Amanda Alarcon Banks likes to spend her afternoons crawling on her stomach trying to avoid touching dangling wires carrying live electrical current.
Touch one, and you get shocked.
"They're pretty close together, so you can't not hit the next one or two or three or four," she says in a matter-of-fact tone.
That's not all. Alarcon Banks also climbs slippery mud hills, leaps over fire pits and immerses herself in tanks of ice water.
"You can touch the bottom, but you have to go underwater to get across because they put barbed wire in front of you," the 25-year-old Tulare resident says.
Not only does Alarcon Banks do this stuff willingly, it's what she does for fun. And she is hardly alone.
Mud runs and obstacle-course races have exploded in popularity in recent years, especially among runners and athletic-minded folks seeking new challenges and thrills. The valley, always a little behind the national curve, is making up ground in a hurry.
Take last Saturday, for example. There was the WipeOut Obstacle Fun Run at the International Agri-Center in Tulare as well as a similar event called Over the River and Through the Woods in Mariposa. Both were held for the first time this year.
The region's oldest alternative running event, the Seabee Mud Run, returns May 25 to Lemoore Naval Air Station. (Mud runs have been held for years in Lemoore under different names.) Coming June 11 to Sanger is the Mud 'n Blood Zombie Run, which sounds like a cross between a footrace and an episode of "The Walking Dead." Even China Peak is getting into the act, with its first mud run Aug. 3.
"These mud runs and obstacle-course races have been going on for four to five years on a national scale," says Scott Newton, the owner of Sole 2 Soul Sports with stores in Fresno, Visalia and Bakersfield, and organizer of the WipeOut event. "We in the Valley are just catching up."
An important thing to know about mud runs is that they aren't created equal. They began as military-style obstacle races for civilians, and were intended to be grueling.
Many still are. National series with names such as Tough Mudder, Muddy Buddy, Spartan Race, Survivor Mud Run and Warrior Dash attract up to 25,000 entrants per event. Skip an obstacle, and you're forced to do burpees (full-body lunges used by military forces and football players) as punishment.
But there are hundreds of smaller, local events that emphasize fun and frivolity over physical and mental demands. The WipeOut Fun Run and Over the River and Through the Woods both fall into this category.
The biggest obstacle at Over the River and Through the Woods was the Mine Shaft, a 50-foot-tall tunnel slide that dumped you into a mud pit.
But for people who were claustrophobic and don't like being in enclosed spaces, there was an open slide nearby. Participants also could skip the mud pit, or simply walk around it.
"Mud runs started out as extreme sports with everyone trying to push themselves," organizer Joyce Summerton says. "We designed a course where everyone can test their own limits. My mom is 80, and she can do this course."
The WipeOut Fun Run was similar, even though it emphasized dyed water instead of mud.
There was a 140-foot-long tube slide that ended in a pool of colored water, plus a 40-foot barrel traverse with two swinging 6-foot-diameter rubber balls that tried to knock people off. And there were monkey bars, again over dyed water, with guys on top dressed in gorilla suits trying to pry your fingers loose.
Participant safety is another big issue. The WipeOut Fun Run carries liability insurance, and its obstacles were constructed by licensed contractors and tested before use. Alcohol, a common element of these events, was served only after the run, and water depths were limited to 30 inches.
Organizers were "trying to put on a high-thrill event that's comfortable for everybody," Newton said, adding that they didn't "want to attract the extreme element."
Women made up a large segment of the total participation. Newton said the Fun Run had an advanced registration of 2,000 two-thirds of them women.
Paula Anderson thinks that she knows why. The Visalia resident has done several mud runs, in addition to training for the occasional half marathon.
"A lot of women like to do things together that are safe and enjoyable," she says. "It's a camaraderie thing. We like being surrounded by the girls and having fun.
"And we love looking at photos afterward."
Mud in yer eye
Mud runs and obstacle-course races are suddenly all the rage. A spate of local events are scheduled over the next four months.
SEABEE MUD RUN
When: May 25
Where: Naval Air Station, Lemoore
Details and registration: www.active.com
MUD 'N BLOOD ZOMBIE RUN
When: June 11
Where: The Grove, Sanger (14265 E. Goodfellow Ave.)
CHINA PEAK MUD RUN
When: Aug. 3
Where: Huntington Lake