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New breed of races takes running to the extreme

Runners on one course have to plod through miles of mud.

On another obstacle course, they crawl under barbed wire.

And in an event coming up this fall, they’ll be chased by zombies.

It’s all part of a surprising trend of events that are part circus, part athletic competitions and part action show.

Last weekend’s Warrior Dash became the first nationally touring obstacle event to visit the area, attracting thousands of participants despite oppressive heat. One runner died this week after the event, and others were transported to hospitals with heat-related illnesses.

Another obstacle course, Ruckus, is scheduled here for November.

Nationally, more competitions are expected to be scheduled next year.

“For an industry that didn’t really exist last year, we estimate that over a million people are doing these races,” said Liam Brenner, founder of Ruckus.

One course, Spartan Race, started in 2010 with five events. This year it held 17 and plans to jump to 22 in 2012. Run for Your Lives, Ruckus and Warrior Dash, all started within the last year or so, also expect to increase the number of events next year.

Some of the features offered by major runs:

•Ruckus participants high-step over Normandy walls (similar to barriers on Omaha Beach during D-Day), crawl upside down along a 30-foot rope and shimmy across bars 18 feet off the ground.

•Warrior Dash competitors leap over fire, scramble through a mud pit and climb cargo nets.

•Run for Your Lives, scheduled for October in Baltimore, so far has only disclosed one obstacle: tubes filled with mud and trash. One thing runners know for sure — they will need to avoid “undead” zombies the whole way.

•Tough Mudder runners crawl in mud under wire 8 inches from the ground, swing from monkey bars greased with butter over a cold lake and crawl through pipes in muddy water. News reports and runners said another obstacle dangles 400 wires that have live charges of electricity.

•Spartan Race offers four levels of events. The most rigorous is the Death Race, which takes about 48 straight hours to complete. The company’s other races range from 3 to 12 miles.

One thing the obstacle courses have in common: They’re pricier than the 5 and 10K runs that take place every year, usually benefiting some charity. While the companies that organize obstacle courses often have a charitable component, they sometimes cost upwards of $60 or $70.

The companies also say they take safety seriously. But the obstacles are challenging and some injuries — cuts, bruises, sprained ankles — are to be expected.

“If you’re crawling under 150 feet of barbed wire, and you don’t stay low, you’re going to get cut,” said Ben Killary of Spartan.

The course operators say they have first-aid tents and medical professionals on site.

Some think the trend has taken off thanks to TV shows such as “The Amazing Race” that depict bizarre obstacles.

Brenner thinks the obstacle courses simply offer a different and compelling alternative to traditional runs. He points to the number of people who belong to gyms but don’t participate in road racing.

“You’re left with a group of athletic people who don’t find road racing intrinsically compelling,” he said.

Killary said runners are comfortable with normal street runs. “But nothing changes,” he said. “It’s boring.”

Bryan Mayo would agree. The 36-year-old U.S. Air Force radar technician forces himself to run regularly to stay in shape but isn’t a regular at Kansas City’s road races.

“I hate running, it gets boring,” he said after participating in the Warrior Dash on Saturday. “But this was the most fun 5K I’ve ever run.”

Mayo plans to do another obstacle event in October.

Ben Holmes, president of the Trail Nerds Association and a board member for the Kansas City Track Club, thinks it’s a poor economy that has helped the obstacle race corporations thrive, despite hefty entry fees.

“With Warrior Dash or Ruckus, it’s cheaper than traveling but still lets you do something really out of the ordinary,” he said.

Holmes has been organizing runs on trails and through woods in the Kansas City area for years, and he, too, started them as a way to escape the monotony of pavement pounding.

But the new events are much larger productions, he said. They come to town, set up an obstacle course, a music stage, and food and beer tents. It’s a festival of sorts, or as Holmes put it, a circus.

“It’s this traveling road show that has all this entertainment, but you are part of the entertainment,” Holmes said. “It’s an interesting concept. People like getting involved.”

Josh Crawford, a Kansas City electrical engineer, was one of them and said this past weekend’s wouldn’t be his last.

“All I used to do was strictly run,” Crawford said. “Now I have a ton of friends who love these obstacle courses. They add a whole new dimension — leaping fire pits and crawling through mud.”

Andrea Caudillo, 33, of Prairie Village, said she runs on occasion and was coaxed into the Warrior Dash by friends who did the dash last year in Texas.

“It definitely is a change from the normal 5K race,” Caudillo said. “It’s definitely a challenge, definitely fun.”

More than 15,000 people were registered for last weekend’s event, which would make it Kansas City’s second largest run, sandwiched between Race for the Cure and the Kansas City Marathon, according to Troy Fitzgerald of KC Running Company, which helps organize races.

Those are “unbelievable numbers,” Fitzgerald said, and there is bound to be some overlap in road race and obstacle course participants. But he added that obstacle runners don’t tend to be long-time Kansas City road racers who run at events like Race for the Cure, the Amy Thompson Run or the Kansas City Trolley Run.

Those more traditional runners who really want to push themselves don’t have to look to these national corporations for an obstacle event to challenge them, he said. Ultra-marathons with distances of 30 or 50 miles continue to crop up across the country.

Amber Bourek, with Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure, doesn’t see the obstacle courses as a threat to her event, which raises money to fight breast cancer.

She said her event’s strength is the emotional connection people have to it.

“I think people who participate in our event truly do care about it, and that’s why they are there,” she said.