Fun in the mud: The rise of obstacle course races in Wales

Mud runners Image copyright iNVNCBL

The thought of wading knee-deep through muddy swamps is enough to make some people take a hot shower, yet others are paying up to £50 for the pleasure.

Obstacle course racing and mud runs are the fastest growing mass participation sport in the UK, say its trade body.

Wales has become one of the hot-spot destinations, with companies seeing participant numbers soar.

Across Britain an estimated 250,000 racers are taking part in 150 events every year.

Retired Wales rugby player Adam Jones and his lawyer wife, Natasha Louca-Jones set up the iNVNCBL race series in 2014, with events taking place in Coedarhydyglyn, Cardiff, Margam Country Park, Neath Port Talbot and Pembrey, Carmarthenshire.

Participants are faced with the likes of dune runs, hill climbs, cargo net crawls, monkey bars and carrying tyres.

"It's something everybody can get involved in, no matter what level of fitness or their skill set," said Mrs Louca-Jones.

"Everybody, whether they're elite runners or not, is capable of finishing the course. It doesn't matter if it takes an hour to get around or three."

The couple, who live in Cardiff, said they purposely make the obstacles difficult to encourage team work and camaraderie.

"People sign up as individuals and end as a team," said Mr Jones.

The race series has seen entries rise from about 300 people taking part in the first event to 1,800 this year.

Image copyright iNVNCBL
Image caption Wales rugby star Shane Williams, no stranger to mud, has taken part in iNVNCBL
Image copyright iNVNCBL

Fintan Godkin, a former police officer from St Davids, Pembrokeshire organised his first mud run to raise money for the local rugby club in 2010.

Such was the success, that he now stages the Man Up UK Really Muddy Weekend, with courses designed for adults and children and entertainment afterwards.

"The event has grown over the years," he said, with nearly 200 people signed up this year.

"People travel from Cardiff and Bristol and across from Ireland to take part," he said.

Mr Godkin creates his course on a farm on the St Davids peninsula using mostly natural obstacles, such as hay stacks, log trenches, ditches and ponds, along with a few man made challenges.

Unlike his other events, which attract serious athletes, he said everyone can do the mud run.

"It's all about bonding and having a laugh," he said, with finishers rewarded with a T-shirt and warm mud bath.

"Some people think it's crazy and other people love it."

Mr Godkin said while the mud run did attract competitive runners, 90% of participants did it as part of a team, with many opting for fancy dress.

Image copyright Western Telegraph
Image caption St Davids mud runners enjoy a bath after finishing the course
Image copyright Man Up UK
Image caption Festive mud runners are pictured with Man Up UK director and rugby pundit Sean Holley

Sarah King is the founder and race director of Gladiator Events Ltd which runs the Gauntlet Games in Cardiff, London, Manchester, Brighton and Winchester.

She has been in the events and obstacle industry for over 12 years, and started the company because she wanted to offer a race that was more about fun than fitness.

The Gladiator Games were first held in 2014, and have seen participant numbers double each year, with 1,500 people signed up to take part in 2017.

Over 20 man-made obstacles resemble a set from Total Wipeout or It's a Knockout, ranging from webs and wobbly bridges to see saws and giant ball pits.

Entrants have to dodge paint guns, muddy bogs and get past the gladiators.

Image copyright Gauntlet Games
Image caption "People finish looking like they've been through a washing machine"
Image copyright Gauntlet Games
Image caption "The highlight of the gauntlet games is the foam belly slide"

"The games are not competitive," said Ms King, "our whole ethos is to get people who do not have a healthy lifestyle to get out regardless of their fitness level".

"We're always thinking how we can make it fun, and gladiators on each obstacle make it interactive."

Ms King added, for many people, the games are the first taste of distance running, and they hope it will inspire them to take up fitness.

She said the idea of having "quirky photos to put on social media" was also a driving force for people entering.

The Cardiff event is held at Coedarhydyglyn and Ms King said it is "by far the most popular" location.

Image copyright Anna Malloy
Image caption Mrs Malloy said it was "great to see team spirit in action"

Anna Malloy, 37, works as a PR and communications manager for the Port of Milford Haven in Pembrokeshire, and recently took part in Tough Mudder in the Midlands as part of a fundraiser and team-building exercise.

It is one of the more challenging events, with 20 military-style obstacles spread over 12 miles.

"Being only 5"2 I really didn't expect to be able to get over some of the obstacles," said Mrs Malloy, "but thankfully everyone helps each other, so I had a few human steps".

She said the worst obstacles involved sliding down a dark tube into a container filled with ice water and getting electrocuted by 10,000 volts as she ran through a curtain of wires.

Mrs Malloy, who confessed to always having a full face of make-up and pristine nails, said she enjoyed the experience.

"When I was a teenager I always had an excuse note for PE in school, and I'd never walked 12 miles let alone run, so this was massive for me.

"I read somewhere that there's a theory that people with desk jobs enrol in challenges like this to escape boredom and stress. I think there's probably something in that."

Mrs Malloy added: "For me, this sort of physical challenge is a world away from anything that I have done before. The fact that it was physically and not mentally challenging definitely created some excitement and a new sense of determination."

Image copyright Nina Colville
Image copyright Nina Colville
Image caption Three rugby players ready to take on the Gauntlet Games

Safety is something all the event organisers take very seriously.

They all stressed they carry out strict risk assessments on each obstacle and employ marshals, first aiders, lifeguards and in some cases mountain rescue teams.

Mr Godkin said there is a danger of people getting cold and twisting their ankles, but "managing the fatigued" was the most common in his event.

"It's a five mile country run and it's physically demanding. Some people turn up and only get half way around," he said.

Mark Leinster, the chief executive of the industry's body, the Obstacle Course Racing Association - or OCRA - told BBC England there needed to be a balance between challenge and safety and it had succeeded in stopping four races from happening last year over safety concerns.

OCRA wants obstacle course racing officially recognised as a sport.

"With a sport that is attracting so much mass participation interest, if we don't form it, then somebody else will," Mr Leinster said.

Image copyright Gauntlet Games
Image caption Competitors take on a Gauntlet Games gladiator

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