Obstacle course racing was the endurance-sports juggernaut of last decade. That came to a bruising halt with COVID-19. After a lost year, obstacle course racing is picking itself back up.
“Last year could not have been any worse for us,” says 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 Gauntlet. “We bring people together—in 45 countries now. In 2020, we suddenly weren’t allowed to do that. We were totally shut down.”
By last June, De Sena was forced to cancel Spartan’s remaining events and furlough three-quarters of his staff of 500. Smaller companies were in even tougher shape.
“COVID-19 is crushing the industry,” Tough Mudder CEO Kyle McLaughlin stated last summer in a press release from the Endurance Sports Coalition, which warned that without further support from Congress, more than 80 percent of an industry that accounts for 50,000 running, triathlon, cycling, and obstacle course events in the United States each year would cease to exist.
OCR evolved from boot camp–inspired races that test physical limits without marathon monotony, and ’80s-era Tough Guy pain-fests in England. Spartan’s earliest races were fringe affairs held on De Sena’s Vermont farm, but quickly grew to encompass hundreds of entry-level 5K and all-day events at large outdoor venues around the world.
Hit with a pandemic that doesn’t take kindly to mobs of pumped, face-painted, battle-crying competitors piling together to push past their comfort zones, OCR’s greatest challenge yet is reemerging for battle in 2021—with 2020 hindsight.
“WE KNOW IT’S SAFER THAN ANYTHING INDOORS, LIKE GROCERY SHOPPING.”
“I think numbers purposefully will be down awhile, and slowly but surely as the world gets back to normal we’ll be seeing a steady recovery of the OCR industry,” says Matt B. Davis, founder of Obstacle Racing Media and an inveterate racer with more than 200 obstacle course events under his belt. “We won’t be seeing those mass starts of 300 people. Wave sizes are going to be smaller and socially distanced. But it’s an outdoor event, which we know is far safer than anything indoors, like for example, grocery shopping. We know people are ready for real races to get going again—not those virtual ones we’ve been living through in 2020.”
More than 70 Spartan and Tough Mudder events in the United States are scheduled for 2021—including the iconic 24-hour World’s Toughest Mudder (Nov. 13–14, Laughlin, NV) and several Stadion-branded events held at Nationals Park in Washington, D.C., Citi Field in New York City, AT&T Stadium in Arlington, TX, and Notre Dame Stadium in Indiana, among others.
Rugged Maniac, which calls its 5K obstacle courses “recess for grown-ups—except our playground has a three-story waterslide and a fire jump,” is back with a 2021 roster of 30 events across the United States and Canada. Savage Race, specializing in 6-milers and a 3-mile “Blitz” stuffed with some of the more inventive obstacles in the business, is back with more than a dozen events on the East Coast and in the Midwest. Bonefrog, billed as “the world’s only Navy SEAL Obstacle Course Race,” plans to run 10 events this year.
Competitors can expect new protocols, including temperature testing, reduced crowd sizes (by up to 70 percent), dedicated lanes, touch-point sanitization, and not much post-race partying.
“I’m the eternal optimist, but I believe as the world opens up, events like ours are where people will go to finally get out of the cage,” says De Sena. “They’re going to migrate outdoors, getting dirty, and doing all the things they haven’t been able to do. So we’re going for it. We gotta make this work.”