Run, jump, crawl...get electrocuted.
These are just a handful of the activities runners might perform during obstacle course races—also known as OCRs or mud runs—which are exploding in popularity.
Each year, millions of participants take to obstacle courses around the world to challenge their athleticism, toughness and determination on miles of dirt paths, in muddy water and past semi-insane obstacles. And each year, participation numbers continue to grow.
According to statistics from RunRepeat on non-traditional running events, the number of people taking part in mud runs and obstacle course races has significantly risen from 2009 to 2013, while half marathon and marathon participation has seen only modest growth.
Meanwhile, the number of OCR events is certainly keeping up with the demand. A search for mud runs and obstacle course races on ACTIVE.com, for example, yields more than 2,000 races to choose from. No longer are road races the only option for those looking to become healthier and more active.
The History of Obstacle Course Races
There's some debate about who put on the first modern obstacle course race, but many trace the event's history back to the U.K.-based Tough Guy race, first held in 1987. Billed as the "toughest race in the world," the Tough Guy event is still run every year in January and is meant to test participants' biggest fears, including heights, tight spaces, fire, water and electricity.
Adventure racing, which requires more orienteering and can last multiple days, is also sometimes tied to the creation of OCRs. These events date back to the late 1960s and usually require participants to use maps, bicycles, kayaks and rock climbing gear.
As far as modern OCRs go, participants have their pick from thousands of events across the world. Two of the most well-known obstacle course races on the scene today, Spartan Race and Tough Mudder, both claim 2010 as their founding year—with no specific date that establishes one before the other. Warrior Dash lists a more specific inception of July 18, 2009, for their inaugural event. Regardless of who beat whom to the punch, the OCR industry has exploded in popularity and participation.
The Appeal of the OCR
To understand more about why the OCR industry has taken off at such an unprecedented rate, we went straight to the source. Joe De Sena, CEO and co-founder of Spartan Race, believes that obstacle course races are a more appealing kind of commitment for the average person.
"Very few people love running long distance. It's a tiny sliver of the population that actually loves it," he says. "We make it easier in a sense that every quarter mile, there's something to distract you from what you're really doing—which is running."
And athletes aren't the only ones interested in getting involved—brands want in on the party, too. In 2013, Reebok signed on as the title sponsor of Spartan Race, and Merrell recently announced a similar partnership with Tough Mudder.
"Even before the partnership came about, we were very keen on getting closer to the obstacle course racing challenges," says Gregg Dixon, product line manager for trail running at Merrell. "Looking at data, we saw it as one of the quickest growing sports in the U.S., so we wanted to find a way to start moving into that territory. And with Merrell being an outdoor brand, it's kind of a perfect fit for us."
While Merrell has long been a leader in the hiking boot industry, the company has now created a shoe that is part trail running, part obstacle course racing. The All Out Crush will be available in Spring 2016, allowing runners to take them from the trail to an OCR—and back.
As the Tough Mudder partnership evolves, Merrell also plans to create an entire line of apparel, shoes and accessories to appeal to mud runners and obstacle course racers across the world.
"We also love the fact that this might expose a lot more people to the outdoors," he says. "And maybe they might enjoy it and start to do more outdoor activities than they would have had they not participated in Tough Mudder."
A Gateway Drug
Introducing people to new ways of healthier living is also a goal of De Sena's, just as his mother introduced him to health and wellness at a young age.
"I grew up in Queens, New York," De Sena says of his childhood. "It was the furthest thing from health and wellness. It was sausage and peppers and pizza and raviolis and cheesecake."
After his mother stumbled upon yoga and adopted a vegan lifestyle, De Sena's life changed dramatically—and for the better.
"For me, it's a lifestyle. It's about changing your life," he says. "If we can create change and get people moving, that's our goal. If my mother hadn't taught me that stuff, how would I have known?"
De Sena thinks of Spartan Race as a gateway drug, in that people who aren't ready to take on a traditional road race may try an OCR and become hooked on the lifestyle. In fact, event organizers across the world are banking on that lifestyle to ensure return participants race after race.
Types of Obstacle Course Races
Ready to try your hand at an obstacle course race or mud run? Here's a short breakdown of some of the options:
The Spartan Race describes itself as the most athletically challenging OCR out there. De Sena says they will not include obstacles that aren't athletic in nature, like "electrocuting you for the sake of electrocuting you." Obstacles can be bypassed if you choose, but at the price of a set of burpees. Distances include a 3-mile, 8-mile and 12-mile race, plus distances longer than a marathon for those who want an extreme endurance test.
The Tough Mudder prides itself on being a physical and mental challenge rather than a race. Their focus on teamwork and camaraderie was one of the reasons Merrell decided to partner with the event. Not feeling an obstacle? Skip it. Per the Tough Mudder website, "The way we see it, you are there to have fun and challenge yourself. If you think a particular obstacle really isn't going to do this for you, just go around it—without a penalty or shame." They even have a quiz to help you determine if you're ready for this type of event.
The Savage Race is a little bit party and a little bit insanity. Their website states: "It's more than just a race...It's about the mud, the fire and the Facebook pics." This event places an emphasis on friendship and teamwork with a mission of "enabling you to have the most exciting day of your life—period." The SavagePro division is dedicated to more serious athletes, while those just looking for a fun run are invited to join the non-competitive wave.
Battlefrog was designed by Navy SEALs and SeaBees, which means you can expect one of the most difficult experiences of your life. With a catchphrase of "Stronger With Every Step," Battlefrog is meant to challenge both your physical and mental strength with obstacles such as swimming through underground mines and shooting paintball guns at targets in the pitch black.
The Warrior Dash prides itself on being a race "anyone can start and everyone can finish." Offering shorter distance races (3-4 miles), this event is self-timed and includes fewer obstacles than many other OCRs, putting more emphasis on actually running through the course.
EPIC Series Obstacle Challenge
Based in California, the EPIC Series is a hybrid obstacle course race. It combines cross-training, strongman, and traditional obstacle course racing elements together for an exciting event. There are three different levels - Beginner, Intermediate, and Advanced. There’s even a Kids Course if you want to make this a family event.
This obstacle course race has over 25 obstacles, including giant inflatables, fire jumps, rope climbs, and a waterslide, all with a side of mud. The event itself is like a giant party, with beer, music, games, and food.
Other Options: Don't feel like getting muddy? Try a more light-hearted event like The Color Run, The Music Run, WIPEOUTRUN or even a local beer run near you. These events are straight up fun, while still allowing you to get in a little exercise—maybe without even noticing it.
Obstacle Course Racing - What to Expect
Every race is different, but here are some common obstacles you may encounter during an OCR:
- Water Obstacles
- Monkey Bars
Often, these obstacles are separated by lots of mud. While there is running involved, the obstacles help the running go by quickly. It also helps that these races aren’t very long. Most obstacle course races are 5ks or 10ks.
Tip: Don’t be afraid to get a little dirty, and go in with an open mind. At the end of the day, you’re going to have tons of fun!
- Super Challenging Races to Test Your Strength and Determination
- 15 Things Only Mud Runners Know
- The Best Shoes for Mud Running
Find your next race.