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Race your heart—or stomach—out

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Matt Kleberg eating a dozen doughnuts at the halfway point of the Krispy Kreme Challenge in Raleigh, N.C. (Photo by Jennifer Sherwood)

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A team emerges from the mud pit, the final obstacle of the Muddy Buddy Ride and Run. (Photo courtesy of Competitor Group, Inc.)

When Matt Kleberg crossed the finish line of the Krispy Kreme Challenge in Raleigh, N.C., he didn’t care what time he made or what place it won him. He was concerned with an entirely different achievement: keeping the dozen doughnuts he had just downed from coming up again.

Otherwise, it wouldn’t matter that he had run two miles to the nearest Krispy Kreme, consumed 2,400 calories and 144 grams of fat and then raced two miles back to the starting point in under the given hour. The entire challenge would be shot if he couldn’t stomach the sweets.

Call it delicious or disgusting, the Krispy Kreme Challenge is only one of a string of oddball races that have popped up in recent years. Adding doughnuts, costumes, mud pits, battles between the sexes—you name it—to the traditional mix, races like the Muddy Buddy Ride and Run, the SkirtChaser 5k, the Portland Waiters Race and the Encierro (bull run) of New Orleans are inserting lighthearted fun back into an increasingly serious sport.

While ultramarathoners might ask, “Why stop at 26.2 miles when you could go 50?” these race organizers ask, “Why not get chased through the French Quarter by a women’s roller-derby team of ‘bulls’ with Wiffle bats or run through downtown Portland, Ore., holding a tray of drinks that must not be spilled?”

But Jonathan Beverly, editor in chief of Running Times magazine, does not view these as actual races because the emphasis is not on competition but on the social aspects or unusual physical challenges. “Many would do better not to have a clock or awards,” he says. “It’s about having fun, working hard and enjoying being physical with others who enjoy the same thing.”

Whether they’re deemed races or not, the concept behind these unusual events can be traced back to 1978, when the New York Road Runners Club hosted the first Empire State Building Run-Up, a sprint up the skyscraper’s 86 flights of stairs—totaling 1,576 steps. But the annual run-up has mainly attracted a crowd of trained competitive athletes, with only 3,662 finishers in 32 years.

By contrast, the Muddy Buddy race, which involves biking and running and ends in a giant mud pit, pulled in 20,000 racers in nine cities in 2008. The SkirtChaser, a mix of flirting and fitness, as the name suggests, attracted 7,000 contestants in six locations. And hard as it may be to believe, 5,500 people took the Krispy Kreme Challenge in February—up from 3,500 last year.

These races may not be considered true competitions, but they are certainly competitive.

“I wanted something that anybody could do, that wasn’t going to be adventure racing, where you’re out there for three days and you’ve got leeches crawling up parts of your body,” explains Bob Babbitt, an Ironman champion who founded the Muddy Buddy Ride and Run 10 years ago as a “goofball” break from serious training among his fellow triathletes.

The Ironman competition, which combines a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike ride and a full marathon, was itself considered offbeat when it started in 1978—though it was measured by a different standard for absurdity than the Muddy Buddy, in which each pair of racers sharing a bicycle must alternately bike and run along a 10-kilometer obstacle course before crawling through a mud pit to the finish line.

“What’s really important to me is that people understand that it’s all about fun,” says Babbitt, noting that the Muddy Buddy has a Beast division for pairs weighing a total of at least 400 pounds, encourages all teams to wear costumes and insists that the rite of passage is entering into the postrace beer garden with a body caked from head to toe in mud.

The SkirtChaser 5k gives the women, who wear running skirts, a three-minute head start, creating a “great skirt chase” followed by a block party with food, beer and dating games. The SkirtChaser considers itself a “social fitness” event, says Sage Grossi, the series’ coordinator, where the run—or, rather, chase—is not the end in itself but a means to “burn just enough calories to enjoy a good old-fashioned postparty.”

The Krispy Kreme Challenge, an annual event hosted by North Carolina State University, challenges its runners with a four-mile course that is broken up into a pre-Krispy Kreme-consumption run and an “I’m just trying to keep them all down” run. The intent is to create a mass of glazed-and-confused runners—who this year ate 48,000 doughnuts, totaling over a third of a ton, enough calories to power a 60-watt lightbulb for more than 125 hours.

The races’ uniting theme? “There’s a lot of people out there who are intimidated by the fast races or competition in general,” says Grossi, so “the whole thing’s catered toward the fun.”

Sure, these oddball events still attract athletes who are serious about winning, but what drives most of the races’ organizers—and their participants—is the idea of getting outside, enjoying the experience and perhaps getting fit along the way.

“The majority of runners are not in the front of the pack, and we have to find different ways to challenge ourselves,” says Lena Hollman, North Carolina representative for the Road Runners Club of America. “For some of us, challenge presents itself in trying to run two miles with 12 doughnuts in our stomach.”

Or in the case of the lucky champion, more. The winner’s purse at the Krispy Kreme race? Six dozen doughnuts.

E-mail: jmb2259@columbia.edu