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Costs, Pros & Cons of Obstacle Course Races Like Spartan Race & Tough Mudder

The Wall Street Journal claims obstacle course racing (OCR) “may be the fastest-growing participatory sport in American history.” As of 2008, the sport was virtually unheard of, consisting mainly of small, local races and events, but as of 2012, more than 2 million participants flooded the booming industry, with as many as 4 million expected to take part in 2014.

As a fitness professional, I’m always excited when races and events draw crowds. Anything that gets people up and moving is generally considered a good thing. But there are risks that arise when sports go from zero to 60 in a matter of months – an exponentially exploding industry opens up itself, and its participants, to problems.

Understanding Obstacle Course Racing (OCR)

Given the dynamic growth of the OCR industry, it’s a little tricky to positively define OCRs. In general, they’re exactly what they sound like: Races, during which participants come across, and overcome, specific obstacles (for example, crawling through mud pits, climbing over walls, or jumping over fire).

OCRs are held all over the country, typically in large, open parks or outdoor spaces where the racing companies have room to build their obstacles. Races vary in length and time, but most range from a 5k to half-marathon distance (roughly 3 to 13 miles), and most can be completed within one to four 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.

Because of the boom in participation, you can expect several hundred to several thousand participants at any given OCR event. And because many of these races are designed to encourage teamwork, there are usually options to join either as an individual or as a team. Sometimes races even offer discounts to those registering as part of a team. If a typical race entry ranges in price from $60 to $200, team registrations might receive a 5% to 10% discount for each person registering as part of the team.

There tend to be two types of OCR races: those focused on competition, and those focused on fun. Hardcore OCR racers want this difference to be more defined, drawing a clear line between races designed to get participants dirty, such as The Original Mud Run, and those focused on creating better athletes who are capable of facing tough, daunting obstacles. Some of the most well-known OCRs include Spartan Race, Tough Mudder, Warrior Dash, and Rugged Maniac.

Advantages of OCRs

There’s a lot to be said for obstacle course racing, and I see no reason most interested parties shouldn’t try one out. These are many of the reasons I’m an overall proponent of the sport:

  1. Enhance Cardiovascular Fitness. Obstacle course races are races typically ranging in length from 1 to 13 miles, depending on the event. Participants must train to be able to walk or run the full distance of the course.
  2. Encourage Strength and Flexibility Training. Unlike traditional road races, where you simple travel the distance of the course powered by your heart, lungs, and legs, OCRs introduce difficult obstacles that require additional training. To be able to effectively climb over a 10-foot wall, you must develop upper body strength. To be able to climb up a 30-foot rope, you must develop full-body strength and coordination. To be able to climb through some obstacles, you must develop greater flexibility. All-in-all, OCRs require greater total-body fitness than your standard race.
  3. Challenge Mental Toughness. It’s one thing to run for three miles – but it’s another thing entirely to run, jump, and crawl a total of three miles. For individuals looking for a new challenge, or those wanting to test the boundaries of their body and mind, OCR racing is a great place to start.
  4. Encourage Teamwork. Most OCR courses are designed for promoting teamwork. In other words, there may be some obstacles you can’t get through without a little help – you may need others to help you crawl up a 30-foot cargo net, or to help you out of a mud pit. The industry as a whole is community-focused, with a desire to help participants achieve and feel accomplished.
  5. Draw More People to Fitness. Because there’s a focus on teamwork, and because many OCR races seem novel, more people are drawn to the sport. Any time people sign up and train for events is a step in the right direction for overall community health.
  6. Options for Every Level. Whether you’re a total beginner or an elite athlete, there are obstacle course races perfect for your experience level. For instance, women can sign up for the Pretty Muddy OCR – an un-timed race that’s perfect for anyone just starting out, or as a fun race for the more competitive athlete. Likewise, those who want to earn a living running OCRs can sign up for the Spartan Race, where it’s not uncommon for top competitors to be supported by sponsors as they race for generous prize purses from the racing company. Spartan has awarded more then $200,000 in purse money.

Obstacle Course Races Disadvantages

Disadvantages of OCRs

Unfortunately, not everything about the OCR industry is good. When any industry experiences a boom, there’s an inevitable bust that may take place before the industry normalizes.

1. Too Many Races

First, the industry has been saturated with hopeful entrepreneurs starting races with the goal of becoming the “next big thing.” But putting together big events isn’t cheap – you have to have the space, the insurance, the online presence, the obstacles, the staff, and the marketing to draw competitors in. According to Obstacle Racer Magazine, a typical obstacle course race costs between $130,000 and $420,000 – that’s serious cash. Some entrepreneurs are realizing their work isn’t generating the rewards they predicted, and are being forced to close their doors.

I actually experienced this myself. About a year ago I was signed up to take place in a 5k Run for Your Lives obstacle course race. Several weeks prior to the event, I received an email stating that the company had filed for bankruptcy and no further races would be held. There was no recourse for those who signed up and spent money on the event. Luckily, another race company stepped in and took it over, so those who signed up were still able to compete.

If you’re going to spend $60 to $200 on a race entry fee, you want to be sure the race will be held. Check for races that:

  • Start Small. If it’s a new race you’re signing up for, it’s a good idea to choose a company that’s only starting in one or two locations. If a new company is trying to organize 10 to 12 events nationwide, there’s a good chance they’re overextended.
  • Have a Good Reputation. You can be fairly certain that the well-known national names in the industry, such as Warrior Dash and Spartan Race, are going to hold their events and put on a good show. Check to see how many years the company’s been around, and ask friends and family for recommendations before signing up.
  • Clearly Spell Out Locations. It’s a red flag if a race company hasn’t nailed down the specific location of the event. It’s one thing to say “Austin, Texas,” and an entirely different thing to say “Williamson County Regional Park, Cedar Park, Texas.” If the location is nailed down, you can feel confident that the race company has done the work necessary to secure the race date and time.

2. Poor Regulation

As a whole, the OCR industry has grown too fast for regulations to keep up. In fact, the industry is largely unregulated. This means there aren’t standards for staffing, obstacle type, obstacle safety, or even course length.

There are three main problems with the lack of regulation:

  1. Companies Can Implement Obstacles Without Standardized Safety Testing. Almost any company can come in, open up shop, and create whatever obstacles they want without any real guarantee that they’re safe or reasonable. In fact, many companies start up with the hopes of making bigger, better, wilder obstacles to draw participants, but there’s no way for participants to be sure they’re safe.
  2. Course Safety Can Be Compromised With Crowds. The number of participants and the lack of regulation can lead to otherwise safe obstacles becoming unsafe. Take, for instance, the drowning death of Avishek Sengupta in a 2013 Tough Mudder race. While a wrongful death suit is still pending in court against the racing company, the speculation is that there were too many people on the course that day, which made normal regulation of the obstacles more difficult to maintain. Without standardized regulation for how to handle crowded courses, this type of tragedy is more likely to take place.
  3. Professionalism as a Sport Is Difficult Without Standards & Regulations. For individuals who want to seriously compete in the sport, the lack of regulation prevents the industry from seeming professional. Compare it to any other sport – running, for instance – and you know there are standards to follow. A marathon is a marathon, no matter where you run it. A 5k is a 5k, no matter where you run it. There are records to break, rules to follow, and governing bodies to make sure athletes are participating appropriately. However, the OCR industry is all over the place when it comes to standards and regulations. For instance, there are no standardized obstacles or race distances, and there’s not a governing body to enforce athlete drug testing.

There are associations trying to increase the regulation in the industry – the Obstacle Racing Association and USOCR, to name two – but the only way they’ll see success is if they’re widely accepted by the racing companies already ruling the industry. The jury’s still out on this matter, and only time will tell.

Deciding to Race

Generally, there’s no reason you shouldn’t decide to race in an OCR – but you should understand the risks involved and take steps to minimize your own risk.

1. Train Appropriately

Don’t sign up for a race and then show up on race day completely unprepared. Racing companies want you to be successful and free from injury, so follow their suggestions for training and nutrition. In general, give yourself a minimum of one month to prepare, and incorporate strength and flexibility training into your workout regimen.

2. Ask Questions

If you’re in doubt about what you should do to prepare for a race, don’t hesitate to communicate your questions to the racing company. If they’re slow to answer, or don’t seem equipped to answer your specific questions, you may want to consider canceling your registration and signing up for a different event.

You may also want to seek out a trainer or coach to help you prep for your event. A trainer can walk you through specific exercises that will mimic the type of work you’ll need to do during the event.

3. Practice Defensive Racing

When you arrive to a race course on race day, understand that you’re in charge of your own safety. It’s reasonable to assume a course management team has created safe obstacles, but you shouldn’t assume that they’re being managed or monitored appropriately. Think of your racing as “defensive racing,” much like defensive driving. Keep an eye on what’s happening around you, and never feel pressured to attempt an obstacle that seems unsafe.

Practice Defensive Driving

Final Word

The obstacle course racing industry has a lot going for it: It’s fun, exciting, and widely available. But just because OCRs look pretty on paper, it doesn’t mean the reality is perfect. In the words of water safety, “Look before you leap” (both literally and figuratively) into OCR events, and always be your own safety advocate. For instance, if an obstacle seems too crowded to safely attempt, consider waiting for it to open up, or simply skip it altogether. Most OCRs companies offer alternative exercise suggestions for individuals who can’t (or don’t want to) complete a particular obstacle.

Likewise, if race course personnel aren’t helping manage the flow of the event, or if safety personnel seem distracted, don’t be afraid to ask them to step up their game. No one wants a day of fun competition to turn into a life-altering tragedy – it’s reasonable to expect race personnel to be proactive and engaged in protecting the safety of participants.

Have you tried an obstacle course race? What was your experience?

Laura Williams
Laura Williams holds a master's degree in exercise and sport science and enjoys breaking up her day by running her dogs, hitting the gym, and watching TV. Having been in charge of her own finances since the early age of 12, she knows how to save and when to spend, and she loves sharing these tips with others. Laura ditched her career as a fitness center manager for the relative freedom of home-based writing and editing work. She stays busy by working on her own website, GirlsGoneSporty, a website designed to help the sporty woman live the sporty life.

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