Obstacle course was the endurance sports juggernaut of the last decade. With COVID-19 that came to a bruise. After a lost year, the obstacle race is recovering.
“Last year couldn’t have been worse for us,” said Joe De Sena, CEO and founder of Spartan, the largest OCR company in an industry of weekend warrior brands like Tough Mudder, Rugged Maniac, Savage Race, Bonefrog and Conquer the cuff. “We bring people together – now in 45 countries. In 2020 we were suddenly no longer allowed to do that. We were totally shut off. “
Last June, De Sena was forced to cancel Spartan’s remaining events and keep three-quarters of its 500 employees busy. Smaller companies were in even tougher shape.
“COVID-19 is crushing the industry,” said Kyle McLaughlin, CEO of Tough Mudder, in an Endurance Sports Coalition press release last summer that warned that without further support from Congress, more than 80 percent of an industry could hit the 50,000 running, triathlon, cycling, and obstacle course events in the US would cease to exist every year.
OCR evolved from bootcamp-inspired races that tested physical limits without marathon monotony and Tough Guy pain festivals from the 1980s in England. Spartan’s earliest races were fringe events at De Sena Vermont farm, but grew rapidly to include hundreds of 3-mile entry-level and full-day events at major outdoor venues around the world.
The biggest challenge for OCR is to get back into the fray in 2021 – hindsight in 2020.
“We know it’s safer than anything inside like grocery shopping.”
“I think the numbers are going to go down on purpose for a while, and slowly but surely, when the world goes back to normal, the OCR industry will steadily recover,” said Matt B. Davis, founder of Obstacle Racing Media and a die-hard racing driver with more than 200 obstacle course events. “We won’t see these mass starts of 300 people. Wave sizes will be smaller and socially distant. But it’s an outdoor event that we know is far safer than anything indoors, like grocery shopping. We know people are ready to restart real races – not the virtual ones we went through in 2020. “
More than 70 Spartan and Tough Mudder events are planned for 2021 – including the iconic 24-hour Toughest Mudder in the world (November 13-14, Laughlin, NV) and several Stadion-branded events in Nationals Park in Washington. DC, Citi Field in New York City, AT&T Stadium in Arlington, TX, and Notre Dame Stadium in Indiana, among others.
Rugged Maniac, calling its 3-mile obstacle course an “Adults Break – Unless Our Playground Has a Three-Story Water Slide and Fire Jump,” is back with a list of 30 events in the US and Canada in 2021. Savage Race, specializing in 6 mile races and a 3 mile lightning bolt filled with some of the business’s most inventive obstacles, is back with more than a dozen events across the East Coast and the Midwest. Dubbed the “World’s Only Navy SEAL Obstacle Course Race,” Bonefrog plans to run 10 events this year.
Participants can expect new protocols, including temperature tests, reduced crowd (by up to 70 percent), dedicated lanes, cleanup of touchpoints, and little partying after the race.
“I’m the eternal optimist, but I believe that when the world opens up, people like ours will finally get out of the cage on events like ours,” says De Sena. “They’ll go outside and get dirty and do all the things they couldn’t. So let’s do it. We have to do it. “
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