By Pete Williams
Back in July, we tried to count the number of obstacle mud runs that have emerged this year in Florida alone. We figured there were at least 22 representing at least 17 different race series.
More have emerged this year and a good over/under guess for 2012 would be 35. That’s just in the Sunshine State, of course, but it figures Florida would lead the nation since we can stage them all year long.
We still have a few more races this year – including Tough Mudder on Dec. 3-4 near Tampa and the season-finale of Muddy Buddy at Zoo Miami on Nov. 20 – but we thought now would be a good time to handicap the field for 2012.
Already several of the national races have announced events for 2012, including Warrior Dash, which returns to Triple Canopy Ranch in Lake Wales Jan. 21-22; and Spartan Race, which on Feb. 25 again will use Oleta River State Park in Miami, increasing the distance of the event to a “Super Spartan” of eight-plus miles.
Among state-wide events, Savage Race, which debuted in Clermont in August, will return to the same venue on March 10 and has tentative plans to expand to Atlanta and Austin in 2012. Iron Crusader, which made its Florida debut last month, has announced an event, though not a venue, for Oct. 22.
Are obstacle mud runs a fad or will they have a lasting impact? If they do survive, which ones will stand out among a crowded field?
“It’s like anything else,” says Bob Babbitt, the creator of Muddy Buddy, which has two events in 2011 and would have staged three had its proposed year-end event not conflicted with Tough Mudder. “The races that provide the most value will have staying power.”
Defining value in an apples-to-oranges category can be difficult, but here’s what we think will determine which races succeed in 2012 and beyond:
PRICE POINT: Registering for an obstacle mud run can be a lot like purchasing an airline ticket. Prices vary wildly, even by endurance sports standards, depending on when you register.
On average, the races run about $65 to $75 a pop – sprint triathlon pricing. That’s a lot considering many can be completed in 45 minutes, though admittedly a lot of recreational athletes and non-athletes enter mud runs and remain on the course for twice that time. Most races charge $10 for parking and parking fees are unusual in the endurance sports world.
Triathletes would revolt if they finished a race and there was no free food available, but that’s the norm at obstacle mud runs. At the very least, races should enlist a sponsor like Mix 1, the post-workout recovery drink that’s handed out free at many running events and triathlons in Florida.
Earlier this year, I pointed out that one obstacle mud run had a high price point for a 5K course. The race director strongly objected, saying I didn’t know what I was talking about. He later canceled his second race of the year due to low registrations.
Perhaps a cautionary tale for 2012 events who plan on similar fees and/or no free grub.
DEGREE OF DIFFICULTY: This is a fine line to walk. Race directors want huge numbers, so they make the races fairly easy. But this alienates competitive athletes, especially when the marketing for most of these events emphasizes how tough and challenging the course will be.
We’re curious to see how many no-shows Tough Mudder has. Unlike preparing for a running event or triathlon, where there are plenty of train-by-numbers programs to follow, getting ready for a 12-mile obstacle run is new territory for most. As a result, we’re hearing of a number of people dropping out. Few people blend endurance and strength training, a combination that’s a prerequisite for Tough Mudder.
ORIGINALITY: With so many races, it’s growing increasingly difficult to stand out. There are only so many ways to position ropes, ladders, walls, and tires. We’re hearing that races are finding it increasingly difficult to get certain things covered by liability insurance, such as fire-related obstacles.
We’re all for water challenges, but given that 30 or 40 percent of an average mud run field can’t swim, we’re guessing they’re going to go away too because of liability purposes. That’s a shame. After all, swim challenges are a staple on “Survivor,” which is what these races are supposed to emulate, at least in part.
LOCATION: The nature of obstacle mud runs means race directors must seek out ranches, motocross venues, and other out-of-the-way locales, all of which we have in abundance in Florida. But we’re surprised how few races there were this year in the greater Tampa Bay area, perhaps the biggest concentration of endurance athletes in Florida. Nobody wants to get up and drive 90 minutes for a race. We’re guessing more events will join Tough Mudder and visit Tampa Bay in 2012.
BEER: Many obstacle runs trumpet the one free beer you get afterward but, really, what’s the point? Do you really need a beer before noon? Save the beer money and provide some free food, at least some fruit and cookies.
INTANGIBLES: We gave a lot of props to The Highlander Run, which featured a live band, a free kids race, and a 150-foot water slide, which falls under the originality category. We liked how Savage Race had a lake for athletes to wash off in afterward, as opposed to trickling shower hoses at most races. (That said, that lake will be much colder to wash off in during March than it was in August.)
Muddy Buddy always seems to provide a free low-resolution digital image via email – or even a hard copy provided by a sponsor.
Props to for Highlander and Savage Race for providing Tultex T-shirts, a welcome change from tech shirts and standard cotton shirts. Again, if you’re going to charge $75 plus parking, this is one area you should get right. Leave the sponsor logos off the back, too.
VERDICT: In 2011, races attracted athletes because of the novelty. In 2012, the market will determine which survive.
Now more than ever, athletes have a choice.