Weekend Warriors

Looking for something to test your mettle, a real trial by fire? A growing legion of "adventure racers" mix mud, seat and tears – with tutus. Our intrepid writer Darren Garnick took the adventure race challenge and lived to tell the tale with a smile on his face…

And just one cracked rib.

"Far better it is to dare mighty things … than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much because they live in the gray twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat."
– Theodore Roosevelt, inspirational figure to the Rugged Maniacs

"It ain't about how hard you hit. It's about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward … That's how winning is done!"
-Rocky Balboa, philosophical guru to the Spartan Race

"Since it's a mud run, you know you're going to get messy. So why not look cute while doing it?"
– Erin "Cookie Monster" McCurry, competitor in the Renegade Playground Challenge

If you want to truly understand the intoxicating effect of obstacle course adventure races, consider the jubilant tone of software engineer Shannon Rhodes as she recalls the time she nearly drowned on Mother's Day.

Rhodes kept her three children home as she "walked the plank" at last year's Tough Mudder endurance competition at Mt. Snow in Vermont. The exercise, which involved plunging 15 feet off a diving board into a frigid fire pond, ended with the Nashua mom unwittingly re-enacting a scene from the movie "Titanic."

Playing the role of a floating chunk of driftwood, Rhodes was shoved underwater by a middle-aged Leonardo DiCaprio frantically using her as a life raft. The man panicked in the 35-degree water and instinctively grabbed the first thing he could. Within seconds, Tough Mudder volunteers in drysuits pried the man off her body and helped both ailing swimmers reach the shore.

"I soon forgot all about it," insists Rhodes. "I was far more impressed by how the staff was prepared to handle this and I felt extremely safe even though I had just almost died."

The 10-mile-plus Tough Mudder, which also features an ice cliff climb and a trot through an electrified field of dangling wires, represents the most physically challenging end of the obstacle race spectrum alongside the Spartan Race. On the opposite end is the more casual and recreational Renegade Playground Challenge, which brands itself as "Recess Unsupervised."

"Our runners do all the stuff that your mom used to yell at you for when you were a kid," says event co-founder Dave "Tie Dye" Soucy. "Today's kids don't play like this anymore because they're sitting in front of the TV. But our participants remember acting this way."

The signature obstacle of the Renegade Playground is jumping out the rear emergency exit of a school bus into a waist-deep mudbath cushioned with hay bales. "Some runners do cannonballs or belly flops and others step out more gingerly," Soucy says. "Our course isn't easy, but it's also more about having fun than bragging about how tough you are. Our average age is 38, the median household income is $75,000 and 63 percent of our participants are women."

Based at the New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon, the Renegade is one of six obstacle races this year taking place in the Granite State, joined by Manchester's Adventure 5K, Gilford's Warrior Dash and Mad Dog Mudder (Gunstock), Newbury's Mountain Mucker (Mt. Sunapee) and Chester's Wason Pond Pounder. There are also more than a dozen additional events being staged within reasonable driving distance in New England (see page 59 for details on some 2012 races).

Obstacle races share a few common denominators. Many boast of how their courses were designed by military commandos, magically extending machismo-by-association by name-dropping the Navy SEALs (Rugged Maniac) or British Special Forces (Tough Mudder). If you want the genuine thing, the Marine Corps Base at Camp Pendleton, Calif., holds one of the oldest mud runs in the country.

Most also feature music, food and beer, lending a college party atmosphere to even those decades beyond graduation. And mix in a heavy helping of Halloween, as running in costumes is universally encouraged – the more outlandish, the better. The ultimate twist on this angle is next month's "Run for Your Lives" race in Amesbury, Mass. Competitors will not only run against the clock but race to stay human as countless zombies try to steal their "health flags" and turn them into the living dead.

Tutus of Toughness

As with marathons, which some adventure racers dismiss as too linear and boring, there is no shortage of inspirational stories in the herd. For Shannon Pichette, an event planner for the New Hampshire Health Care Association in Pembroke, her botched wedding day provided the ultimate push. Her hot pink "Dirty Girrrlz" team in the Renegade Playground Challenge was outfitted with flouncing tutus she made from yards of unused fabric originally meant to decorate her reception.

"It was my way of letting go of what I could not have, kind of closing out that chapter in my life," says Pichette, who now proudly displays the muddy tutu in her living room. "What better way to do that than by destroying the clean pure white tulle? I told all the girls that this was a celebration of me not getting married. I told them all to make sure they destroyed the tutus and make them look like crap by the end of the race."

Erin McCurry, a project coordinator at BAE Systems in Nashua, slipped on a red and black ladybug tutu at last year's Warrior Dash in Massachusetts to celebrate losing 45 pounds. "I love the idea of acting all girly-girl and then jumping in the mud," she says. "My tutu got devoured. The mud ate it as I was sliding down a hill. Luckily, I still had shorts on."

McCurry followed up her first obstacle race fashion show with a Cookie Monster tutu at the Renegade Playground. Trial and error while making the ballet skirts left her with advice to share with anyone who wants to flounce in her footsteps.

"The tighter the slip knots, the less the tutu bounces," she reveals. "To make it poofier, use looser knots, which will really allow you to spread out the tulle more. These races are the perfect excuse to dress up and act silly."

Training for the Unexpected

In a quiet neighborhood near downtown Milford, prospective Death Race hopeful Ryan Banfield straps on a 25-pound weighted vest and drags a tire up and down his street until he reaches his maximum heart rate. Needless to say, his neighbors have been flashing him funny looks.

The Vermont-based Death Race, which the New York Times described as "Survivor Meets Jackass," is the most sadistic endurance contest in the Spartan obstacle race family. Lasting up to 48 hours, the 40-mile course includes lugging cinder blocks or logs for long distances and performing bizarre tasks like sprinting with a wheelbarrow filled with manure.

The actual physical obstacles and mental challenges of the Death Race change every year and are not announced in advance.

"The biggest reason I'm doing it is because I am curious if I can," says Banfield, a fuel cell engineer who plans to sport a lime green mohawk and a kilt for the drudgery. "There's an ego element to it. I would imagine that succeeding at this would make you feel unbreakable."

Part of his recent training involved climbing up Mount Monadnock three times in eight hours, including once while carrying a 50-pound log. He's also built his own freestanding pull-up frame out of plumbing pipes, concerned that the 80-pound vest he wears might ruin a door-mounted exercise bar – and his apartment's security deposit.

His Death Race training might also generate a few death wishes from us lazier folk.

"I've actually been trying to gain some weight, but I just can't do it," confesses Banfield. "You burn way too many calories doing these ridiculous things."

Tie Dye's Obstacle Race Tips

Manchester's dave "tie dye" soucy, co-founder of the renegade playground challenge, sends out irreverent tips for "recess" a few days before each event. Here's a slice of advice:

Think carefully before duct taping your sneakers to your feet. You could increase your risk of injury as you'll limit your ankle mobility and probably impede the circulation to your feet.

Tuck in your laces so they aren't flopping around. Those loops will catch quite nicely around a stick or root and send you sprawling ever so gracefully onto your face. You don't want to look like that chick in the "Blair Witch Project."

Leave your jewelry and sunglasses at home. If you don't give a rat's butt about that shiny diamond engagement ring or those spiffy Ray-Bans, then by all means keep them on.

Don't wear heavy clothes. You might think those sweatpants with "Juicy" across the rear will protect your knees, but they're also going to feel awfully heavy when soaked.

When choosing your ridiculous costumes, think about chafing. You will be wet. You will be muddy. You don't want to be rubbed raw. Think running shorts/pants. Spandex, Lycra, etc.

If you plan on wearing a kilt or loincloth, make sure it's on securely as you don't want it falling to your knees as you climb out of a pond.

Gloves are a good idea. When you slip and fall, your hands will be a lot happier.

If you've always been looking for that one reason to go out and buy that helmet cam, this is it.

Bring extra shoes. Trust me, your sneakers will be trashed and we actually want you to give them to us to recycle. A great organization called GreenSneakers will clean them and distribute them to needy folks. If you've been meaning to clean out your sneaker closet, now is the time.

The Joy of Broken Ribs

For first-time runner, the Warrior Dash lives up to the hype.

I'm not a beer drinker, an athlete or an exhibitionist, so the idea of huffing and puffing next to a bunch of bare-chested jocks in kilts and Viking helmets isn't what attracted me to the Warrior Dash's New England debut last year.

I was more fascinated by the marketing.

Here's the deal behind the Dash and every other 5K obstacle course race. Some guy has a pile of dirt and a garden hose. I give him $50, plus $10 parking, to jump in his mud. And not only am I absolutely thrilled to be paying for this "opportunity," I eagerly recruit another nine people to shell out 60 bucks each too. Toss in another 20 bucks in gas to get from New Hampshire to Amesbury, Mass.

My 4-year-old daughter is smarter. She splashes in puddles for free.

At 8 a.m. on race day, there's a torrential downpour – we're talking a Costa Rican rainforest downpour. I'm giddy because the weather adds to the mystique. Shivering and miserable looks on the faces of my family, co-workers, neighbors and friends are the exclamation points keeping my smirk alive. We're ready to be tested! We will overcome!

But the rain has the opposite effect. Instead of being a novelty, mud has become the norm. In some spots, it's slick and slippery; in others, it's quicksand or cement. For most of the course, there is no possible way to run at all. It has become a Warrior Hike or a Warrior See-How-Long-You-Can-Stay-Upright.

Fellow runner Amy Dube, an ICU nurse at Exeter Hospital, later recounted the fun: "Broken twisted roots and stumps, rocks and sticks lurking stealthily under the muddy water were impossible to avoid. I had cuts on my legs too numerous to count and deep gashes on my hands from trying to save myself from numerous slips. I am not a wimp. I was in the US Army for four years and spent two of them in Panama."

Amy and her fellow nurses also went home with a strange itchy rash that she claims was far worse than poison ivy. Three of her peers needed to be treated with steroids before the boil-like skin ailment disappeared. On Facebook, hundreds of other runners reported the same symptoms.

There was a surprise waiting for me as well. As I was sliding down a muddy hill, I lost my balance and came crashing face down onto a piece of plywood. It had ironically been placed there to improve traction a few hundred yards before the finish line. I fell like a tree with my chest slamming the board with a loud thud.

Caught up in the bravado of the day, I pushed myself up and crawled across a long suspended rope net to complete the last obstacle. The next day, while doing a swim test at father-son scout camp, I discovered it was extremely painful to raise my arms above my head. X-rays confirmed that I had fractured a rib.

Instead of being distraught at the doctor's office, I was ecstatic. I had finished the race with a broken rib! Carlton Fisk, the 1970s Red Sox catcher, played with broken ribs. So has Patriots quarterback Tom Brady. I also thought about US Olympic gymnast Kerri Strug, who famously competed for a gold medal with a broken ankle.

I am now Carlton Fisk, Tom Brady and Kerri Strug all rolled into one. I am a Warrior.

Before my ribs are even healed, I know that I'll be spending another 50 bucks to repeat the experience next year. And I bet that Poison Ivy Amy will be there too.

Ready to get muddy? Obstacle 5K and 10K races are popping up all over New England. Here are your opportunities to break a leg in 2012, all within a reasonable driving distance from the Granite State. Click here for a map that you can save into your Google "My Places" and for a quick overview of where all the races are located.

Adventure 5K
"You never know what the Adventure Will Be"
April 28
McIntyre Ski Area
Ever go snow tubing at McIntyre? Take the head rush to the next level by getting off your tush. The yet-to-be announced obstacles in this brand new course are being designed by CrossFitTUFF of Nashua, which specializes in Boot Camp training. Sponsored by NH.com, parent company of New Hampshire Magazine.

Great Urban Race

"An All-Out Challenge of Body and Brain"
May 5
Harvard Square
Cambridge, Mass.
If you're looking for a mental obstacle course sprinkled with brain teasers, puzzles and a few physical challenges, this team scavenger hunt race for $10,000 will get your heart pumping. Designed by the creators of Warrior Dash.

Wason Pond Pounder
"Test Your Fitness, Strength, Stamina and Agility"
May 19
Wason Pond
This small-town race, limited to 1,000 participants, hugs the perimeter of Wason Pond and includes a "Family Wave" open to children ages 8 and up. This year's Pounder is in memory of Branden Myers, a 2011 Pinkerton Academy graduate who died last December in a car crash.

The Mountain Mucker
"Get Mucked Up"
May 19-20
Mount Sunapee Resort
Designed as a "family challenge at your own pace," the race begins with a group "Mucker Yell" before running up the "Long Muckin' Hill." The event kicks off with a carbo-loading spaghetti supper and includes activities for ages 5 and up.

Hoppin' Mad Mud Run
"Craziest and Muddiest Race This Side of the Mason-Dixon Line!"
May 20
Woodsom Farm
Amesbury, Mass.
A military-inspired 10K obstacle race devoted to fallen soldier Jordan M. Shay, a 2005 Amesbury High School graduate killed in Iraq.

Mad Dog Mudder
June 2
Gunstock Mountain Resort
Using the Gunstock ski slopes to make gravity your biggest enemy, the Mad Dog makes the hyperbolic promise of being "The Toughest 5K Race You'll Ever Run." Ends with the Mad Dog Death March, "a stretch of mountain that is pure evil."

Renegade Playground Challenge
"Recess. Unsupervised."
June 9
Stratton Mountain Resort
Bondville, Vt.

October 6
NH Motor Speedway
Your one and only chance to jump out the emergency exit of a school bus and bellyflop into a pool of mud. Utilizes both manmade and natural ponds in the course and promises that "your mom is not going to be happy" when you get home.

Warrior Dash
September 15
Gunstock Mountain Resort

June 9
Thompson International Speedway, Thompson, Conn.
September 22
Willington, Conn.
Besides the annual NH Highland Games, there aren't too many places where you'll see muscle-bound guys running around in kilts. The furry Warrior Viking helmets look more like Flintstones Water Buffalo hats, but you should be in much better shape than Fred or Barney for this 5K!

Rugged Maniac

"How Rugged Are You?"
September 29-30
Motocross 338
Southwick, Mass.
Designed with the help of Navy SEALs, this event mocks the "kiddie obstacles" of other mud races. "We won't run you around a golf course or parking lot and proclaim it rugged."

Hero Rush
"Don't Just Play in the Mud – Be a Hero!"
September 8
Ellms Family Farm
Ballston Spa, NY
Created by firefighters, this course markets itself as kind of an emergency responder fantasy camp. Racers climb up ladders and through windows, slide down poles and crawl through mazes with a blaring soundtrack of screams and sirens. This Albany-area event markets its location as "New York State/New England West," although it is two hours from Springfield, MA and Killington, VT.

Ruckus Challenge
"Exhilaration Does Not Come Easy"
June 16
Marshfield Fairgrounds
Marshfield, MA
Cafeteria-style event where runners choose either a 2-mile or 4-mile obstacle course. Top 10 percent of finishers in the longer course qualify for the Champions Heat, an encore 4-mile run to compete for a Golden Helmet.

Metro Dash
"Not Just About Finishing"
May 19
Topsfield Fairgrounds
Topsfield, MA
Race includes a "Heroes Team Challenge" pitting police officers, firefighters and military personnel against each other for a $500 donation to their favorite charity. Heroes must complete the regular course in boots and uniform while carrying a 50-lb sandbag between teammates.

Rebel Race
"EscaPe the WEAKDay!"
November 10
Honey Pot Hill Orchards
Stow, MA
Themes have nothing to do with the Confederacy, Luke Skywalker or James Dean. "For athletes that want to run a military style 5k or 15k and then party like there's no tomorrow."

Dynamic Dirt Challenge
June 3
Pineland Farms
New Gloucester, Maine
The Dynamic Dirt Challenge is a hardcore 4+ mile obstacle course designed to challenge your all around strength, stamina, mental grit. By registering in this off-road challenge, you will unlock a true sense of accomplishment, have a great time, and discover camaraderie with your fellow participants.

Camp Larga Mud Run
Camp Larga’s obstacle and confidence course challenges the most fit individuals to face their fears and limitations and go beyond what they think they can do and reach inside themselves for inner strength. Featuring four race options for different fitness levels. Held at Camp Large in Charleston, ME.

Untamed New England
June 19-24
The Forks, ME.
The 2012 race was filled up back in January, so keep this one on your radar for next year. Four-day race including mountain biking, paddling, trail running, ropes, orienteering, packrafting, and more…

Tough Mountain Challenge
July 21
Sunday River Ski Resort
Newry, ME.
The Tough Mountain Challenge tackles alpine terrain and throws in manmade challenges to mix things up a bit. It’s just 5k in length, but when you’re running up a mountain under an arsenal of snowguns pounding you with water or scrambling through a ravine the event lives up to its name.

Run For Your Lives!
May 5 and 6
Amesbury, Mass.
A zombie-infested 5k obstacle course. Yes, you read that right – zombies.

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