This post is part of a 7,000-word article on obstacle racing. Click here to read the main piece: Obstacle Course Races and Mud Runs: A Complete Guide to the Business…and More.
Are you new to obstacle racing?
Maybe you’re a curious researcher interested in data related to the sport. An educator thinking of developing a curriculum that covers the business of obstacle racing. An aspiring (or current) participant. A reporter, an entrepreneur, investor…someone who just wants to know more about obstacle course races and mud runs.
At the very least, you know they’ve been around for a few years, and they’re getting people moving, although people seem to either love or hate them. Obstacle races are fun, enthusiasts say. But they can also be dangerous. Participant narratives and news stories provide us with countless examples of the entertaining and hazardous aspects of the sport.
But what exactly are obstacle races? Who does them? What’s the market size of obstacle racing? Who organizes them? What’s the future for obstacle races and mud runs?
Here’s all you need to know about obstacle racing and mud runs: the basics, the people, and the business so far.
Obstacle Course Races and Mud Runs: What Are They?
OCRs, short for obstacle course races, are typically used in reference to running-based events that incorporate a series of physical challenges, natural and man-made, along the race route.
Other terms often used interchangeably with OCRs include mud runs, obstacle races (ORs), obstacle runs, obstacle sports, non-traditional races, and MOB runs (Mud, Obstacle, Beer).
Common obstacles include mud, walls, man-made tunnels, hurdles, monkey bars, carrying heavy objects, hills, ropes, cargo nets, and slides.
Low-crawl under barriers is a common obstacle in obstacle course races.
Mud runs or Obstacle Races: Which One Is It?
Some say mud runs and obstacle races should be in two separate categories. Maybe so.
Some mud runs are just muddy and may or may not have obstacles, while obstacle races by definition have challenges throughout the course.
Besides, the muddy run (albeit with some challenges mixed in) has been around longer than obstacle racing as we know it: Tough Guy in the UK (circa 1987) and The Original Mud Run in the U.S. (founded in 1999).
And even though it was more than just a footrace on unstable terrain, we can’t forget the Muddy Buddy Bike and Run series, which started in the late ‘90s.
In contrast, obstacle races may or may not have mud. Races held in urban areas are typically mud-less, but maybe dusty like the City Obstacle Challenge events on the East Coast. Some OCRs that intersect the fun-run sphere may also be light on mud like the Ridiculous Obstacle Challenge, Insane Inflatable 5k, and former Foam Fest 5k.
For the purpose of Obstacle Race World, they are used interchangeably (OCRs = mud runs), at least for now.
Obstacle Course Races and Mud Runs: What They Aren’t
OCRs are not the same as fun runs. Fun runs typically exclude obstacles and are less competitive, but some may argue that OCRs are fun runs because they are, well, fun.
The Color Run is a fun run, but not an obstacle course race or mud run.
Sometimes OCRs and fun runs are referred to collectively under the ”themed races” umbrella. Hence Greatist’s post on 21 themed races (some are OCRs, some just straight-up fun runs).
At Obstacle Race World, we distinguish between the two and here are examples of each:
Fun runs (NOT OCRs): The Color Run, Electric Run, and Ugly Sweater Run.
OCRs (that can be fun): Spartan Race, Tough Mudder, and Warrior Dash.
Technically, Tough Mudder sets itself apart as an obstacle challenge, not a race. Finishing is the main goal as you compete against yourself with the help of fellow mudders to reach the finish line.
Who Participates in Obstacle Racing and Challenges?
According to Obstacle Race World: The State of the Mud Run Business, 4.9 million people worldwide participated in an obstacle race in 2015. This number is expected to grow to reach 5.3 million in 2016.
In 2015, 4.9 million people participated in an obstacle race across the globe.
RunningUSA confirms the rapid growth of obstacle races and other “non-traditional events” from 2009 – 2013:
“In just five years, the number of estimated finishers in U.S. non-traditional events has grown from low six figures in 2009 to a staggering 4 million in 2013, a nearly hard-to-believe 40-fold increase.”
Although RunningUSA categorizes obstacle races under the same umbrella as fun runs, it’s clear that OCRs have played a key role in expanding the market of non-traditional running events.
Activity participation numbers gathered by The Outdoor Industry Association show the growth of adventure racing and non-traditional triathlons, activities which often overlap with obstacle races and mud runs.
From the OIA’s 2014 Outdoor Recreation Participation Topline Report:
- Adventure racing participation nearly doubles in four years: from 1.089 million in 2009 to 2.213 million in 2013.
- Triathlon (non-traditional) participation also doubled in four years: from 666,000 in 2009 to 1.39 million in 2013.
- Trail running grew by 30% in four years: from 5.136 million in 2009 to 6.792 million.
All of these activities overlap and correlate with the growth of obstacle racing and mud runs.
Trail running participation grew by 32% from 2010 to 2013.
Over four million consumers in more than 40 countries took on obstacle races and challenges.
Here they are (you can check out The Globalization of Mud for more):
United Arab Emirates
More than 40 countries hold OCR and mud run events.
The Demographic Profile of an Obstacle Racing Participant
Historically (although just a few years’ worth), obstacle course races have predominantly attracted males. Tough Mudder’s press page shows their estimated breakout to be 70% male, 30% female.
In contrast, Rugged Maniac reports that they have a high rate of female participation. Rugged Maniac ensures inclusivity in messaging and marketing so that females are not put off from the OCR experience.
“We don’t create a grand image of being a really tough, hardcore thing that only the manliest men can do…we want people of all genders, shapes and sizes out there doing it.”
Rob Dickens, Rugged Maniac co-founder, via a Maryland community newspaper
Along with the growth of women-only races, the gender split in OCR participation may soon approach 50-50 in a few years. Right now, it’s reasonable to estimate it’s more like 60-40 in favor of male participation.
Obstacle Race World’s estimated breakout of male-female participation in OCRs is 60-40.
Although obstacle racing caters to a wide range of age groups, the majority of participants are between the ages of 25 and 44, cutting across the Millennial and younger X generations.
Considering that registration fees to some of the leading series can reach exceed $150, it’s safe to say the majority of OCR participants are a relatively affluent group with discretionary income.
The professional and elite obstacle athletes
There are dozens of elite athletes sponsored by Spartan Race, OCR gear, and other suppliers. Although the competitive athletes go beyond those paid to race, the sponsored pros are a good starting point to learn more about participants racing competitively.
The Spartan Pro Team consists of more than 10 athletes. You can learn more about them on the Spartan Pro Team Facebook Page and Spartan Race’s website. These athletes compete in several Spartan events a year as well as other challenging obstacle series outside of the Spartan brand.
Beyond the pro team, there are scores of athletes that compete in obstacle racing for competitive purposes. These athletes can choose from a few championships for in their shot at obstacle glory.
The Spartan World Championship
In September each year, Spartan Race holds their world championship, usually in Vermont. The race pits the best OCR athletes against a 12+ mile challenge.
For the 2015 Spartan World Championship, Robert Killian placed first among men, while Zuzana Kocumova came in first for women.
Spartan world champions in previous years:
Women: Claude Godbout
Men: Jon Albon
Women: Amelia Boone
Men: Hobie Call
Women: Claude Godbout
Men: Cody Moat
Warrior Dash World Championship
Warrior Dash held their first championship on October 18, 2014. Kimber Mattox took first place among women, Max King placed first for men.
In 2015, Max King repeated, while Bridget Franek placed first among women.
World’s Toughest Mudder
During their early years, Tough Mudder held an end-of-the-year championship in New Jersey. In 2014 and 2015, the World’s Toughest Mudder was held in Las Vegas
Unlike the Spartan Race World Championship and Warrior Dash World Championship, in which participants complete a single lap of each race, the World’s Toughest Mudder calls for competitors to complete as many laps as possible of an obstacle challenge over the course of 24 hours.
For the first-ever World’s Toughest Mudder in 2011, Junyong Pak and Juliana Sproles placed first among males and females, respectively. The following year, Pak successfully defended his title, while Amelia Boone placed first among women. In 2013, Ryan Atkins claimed first place in the men’s group, while Deanna Blegg finished first in the women’s division.
In 2014, Ryan Atkins won the WTM crown for men as Amelia Boone claimed the crown among women. The following year in 2015, Amelia Boone repeated as champion, while Chad Trammell placed first among men.
OCR World Championship
In efforts to host a global championship not affiliated with a leading brand, the Obstacle Course Race World Championship was formed by several endurance athletes and OCR fans.
Participants need to qualify for the OCRWC by placing among the top finishers in one of several reputable races across the world.
The first-ever OCR World Championship was held in Ohio on October 25, 2014.
Jonathan Albon, 2014 Spartan Race World Champion, also claimed the crown at OCRWC. Siri Englund finished first among female participants. In 2015, Albon repeated as the 2015 OCRW Champion. Lindsay Webster claimed the crown for women.
Why Do People Sign Up for Obstacle Races and Mud Runs?
Crawling in mud, scaling down ropes, wading in murky water — why would anyone sign up for an obstacle course race, let alone show up on race day?
You can scour the Facebook pages of leading organizers and easily find out why. Yes, you’ll see photos of the challenge and trauma of race day, but you’ll also see comments of pride and joy in accomplishment.
A participant give kudos to Rugged Maniac for a challenging and memorable event.
Buried in the exchange of war wounds and challenges (maybe even horrors) of completing the Mudder is the recognition of a truly gratifying experience.
A Tough Mudder finisher attests to the intrinsically rewarding experience of having completed the endurance challenge.
On FB, you can also see recognition of those who have overcome unique challenges just to be there on event day.
Joe De Sena, founder of the Spartan Race, takes on a 10-mile Spartan Super with MIke Mills, a Spartan racing in a wheelchair.
One of my favorite OCR organizer-made videos showing the “why” for obstacle racing comes from the Rugged Maniac. OCRs are more than just a way to shake up your fitness routine. For desk jockeys, it’s a way to get outdoors, feel alive, and shed the doldrums of your 9-5.
Click here for Part 2: The Business Basics of Obstacle Racing.