The great American race

Posted on March 28, 2013


Obstacle races such as Spartan Race and Tough Mudder have been growing exponentially in the US, with one Chicago obstacle racing company expanding their profits from $50 thousand to $50 million in just four years. See why this trend is only growing even more popular, and becoming preferred to even the traditional Marathon.

Photo Courtesy: Tough Mudder

Photo Courtesy: Tough Mudder

The great American race got a little bit muddier.

Obstacle races such as Tough Mudder, Spartan Race, and the Warrior Dash have seen tremendous growth, with over a million participants each year collectively– a huge rise from just a few thousand since 2007 when the first rendition of the Warrior Dash began in America.

In the Tough Mudder, participants experience a 10-12 mile obstacle course that brings them crawling through mud, weaving through electrical wires, climbing over 12 foot walls and diving into pools of frigid water.

Spartan Race participants face a similar challenge in three miles, a much more manageable distance for some.

Mallory Smith signed up for the Tough Mudder with 6 teammates after her final field hockey season in college. She said the team wanted to do one last “extreme” sporting event together while they were in prime physical shape.

“I had never done ROTC before or anything obstacle related so I was definitely nervous about it and I had never run that far without stopping,” she said.

Her experience was so fulfilling that she signed up for her second obstacle race – a Spartan Race– this spring. She is bringing her brother and a friend from high school along with her. This is how the trend has continued: Not only do participants keep coming back for more; they also bring their friends along with them, building a massive obstacle racing community.

One might wonder the appeal of crawling under electric wires or jumping into pools of icy water.

“It appeals to a lot of people who (1) want a challenge and (2) fancy themselves as having total body strength,” said Ted Spiker, contributing writer to Men’s Health Magazine. Spiker has successfully completed two Tough Mudders.

He said many people get bored of a traditional 5K or marathon. “I didn’t like the idea of just running, it was boring,” said Anthony Matesi, a serial obstacle racer.

“I fell in love with the challenge,” he said. “It wasn’t easy, but it wasn’t monotonous either. It’s really getting to the basic nature of humanness, making us do tasks that challenge us, making us use strength, agility and flexibility – what most sports don’t even come close to.”

Spiker said that obstacle races are not really races at all – it’s not about how fast you go. Rather, it’s about overcoming each obstacle.

And while Spiker agrees that these races are a great physical workout, emphasizing strength and agility in addition to mere cardio, he notes that the most important aspect of the event is about the psychological workout.

The psychological and mental effects are what keep people coming back to these events, one, two, three times or more, he said.

“It showed me that I don’t have very many limits,” Matesi said. “I haven’t found my limit yet which is kind of scary at the same time, and I’m a lot more confident about everything, in business, just in general happier.”

Matesi said after the first race, the sport becomes addictive. “That’s why it’s gaining so much traction,” he said. “One you’ve done one, you want more. You want to see how far you can push yourself.”

Matesi has become so passionate about the race that he began to write for the first obstacle racing publication: Obstacle Racing Magazine. He has also attempted to ride the obstacle racing waves and start his own race to prepare people for the Death Race, the toughest level of the Spartan Race.

Many others have caught the “obstacle race bug” as Matesi has, and this can be seen in the growth of attendance numbers with 20,000 participants in 2010, 140,000 in 2011, and more than 460,000 in 2012 despite the rising cost of participation, which now stands between $90 – $155, according to the Tough Mudder website.

Obstacle race attendance has been growing exponentially, with one Chicago company predicting a turnout of 750,000 people in 2013.

Obstacle race attendance has been growing exponentially, with one Chicago company – Red Frog Events – predicting a turnout of 750,000 people in 2013.

Matesi also said that the reason many competing obstacle race companies are growing in size is because companies are actually not competing at all: There’s enough room in this market for many players to compete.

Part of this is because each company has found a different niche, and has marketed to each niche successfully such that people want to try different races, and overcome new obstacle, Matesi said.

“Tough Mudder branded themselves differently and Spartan Race has made it more of a sport and caters more to the athlete than the every day person,” he said. “Tough Mudder says ‘come out and have fun and drink beers with us.’ Its not a race, and it appeals to more people simply because of how its been designed and marketed.”

And Lauren Shields, communications director of Red Frog events, agreed: Marketing is key. She said good marketing was how Red Frog Events CEO Joe Reynolds built the popularity of these races, and his company at large.

Red Frog Events LLC is a Chicago-based company that organizes the world’s largest obstacle race series. The Warrior Dash, the Urban Warrior Dash and Iron Warrior Dash races are put on around the nation.

While in 2009, there were approximately 2,000 attendees at Red Frog races, in 2010 this number grew to nearly 150,000, then to more than 600,000 by 2012. Shield predicts that 2013 will yield more than 750,000 participants.

Joe Reynolds began the Warrior Dash in 2007 as “The Great Urban Race.” At this time, it was just a one-person company. Ryan Kunkel jumped on-board the team to help Reynolds develop the Warrior Dash in 2009 and expand the race around the country.

Reynolds was a runner himself and recognized that the running industry was in need of a change, Shields said. After the success of the first race in 2007, he recognized that this niche market would evolve at a rapid pace.

But even he could not fathom the rate it would grow at, Shields said. In 2009, when the company expanded to become “Red Frog Events” and incorporated new renditions of obstacle races, the company had to scramble to accommodate the mass demand for obstacle races.

“We had a lot of growing pains,” she said. “There were no other events like it at the time.”

Matesi said in the Midwest, where races are fewer and farther between, the demand is high and people are likely to sign up for any obstacle race, whether it be a Tough Mudder, Spartan Race, or Warrior Dash, simply because they don’t happen often enough.

Whereas the public demanded these races right away, Shield said the company initially faced pushback from town officials worried about possible injuries the events could cause.

“I could think of millions of things that could happen,” Matesi said. “People are jumping over logs and climbing stuff.”

“There are 1000s of people on a muddy court where people can slip break their neck, fall off a rope, accidentally throw a beer in the wrong direction, fire and electrical wire is a lot of events, what if you stock someone and hurt them?”

Shield said they had to successfully market the brand so officials would understand that despite these threats, the race is quite safe, and doesn’t lead to more injuries than a typical 5K would. The company, she said, has a fully staffed medical team and medical plan, and works extensively with police and fire teams.

The race that Matesi’s is developing, while still in its early years, has experienced many of the same struggles that Reynolds had in his early years with the race. While at first glance the companies’ business plans seems flawless, with relatively low expenses and cost of capital, Matesi said these races actually have quite large expenses to cover marketing, and most importantly, insurance.

Shield noted that safety is the most important concern of obstacle racing industries. There are large expenses to consider such as venue and marketing costs but these expenses have not offset Red Frog’s profitability, she said. Since the company’s inception, Shield said the company’s revenues have expanded by more than 10,000 percent.

Just last year, the company generated over $50 million in revenue, compared with $50,000 in 2008 when the company was still growing.

And the economic impact is not limited to these companies. Shield said the small towns that host these races benefit from approximately $4 million worth of economic impact as thousands are drawn to these cities.

“They would call us the Super Bowl,” Shield said, as the event is generally within smaller towns that do not typically draw such large crowds.

Reynolds saw unprecedented growth with Red Frog becoming a leader in the “active entertainment industry”, Shields said. And the trend proved profitability for not only Red Frog, but also many other companies feeding off the obstacle race frenzy.

Furthermore, Red Frog continues to evolve to the changing running industry, rebranding new types of races that appeal to even larger demographics. Shield said there are many runs now for people looking to

Just this month, Red Frog launched Illuminite Run that “electrifies the night through a three-mile rush of neon color and EDM beats” according to the race website.

There are also runs such as the color run and hot chocolate run for athletes to enjoy.

These fad runs retain a common thread: they all make running an experience that people can share. Shield, Spiker, and Smith all agree: It’s the community aspect that makes the runs most enticing.

“The biggest thing about warrior dash specifically is that it does give people everything they want to do in a weekend: social time with friends and family while taking on physical activity,” Shield said, noting that people are recognizing the need for while also able to meet other people, experience live music, and be outside.

“For our participants they were so excited because it was an exciting new thrilling event, everything they wanted to do in a weekend, it was a no brainer for a lot of people to sign up,” Shield said.

This community aspect is something people yearn for in sports, Spiker said. “Most adult sports are very individualistic: running, triathlons, golf. Many adults yearn for the same type of team aspect they felt growing up with high school sports or intramurals.”

Spiker said the team aspect of each obstacle race gets people through the race, making it far more fun, and more rewarding. He said this teamwork is what makes these races again not a race, but a journey.

While athletes have the opportunity to choose a less intense run – a run that incorporates the community aspect of a Tough Mudder while not making participants crawl through wires and mud, Spiker said the biggest audience for obstacle races is the group of people that don’t find the race particularly easy.

“People who know they can master the course are fine,” Spiker said. “But what’s really cool is finding the people it appeals to but are not quite sure they can do it… because there’s a great moment of joy when you see them make it through,” Spiker said.

The value of these events has been rising in monetary measures, but some participants agree that there is personal value to these events as well. These events have had success in not only attracting new members, but also keeping old ones coming back for more.

Smith said in the moments after the race, she felt connected to the rest of the participants because of the experience they’ve shared. She said it’s something you can’t understand until you do it for yourself.

“I’m definitely more passionate about it now that I’ve done it because it was more rewarding of an experience than I imagined,” Smith said.

“The spirit of it is what it’s all about,” Spiker said. “No one wants to see anybody fail, no one is trying to beat each other.” Spiker said. Spiker said that this feeling is what keeps people coming back.

Matesi’s experience is a good example of the growth of obstacle races as a trend across America, and how it has impacted communities on a larger scale and individuals by bringing a new challenge to the racing industry.

“Many people that don’t do it don’t understand it,” Matesi said.

“People get scared when I talk about it – but I find it exhilarating and gives you an opportunity to see who you are, and what you’re capable of.”