At his gym, Tony Weathers was known as Weatherman—a ripped demigod who could curl 225 pounds and run a mile in under 5 minutes. Outwardly he was a humble sort, but inside, down to his bone marrow, he hated to lose. If his fitness class was assigned one sprint around the gym in 15 seconds, Weathers ran two. If a coworker beat him in table tennis in the company break room, he challenged the victor again and again until he won. So on Saturday, April 14, as Weathers paced around the starting line of the Original Mud Run in downtown Fort Worth, Texas, he was probably synchronizing every cell in his body to win it all. Even if he didn't finish first, he told his friends, he would be among the top 10 finishers. Just wait.
The starting line sat atop a levee that managed the occasional flooding of the Trinity River, and next to LaGrave Field, home of the minor-league Fort Worth Cats. The parking lot below hosted a lively bazaar of sponsor tents; waterlogged mudders from previous heats helped themselves to the postrace beer, and promoters aggressively pushed leaflets for still more muddy adventures. (If you’re tackling a mun run, make sure you’re physically prepared with our Ultimate Mud Run Training Plan.) A few minutes before the 2 p.m. start time, Tim Munetsi, a 35-year-old telecommunications specialist and Weathers's friend from class, trotted up the levee to give his buddy a send-off. A coworker of Munetsi's, Huong Morgan, 33, followed behind. Munetsi and Morgan had already run in the morning fun races. Weathers had signed up for the final start of the day—the timed competitive run.
Morgan pulled out her phone to snap Weathers's picture. It was to be the "before" shot—before he crossed the finish line plastered in brown muck. She spotted Weathers, his head bowed, fist to his heart, lost in silent prayer. He kissed his hand and pointed to the sky, and then opened his eyes.
"Hey, Weatherman!" Morgan hollered when his prayer was finished, and raised her phone. He served up the same Hollywood smile that had made him a favorite amateur model for Krave magazine and earned him a spot as Mr. July in the magazine's 2012 "King of Hearts Kalendar."
Weathers made a lazy hand sign at the camera. He noticed the crowd gathering around the starting line. "Time for me to leave Tony behind," he told his friends, "and get into Weatherman mode." He positioned himself toward the front of the pack; when the announcer finished the countdown, Weathers bolted out like a cannon shot.
A mile from the starting line, Tony Weathers was dead.
THE mud run was supposed to be just a warmup for Weathers on his way to his ultimate goal: Hawaii's Iron-man triathlon. Today mud runs abound, but the Original Mud Run claims the distinction of being the first-ever military-style obstacle race for civilians. Started by a band of Marines raising money for charity, the inaugural race, held in 1989 in Tustin, California, had 99 participants. For years, even before relocating to the Dallas-Fort Worth area in the late '90s, this production dominated the field. That's no longer true: Mud runs today are as packed as rock concerts, attracting as many as 25,000 registrants in a weekend. Their meteoric rise is hard to exaggerate; Warrior Dash, which began in 2009 with one race and 2,000 people, is predicted to field more than 800,000 runners this year. The company that runs it expects to earn $65 million. Spartan Race also began in 2009 and will host around 750,000 this year. Tough Mudder, in only in its third year, is on track to rake in $70 million in 2012. Those are just the majors. Florida alone will host 40 different mud runs before the year is out.
"I think the appeal is that it gives you the opportunity to almost be a kid again," says Warrior Dash race director Alex Yount. "It is not every day I'm rolling around in the dirt, scraping my knees and getting muddy, and then jumping over fire." People have embraced the idea of competitions that don't require months of disciplined training, so if you just want to wallow in mud holes, beer, and chicks in wet sports bras, you can. The appeal is in the camaraderie and the sense of accomplishment that comes only from sustaining electric shocks with friends . . . while dressed as Gumby. Some promoters emphasize the physical challenges while others talk up the Mardi Gras-style joviality. Still others offer both, with a dose of Camp Lejeune thrown in. Richard Lee, a cofounder of Spartan Race, good-naturedly refers to Warrior Dash as "Woodstock, with obstacle-type things."
Yet as more people are drawn to the runs, reports of injuries are making news. Risk is inherent in any sport, but racing veterans like Troy Farrar, president of the United States Adventure Racing Association, worry that mud runs may be growing too popular too quickly for the well-being of their grunge-soaked fans. Weathers might have been the first to die at a mud run, but reports have surfaced of mud race participants in California, Michigan, and Virginia sustaining paralyzing injuries. Three people reportedly became ill from E. coli after competing in a mud race earlier this year in Scotland, presumably from contaminated mud. In Wisconsin, 26 mud runners were hospitalized after an event, including one with a fractured neck vertebra.