AMESBURY — It was only my second 5K and as I closed in on the finish line, the butterflies were growing stronger in the pit of my stomach.
When I lifted my gaze from the group and looked up, I saw orange and yellow flames blazing between me and the end of the race.
Surrounded by hundreds of runners, covered nearly head to toe in mud, I pushed on, drawing closer to the fire, marking the final hurdle in the 3.1-mile, 13-obstacle mud run deemed the Warrior Dash. I completed that race in 2011.
Drive past Amesbury Sports Park on any weekend and one will likely see a gathering of thousands, some covered in mud, some scrambling through obstacles and some holding court in the cheering section, near the finish line. Mud runs/obstacle races/adventure runs are certainly non-traditional, but they have quickly have become a summer hit for enthusiasts of all ages and abilities. They are fun, accessible, challenging, gritty, with an emphasis on camaraderie and teamwork. Sort of a boot camp for the everyman.
“These mud runs or obstacle runs are everywhere now,” said Meredith Robinson, director of sales for Amesbury Sports Park. “I can host one every single weekend here and still have to turn away others because there just aren’t enough weeks in the summer season to invite everyone.”
Five years ago, Robinson received a phone call from Mike Morris, creator of the now hugely popular Spartan Race. Morris wanted to host an obstacle race in which competitors would run over fire, climb over walls and swim through water pits. The course would deliberately be covered in mud, adding to the challenge — and arguably, the fun.
“We thought, ‘What? You’re going to charge for this?’ ” said Robinson.
“And they said they planned on charging $80 a person and they expected 1,000 runners. We just thought there was no way. This was crazy and there was no way it would happen.”
That year’s Spartan Race drew close to 2,200 participants. A week later, Robinson was contacted by the creators of the Warrior Dash and was told they wanted to host a similar event, but with bigger numbers.
“They said, ‘We want to go big, like 10,000,’ ” said Robinson. “I mean, we just could not fathom they would even come close to that. This was something that was so new and unheard of and we thought it was nuts. . . . Boy, were we wrong and it has completely changed my job and this business for the better.”
The two-day Warrior Dash welcomed 22,000 competitors.
Websites such as mudrunguide.com are dedicated to listing every type of mud run available across the country. Competitors from all walks of life, all athletic abilities, and all family types are signing up to compete in these events, some replacing traditional 5K seasons with mud runs.
There is a mud run out there for nearly anyone.
Brodie Birkel and his business partner, Francis Donovan, understood the emergence of these runs and capitalized on a niche within the new industry.
“The all-women’s sector is all over athletics, and we knew there was a need for all-women’s obstacle runs,” said Birkel.
On July 27, Birkel and Donovan will host their first race in Massachusetts when they welcome female participants to the LoziLu Women’s Mud Run at Kimball Farm in Haverhill. The run will not be timed, to promote camaraderie as opposed to competition. A large portion of proceeds from Lozilu will be donated to L.I.F.E, a charity near and dear to Birkel, Donovan, and their wives.
L.I.F.E, short for Leukemia Ironman For Eric, was created in 2000 by a friend, Mike McLean, in an effort to raise money for his younger brother, Eric, who was diagnosed with leukemia earlier that year. Eric McLean died in 2012, at the age of 28, prompting Birkel and Donovan to find a way to continue both his legacy and help find a cure for leukemia and other blood disorders.
“Pretty much all the money goes to research for children with leukemia and related and similar diseases,” said Birkel.
A number of other runs also have charitable ties.
The Civilian Military Combine , scheduled for June 29 in Amesbury Sports Park, shares a connection with two charities that provide aid to military personnel and their families. Organizers are also in talks to be an official partner with the 31 Heroes Project, named in honor of 31 Navy Seals who died in 2011.
Inside gyms and fitness centers, members are hiring personal trainers to help get them in shape for these events, whether it’s a grueling race such as the Tough Mudder or Spartan Beast, or a smaller, gentler run like the Foam Fest or Color Run.
“People are definitely coming in and training with us or having their friends come in and make teams to train with us these days,” said Kady Esposito, a trainer at Best Fitness in Chelmsford. “It’s really cool seeing how these runs are giving people a reason to just get off the couch, have fun and be active.”
Robinson took note of how many runs are now available and how they are evolving every year.
“They’re family-friendly, some have separate kids’ events and all have a festival-like atmosphere where entire families can come and cheer on mom or dad,” she said.
“Most race creators say they love what they do because it’s fun, but the main reason is to get people out there, moving around and promoting health and an active lifestyle.”