A friend mentioned to me recently that the sport of obstacle racing is in its adolescence. Do you think that's accurate? Does a sport have to reach the teen years to be in its adolescence, or does 'adolescence' just describe a stage of its growth?
I think in this case, my friend (she does these races) was referring to the fact that the sport is filled with promise, but going through an awkward stage.
Don't get me wrong; even though I won't do obstacle races, I respect the people who organize them and the people who complete them. But my friend's description of the industry made me stop and think.
As the editor of a sports event magazine, I see a lot of press releases. Most of them deal with upcoming events, tournaments, races and so forth. In the last year, I've noticed a tremendous uptick in the number of press releases about obstacle races. In fact, a day doesn't go by without a notice of an event that includes mud, fire, extremes, challenges, obstacles, barbarians or some combination thereof. It's actually pretty cool, and I admire the imagination that goes into making events unique.
Not too long after my friend's remark, however, I received a rather unfortunate notice about the cancellation of - and lack of refunds for - one race in particular. It was called the Hero Rush and included obstacles similar to those faced by firefighters, EMTs and other first responders. (I would link to the website, but it has already been taken down). A blog about obstacle racing noted that previously, information on the Hero Rush site had stated the company was filing for Chapter 7 bankruptcy and would not be giving money back to those who had already paid registration fees.
Unfortunately, the problem seems to be that as popular as obstacle racing is, everyone wants to get in on the game of organizing them, and as a result, the number of events is multiplying exponentially, perhaps in some markets disproportionately to the athlete base in that area.
This in itself isn't unique to obstacle racing; it's probably safe to say that every area race director who plans 5Ks or 10Ks has the problem of competing for the same core group of runners and walkers.
The problem with obstacle races, however, is that unlike regular runners, most obstacle racing athletes aren't spending the money to do two races a weekend. After all, registration fees for obstacle races are necessarily far higher than that of a typical 5K (they have to be; consider the work that goes into designing and constructing the course) and in order to have a good breakeven, a far higher registration fee is needed. And without sufficient participation, putting on an obstacle race is not feasible. Not by a long shot.
The loss of the Hero Rush is hard on everyone - certainly for those athletes who already paid registration fees - but also for the obstacle racing industry as a whole, since it makes newcomers to the sport think twice before registering for their first event. And when a sport is trying to grow, you don't want any doubt in people's minds.
A really good article in Obstacle Racing Media was aimed at helping newcomers find fun and worthwhile events. It's definitely worth the read, and worth passing on to anyone considering registering in an obstacle race for the first time.
Obstacle racing is somewhere between its infancy and adulthood. It's an attractive bucket list event for those who want to try it once, and an ongoing love for those who are interested in continually testing and pushing their limits. Adolescence may be the way to describe it at present. It's halfway to acceptance as a full-fledged sport, having one foot in the fringe or fad stage, and one foot in the mainstream.
Let's hope for the sake of the athletes and the industry, it gets through this awkward stage in its growth and emerges into adulthood unscathed.