The quickest growing segment of endurance races is the “adventure” races that have been popping up around the country. These adventure races include obstacles throughout the courses to “spice” up the traditional distance races. Personally, I love the idea, I think it is fresh and it brings back fond memories of trying to recreate old Nickelodeon game shows with props around the backyard. Adventure racing really isn’t a brand new segment, but rather an evolution of the trail races and, I would like to wager, the popularity of the obstacle course races that have evolved in game shows from Japan (see Ninja Warrior). The three major races I found thus far are: Warrior Dash, Tough Mudder, and Spartan Race. Though the first of such races that I heard about was the Urbanathlon hosted by Men’s Health Magazine. My sister actually participated in this 10 mile obstacle race around downtown Chicago and had a blast. A couple of the notable obstacles were the stair climb in Soldier Field and jumping over taxis at the end. These races are not out only to test your cardiovascular endurance but also your muscle strength in a variety of areas.
This traveling 5K has had a lot of national exposure and is the fastest growing of the three races. The obstacles are fairly standard and it is super popular due to the relatively short length and the huge number of entrants that they run. Unfortunately this also attracts some people that are really not prepared to race and there has been a rash of injuries reported at these events nationwide. The funny thing is, these reports are treated as almost a badge of honor for the race, as it relishes in the fact that it is not for everyone but includes a “rockstar” atmosphere (free beer!) that aims at a more hip crowd. “Not your father’s 5K” if that makes sense. Basic climbing, lots of mud, fire, etc. I’m interested in trying one of these out for myself.
Highly regarded 10 Mile obstacle race is supposedly based on British Special Forces training. This is no joke, the race website used to state that it wanted to supplant Ironman as the premier endurance race in the world.* They make it a point not to time the average runner who enters the race. “The challenge is to finish.” As it is a bit longer, Tough Mudder adds quite a few twists in the obstacles they throw at people. Underwater sections, large rope sections, even electricity and barbed wire has shown up on Tough Mudder courses. I really want to try one of these races out. Its not quite as accessible as other races and it will require some work in strength training that I have not done in quite some time.
*Business Break! In a strategic sense, this idea makes the best business sense for the company. Tough Mudder correctly identifies the biggest proverbial fish in the pond and makes it clear what their line of attack is. By setting Ironman as a target, it not only gains a boost for association but also sets the bar for the rest of the industry. Imagine some new kid challenging the old bully on the playground and suddenly everyone comes out in arms and you get the idea. Love it.
The spartan race comes in several lengths with the most demanding being the 48-hour Spartan Death Race. These races carry the friendly tagline “You May Die”. Death Race aside, the Spartan race seems a bit more intense than the other races out there. There are gladiator type challenges, carrying heavy objects, testing mental strength. I don’t know anyone who has done one of these races but the videos and pictures make it look like a real test. I’d like to speak to someone who has done one of these before I pass judgement on whether or not I would run it. The descriptions make the race organizers sound malicious.
On the business end, these adventure races are taking off alongside the traditional endurance race growth. While maybe seen as a niche event, the similarities keep all these companies in the same industry. We discuss strategies for businesses to grow in terms of customers. Either develop new customers or steal customers away from your competitors. The endurance race industry has both types of growth as thousands of new athletes emerge every year and the number of races has gone to a point where differentiation and keeping customers is a real key point. There are some strategies in this regard that I have seen.
Cooperation by far is the more popular option thus far, as race organizers have tied together races throughout the year in order to keep control and to establish a kind of brand for each race. Most of these groups are either organized by race type or the more popular choice is basic geography. Cities are combining organizing committees to better establish race calendars for an area and recycle vendors and such.
On the other hand is the product differentiation. Personally, I am going to try to compete in any Ultramax event I can feasibly enter because not only do they have a terrific team that is well organized and efficient, but of the races that I have done, they also have the best race swag for runners. Pint glasses, high quality t-shirts, random stress balls? Count me in. But adventure races is a clear example of differentiating the product. They are not merely races with mud but also obstacles and length.
I expect the industry to grow some more over the next two years or so, a lot of races adding more locations and participants, but then I think the companies involved start to hit the ceiling. Without sweeping social reform on physical health, the US will hit a peak of new athletes very quickly. The current generation will likely continue, providing a fairly reliable source of revenue but with too many races out there to choose from, many races will simply not have enough capacity to continue from year to year. A sort of consolidation period is on the horizon and adventure races are well positioned at this point to come out of that consolidation stronger due to the groundwork of branding and unique product differentiation they have already set. Also those sort of races are very accessible, something that I like to call “everyman” people can get into them. They don’t have to spend a ton of money on fancy equipment (see bicycles) or invest a lot of time in a gym as long as they put in the effort in around homemade workouts. It will be interesting to see what happens next.
I think marathons are fairly standard as a bar for runners, and triathletes will always be looking at the Ironman crown, but in the end, all those other races are just kind of lumped together. I’m really curious to see what becomes the new standard for these adventure type races or if they will simply attempt to co-exist and stand alone as individual achievements. I think it would be neat to see one of the races make a real competitive effort and become the “king” of the particular segment, but only time will tell.
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I’ve been really active recently on LinkedIn so if you happen to have a LinkedIn account, try to find me and add me. A lot of reports and general feedback from students around the business school say that LinkedIn is a bit flooded by robots and spammers (see monster.com or careerbuilder) but I think it still has some use. Especially just in analyzing business contacts and attempting to get a foothold in some places. Check it out!