TORONTO - They're long and gruelling, often leaving people caked in mud, drenched and weary — and thousands are registering to take part.
Obstacle course races are proving to be more than a flash-in-the-pan fitness fad. The popular endurance events are appealing to both novices and seasoned enthusiasts who navigate through rigorous challenges on their journeys to the finish line. The races typically combine runs of varying distances with boot camp-style obstacles from flipping tires and scaling walls to crawling beneath barbed wire and hot-footing it across open flames.
For those resolving to get in better shape or keen on spicing up their existing routines in 2014, the number of obstacle course races continues to climb.
In 2010, Tough Mudder staged three events with 20,000 participants. By 2012, that number had climbed to 35 events and more than 460,000 people. In 2014, there are Canadian contests scheduled in Whistler, B.C., Toronto and Montreal, and dozens more worldwide in Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and countries within Asia and Europe.
Selica Sevigny, the Canadian co-founder of the Spartan Race, said they're on target to have 200,000 Canadians participate in 2014, with events slated for locations including Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary, Montreal, Toronto, Ottawa, Halifax, Red Deer, Alta., and Sun Peaks, B.C.
The Montreal native created the Spartan Race five years ago with her now-fiance Richard Lee. Sevigny credited social media and word of mouth for the surge in participants. There were 550 participants at the inaugural race. In 2013, there were 1.5 million.
Events range from the Spartan Sprint — a five kilometre race with 15 obstacles — to the Beast, a 20 kilometre course with 26 obstacles. There are also junior races open to youngsters aged five to 13.
Sevigny recalled taking part in the Death Race in Vermont, where she lasted about 17 hours before dropping out. She described the lengthy endurance event as "the most gruelling thing I've ever experienced in my life" which, in turn, helped inspire the eventual creation of her own race.
"For me, at that moment, something changed profoundly," Sevigny said in a phone interview from Cambridge, England. "I decided that I wanted to have more people like myself who had never raced in their lives to experience something like this and to feel that sense of accomplishment and confidence that could really change your life."
Participants in the Spartan Race range from kids to those in their mid-70s. Many using the event to celebrate major milestones in their lives, Sevigny said.
But with no shortage of fitness alternatives that allow individuals to break a sweat in relative comfort — be it in a gym or outdoors — what is motivating so many to sign up for more arduous challenges?
"For people who have done a lot of other types of races that are more structured — like triathalons, for example — this forces them out of that comfort zone, that repetitive type of movement, into doing things that are both mentally and physically challenging," said Rod Macdonald, vice-president of canfitpro, whose organization bills itself as the largest provider of education in the Canadian fitness industry.
"But for the people who don't have that experience, number one, it looks like a lot of fun because once you get over the fact that you're going to get muddy, you're going to get dirty and wet, then you kind of embrace it.
"I think for people, either consciously or subconsciously, it reminds you of when you were a kid and you got to play in the sand at the beach or you got to stomp in a big mud puddle or whatever the case is — and there's an appeal to that," he added. "Even if you don't know somebody and you're walking or running next to them or trying to get to an obstacle next to them, there's an instant camaraderie because you're both trying to go through the same challenges."
Graham Longwell, editor of Fitness Business Canada magazine, recalled taking part in an adventure race a few summers ago in Collingwood, Ont. The six-hour event combined rowing, cycling, hiking and running along with obstacles.
Longwell said many people establish a team to participate. The group dynamic, along with the unique challenges, lends an added element of fun, allowing teams to be competitive or simply allowing individuals to pursue their own fitness goals, he noted.
"It's a lot of fun to do, it's physically demanding. But you don't have to finish in the top 10. For people who aren't as fit or aren't normally as active, it's just something to set their sights on."
Macdonald has participated in a large number of adventure races and is poised to suit up for a Spartan Race in June. He is leading a session for fellow fitness professionals on preparing clients for obstacle course races at the canfitpro conference and trade show in Montreal next month.
"A lot of the obstacles require that you have good control of your body weight, whether you're pulling yourself over a wall or getting over some other kind of obstacle, climbing up a slippery slope or whatever the case may be," said Macdonald, a four-time Ironman competitor.
"The most basic movements that you have to be able to do are things like pull-ups and push-ups and crawling and running up very steep inclines and things like that, and most people don't do those kinds of things," he added. "You can imitate or do those things in most gyms, but the best thing to do would be to seek out either a personal trainer or a facility that has some knowledge in this to assist you in the training program."
Macdonald was part of a large team that participated in Tough Mudder last September. One obstacle, called Walk the Plank, required them to step off a platform 15 to 20 feet above the water — a task that daunted one of his teammates.
"(She) was stuck at the top because she was scared. She was rocking forward trying to build up the courage to launch herself off of there, but she really had a hard time. We were on the other side of it cheering for her, waiting for her."
One of the lifeguards on duty ended up jumping in the water, telling the teammate he'd be waiting when she came down — which she eventually did.
"It was a huge boost for her because she had overcome something that she didn't think she could do," said Macdonald.
"I think that's one of the values that these obstacle course races are great for is pushing you to a point that maybe you haven't been before so that maybe you can do things that you thought were not possible."
As far as fitness targets go, Macdonald sees participating in obstacle course races as a reasonable goal to set for many people, but probably a long-term goal for most.
"If they're setting that goal on Jan. 1, to set a goal race of June, July, September... of 2014, it would be very reasonable if they're good shape to begin with. They might want to make it a 2015 goal if they're sedentary on Jan. 1."