Popular running website running.competitor.com published an article just over a week ago entitled, “Is Obstacle Course Racing Dead?” As I picked my jaw up off the floor and unfurrowed my brow after digesting this question, I set my allegiance aside while I read. To summarize, the article suggests that the newly announced Spartan Race Trail series signals the death of obstacle course racing given a declination in registration rates as high as 30% since 2015 without recovery. The move to eliminate the obstacles the brand is known for is a nail in the proverbial coffin for what some running-purists consider no more than a passing fad.
Considering Spartan Race, or any other obstacle race, didn’t premier in my world until early 2016, I found the 2015 registration peak statistic surprising. OCR has become a significant part of my life, having committed myself so fully participating in multiple events per year, engaging in OCR-centric social media, and delivering content to the masses right here at Mud Run Guide. Still struggling with the idea that this sport could be on the decline, I stopped to wonder—is OCR saturation just a lens of my own worldview, or is the author on to something? Think of the cable and network coverage OCR received over the last couple years. Since 2016, CBS Sports Network aired World’s Toughest Mudder and other events. NBC and ESPN aired numerous Spartan events. UK’s Channel 4 showed the 2018 OCR World Championships for the first time this year. Then consider the social media live streams that have exploded over the last two years. How could someone think OCR is dead when so much content is spilling out to the masses? It was time to do some digging.
To sate my inner data nerd, I reached out to four of the most popular brands in the sport for data: Spartan Race, Tough Mudder, Savage Race, and Warrior Dash. Unfortunately, my data request could not be satisfied ahead of this article’s deadline. In search of enlightenment, I conferred with Mud Run Guide co-founder and resident data guru, Brett Stewart, for insight. He cites, “Triathlon hit its peak participation 2011 – 13, nearly 35 years after the sport was born. Half & full marathons reached mass participation [in 20]13 – 14 in the USA and both have declined from there. Right now OCR is below its peak of 2015, but it is relatively ‘flat’ in terms of growth — which is a sign of maturity as well as decent ‘health’ with a roughly similar number of participants entering and leaving each year.” So the sport is not dead, rather aging gracefully.
While the article misses the mark in places (i.e., a frustrating allusion that because 70% of women keep their phones on their person during races it means the social media experience is more important than performance—the carried phone is not for safety concerns, family responsibilities, or performance tracking; your uber-competitive author reserves lap two for social media shenanigans, thank you, but I digress…), I do think the original author nailed one thing. To quote, “…if Spartan—or any other race, for that matter—wants to survive, they have to do something both casual and spectacular; they must cater to the beginner and the elite; they have to be everything to everyone.”
These branches and expansions implemented to reach a wide audience with physical activity are encouraging to me as a personal trainer, student of exercise science, AND as a human with the goal of living to 100 years-old with quality of life. As Brett put it, “The WHOLE of endurance sports is being served better than ever before. Ultramarathons are on the rise, as are ULTRA OCR’s, etc.” OCR is arguably the most approachable endurance event not requiring any expensive equipment; racers may select appropriate, approachable distances; and events can be team-oriented and/or as competitive as one chooses, thus reducing the intimidation factor.
What we are experiencing now is the sport entering a maturation phase, vying for attention from all while trying to realize its identity in the endurance realm. With a recent crescendo in the OCR community’s chorus of negativity on social media regarding every misstep, disagreement, or other opportunity (see also: OCR Community Must Lead the Fight Against Trolls), these race brands must fight not only to please everyone, but to stay relevant as it matures amid the current climate. Changes, rebranding, introduction of new event types, etc. are trials the race brand leaders employ “to be everything to everyone.” Sometimes it’s a huge success, like the expansion of the kid’s events; but other times, race brands fail to rise to the challenge, particularly new or smaller/regional events, and falter or even shut down. So while OCR most certainly is not dead, this registration plateau is indicative of maturity. We are witnessing a significant stage of evolution of this sport in Darwin’s terms—survival of the fittest, if you will. As Darwin puts it, “It is not the strongest [of the species] that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change.” Perhaps we should err on the side of cautious optimism as the sport evolves to serve the community and newcomers alike. I, for one, am excited to see where evolution takes us in this wonderful sport.
Disclaimer: The viewpoints expressed by the authors do not necessarily reflect the opinions, viewpoints and official policies of Mud Run Guide LLC, or their staff. The comments posted on this Website are solely the opinions of the posters.
Since Obstacle Course Racing is still in its infancy it is only natural that there will be significant changes in these early stages of development. Not all of them will be hits, but attempts at change must be made for the sport to grow or even merely stay relevant. This is an interesting article and I hope you update us when you receive the data from the 4 brands that you contacted!
I started participating in OCR six years ago after losing 104 lb and I have had an absolutely wonderful time I have completed three trifectas, tough mudders and hundreds of other courses over the last several years. I made the decision about a year-and-a-half ago that I was no longer going to participate in Spartan events; Spartan became too much work and it was no longer fun. I want to have fun my goal is to complete the race without being injured…
I started participating in OCR six years ago after losing 104 lb and I have had an absolutely wonderful time I have completed three trifectas, tough mudders and hundreds of other courses over the last several years. I made the decision about a year-and-a-half ago that I was no longer going to participate in Spartan events; Spartan became too much work and it was no longer fun. My goal is to have fun and complete the race without being injured…
Thanks for the insight, Hillary. I am also curious about where the sport may or may not go, but think the key to its success lies in all of the major brands trying to build each other up rather than schedule big races on the same weekends as one another. We should also do our best to promote local, smaller race series that can be good ways for beginners to find footing in the sport, while the bigger series make new and more challenging obstacles to entice the elites. Either way, I’ll be out there racing and excited to see what the future holds.
I agree the sport is not dead. However, there is a very real challenge in that many people view OCR races as “bucket list” events. They do it once and never go back for more. So the registration decline is most likely the leveling out of the first timers and the repeat customers. Replacing users or finding new customers every year is not sustainable or profitable, so it makes sense that numbers will normalize. Otherwise events go out of business. I think you’ll see events ask themselves a lot of hard questions and make decisions that suggest they can’t be everything to everyone. Tough Mudder switched back their “classic” lineup because they cannot lose the core tribe that made it what it is…I think you’ll see the world divide into fun events and competitive events someday soon and let the people go where they want.
Speaking from personal experience running various Spartan races since 2015, I believe the decline is due to the excessive cost of the races and the over-commercialization of the experience. For example, running the spartan Ultra at the same location in back to back years, the registration price after all fees nearly doubled. We’re talking well over $300, yet the race experience never changed. Same race swag, course and experience, yet the race organizer doubled registration prices hoping to make more profit. However, the overly excessive increase backfires as the avg weekend warrior can’t afford to drop that much money plus lodging, transportation and other costs. Just hard to justify to your loved one and bank account. Spartan grew too fast and tried to over capitalize on the surge. I still love the Spartan experience, but my 4-5 races per yr shrunk to 1 or 2 for the yr.
I have to partially disagree that the brands must become all things to all persons. As a multi-year OCR runner and OCR trainer, feedback from others—and my own experience—indicates many events are too crowded and cumbersome to be enjoyable. Impossible parking and inefficient shuttling, having to check-in hours before wave time, crowding at start lines, frustrating waits at obstacles, and other crowding issues are the most common complaints I hear. You have to really, really enjoy the sport to return for more. Many weekend warriors don’t see the utility of returning.