Down-and-dirty Tough Mudder lures athletes with warrior mystique

At this war, everyone is wearing running shoes. We’ve just climbed an eight-foot wall to get onto the battlefield.

“Come in, come in here, bring it in,” the starter says in his canvas gray patrol cap, getting serious for a second.

“Take care of each other out there,” he says. “People are dropping like flies. Make it back here safe.”

Hundreds of runners nod while stretching, in anticipation of taking on a half-marathon of obstacle-course hell – voluntarily.

To be clear: We are nowhere near a combat zone. It’s just another weekend in June, and this is only a brutal course at Michigan International Speedway in Brooklyn, where we are waiting for a race to begin.

Tough Mudder, calls itself as “probably the toughest event on the planet,” a challenge that includes a 10-12 mile course with 20 obstacles incorporating fire, ice water, tunnels, barbed wire and electric shocks.

A man and woman in front of me wear matching face glitter, spandex and sparkled glasses. An ocean of muscle sharks seems to have just washed in from Midwest gyms, while seasoned marathon runners pass out Band-Aids to keep their nipples from chafing.

Other teams hold flags with fire department station numbers, as well as vets wearing matching shirts with names of American service members killed in Iraq or Afghanistan. Others are in “Run for Boston” shirts, in solidarity with marathon runners killed or maimed earlier this year.

If there is one commonality in the crowd, it is the desire to prove something, whether for self or a cause.

I guess maybe that’s why I am here, too.

I found out about the Tough Mudder a year or so ago. Something about the military-style obstacles “designed by British Special Forces” appealed to the Army veteran in me, and I had to try it.

But this newly popular contest appeals to civilians, too.

Tough Mudder held three events in 2010, its first year, with about 20,000 participants. Two years later, the company hosted 35 events for more than 460,000 people – 80 percent part of a team.

The average participant is 29; these athletes have spent their young adult lives in a nation at war being fought by a generation of all-volunteer armies.

Even the company’s primary charity is related to the wars. More than $5.7 million has been donated by Tough Mudder to the Wounded Warrior Project.

There is no question the military cause is part of the attraction.

“We are all sorts of hooah,” one of the volunteers calls through a bullhorn, referring to the Army battle cry that means everything except “no.” For a second, I can’t help feeling I’m out of uniform.

You sign your life away with a waiver, dismissing any worries of bodily harm, take a pledge to “overcome all fears” and hurdle a wall to get onto the course.

When the race begins, no one gets left behind and the focus is on helping fellow competitors, a mirror to the U.S. Armed Forces adage of “no man left behind.”

With that in mind, runners immediately boost each other over the first obstacle, walls tipped 45 degrees against the traffic.

When teams get split, members slow down or stop to regroup.

During obstacles like “Everest” – a half-pipe ledge where competitors have no choice but to jump into the hands of other competitors  – people do so with faith, even when some aren’t caught.

“You cannot complete a Tough Mudder course alone,” the pledge says, describing how obstacles like 12-foot walls require teamwork to overcome.

Then there is the unholy sharing of everything.

On my 10th mile, I take an accidental mouthful jumping into a pool of muddy water.

I don’t really remember jumping, just landing in the 12-foot pit. It fills my tucked in T-shirt with water so heavy I climb out with one hand on the cargo net and the other wringing out the extra weight.

Then there is the distinct realization that my gum is now gritty with sand and a stranger’s hair is wrapped around my tongue.

(Even nastier is the more than 200 cases of flu-like symptoms some participants reported afterward, possibly norovirus from contact with contaminated vomit or diarrhea, reported by the Michigan Department of Community Health following the Tough Mudder. I got a suspect rash on my ribs after the race, but stayed off the toilet.)

At the finish line, volunteers crown everyone in orange headbands and offer free beer and Advil. A DJ is playing and a nearby bar is open.

On my way back north, after washing in a garden-hose shower and walking a mile barefoot to my car, I’m not sure what to think of what I’ve just done. I hate it and love it.

I know: I’m making too much of this. It’s a stupid weekend race, saturated in fake, manufactured bravado.

But I can’t help thinking about the “World’s Toughest Mudder” championship in November, which goes for 24 hours non-stop. Could I do it?

Maybe that’s the appeal. It’s part military voyeurism, part product we never knew we wanted – a new service for a generation watching Ultimate Fighting every weekend and dabbling in X Games-style recreation, a weekend battle in sneakers.

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