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The Boston Globe

Opinion

Jennifer Graham

Tough Mudder and Spartan Races: Masochism goes mainstream

A Tough Mudder contestant struts his stuff in Illinois in 2013.

Stan Grossfeld/Globe Staff

A Tough Mudder contestant struts his stuff in Illinois in 2013.

For anyone worrying that China is going to take over after we’ve all eaten ourselves into oblivion and blown the defense budget in what remains of Iraq, there is hope. Unbeknownst to the couch-ridden masses, America has a powerful core, a national equivalent of SEAL Team 6. It is strong, it is invincible, it is the Terminator, the offensive line of the Patriots, and the surliest toll collector on the Mass. Pike rolled into one. It is the hard underbelly of the fitness elite: those who engage in extreme athletic competitions like Tough Mudder and Spartan Race.

So you ran the Boston Marathon in under three hours? Meh, these men and women say. There was no barbed wire to crawl under, no flaming pit to jump over; you just ran down a city street, bathed in admiration. What’s the challenge in that? Where’s the electro-shock treatment? What, no 3,000-foot ascent? Slacker.

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The rise of extreme obstacle racing — Tough Mudder and Spartan each expect an estimated 1 million participants this year — is a welcome aberration in a nation that appears doomed to expire of abdominal flab. A predictable extension of the running boom, it gestated at the finish lines of marathons and 10Ks. The weekend warriors cried, “Now what?”

When Harvard Business School grad Will Dean, the Mark Zuckerberg of the fitness industry, envisioned Tough Mudder, he understood not just viral marketing but the philosophy of William James: “The strenuous life tastes better.” Not much is strenuous about modern life, and when primal urges go unmet in the urban savanna, a vital thing withers. For a people to function, loins must be girded. Extreme competitors get this.

RELATED: ‘Tough Mudder’ is a grueling test, a growing business

From a distance, the phenomenon invites ridicule. Consider the Tough Mudder tribe, whose idea of a rollicking good time is an all-night relay carrying 40 pounds of bricks, a plunge into ice called an “Arctic Enema,” and a slide that deposits the competitor in licking flames, a human grill called “Fire in Your Hole.” For all this, the Tough Mudders who endure receive orange headbands that evoke a certain ’80s movie, “Flashdance,” and its attendant song, “Maniac.” Seems fitting.

Meanwhile, over at any Spartan Race, or its predecessor, the impressibly merry Death Race, participants sign waivers that suggest their extinction is imminent. The founder, Joe De Sena of Vermont, begins his new book “Spartan Up!” by describing a nearly fatal 350-mile race in Quebec — in mid-winter. What fun!

Milder, but also non-traditionally challenging, is the new series of mountain races begun by four friends that include former US Senate candidate Gabriel Gomez. Hingham-based O2X will hold its inaugural race, with “natural” obstacles, in September at Sugarbush Mountain in Vermont. The rigorous ascent, “a cross between obstacle-course racing and trail running,” might deplete the body but will mercifully leave the mountains intact, co-founder Craig Coffey told me. “We will leave the mountain better than when we found it,” Gomez said. Presumably, too, the competitors’ resolve and physiques.

Three of the four 02X founders were Navy SEALS — not surprising, as a hard streak of green-and-brown camouflage runs through extreme athletic endeavors. On the Spartan blog, De Sena says some of the events were designed by the US military. When an Army recruit crawls though mud under barbed wire, however, he is preparing for an experience that might actually transpire. When an investment banker does the same, wearing an orange headband, what is the point, beyond ensuring that masochism becomes mainstream?

De Sena explains it as a change in perspective: “I believe that confronting these insane obstacles is the best way to rewire a human brain after years or even decades of coddling, predictability, and excuses,” he writes.

If, of course, your brain is not fried on the course, or worse. Injuries in extreme races have included electric shocks, broken bones, a stroke, and four deaths. A lawsuit was filed on the most recent, a 2013 drowning in West Virginia, but so far, no race organizer has been held culpable in any fatality. I note, however, that the once vaunted Web address of the Death Race, www.youmaydie.com, now redirects to a comparably benign www.peak.com/death-races.

That people find events like the Spartan race attractive — and will pay upwards of $100 to enter — seems odd, given that the number of young people who find military life attractive has dropped over the past 10 years, from 63 percent to 40 in one study. Maybe our inner GI Joes get all the adrenaline they need in a weekend race with no threat of an extended stay in Baghdad.

There is, however, a certain comfort that can be derived from knowing that the Tough Mudders and the Spartans exist. They are the new American militias, unarmed but for their extraordinary triceps.

Jennifer Graham writes regularly for the Globe. Follow her on Twitter @grahamtoday.

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