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Like a casting call for “G.I.Jane, 2” or a zany reality TV sensation two thousand people hit their bellies and slither through a mud bog under flags after covering six miles on bike and on foot.


Before the mud flies: Sarah and I at Muddy Buddy Chicago.

It is an unlikely phenomenon: This may be the formula for the ultimate mass-multisport marriage of adventure racing, triathlon/duathlon, exercise, kinship and just plain old, get-dirty fun. The Muddy Buddy features two person teams covering a six mile (give or take) course while switching off riding a bike and running. What’s the hook? At five places around the course where the teams trade off cycling and running they must also negotiate a series of obstacles like the water crossing, low wall, monkey bars, rope ladder wall and then the thing they all came here for: The hallowed mud pit. 

Muddy Buddy is a seven event series than spans the U.S. including stops in San Jose, Los Angeles, Boston, Chicago, Austin, Richmond and Boulder. Of the seven events in the series, five sold out well before the day of the event. Selling out a Muddy Buddy event means as many as 900+ two person teams, or almost 2000 participants. Those are attendance numbers any race promoter would die for. It also means showcasing some powerhouse event producers like Competitor Publications, who owns the event, and Michael Epstein Productions as well as top shelf sponsors like National Geographic Adventure, Land Rover and Adidas.

Muddy Buddy is the biggest multisport success few people ever heard of. While attracting sell out crowds in the thousands Muddy Buddy has stayed off the hard-core endurance sports radar and flown under the sometimes too-serious hype surrounding the Ironman and triathlon boom. It is an event for everyone.

Muddy Buddy is about fun. It is about teaming up with a partner, be it friend, co-worker, boyfriend, girlfriend, husband, wife or training partner and going out for a morning of exercise and laughs. You simply can’t be too serious lathered in filth from head to toe. And by the way, when was the last time you actually negotiated a set of monkey bars?


Sunrise at the Muddy Buddy Camp.


Registration runs prefectly at Muddy Buddy.

“What’s great about muddy buddy is anyone can do it.” Bob Babbitt of Competitor Publications told me during an interview in August. Babbitt is a fixture in the multisport world. From the origins of triathlon at Mission Bay to the emergence of Ironman as the Holly Grail for the hard core endurance everyman Babbitt has chronicled the sport with Competitor Magazine. “Muddy Buddy is not about winning your division. Muddy Buddy is about getting muddy with your buddy.” Babbitt told me. From his office in California he brought me up to speed on the unlikely history of the novel event:

“It started with the old ride and tie thing…. People rode a horse and ran, switching off. The problem with that is you have this 300-pound thing with a mind of its own.”


Some people bring their own Buddy.


Others meet new buddies there.


Team names include the "Dirty Nurses" and the "Well Hungarians".

Babbitt recounted the grass-roots origin and feel of the event. “(Scott) Tinley was involved in the early events. They were fun races, he hid stuffed animals along the course and people had to find them to score points. We had some heavy hitters from the triathlon world out there- Tinley, Allen, Paula… Tinley teamed up with Kenny Souza. I remember him riding with this huge stuffed frog or something on his handlebars…”

The event stayed a local, minor affair contested in a much less than serious manner by the most serious names in the sport. It was a place for Ironman winners, record holders and World Champions to blow off athletic steam and relate in a non-competitive (less competitive?) format while having more than a few laughs.

The Muddy Buddy Concept became slightly more structured and started to go nationwide. “About 7 years ago a client, Brooks, wanted to produce an event for advertising promotional purposes.” Babbitt and Michael Epstein Productions took the concept mainstream. Since then the event hasn’t looked back and has been on a steep growth curve. The highly polished event production company, Michael Epstein productions, with a client list including the likes of Ford, Anheuser Busch, Nissan, PowerBar, Allied Domecq, John Paul Mitchell Systems, Audi, Clif Bar, Men's Health, Hi-Tec Sports, and Balance Bar is the driving force for facilitating the rapid growth in seamless fashion. Registration at Muddy Buddy runs without a hitch. This is particularly impressive considering most Muddy Buddy participants are not seasoned athletes, but first time event participants or weekend, armchair exercise enthusiasts. Clearly, Babbitt has found the magic formula for making the sometimes too-serious world of endurance sports fun.

There are many elements that make Muddy Buddy a success. First off, the team concept fosters companionship, and companionship fosters fun. Secondly, there is no such thing as a “Muddy Buddy World Championship”. The event simply isn’t that serious. Great athletes do the event, but they are in the minority. The spirit is one of participation and fun as opposed to rivalry and competition. This less intimidating format attracts couples and friends that are often unlikely matches for any athletic event: The spin instructor wife with the overweight executive husband; the local triathlete hotshot with his office buddy who is using his old bike from college; the two college runners who had to borrow a bike from someone else in the dorm and of course, a legion of people who saw the thing on the Muddy Buddy website (www.muddybuddy.com) or in National Geographic Adventure, have no idea what is going on and just want to roll around in the mud.


A different look at bike technology for Muddy Buddy.


The secret formula for Muddy Buddy hydration.

I traveled to the sold-out Muddy Buddy event in Chicago on September 11, 2005 to cover the event from the ground level for our website. Teamed up with Bikesport cover girl and USAT Regional Duathlon Champion Sarah Johnston we wanted to experience the event in all its gritty grandeur. We weren’t disappointed.

Muddy Buddy is like Woodstock. People camp out the night before the race and the atmosphere is decidedly party-ish. On our way through the labyrinth of Chicago freeways we found the Muddy Buddy event site on a sprawling equestrian farm at the edge of the suburbs but couldn’t locate our campground. Stopping into a local gas station for navigational aid a pair of women dressed in quasi-athletic togs and hefting cases of Bud into a new Styrofoam ice chest asked, “Are you guys Buddies?” Once cleared into the fraternity of mud-bathers we followed them to a field dotted with tents and bonfires. This was the Muddy Buddy camp, a cross between Woodstock, Burning Man and “Johnny G. meets Eco-Challenge”.

In the morning my associate, Sarah, and I wake to find the field alive with people picking up event packets and decorating bicycles. We are competing in the huge co-ed division by adding our ages together for a spot in the Co-Ed 56-69 age category. Since athletes switch off from running to mountain biking on dirt roads and wide open trails there are a lot of bikes in the transitions. It is important your bike sticks out. That is not easy in a sea of bikes festooned with balloons, flowers, inflatable dolls and every other type of tongue-in-cheek ornamentation. As members of the un-initiated we quickly barter some fluorescent pink duct tape from a team of girls in the tent next to us in a pail attempt to appear “unique”.

Packet pick-up runs perfectly and there seems to be a registration volunteer for every team. A crowd gathers near snaking hoses that feed the rising mire of muck that is the centerpiece of Muddy Buddy. It is rumored that there is almost 60 tons of “clean” (can mud be clean?) mud manufactured on site for Muddy Buddy. “They have a secret recipe for the mud”, Bob Babbitt tells me. The event announcer and D.J. gives instructions to the teams waiting to start; “Don’t open your eyes under the mud… there is nothing to see in there.” It seems like no one can wait to get in the mud. “I have CEO’s asking me to go through the mud pit again…”


Team mates overtake each other switching off riding and running.


Some of the terrain is challenging but it is all smiles
.

At the start I run and Sarah rides. We concoct a strategy for placing our shared bike at the lower right hand corner of the bike change-up area each time so I can find it easily once Sarah has discarded it after the first obstacle, a rope cargo net we will both have to climb over, D-Day style.


Sarah passes me while I run on the 2nd leg.


Over the rope wall obstacle at transition two of five.

Coming into the first obstacle after running about a mile Sarah left the bike right in the lower right hand corner. I climb the cargo net like an extra from “Saving Private Ryan” and grab our bike. Sarah is up the road running somewhere about a minute in front of me. Presumably, I will pass her on the bike as I ride to the next obstacle and dump the bike for her to pick up- and so on through five exchanges and about six miles.

Immediately after jumping on the bike I am in a waist deep water crossing that must be forged with bike held high. Sarah is getting up the road on foot while I slog through the brown water with a big group of other people holding everything from Huffys to fancy mountain bikes over their heads. Back on the bike, now dripping wet in the 80 degree heat (quite refreshing) I catch up to and pass Sarah in about a minute and a half.


I grab the bike for the fourth leg up toward the mud pit.


The monkey bars were the fourth obstacle.

Riding into obstacle two there is a huge inflatable tower with a giant rope ladder up one side and a sort of “slide for life” thing you normally see sticking out the side of a burning airliner. Having always paid attention during the pre-flight safety briefings from the flight attendants I am golden here. Up the cargo net on the inflatable tower and slide down the inflatable slide to the other side. Sarah will run into the transition area in a minute to climb over the tower, slide to the bottom, jump on our bike and then pass me as I run to the next obstacle.


Sarah climbs a steep hill with the bike.


Pretty Muddy and definately Buddies.

Leap-frogging over the rolling terrain over the low wall, monkey bars and other obstacles the teams re-unite at the entrance to the event namesake, the Mud Pit. Crossing as a team, participants must low-crawl together G.I.Joe style under a series of flags and then slither down into the quagmire to the delight of thousands of gathered spectators hooting and snapping photos or Uncle Al and Aunt Betsy all covered in muck like a battalion of impromptu Al Jolsons.


The view from the mud pit as seen during the race.

Sarah and I hit the muck with a loud slap and slide down into the cool, oozing slime for a game of filthy twister with about fifty other teams negotiating the quagmire.

It is slippery getting to your feet on the other side of the mud pit and the frenzied support of spectators is a big help as you rise up from the ooze like the missing link, now coated in brown, and make the final dash to the finish where race photographers go mad to capture just exactly what you look like as a full gown four year old but without the threat of an enforced bath and subsequent time-out.

At Muddy Buddy you can come home dirty without getting yelled at.

Once across the finish line there is a large open field where a giant green octopus of garden hoses sprouts tentacles that rinse the mud off competitors in the warm sunlight. It smacks of some new-age tribal ritual, with both genders hosing each others’ layer of brown gunk off to reveal their friend, boyfriend, girlfriend, husband, wife- all wearing a smile distant since the last time you rolled in a mud puddle several decades ago.


Your Muddy Buddy helps you clean off after.


It's like Woodstock and Navy SEAL training all in one!

Muddy Buddy is the event multisport needs. It is a tongue-in-cheek affair that brings people together and brings people into organized event participation. There is room for everyone here, from Ironman hard-ass to couch potato Oprah fan. But most of all, Muddy Buddy is just plain good, dirty fun- the kind you haven’t had since the sum of you and your buddy’s age added up to less than ten. I think that is a big part of the appeal.

Resources: http://www.muddybuddy.com

 

 

© Tom Demerly, Bikesport Inc.
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