Western Pa. no exception in the growth of adventure races

| Tuesday, March 5, 2013, 11:29 p.m.

Teams of adventure racers huddled around tables at Nemacolin Woodlands Resort as the setting sun silhouetted tree branches outside the Laurel Highlands destination.

Grassroots Racing director Frank Eyth had just distributed topographic maps for the nighttime navigation stage of the annual two-day race known as the Two Below Duo, and there was work to be done.

With compasses and pencils in hand, the teams had less than 30 minutes to devise plans — preferred routes, checkpoints to prioritize — in hopes of collecting the most points in the three hours they had to trek across the Mystic Mountain ski slopes and surrounding property.

This, to Eyth, is what adventure racing is all about.

Grassroots Racing, which consists of Eyth and his wife, Bethann, of Mt. Lebanon, has been producing races in and around Pittsburgh since 2004. They all are different, but like the Feb. 23-24 event, they generally involve multiple stages, navigation, strategy and teamwork. Depending on the season, racers can expect some combination of running, mountain biking, paddling, swimming and/or skiing.

Adventure racing, Eyth said, is similar to obstacle course runs that have grown in popularity in the past two years, events such as the national Spartan Race, Tough Mudder and Warrior Dash series to Seven Springs Mountain Resort's Mud on the Mountain.

Those events draw on military boot camp-inspired tests and leave participants wet, filthy and even cut and bruised.

The Spartan Race series, ranked best obstacle race in 2012 by Outside Magazine, had more than 350,000 participants last year and has 60 events worldwide planned in 2013. Two are in Pennsylvania, with races July 13-14 at Blue Mountain in Palmerton and another Aug. 31 at Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia. The races are timed and end in a World Championship Finale.

Other series, including Tough Mudder and Mud on the Mountain, are billed as personal challenges in which simply finishing is the goal.

The Tough Mudder courses, which cover 10 to 12 miles and include more than 20 obstacles, are designed by British special forces and are not meant to be easy, but organizers are more concerned with promoting a sense of accomplishment than competition. The series began in 2010 with three events, and in 2013, they'll produce 52 in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom and Germany.

Tough Mudder spokeswoman Jane di Leo said the events give people an excuse to leave the smartphones behind, get out in the elements, get dirty, be challenged physically and mentally and enjoy camaraderie. There will be a Tough Mudder event within 90 miles of Pittsburgh on Aug. 24 and 25, but di Leo said they aren't ready to announce the location.

“It's not about running in a straight line or how fast you can go. It's about your upper-body strength, lower-body strength, core strength, flexibility, mental grit,” di Leo said. “I promise no matter who you are, something on the course is going to get to you.”

For di Leo, that something is an obstacle named the “arctic enema,” in which participants have to jump into an ice-filled Dumpster and swim under a board to get to the other side.

“I hate it,” di Leo said. “It scares me. Some people may be claustrophobic or be scared of electric shocks. You get pushed outside your comfort zone.”

Di Leo wasn't kidding about the electric shocks. One Tough Mudder staple requires participants to run through a field of live wires, some carrying as much as 10,000 volts.

Seven Springs' Anna Weltz said they're looking to add a timed heat to this spring's Mud on the Mountain event after holding two non-timed affairs last year. The first event, held in May, drew 2,050 participants from 21 states; Washington, D.C.; and Canada and ranging in age from 18 to 69.

“There are so many different ways you can do an adventure race, so many environmental obstacles and operational ways you can do things and so many different venues, especially in our area,” Weltz said.

Eyth's races aren't easy, and participants will get dirty, but the philosophy is different. Still, Eyth hopes that Grassroots' style of racing can benefit from the popularity of obstacle runs.

“I think, if anything, they might feed into our races a little bit because people realize they can do it and start looking for something different,” he said. “I don't think it takes away from what we're doing.”

Karen Price is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach her at kprice@tribweb.com or via Twitter @KarenPrice_Trib.

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