On September 18th, I ran through fire. Literally. Then, surrounded by crowds of mud-caked spectators screaming cheers of encouragement, as if I were some modern-day gladiator, I dove under barbed wire into a shallow watery trench and crawled to a finish line. I was bruised and exhausted, but not done for the day. There were still the rewards of beer and barbeque to partake at the after-battle celebration.
I had just finished the Warrior Dash Northeast, a 3.23-mile race that went up, then down the out-of-season Windham Mountain ski resort in upstate New York. But this race was no ordinary 5K. Crazy obstacles—including a cargo net, waist-high wooden barricades, a water-filled pit, and the previously alluded to double row of knee-high flames—lined the route. When I explained what I had done that weekend to friends and acquaintances, almost all reacted in the same way: “Wait, there are obstacles? A giant Slip ‘N Slide? Barbed wire? Fire?! You have to run through fire?!” Almost immediately followed by, “Where do I sign up?”
The first Warrior Dash was held in the fall of 2009 in Joliet, Illinois, just outside Chicago. “We capped it at 2,000 participants,” says Ryan Kunkel, Vice-President (or Master of Monkey Business, as his title’s officially listed) of Red Frog Events, the company that runs the Warrior Dash. “We were excited and shocked,” he continues. “It sold out in a month. Following that there were thousands of e-mails asking us to open it up to more people and more locations. So, we decided to launch the national tour this year.” According to Kunkel initial projections were for a total of about 60,000 participants to have run in ten Warrior Dashes across the country by the end of 2010. Numbers weredouble that by October. Seventeen Dashes are already confirmed for 2011, with more in the works.
Part of the Dash’s attraction is that it’s a true adventure race—modeled after the original, multiday, expedition-style EcoChallenge that put producer Mark Burnett on the map in the late ’90s—but for the everyman. But the explosion in popularity is really due to the Warrior Dash’s strong community and lively atmosphere, which translates well to social media:nothing quite breaks through the din of Facebook like posting pictures of yourself crawling under barbed wire orjumping over fire.
Kunkel, who helped create the Warrior Dash with Red Frog’s founder Joe Reynolds, says obstacles were definitely part of the original concept, but an additional element was needed. “We knew that people were looking for a shakeup to the typical 5K. We wanted to create more of an experience than just a run and make it a day that you’d want to remember; an age-old tradition with family and friends. So we brought the music into it, the beer into it—the whole festival feel.” The all-day event features heats of racers almost every hour, while providing a stage for live bands, beer, and barbeque to properly celebrate completing the course.
The weekend of my race, September 18-19, saw over 14,500 “warriors.” And despite that default and intimidating designation, it was the best race-day crowd I’ve ever seen in my experience running 5Ks and road races. Throughout the event, runners interacted with one another, often shouting words of encouragement to help perfect strangers through the obstacles, joked about paying to do something like this, and—even though beer and food lines got epically long and overcrowded—were surprisingly mellow.
“I didn’t hear a negative thing from anyone during the race,” says Travis Kuhl, 35, who had the best time on Saturday with 23:04. “I think it’s the most fun I’ve ever had in a race.” Kuhl, a competitive runner since middle school who now races in triathlons, also noted the presence of non-runners in the mix. “I saw people there that I’m 90 percent sure had never run a race before,” he says, though he doesn’t know if that played a part in the laid-back atmosphere. Most likely it was just the bond of battle or the fact that everyone was completely exhausted.
“The warriors who stayed around to dance and drink were definitely a fun bunch,” says Jack McAfee, 26, who ran on Sunday and set the course record of 21:55. McAfee, a former college runner who traveled all the way from Chattanooga, Tennessee, credits the pure insanity of the Warrior Dash for its allure. “I think the primary draw of the race was doing something a bit more extreme than your typical 5K on the road. You can find one of those in just about every city across America, but in how many of those races can you hurdle over fire or crawl through a mud pit?”
The sense of danger that comes from the various obstacles is definitely unique to the Warrior Dash. “We wanted an event that appeals to thrill-seeking athletes,” says Kunkel “Our goal is to create an extreme race that makes people feel alive.”
And really, what makes you feel more alive than doing something that with just one slip or missed footing could possibly put you in the hospital? Of course, Red Frog does take the proper precautions—it’s a “controlled” sense of danger. (Though racers have to sign a waiver beforehand.) Still, most participants don’t walk away unscathed. “I think people wear that light scrape or bruise as a badge of honor,” says Kunkel.
And I know what he means, staring admiringly at the scabbed-over gash on my right hand and feel the ached of my bruised shin as I write this.But whether you get injured or not, the Warrior Dash still enthralls you enough to want to do it again. I’ve already signed up for next year, and have begun recruiting friends to join.But secure your spot early: average Warrior Dashes draw anywhere between 10,000 and 20,000 participants in a single weekend (races are held on both Saturdays and Sundays). “I’ll definitely be looking forward to this race next year,” says McAfee. A sentiment echoed by every runner I met—including a friend of Kuhl’s who broke her finger while sliding down the water slide. “She can’t wait to do it again,” he says.
As for advice for anyone looking to run the Dash for the first time? “It’s quite simple—just get out and run!” says McAfee. “And do it to have fun—race, eat turkey legs, drink beer, and be merry!”
Dave Odegard is Made Possible's Associate Editor. His work has appeared on Maxim.com, USAToday.com, CoedMagazine.com, Aol, and in the Assembly Journal. For the moment, he lives in Brooklyn. Potential Internet stalkers are directed to check out DaveOdegard.com.