Kiss of Mud
As painful as it is popular: Tough Mudder's Kiss of Mud. (Dmitry Gudkov)

Urban Racing

Big-city marathons, triathlons, and adventure races have never been more popular. Here's why it's time for you to line up for the starting gun, too.

Kiss of Mud

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Critical Mass

Funky Monkey. Sweati Yeti. Ball Shrinker. Death March. The only thing more impressive than the names of the obstacles in the Tough Mudder racing series are the number of athletes willing to subject themselves to their torture: 180,000 this year alone. “We bill ourselves as Ironman meets Burning Man,” says Tough Mudder founder Will Dean, a former counterterrorism officer in the UK. “Endurance sports don’t have to be boring.” Indeed, in the past five years, adventure races and their old-school ­endurance cousins, marathons and triathlons, have morphed into amenity-laced parties. There are pre-race meals at Tavern on the Green (New York City Marathon), in-race live music (Austin ­Triathlon), and post-race parties with barbecue feasts and knife-throwing contests (Warrior Dash). And the best reason to sign up? They’ll break you out of your fitness rut in a way that Crossfit, P90X, and Zumba never will. Just take our crash course in each discipline, then select an event from our list of favorites. Suffering shouldn’t be this much fun.

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Running On

Costume Contests
Costume contests: the competition within the competition (Ezra Shaw)

Costume Contests

Costume Contests Costume contests: the competition within the competition

Call it the comfort factor: as marathons have moved into the mainstream, organizers have added perks, everything from swag bags to massages. Many races now resemble 26.2-mile bacchanals as much as competitions: in-race entertainment, extravagant post-race dinners (on a cruise ship, in the case of the Miami Marathon), and costume contests. Nowhere is that trend more evident than in the Rock ’n’ Roll Marathon Series, where runners are treated to live ­music and after-parties at events from ­Seattle to Savannah. At the Rock ’n’ Roll San Diego Marathon, there’s a live band every mile of the course. The festive atmosphere is one reason the series has added 25 races since it started in 1998 and now has more than 300,000 people competing in events around the globe. But no matter how many bands they pack into the course, it’s still a marathon, and there’s just no way to make 26.2 miles easy. “It’s not an event you can cram for,” says Terrence Mahon, coach of U.S. record holder Deena Kastor. “Successful training is about consistency.” His tip for race day? “The big­gest mistake I see runners make is going out too fast. The first part should feel easy, but that doesn’t mean you should go faster.”

Your turn:
Best Race for newbies:
Marine Corps Marathon
The Scene: Democracy in action. With no qualifying standards, Marine Corps, in Washington, D.C., is a favorite for first-time marathoners. The Highlight: A 26.2-mile sightseeing tour; the course passes in front of the Capitol Building and Lincoln Memorial and runs along the National Mall. Mark Your Calendar: October 28, 2012;

Best Race for Bragging Rights:
Boston Marathon
The Scene: Quad-melting hills, unpredictable weather, smack-talking frat boys from Boston College, and a course that’s remained almost the ­same since 1897. The Highlight: Scoring a bib. As the hardest major race to qualify for—3:10 for men 18 to 34—just getting in is a coup. Pick a flat race like ­Chicago, or a downhill one like Utah’s St. George ­Marathon, to notch your qualifying time. Mark Your Calendar: April 16, 2012;

Best Race for Running with Diddy:
New York City Marathon
The Scene: The world’s largest marathon (44,977 finishers last year), NYC begins on Staten Island and winds through each of the city’s five boroughs—more of Gotham than you’ll see on a double-decker bus tour. The Highlight: Trading surges with the likes of Edward Norton, Katie Holmes, and weatherman Al Roker. Mark Your Calendar: November 6, 2011; ­

Best Race to Forget Your iPod:
Rock ’n’ Roll San Diego Marathon
The Scene: A mostly flat course, a high school cheering ­contest organized by the race’s sponsors, and its status as the original race in the Rock ’n’ Roll series make it perfect for runners hoping to take their mind off the pain. The Highlight: The free post-race concert, headlined last year by Blues Traveler and Five for Fighting. Mark Your Calendar: June 3, 2012, but the series now has 26 marathons from Seattle to Denver.

Best Race for setting records:
Chicago Marathon
The Scene: Next to NYC, Chicago is the nation’s largest (36,088 finishers in 2010). It’s also the fastest, thanks to mild fall weather, a flat course, and plenty of people to draft. The Highlight: Being a part of history. Seven U.S. or world ­records have been set at Chicago since the race launched in 1977. American Ryan Hall is ­gunning for the U.S. mark this year. Mark Your Calendar: October 7, 2012;

Adventure Races

Mixed Use

Hold Your Wood
Tough Mudder's Hold Your Wood (Courtesy of Tough Mudder)

Cargo Climb

Cargo Climb Warrior Dash’s Cargo Climb

Hauling logs, hurdling fire pits: the obstacles can be as painful as they are unpredictable. Still, an estimated 800,000 people tested their mettle in adventure races last year, and there are thousands of events annually, ranging from mellow ­treasure hunts to multi-day death marches. “There’s going to be something you don’t like,” says Paul Thomson, 33, who entered the Tough Mudder Hall of Fame after completing both days of every event last year. “I hate the electric-shock thing”—a field of live wires that athletes run through—“but you feel like you’ve conquered something at the end of the day.” Troy Farrar, president of the United States Adventure Racing Association, says that to complete these events, you need to go in with a dauntless spirit. “You should be willing to face whatever the race director, the course, or Mother Nature throws your way.”

Your turn:
Best Race for Nordic Enthusiasts:
Warrior Dash
The Scene: Mud crawling, fire leaping, and a dozen other obstacles across four miles. The Highlight: Finish and you’re rewarded with beer, music, and a fuzzy Viking helmet. Mark Your Calendar: Thirty-three locations in Australia and North America, including Kansas City  and Tulsa;

Best Race That Requires No Training:
Oyster Adventure Racing Series
The Scene: A team event that includes running, biking, and solving clues while hopped up on adrenaline (and perhaps a few beers); dubbed the Rocky Mountain Ball Buster—hence the name. The Highlight: Catching an oyster (not the Rocky Mountain kind) in your mouth dropped from two stories up. Mark Your Calendar: Eleven races in cities across the U.S., including Portland, San Francisco, and Nashville; ­

Best Race to Do with a Teammate:
Muddy Buddy Ride and Run Series
The Scene: Teams of two leapfrog on foot and mountain-bike through six miles of mud and obstacles, like a 20-foot-high wall and steeplechase hurdles. The Highlight: The 50-by-50-foot mud pit near the finish, which teammates must slither through before finishing the race side-by-side. Mark Your Calendar: Sixteen races across the country, including ­Orlando, Detroit, and Los Angeles;

Best Race for bored Triathletes:
Tough Mudder
The Scene: Ten-plus miles of obstacles with names like Greased Lightning and the Bastard. The Highlight: With the finish line in sight, you’ll have to run through a field of live wires, some carrying as much as 10,000 volts of electricity. Seriously. Mark Your Calendar: Thirty-five races across America, including Austin, Phoenix, and Washington, D.C. There are also races in Canada, the UK, Japan, and Australia;

Best Race to land you in the E.R.:
Spartan Race Series
The Scene: The courses and obstacles, like wheelbarrow­ing manure, hauling logs, and counting pennies while sleep ­deprived, were ­designed by endurance athletes and a British Royal ­Marine. The Highlight: Finishing. On average, 40 percent drop out of the 12-mile race. Mark Your Calendar: Twenty-one events throughout North America, including New York, Atlanta, and Chicago;


Triple Play

Los Angeles Triathlon
Venice's other muscle beach: transitioning in the Los Angeles Triathlon (Ann Johannson)

During its first three ­decades as a sporting event, the ­tri­a­thlon suffered from an image problem. Ironman races—­2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride, 26.2-mile run—got all the ­attention, and the triathlon was considered by most to be a fringe pursuit for type A endurance freaks. But in the past ten years, the number of sprint-distance races—typically a half-mile swim, 12-mile bike ride, and three-mile run—has exploded, so ­tackling your first event is easier than you might think. “The intensity level really varies,” says USA Triathlon CEO Rob Urbach. “Today there are races for all types of people.” What’s more, triathlon training is, by definition, cross-training, so prepping for your first event will bring variety to your work­out routine. “It adds new ­chal­lenges,” says Urbach. “And the sports help balance each other out, allowing people to stay healthy and interested for a much longer period of time.”

Your turn:
Best race to feel like a star:
Los Angeles Triathlon
The Scene: A point-to-point race, it begins on Venice Beach and ends downtown. The Highlight: The finish is in L.A. Live, a $2.5 billion entertainment complex, for a stadium-like thrill. Mark Your Calendar: Olympic (one-mile swim, 24.8-mile bike ride, 6.2-mile run) and sprint distances; September 2012;

Best race to swim sans wetsuit:
Austin Triathlon, Texas
The Scene: A true urban race. The course is almost entirely downtown, starting in the city’s famous Lady Bird Lake. The Highlight: The music. Live bands play on the run and bike courses and at the finish line. Mark Your Calendar: Olympic and sprint distances; September 3, 2012;

Best race involving the Hudson:
New York City Triathlon
The Scene: Thanks to the Hud­son River’s currents, NYC has the fastest swim leg of any Olympic tri. And with a finish in Central Park, it’s one of the most scenic. The Highlight: The 25-mile bike ride starts and ends on the West Side Highway. Mark Your Calendar: Olympic distance; June 24, 2012;

Best race for the seasoned:
Escape from Alcatraz, San Francisco
The Scene: With a 1.5-mile swim in San Francisco Bay and a hilly eight-mile run, Alcatraz is one of the toughest tris in the country. The Highlight: Slowly motoring out and then jumping into San Francisco Bay from a four-story ferryboat to start the race. Mark Your Calendar: Olympic distance; June 10, 2012; escapefromalcatraz­

Best race to complete an ultra-distance tri:
Ford Ironman Florida
The Scene: Staged in the warm waters and on the wide beaches of Panama City Beach, it’s one of the most popular races on the Ironman circuit. The Highlight: Competing against pros like Scott DeFilippis, Chris McDonald, and Jessica Jacobs. Mark Your Calendar: Ultra distance (2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike, 26.2-mile run); November 5, 2011, Panama City;

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