From marathons to mud running

Cycling in an ironman, fire running, man running, swimming race

Marathon running has been booming for some time, triathlons have flourished recently and now people are flocking to gruelling assault courses. But how did recreational sport get so extreme?

It was once the case that a jog around the block was a respectable feat, but that's changed.

A half marathon, once the domain of the super fit, has now become rather tame. Today's barometer of fitness is becoming the triathlon and even this now has competition from Herculean assault courses that have competitors running through fire, mud and barbed wire.

But when did we become jaded with the usual forms of sport? When did recreational exercise become so extreme?

In his 1951 book A Question of Upbringing, Anthony Powell describes a boy who is laughed at by his school friends merely because he jogged to keep fit. He was, Powell writes, "known to go voluntarily for 'a run'". It seemed an odd notion at the time.

Now the boy's choice would be utterly commonplace and impressive feats of endurance go unremarked upon. There were 850 triathlon events in England, Scotland and Wales last year, 99 more than 2010.

The majority of those taking part were not elite athletes, but running laymen - albeit very good laymen.

"It's addictive," says Paitra Sparkes from Birmingham. The 42-year-old children's nurse started competing in triathlons four years ago. Currently she is in training for the Rome marathon in March and she will happily run 14 miles on a Saturday morning as training. That or an open water swim.

"I went to the gym and I played squash, I did all the normal stuff, but I got bored," she says. "When you start doing something different and really pushing yourself you can't stop. You find out what you can really achieve."

Then there are those who go a stage further. By day Lloyd Smith is a clean-cut professional, but come the weekend and he can be found covered in mud, cycling down mountains and running through barbed wire and broken glass. While some go to the gym, Smith takes part in Tough Guy, dubbed "the safest most dangerous event in the world".

"There's underwater tunnelling where you have to completely submerge yourself in muddy water to swim through a small, dark tunnel," says the 32-year-old from Stratford-upon-Avon. "Then there's the suspended electric wires so you get electric shocks as you run. Then it's the broken glass, mud pools and fire to run through."

All this is done in the middle of winter, with this year's event taking place at the end of January.

Image caption This is now regarded as fun

"I do enjoy it. Usually," Smith says.

He's not unusual. He is one of a host of men and women, young and old, who complete these extreme challenges, all at a time when we are told that life is becoming more sedentary, that we are not doing enough sport.

"When you work hard and do long hours time becomes very precious," adds Smith. "When you go out and do exercise you really try to get the most from it."

Will Dean echoes this view. Two years ago he launched his Tough Mudder event, another gruelling assault course with the strapline, "probably the toughest event on the planet". It includes jumping into a skip filled with fluorescent green ice, dragging a log through mud and again, the electric shocks.

Dean, a 31-year-old Harvard Business School graduate, says: "There has been a big change in what fitness means to people, it's no longer simply about aerobic exercise or body building, the focus is on functional fitness.

"People spend a lot of time working so it is very difficult to commit to team games like football or rugby. Exercise can become very solitary and boring. The thing with Tough Mudder is that you can't get through it on your own, you need the people around you to help you, so it becomes a team game."

Events like the Tough Guy and Tough Mudder are tightly controlled for safety reasons, but as with ordinary long-distance running there are injuries.

"We have had a few broken bones and a lot of hypothermia, but nothing serious, nothing that you wouldn't recover from," Dean says.

At this point, aficionados might point to the traditional sport of fell running. Speeding up a mountain, often requiring navigational skills as well as sure footing and incredible athleticism, sounds extreme.

There have long been fell runs, marathons and all-terrain racing, but the desire for extremes is growing across many sports.

Jodie Marsh transformed herself from a glamour model to a body builder, David Walliams swam the length of the Thames, Eddie Izzard ran a marathon a day, six days a week for seven weeks. There is a powerful idea of ordinary people doing unusual things.

Even people who only do one exercise session a week can prove their mettle by taking part in military boot camps, pole dancing lessons or cage fighting keep fit. One gym chain even offers the Warrior Workout - combat classes to music with fighting sticks.

But we are constantly faced with the idea that participation in sport is in decline. Since 2005, the proportion of 16 to 24-year-olds participating in sport at least once in the past four weeks has decreased, according to the Department for Sport. The latest Health Survey for England data shows us that nearly one in four adults is obese.

"I think we are becoming extreme in both directions," says sport psychologist Dr Victor Thompson. "Humans are essentially animals and animals are, by nature, lazy. But some people choose to do something about it.

"For years people will have been pushing themselves in their careers, but after a while you need a new challenge, another goal. They've been to the gym, they've done that, time for something new.

"I have been doing triathlons for years," he adds. "I used to be able to sign up the week before, now it's up to a year before to make sure you get a space."

Just as running to keep fit was once considered bizarre, maybe mud running will one day seem prosaic. The search for more extreme sport will continue.