Since 2010, and arguably 2009, the sport of obstacle course racing has exploded into the mainstream view with seemingly endless vigor. The massive success achieved by some of obstacle racing’s front-runners has spurred the onset of copy-cats and competition hoping to find their niche in this new industry. Even here at Obstacle Racers, there was a week long stretch in the Fall of 2011 where we were literally adding new races to our events list on a daily basis. Let’s take a step back and take a closer look into the health and direction of this new sport… by focusing on the “Big 3″ race series: Warrior Dash, Tough Mudder, and Spartan Race.
Any doubters of the “Obstacle Racing Boom” should turn their attention to the sheer growth of some of the most popular obstacle races in effect. Red Frog Events, who hosts the Warrior Dash race series, points out that they have grown from 1,194 racers in 2007 to 150,000 in 2010, with a projected 700,000 for the 2011 race season. Red Frog hosted 33 Warrior Dash races in 2011 alone, and are scheduled to host 65 races in 2012. The Outdoor Industry Association confirms this growth, reporting an 85% increase in “extreme” event participation from 2006 to 2010. Spartan Race hosted 27 races in 2011 and are scheduled to host at least 37 in 2012 while Tough Mudder participation is projected to increase from an impressive 50,000 in 2010 to a mind-blowing 500,000 in 2012! Warrior Dash, Spartan Race, and Tough Mudder started in 2009, 2010, and 2010, respectively.
We know from web search statistics (gathered by Alexa over the past 6 months) that:
- the average obstacle racer has had at least some level of college education and does not have children. This data is not surprising… obstacle racing is an expensive hobby, with common entry fees hovering near $100 for major races, and race locations often require participants to travel and stay overnight near the event grounds. This is why Obstacle Racers offers registration discounts to several race series around the world.
- most racers are in the 18-34 age range, with a severe decrease in interest after the age of 44. Studies at the University of Houston have shown that cardiorespiratory fitness declines more rapidly after the age of 45. Due to the extreme physical nature of obstacle racers, it is no wonder that participation plummets around this age.
- Spartan Race generally attracts males while Warrior Dash interest is female-dominated. Tough Mudder is surprisingly equal, with slightly more interest from males. The Warrior Dash is notorious for being a toned-down version of the other two races (with the exception of the Spartan Sprint). Many women new to obstacle racing feel intimidated by the size and intensity of races like the Tough Mudder and longer Spartan Races, so they choose to enter the Warrior Dash or smaller event for their first race.
Let’s also look at how each race series has performed over the last two years in terms of web presence. Referring to Alexa’s daily reach statistics (found in the graph below) for the three race website, two things become very clear.
The first is confirmation of the incredible growth of obstacle racing: participation, which can be moderately tied to traffic, in the three events has increased by a factor of 5 over the last two years. Secondly, and most surprisingly, the growth of Warrior Dash has tapered off significantly in the past year while Tough Mudder participation has exploded. What is the reason for the difference in trends here? Here at Obstacle Racers, we are seeing a major trend of racers moving towards difficult races like the Tough Mudder and Spartan Beast. Racers have entered the obstacle racing world through social-oriented races such as the Warrior Dash and get hooked on the sport from their very first race. As they continue to train and run races, they crave and search out more difficult events to test their overall fitness and mental grit. Many racers become content with this length of race and level of difficulty. However, some athletes burn out after just a few of these races, while other racers sign up for events like the World’s Toughest Mudder and Spartan Death race… continuing to push themselves until they can no longer finish events.
This level of escalation poses serious problems for the obstacle course racing industry: Unless a race series continues to provide innovative obstacles and courses, increased difficulty, and better race incentives, they risk burning out or losing some of the most dedicated racers in the sport. On the flip side, when you tailor to serious racers and elite athletes, you risk driving away novice racers looking to get into the sport. Spartan Race has already taken a shot at dealing with this concept by providing four different races: The Spartan Sprint (a 3-mile entry-level race), the Spartan Super (a 8-mile race with improved obstacles), the Spartan Beast (a 10-12-mile race with brutal challenges), and the Death Race (48 hours of hell designed to break all but the toughest competitors). As long as the Spartan Race continues to create unique obstacle, and avoids spreading themselves too thin, they can reach a much larger audience of racers. The Tough Mudder, on the other hand, specializes in tailoring incredibly unique and challenging obstacles that participants have been raving about for the past year. In this case, Tough Mudder has become an expert at meeting the needs of a very distinct niche of racers, but will certainly start to see a decline in growth as market saturation sets in.
When we look at the entire picture as it stands today, it is obvious that obstacle racing is here to stay, and growing exponentially as more individuals discover the sport. I’m looking forward to watching how the strategies of the “Big 3″ play out in the years to come as new race series step up to compete in the industry and racer participation tapers off. As long as events continue to innovate and motivate racers to push their limits, Obstacle Racers will continue to follow, race, and report on them. That’s who we are, after all… obstacle racers… and we’re certainly enjoying the ride.
What is your opinion of the health and direction of obstacle course racing? Let us know in the comments below.