Spartan Vs. Tough Mudder: How the Top Mud Challenges Compare

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Crawling under barbed wire with pals or racing past gladiators for the win? We compare the top challenge races so you can figure out which mud pit to dive into.

Tough MudderWith the popularity of CrossFit and boot camps of all kinds, it's no wonder that adventure races, in all of their muddy glory, have taken off.

There are now a host of challenges that involve hurdling fire and crawling under barbed wire (and less intense fun runs like the Warrior Dash, Dirty Girl, and Mudderella). But two major players dominate the field: Spartan and Tough Mudder.

So how do you figure out which mud pit to dive into? We talked to race competitors and representatives to offer you a side-by-side comparison. Whichever one you pick, you're going to need lots of towels at the finish line. —Lisa Elaine Held

 Photo: Tough Mudder


Spartan 2The back story

Tough Mudder: British Special Forces veteran Will Dean came up with the idea while at Harvard Business School and teamed up with attorney Guy Livingstone to create Tough Mudder. The first race was held in Pennsylvania in May of 2010. The pair designed the course to be incredibly difficult but put camraderie at the forefront of their plan, incorporating obstacles that literally require teamwork in order to complete and making the goal of the race to finish, not win. And every event raises funds for wounded veterans—the company's raised more than five million dollars to-date.

Spartan:  Endurance athlete Joe DeSena had an intense passion for ultra races. (He once did an Ironman, 100-mile race, and 135-mile race—in one week.) He created the 24-hour Death Race in 2005, and then joined up with competitors from the race to create a version that would be accessible to a wider audience. The first Spartan Race was held in Vermont, also in May of 2010. From the beginning, competition has been a core value of the concept, and Spartan rep Carrie Adams says the company's goal is to elevate obstacle racing to the next level. "We are not a fun run," she says. "Yes, it's fun, but Spartan has always been in the business of building a sport."

 Photo: Spartan Race


Tough MudderLocations

Tough Mudder: The company had 28 events in 2012 and now has more than 50 scheduled for 2013, across North America and in Europe, Asia, South Africa, and Australia.

Spartan: Spartan ramped up its expansion with a partnership with Reebok that kicked off on January 2013, and more than 60 races will take place in 2013 in the U.S., Britain, and Canada, and in far-flung locales like Slovakia and Australia. Spartan also just launched a stadium series, with races in venues like Fenway Park and CitiField, and a series on actual military bases.

 Photo: Tough Mudder


Spartan 3The course and obstacles

Tough Mudder: The courses are always 10-12 miles with 20-25 obstacles, and participants are not timed. The goal is to finish (78 percent do) with your team. No course is ever the same and terrain dictates a lot, but you'll almost always encounter obstacles that include fire, electric shocks, scaling walls, crawling under barbed wire, and ice water, says Bishop Garland, a former military man and New York City trainer who has completed more than 15 adventure races of varying stripes. As the name Tough Mudder suggests, mud plays a starring role. "They build obstacles that are nothing but mountains or hills of mud. It’s called their mud mile, and it lives up to the name," Garland says.

Spartan: Races come in three levels: Sprint (3-5 miles), Super Spartan (8+ miles), and Beast (12+ miles), with the number of obstacles corresponding to the distance (15-25). The course also varies based on the location. "The philosophy of the course design is to utilize the venue as much as possible. We scout them and construct the course and trail in an organic way," says Carrie Adams. Signature obstacles include spear throwing, climbing (often with ropes and nets), and gladiators you dodge as you approach the finish line. Participants say Spartan's obstacles tend to be very physical, but less interesting. "Tough Mudder's are a little more creative, while Spartan's are more formulaic," says Nantucket-based trainer Jami Lower, who's done both. And unlike in Tough Mudder, competition is key; top finishers go home with cash prizes.

 Photo: Spartan Race


Spartan 1Difficulty

Tough Mudder: Garland says the difficulty varies greatly by location and terrain, citing high altitudes and freezing temperatures as some obstacles you may not expect. "Doing it in Miami is easier than doing it in New Jersey. Doing it in New Jersey is way easier than doing it in Vermont." The miles are long and the obstacles are seriously tough, but since it's a team effort, you at least have the comfort of knowing someone will be there to help you out. And if you really can't complete an obstacle, you can always skip it.

Spartan: Opinions vary on which race's obstacles are more difficult, but one big difference exists: if you can't complete an obstacle during a Spartan Race, you're required to do 30 burpees before moving on. Of course, if you're looking for a less difficult, more entry-level event, Spartan also has more options, since the Sprint is just 3-5 miles, instead of Tough Mudder's sole option of 10-12.

Photo: Spartan Race


Tough MudderThe Takeaway
Either race is going to present a real physical and mental challenge. If you're a team player who wants the experience of finishing a course with a group, Tough Mudder is for you. If you're more interested in competing against other athletes in a true race, Spartan is the way to go. Lower sums up the difference like this: "[On the obstacles at] Tough Mudder, everyone is like 'Go ahead, you go first! You got it!' Then, when I did the Spartan, I was letting people go, and people were like, 'What are you crazy? Get out of my way!' My competitive side kicked in."


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