Obstacle Course Racing: State of the Union (2013)

HC TiresIt has been over a year since we first explored the state of the Obstacle Course Racing industry, and much has changed since our last State of the Union address. The explosion of obstacle racing introduced new races and ideas into the industry, but has also introduced fresh concerns and failures that endanger the industry as a whole. In this year’s State of the Union address, we’ll take much of our focus away from the advancement and demographics of the “Big Three” and dive into developments affecting the health and future of the sport in general.

Let’s start quickly by reviewing the status of our fore-runners in the Obstacle Racing industry. Using Google Trends, we have roughly correlated a race’s popularity and exposure through the number of corresponding Google searches.

Race "Interest" over Time

Race “Interest” over Time

As predicted, the rise of the “Big Three” race series (Warrior Dash, Tough Mudder, and Spartan Race) is beginning to stabilize as the market becomes saturated with events (we’re seeing similar market saturation that triathlons experienced several years back). It should also be noted that the exposure of Warrior Dash is continuing to decline as athletes seek out more demanding events, which has spurred the introduction of the Iron Warrior Dash, a Red Frog Event advertised as “The World’s Most Intense Obstacle Race.” According to a recent Obstacle Racers survey, potential racers consider an event on three major factors:

  1. Registration cost
  2. Event location
  3. Level of challenge

Breaking this down and putting it simply: racers are looking for an event that will adequately challenge their abilities, but it needs to come at an appropriate price. Races must continue to find a delicate balance between hosting challenging and unique events while maintaining reasonable registration fees.

AW-SwingWhile the exposure of Obstacle Racing is beginning to level out, we don’t see this lasting for long. As racers look to find new adventures and challenges, new events are popping up around the nation claiming to be the next big thing in obstacle course racing. Most are copycats, simply putting a themed spin on an existing race, but there are a rare few introducing industry-changing innovation. Events like Alpha Warrior bring a Ninja Warrior aspect of high-intensity obstacles and minimal running to the everyday obstacle racer. Mud Guts & Glory is attempting to establish a “choose your difficulty” concept by introducing increasingly challenging obstacles with race “exit points.” Events like Hard Charge and the Spartan Race Championship are slated to be televised by major networks across the US and will bring fresh interest to the sport of Obstacle Racing. Friend and two-time World’s Toughest Mudder Champion, Junyong Pak, was the featured athlete in the October 2013 Runners World. As media exposure causes an influx of new participants, the long-neglected elite level of obstacle racing will need to go through drastic changes to accomodate new, dedicated, high-caliber athletes. Some race organizers are working with travel agencies to create destination obstacle races that include lodging and additional entertainment in registration packages. We can only hope that this new exposure and talent will bring forth higher quality investments and opportunities that go hand-in-hand with industry-changing startups and innovation.

CancelledDespite the introduction of promising new obstacle races, racers are increasingly weary of startup events… and rightfully so. In August of this year, Hero Rush (a race that made our Best of the Best list) filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy after struggling to make ends meet. In September, the Great American Mud Run frustrated many of its registrants when it cancelled all future events. Races such as Superhero Scramble have cancelled individual events due to lack of registrations and even Spartan Race has offered large registration discounts after struggling to fill slots for its new Stadium Sprint series. Recent failures of new races are making it increasingly difficult for startup companies to establish credibility with a hesitant consumer base. The situation has become so problematic that we have introduced “OCR Keys” on our events page to help racers determine which races are just gaining traction and which are well established.

New races have struggled to find a foothold in the industry over the past year due to various reasons. The largest and most problematic barrier to entry into the obstacle racing industry is the large up-front capital investment needed to build obstacles, secure a venue, and create the appropriate infrastructure to support the first several events. Insurance is difficult for new races to come by in the first place (and is often very restrictive), not to mention costs have increased drastically across the industry since accidental deaths at several large races and the introduction of electrified obstacles at Tough Mudder. Down the With the recent success of the Big 3, venue owners are finding ways to squeeze more money out of new races that don’t know any better. On top of it all, racers are now waiting for consistantly good feedback before they risk registration fees on a startup race, meaning organizers usually lose a significant amount of money until they demonstrate the ability to host several consistant races. As a result, local, low-budget or grassroots races will find it difficult to expand without outside investement.

TM-safetyIn the grand scheme, race organizers continue to make solid improvements to their events as they learn from previous events and others in the industry. Spartan Race and Warrior Dash have drastically improved the quality of their obstacles and racers are starting to see brand new aluminum framed structures appearing at races around the country. Though collaboration between risk analysts and insurance companies, races are now ensuring that their obstacles and courses are more exciting yet safer than ever before. Tough Mudder’s horrendous parking situations have been improving and obstacle wait times have been reduced or eliminated for a majority of larger race series. As races dial in their infrastructure and race day procedures, we should see more creative obstacles and courses coming our way in the future.

OCR is alive and well but there is a multitude of change and opportunity lurking on the horizon, and nobody can be quite sure what the future may bring. Obstacle Racers will continue keeping a finger on the pulse of the industry and provide the lastest information and analysis as to the changes ahead. These are exciting times as we look forward to the progress over the next year of racing.

What are your views on the current state of Obstacle Racing? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below!

About Michael Sandercock

Mike is the Founder of Obstacle Racers, and has been an obstacle course racing fanatic since his first race in 2010. Mike is a multisport athlete who thrives on competition and challenge, competing in over 20 races each year including some of the world's toughest obstacle races. He has competed in the World's Toughest Mudder in 2011 and 2012, the Spartan Ultra Beast, the Ultimate SUCK, and the Death Race. He enjoys endurance running, but thrives in obstacle course races due to a focus on improving as an all-around athlete. He prides himself on finishing in the top 1% of races he runs.

5 comments

  1. Excellent article! Seems this topic is on a number of people’s minds lately. Curiously, I had written several posts on this topic earlier in the year…from maybe a slightly different perspective, outside the OCR “family”, so to speak. The links are below…in case they would be of interest to you.

    The future of OCR – Part I
    The future of OCR – Part II
    The emerging styles of OCR races

  2. After 3 years I’m getting a bit bored with some of the races because they keep using the same obstacles at the same venues with very similiar course paths. I wouldn’t be surprised to see entries from the “average joe” racers drop because the “big 3″ aren’t being very innovative with their obstacles. After a few years at the same venue with the same obstacles, it gets a bit old. I wish Spartan Race would try some new ideas like the Iron Warrior Dash did with their obstacles.

    • Very good point Chris. These races definitely need to continue to innovate if want to keep “average joe” racers interested. Unfortuantely, they don’t have much competition at this time to drive those improvements… let’s hope this changes in the near future.

  3. Well, I just did the Superhero in South Florida. They made it extra long and well it was bad bad bad. Since they are trying to sound good they have deleted a lot of the negative posts on their Facebook wall and claimed to apologize. First, we were told it was an 8 mile run with 25 obstacles. At least 1/2 of the obstacles were walls of some sort. Most of which were unsupervised. If not for some kind and strong strangers you would never get over them. They claimed in the run there were 3 water stops. Well, the first one was about 3 miles in after a long run (in 80+ degree weather, Yes January in Florida). When we arrived they were out of cups with no way to communicate to the powers that be to bring more. Again, and against my better judgement, a stranger offered us their cup to drink from. I took it thinking it would tide me over to water stop 2. Well we went on another 2 mile run, guess what, water stop 2 was water stop 1 after making a large loop. Sill no cups and running out of water at this point we were allowed to stand as the 2 volunteers poured water into our mouth. Off we go again…another long run in the heat on a off road bike course. We get to the Leap of Faith, which would have been a great place to put another water stop since there was about a 20 minute wait in the heat at mile 6.5 with NO Water! Oh, I forget, I saw a medic carrying bottles of water and Gatorade, I ask for one and he tells me NO, wth) We jump in swim our 240 yards and bam the water is just at the other side. Great we only have 1.5 miles to go, we can do this…but, nope it was not 8 miles it was actually closer to 10.2 as we found out later. We start another long run we come to a place where you have a to drag a cylinder around a loop with a chain. There the volunteer (about the only one we saw all day) was yelling at a lady for sitting down. She either had to drag the cylinder or call the medics (dont get me started on the medics). She got up and walked away (she was not feeling well and just needed a minute) since the volunteer was being nasty, but, this volunteer wrote her bib number down and called someone. Can you believe, we are not elite athletes just out to challenge ourselves and have fun. Than came another big obstacle rope climb, than climb a ladder over a 2 story building and a sandbag carry (my sons backpack is heavier than the sandbag). More running, than got to a trench, no water just a deep long ditch…uh ok. More running more dirt hills, 4 more walls than the big finally, yes the Fire and Ice…oh, wait the fire was going out and the ice had all melted so more like hot logs and warm water. The slide was cool. Than came the slime and mud crawl, but the slime pool was empty (we got to crawl through empty plastic and the hose did not work so we also got to crawl through dirt. We cross the finsh line…horray medals…wait THEY WERE OUT OF MEDAL (AND NO WATER! THEY WERE ALSO OUT!!!!). We did however get to write our names on a muddy piece of cardboard for them to mail us the Medals later, mayber. Oh, for those lucky enough to get a Medal it said 2013! Happy January 2014 South Florida!

  4. There are some great smaller races out there too, but it’s harder to sign up for one because you just don’t know. Last year I did too incredible ones, Bone Frog and Tuff Scramblers, that had very innovative obstacles and were even more fun than Spartan. But I also signed up for two that got cancelled without refund and a handful more boring ones.

    And what’s worse, this May Bone Frog and Tuff Scramblers are running on the SAME DAY.

    I hope we can get more people out there writing thoughtful reviews of the various smaller races so it’s easier to separate the great from the bad.

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