The State of Obstacle Races – An Outsider’s Murmerings

(Note: I felt compelled to write this on a whim…I was certainly trying to avoid some other work so I spent an hour writing.  Comment, crush me, share, or do a mud run. – J.T. Service)

A number of notable recent press releases have alerted me to a new reality in the endurance event industry. Essentially I’m pretty sure its going freaking crazy.  Obstacle race series are shutting down, major television networks are simultaneously placing their bets on likely future winners, and disgruntled participants are showing their fury on Facebook.  Whoa…Facebook fury.  If the story of the last few years was the outrageous growth of unique obstacle events then the current narrative is one of uncertainty.  Gapping cracks are beginning to show in the alternative event industry, while other fitness crazes of the  Cross Fit nature could be here to stay.  For next few paragraphs I’ll muse on all of the above because I think it’s interesting.  So there.

For the past 18-months or so you could not go a week without a seeing a new mud run, color parade or electronic dance 5k series touting to be the next big thing.  As an example, lets play a quick game called “Guess which of the following are fake races!”  How about Bad Prom 5k, Prison Break Run, Electric Foam Run, Fustercluck 5k – Redneck Games, Goose Poop Challenge, The Crawfordsville Indiana Mudoapocalypse, Squish Squash, Disaster Run, Mudders Against Domestic Violence, Splattered and Battered, Hillbilly 5k, Armageddon Ambush, Westchester Medical Center Mud Run and The X-Run: Adult Themed Mud Run and Obstacle Course.  The answer…they’re all real. There are more than 600 new versions of these mud, zombie, punch you in the gut, and army crawl runs things.  (Event More here

Self Explanatory really.

Self Explanatory really.

Now lets take a moment and look over these fantastically named events.  First of all, do you have to commit a felony to make to the Prison Break run start line?  The Squish Squash people clearly saw that there were just no mud names left.  Personally, I don’t think the Mudders Against Domestic Violence should be allowed to also compete in the Splattered & Battered event.  It sends a bit of a mixed message.  Not really sure what to say about the Hillbilly 5k or the Goose poop Challenge, but I’m pretty sure both would fit nicely in Crawfordsville, Indiana.   And I still can’t believe the last one, but I suppose the obstacle at the “X-Run” is trying not to get herpes before you hit the finish line.

I should say where this perspective is coming from.  I’m a road race producer.   Compared to the Slutty Slopin’ Dash 3k we’re pretty boring, but we do take pride in the experience we provide, the preparation we put into our business plan and the integrity we share with our participants.  Personally I have experience competing in everything from the Olympic Trials marathon to running the Bay to Breakers with a questionable amount of clothes. Okay it was a speedo and a gold chain.  There are probably pictures somewhere out there.  Basically, there is a perception that plain bread road race directors don’t like those “Color Run” or Muddy Muck sorts.  Not true.  I’d say most are more likely intimidated and certainly envious of some of the numbers these events put up.

Personally I’m in awe.

The 2014 Color Run calendar.  Nice work.

The 2014 Color Run calendar. Nice work.

Please know that I have never had anything bad to say about the mud/color/foam events since the inception of Muddy Buddy, Tough Mudder, and the Color Run.  From the beginning I believed and still believe that these obstacle events add some really fun spectacles for all runners, walkers and party people.  Most importantly I think these new types of events also bring new people to the sport.  I mean there are only so many white-42 years old dudes in split shorts to fill up your charity 5k.  So internally our goal at both Represent Running and Soul Focus Sports has been to learn from the amazing digital, social and experiential marketing brought by this new breed.  While we didn’t necessarily join them, we have tried to learn.

On the other hand, I’ve been simultaneously concerned that new race directors or any Johnny come lately trying to make a quick buck or really anyone with zero event experience could have the potential to hurt the overall industry by simply cutting standard corners.

And unfortunately there are now signs of some decline in the obstacle space.  Has the bubble fully busted? No, but there are 600 new events out there and they won’t all be around next year.  I just hope it doesn’t hurt the whole industry or scare off a new potential participant.

For a second, imagine a new participant paying $20 via Groupon for a color run and then having it cancelled without an explanation. What if my son jumps off a 12 ft. mud obstacle only to be landed on by another participant?  What if I signed up for a run that advertised live DJ’s and foam party and I got this?

It does look like those 6 people are having fun.

It does look like those 6 people are having fun.

Over the last few weeks and months the following has occurred:  Hard Charge Mud and Obstacle Series apparently charged too hard, Foam Fest Run is done, Electronic Foam 5k aptly got electrocuted, Hero Rush stopped rushing, Run or Dye has been forced to combine events due to low numbers, Spartan Race was accused of not living up to charitable promises, some serious injuries across the board, and tons of participants not being paid back.

Don’t get me wrong, there are many successful events, large and small all around the country.  Just like traditional road racing or really any business venture; there are good obstacle events and there are bad ones. In fact, Spartan Race just signed a big deal with NBC Sports, which I believe is awesome for the whole industry.  There is a National Fitness League developing and the strength of both Cross Fit and the fitness craze will keep the top organized events in business for a long time.  Furthermore, there is a solid future in trail racing…the original mud runs. Perhaps you trail directors can grab some of those flailing mudders.

In the end, those not willing to invest in the long haul, those that fail to put their participants first, or rob Peter to pay Paul via deal sites & “Pre-registration” will kill themselves off.

My only recommendation is to look up Yelp reviews, check out their facebook page after an event, and perhaps peep (Brett Stewart does a pretty good write up on a similar topic here:

When you find good events that deliver on what they promise, tell others, and support those producers like a good groupie because what they accomplish is not easy.  It’s a total passion, completely draining, and their biggest goal is to see you smiling participants at the end of the day.  Note I’m running my first obstacle event on August 9th at San Francisco’s AT&T Park Spartan Sprint so I promise to report back.

Lastly, after you survive a Color Run, Mud Run or Hillbilly Hell Chase come on over to the roads.  We’re kind of like a nerdy frat, but more like the guys from Revenge of Nerds.  Like cool nerds.  Yeah…cool nerds.


Me trying to be cool.

Me trying to be cool.