Monday, Jun 18, 2018
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Grueling races test athletes’ physical, mental grit

  • From-left-teammates-Dioni-Gomez-Ashley-Sepanski-Zach-Barton-and-Justin-Weber

    From left, teammates Dioni Gomez, Ashley Sepanski, Zach Barton and Justin Weber after the Tough Mudder race.

  • Teammate-Dioni-Gomez-recovers-from-a-10-000-volt-shock

    Teammate Dioni Gomez recovers from a 10,000 volt shock that sent him down into the mud.

  • Ashley-Sepanski-runs-through-the-final-obstacle

    Ashley Sepanski runs through the Electroshock Therapy - a field of live wires.


Teammate Dioni Gomez recovers from a 10,000 volt shock that sent him down into the mud.


It was at mile nine, 47,520 feet, and about two hours after I left the starting line when I started to crack and wondered what I’d gotten myself into.

I worked on focusing my thoughts.

Right foot. Left foot. Right foot. Left foot. This is painful. I’m really cold now. Why did I do this? Ow. Ow. Ow. Ow.

This is what my mind sounds like after nine miles of trampling through obstacles, diving into ice water, hoisting myself over walls, getting shocked by 10,000-volt tasers, and running, in damp clothes with mud in places there should never be mud on dry, rock-hard Texas ground in 62-degree weather. I was starting to unravel.

But I did what all race participants do in this situation: I bit down hard to keep myself from whimpering and soldiered on.

In October, three friends and I participated in the Tough Mudder — a 10 to 13-mile military obstacle course designed to test physical and mental grit. The race takes place world-wide with all proceeds going to the Wounded Warrior Project. Courses share the same framework and a couple key obstacles, but races vary from location to location.

Some staple obstacles include:

● Berlin Walls, 12-foot walls your team must climb over without even a step-stool for help.

● Arctic Enema (classy names, huh?), a giant ice bath in which mudders must swim through the ice, under a wooden plank, and pull themselves out on the other side before getting hypothermia.

● Boa Constrictor, a series of pipes that force mudders downhill into freezing mud or water under barbed wire, then up a slippery hill to the other side.

● Electroshock Therapy, my personal favorite (sarcasm), a field of live wires — some carrying as much as 10,000 volts of brief electric shock — right before the finish line. Mudders sprint for their lives, often face-planting in mud along the way.

Our Mudder was 13.2 miles with 22 obstacles, one of which I almost didn’t make it through because it terrified me: Dark Lightning. Our team had to crawl through a pitch-black tent filled with hanging live wires. Water sprayed at our faces as thunder sounds echoed in the background and “lightning” flashed every 30 seconds or so to simulate some sort of twisted storm. Aside from the spaced-out flashes of light, we had to crawl on our bellies in the dark, blindly seeking the exit while trying to avoid getting small shocks in the face.


Ashley Sepanski runs through the Electroshock Therapy - a field of live wires.


Why did I do this again?

Back in March, I had been unsuccessful in recruiting friends to be on a team for the Ohio Mudder, so I made the trip to Texas to be on a team with some friends I had met in college. Every time I mentioned the event to a coworker, a friend, or family member, I always got the same response. “Why?”

Well, I had a list of reasons: The glory, the personal triumph, the teamwork, the free beer, and the not-for-purchase, earn-only T-shirt and headband given to participants at the finish line.

But one reason really stood out to me. It sounded like fun.

Whenever I brought it up to my runner friends, they would give me a look of disgust and ask “Why don’t you just run a marathon?”

And then it was my turn to give a look of disdain. “Run 26.2 miles? Just run? For 26.2 miles? Yeah right...”


Although I haven’t done the research, I imagine many runners are like me. We enjoy the tests and trials of running a 5K or a race, we love that feeling of crossing the finish line, we love even more the free swag and that our registration fee will help a charity or good cause.

But we never enjoy the burning lungs, sore joints, and how every little thing suddenly becomes a massive distraction. (There’s a piece of hair tickling my ear, I won’t take another step until it stops, my ponytail is too tight, and oh God, why does my shirt have to fit so weird around my shoulders?).

And it would seem Tough Mudder agrees.

“Fact No. 1 — Marathon running is boring,” says the Tough Mudder Web site.

“And the only thing more boring than doing a marathon is watching a marathon. Road running may give you a healthy set of lungs, but will leave you with as much upper body strength as Keira Knightley. At Tough Mudder, we want to test your all-around mettle, not just your ability to run in a straight line…”

If you look at my race-running history, I’ve probably run a 5K once every couple of years since I was in junior high. This year, I have run three races in six months.

So what’s the difference? Well, I’ve been exercising a lot more, but mainly, the races are getting more fun. They offer something exciting that makes me want to put down the Cheetos and hit the pavement.

Although plain-Jane marathons, 5Ks, and other races across the country are still popular, there is a growing trend to make athletic events more entertaining, or at the very least, interesting. I call them “Adventure Runs.”

“I think [adventure runs] are adding to the running culture,” said Liz Young, manager at Dave’s Performance Footgear in Sylvania, and a nine-year runner and triathlete.

“A lot of people run because it’s the fastest way to burn calories and it’s good for you, but they don’t necessarily enjoy it. Races like the [Tough Mudder] offer a total body concept. There are always going to be hardcore true runners… and the hardcore gym rats. I think this is a good marriage of both.”


From left, teammates Dioni Gomez, Ashley Sepanski, Zach Barton and Justin Weber after the Tough Mudder race.


Athletes and runners gather to test themselves physically and, often, to raise money for charity. But now exercise geeks can look forward to a new element or surprising twist as races evolve to be more, well, adventurous.

“We coined a phrase, we call them ‘race parties,’” said Steven Ginsburg, co-creator of the Hot Chocolate 15/5K. “We started seeing people really enjoy [competitive racing] and wanted to make it more fun.”

The Hot Chocolate 15/5K is a race scheduled to take place in Columbus today and it rewards contestants with a basket full of treats to dip in melted chocolate when they cross the finish line. The race partners with Ronald McDonald House so runners can help a good cause as well as look forward to a sweet reward.

Race parties

If you need something to keep you motivated during a race, check out the Color Run or Warrior Dash. The Color Run is a 5K during which runners wear white and get blasted with a different color of paint at every kilometer.

The Warrior Dash is essentially a 5K version of the Tough Mudder. Racers should prepare themselves for obstacles and lots of mud, but also look forward to the beer and turkey legs waiting at the finish.

“You start out walking, add a bit of running, next thing you know a year later you’re doing a 5K, 10K, half marathon,” said James Mason, owner of Dave’s Running.

“It’s more desire in their heads [that keeps a runner going]. Some of the little runs… are family oriented too… like the Color Run… getting sprayed with paint will sound more fun to an 18-year-old.”

So as fall turns to winter, don’t lock yourself inside just yet. The great thing about these creative races is that they happen year round. And if you’ve still got some training to do, you have plenty of time to pick a race and plan ahead.

“Fifty percent of our 5K-ers have never run a race before,” Mr. Ginsburg said. “Any of these events that are fun and active, that get people off the couch, are fantastic. You can’t say anything bad about that.”

Back at mile 12.5 of the Tough Mudder, when I was running up a slippery quarter-pipe, relying on my teammates and what arm strength I had left to hoist myself over the top, I was tired and grumpy, but also feeling kind of bad-ass. And then I had a moment as I climbed down a rickety wooden ladder, trying not to slip and even harder to keep my knees from giving out.

“This is pretty tough...” I thought to myself. “But I’d rather be doing this than running a marathon.”


Santa Hustle 5K and Half Marathon

Where: Cedar Point, OH

When: Dec. 16

What: Every participant will receive a free Santa hat, beard, and customized Santa dri-fit shirt to wear while running. With outrageous holiday decorations, festive music, and a large after party.

More info:


The Color Run

Where: Cleveland, Columbus

When: June and July 2013

What: Color Runners wear white and get blasted with a different color paint at every kilometer.

More info:


Ugly Sweater Run

Where: Chicago

When: Nov. 24

What: Throw on your ugliest wool and enjoy a beer, hot chocolate, and holiday music at the finish. Registration includes a Christmas hat, mustache and a one of a kind Ugly Sweater pint glass for your free post-race beer.

More info:


The Doomsday Dash

Where: Columbus

When: Dec. 15

What: It’s the end of the world, go out running. Participants get free swag and entry into a post-race party full of beer and free food.

More info:

5K Foam Fest

Where: Logan, Ohio

When: June 29

What: Combine muddy obstacles with sudsy foam during this 5K. Contestants race through cargo nets, slip n’ slides and water obstacles, with lots and lots of foam.

More info:

Run For Your Lives

Where: South Logan, Ohio

When: May 25

What: Runners secure a flag belt representing their “health” at the starting line before sprinting through a 5K obstacle course trying to dodge zombies in search of brains.

More info:


Tough Mudder

Where: Ohio, TBD, within 90 minute drive of Cleveland

When: April 27, 28

Where: Chicago

When: May 18, 19

Where: Michigan, TBD, within 90 minute drive of Detroit

When: June 29, 30

What: 10-12 miles of obstacles and mud

More info:


More mud run,

Contact Ashley Sepanski at:

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