In the Pacific Northwest—with its high water table and rich, dense soil—mud is to rain as thunder is to lightning—and the Pacific Northwest has plenty of rain. Rather than let the yearly deluge of mud become a gooey nuisance, a newly popular sport attempts to transform one of Oregon’s familiar realities into something worth celebrating: mud running.
Every year, event organizers across Oregon and Washington host obstacle course runs that put their contestants through miles of hurdles, barriers and generous amounts of rain-softened mud. Thousands of people across the state participate in these races, reaching the finish line far dirtier than when they started. While these races are uniquely well-suited to the Pacific Northwest, mud running—like Doctor Who or fish and chips—was originally a British export.
Obstacle courses have been practiced in the context of military training programs for well over a century, but the idea of doing them for recreation is generally credited to a hulking British army veteran named Billy Wilson, who misleadingly goes by the pseudonym Mr. Mouse.
In the 1980s, Wilson hosted his first mud run on his private English countryside horse farm, and originally billed it as another cross-country footrace. Wilson came to event organizing later in life—prior to his first race in 1986, he’d been a grenadier guard in the British Army, a hairdresser and a nightclub owner.
While his first race was merely a cross-country run with extra farm mud, it wouldn’t stay that way for long. Not long after his first event, Wilson started to add obstacles for runners to jump over, then increasingly elaborate installations for them to navigate. The structures evolved into lethally challenging barriers which led Wilson’s issue of a so-called death warrant—any fatalities that were due to his course would be the contestant’s own bloody fault for showing up.
Wilson’s declaration proved to be eerily prescient. In 2000 and 2007 respectively, two contestants died on the course. Despite the fatalities, their deaths didn’t appear to dampen the event’s popularity. At its peak, Wilson’s races attracted almost 5,000 runners annually who hailed from 40 different countries. Given its appeal, it was only a matter of time before the sport left its homeland of England.
Mud running was first exported to the United States via an ambitious Harvard business student by the name of 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 eccentric obstacle course under a non-disclosure agreement, which he promptly broke when starting the now-famous Tough Mudder races. Wilson sued, forcing Dean to settle for the tune of $725,000, but the cat was out of the bag. Mud running had come to the United States.
Combined with Dean’s marketing savvy, mud running’s explosion surpassed the original. In 2012, 1.5 million contestants in the United States participated in Dean’s Tough Mudder races. While Wilson’s Tough Guy race was confined to one grizzled army vet’s horse farm, Tough Mudder grew into an international operation, with races in countries across the globe.
In an ironic twist of fate, Tough Mudder found its format replicated by a slough of smaller, local events that adapted the mud-run concept to their own specifications.
Oregon’s My Muddy Valentine and Dirty Leprechaun mud races are some of the Pacific Northwest’s 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 that he got the idea for his own mud race while running with a friend in Portland’s Wildwood Park. He originally planned to host the event in Wildwood park itself, but after the City of Portland pulled the event permits, Montaglione settled for the same kind of venue as the first British mud races: a farm.
Andy Kaufmann, owner of an Oregon-based fitness company and a longtime participant in Terrapin Events’ mud runs, said that a farm is an obvious choice.
“He went and found a farm, because you need land, you need mud,” Kaufmann said. “If you want that true, down-to-the-earth obstacle course mud run, you need a farm.”
Terrapin’s take on the mud run experience seemed to offer a wide appeal and presented a challenge both for competitive obstacle course runners, such as Kaufmann, and casual family-oriented runners. Kaufmann said that part of mud running’s appeal is that it breaks up the monotony that comes with ordinary foot races.
“I think for the everyday athlete…the draw is the mud, the photos, the glory, the challenge,” Kaufman said. “Nobody likes running competitively…when you do a 5k, 10k, you’re just running. When you do an obstacle course, it breaks [it] up.”
The space of the mud run also allows runners to let go of any attempt at cleanliness or staying dry, as the course demands a near-total commitment to getting dirty.
“It’s like that concept when you go for a run and it’s raining, so there’s some puddles on the ground and you’re trying to avoid them,” Kaufmann said. “But once you step in one you’re like ‘agh!’ and you go through all the rest of them.”
Terrapin Events’ course embodies this mindset on a massive scale. In order to traverse the course, runners are frequently required to traverse deceptively deep pools of mud that sometimes go up to the shoulders, and in some parts of the course, they must slide down embankments slicked with muddy water.
For Terrapin’s annual races—along with the myriad other mud runs that happen every year across Oregon—the sport is naturally suited to the land’s rich soil and ample rain, even if it did originate across the Atlantic.