As the end of the summer approaches, the trails around Chicago grow crowded with runners putting in their long miles to prepare for a fall marathon. But while marathons and half marathons tend to be the focus of the season—and with 45,000 people preparing to run the Chicago Marathon you can understand why—they are not the only options out there for runners.
The explosion of obstacle, mud and adventure races has hit Chicago (along with the rest of the country) hard over the last couple of years. You can view these races in one of two ways—either a serious challenge that adds strength elements to your typical endurance event or a fun way to get dirty and do a race with friends that’s more about the experience than the clock.
Either way, this new breed of adventure running can be a great way to put your training to the test and end with a smile on your face (not to mention a beer at the post-race party). The busy season for adventure runs tends to be the spring and early summer, but that doesn’t mean you’re out of luck for this year. We’ve found seven great events that can either test your summer fitness or serve as an end of the season celebration. Or maybe you’ve been watching too much American Ninja Warrior this summer and want a little taste of that excitement for yourself. Whatever your motivation, you'll find that getting dirty can bring a welcome addition to your racing calendar.
1. Spartan Race
The Spartan Race is one of the major event organizers of adventure running, putting on hundreds of races over the world. The Chicago stop offers two different options over the weekend of Aug. 15-16. The super race is an 8-10 mile endurance challenge with 24-29 obstacles. This isn’t a jump-in-for-the-fun-of-it event. The fastest competitors are expected to take 80 minutes to finish the course, which is held at Cliff’s Off-Road Park in Marseilles, IL. The sprint race is a more manageable 3-5 miles with 20-23 obstacles, but it’s still quite a challenge.
You won’t find many races with more (or more interesting) obstacles than the Spartan Race. Some favorites are the Tyrolean Traverse, in which you crawl along a rope running parallel above water below, and the Spear Throw, where you have one try to throw a javelin into a hay target. If you don’t complete an obstacle, you’re given a penalty of burpees (pushups where you stand-up between each one).
The park, which usually has four-wheel drive vehicles having fun in the dirt, is just off I-80 about two hours west of Chicago.
2. Savage Race
Another national series—although this one only has 12 races a year—the Savage Race comes to Spring Grove, IL, on Aug. 22. The 5.5-mile run features 25 obstacles, including its signature Colossus, a 43-foot quarter pipe that must be climbed via ropes with a free-fall water slide on the other side. Those fans of American Ninja Warrior will certainly enjoy the Sawtooth, a series of monkey bars that will test any athlete’s upper-body strength. This is another race better suited to those in good shape and looking for a serious challenge, rather than just a chance to get muddy with friends.
3. Badass Dash
The Badass Dash , which benefits Autism Speaks, comes to Rosemont, IL, on Aug. 29. The race features an elite, recreational and kids division, allowing anyone to participate on a course that suits his or her skill level. The Badass Dash even has a K9 division, which allows competitors to compete with their dog. You’ll find between 25 and 35 obstacles, depending on the course, including things like the climbing up a hill on your back under a cargo net and a slip-n-slide that tends to bring the most smiles.
MuckFest , which benefits the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, dubs its event as “built for laughs,” which gives you an idea of what to expect. The emphasis here is on having a good time. Muckfest takes place at the Lake County Fairground in Grayslake, IL, on Aug. 29, and expect lots of mud and water. If you can’t complete an obstacle, there’s no penalty. But you’ll enjoy things like the Spinner, which twirls athletes who will be holding on to ropes, and Crash Landing, where you leap stuntman-style onto a giant inflatable crash pad.
5. Tough Mudder
The Tough Mudder is one of the more difficult obstacle races around. The 10-12 mile course features about two-dozen obstacles, many of which are designed to be completed with the help of teamwork. It’s also the race with the most obstacles that make you wonder if this is a good idea. The race is known for the Electroshock Therapy, in which runners must go through a field of dangling wires, many of which have electrical current running through them. This year the Tough Mudder added the Fire in Your Hole, in which you ride a near-vertical water slide through a wall of flames and into a mud pit.
The event comes to Road America in Plymouth, WI, on Sept. 12 and 13. The facility, usually used for auto racing, is about an hour and 15 minutes north of Milwaukee.
6. Insane Inflatable Run
The Insane Inflatable Run , which features plenty of obstacles that you might see on Wipeout , comes to Northern Illinois University in DeKalb on Sept. 19. The approximately 5K course features close to a dozen different inflatable obstacles and slides, and emphasizes the fun element rather than the toughness. But several of those inflatables will certainly put your fitness to the test. The Pure Misery is a military-like obstacle that features 100-feet of alternating between climbing and crawling, while the Big Balls will put your balance to the test.
The BattleFrog comes to Lake Geneva, WI, on Sept. 19. This obstacle course race, inspired by Navy SEAL training, features tough obstacles for serious competitors and more reasonable challenges for both recreational athletes and kids. The Battle Frog course is approximately 5 miles long and features 22 different obstacles. In the Battle Frog Xtreme event, competitors can complete the course multiple times. The Battle Frog Mile is for kids 8-13, and features 10 obstacles targeted at the younger crowd, while the Tadpole Dash is for kids 4-8.