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Staying upright in the mud

Investigating the popularity of extreme obstacle course racing – and the footwear needed to succeed.

by Stuart Morgan

Image © Aviahuismanphotography |

Some people just love getting cold, wet and muddy, and exhausting themselves both physically and mentally in obstacle course racing. In this sport, a competitor must overcome various physical challenges (the obstacles) while often coping with cloying mud and freezing water.

Image © Aviahuismanphotography |

Runners face a daunting obstacle course

The obstacles – designed to test endurance, strength, speed and dexterity – include walls to climb, heavy objects to carry, bodies of water to wade through or otherwise cross (perhaps by grabbing the rungs of a ladder-like contraption while hanging over the previously-mentioned ice-cold water), barbed wire to crawl under or dangling live electric cables to dodge. While such an event may well attract former (or serving) Special Forces personnel, organisers encourage athletes of all types to participate.

There are now many such extreme obstacle course events held around the world. One of the best known is ‘Tough Mudder’ – a 10-12 mile long (16-19 km) military-style course with 20-25 obstacles and with varied terrain normally incorporated into the location.

The first Tough Mudder challenge was held in the USA in 2010, and drew more than 4,500 participants. Since then, over 1.3 million people worldwide have participated in Tough Mudders. In the same year, events were held in Northern California and New Jersey. During 2011, 14 of these tests of human endurance were held throughout the USA, and in the following year 35 of challenges were held in four countries. There were more than 700,000 participants in 2013, with events in Australia, Canada, Germany, the UK and the USA. Plans were then put in place to also take the event to Ireland and New Zealand.

Even more extreme

For some enthusiasts, such an obstacle course was simply not exhausting enough. As a result, the ‘World's Toughest Mudder’ was born. This competition consists of a ten-mile (16km) course, which participants continuously run around for 24 hours. The person who completes the most laps during that time receives the title of ‘World's Toughest Mudder’ and a cash prize.

Shoes for extreme obstacle racing

Image © Tough Mudder LLC

Tough Mudder participants attempting to run up a surface covered with mud and grease

One regular competitor summed up what he looked for when selecting footwear for obstacle racing – “Not just any old running shoe will do,” he said. “The main thing I was looking for was water drainage capability. Durability and stain defence can also be very important.”

Image © Aviahuismanphotography |

Mud is just one of the challenges faced by the competitors – and their shoes

Grip – often with heavily studded soles – is also an obvious essential for a good obstacle racing shoe. Some competitors favour ‘fell running’ shoes, as these are designed for rough terrain and are said to provide the level of stability needed. Such shoes are also likely to feature a low midsole and heel (in order to ‘feel’ the ground) and strong construction to avoid stony ground shredding the footwear and mud rotting it. Some obstacle course participants are moving towards more technical shoes that have been designed to provide lighter weight, improved comfort and better support.

So-called ‘minimalist’ running shoes are very popular with the growing army of obstacle race devotees. These will generally have less padding on the bottom, and will likely be made of material that does not easily absorb water. Another vital characteristic is the ability to lace the shoes up tightly, because when runners step in deep mud, the suction can pull a shoe right off. As the organiser of one race said: “I’ve seen people start the race with two shoes and finish with one sock.”

From small beginnings, this extreme sport is capturing the attention of millions around the world, all of whom will be looking for the right footwear to get them to the end of the challenge.

Publishing Data

This article was originally published on page 36 of the May 2015 issue of SATRA Bulletin.

Other articles from this issue »