Obstacle races are among the hottest trends in fitness right now. Need proof? Check your Facebook feed for photos of your mud-covered friends wearing orange Tough Mudder headbands. While they're a great change of pace from the normal run-a-10K-get-a-T-shirt routine, they leave some athletes with an insatiable craving for more punishment. Here's a list of eight races designed to push you in ways that a fun run never could.
Fitness level: Elite Length: Varies Most twisted element: It's 24 uninterrupted hours.
In case you're not familiar, the Tough Mudder is a 10- to 12-mile challenge—they discourage the use of the word "race"—populated with military-style obstacles, most of which involve being drenched in freezing cold water. The World's Toughest Mudder takes the same premise and turns it up to 11. They're keeping most of the obstacles secret until the day of the event, but they promise to be much tougher than the civilian race. And rather than doing a single loop of the course, you're required to keep trudging along for a full 24 hours. This year's race is being held December 17-18th in Englishtown, NJ, so freezing temperatures are a given. You have to qualify by finishing near the top of a normal Tough Mudder event, and they're still expecting only about 10 percent to finish World's Toughest Mudder. Hello, trench foot.
Fitness Level: Advanced Length: 8 miles Most twisted element: Participants run the race with a giant cross on their backs.
Held in the UK, the Tough Guy race is a brutal affair that offers up more pain than most other obstacle challenges. The winter race takes place in freezing temperatures and includes things like razor wire crawl-unders and death-defying swings on slippery ropes. But, if you're not satisfied with that level of danger, you can actually upgrade to something called the Jesus Warrior. Seriously. The eight-mile course you'll run is the same, but you'll do it while carrying a giant, hand-carved wooden cross. But hey, they do give you a five-minute head start!
Fitness Level: Elite Length: Varies (48 hours+) Most twisted element: Competitors have to eat a bag of raw onions.
Created by seasoned adventure racers, this Vermont race is both eclectic and extremely brutal. The race only accepts 200 challengers and the 2011 edition ran roughly 45 hours before it was finished. Thirty-five people made it to the end. It's technically an obstacle race, but it also involves some more traditional adventure race aspects like navigation. Then, of course, there are the less traditional challenges like eating a bag of raw onions, chopping wood or running up a mountain to find a list of presidents' names that need to be memorized for reciting later. Oh, and the URL to their site is YouMayDie.com. Fitting.
Fitness Level: Elite Length: 100K Most twisted element: Subzero temperatures.
A 100K run is taxing on any body, but if that's not enough of a challenge, you can always do it in Antarctica. The race takes place near the Ellsworth Mountains, which is closer to the South Pole than most people will ever get. Temperatures get to roughly -20 C and there's a constant wind that fluctuates between 10 to 25 knots. The terrain is quite literally a glacier, so it makes the pot holes in your local road running route seem tame. Plus, the whole thing takes place at an altitude of about 2,300 feet. If you don't feel like you can make the 100K, there's a traditional 26.2-mile marathon as well as the Antarctic Mile, which is new for this year's event. [pagebreak]
Fitness Level: Elite Length: 135 miles Most twisted element: Desert temperatures up to 130 degrees.
If you're into extreme distance in ridiculous climates but don't like the cold, the Badwater takes things in the other direction. The race is held in the middle of summer and starts in the appropriately named Death Valley. The route spans 135 miles—no, we didn't mean kilometers—and ends at Mt Whitney, CA. In past races, temperatures have reached 130° F. There's over 13,000 feet of overall ascent spread out over three mountain ranges, so be prepared to spend the next three days after the race asleep in a bath tub full of ice.
Fitness Level: Enthusiast Length: 5K Most twisted element: Competitors are chased by zombies.
If you liked the obstacle aspect of Tough Mudder more than the pure punishment factor, you'll appreciate that this race is only 5K. There are 12 obstacles spread out across the course, but they've added an additional hazard to slow down your time: zombies. At the beginning of the race, you're given a belt with flags on it, much like if you were going to play football. As you go through the course, the "zombies" will chase you and try to grab your flags. Lose all of them and you're dead. You can still finish the race, but you'll do so as a zombie. If you don't want to run the race, you can always sign up to actually be a zombie, which means you get to run around a mountain and terrorize athletes all day. Sadly, the rules prohibit carrying a machete for dispatching the zombies, so you'll just have to rely on your cardio.
Fitness Level: Enthusiast Length: 6-7 miles Most twisted element: Participants have to race relay-style, alternating between biking and running.
While there's a team aspect to many other obstacle challenges, this six- to seven-mile race demands that you work with another person the whole way. There are only five obstacles to conquer, but you and your partner have to alternate biking and running between them. There's plenty of mud to be had and costumes are encouraged. There's even a kid competition called the Mini Muddy Buddy, which seems like a great way to get your little ones hooked on punishing their bodies in the name of fun and fitness.
Fitness Level: Elite Length: 3,000 miles Most twisted element: Competitors bike across the continental U.S.
If you're into distances that are truly "ultra," the Race Across America should satisfy you. This bike race spans the entire country. You start at Oceanside Pier in California and end in Annapolis, MD. The total course is about 3,000 miles and has over 170,000 vertical feet of climbing. That's about 30% longer than the Tour De France. You can do it in teams of two, four or eight in a relay format. But, if you're truly hardcore, you can do the whole thing solo. The 2011 winner covered 2,989.5 miles in eight days, eight hours and six minutes. Bring butt cream. Lots of it.