Obstacle Course Races and Mud Runs: A Complete Guide to the Business…and More

This article is 7,000+ words long. If you’d like to read it in sections, select any of the posts below:

Part 1: Obstacle races – What, Where, Who & Why
Part 2: The Business Basics of Obstacle Racing
Part 3: Why Some Obstacle Races Fail
Part 4: The Future of Obstacle Racing
Part 5: Obstacle Racing in the Media

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?

WhatareOCRs (1)

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.

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.

2014-10-12 09.29.09

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.

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.”

RunningUSA

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.

Outdoor cross-country running in early sunrise concept for exerc

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 States
United Kingdom
Australia
Canada
Mexico
Chile
Puerto Rico
Ecuador
Colombia
Bermuda
Bahamas
Austria
Belgium
Bulgaria
Cyprus
Netherlands
Luxembourg
Czech Republic
Denmark
France
Germany
Greece
Hungary
Ireland
Italy
Norway
Poland
Portugal
Belarus
Russia
Slovakia
Spain
Sweden
Switzerland
India
Japan
Malaysia
Philippines
Singapore
New Zealand
Singapore
South Korea
Thailand
United Arab Emirates
South Africa

Unique Pink Ceramic Piggy Bank

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.

POCONO MANOR, PA - APR 28: A group of women runs through the Fir

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:

2014
Women: Claude Godbout
Men: Jon Albon

2013
Women: Amelia Boone
Men: Hobie Call

2012
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.

Rugged Maniac Comment

A participant give kudos to Rugged Maniac for a challenging and memorable event.

TM Comments

Buried in the exchange of war wounds and challenges (maybe even horrors) of completing the Mudder is the recognition of a truly gratifying experience.

TM Comments 2

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.

Spartan Race Comment 1

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.

The Obstacle Racing and Mud Run Business: The Market for Mud

There are many, many obstacle race series organizers. Easily hundreds. For an idea, you can search through Mud and Adventure’s listings.

Banknotes

With hundreds of events worldwide, the obstacle racing business has generated millions (some may even argue billions) in revenue for successful organizers.

You may already be familiar with the key players. Here they are again, listed chronologically, by order when each introduced the modern obstacle race.

The Warrior Dash

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Organized by Red Frog Events, The Warrior Dash are the pioneers of fun obstacle racing. The first-ever Warrior Dash was held in 2009.

Before that, we had superhero road races, Halloween 5ks, jingle runs, and similar running events that encouraged costume-wear, but the Warrior Dash added a challenging twist. Obstacles…at least a dozen of them.

The Warrior Dash has attracted as many as 15,000 participants per event. Sometimes even more.

In 2014, the Warrior Dash held more than 40 events worldwide, over 30 stateside and several more in Europe, Mexico and Asia. As many as 400,000 took part in a Warrior Dash event in 2014.

In 2015, Warrior Dash held 35 events and have more than 20 events planned for 2016.

Tough Mudder

Founded in 2010 by Will Dean and Guy Livingston, Tough Mudder is perhaps the ultimate team challenge in the modern obstacle world.

Tough Mudder is untimed and finishing the course is a badge of honor, maybe even a rite of passage not just for fitness nuts, but anyone looking for adventure to offset the daily grind. T.M. is also ideal for the few that find marathons no longer do it for them (like the founders themselves).

With 10+ miles filled with more than two dozen trademarked obstacles, at its peak, Tough Mudder press reported up to 10,000 – 15,000 attended each event (including spectators). Participants, alone, made up to roughly 10,000 attendees.

In 2014, Tough Mudder held nearly 60 events, attracting as many as 900,000 total attendees, about 600,000 of which were participants.

In 2015, Tough Mudder held another 60 events across the globe, including the states, UK, Australia, Canada, Germany and Ireland. Another 60 events are planned for 2016.

Spartan Race

Joe De Sena founded the Spartan Race series in 2010, six years after the first-ever Death Race. With inspiration from the predecessor — a 40+ hour test of strength, endurance and mental fortitude — De Sena held the inaugural Spartan Race in May 2010.

Successful completion of a Spartan Race places participants in a unique group of Spartans.

The Spartan Race comes in several iterations: the 3-5 mile Sprint, 6-8-mile Super, 10-12 mile Beast and the marathon-long Ultra Beast. Two-mile races are also held at selective ballparks, which started with Fenway Park in 2012. Each variety challenges participants of all fitness levels.

Participation is often capped at 6,000 – 7,000 per day, but some events attract as many as 10,000 participants. In 2014, Spartan Race planned more than 100 events in the U.S., Europe, and Latin America.

Although Spartan Race was “technically” the third of the Big 3 to host their first event, this organizer may be the most aggressive with expansion and marketing plans.

In early 2013, Reebok and Spartan Race announced a multi-year partnership, and the series was rebranded as the Reebok Spartan Race. A year later, Spartan Race formed the International Obstacle Racing Federation (IORF) with goals of making obstacle racing an Olympic Sport. In mid-2014, Spartan Race and NBC Sports announced a deal to air several Spartan Races, including the World Championship, on the NBC Sports Network and NBC.

For 2016, more than 100 events are planned worldwide so far, at least 50 of which will be held in the U.S. and Canada.

Aside from these three industry giants, there are other pioneers that deserve mention for their role in shaping the obstacle sports world.

Rugged Maniac

Based in Boston, Rugged Maniac was developed in 2010 by Rob Dickens and Brad Scudder, two former attorneys. One of the key distinctions that sets Rugged Maniac apart from the Big 3 is that they have more obstacles (roughly 24) along a 5k-length route.

In 2014, Rugged Maniac held more than 18 events in the U.S. Also in 2014, Rugged Maniac attracted a $1.75 million investment from Mark Cuban on Shark Tank. The following year, Rugged Maniac held 25 events in the U.S. and Canada. More than 20 events are planned for 2016.

GoRuck

Founded initially for development and sale of rucksacks, GoRuck held their first-ever challenge in September 2010.

GoRuck is different from most obstacle races and challenges in that a small group of participants (generally between 30-100 individuals) are led by a cadre in a team-directed challenge. More than 70 cadres are employed by GoRuck.

GoRuck runs challenges of various lengths: from the Light, a 3-4 hour trek, to the Selection, a 48+ hour challenge. While the exact number varies each year, GoRuck holds thousands of challenges each year.

Obstacle Course Race Organizers to Watch

This could be a very long post if we were to list all the leading OCR organizers.

Several deserve mention, including Human Movement Management, who organizes fun runs and OCRs: from the Ugly Sweater Run, 5k Dance Party to the Zombie Run and Dirty Girl series.

U.S. regional and local players have also played a significant role in shaping the OCR market: Savage Race, Gladiator Rock ‘n Run, Battlefrog, BoldrDash, Swamp Dash & Bash, Del Mar Mud Run, Mad Anthony Mud Run, to name a few.

And of course, the challenge that started all the Mud Run Wars: Tough Guy in the UK.

It’s beyond the scope of this post to list them all, but for notable races in global markets, you can check out this article: The Globalization of Mud.

A Billion Dollar Market?

Some may argue that with the revenue from registration fees, sponsorship, partnerships, apparel, equipment, economic activity for businesses near venues, etc., the market size for OCRs and mud runs may reach $1 billion. However, it may be unreasonable to quantify all these and select which particular streams are directly attributable to obstacle racing.

Obstacle Race World estimates the the market size of the OCR and mud run business to reached US$323 million in North America in 2015. This is  based on revenue from registration fees.

Why Some Obstacle Races Fail

Over the past few years, 2014, in particular, we saw event cancellations and series cancellations, altogether. Foam Fest and Hard Charge, both race series with several events planned nationwide, went out of business in July. Many participants never received a refund from organizers, although Foam Fest worked with other developers to transfer registration fees over to another OCR event.

Foam Fest COB Announcement

Foam Fest organizers notified the world they were closing their doors in July 2014.

Around the same time, Dirty Girl cancelled an event in West Virginia, leading many participants and OCR followers to think, “not again.” Luckily, some were refunded or able transfer their registrations to other Dirty Girl races. And rather than closing its doors altogether, Human Movement Management (HMM) consolidated the number of Dirty Girl races in 2014 from an initially planned 25 to 17 events.

Then there was Running Dirty, an organizer that actually made plans to reimburse participants signed up for a Virginia mud run after announcing they were going out of business.

In light of the OCR series that went out of business in 2014, Runner’s World published an article entitled “Why Many Themed Races Have Failed Lately.”

With interviews of Joe De Sena and Jeff Suffolk, HMM CEO, the primary reasons cited for failed themed series (including OCRs) was an underestimation of costs and industry inexperience. Each individual Spartan Race costs $300,000 to host, according De Sena.

Novice obstacle race organizers often underestimate the costs, logistics and other hurdles of running a race series.

Novice obstacle race organizers often underestimate the costs, logistics and other hurdles of running a race series.

Sean “Ace” O’Connor, CEO of Superhero Scramble, estimates that everything from site fees, insurance, obstacle logistics, and all other costs associated with OCR can run as much as $430,000.

Coupled with naive plans for growth, many aspiring OCR entrepreneurs set themselves up for failure. And as any entrepreneur will tell you, starting a new business is hard and many close their doors within a couple years.

Once OCR businesses fail with no promises of refunds for registered participants, the reputation of obstacle course races takes a huge hit, eroding consumer confidence. So in response to OCRs it’s justified to say “Buyers Beware” and tread with caution before signing up.

Sad

Last-minute closures and cancellations of races have left consumers disappointed and hesitant to sign up for just any obstacle course race.

The top 5: Spartan, Tough Mudder, Warrior Dash, Rugged Maniac, and GoRuck have all earned consumer trust and confidence, something hard to come by in the obstacle business. So it’s not uncommon, and actually perfect common sense to recommend interested participants in signing up for any events held by these leaders or an established local OCR.

Health and Environmental Hazards?

Wading through murky water, trekking through muddy terrain, crawling under dirty barriers may all be reminiscent of outdoor childhood play. But it may also sound like a recipe for injury, infection and other disasters.

Common OCR Hazards: Bumps, Cuts & Bones

The most common complication are scrapes, cuts, bumps and bruises. While some may fear contact of open cuts with mud can lead to infection, that’s unlikely.

“No one can predict with certainty the results of swimming or crawling in, swallowing, or inhaling soil…People with wounds should probably stay out of the dirt and mud, but we’ve all gotten cuts dirty and most of us lived to tell about it. Similarly, by accident or design, all of us have spent some time in the mud and been no worse for it.”

– Dr. Gerald Callahan, professor of microbiology at Colorado State University, via Mud and Obstacle magazine.

Swallowing muddy water or inhaling bacteria-infected mud is a different story. The Washington Post published a story reporting that a score of mud run participants developed an infection from swallowing contaminated muddy water. An understandable development, considering that the OCR was held on a cattle ranch.

While contact with mud itself may not lead to infection, swallowing or inhaling contaminated muddy water can be hazardous.

Beyond scrapes and infections, participants may also be at risk for developing sprains and strains as they would for any other sport that requires running, jumping, balance, agility, and similar movement.

OCR & Mud Run Hazards: The Extreme & Rare

Beyond cuts, bumps and sprains, participants are also at risk for breaking bones by taking a misstep or bad fall in an obstacle course race. Although this may scare some away, it’s important to keep in mind that these injuries are common to many sports and athletic competitions.

But a group of ER physicians may disagree when it comes to obstacle sports. In response to an influx of ER patients from a Tough Mudder, a team of ER doctors wrote a case series that was published in the Annals of Emergency Medicine.

The article discussed not only sprains and fractured bones, but other complications brought on by exposure to electric shock. Some participants showed symptoms common to seizures and burn marks from repeated shocks as well as head injuries. This same study was later cited by the Huffington Post in “How Dangerous Are Tough Mudders?”

Some argue the risks and hazards of obstacle racing outweigh the benefits.

Some argue the risks and hazards of obstacle racing outweigh the benefits.

Severe complications and injuries can also occur in other obstacle races and challenges. In a separate race series in Washington state, three women reported shattering their ankles after sliding down a tarp into a ravine. We also can’t forget the Warrior Dash participant who was paralyzed from diving into a muddy pit.

Events held in extreme heat carry unique challenges on their own. Participants are at risk of heat-related illnesses, including cramps, stroke and, in rare cases, death. Two participants in a Kansas City obstacle race in 2011 died of heat-related complications after taking on a race on a hot, humid July day.

Obstacle racing in extreme heat places participants at high risk for heat-related illnesses including cramps, exhaustion, stroke, and in rare cases, death.

Obstacle racing in extreme heat places participants at high risk for heat-related illnesses including cramps, exhaustion, stroke, and in rare cases, death.

Along with two deaths from heat-related illnesses, the obstacle race and mud run industry has also suffered at least two additional deaths from participants who didn’t survive obstacles over water. The first claimed Tony Weathers’ life at The Original Mud Run held in Texas on April 2012. The death was determined to be an accidental drowning.

One year later, Avishek Sengupta from Maryland, drowned during the “Walk the Plank” obstacle at Tough Mudder. Outside published two in-depth articles in response to the tragedy: “Tough Mudder’s First Death in Context” and “A Death at Tough Mudder.”

In the latter piece online, Outside compared the fatality rate of obstacle course races with triathlon and skiing participation. Based on data gathered from 2010-2012, obstacle course racing had a lower fatality rate than triathlon and skiing at 0.18 per 100,00 participants for OCRs compared with 0.5 for skiing and 1.9 for triathlon.

The January 2014 issue of Outside magazine included an in-depth story on the first death at Tough Mudder.

The January 2014 issue of Outside magazine included an in-depth story on the first death at Tough Mudder.

In August 2011, I wrote a post in response to the heat-related deaths in KC. It’s a short post. I did a brief search on complications related to some sports as well as mortality rates. Back then I thought some tragedies are subject to happen in any sport, particularly extreme or adventure-based activities. And I still do.

However, the fact that two deaths took place over water obstacles that required swimming when participants may be fatigued from other challenges should speak volumes to race organizers.

Placing an obstacle in which participants need to swim while in racing shoes and tired from running and overcoming other challenges probably should be reconsidered, especially if the event is supposed to attract individuals of all fitness levels.

Azure water of the southern sea

Two of the four documented obstacle-related deaths were considered accidental drownings in which participants had to swim through a murky pool or stream.

Environmental Impact

Exercising in the outdoors, overcoming natural and man-made obstacles with friends — it all sounds like a great way to reconnect with the environment. It’s something we have easily neglected today when most of our work keeps us indoors.

So, theoretically, obstacle racing and mud runs can get you back into touch with nature, right?

It depends on who you ask. Some of the measures taken in developing an obstacle course may not be as earth-friendly as many would think.

A few have pointed out the impact man-made obstacles, including engineered mud, can have on certain environments.

First, some obstacle organizers have to “engineer” mud, which involves digging into grassy hills and trails. This may disturb some ecological niches. The city of Amesbury, Massachusetts claimed that Spartan Race damaged wetlands nearby the race’s course route.

Beyond potential damage in setting up an obstacle race, the influx of traffic may disrupt wildlife and fauna.

One race developer, the O2X Summit Challenge, offers an alternative: they plan a course organized around obstacles made by nature.

What’s Ahead: The Future of OCRs

3d white people lying on a question mark

The future of obstacle course racing looks bright, but there are several challenges the industry must overcome in order to continue growing for years to come.

OCR Safety Standards

In early 2014, U.S. Obstacle Course Racing (USOCR) announced their formation and mission to serve as the governing body for obstacle racing in the U.S. Along with advancing the sport, USOCR also aims to establish safety and insurance standards for course development and participation. While OCR organizers must carry insurance, oftentimes fees are also passed on to participants who are already paying high registration fees just to sign up for the race.

Looking ahead, establishing safety standards and a way of enforcing them may be key to the growth of the industry and its ability to restore and improve upon consumer confidence. Consumers need to know that even though participating in an obstacle race carries an inherent risk, the organizer prioritizes attendee safety over the bottom line.

Tempered Growth Expectations

Some of the challenges facing the obstacle industry include establishing safety standards, continuing to reach the inactive and series differentiation.

Some of the challenges facing the obstacle industry include establishing safety standards, continuing to reach the inactive and series differentiation.

In only a few years, obstacle races and challenges have met explosive growth. More than four million will have participated in an obstacle course race worldwide in 2014, up from an estimated 200,000 in 2010. This represents a twenty-fold increase!

Everyone, including participants, organizers, entrepreneurs and even investors in the active sector have wanted to get in on this sport, a new, promising trend in fitness. But as is often the case in the fitness industry, a new idea grows, matures, and even saturates rapidly.

Even though OCRs have allegedly attracted many first-time exercises, there are still a core of consumers who “get” exercise and fitness, who are more likely to sign up for an OCR. In the U.S., that’s approximately 20% of Americans. Unsurprisingly, race organizers may be tapping into the same consumer base in the U.S. Exploring possibilities in international markets is a way to go in efforts to continue growing an OCR series and the sport overall.

That being said, new and existing race organizers can differentiate their series in efforts to attract specific niches, particularly first-time exercisers. It’s no coincidence that fun runs saw significant growth along with modern obstacle races. Sometimes events promoted as fun runs attract newbies intimidated by races marketed as extreme challenges.

OCR organizers that can successfully combine messaging emphasizing the fun, unintimidating aspects of exercise with the challenge of racing may be able to extend their reach with specific populations, particularly the inactive. Starting out, Warrior Dash achieved this, initially touting their race as an extreme 5k run that would also be one of the funnest days of your life.

POCONO MANOR, PA - APR 28: Men help other participants up the Ev

OCR organizers can target first-time participants by emphasizing the fun as well as the challenging aspects of their events.

Joe De Sena estimates that approximately 90% of Spartan race signups were previously sedentary before discovering the Spartan Race series. Rightfully so as De Sena’s goal with the Spartan Race was to condense the challenge and intrinsically rewarding experience of an ultra-endurance event into a day event for people of all fitness levels. It fulfilled the need to get out of one’s comfort zone to do and experience the unexpected.

Overall, although the obstacle racing market has experienced exponential growth to date, it’s naive to believe the sport will continue growing as rapidly in the years to come. Even with international expansion. There are still opportunities worldwide as well as targeting niches and first-time races, so growth can be expected, but expectations should be tempered.

Thoughts From the Experts

Participants can do their part in advancing obstacle racing by saying no to online deals, suggests Brett Stewart, founder of mudrunguide.com. He advises obstacle athletes to support their OCRs and register early if they are looking to save money.

A few years ago, IBISWorld released a report on online daily deal sites. In it, they identified at least 10 industries that may significantly undercut revenue potential by participating in online deals, several of which fall under leisure time and discretionary income-driven industries. Obstacle course racing may as well have been on the list.

Besides, customers that use online daily sites rarely become repeat patrons of a business, according to the IBISWorld report.

Groupon logo

Online daily deal sites like Groupon can undercut the net revenue and income growth of obstacle course racing businesses.

Image source: Groupon logo

Recently, Outside magazine pointed out the need for unity in obstacle racing. In 2014, there were four different championships, one each held by the top three organizers along with OCRWC.

In addition, there are at least two governing bodies: the USOCR and IORF. There’s also the Human Movement-led AOCRAOA, which to this day sounds like a belated April Fool’s joke.

The point is that there are several parties growing independently, rather than joining forces to advance the sport.

Impact of the Economy on OCR Participation

Chart Financial

Improving economic indicators have a positive impact on the obstacle course racing business.

As a leisure sport, the growth of obstacle course races largely depends on personal disposable income and leisure time. In order for people to participate in an obstacle course race, they need to have the discretionary income to pay for registration fees and the free time to make it to the race.

In the U.S., the outlook for personal disposable income looks promising as unemployment rate has continued to improve since early 2013. Although leisure time often decreases as employment improves, the fact that OCRs are held on weekends help address this correlation.

Consumer confidence, though, must be restored for the industry. Established local and large-scale organizers have it. It may be easy and convenient to keep up with the development of a local OCR. An event planned and organized by Warrior Dash, Tough Mudder, Spartan Race, Rugged Maniac, and GoRuck may be trusted to take place.

But new organizers may not have that trust given the track record of those who have gone out of business and how they have closed their doors. Lacking consumer confidence may possibly limit OCR’s prospects for growth. It’s important all organizers — established and emerging — have consumer trust in order to earn signups, the primary source of revenue for the industry.

OCRs in the Media

Even though they don’t get as many hits as popular sports, obstacle course races have had their share of media attention in recent years. And it’s not only fitness and specialty sport media that are talking about OCRs.

The New Yorker, CNBC, Huffington Post, and USA Today have all published articles on obstacle course races. 60 minutes, MTV, and Live! have all had video segments on obstacle sports. You can find anything from news bites to course previews and training tips to in-depth exposes on the OCR business.

Here are some of my favorites.

“Playing Dirty” by Scott Keneally, Outside magazine

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“Playing Dirty” by Scott Keneally, published in the November issue of Outside magazine, was the first in-depth article on the growth and controversy surrounding the obstacle racing business.

Published in the November 2012 issue, “Playing Dirty” is an in-depth expose of obstacle course races, the first of its kind. This piece is a must-read for anyone wanting to know more about the growth of the sport, especially the top rival organizers and controversy surrounding Tough Mudder’s prosperity.

“A Death at Tough Mudder” by Elliot D. Woods in Outside magazine

As you can probably tell by now, Outside regularly covers obstacle course racing. In the January 2014 issue, Outside published a piece on the first death at Tough Mudder and foreshadowed a potentially costly legal battle.

“In Cold Mud” by Lizzie Widdicombe, The New Yorker

The New Yorker published an article on obstacle course races and challenges in their January 27, 2014 issue.

The New Yorker published an article on obstacle course races and challenges in their January 27, 2014 issue.

Part personal, part historical account, “In Cold Mud” tells a similar story Keneally covered in “Playing Dirty.” The author of The New Yorker piece recounts her experience running a Tough Mudder as well as interviews with race organizers, including Will Dean.

This article is also available on The New Yorker’s website.

“The Messy, Rapid Rise of Obstacle Course Racing” by Chavie Lieber, Racked.com

Although this post isn’t in print, it’s a good piece on the key players in obstacle racing as well as the state of the sport. If you scroll down a bit, you’ll see a great graphic listing some of the races that have been developed since 2009.

Obstacle Racing Poses Risks to Consumers by Torin Koos, USA Today

It’s not a very long article, but this USA Today piece discusses some of the hazards consumers need to be aware of with the OCR business. The author highlights last-minute cancellations as well as injuries and complications from participating in the sport.

“Obstacle Course Racers, the New Marathoners” by Morgan Brennan, CNBC

Have obstacle course races and challenges displaced marathons?

RunningUSA estimates that more people completed a non-traditional running event like an OCR or fun run in 2013 than a traditional half or full marathon. With a nod to this statistic, this short CNBC piece (with a video) takes a look at obstacle course races.

Off Course: Inside the Mad, Muddy World of Obstacle Course Racing by Erin Beresini

This book is another must-read (and quick-read) if you want to learn more about the sport of obstacle course racing. Beresini, an Outside magazine regular wrote this book, which was published by Houghton Mifflin in October 2014.

Obstacle Course Racing: Where to Go for More

Still looking for more on obstacle course racing? These sites may help.
Training tips: Our other website, MyExerciseCoach.net, focuses on training tips for beginners with a special focus on obstacle course racing.

Obstacle Race/Mud Run Calendar: If you are looking to sign up for a race (and you can’t find it on active.com), try mudandadventure.com. The site also has race reviews and training tips.

OCR News: Obstacle Racing Media provides regular news updates and developments on obstacle course racing. If you are looking for real-time info on OCRs, this is as good as it gets!

Business & Market Analysis: Looking for more on the market size, scope, reach and outlook of the OCR business? My report, Obstacle Race World: The State of the Mud Run Business may help. You can order or sign up for a free excerpt (and a 2014 mid-season report) here on obstacleraceworld.com. You’ll also receive any in-depth articles we’ll write on obstacle racing.

Hopefully, after 7,000+ words you’ve learned a thing or two about obstacle racing. It’s a dynamic sport and, in some ways, a controversial business. Advanced athletes and newbies, alike, have signed up in droves and media, investors, and others have noticed. While challenges remain, the future looks promising for obstacle course races.