12/10/2012 08:43 am ET

Tough Mudder, Spartan Races See Increase In Women Participants Pushing To Build Strength, Test Limits

When Lauren Mundell and her friends planned a girls weekend in Mount Snow, Vt., last May, they chose to spend part of it watching one of the most intense endurance challenges on the market: Tough Mudder, a 10-12 mile course that involves diving into ice cold water, crawling through mud and running through bursts of fire.

"Some of the girls were single, and there's obviously a really good male-to-female ratio for that," said Mundell, 39, a mother of two who lives in Long Island, works in public relations and is in a relationship.

For a small fee, the women were able to hang out in one of the event’s nearby spectating tents where they drank beer and danced to live music. "Of course, we were like, 'We could do this. Look at all these girls who are doing it.’”

The group returned to Mount Snow in July to compete, and got a taste of the rapidly growing field of obstacle course runs -- a sport that’s recently become appealing to more and more women. For between $90 and $200, anyone over the age of 18 willing to sign a waiver relieving Tough Mudder of all liability can participate (Another $15 pays for personal injury insurance.)

The Tough Mudder and its separately owned but similarly themed competitors, the Spartan Race and the Warrior Dash, saw an estimated 1.5 million participants in 2012, up from just 41,000 in 2010. The brands are adding more races each year to accommodate demand. The Spartan series, which varies from three-mile sprints to 12-mile runs and a 48-hour “death race,” held 27 events in 2011: Spartan has 60 slated for 2013 from New Jersey to Utah to Scotland.

These events tend to have a stereotypically masculine feel: Their promotional materials rely heavily on pictures of groups of muscular men grimacing as they scale walls and brag about the military-inspired roots of the challenges, with names like the “ball shrinker.” But despite the marketing slant, women haven’t been discouraged.

With the built-in incentive to get in shape, the bragging rights that come with finishing, and the chance to try out boot camp and high-intensity interval training, the events are providing women with plenty of good reasons to trek through the mud and crawl under barbed wire.

Carrie Adams, who works in public relations for Spartan, said her company hasn’t just seen more women signing up -- it has seen a shift in the ratio of males to female competing. In 2011, Spartan races were 75 percent male and 25 percent female. This year, women made up 32 percent of race participants, and in some markets, they made up 40 percent. The rise followed the creation of a women-centric social media network known as “Spartan Chicks” in 2011, which now has 8,300 Facebook members.

And while the Tough Mudder has consistently seen events made up of 24 percent women -- the bulk of whom are in their 20s and 30s -- the number of women participating overall has grown dramatically: 33,600 women signed up in 2011, while 130,000 did so in 2012.

Mundell said she doesn't have plans to sign up for another Tough Mudder -– mostly because of how unpleasant it was getting shocked by the dangling electrical wires she navigated as one of the 24 obstacles -– but she found several aspects rewarding.

"What kind of felt awesome was all these guys who woke up three days before saying, 'Let's do the Tough Mudder' were all sucking wind and throwing up," said Mundell. "It was hard, but we were all fine."

Eleanor Hsu, 36, who works in investment management and lives in San Francisco, completed a Tough Mudder a year ago and said she was drawn to the event it's a team event and she could sign up with friends.

“We ended up all working out together,” said Hsu. “It was great motivation to get back into shape and do other types of activities I wouldn’t normally do, like strength training or steps.”

After finishing, Hsu also experienced the added satisfaction of having held her own with the men.


Juliet Burgh, 24, who co-owns a cross-training gym in Philadelphia called Unite Fitness, said after watching her boyfriend compete in a Tough Mudder, she decided it wasn’t for her (the fire and electrocution seemed more for shock value than any proof of endurance, she explained). But Burgh has taken to competing in Civilian Military Combine races, which involve carrying buckets of sand, squatting 45 pounds for at least 90 seconds, and plenty of mud, of course.

"One of the big appeals for this is it's so empowering doing something that's such a man's sport," said Burgh. "As a woman, it's just really fun to say 'screw it', and get really dirty and scrape your knee a little bit. It makes you feel strong and confident when you're done."

Burgh said many of her female clients have started participating in these types of events, even those who always have perfectly coiffed hair. The trend has emerged right along with more women doing CrossFit workouts, boot camps and high intensity interval training.

“You’ll see on all these [race] websites, they’ll give you recommended training routines,” said Burgh. “They all have some element of strength training, and push-ups and pull-ups ...”

Gabriel Valencia, co-founder of Focus Integrated Fitness in New York City, agreed that the rise in mud runs has corresponded with women beginning to overcome the misperception that weights will bulk them up.

"Female clients want to be able to do eight pull-ups and to squat their body weight," said Valencia. “[They] are realizing that it’s a more efficient way to keep weight off and that it’s great for bone density.”

Indeed, Mundell found that training for the Tough Mudder was a perfect fit with the workout philosophy she’s adopted over the last year to get strong, not skinny.

“I hate yoga and pilates, and I always have,” said Mundell. “[Tough Mudder] kind of spurred me on to start running. I got a trainer and started going to Barry’s Bootcamp and really just kind of started taking it up a notch.”

Long-time runner Gretchen Zelazny, 41, who lives in Richmond, Va., found that Muddy Buddy races -- where two people can bike, run and tackle obstacle courses together as a team -- were nice diversions from the regular road races she frequently does.

“It’s fun climbing over broken cars and things like that. It takes your mind off of that fact that you’re actually exercising,” said Zelazny, who also completed a Warrior Dash, a 5K mud run that’s on the shorter side compared to its competitors but still features at least a dozen obstacles.

Alex Yount, who works with Warrior Dash, said that its marketing was initially geared more toward men. But when women started signing up, Warrior Dash started advertising in Self magazine and Women's Health. It now has slightly more women participating than men.

Rob Dickens, the chief operating officer behind the company that offers the 5K mud race Rugged Maniac, said 55 percent of participants in these races are women and 45 percent men, the reverse of how it began. The company intentionally tried to set itself apart from sponsors of some of the races who still use photos of women in bikinis in promotional materials.

“It doesn’t make any sense that women wouldn’t also like to get off-road and do something a little bit more challenging and crazy,” said Dickens. “There was an assumption along with these pre-defined gender roles that women don’t like to get dirty and crawl through mud but nothing could be further from the truth.”