Take a look at the start line pictures from your local mud run, or “obstacle race.”
Unlike a 5k or marathon line-up showcasing emaciated, linear body types, these photos are usually more of “type-A” line-up. Your OCR start-line is dominated by big arms, distended abs, tattoos, and spandex, lots and lots of spandex. You’d be forgiven in dismissing this strange collection, this burning man/cross-fit baby, as being nothing more than a fad that takes itself a bit too seriously.
But look closely and you might see, sandwiched between heavily tattooed Cross-fitters in checkered board shorts, juiced out powerlifters, and hobbyjoggers with dad-bods, a glimpse of one or two thin, serious-looking runners rocking short shorts and bright invov8 shoes. You’d be remiss if you thought they were nothing more than a marathoner trying something new.
No, these are the first of the professional athletes of this new sport, battling week in and out on the muddy for chicken-scratch prizes and sponsorship, much like the Steve Scotts or Prefontaine’s of track and field’s early post-amateur years.
Despite its lack of experience as opposed to other sports with Olympic dreams (the sport, in the US at least, has been around just under 10 years) obstacle racing has serious Olympic aspirations. This past weekend some of the top athletes in the OCR world met up in Miami to compete over a 3 mile course. At stake were spots on America’s newly-announced Pan-American team, which will spend the coming year racing exhibition races in North and South america before heading down to the Pan-am games.
While the aforementioned weekend-warrior crowd might pay OCR’s bills, it was the runners who were the focus on this special course. It is these same runners who are instigating an identity crisis in a sport attempting to be both commercial and Olympic in its aspirations, ideas that time and time again have proven to be mutually exclusive.
While participation numbers may be down as a whole since, say, 2010, the mainstream popularity of obstacle racing has exploded in recent years. Tough Mudder and Spartan Race have defied their fringe labels to become household names, benefiting from renewed interest in natural, gymnastic-like movements thanks to the explosion of Crossfit and shows like the ratings-dominating American Ninja Warrior.
NBC, NBC sports, ESPN, and CBS have all begun to devote substantial airtime to their own specific versions of the obstacle race. Even Netflix (Ultimate Beastmaster) and CMT (Broken Skull Ranch) are cashing in on the obstacle/mud-run movement. Sponsors the likes of Panasonic and Reebok have jumped into the fray, marketing action cameras and sport-specific shoes (with built in drainage and extra grip for obstacles like rope climbs) to the mostly middle-aged, upper-middle class participants who shell big bucks for a few miles of mud and object carries on a weekly basis (A typical Spartan race entry costs around $125). Jeep, Coors light, Subway, and others have highlighted the sport in their TV spots.
But why mess around with the massive headaches of properly planning and executing a race when the potential of TV money lies waiting? Battlefrog, previously one of the biggest competitors to Spartan Race, and one with a large, passionate fan base, had a similar thought. They disbanded their race series, fired their staff, and are attempting to jump to ESPN or other networks with a televised racing series.
In this streaming age ESPN is seeing its lowest ratings ever and even dropped 1.5 million subscribers in 2016, according to adage.com. Yet the show has been reviewed well and BattleFrog seems to have no intentions of returning to the original fanbase that made it a household name.
They say once a rapper uses your name in a song you’ve made it, and in late 2015 Pittsburgh rapper Mac Miller dropped the first known OCR-related line in his song “Brand Name” :
“American-ninja to these obstacles, no stopping me…” (Things go downhill quickly from there with euphemisms to ladies of the night and services but you get the point)
I think its safe to say OCR has officially become more than a fad; it has established itself as a concrete societal mainstay. So it’s here, but what’s its identity? Is it a cash cow, a grassroots movement, a professional runner’s sport, or some combination of the three?
Back to that Miami starting line. For an event with as much buzz surrounding it as this, the photos told a different story. The participant #’s were slim, the obstacles borrowed from other sports (Spartan has decided to use biathlon’s lazer pistol as its featured penalty-inducing obstacle), and the athletes fast, fit, runners competing on a fast, flat course where the more traditional cross-fit body-types didn’t stand a chance.
This was labeled a “short-course” by Spartan, and it was shorter than usual, at least by OCR standards, with a sub 30-minute completion time.
But that’s not a “short-course” by any other sport’s standards; after all, the longest track and field event, the 10km, takes around 27 minutes to complete. From an aerobic standpoint, the same athlete who wins an 11-minute running race will, with proper training, be the best in a 2 hr race, and this is often the case, with Ryan Atkins, Hunter McIntyre, Amelia Boone, and other endurance mainstays winning events no matter the course. Spartan attempts to change this by introducing heavy obstacles to even out the playing field, but it could be argued that when events attempt to even out a playing field, the opposite as actually being done.
Fast-forward 30 minutes and Mark Batres crossed the line in first for the males, followed by former Spartan World Champion Robert Killian and upcoming speedster Mike Ferguson. An upland, California native, Batres boasts prs of 13:44 in the 5k and sub-30 minutes in the 10km.
Obstacles can be learned; aerobic capacity can not. If the sport continues this way we may be seeing a field of Kenyans sweeping podiums 5 years from now.
And Batre’s prize for being crowned the first USA OCR champ and Pan-American team member on the most-hyped weekend of the year? A meager $300.
Throw in a flight from Cali, rental car, hotel, and race entry, Mark likely left in the red (disregarding sponsors, and any unmentioned payouts of course).
So we’re seeing progress on the corporate side of the sport, but we’re not seeing much of a trickle down to the athletes themselves.
But that will change.
Although optimists were saying the same about track and field some 40 years ago…
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