Obstacle Course Racing Goes Big Time!

Obstacle sport racing is still growing by leaps and bounds in the U.S. and around the world. Participants need endurance, agility, strength and speed to quickly and effectively maneuver through a variety of obstacles and challenges—including crawling through mud under barbed wire. Photo: Courtesy of Spartan Race

Huge participation numbers and TV contracts are increasing exposure.

As Amelia Boone headed to the starting line at the 2013 Spartan Race World Championships last September in Killington, Vt., it was clear things were different.

Instead of a small-time event without much fanfare as was the case in 2012, suddenly there was incredible hype and media attention. And there was a major sponsor—Reebok—attached to it, plus a $290,000 prize purse. This time around there was a press conference for elite athletes, many of whom had some kind of endorsement. There were not only several photographers and video crews onsite, NBC Sports video crew was there to capture all of the action for a 90-minute telecast in early December.

It no longer felt like a local 5K among a bunch of weekend warriors. In fact, it no longer felt like any other race she’d done before. It felt decidedly big time.

“It was the toughest competition I’ve ever faced in a race,” says Boone, a 30-year-old corporate bankruptcy attorney from Chicago, who took home a $15,000 payday for winning the women’s division of the world championships. “It’s a sign the sport is really getting more competitive.”

Although it’s been around for a decade, obstacle course racing has suddenly exploded with a white-hot aura of competitiveness, huge participation numbers, A-list sponsorships and media exposure. Big events regularly draw more than 20,000 to an event venue over two days. It was featured on the cover of Competitor and Outside Magazine in March, attempts to form a national sanctioning body are being pursued and additional TV broadcasts are in the works this year.

RELATED: Obstacle Course Racing Tips

A recent report from the Running USA trade organization estimated that there were 4 million participants in alternative types of running-related events in 2013, while another report from Active.com showed that 53 percent of those types of events were mud runs or obstacle course races. And it’s not just in the U.S.—it’s a worldwide phenomenon with an estimated 5,000 events and as many as 10 million participants in more than 30 countries in 2014.

“It’s just like this new wild and crazy wave that’s going throughout the world,” says Hunter McIntyre, 25, a personal trainer and spin instructor who has become one of the rising stars of the sport. “As much as it is a fitness sport kind of like CrossFit, there’s also a different side to it where you can have this raw, beautiful outdoor experience. You can race in Montana or Southern California or in the mountains of Vermont. It’s incredible and it’s always different.”

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These days, you can run through foam, into colored mist and away from zombies. Many races specialize in mud. Some are about adventure with a combination of events. So what qualifies as obstacle course racing? Brett Stewart, a 43-year-old fitness guru from Phoenix who wrote the book “Ultimate Obstacle Race Training,” offers the definitive view. He believes the first step to legitimizing obstacle racing as a competitive sport is to draw a line in the mud between the obstacle races and the runs designed to intentionally get you dirty.

“I’m trying very hard to re-educate people that there is a significant difference,” says Stewart, who is interested in helping obstacle course racing become an Olympic sport. “Obstacle racing is a sport. Mud runs are really more of a pastime. They should be fun. Obstacle racing should be a competitive challenge.”

Obstacle racing is just what it sounds like—running through a course filled with walls to scale, rope courses, barbed-wire barriers over mud pits and various tasks, such as dragging industrial truck tires, jumping over a fire pit, chopping wood or throwing a spear.

For now Warrior Dash, Tough Mudder and Spartan Race are considered the big three among the national series of events—or at least they are the most successful—but each has a decisively different philosophy about how their events should be run.

Warrior Dash was the first to go big, and in 2009, after 2,000 came to its inaugural event—10 times what was expected—it expanded nationwide. In 2010, more than 120,000 participated, and in 2013, Warrior Dash hosted 600,000 in more than 50 events. Spartan and Tough Mudder have enjoyed similar explosive growth in the past couple of years. “We quickly knew it was a home run,” says Matthew Robinson, who works for Chicago-based Red Frog Events and acted as a race director for many Warrior Dash events.

Part of the reason for that growth is all three, and many others, appeal to a demographic who wouldn’t want to run a 5K or a marathon, or even train for one. Warrior Dash encourages costumes, gives out fuzzy Viking helmets and free beers and sells giant turkey legs you can eat while dancing to live music. Yet Warrior Dash also manages to attract serious runners and triathletes, who either want to try something new, run with their spouses or need a break from asphalt.

Tough Mudder wants to appeal to the masses as well, and yet, it has put forth a vibe that says it generally couldn’t care less about competition until its season-ending World’s Toughest Mudder—or whether the event is even called a sport—instead preferring to consider itself something close to a team-building exercise. It doesn’t time its competitors, and before the start, officials make its participants say, out loud, that they understand the event they’re about to endure is not a race. Yet it’s not even remotely easy. Tough Mudder earns its name with torturous obstacles—submerging in chilly water, crawling through narrow tubes, climbing greased walls and dashing through electric shock wires—all over a course about a half marathon in length.

Spartan matches Tough Mudder’s intensity but not only encourages competition, with chip-timed events, it also thrives on it. Spartan is leading the charge to make obstacle racing a sport, even one in the Olympics.

Spartan Race co-founder Joe DeSena, who has pushed himself to his mortal limits in more “traditional” endurance events such as ultramarathons through Death Valley, expedition-length international adventure races and scores of Ironmans—including a dozen in one year—dismisses most of the mud obstacle events that aren’t competitive races as mere “parties.”

“We have been about being competitive from the start,” he says. “We’ve always viewed obstacle course racing as a sport. We don’t go out and party much. We like to compete. We really wouldn’t know how to do it any other way.”

RELATED: 2014 U.S. Obstacle Course Racing Championships

DeSena set out to attract the world’s best endurance athletes in 2011 by offering $100,000 to anyone who could win all 14 of its races. Utah runner and fitness fiend Hobie Call was a 2:16 marathoner searching for a new direction when he clicked on an email from a friend telling him about Spartan Race.

Call initially dismissed the race—he thought the image of the mud-splattered girl was silly—until he saw the big prize purse. He came close to winning it that year, eventually dropping out of the Spartan’s year-end Death Race after 30 hours because of near-hypothermia. But he was hooked and quickly became, along with Boone, two of the sport’s bona fide stars, winning dozens of events over the past several years.

DeSena praises athletes such as Boone, Call and McIntyre, putting them in the same class as Olympians. He knows mainstream recognition is a key to turning obstacle racing into a competitive sport followed by the masses, and that means marketing its stars, an approach used by all sports, from the NFL to the NBA to the UFC to professional wrestling.

Indeed, Reebok signed on to sponsor Spartan’s world championship because of the NBC contract. Any television exposure helps bump up the prize money, and that should attract even more top athletes. Prize money, after all, is what hooked Call, a marketable, viable star. It’s possible more money could give Boone a chance to do it full time.

Boone thinks about it, and sure, the idea appeals to her. It sounds nice to train twice a day and focus on races. But she doesn’t think the sport is ready just yet. “I may be 40 years old by that time,” Boone says. “I don’t see it in the cards for me. But there are people making a go of it.”

One of those is April Luu, a 34-year-old personal trainer from Peyton, Colo., who has raced an average of twice a month since getting her start at a Warrior Dash in 2010. While she’s been training and racing, her husband, Daniel, has been helping secure sponsorships. As of this spring, Luu’s 10 sponsors combine to cover her travel expenses as well as a little money on the side.

“People can literally make a living obstacle racing now,” Daniel Luu says. “When you look at the industry three years ago, it was nonexistent, and now it’s a billion-dollar industry.”

More prize money is on the way this fall. Even though they have decidedly different philosophies, each of the big three event series is holding its own style of season-ending championship this year (see sidebar), while a fourth independent championship has also entered the fray. Combined they could offer at least $500,000 in prize money.

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Although soaring, the sport has gone through plenty of highs and lows, including a few unfortunate deaths and lawsuits. With rapid growth and more money coming into the sport, it appears the growing pains will only continue. In order for obstacle course racing to become something the masses will take seriously, most competitors have said it needs a governing body, drug testing, safety guidelines and universal course-design principles.

Enter United States Obstacle Course Racing (USOCR), which was launched on Jan. 7 by Sam Mansfield and Mark Ballas to be an organization that will provide insurance to obstacle course races and racers, as well as help create standardized safety management while also offering racecourse inspections.

“With numerous benefits for members and race organizers, USOCR will hit the ground running by providing an umbrella organization to promote the sport and create a sustainable business model for race organizers and partners,” Ballas says. “USOCR will embody the spirit of OCR and be a valued partner to the race industry.”

Given the fiercely independent nature of the big national event series—and new races and series popping up all over the place—there’s no telling if the USOCR will be able to reach those goals. (Other events gaining a stronghold include Atlas Race, Superhero Scramble, Mud, Guts & Glory, Extreme Nation, Bone Frog Challenge and Terrain Mud Runs.) But many close to the sport believe something needs to happen to gain structure and uniformity.

“Honestly, the sport is kind of janky all over the place,” McIntyre says. “As much as ths sport is an incredible thing, it doesn’t have enough structure right now. When I first heard of (the USOCR), I wondered if it was just another group trying to make money off of the sport and off of us. It’s going to take time, and it’s going to take a while for people to take it seriously.”

RELATED: Gen Next—Q&A With OCR Star Hunter McIntyre

Having structure and standardization are two of the keys to getting the sport more exposure, credibility and, of course, sponsorship dollars.

Call, though, is a bit jaded. After agreeing last year to help launch the Extreme Nation race series in 2014—a concept he envisioned with shorter courses and TV exposure in mind—he parted ways in March after only one event. As of mid-March, he was considering retirement from the sport and possibly walking away completely.

“The industry is growing, but I’m not sure the sport is growing or changing at all,” says Call, 37. “As popular as the sport is in the endurance world, the truth is most people don’t know it exists. TV is where the money will come from. Sponsors won’t put up prize money without television and if the sport doesn’t get on TV, it’s not going to get any bigger.”

Ultimately, DeSena knows TV exposure will be necessary to give obstacle racing a chance to make it into the Olympics. He says the Olympics are Spartan Race’s “full-steam” goal and this is a big reason why his company has expanded into 17 countries and pushed to make the courses universal, with similar obstacles and distances. (To be considered for the Olympics, a sport must have mass participation and a governing body in 40 countries.)

Spartan may have to go it alone in the obstacle racing world if it wants to bring it to the Olympics. DeSena doesn’t care what other races do, and it’s easy to get the idea he doesn’t want the help to bring obstacle racing to the Olympics. Those “parties,” he says, are profitable, and he doesn’t blame them for that philosophy, even if he disagrees with it.

Spartan plans to set the standards for the Olympics, act as the governing body in every country and eventually present it to the USOC when the time comes. DeSena knows the next summer Olympics is too much to ask, but 2020 may not be, though 2024 is the real goal.

“The amount of work we’re doing is monumental, and that’s not fun, and it’s not very lucrative,” he says. “But it’s the most rewarding job you’ve ever done when you get the emails from people. We embody a whole health idea. We change lives. That’s a different message than, ‘Let’s just go get dirty.’”

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