The New York City Marathon began in 1970 with just 127 participants.  In two weeks, on November 6, more than 50,000 runners will take to the starting line for the 42nd running of the event.  Last year a record 510,000 Americans completed marathons.  But, for some, running 26.2 miles just doesn’t offer enough of a challenge.  For those people, there is adventure racing.

Gather Round, Spartans

On a hot and sunny Saturday morning in late August, the Amesbury Sports Park, a little less than an hour north of Boston, was transformed into ancient Sparta.  Or, sort of a modern ancient Sparta.  A shirtless guy in a red floor length cape and plumed helmet ran microphone checks while an equally shirtless but helmetless guy did push-ups and waited for his turn to race.

“Now on this rugged patch of earth we stand ready to fight. Spartans, prepare for glory! No retreat. No surrender. That is Spartan law.”

With those powerful words, the games began. If they sounded familiar, it’s probably because Gerard Butler delivered the same lines in the movie, 300.  And, yes, both speeches end with the foreboding, “For tonight we dine in hell.”

The Ultimate Challenge

In 2005, Joe DeSena founded the “Spartan Death Race,” a 48-hour obstacle course which quickly evolved into a series of shorter events held all over the United States and Canada.  On the day of this year’s competition, DeSena led a group of 250 through the course at Amesbury Sports Park, adding extra challenges at every obstacle and stretching the three-mile race to more than two hours.  As he sat eating a banana, he philosophized on why people pay good money to be tortured by increasingly tougher physical tasks.

“This is gonna sound crazy,” said DeSena, “but for 900,000-plus years, humans jumped, crawled, swam, climbed…This is what we’re wired to do. We’re animals. We forgot that we’re animals and I’m just allowing animals to play the way they like to play.”

Every 30 minutes, Spartans were sent charging up the hill through a dense cloud of stage smoke. The course twisted and turned on dirt paths littered with rocks and tree roots.  There were walls to climb over, under, and through, mud pits to navigate, and what might just have been the longest barbed wire crawl in history, through mud, up hill, while being sprayed with a fire hose…

While completing the course, one participant yelled, “I’m leaving Sparta after this!”

But the more people complained the wider DeSena smiled.

“I’ve been next to a green beret and navy seals,” he explained. “They’ve cursed at me and said they’re currently in the military and they’ve never done anything quite like it. You’re carrying weight, you’re crawling through things, you’re in the mud, you’re throwing spears. I’m bringing back all those primal, innate instincts in a human being.”

Throwing a spear at a target made of hay wasn’t as “innate” as DeSena might have thought.  If a spear didn’t stick, and most of them didn’t, volunteers cheerfully watched as the racer performed 30 burpees, a full body exercise used by football coaches and military drill instructors when push-ups aren’t considered punishment enough.

Adventure Race Mania

Only 8 people showed up for DeSena’s first event.  More than 8,000 showed up for his tenth.  It’s an amazing rate of growth, and DeSena’s Spartan series isn’t the only competitor in a crowded adventure race market.

“I heard…one of the Grey’s Anatomy celebrities was apparently on site,” said Amelia Richmond.

Richmond is the PR Manager for Squaw Valley, USA in Northern California, where celebrities and non-celebrities alike climbed 3,500 feet of vertical and tackled 24 obstacles during a Tough Mudder event last month.

“They erected basically a high dive that people had to jump off into very cold water,” she described. “And that was just the tip of the iceberg. There were ice baths and log carrier and electric shocker nodes.”

Yes, that’s right.  Electric shocker nodes.  Tough Mudders must pass through 10,000 volts of electricity on their way to the finish line, where they receive a medal, but no official time.  The Tough Mudder is considered an endurance event, not a race.

The Trend is Born

Englishman Will Dean came up with the idea in 2008 while studying for his MBA at the Harvard Business School.  He wrote up a business plan and showed it to a few professors.  He says they all agreed it was a “categorically stupid idea.”

He pulled together an $8,000 marketing budget and scheduled his first event for May of 2010 anyway. Five thousand participants signed up in just five weeks.  Even Dean was amazed.

“I would never have guessed,” he said. “I don’t think any Harvard Business School Professors thought in our second year of operations we’d be doing 150,000 participants to our events and $25 million in revenues, or that we would have a million Facebook fans or 35 staff. So it’s been a pretty insane first two years for us.”

A thousand people have already had the Tough Mudder logo permanently tattooed on their bodies.  And, like any good business school graduate, Dean has studied the trend behind his success.

“Experiences are a luxury,” Dean observed, “and they’re a luxury…worth spending a lot of money on, because, unlike the latest iPhone, it’s not something that’s going to be out-of-date or useless a year or two from now.”

A Group Activity

Dean says people put the highest priority on experiences they can share with their friends.  That’s certainly something that’s brought Cynthia August of Ipswitch, Massachusetts to adventure racing time and time again.  She started doing mud runs and Warrior Dashes a few years ago, after completing a cross country 5K with a group of girlfriends.

Cynthia’s in her forties now and says adventure racing is her mid-life crisis.  There have been moments when she thought she might die from exhaustion, but she says she’s never considered quitting.

“It’s about survival,” she explains. “And I think it goes back to reaching a certain point in your life when you understand that you are in control of your own ability to survive things and make it through things and to continually reaffirm that…your own power of will is enough. Giving up has never really been on my mind. Especially when I’m in a tutu. I mean, come on, who quits in a tutu?”

Cynthia has run through apple orchards, scaled walls, and pulled mud from places she didn’t even know existed.  Still, she says, she’s always looking for the next challenge.

“Heck, there are people at the race…who are running around pressing pamphlets in your hand, saying ‘Have you seen this one?’ ‘How about this one?’ ‘Hey look at this one! This one has lobsters!’”

It leaves one to wonder, what’s next?  After defeating electric shocker nodes and football field lengths of barbed wire, where can athletes find a new challenge?

Running from Zombies

Derek Smith is the co-founder of Run For Your Lives, a race debuting on Saturday in Darlington, Maryland, an hour north of Baltimore. The event generated enormous buzz, and volunteer zombie positions filled up even faster than the race itself.

“We came up with the name and it was ‘Run for your Lives’ and we said, ‘What are people going to run from?’” Smith said. “It just seemed zombies was the perfect fit.”

Smith says many of the nearly 10,000 registered runners are former couch potatoes who were inspired by the race’s unusual theme, and he offers some sage advice.

“Expect the unexpected. It’s not just being physically fit, but you’ll have to be mentally aware of which way to go and what’s going to be the most efficient way to get to the finish line.”

Like a lot of her friends, Cynthia August was immediately ready to sign up.

“You know, zombies are so trendy,” August declared. “That’s genius. That’s just cool.”

Soon, August won’t have to fly to Baltimore to run from zombies.  More than a month before today’s inaugural race, Run For Your Lives announced a schedule that includes seven more events across the country in 2012: in Boston, Atlanta, Indianapolis, Pittsburg, the Pacific Northwest, Southern California, and Austin, Texas.