There are people among us who wallow at the bottom of 20-foot muddy pits, and dare to ask complete strangers to form a human ladder so that they can crawl over their bodies to escape.
They get a thrill out of being spooked by zombies, and think it’s a blast to belly-flop in streams oozing with thick, cold muck.
They are mud runners. Obstacle racers. Mudders.
On Sept. 1, 2012, Jeremy Boal of Lake Township decided to compete in a mud run in Butler, Pa. There, he spotted a 5-foot gal covered with mud. And though she looked like something that had just crawled out of a slimy lagoon, a romance ensued. Before long Brooke Gilliland, who was participating in her first mud run on that fateful day, was moving from Pennsylvania to Ohio to be closer to her sweetheart.
Both had been remarkably active when they lived separately, so it only made sense for them to continue such a lifestyle once they were together. Boal turned 30 last Aug. 23, and he wanted to do something special to mark the milestone.
Together, they schemed, budgeted and researched, ultimately committing to 30 mud runs in 38 weekends. They created a spreadsheet to keep track of the events, which took place in towns from New Jersey to Nevada. It was a goal that friends, family and other mudders thought was a bit “crazy.”
“I’m thankful for the naivete,” Boal said recently. “If we only knew what lay ahead of us, we may have come up with something else to do 30 of.”
Monsters and scares
The couple has run in post-apocalyptic zombie events, with monsters that leap from behind bushes, out of woods, and from other hiding spots. The monsters’ intent is to snatch three flags tucked into the belts of each runner. Those who complete the race with at least one flag remaining are considered “survivors.” While the obstacles are tough on the body, the element of surprise, the faces of creepy dead guys, and the sometimes physical contact that can occur when there’s a struggle over a flag, can be mentally grueling.
“I started bawling hysterically during one of the races,” explained Gilliland, 33. “We were running and he [Boal] was covering my eyes and blocking the zombies. But, in the end, we were smiling and laughing.”
In a traditional running race, explained Boal, director of Logistics Operations for Retail Partner Enterprises in North Canton, the focus is only on the running. In mud runs there are usually about 20 obstacles including monkey bars covered with grease, water crossings, rope climbing, inverted walls, ice water, tunnels, weight lifts, log and tire flips, paintball guns, darkness, fire, smoke, swamps, water slides, snow, ice, rain, sleet and electricity.
Sometimes the courses are designed to zap athletes if they make a wrong move, or even if they don’t.
For one obstacle that used electricity, Boal explained, wires that reminded him of octopus tentacles hung from a frame above a course that was covered with mud and water.
“Either you run through it or, in some cases, you army-crawl. Running is bad enough because a direct hit constricts your muscles and you instantly fall. But even if you don’t get shocked by one of the hanging tentacles, you are getting shocked anyway because of the electricity going through the water.”
When Gilliland, who is nurse anesthetist for Comprehensive Care Anesthesia at Affinity Medical Center in Massillon, was crawling through a similar obstacle, one of the wires hit her in the temple.
“She was unconscious for a minute and then she was shocked back awake,” Boal said, causing Gilliland, who was sitting nearby, to burst into laughter.
Neither has been seriously injured in these runs, which can be as long as 30 miles. Still, they have suffered sprained ankles, bruises, scrapes, concussions, bloody lips, dehydration, hypothermia, blisters, rope burns, bruised ribs, ear infections, strains, a broken toe, a black eye, blood, sweat and tears.
They’ve run “sick, sore, injured and tired, laughing, smiling, and enjoying every minute of it,” Boal said.
Popularity and price
Mud runs draw thousands of participants. The Mud Ninja in South Salem, Ohio, drew 2,200 people in 2012 to a one-day event, and 4,500 last year at its two-day event. There’s so much interest in mud runs that there are magazines, such as Obstacle Racer, dedicated to the sport.
Runs cost, on average, $60 to $100, and some raise money for charity. Tough Mudder’s website boasts more than a million people worldwide have participated in its hardcore obstacle courses that are designed to test all-around strength, stamina and grit, through which it has raised about $5 million for the Wounded Warrior Project, a program that helps veterans. Others give proceeds to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, to organizations that work with those who have been diagnosed with autism, and to local charities.
Boal said while there might be prizes for the winners, he and Gilliland generally don’t finish first. The reward, he added, is simply completing the course.
Marty Parker, creator and producer of Mud Ninja, said most mud runner participants, unlike Boal and Gilliland, don’t attempt to conquer all of the obstacles, opting instead to run at the start and at the finish — giggling all the way.
Facebook, he says, helps promote the sport’s popularity.
Parker compared the majority of those who run to some owners of Harley Davidson motorcycles. Someone might ask a Harley owner if he rides every weekend, to which he would reply, “No, but I have one.” In the same vein, a friend might ask someone who has posted pictures on Facebook of themselves covered with mud whether they do a race every weekend, to which she’d reply, “No, but I did once.”
“Now they are in the category of living an Indiana Jones lifestyle,” he said, laughing.
In the end, Boal and Gilliland maintain that it’s the camaraderie with other athletes that make up the memories that will stay with them a lifetime.
Now that they’ve celebrated his 30th birthday, will they participate in more mud runs?
“We will pick out our favorites,” he said. “We will probably avoid the 12-mile and super long ones.”
“And,” Gilliland said, grinning, “the ones with electricity.”
Kim Hone-McMahan can be reached at 330-996-3742 or firstname.lastname@example.org.