Forget Zombie 5k Races: Tough Mudder and Color Run are Great Races for Hard Times


Recessions change people. Some choose to be defined by loss. People lose jobs, homes, and businesses. Others seize the opportunity to try something new. Like crawling under barbed wire or showering complete strangers in colored powder.  

Adventure races and whimsical 5Ks have grown enormously popular during the recession.One of the most popular adventure races, the Tough Mudder, started in 2010. At first, I thought the Tough Mudder was an event for those who were bored with charity 5Ks but who wouldn't commit to a marathon. Then I did it, or rather, I survived it.

Tough Mudders scale walls, submerge themselves in ice-cold water and withstand extreme heat to finish "probably the toughest event on the planet." A former counterterrorism expert designed twenty obstacles that cover a 10-12 mile course. It's an incredibly empowering experience for those emasculated by an uncertain economy. Even in difficult economic times, Tough Mudders shell out as much as $100 to participate.

On the other end of the spectrum, the Color Run organizers describe their race as, "The happiest 5k on the planet!" 

As runners clad in white shirts move through each kilometer, volunteers pelt them with what looks like rainbow-colored napalm, but is actually cornstarch. Organizers note that the event is not a race and runners can feel free to cartwheel throughout the course. There's no agenda, no accountability, no race times and no rationale. Just a colorific experience and event instructions that could have been authored by pre-teens.

The races couldn't be more different, but they also represent a reaction to difficult economic times. Running and other endurance sports have been popular throughout recessions. Running gives people a feeling of control and accomplishment in uncertain economic times. Despite the macroeconomic forces that shape your economic fortune, you can keep pushing and training for your personal best in running. 

The Tough Mudder reflects this mode of thought. People strain and push and ultimately triumph (or dislocate shoulders in the process). It also incorporates a more collaborative view of accomplishment. You cannot finish a Tough Mudder without help from others. As Elizabeth Warren said, "There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own," nobody can clear a twelve foot wall without a boost up. The event is a challenge, not a race.

The Color Run also incorporates teamwork into its structure, although the collaboration is generally restricted to coming up with a funny team name, you must be part of a team of four (maximum infinity) to sign up. The point is to have fun. There's no neo-Darwinist theory of competition informing the Color Run. Participants revel in camaraderie.

As people grapple with the new economy, the Tough Mudder and the Color Run embody a way forward based on collaboration, overcoming challenges, and having fun. As for the Zombie Race, a race infested with zombies, I have no explanation.