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Turning 40, I needed a good alternative to financing a sports car or having an affair. My wife agreed. Forty is a simple actuarial milestone, but it kicks up existential waves in the inner ear. More life is likely now behind me than ahead of me.

I needed something on the horizon that was physically challenging and involved friends. I decided to try a Tough Mudder, a 12-mile obstacle course that takes runners under barbed wire, over fire, across monkey bars, through ice water, and into live dangling electrical wires, all along the muddy way.

Just four years since the first one, more than 1.5 million people, average age 29, have completed a Tough Mudder. Outside magazine has called it the fastest-growing sport in the States; this year, 55 events are scheduled in 15 countries. Other obstacle-and-mud events are exploding in popularity. What started as a sport for fringe athlete-masochists is now an industry generating hundreds of millions of dollars annually, and seen on the Today show and Wheaties cereal boxes.

Late one night a week before the challenge, I noticed the worn brown spine of John Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress on our bookshelf. My family was asleep. My legs were leaden from doing squats that morning. I sat down to read again about Christian setting out on his metaphorical adventure of the spiritual life along winding trails, through the Slough of Despond, with tempters and friends and pitfalls along the way.

Now, after my own adventure, I think that Tough Mudder is The Pilgrim's Progress for an intensified age.

After checking in, our seven-person team walks up to a seven-foot wooden wall you have to clamber over—just to get into the starting area. My hand slips, and I barely make ...

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