On a normal day, kids are asked dozens of times to act and look a certain way: Tuck in their shirts, fix their hair, clean the chocolate-milk mustaches off their faces and use a towel — not their shorts — to wipe their hands. They’re instructed to avoid tempting puddles, find detours around mud and to “be careful.”
Mud runs throw all of that out the window. Obstacle course races — like those hosted by Spartan and Terrain — are more than just races for kids. They’re absolute liberation.
That’s not an exaggeration. We’ve made a habit of registering our crew for the kid versions of any obstacle course race, known as OCR, that we participate in ourselves. And they love every gritty, muddy, grimy minute of them.
At OCRs, they get to break the rules. They jump over walls, test their physical abilities and — in an era of participation trophies — only take home medals if they actually cross the finish line.
They also like that every course is different and that they have no idea what is waiting for them. Sometimes it’s a slide, a mud-lined drainage tunnel, a Tarzan-style rope swing or a million stairs, like those featured in the challenging Spartan Stadium race.
While the adult versions of these OCR competitions do require some training to prepare for the challenges (think: carrying a five-gallon bucket of rocks or army-crawling through mud under barbed wire), the kid versions are totally accessible. Our kids range in age from 5 to 12, and they have been running OCRs for the last year and a half without issue.
Our kids are sporty, but they never train for the races. We have them wear clothes they could part with in case the mud stains. They grab their mud sneakers from the garage and wait for their start time.
Why do we love it? Because we can hear them self-talk their way through tough spots, we can see their pride when they finish first in their heat and advance to a winner’s round, and we can witness them realizing what their bodies and minds are capable of accomplishing.
It doesn’t hurt that when our start time comes, we have a mighty cheering section eager to see what challenges await them once they’re old enough to brave the full course.
If your kids want to give it a go, here are a few of our favorites. Entry fees can be steep when the whole family is participating. Book early to take advantage of discounts.
Terrain Race (mud rating: light)
If mud runs could be cute, Terrain would earn that title, if only for its monkey medal. Held Feb. 23 at Rawhide Western Town in Chandler (and again on April 6 at Old Tucson Studios), Terrain Race starts competitors in a group-sized tub of chilly water, so everyone gets wet before running through the starting gate. Kids obstacles include walls and desert crawls.
Spartan Race (mud rating: moderate)
The Spartan Race is held every February at the Fort McDowell Rodeo Grounds east of Fountain Hills. This year, it’s Feb. 9-10. The kids course is offered in half-mile, one-mile and two-mile options, and obstacles include sandbag carries, jumping over walls and crawling through tunnels. Kids receive headbands as race bibs, T-shirts for finishing and a medal at the finish line.
Rugged Maniac (mud rating: heavy)
This one sounds scarier than it is, but it does not include a designated kids race. Participants must be at least 12 years old. (Other OCR races typically include a kids race open to kids as young as 5). That said, Rugged Maniac is entirely doable. Held April 6 at Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park in Chandler, the atmosphere is fun, the course is incredibly muddy, and it includes obstacles such as a massive teeter-totter that participants have to run up and down, and a warped wall that leads to a double-wide water slide.
Monster Mudda (mud rating: insane)
Held in Payson each June, Monster Mudda is hands-down one of our favorites. Although it means an early alarm clock on a summer Saturday to accommodate the two-hour drive, the day is well worth the road trip. The kids course includes a mud pit, a water slide and log fences they have to clear. The adult course, open to ages 12 and older, includes a quicksand-like mud pit accessed by a 10-foot jump from a drainage pipe, and ends with a gladiator-style gauntlet where spectators cheer from the surrounding bleachers. We’ve all done it twice, and we can’t get enough of it.
Tips for obstacle course races with kids
❱ Bring dry clothes. Most races have a hose-off and changing area.
❱ Pack flip-flips. No one wants to put sneakers back on after the race.
❱ Clear space on your phone for photos. You’ll want to take a bunch of photos, including “before” and “after” shots.
❱ Bring protein-rich snacks. The wait between kids and adult races can be lengthy. Snacks (our go-tos include jerky, protein bars and PB&J) can help.
❱ Enjoy the muddy, messy moments. Help your kids share their pride and find a good place to hang the medals they earn.
❱ Plan ahead. Visit mudrunguide.com to find upcoming obstacle course races in Arizona and across the country.
Lisa Van Loo is a freelance journalist. Ron Abelar is an avid outdoorsman and photographer. They are parenting five children in Gilbert. Follow them on Instagram @RaisingOutdoorKids
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