as a “vat of colored goodness.”
The whole thing clearly seems to have already jumped the shark. Last week, I received an e-mail promoting The Epic Mud Run, which features mud pits, color bombs and zombies that try to grab passing runners. The brochure photo is more crowded than the cast photo from Ocean’s Eleven.
But all that’s not to say I’m a total road-race purist. Endless miles of urban streets wear on me as much as the next zombie victim. But I tend to look for variety that’s a little less contrived. That’s why we run the famous Living History Farms cross-country race each November, and why I wound up at the starting line of the Webster County Conservation Department’s Adventure Race in scenic Brushy Creek State Rec Area.
It’s a cozy race, with only about 50 participants in its third year. But the premise of a backcountry triathlon was too much for me to pass up. The route includes a 5K trail run, a 12-mile mountain bike ride and a 1.2-mile kayak paddle to an island and back. Spicing things up would be several checkpoint challenges that “test your brain and fine motor skills, but not too much,” according to the lady at the pre-race meeting.
The race structure was about as relaxed as I would imagine most things are in Webster County. Participants could tackle the three legs in any order they wished. The transition area for your gear would be at the check-in tent—or the kayak beach. Or your car. Wherever. And the participants’ swag bags (a package of freebies mandated for all races under the Geneva Convention), immediately set a different tone. Along with a cool wicking shirt, every racer got a brochure warning against the dangers of poison ivy and a tube of anti-itch cream designed to stop the misery of said flora.
At the starting whistle, it became evident that we’d each spend most of the race in isolation. With three different loops to tackle in order of preference, the pack was scattered. Since you couldn’t usually see other racers, and since nobody was going in the same order anyway, it was impossible to gauge how you were faring. That made it the epitome of the “run your own race” mantra that urges runners to keep their own pace rather than trying to keep up with some gazelle just in front of them.
The checkpoint challenges added a fresh element to the competition. At my first stop, I was asked to identify the string of animal pelts hanging on a fence. (This is probably where a lot of Color Run participants would call PETA and start picketing the conservation board.) After scoring 100% on the first try, I headed down the trail to the next stop, where the goal was to fill a container by carrying water from a nearby stream in a glass with holes in the bottom. Two men sat on horses on the stream’s far side, watching me race between the creek and table, water pouring onto my shoes. For a moment, I pondered how I used to be the guy on the other bank, sneering at the Spandex-clad crowd who clogged up the horse trails. But I didn’t have long to reflect. When I glimpsed up the trail, I spotted Bob, the obstetrician I’d met at the starting line. He was plodding up the dam toward the transition area, threatening to open the gap on me.
I saved the kayaking leg for last, figuring that if I soaked my shoes, I didn’t want a run or bike in front of me. I paddled out to the island, where I found the final checkpoint just uphill from the tiny dock. Two teenage girls waited in lawn chairs and played bird calls on an electronic device. When you got three correct, they stamped your passport and sent you back to the dock.
As I panted up the hill, they pressed play on the first call.
“Whoops,” one girl said. “Sorry, dude. Looks like we ran down the battery. You can listen to our radio while we change the battery.”
“Yeah, I guess” I said, watching another racer paddling away from the dock, headed for the finish.
“Wow,” the other girl said. “This dude’s not happy with us. Better hurry up.”
They got the calls working again, and after I fumbled on the grosbeak, I got a gimmee with a goose call and dashed back to my kayak. The paddle home was a beautiful one, with my boat carving a line through a forest of dead trees rising from the water of the flooded river valley. On any other day, I would’ve floated on the far side of the island for a lazy hour or so. But for all I knew, Bob the obstetrician was barreling down the last stretch of the bike leg, racing me to the finish from some unseen place in the woods. I didn’t have a minute to waste.
Plus, the branches scraping against the bottom of my boat were making me think a little too much about zombies.