It’s an unseasonably cold, wet and windy autumn day and I’m standing in the corner of a cliff edge field in Poldark country, waiting for my children to come into view. My last glimpse was them shooting down a makeshift tarpaulin slide into a chest-deep river and running off into the woods on the other side.
Just as I’m getting anxious that they might have fallen off the cliff, I see them climbing over a gate at the opposite end of the field. Their team of six are soaked and muddy, but wearing huge smiles as they run across the field towards the next obstacle, which involves scrambling under wire netting – through mud, naturally. A few minutes later they’re collecting their Tuff Enuff t-shirts and medals and asking to do it all again.
Obstacle course racing (OCR) has grown out of long distance endurance racing. Only the mighty could ever hope to even start an endurance race, let alone complete one, whereas the proliferation of events that have sprung up over the last 10 years has made OCR something to which everyone can aspire. Races are designed to test participants mentally as well as physically, and require them to work as a team. Crawling, climbing, sliding, dropping, swinging and jumping – all those things you loved doing as kid – are all part of the fun.
The two big players in the market are Spartan and Tough Mudder: they both started around 10 years ago, have gnarly reputations and have become global brands with millions of participants. Tough Mudder famously brings fire and electric shocks into its challenges, plus other aspects that play on human fears, such as heights and water. It offers a wide range of races from the entry level 5km up to a 12 hour overnight challenge, but the eight to 10 mile lap, with 25 obstacles, is its classic race.
At the other end of the spectrum is Somerset-based Rocket Race, which aims to be fun and non-intimidating. Rather than bracing themselves for electric shocks, participants can expect to do a limbo competition or a Zumba class mid-race.
“We’re all about getting people off the sofa to come and do something cool in a friendly, non-intimidating environment,” says Rocket Race director, David Baird, who is an enthusiast turned organiser.
“Lots of OCRs tick boxes for people’s egos, but that’s not us. I like to bring in elements that make people laugh. We also love people to come as a family. It’s really important for parents to inspire kids to put down their Playstations, but also for kids to inspire their parents to be active.”
Mud is good
Fun and family is also a priority for Nuclear Races, a permanent, ever-evolving facility based on an Essex farm, which runs year round training, corporate days, charity events and outdoor parties.
“Obstacle course racing is exercise without realising it, because it’s fun! Who doesn’t love a zipline over water or a waterslide with airtime?” says race director James Parrish. “It’s an opportunity to challenge your comfort zone, exercise, get social and get outside. Mud is good!”
Participation is growing year on year: the first race, eight years ago, had 180 entries, while 2018’s Nuclear Rush had 12,000. Parrish says the youngest competitors are four, up to regulars in their late 60s.
“It’s the perfect sport. Every race can be run, walked or crawled!” he says. “It gets every muscle in your body moving and you realise what can be achieved. Courses and obstacles are achievable, and there is the option of bypass routes.”
The organiser of Total Warrior, Yorkshire’s largest mass participation event, says one of the best things about OCR is that it makes running a team sport, which people can do with their mates: “It’s doing something different at the weekend, giving you an experience you wouldn’t normally be able to have. With a road race you can just run the course anyway, but you can’t do that with OCR. The mud, the monkey bars, the big walls bring out the inner child in people. Ultimately it’s great fun.”
Total Warrior focuses on running a mass event over the June solstice weekend, with schools and scout groups coming on the Thursday and Friday and a huge mass event on Friday night. A new 6km distance is being added, along with a 12km, a 3km juniors course and the ultra, which involves five hours of running. Participation is growing year on year and 2019’s event is gearing up to be the biggest yet, with 14,000 warriors and 7,000 spectators expected over the weekend.
Although race organisers say they are growing year on year, other companies, including the Cornwall-based Holy Grit have ceased trading. With entry fees north of £40, race organisers have to keep reinventing, adding something new and upping the fun factor to bring people back. Although participants earn prizes like medals, t-shirts, headbands and sometimes beer, in addition to the bragging rights, it’s not a cheap pastime.
Recognising that it’s expensive for those athletes at the top, Spartan founder Joe de Sena has started offering prize money, with the long-term view of professionalising the sport. Last year Jonathan Albon, widely regarded as the world’s number one obstacle course athlete, made around £45,000 in prize money, as well as £15,000 from sponsors.
At the start of 2018, De Sena also vowed to give US$1m to any athlete who won all three races in the Spartan Ultra Trifecta Series. Having won the first two races in the series, Albon had the cash in his sights when he started the gruelling 24-hour, 100-mile Ultra World Championship, but unfortunately, he fell short in the final event.
In 2018 more than one million people took part in 275 Spartan events, in 41 countries, and with expansion increasing every year, De Sena now has designs on the Olympics. “We tick all their boxes, we have a massive audience globally, with more participants than a number of the Olympic sports,” he says. “Now we’re working on convincing the national governing bodies of sport in 42 countries to back us. They are overwhelmingly positive, but it takes time because there are only so many medals that can be handed out at the Olympics.”
Spartan is running five events in the UK and one in Ireland in 2019. “We’re penetrating more countries and going deeper into existing countries – China is going to be huge – and we’re getting more television coverage,” says De Sena. “It’s like having a tiger by the tail. OCR is sexy and exciting, people get hooked and once they’ve signed up to a race then they are inspired to train. It’s so hard to commit to a regime unless you have something like this on the calendar.”
Going forward, Murray predicts OCR will continue to grow, but will split into three strands. Firstly, the local mud runs with a few obstacles, which are a fun introduction to the sport. Secondly, a handful of huge, festival-style events, where people make a weekend of it, drawn by challenging obstacles and the social atmosphere. Thirdly, there will be the higher-end competitive events for the serious runners.