Adam Spisak thinks a good way to spend time with your kids is covered in mud.
Last fall, nearly 1,100 parents and their kids agreed.
That’s how many showed up for the inaugural Big Muddy Challenge, an obstacle race with a twist: It’s for families. Adult-oriented obstacle races – the Tough Mudder, Spartan and Rugged Maniac to name three – have grown in popularity over the last three years. While some have separate kids’ courses, none were open to parent-kid teams, until last September’s Big Muddy Challenge.
Based on the success of that first race, held outside Raleigh, Spisak has turned last year’s hunch into a seven-race mid-Atlantic series in 2014, with two events in the Triangle and one near Charlotte.
The idea for the Big Muddy Challenge came to Spisak, who lives in Raleigh, in 2012. He had just completed an adult obstacle race, the Tough Mudder in South Carolina, and he envisioned someday sharing the experience with his newborn daughter, Margo. Trouble was, he couldn’t find a family-oriented obstacle race.
An obstacle race, with its emphasis on running through mud and water and getting dirty and climbing over and through stuff, seemed such a natural for a parent-kid combo. So he started putting together the Big Muddy Challenge.
“We planned for about 200,” Spisak says of the first event, “though I was secretly hoping for 500.” By race day last September, 1,092 parents and kids had registered.
“It was neat to see whole families competing together,” said Lynn Marotta of Raleigh, who competed with her 7-year-old son, Graye. “And the course was challenging without being too challenging.”
Spisak says the emphasis is on fun, not competition. That shows in the 12 obstacles he has planned for 2014 year’s first Big Muddy Challenge, Saturday in Youngsville. Obstacle No. 3, for instance, is called Chips and Dip. In about 10 inches of mud and water, says Spisak, family teams will need to find a specific combination of colored chips before they can proceed. At MudCasso, Obstacle No. 6, contestants will emerge from a soupy quagmire to draw a team portrait on a whiteboard.
“We’re expecting lots of family photo ops at that one,” says Spisak.
Family is the name of the Big Muddy game for the extended family of Andrea Norman of Huntersville.
“Let’s see,” she said, ticking off the roster for the June 28 Big Muddy Challenge in Weddington. “It’s me, my two sons, my sister her husband and their two kids, and my mom and dad.” Her mom, Sharon Norman, did one of the Spartan adventure races with Norman last year.
Based on participation in the first Big Muddy and early registration for this Saturday’s race (more than 900 had preregistered as of Monday, leading Spisak to believe the race should top 1,500), family adventure racing appears to strike a chord.
While family competition has been common to many 5K races and fun walks, Cynthia Edwards, professor of psychology at Meredith College in Raleigh, says there’s something different about this type of event.
A 5K, for instance, sends a good message about exercise and healthy living, says Edwards. Throw mud and water and a climbing rope into the mix, and the message expands.
“By watching their parents play, kids learn that life can be joyful,” says Edwards. “Playing teaches kids that parents are people, too. That life is fun.”
Getting muddy and being silly are especially important for budding adolescents about to discover that their parents aren’t perfect, she says. Working as a team, as equals, to accomplish a goal is also good, she adds.
That was one of the things Dave Case appreciated about last year’s race with his then 7-year-old son, Owen. “It was neat helping him through some of the things,” says Case, who lives in Apex. “And it was great to see his sense of accomplishment when we were done.”
There was another benefit for Dad. Two years ago, Case, who is 38, realized he’d become a couch potato. He enrolled in a three-day-a-week boot camp, lost 55 pounds and got turned on by his trainer to obstacle racing. Last year, he completed three Spartans, earning the Trifecta designation; this year he’s signed up for six and is going for a Double Trifecta.
“I can get competitive,” he says, “but all that was out the window with Owen. It was kind of a refreshing feeling, actually.”
Fun over competition isn’t the only difference between the Big Muddy and its adult counterparts. Bolting through live electrical wires (sizzling with up to 10,000 volts) and jumping through flames are signature obstacles for most adult races.
And the Big Muddy?
“No electricity,” says Spisak. “And no fire.”