illustration by Henry McCausland

Warrior for a Day

A group of scientists tests their mettle in an obstacle race.

Hot but not yet sweaty, the small group of scientists had ditched their lab coats for a motley assortment of spandex and microfiber athletic gear (save one outlier in an orange jumpsuit). They stood in a vast field among thousands of similarly clad individuals, stretching and jogging in place, exchanging nervous banter, and eyeing the other competitors. Over the next hour or so, they’d test their mettle not by trying to design the best experiments and publish the most impressive findings, but by leaping over flaming logs, wading through pits of mud, and scaling 20-foot-tall cargo nets.

The harrowing feats were part of an event called the Warrior Dash. “You run like crazy and go as fast as you can,” says molecular biologist James Bardwell, an HHMI investigator at the University of Michigan. Bardwell and biochemist Ursula Jakob, also a member of the Michigan faculty, recruited 11 members of their labs—two postdocs, four graduate students, and five undergrads—to enter the event with them. None of their labmates had ever done an obstacle race before, but all were game. “It sounded like a really fun, healthy, team-building thing to do,” recalls Adam Krieger, an undergrad in Jakob’s lab.

“Our labs have done things together before this,” says Jakob. “But I have to say, the Warrior Dash was definitely the best experience because we were all in it together, just struggling to get through.”

Billed as the “world’s largest obstacle race series,” Warrior Dashes are held year-round and worldwide; the Michigan scientists took part in a late July event in Mount Morris, Michigan. A Warrior Dash sends participants—aka, warriors—on a grueling 5K course through a “battleground” strewn with obstacles bearing formidable names like Muddy Mayhem and Diesel Dome. Afterward, they’re rewarded with a massive party replete with live music, food, and plenty of beer.

The event also has a serious side. Warriors can raise money for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. And many hundreds of muddy running shoes discarded by participants after the race are ground into playground surfacing material by a company called USAgain. Since 2009, warriors at 200-plus races have raised more than $10 million for St. Jude and donated some 70,000 pairs of shoes. They’ve also devoured 35,000 pounds of turkey legs.

Bardwell and Jakob believe events like the Warrior Dash help build a camaraderie that carries over to their labs. At the race, the 13 members of their group split into smaller squads that helped each other navigate the challenging terrain. “You really have to work together,” says Jakob. “Science is all about communication and collaboration, and not much different from an obstacle course.”

Experience the Warrior Dash firsthand in this video from the Michigan race.

By the time they crossed the finish line, the warriors were bruised, tired, and grateful for the massive outdoor showers erected by race organizers. “You’re totally covered in mud,” says Bardwell. “Everybody’s taking off shoes because they’re all muddy. And everyone is feeling really good.

“The experience brought the lab together—there’s no question,” he adds. “When you go through some event that’s tough, you pull together as a team.”

Scientist Profile

University of Michigan
Genetics, Biochemistry