In the Pacific Northwest – with its high water table and rich, dense soil – mud is to rain like thunder is to lightning – and the Pacific Northwest has plenty of rain. Rather than let the annual mud deluge become a slimy nuisance, a newly popular sport is trying to turn one of Oregon’s familiar realities into something worth celebrating: mud running.
Each year, event organizers in Oregon and Washington host obstacle courses that put their competitors through miles of obstacles, barriers, and generous amounts of rain-softened mud. Thousands of people across the state participate in these races, reaching the finish line much dirtier than at the start. Although these races are particularly well suited to the Pacific Northwest, mud racing, such as Doctor Who or fish and chips – was originally a British export.
Obstacle courses have been practiced as part of military training programs for over a century, but the idea of doing them for recreational purposes is generally credited to a towering British Army veteran named Billy Wilson, who mistakenly goes by the pseudonym of Mr. Mouse.
In the 1980s, Wilson staged his first mud race at his private English country horse farm and initially pitched it as another cross-country running race. Wilson came to event organizing later in life – before his first race in 1986 he had been a British Army Grenadier Guardsman, hairdresser and nightclub owner.
While his first race was just a simple cross-country run with some extra farming mud, it wouldn’t stay that way for long. Shortly after his first event, Wilson began adding obstacles for riders to jump over, then building increasingly elaborate facilities for them to navigate. The structures evolved into difficult deadly barriers that led to Wilson issuing a so-called death warrant – any deaths due to his run would be the contestant’s bloody fault for showing up.
Wilson’s statement turned out to be oddly prescient. In 2000 and 2007 respectively, two competitors died on the course. Despite the deaths, their deaths did not seem to dampen the popularity of the event. At their peak, Wilson’s races attracted nearly 5,000 runners from 40 different countries each year. Given its appeal, it was only a matter of time before the sport left its native England.
Mud racing was first exported to the United States through an ambitious Harvard business student named Will Dean. Dean caught wind of Wilson’s Tough Guy competitions in the late 2010s and crossed the pond to England to study Wilson’s quirky obstacle course under a nondisclosure agreement, which it quickly broke when starting the now famous Tough Mudder races. Wilson sued, forcing Dean to settle for $725,000, but the cat was out of the bag. Mud racing had arrived in the United States.
Combined with Dean’s marketing savvy, the mud racing explosion surpassed the original. In 2012, 1.5 million competitors in the United States participated in Dean’s Tough Mudder races. While Wilson’s Tough Guy racing was confined to the horse farm of a grizzled army vet, Tough Mudder has grown into an international operation, with races in countries around the world.
In an ironic twist of fate, Tough Mudder found its format replicated by a host of smaller local events who adapted the mud racing concept to their own specifications.
Oregon’s My Muddy Valentine and Dirty Leprechaun mud races are some of the Pacific Northwest variations. The events, organized by local racing company Terrapin Events, capitalize on the region’s abundant supply of fresh mud.
Aaron Montaglione, the founder of Terrapin Events, said he got the idea for his own mud race while running with a friend in Portland’s Wildwood Park. He had originally planned to host the event in Wildwood Park itself, but after the city of Portland withdrew permits for the event, Montaglione settled for the same type of venue as the early races of British mud: a farm.
Andy Kaufmann, an Oregon-based fitness business owner and longtime Terrapin Events mud racer, said a truss was an obvious choice.
“He went to find a farm, because you need dirt, you need mud,” Kaufmann said. “If you want that real down-to-earth obstacle course, you need a farm.”
Terrapin’s take on the mud racing experience seemed to have broad appeal and challenge for both competitive obstacle course racers, such as Kaufmann, and casual, family-oriented racers. . Kaufmann said part of the appeal of mud running is that it breaks up the monotony that comes with regular foot races.
“I think for the everyday athlete…the draw is the mud, the pictures, the glory, the challenge,” Kaufman said. “Nobody likes to run competitively… when you do a 5k, 10k, you’re just running. When you do an obstacle course, it breaks [it] at the top.”
The space of the mud race also allows runners to forego any attempt to get clean or stay dry, as the course demands a near-total commitment to getting dirty.
“It’s like this concept when you go for a run and it’s raining, so there are puddles on the ground and you try to avoid them,” Kaufmann said. “But once you walk into one, you’re like ‘agh! and you go through all the others.
The Terrapin Events course embodies this mindset on a grand scale. To navigate the course, riders often have to traverse deceptively deep mud puddles that sometimes go up to their shoulders, and at some points on the course they have to slide over slick embankments of muddy water.
For the annual Terrapin Races, as well as the myriad other mud races that occur each year in Oregon, the sport is naturally suited to the land’s rich soil and abundant rainfall, even though it originated in the other side of the Atlantic.