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Tough Mudder race pushes contestants to extreme

TAMPA

In the world of endurance racing, it's a series that almost defies description.

A glance along the starting line might reveal athletes not unlike those participating in runs like the Gasparilla Distance Classic, a February Tampa running staple.

Ahead, however, lies a 12-mile run, with daunting obstacles dotting the hilly landscape. Focused athletes are poised to challenge their mind and bodies in ways most regular folks have never dared.

One other minor detail typically makes these races stand out: Costumes. It's not uncommon to spot a pair of dudes dressed like the Blues Brothers, another painted blue like the Na'vi from Avatar and someone sporting a vinyl Elvis Presley jumpsuit.

Welcome to the world of Tough Mudder, an extreme endurance race that continues to balloon in national popularity after being developed by a Harvard business student in 2010.

The Brooklyn company that sponsors the races brings the latest installment of its mind-boggling challenge to Florida this weekend at the Little Everglades Ranch in Dade City.

"A lot of people sit around and watch athletes," said Alex Patterson, chief marketing officer of Tough Mudder. "This gives people a chance to set a high-level fitness goal and attain it, then have a beer with their friends and talk about it."

The 12-mile test represents far more than just a run in the park. The course will incorporate 21 obstacles — many designed by British Special Forces — that will test the athletes' strength and endurance.

And their fears.

"There's something for everyone that will test their comfort levels," Patterson said.

Runners will face monkey bars, some lined with butter. For those who fall, an ice-water bath waits below.

Athletes will be asked to wade through thigh-high muddy waters and then crawl, like soldiers, through more sludge beneath barbed wire just 8 inches off the ground.

Nearing the end, participants will have to sprint through dangling wires, some containing a live 10,000-watt shock.

And let's not forget about the mystery obstacle.

"I heard that it's going to be eating a pepper that's way hotter than a jalapeno," said Jonathan Hunt, who will compete as part of Team Beauty and the Bearded Bacon Barons. "And then you have to keep on running."

Why would anyone do this, much less train for such an event?

Tom Craig formed Team Beauty and the Bearded Bacon Barons a few months ago. A certified personal trainer in Tampa who runs his own company, Craig broached the idea of competing in Tough Mudder to a few of his friends.

"It looked extreme, and it looked fun," he said. "I hate running, and it was a way to get cardio involved into a workout."

From there, the team began training around the University of South Florida area. Sometimes they ran the trails winding through campus, sometimes they slogged through muddy waters at USF's Riverfront Park and sometimes they just took advantage of whatever obstacles presented themselves, including children's jungle gyms.

"Someone would usually be the leader and just decided to add tunnel crawls into our runs," said teammate Michelle Pasawicz. "Other times we would just be on a 7-mile run and drop to do pushups right in the middle of Bruce B. Downs (Boulevard)."

Since Tough Mudder incorporates obstacles most workout enthusiasts can't access, the team occasionally made their workplace the venue for impromptu exercise. Five of the six team members are bartenders at Mr. Dunderbak's, a popular beer bar located a stone's throw from USF's campus.

"We'd have to do 200 pushups before we left work, but that eventually got us in trouble," Hunt said. "Most people don't want to see their bartenders doing pushups."

Even though Tough Mudder presents participants with a high-level endurance fitness challenge, Hunt says it holds added appeal.

"It's like I'm going to do this insane fitness challenge, and I'm going do it in a Elvis costume," he said.

Each one increased their fitness level in preparation for Tough Mudder, but also picked up intangible benefits along the way.

"For me, and I think everyone on the team, it's been about the journey," Pasawicz said. "It's about how far we've come, where we want to go and what we can do."

Unconventionality draws most to the Tough Mudder. Half marathons roughly cover the same distance, but how many of those incorporate pitch-black underwater tunnels on the course?

"It's a weird event, but it's very hard core," teammate Clayton Vanis said. "It digs into your primeval instincts and taps into that Paleolithic nerve that I think we all have."

Tough Mudder's premise also separates it from other races. Officials don't track times. Finishing the course stands as the sole goal. Patterson said roughly 20 percent will not succeed at any given event, even though participants are encouraged to help others complete each obstacle.

"No Mudder left behind," Craig said. "Teammate or not."

Tough Mudder's first event was held in May 2010. There will be 12 runs by the end of 2011 and 35 are currently scheduled for 2012. All of Tough Mudder's initial marketing was done on Facebook, again separating itself from traditional endurance races.

"Running in a straight line is one thing," Patterson said. "The obstacles we have break it up. It takes it to a different level."

Organizers expect to draw between 16,000 to 18,000 athletes over Saturday and Sunday, with each paying approximately $150 per person.

Tough Mudder offers a discount for participants who pledge to raise a certain amount for the Wounded Warrior Project, a nonprofit organization that assists severely injured servicemen and servicewomen. To date, more than $2 million has been raised, event organizers said.

Beauty and the Bearded Bacon Barons will open up this weekend's race with, of course, the most delicious part of the pig.

"We're all going to eat some bacon as soon as we start," Hunt said.

Part of being a Tough Mudder means doing things a little differently than your average exercise enthusiast.

"This is a serious physical event, obviously," Patterson said. "But it's for people who don't take themselves too seriously."

It's equal parts fitness, bravado and quirkiness. Those who finish get treated to a free beer, enjoy a post-event concert and receive a coveted 1970s ABA orange headband.

"That's part of Tough Mudder … doing things more extreme," Hunt said. "It's like 'Do those 100 pushups but while drinking a liter (of beer).' "

Make no mistake, Beauty and the Bearded Bacon Barons intend to finish the Tough Mudder course. They plan to get matching tattoos after completing the race, share a lifelong experience of training for the event and, in true Tough Mudder style, raise a toast to their accomplishment.

"All six of us are finishing or no one's finishing," Hunt said. "And we will all finish this."

. If you go

Tough Mudder Challenge

When: Saturday and

Sunday

Where: Little Everglades Ranch, 17951 Hamilton Road, Dade City

For more information: toughmudder.com.

Tough Mudder race pushes contestants to extreme 12/01/11 [Last modified: Thursday, December 1, 2011 3:30am]

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