SBJ/September 24-30, 2012/In Depth

Down & dirty

Obstacle races clean up with events that are part fun, part survival of the fittest

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Stacey Osmon never considered herself much of a runner, preferring strength training to the solitary, joint-pounding nature of distance running.

But over the last year she’s donned black clothing, gotten filthy and channeled her inner commando, completing Tough Mudder, Warrior Dash and several other muddy obstacle runs near her Lakeland, Fla., home.

More than 2 million people will complete such an obstacle race event this year, navigating muddy boot camp-style challenges along off-road courses that range from three to 15 miles. Events attract up to 20,000 athletes a weekend to ranches, farms, motocross venues and offseason ski resorts, charging between $60 and $175 per entry, along with typical parking fees of $10 a car.

Spartan Race is among the events that have competitors running through fire, muck and mire en route to the finish line.
Photo by: Spartan Race
The category, virtually nonexistent four years ago, now includes as many as three national race series that each will generate more than $50 million in revenue in 2012, with the bulk of revenue coming from entry fees. Each of those three top national series says it is profitable. And dozens of regional and local events have sprung up in the last 18 months to grab a piece of the fastest-growing segment in endurance sports.

“I’ve never found running very exciting,” said the 39-year-old Osmon, who owns a company that works with children and adults with behavior issues and autism. “But I love the challenge of dealing with the unknown, the different obstacles, and the teamwork and camaraderie involved.”

That, race organizers say, is what’s fueling interest in events that seem part “Survivor,” part “Wipeout” and part “Jackass.” Unlike triathlon, which requires swim ability and a significant bicycle investment, an obstacle racer needs only running shoes. And while some events such as Spartan Race emphasize the competition aspect, most encourage office mates and other groups to navigate the course as teams.

“You can rally people who would never enter a running event on their own,” said Tim Mossman, 43, an engineer in Gaithersburg, Md., who has completed several obstacle events. “Even your more fit, competitive types often find it’s more fun being part of a team and helping friends rather than just chasing another arbitrary time goal by themselves.”
Unlike Mossman, the vast majority of participants are in the 21-to-35 age category, a younger demographic than road running or triathlon. Later start times help. So do finish line parties with bands and one free beer for over-21 athletes, an industry standard.

Obstacle races require both strength and cardiovascular endurance, combining running with climbing ropes and walls, slithering under cargo nets and barbed wire, carrying sandbags and logs, leaping over fire, and crawling through claustrophobia-inducing tubes and freshly dug tunnels.

Such challenges dovetail with many popular fitness regimens, including core training, P90X, boot camps and CrossFit, the barebones gym phenomenon that has aligned itself closely with Spartan Race and Tough Mudder.

“The demographics match up really well for us,” said Scott Taylor, director of running, training, golf and tennis for Under Armour, which sponsors Tough Mudder and is developing a shoe to handle the mud and water of obstacle racing. “The core audience is much younger than your typical running crowd. When you go to these events, it feels like a post-college environment.”

A sport is born

As recently as 2008, obstacle racing consisted mostly of smaller regional events and Muddy Buddy, a national race series where two-person teams trade off running and biking over a six-mile course, navigating a few minor obstacles before meeting together for a 20-yard crawl through mud to the finish line.

In July 2009, Chicago entrepreneur Joe Reynolds, then 29, debuted Warrior Dash, a three-mile muddy obstacle race and
Warrior Dash expects to attract a total of 500,000 participants to its 50 events this year.
Photo by: Red Frog Events
raucous postrace party, giving finishers a fuzzy Viking hat to wear.

Warrior Dash was an outgrowth of the Great Urban Race series Reynolds had created two years earlier after watching an episode of “The Amazing Race.” Warrior Dash has scaled more quickly and this year will attract 500,000 participants to 50 events in the United States, Canada and Australia, accounting for most of the $65 million in revenue that Reynolds’ Red Frog Events will generate from entry fees and sponsor deals with MillerCoors, Reebok and Monster Energy.

Though Warrior Dash is one of the shorter and easier obstacle races, it attracts an equal number of men and women, with an average age of 30, said Munirah McNeely, Warrior Dash’s chief innovation officer. Most races tilt 70 to 80 percent male.

“Being an attainable goal opens us up to a very wide demographic,” McNeely said. “It’s something for young people to do with friends other than just hanging out or going to a concert.”

Will Dean figured he could provide a more difficult challenge. In March 2010, he took a project that met with skepticism from his professors at Harvard Business School a year earlier and launched Tough Mudder, a roughly 12-mile obstacle course that includes a plunge into a Dumpster full of ice water, slogs through natural and man-made muck, and a race-ending dash through electrically charged wires. Runners, who spend an average of 2 1/2 hours on the course, receive garish orange headbands that some wear to work on Monday.

“It’s a real-life Fight Club,” said Dean, 31, a former civilian counterterrorism specialist in Great Britain. “This is what people want to brag about on Facebook.”

Tough Mudder’s launch coincided with Facebook becoming ubiquitous, and Dean said he’s spent millions on advertising on the social networking site. This year, the Brooklyn-based Tough Mudder will draw 470,000 participants to 35 events in the United States, Europe, Canada and Australia, generating revenue of $70 million, including six-figure deals with a dozen sponsors that include Under Armour, EAS, Dos Equis, Bic and 24 Hour Fitness.

Dean markets Tough Mudder as a team-oriented challenge, not a race. That’s a stark contrast to Spartan Race, which founder Joe De Sena views as a heated every-man-for-himself competition. Help is not allowed on obstacles and those who fail or decline a challenge must take a penalty of 30 burpees, the grueling, full-body thrust exercise that leaves athletes gasping.

Tough Mudder markets itself as a team-oriented challenge and heavily promotes itself on social media sites such as Facebook.
Photo by: Tough Mudder
“We do not want to be in the mud run category,” said De Sena, 43. “We like mud and running, but we view this as a sport and we think that’s why this is exploding. When you look at what you’re doing — running, jumping, climbing, crawling, perhaps throwing a spear — it’s a far more natural sport than football, basketball or baseball.”

De Sena, a former Wall Street institutional broker, once completed 12 Ironman triathlons in one year. In 2005, he created the Death Race (www.youmaydie.com), taking athletes through the hills and frigid waters of his adopted hometown of Pittsfield, Vt., around the clock until roughly 20 percent of the field remained. Only 51 of 344 entrants were left standing in June when the event was called after 67 hours.

Figuring he needed a more accessible event, De Sena launched the Spartan Race two months after Tough Mudder in 2010 and will attract 350,000 participants this year to 40 events ranging from three to 13 miles, including a three-mile course in and around Boston’s Fenway Park in November. More than 10,000 athletes are expected for what Desena said will be the first of several races at storied sports venues.

De Sena declined to comment specifically on Spartan Race revenue, citing the private equity investment he received last month from Boston-based Raptor Consumer Partners, but said “we’re right there” compared to Tough Mudder and Warrior Dash.

Shakeout on the way?

Like the obstacle race courses themselves, the category is flooded. In Florida, where events can be staged all year, more than 50 races will be held in 2012. There also are growing pains, such as earlier this month when Tough Mudder registered 34,000 athletes for a two-day event near Frederick, Md., according to Dean. But after rain and miles of Washington-area traffic backups turned the event’s first day into a sports Woodstock, Tough Mudder canceled the second day, offering refunds or entries into another event.

Some wonder if a shakeout is coming. Muddy Buddy, owned by Competitor Group, scaled back to just eight events this
year after staging 18 in 2010 and 16 last year. But Competitor’s Bob Babbitt, who created Muddy Buddy in 1999, said he’s not necessarily disappointed.

“We helped create a growing category that’s evolving like running,” Babbitt said. “Just as you have races from 5Ks to marathons, we now have obstacle events of varying lengths and degrees of difficulty.”

Everyone is looking for a niche. Sam Abbitt, who started the Savage Race in Central Florida in August 2011, grossed $500,000 on two races and plans to expand to six states in 2013. But he spent $100,000 on obstacles and said scaling from local to regional is the toughest part.

“People underestimate what it takes to produce an event like this,” said Abbitt, 30, a former general contractor. “There’s definitely a weeding out period right now.”

Others suggest the category has room to grow. Tough Mudder, Spartan Race and Warrior Dash have major expansion plans for 2013 domestically and abroad.

Dean said he didn’t fully appreciate the phenomenon himself until he was clearing customs in Australia in April and word got around that he was the Tough Mudder founder. Soon he was peppered with questions from security staffers
who had registered for his Melbourne event.

More than 1,100 people have gotten Tough Mudder tattoos at events. Spartan Race received 10,000 applicants for 100 spots in a Death Race competition/reality show called “Unbreakable” that was filmed last spring. The show will air in 2013.

“These events are now the Monday morning bragging rights,” said Dan Schorr, whose Start2Finish Marketing firm consults brands involved in endurance sports, including Subaru. “It used to be about catching the big fish or shooting 72 in golf. Now it’s that you got covered in mud and went through fire and electric shock.”

Pete Williams is a writer in Florida.

 
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