How adventure races are losing ground to the Tough Mudder and Spartan Race |

How adventure races are losing ground to the Tough Mudder and Spartan Race

Eat mud: A competitor at last summer's Warrior Dash 5K in Copper. Over the past five or six years, obstacle races have become wildly popular across the country and world, drawing thousands to courses filled with mud, barbed wire and tasers.
Tripp Fay / Copper Mountain Resort |

A ride at Copper and ‘14ers for Bleeders’

Copper USA Pro Challenge community ride — Sunday, July 26

Ever played poker on a bike? Ever wanted to? On July 26 (as in today), Copper Mountain hosts a community ride to build anticipation for Stage 3 of the USA Pro Challenge, which takes off from Copper on Aug. 29. The ride is open to parents and kids, with stops patterned after a poker game: Beginning in Copper, riders pedal from business to business building the best “hand” before heading to Frisco for prizes and music in the Whole Foods parking lot. The group then returns to Copper for happy hour. If your legs get tired, organizers will provide shuttles at Copper and Frisco. The ride is free and guided. Meet at 12:30 p.m. in Center Village for ride instructions.

NHF ‘Backpacks and Bleeders’ 14er hike — Tuesday, July 28

Don’t let the name throw you off — I swear it’s PC. The Colorado chapter of the National Hemophilia Foundation is hosting a hike at Quandary Peak on July 28 as part of its ‘Backpacks and Bleeders” initiative, a statewide effort to help folks with blood disorders get out on local trails. More than 20,000 people across the nation have hemophilia, a condition that prevents blood from clotting — and occasionally limits activities like hiking. Even small cuts and bruises can be devastating, especially at altitude, where blood is thin anyway. The Quandary hike is fully supported, with guides and medical staff. It’s open to anyone 14 or older affected by hemophilia. Just meet at the Quandary trailhead at 7:30 a.m. for an 8 a.m. start.

This weekend, about 100 multi-sport athletes from across the West came to Frisco for a test of just how much torture they can endure — and just how much they’re willing to gleefully embrace.

This merry band of masochists came to town for the Adventure Xstream Series, a collection of five adventure races spread between Frisco, Glenwood Springs, Santa Fe and Moab. It’s the only adventure race in Summit County this summer, and one of only a handful across the country that doesn’t require multiple days on the course.

Turns out, the AXS racers can handle mounds of self-imposed torture — up to 10 hours biking, running, paddling and navigating, all above 9,000 feet while under a blazing-hot July sun. Sure, they only spent a single day traipsing across 50 miles of trail, but that’s more time than I’ve ever spent in the heat of nonstop competition.

The adventure-racing culture

Adventure racing, also known as expedition racing, is rightly considered the ultimate test of outdoor grit and know-how. Think of it as wilderness survival in a race format: Athletes are given a map with checkpoints, then set free to find the best and fastest route from one to the other using bikes, kayaks, compasses, climbing gear, running shoes and sheer willpower. Single-day events like AXS are open to solo competitors, while the longer races — say, the Primal Quest Expedition race in Lake Tahoe, or the internationally renowned Costa Rica Adventure Race — often require teams of four to power through seven or eight days of competition.

When I was interviewing athletes for an article on the Frisco AXS race, I started piecing together a blueprint for the adventure racer “type.” These folks tend to be in their 30s and 40s, with strong backgrounds in endurance and ultra-endurance events like the Leadville 100 trail run and Breckenridge 100 mountain bike race. They take training seriously, and veterans are comfortable spending days at a time navigating unfamiliar terrain. They’re not weekend warriors — they’re legitimate survivalists.

I also started piecing together a fringe culture that, for better or worse, has been overshadowed by a similar yet wholly different breed of masochists: obstacle racers. Over the past five or six years, high-octane events like the Tough Mudder in Snowmass and Spartan Race in Breckenridge have earned a feverish, almost cult-like following. Similar to adventure races, they pit athletes against diabolic courses, where natural obstacles are paired with mud, electricity, jungle gyms, ice baths and countless other unknowns. There are no bikes or kayaks, but competitors need just as much strength and stamina to finish. Teamwork is the name of the game, and groups like Colorado Obstacle Racers host training sessions before traveling the country for upwards of 10 races every summer.

Adventure vs. obstacle

The similarities stop there. See, obstacle racing is an industry, and that alone attracts a different population. Racers range in age from 13 to 60-plus years old. A select few Spartan Races are televised on NBC Sports Network, a la “American Ninja Warrior,” while the Tough Mudder draws 1.5 million racers to more than 40 annual events in the U.S, Europe, Australia and Asia. When the Spartan made its Breckenridge debut in June, nearly 5,500 competitors came to test their nerve on a 5.3-mile Sprint course and 12.5-mile Beast course. They were greeted by fire, a mud bath and free Coors Light at the finish line, and even the slowest Beast teams were off the course after five hours. Very few ran the entire course, myself included, although it was infinitely more enjoyable to jog from obstacle to obstacle.

This isn’t to say that obstacle racers are lesser athletes than their adventure racing counterparts. But the mentality is noticeably different. As the Spartans and Tough Mudders of the world continue to win converts, the more serious-minded adventure-racing scene has shrunk.

“Adventure racing used to be a very big sport, but it’s kind of died down over the past few years,” said Jenny Vitale, a 42-year-old from Phoenix who has competed in six Summit AXS races. “You have the Tough Mudder and everything else, and I think those are more appealing to a broader range of individuals. But these are a blast, these are fun, and anyone can do them. You just have to put in the effort.”

Vitale’s insight made me stop and think. I’ve competed in three obstacle races over the years, including two Tough Mudders at Beaver Creek and the inaugural Spartan in Breck. I had a blast each time, but when I completed the final obstacles and sat down with a beer, I had no strong urge to rush out for the next one. I’d get caught up in the energy and atmosphere and giddy insanity, but I never felt pushed to my limits. I liken them to a pleasant hike in the woods, plus barbed wire.

But something about adventure racing piques my interest. One of these days, I want to test my mettle at the Frisco AXS, hopefully as a solo racer. I can’t quite explain why I’m attracted to the survivalist format, but it somehow seems more real, more challenging than an obstacle race.

A friend of mine thinks of life in stages. When she turns 30, she wants to earn a graduate degree and open a costume store on Etsy. When she turns 40, she wants to pursue law and start working with nonprofits again. These informal decade goals help her keep track of all the weird and meaningful experiences she wants to accumulate — sort of a roadmap for a fulfilling life.

I like this approach. Maybe when I’m 40 — the prime adventure-racing age — I’ll tackle my first AXS, or maybe even gather a team and head to Costa Rica. Until then, it’s time to start training, and I’ve never tried the Snowmass Tough Mudder. Here’s to a few more decades of masochism.

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