Both the Spartan and the Tough Mudder runs feature obstacles like wall climbs, rope shimmies, jumping into cold water, ascending slippery mud slopes, crawling beneath barbed wire, and balance beams. (You're guaranteed to be covered in mud by the end of the race, hence "Tough Mudder.")
The videos for both make them look like something out of Navy Seal Hell Week.
But when I asked my friend Ed Gendreau, who recently completed the 3.7 mile Spartan race mentioned a few posts ago, what percentage of people finish the course, he said 98 to 99%.
I then looked up the Tough Mudder, the 10-12 mile races designed by British SAS commandos, which advertises itself as "probably the toughest event on the planet." They have a completion rate of roughly 85%.
When 98%, or even 85%, of the participants can finish a race, how tough can it be? Where is the satisfaction to be had? What kind of macho rite of passage is it when you see unathletic-looking females doing it?
Tough Mudder doesn't even post results after its events, saying that since camaraderie and group efforts are encouraged, i.e., helping people over obstacles, so times and rankings would be meaningless.
(Doesn't being helped over obstacles makes the entire event meaningless?)
Here's Ed -- at age 50 -- with his girlfriend Jana after they finished a race two weekends ago:
(Ed is 6'1", Jana one inch shorter.)
Ed has been ranked number one nationally in several events in masters swimming over the years, which puts him in at the very top of that sport. He's a good runner, and as I once mentioned in this blog, makes a point of going surfing whenever there's a hurricane.
Surfing in a hurricane takes courage. Thinking that finishing a Spartan race makes you sort of like an old-tme Spartan takes.....self-delusion. (I'm not suggesting Ed is deluding himself, but my guess is that some of the participants are.)
In any case, for someone with Ed's athletic credentials, the Spartan race seems a little beneath his dignity. A little like when an ex-NFL player goes into professional wrestling.
This may be a little unfair -- the Spartan, unlike the Tough Mudder, posts results, and Ed finished toward the top of his age group. He wants to do better next year, especially on events like the spear throw which he didn't practice for and failed. (Failing an obstacle means you have to do thirty squat thrusts.) And self-improvement is always worthwhile.
When I characterized these runs as junk sports to another friend, he told me not to be such a wet blanket: "It's a fun way to exercise, and with a third of Americans overweight, and another third downright obese, so why would you want to discourage them?"
But Ed obviously doesn't fall into either of those two categories.
Neither does a young woman I know who recently completed a Tough Mudder. She has run 1500 meters in 4:23, the equivalent of a mile in roughly 4:44. (For purposes of comparison, the women's 1500 at the London Olympics was won in 4:10.) So she should be extremely proud of her 1500 meter time, which puts her well into the top one percentile of women who run. But should she be proud of having completed a Tough Mudder?
That may have something to do with the way these events get marketed. The Tough Mudder video features an announcer (a young black man doing his best Mr. T imitation) who announces, "If you can do this, you can do anything you can put your heart and mind to."
Yes -- you and the other 85% who finish.
The whole thing reminds me more of a Tony Robbins-style confidence-building exercise like walking through coals than an actual athletic competition. I suppose the spectacle wouldn't be so annoying if they didn't cover themselves with that faux machismo. Both races have "Weekend Warrior" written all over them.
I have to admit, when I first saw the video, I found the idea appealing and wanted to do one of these runs myself. It was only upon further reflection that I decided that the 85%+ success rates rendered them junk sports.
A nicer person would find that inclusivity appealing. But I subscribe to the late Gore Vidal's philosophy of life: "It is not enough that one succeed; others must fail."