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.
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.
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.
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