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The OCR Industry is Larger than You Think… If You Are Willing To Look

Posted on June 17, 2015 by Margaret Schlachter

BS bs-md-death-at-tough-mudderThe OCR industry is huge, and still growing. The industry includes competitive obstacle races, mud runs, rucks, and other quirky events. Runners World has called it non-traditional racing as also includes events like color runs and other themed events. While each has their own definition of what OCR is to them it is quickly apparent the industry is huge. However, most of us aren’t able to see outside the box.


This industry is dominated by two companies (a few more if you want to push further) but Tough Mudder and Spartan Race are the two that get the press, get the interviews, and dominate our social media. They have become standards in many ways but they are only a small slice of the overall industry when you start to step back.


For the last couple of months my work path has led to me see what really makes up the OCR industry. These events have included untimed mud runs, fun runs, permanent courses, and other events you don’t often find people talking about online. What have I learned in this exploration? The industry is much much bigger than Spartan or Tough Mudder and we need it all.


As someone who has spent their entire life in sports or working in some capacity around a sport, I am the first to say I want OCR to be a legit, and serious sport. I want people to know what it is and what it is about. However, the last couple of months have taught me about the other side of the industry and the side that keeps us sports lovers going, the weekend warrior.


If you talk with any race company they all will admit it is not the elite athlete that pays the bills of the race company but instead the weekend warrior, the bucket lister, the desk jockey. This is not some secret. Yet more and more companies are building obstacles and courses just for those elite athletes. Is this the right direction? To quote Phish, “Maybe so, maybe not.”


For years, I pushed the elite agenda, the sport agenda, and the professional agenda. I still want all of these things, however I now see a much larger agenda that we need to maintain, FUN. My last couple of events were about the fun that people craved, the shared social interaction, and shared experience. The obstacles were the icing on the cake, but not what people ultimately were seeking.


I am a big fan of industry trends and watch companies grown, decline, or fold all together. My business school brain never stops working. In the wake of Atlas Race folding and one or two other hardcore races struggling for participants, I have seen the flip side as well. Salt Lake City, is normally considered a bad market for races, there are many reasons but speaking with multiple organizations in the non-traditional sector, my area sucks for participation. However, a couple of weeks ago a smaller OCR series brought their untimed obstacle race consisting mostly of inflatable obstacles to town and got over 2,000 participants. Then last weekend I attended an all women’s mud run outside of Pittsburgh (another area not known for producing massive numbers) with over 3,800 participants.


All of this is happening while other companies are struggling for 1,000 participants at each event. Why? Because they are fun. They have a theme and as I am learning more and more; most people do not care about timing, they don’t want penalties for obstacles. In a recent interview for an upcoming magazine article, the writer came back to me saying the editor thought the article was too intimidating to women and wanted to pull the average woman from the gym into the sport. We spent almost half an hour talking about all the facets of OCR and how it is much more than Tough Mudder and Spartan.


I love a challenge. I love the grueling climbs up a ski slope, or an obstacle that is nearly impossible. That is fun for me, but I have learned over the last couple of months people want a challenge but still want to have fun. Spending 8 hours on a 13 mile course is not fun for most people. They don’t want to be beaten down completely. They want to be challenged and go outside their comfort zone but still have the energy to laugh and share a cold beverage at the end of the event. They want obstacles that look cool and challenging but are accomplishable. A finish rate of 10-20% on an obstacle is great for the elites but can be devastating to the average racer. They might not come back for another event, or worse just leave the industry.


As OCR continues to grow and continues to splinter off into its niches within the niche sport even the most competitive OCRs can take a note from the fun runs. We need to have a challenge but we also need people to sign up in numbers. Until the competitive race is it’s own event and the weekend races are their own events the industry needs to remember the average racer. It needs to create courses that entice more newbies into the industry and keep them here. The “easy” mud runs are vital to our industry and without them we have no gateway. Who knows the next Amelia or Rose just might have gotten her start at one of those “easy” events.