This article is organised as follows:

PART ONE: BACKGROUND

1.0     Introduction

With names like the Warrior Dash, Tough Guy, Spartan Race, Muddy Race, Total Warrior, and Tough Mudder, mud-run races and obstacle course race (OCR) events have become extremely popular among exercise enthusiasts. These races and events typically consist of an off-road running race that includes navigating a variety of challenging obstacles to complete the course.

Whilst OCR and associated events are not new, there was an explosion in the popularity in the latter half of the 2000s, arguably due to fitness enthusiasts being offered a unique experience, and a sense of toughness and accomplishment.

“It’s something of a metaphor for the maturing obstacle racing industry six years after America first became infatuated with mud, water and obstacle-enhanced distance running.” (Fischer, 2015).

The contemporary popularity of OCR events presents training providers with a unique business opportunity to design small group training (SGT) programmes “that will not only help improve client fitness levels, but will also provide an experience that cannot be easily replicated.” (McCall, 2012).

In only a few years OCR racing participation has grown from approximately 200,000 in 2010 to roughly five million in 2015.

This article is divided into eight parts for easier reading. Part One is the introduction, which also describes what OCR is, other terms, and a brief history of the sport. Part Two outlines the OCR industry, including levels of participation and revenue. Part Three outlines some of the advantages, disadvantages and perils of OCR. Part Four looks at event management including medical and staff on site, liability waivers, OCR insurance, and the cost of hosting and OCR event and factors to consider. Part Five discusses preparing for an OCR, including obstacles you might find, deciding to race, full-body fitness, and motivation to attend an OCR. Part Six highlights some of the governing bodies, associations, and championships within the OCR industry. Part Seven outlines obstacle courses in other areas of leisure and business. Part Eight provides a summary of the article, useful publications, and references.

1.1     Aim

The aim of this article is to provide the reader with a broad overview of the Obstacle Course Racing industry.

1.2     What is an Obstacle Course Race?

Some observers suggest that OCR is a hybrid of two other events:

  • Mud Runs:
    • This is a race that has but one obstacle – mud, and not the ‘normal’ variety either.
    • The mud that is concocted for mud runs is typically the thickest, heaviest, and most slimy variety, sticking to your body and making your progress to the finish line that little bit harder.
  • Adventure Races:
    • These incorporate running with other elements such as kayaking, rappelling, horse riding, and orienteering.
    • Adventure races typically occur over several days, so exhaustion is a factor for participants.
    • The first known series of adventure racing was introduced in 1995 by Mark Burnett, who produced “Survivor”.
    • Also known as Expedition OCR.

Other observers suggest that OCR has its roots in the military obstacle courses that all military personnel will undertake during their basic training and throughout their careers. Military obstacle courses vary in length from approximately 500 metres to several miles. For example, the British Parachute Regiment’s steeplechase, undertaken as part of P Company, is a timed 1.8 mile course composed of a cross country element and an obstacle course, designed to simulate operations in a built-up area. It could also be argued that OCR is just a tougher, more extreme version of the steeplechase.

There are different ways to define OCR, here are two examples:

  1. OCR encompass a whole variety of courses/races/events, but they all entail challenging physical obstacles which either an individual or team must complete. Obstacle races normally combine elements of running, climbing, balancing and crawling which are set out in such a way of providing a course riddled with difficulty. Obstacle races need a lot of determination and grit to complete as they are mostly set over long time periods.
  2. Mud obstacle running – sometimes referred to as obstacle course racing or OCR — is a relatively new phenomenon whereby participants complete a series of obstacles or challenges during a run that often, although not always, includes mud (Baghurst & Wu, 2015).

However, the simplest definition I found regarding OCR is:

“Obstacle Course Racing is a running event where the participants encounter various obstacles along the way.” (OCR European Championships, 2018).

In most races, a participant’s endurance, speed, strength, and dexterity will all be tested. As a racer, you will be expected to complete a variety of tasks and if you fail, there may be penalties like squat thrusts or burpees which can make finishing even more difficult.

Unlike other set-format events, such as running, there are no standard set distances in OCR. Distances vary from short 1 to 3-mile sprints through to extreme 48-hour endurance races, although most range from 3 to 13 miles and can be completed in 1 to 4 hours. They typically take more time to complete than a standard road or trail race because it takes participants longer to overcome the course’s obstacles! Due to the boom in OCR, participants can expect to run with several hundred to several thousand other participants at any given OCR event.

OCR providers also vary by how they market their particular OCR, for example, some consider themselves as races, some as challenges, and others as events.

Ultimately, OCR may combine mud and trail runs with bootcamp-style obstructions, and maybe even mind games, all designed to encourage mental and physical adversity.

Despite these commonalities, there are several differences between the various OCR providers, for example:

  • Tough Mudder is focussed on team-work;
  • Spartan is focussed on individual participants, and punishments (in the form of burpees) for those who fail to complete an obstacle; and
  • Judgement Day which offers a combination of man-made and natural obstacles, with no two races the same. They do not post course maps or a list of obstacles and vary distances and terrains, so participants never know what to expect.

1.3     What is the Difference between OCR and Adventure Racing?

UK Adventure Racing (2018) defines adventure racing (AR) as:

“…a combination of two or more endurance disciplines, including navigation, cross-country running, mountain biking, paddling, climbing and related rope skills. An expedition event can span ten days or more while sprints can be completed in a matter of hours.”

Although OCR and AR have a number of similarities, there is a distinct difference between the two activities.

1.4     Other Terms for OCR

There are a number of terms which are often used interchangeably, and include:

  • Mud run;
  • Mud obstacle running (Baghurst & Wu, 2015);
  • Obstacle course race (OCR);
  • Obstacle racing or race;
  • Extreme obstacle course (EOC) (Opala, 2016);
  • Obstacle-enhanced distance running (Fischer, 2015);
  • Obstacle sports;
  • Mud obstacle runs or running;
  • Mud, Obstacles, Beer (MOB) events (Murphy, 2017);
  • Adventure race or racing;
  • Sufferfests (Weitzmann, 2015); and
  • Extreme assault courses (Weitzmann, 2015).

The term obstacle course race or OCR will be used throughout this article to avoid confusion.

1.5     A Brief History of Obstacle Course Races

The aim of this part of the article is not to provide a definitive history of OCR, but to highlight some of the more pertinent aspects of OCR history.

Races with obstacles have been around, in some form, since the Ancient Greeks added these types of races in their ancient Olympic Games, an athletic festival that was revived in the late 19th Century.

A more modern form of a race with obstacles can be found in the steeplechase (Knowlton, 2016; IAAF, 2018). The steeplechase combines long-distance running with hurdling, with each runner being required to clear a number of water jumps and hurdles over a set-distance course. Although hurdling is an important aspect of the event, by far the greatest need is the ability to run the distance. Steeplechase competitors are often specialists.

The steeplechase originated in England, when people once raced from one church’s steeple to the next, which were used as markers due to their high visibility (Knowlton, 2016; IAAF, 2018). Wikipedia (2018a; 2018b) informs us that “The steeplechase is an obstacle race in athletics, which derives its name from the steeplechase in horse racing.”, and originated in Ireland.

As competitors ran from one steeple to the next, runners would encounter obstacles such as small rivers/streams and low stonewalls. The streams and stonewalls were eventually replaced by water jumps and barriers respectively (some people use the term hurdles and others use the term barriers, they are barriers because they do not fall over like hurdles – you do!).

The IAAF (2018) – the world governing body for the sport of track and field athletics founded on 17 July 1912 in Stockholm, Sweden – states the current steeplechase traces its lineage to steeplechases run at Oxford University from around the 1850s. The Encyclopaedia Britannica suggests it developed from a cross-country race at Oxford University in 1850 (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2018). The steeplechase became a track event, with barriers, at the 1879 English Championships.

“The current format has been contested by men – initially over varying distances – in every Olympic Games since 1900. The women’s event was introduced as recently as 2008.” (IAAF, 2018).

By the 1920 Olympic Games the distance was standardised at 3,000 metres (or approximately 7.5 laps on a 400-metre track) (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2018). The steeplechase is also contested at a distance of 2,000 metres in international meets, though not at the Olympic Games.

In the 3,000 metre steeplechase, the number of laps depends on the position of the water jump (inside or outside the track’s second bend), although competitors must always clear 28 fixed barriers and seven water jumps during a race’s duration (IAAF, 2018). Barriers are 91.4 cm (36 inches) high for men (30 inches for women), and one of them, which has a top bar of 12.7 cm (5 inches), is placed immediately in front of the water jump, which is 3.66 metres (12 feet) long (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2018; IAAF, 2018). The 2,000 metre steeplechase has 18 barriers and 5 water jumps.

Notwithstanding the steeplechase, modern obstacle course races have only been around since the 1980s, only really gaining wider appeal in the late 2000s.

In 1986, a former British Army Officer, Billy Wilson (aka Mr Mouse), established the United Kingdom’s (UK’s) Tough Guy Challenge, which initially included a 40-foot crawl through flooded tunnels and long mud slithers with machine-gun blanks fired overhead. The 15km obstacle course is situated on a farm near Wolverhampton, England, and was first held in 1987. Wilson specifically designed the course to induce fear and pain, and to push participants to their very limits.

In 1993, the Camp Pendleton Mud Run (Oceanside, California) was established, now part of the Hard Corps Race Series, taking place through June each year over a 10 km course within a 2 hour 45 minute time limit.

In 1996, Hi-Tec, a sports shoe manufacturer, introduced “…a revolutionary new multi-activity event in the USA, The Adventure Racing Series.” (Hi-Tec, 2018). During this event each team had between 4 and 5 hours to complete the race which included trail running, kayaking, mountain biking as well as a series of tests such as blindfolded puzzle solving, knot tying and mud crawling.

In 1997, the TV show ‘Sasuke’ first aired, which is a Japanese sports entertainment television programme in which 100 competitors attempt to complete a four-stage obstacle course. An international version has been screened in at least 18 other countries under the title ‘Ninja Warrior’, including Ninja Warrior UK and American Ninja Warrior. Between 1997 and 2018, all four stages of the Japanese course had only been completed on five occasions by four different competitors. A similar Japanese programme, ‘Viking: The Ultimate Obstacle Course’ aired between 2005 and 2007.

According to UK Adventure Racing (2018), much of the popularity of adventure racing in the UK can be attributed to Phil Humphreys who, in 1998, created the ACE Races which was the first two-day adventure race series (which Phil also states this on his LinkedIn page (Humphreys, 2018)). Its popularity grew very quickly and, in 2002, ACE Races established the one-day series. Another key event was the introduction of the Hi-Tec adventure race series to the UK in 1999 (UK Adventure Racing, 2018).

In 2009, Warrior Dash is established by Red Frog Events, an event-development firm that organises other participatory events.

In May 2010, British-born Harvard MBA graduate, Will Dean launched the Tough Mudder (Bailey, 2017), an OCR event inspired by, or copy-catted, the Tough Guy Challenge (Bailey, 2017). The event was a 10- to 12-mile mud run with 20 obstacles (Laporte, 2017a). Although Dean’s “Harvard tutors called his business “optimistic””, he got 4,500 applicants for the inaugural race, after expecting only 500 (Bailey, 2017). Tough Mudder held two more events that year in California and New Jersey. Two weeks after the first Tough Mudder was held, the first Spartan Race took place, although the Spartan Death Race can traces its roots to 2005 (Mountain Times, 2014). Established by two former lawyers, Brad Scudder and Rob Dickens, Rugged Maniac holds its first race in October 2010.

“More troubling was the multimillion dollar lawsuit Dean faced in 2010. Billy Wilson […] had granted Dean access to his company information for his Harvard studies and then accused him of stealing his idea. Dean countersued for defamation. After a vitriolic battle, the pair agreed a confidential settlement in 2011, with Dean reportedly paying $725,000.” (Bailey, 2017).

Although traditional events such as marathons and triathlons are still as popular as ever – in 2010, 2.3 million people entered 3,500 triathlons (up 55 % on 2009) – some professional athletes are starting to make the switch to OCR (Heil, 2011).

In 2011, more than 100,000 people attended 14 Tough Mudder events (Bond, 2012). The first Tough Mudder brand extension is established in December 2011, World’s Toughest Mudder (Griffin, 2015).

In 2012, Spartan Race received “…venture capital from Boston Celtics co-owner Jim Pallotta’s Raptor Consumer Partners…” to aid its aggressive expansion plans. (Fischer, 2015).

Between 2009 and 2014, the annual growth of the OCR industry was tremendous! Growth figures sextupled in 2011, nearly doubled in 2012, grew by 48% in 2013, and by 24% in 2014 – revenue grew from $15.9 million in 2009 to $362 million in 2014. Many start-ups, jumping on the bandwagon in 2011 and 2012, faced financial issues between 2012 and 2013. For example, Foam Fest, Run or Dye, the Hero Rush, the Ruckus Race, and The Great American Mud Run were just a few series to cancel events amid financial problems.

Mudderella, a Tough Mudder for women, is held on 21 September 2013, with seven held in 2014 (Griffin, 2015).

In April 2014, Rugged Maniac appeared on season 5 of Shark Tank – the US version of Dragon’s Den – securing an investment of $1.75 million from Mark Cuban, billionaire and owner of the Dallas Mavericks (Baruti, 2016; Brennan, 2017).

In January 2014, Tough Mudder establishes the Mudder Legion programme, which is only for those who have completed their maiden Tough Mudder. Legionnaires have access to the tougher obstacles within the Legionnaires’ Loop of a Tough Mudder.

“Returning Mudders are now bestowed with a special status – Legionnaires – and receive course privileges, including obstacle express lanes, and headbands that denote how many races they’ve completed.” (Laporte, 2017a).

In 2014, Spartan Race launched the Trifecta Medal, which is earned when participants complete a short, a medium and a long distance Spartan race in one calendar year. Spartan Race experiences an increase in participation, from both men and women, in its longer races as a result.

As the OCR industry became more mature in 2014-2015, and looked less like a ‘fad’, health club operators and other well-known brands sought collaborations with the big names in OCR (Section 2.1). For example, Virgin Active with Tough Mudder, and NBC with Spartan Race (Section 2.2).

Data compiled by Vania Nikolova (2018), of RunRepeat, demonstrates that a saturation of the OCR market occurred in 2015, with the number of participants becoming stabilised. Some OCR providers leave the market, whilst others diversify.

It was reported in 2015 that Spartan Race was still “not profitable” unlike their competitor Tough Mudder (Fischer, 2015). Warrior Dash “produced 35 days of races in 30 events in 2015”, down from 50 events in 2012 (Fischer, 2015).

In 2015, Powdr Enterprises acquired Human Movement Management, the operator of the Dirty Girl mud run and the Zombie Run (Fischer, 2015).

In 2015, Tough Mudder holds the first Urban Mudder, but it does not have any mud and is only half the distance, around five miles (Griffin, 2015). Warrior Dash had tried ‘urban’ OCR’s, holding two Urban Warrior Dash events in 2013, before cancelling the concept.

Although Spartan Race and Tough Mudder have diversified from the core OCR product into, for example, health club and TV collaborations, Red Frog decided to expand the core product experience with the acquisition of a high-volume catering company and music festivals, with the aim of concentrating on the post-race music, vending, and beer and spectator experience (Fischer, 2015).

Aired in 2016, ‘Rise of the Sufferfests’, directed by investigative journalist Scott Keneally, was a feature documentary about the global OCR phenomenon. It explored the history of the sport, psychology behind it, personalities that drive it, and asked what it says about the world we are living in. Keneally had to overcome his own obstacles to get the documentary off the ground and finished (Laporte, 2017b).

On 14 April 2017, Umpqua Community College’s (UCC) Department of Athletics signed William Turner and Andrew Paschall for the UCC’s Obstacle Course Racing programme, becoming the first two scholarship athletes of their kind in the USA (UCC, 2017).

By June 2017, tens of thousands of viewers are streaming OCR on Facebook, Periscope, Twitch, and Snapchat (Laporte, 2017a).

In August 2017, Tough Mudder debuted the Mudder Half (a 5km OCR) in Nashville, and a Mini Mudder designed for kids aged 7 to 12 (Laporte, 2017a). Tough Mudder also established a competitive, timed option known as Tougher Mudder and Toughest Mudder, an 8-hour endurance contest (Laporte, 2017a). In November 2017, participants were introduced to the 24-hour World’s Toughest Mudder (Laporte, 2017a). It was noted that Nolan Kombol, then Senior Director of Product, required 15 minutes in a podcast to explain the differences between the various races (Laporte, 2017a).

Tough Mudder establishes the Tough Mudder Bootcamp concept in 2016 on a franchise model, opening 30 units in its first year of franchising in 2018 (Franchising.com, 2018). The concept is based on a 45 minute HIIT [LINK] class based on Tough Mudder principles. However, a considerable investment of “$297,000 to $521,350” is required with candidates having “at least $120,000 in liquid capital and net worth of $400,000.” (Franchising.com, 2018).

Joe De Senna, the founder and CEO of Spartan Race, desires OCR to be an Olympic Sport, competing in the Olympic Games in 2024 (Fischer, 2015), although Nikolova (2018) suggests the 2028 Olympics is more likely because it is being hosted in Los Angeles and the host “can exert influence in the choice of new Olympic sports.” On 25 February 2017, a special demonstration race was held in Ponoma, California, which combined OCR with modern pentathlon’s ‘Laser Run’ (Murphy, 2017). Athletes had to run four 800-metre circuits, pausing between each for a quick session of target shooting with a laser pistol, with the unprecedented addition of obstacles. With the IOC President, Thomas Bach, looking to “keep the Games vital and relevant” OCR is in with a good chance to achieve Olympic status (Murphy, 2017).

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