Tough Mudders and Spartan Races: Why They Appeal to Millennials


My summer job in high school was at the Muck Farm. It was a research farm for Michigan State University and the soil was a black, sooty dirt called muck. My job consisted of setting up irrigation pipes, mowing lawns, and, dreadfully, weeding the crop fields. The weeding was the worst. Monotony ruled. In the farm’s grimy, poorly lit office building was a muck-dust covered poster that read: “Weeding is repetitive and redundant, not to mention repetitive and redundant.”

Running hurts. There’s the burning lungs, the aching legs, even the side stitches that feel like a pack of needles attacking right beneath your rib cage. To slightly alter the sign from the Muck Farm: Running is repetitive and redundant, not to mention repetitive and redundant.

The popularity of road racing continues to grow, but there are different options to the races along the roads: obstacle racing. Millennials are swarming to the obstacle races made popular by Tough Mudders and Spartan Races because they turn the idea of a normal, boring run on its head. Instead, the races are action packed and, albeit a little terrifying and somewhat dangerous, fun.

An obstacle race is exactly what it sounds like. Instead of lining up and racing along the streets like a road race, the participants line up and race along mud drenched paths while powering through obstacles with barbed wire, electric shocks, and fires. The big three in obstacle racing are Tough Mudder, Spartan Race, and Warrior Dash. Tough Mudder is always 10-12 miles with obstacles, Spartan Races range in distances from 3-miles on up, and Warrior Dash is a sprint in comparison.

With each race organizer’s origins starting in 2009 and 2010, the races have seen rapid success. In 2012, about 1.5 million participants got in on the obstacle racing craze.

As a comparison, Running USA reported that nearly 14 million racers finished road races in 2011 (this would count one person finishing two different road races as two). While obstacle races are behind in numbers, it is worth noting the average age of participants.

Running USA breaks the average age of runners down by race distance. Females running the 5-kilometer race are about 33 and those running the marathon have an average age of 36. The Men are a little older, 34 is the average age of 5-k road racers while marathoners are almost 40-years-old. Meanwhile, Tough Mudder reports on its website that the median age of it’s competitors is 29-years-old.

The new form of racing may not have the numbers of the old standard of road racing, but the younger base bodes well for the future. The reason, perhaps, for the younger crowd is the excitability and bruteness associated with the event.

In a Men’s Journal article about Tough Mudders, Jonathan Geller, a 31-year-old personal trainer from New Jersey, said of doing Tough Mudder, “It’s probably the hardest thing I’ve done in my life. I dislocated my shoulder three times on the first lap.”

The websites of Tough Mudder, Spartan Race, and Warrior Dash all have military-like YouTube commercials that look more like a trailer for Act of Valor than a promotion for a race. The promos harp on a theme similar to one the Marine’s used in past ad campaigns: “The Few. The Proud. The Marines.” They even take “hoo-rah!” straight from the military slogan book.

The marketing is working. Millennials are swarming to the event. In an article for Outside, Renee Jacques wrote about why the race is popular among young Americans: “Every day we are faced with negativity, older generations telling us our future is bleak, prophesying our destinies like really mean fortune tellers … The Tough Mudder forces you to forget about your responsibilities and just live in the moment — without wanting to take a picture of it or write a status about it. I’m still not entirely sure what the challenge’s intangible lure is. It’s hard to put into exact words why it is so enjoyable.”

The funny thing about this explanation is that it is very similar to the way people describe running. As a semi-professional runner, I feel qualified to describe running as repetitive and redundant, yet I still love it and the feeling I get from it. Participating in road races is also a blast, it’s an energy filled event where people run fast in front of big crowds. While it doesn’t have the danger or brute appeal of a Tough Mudder, it is still a fantastic way to spend a morning. Plus, you don’t end up covered in mud (or muck) after.

Regardless, Millennials are hoarding towards Spartan Races and Warrior Dashes. There’s nothing wrong with that, but do something enough and it can get repetitive and redundant.

At times, though, repetitive and redundant can be fun.