Running: Mudders become fodder for alternative races

Ashley Long, of Redding, PA, raises her hands in triumph as she gets covered in blue color while she is running the Philadelphia Color Run early Sunday morning at Fairmount Park. The Philadelphia Color Run 5K, the Happiest 5k event on the planet. Thousands ran the race in the hopes to be doused with color made from corn starch as they ran the race course. There were different color stations, from yellow, orange, blue and after finishing they were given packets of color to throw in the air. In front of the Please Touch Museum in Fairmount Park on 07/14/2013. (MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer)

Colored corn starch? Obstacles? Foam? Mud pits? Zombies?

Events with these elements aren't races, but nontraditional running events, and they're exploding in popularity with mixed results.

While they get people off the couch who may have been too intimidated to try a traditional road race, quick expansion has lead to growing pains. Such events are now banned from parks owned by the City of Philadelphia.

"They became more trouble then they were worth," said Barry Bessler, chief of staff of the city's Parks and Recreation Department.

In 2013, nontraditional running events had four million finishers, according to RunningUSA. The growth of what I call stunt runs has been exponential. Five years ago, they had only a few hundred thousand finishers.

"These nontraditional events have an element of fun, of being a kid again," said Ryan Lamppa, media director for RunningUSA. "People want to bring their friends to something like that."

They're also noncompetitive. The Color Run, which had more than a million finishers in the United States last year, isn't timed. Sixty percent of Color Run entrants had never run a 5K before.

Lamppa, like me, considers himself an old-school runner and doesn't see the appeal of these types of events, but he doesn't think noncompetitive events are bad for the sport of road racing. Participants are "that new runner who, fingers crossed, we hope stays in the sport," he said.

This growth hasn't been perfect. In 2011, James Sa, a college student, was paralyzed after he dove into a mud pit in a Warrior Dash event. In 2013, 28-year-old Avishek Sengupt drowned at a Tough Mudder in West Virginia.

In May of this year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a report about 22 cases of campylobacter coli bacteria, a diarrheal illness, contracted at a 2012 Tough Mudder in Nevada. The most likely scenario, according to the CDC, was "inadvertent ingestion of muddy surface water contaminated with cattle or swine feces."

In a statement, a Tough Mudder spokesman said that event officials "take safety extremely seriously" and that "we are continually reviewing our safety procedures with all of our obstacles." The spokesman also said that most injuries happen on the nonobstacle portions of the course.

Stunt runs are not USA Track & Field-sanctioned events. Neither (most likely) is your town's 5K, but at least for road races a body of knowledge has been building since the first running boom of the 1970s. There is no equivalent for suddenly popular events that put people through dark courses with glow sticks or with wet shoes on balance beams or down a slide called "Fire in Your Hole" (the reference is to flames that meet you at the end of the slide at this specific Tough Mudder obstacle).

One reason Parks and Recreation no longer issues permits for themed events is that they're already at a saturation point.

"It's very hard for me to say to a local nonprofit that we don't have a place for you or your 5K because of some run that's being organized by a for-profit operation from Salt Lake City," said Bessler.

Plus, Parks and Recreation has been left with the aftermath. While organizers at an event like the Color Run paid all applicable fees and for pos-race clean-up, Bessler said, his department still had to clean up after participants covered in colored corn starch who jumped into public fountains and used public restrooms. (This year's Color Run will be in the South Philadelphia stadiums complex).

Lamppa expects to see fewer of these events. Already, there's a lot of repetition. For example, the Color Run isn't the only race series of its kind. There's also Color Me Rad, Color Blaze, Color Vibe, Color Fun Fest, Run or Dye, Graffiti Run, and Neon Dash, to name a few.

"Like any fast-growing sector of any industry, there's always going to be some that won't survive or they won't be able to keep up or they won't be able to grow fast enough to be profitable," Lamppa said.

Unlike road races, most nontraditional running events are for-profit ventures. Like the Rock 'n' Roll Marathon race series (which is also for-profit), stunt runs are geared toward experience instead of competition, at a higher cost to participants.

For me, that's not appealing. When I run, I just want to run. but if these events get someone off the couch - safely - I'm not going to stand in their way.