Obstacle Course Races and the Bad Business of Spectator Fees

Spartan-festival

Photo Credit Patrick Prentice

Last week I experienced my very first DNF in my three years, fifty plus race career. I was running the Spartan Beast in Spartanburg, SC with my longtime running partner and around mile 2.5 I started experiencing knee pains from an injury I sustained over a year ago. Luckily, we had just passed by the festival area and I sent her on to run the remaining ten miles alone while I hobbled back up the path to turn in my timing chip. My teammate and I had driven up from Florida together so I had no choice but to wait around for her to finish.

This is the first time I have ever spent an extended amount of time in the festival area of an obstacle course race and let me tell you: it was boring. I have been to craft fairs that are more exciting than a Spartan festival area and those have no entry fee. On top of this, there is no seating, the only entertainment is top 40 hits blaring from the center stage, and the food situation is reminiscent of a high school lunch cafeteria (but twice the price). In the end, the most exciting thing I came up with was balling up my gear bag and taking a nap in the grass. So why do Spartan, Savage, Tough Mudder, and all of the other big names in OCR think that this “festival experience” is worth anywhere between $10 and $25 dollars?

The issue of spectator fees really hit me when I ran the fall leg of the Savage Race one week after DNFing my Spartan Beast. My fiancee happily agreed to accompany me to my race just in case my injury started to flare back up while I was on the course and I was unable to drive myself home. After paying $60.80 for my entry, $15 for the insurance, $3 for a service charge, $4.20 for a processing fee, and $10 for parking I had already spent $93 dollars for the privilege of gracing Savage Race’s 7.2-mile course. Upon reaching the entry gates, however, I realized there was one thing I hadn’t accounted for: the spectator fee. This fee not only confused my fiancee but when she inquired about what the spectator’s pass entitled her to she was met with the lackluster response, “Access to the festival area.”

savage-festival

Photo Credit Savage Race

Spectators at athletic events such as races, triathlons, and OCRs have a vital function for the athletes. A well-placed spectator can drastically improve the performance of the athletes and provide the necessary motivation to complete the event. Anyone who has had a friend or family member cheer them on during a race knows what this feels like and it really should go without being said.

Running is a sport where the energy of the crowd can be the catalyst for change. Dave McGillivray, the director of the Boston Marathon, states in his article What Do Race Spectators Need to Know? for Runner’s World, “I always picked up the pace a bit whenever I hit key pockets of screaming fans… If we put timing mats at the beginning and end of this stretch, I’m sure we’d see just about everyone hitting their fastest paces of the day thanks to the immense crowd support.”

On the flip side of that coin is the function spectators perform for the race organizations themselves. In the 2012 study The Relationship Between Visitor Spending and Repeat Visits: An Analysis of Spectators at the Old Mutual Two Oceans Marathon researchers find that “spectators are just as important to a sporting event as participants” (Botha, et al). The reason given for this claim is that the more times a spectator attends a race the more likely they are to visit it in the future. Obviously, in a sponsorship-laden sport such as obstacle course racing having more people exposed to the sponsors can only have a positive effect on a race organizer’s relationship with those sponsors.

In another study published in the Journal of Sports Economics The Rewards to Running: Prize Structure and Performance in Professional Road Racing (Lynch and Zax, 2000) the researchers claim that participants of races actually derive utility, or a sense of accomplishment, from larger numbers of spectators in races. The utility can be seen as the driving factor for participants to actually compete in races, especially in races where they have little to no chance of receiving any monetary compensation. In other words: spectators equal customer retention.

fort-lauderdale-a1a-marathon-festival

Photo Credit Fort Lauderdale A1A Marathon & Half Marathon

I contacted both Spartan and Savage concerning why they charge spectator fees and what those fees are used for. Spartan Race responded by saying that they have started to improve the spectator experience at their races by opening up the venue to allow spectators to follow the racers more closely at a majority of their courses. They went on to tell me that the spectator fee went towards paying the insurance premiums for each individual race. In Savage Race’s response to my inquiry, they simply stated that spectators would have access to the festival area and the ability to follow the runners along the entire course. Savage had no comment on the use of the spectator fees but did exclaim that the fee was similar to any other sporting event.

Not every organizer believes in charging spectators for their attendance. Rugged Maniac, most notably, did away with their spectator fees in 2012 (along with every other nickel-and-diming fees such as insurance and processing fees). In a 2015 interview with Obstacle Course Racing Media Rugged Maniac’s COO Rob Dickens explained their position, “But we stopped doing it the minute we could afford to, which was back in 2012. Why? Because price-gouging your customers show a complete lack of respect for them and violate the golden rule (do unto others…). I don’t like to have a bunch of fees tacked on to something I’m buying, so why would I do it to my customers?” Rob Dickens also claimed the following:

After all, none of the “processing” or “insurance” fees charged by the other guys are legitimate. We all have nearly identical insurance policies, and none of those policies require us to charge our customers an insurance fee. Likewise, we’re all using similar registration platforms, and none of those platforms charge more than a $2 fee per registrant, so why are the other guys charging 8%-12% processing fees?

Everyone’s insurance policies are based on the number of expected attendees in a calendar year, so if Spartan is charging an extra “insurance” fee when someone run the same course twice, it’s simply another way for them to squeeze more money out their customers. Their insurance company doesn’t require it, and they don’t have to pay higher premiums for someone running twice. As I said before, their insurance companies don’t require any “insurance” fee. It’s completely bogus.

If Rob Dickens is correct then this claim would appear to contradict Spartan’s own response to my inquiry over the use of spectator fees.

rugged-festival

Photo Credit Rugged Maniac

Despite Rugged Maniac being free to attend, their festival area and spectating experience never leave you wanting. Coincidentally, both Rugged Maniac and Savage Race are held at the same location in Florida every year: Little Everglades Ranch in Dade City. It is hard not to compare the two races, thanks to this shared location.

One of the most prominent differences is in the way they use the venue. Rugged Maniac puts all of the high energy, high traffic areas such as their stage, vendors, and sponsors in one area while Savage Race spreads their vendors, sponsors, and their stage around the edge of their festival area. The difference is pretty dramatic: Rugged Maniac festival area feels more alive thanks to the sheer number of bodies in one area. Savage Race brings out tables and chairs (a huge improvement over Spartan’s zero-seating offerings) but Little Everglades Ranch has its own bleacher style seating that only Rugged Maniac takes advantage of.

Savage may claim they want their spectators to have sporting event style experience, but Rugged Maniac actually achieves this by using these sporting event style bleachers. One other difference that might often go overlooked is the difference in the number of children at each event. Savage Race, unlike Rugged Maniac, has a kid’s course. Despite this, however, the number of little people at Rugged Maniac greatly eclipsed Savage’s population. The reason for this is obvious: if your children want to watch you race you’ll have to pay another $25 to have someone there to look after them at Savage.

Another example of a race organization that does a fantastic job of providing a fun spectator experience is Warrior Dash. Like Rugged Maniac, Warrior Dash is completely free for spectators. I last ran Warrior Dash in 2016 and I heard nothing but praise for the festival area. Unlike most other organizations, Warrior Dash had live bands playing on their stage with a live DJ in between sets.

One other thing that set them apart from the type of audience participation they organized. Pushup or pullup contests are common events that obstacle course race organizers will put on but those types of contests are geared towards athletes, not your average spectator. Compare that to Warrior Dash who delivered a dance contest and a beard competition, both less physical and more engaging than their competitor’s presentations.

warrior-stein-contest

Photo Credit Warrior Dash

So why does it seem that the more widespread and well-known obstacle course race organizers are so anti-spectator? There are studies showing the positive effects that spectators have on both race organizations and athletes making it scientifically sound to encourage attendance. Athletes around the world sing the praise of a cheering crowd and the ability they have to motivate. The extra attendance would invariably please the sponsors and vendors of these events.

These are all things that traditional road races such as marathons and triathlons realized a long time ago but at some point, the OCR world dropped the ball. By all appearances, it would seem that removing the spectator fee, a barrier to attendance regardless of what anyone claims, should result in greater customer retention and revenue via sponsors and vendors. Unfortunately, it would seem that OCR organizers would prefer to view their spectators as a revenue source instead of their true function: revenue boosters.

 

Rugged Maniac Calgary 2017

Rugged Maniac Calgary 2017 Swing

Last year I called Rugged Maniac a gateway drug into the world of OCR. This year, the addiction for OCR has again seriously taken hold and I found myself heading up to Calgary for my next fix.

Was Rugged Maniac 2017 a success? Read on to find out. 

Limbo

Rugged Maniac Is In Its Own Category

It’s a combination that works well for other races in its area of the market. This isn’t a Spartan or a Savage Race. Rugged is Rugged.  It has a distinct place and identity. It’s a lot of… well… just a lot of fun.  Expect a great atmosphere with a great view of the final obstacles.

At Rugged Maniac you can expect onstage antics like the Stein holding competition, the pie eating competition, or the pull up contest to be just as much of an attraction as the race event itself. 

Beer

Rugged Maniac Festival Area

Having a festival area program is something some races seem disinterested in. My wife is yet to be bitten by the OCR bug, but when she attends races with me, she lets me know that there is nothing worse than a dull spectator area with nothing going on apart from an obscure view of the race.

If I were visiting as a spectator, I would want something to do. I could be there for hours in the sun or rain. I’d want somewhere to sit and things to occupy my kids. Maybe some games I can get involved in. Some good music. Maybe a little shade. Good food options.

I don’t want to spend half an hour walking to the venue or taking a school bus, then to pay $15 entry to the venue, only to find it is a muddy, inhospitable mess underfoot, with nothing but a row of porta potties and a bad view of the obstacles. So many race events drop the ball in this regard. However, Rugged Maniac writes the playbook on good times for spectators. Parking was excellent. Everything worked. 

Rugged Start

I ran my little heart out on this race. It’s a fierce race if you want it to be. I ran hard, getting chased down by Kody O’Brien and one other dude whose name I forget. It destroyed me, but that’s just my competitive silliness kicking in.

If you want it to be, it can be a gentler introduction to the OCR world if this is your first event. This isn’t meant to be a statement of suffering, but a chance to enjoy a challenge and experience a bit of fun.

The agenda at Rugged Maniac is for inclusion. Obstacles are all mostly easy to complete with a couple of exceptions and participants of all levels should be able to make it through without much difficulty.

Splash

About the 5k

The distance is 5k and the surface is mainly flattened grassy pasture. Despite the somewhat toned-down intensity of the obstacles, it’s a snappy race if you push yourself. The quad burners were incredibly steep: four mounds of loose dirt, increasing in height and depth really took a toll on my pace.

The rings were tough for me. I lost momentum and had to find a way to reach over beyond my normal capacity. Water balance obstacles are also surprisingly hard. Both Gauntlet and Frog Hop both created a significant energy sap as I tried to run through them. It looks easy, but it’s not. Gong

MUD + Obstacles

One impression I have of the course is of multiple level changes. Most of the obstacles took runners from the upright to prone position breaking up the ability to form a working pace.

Another simple but effective signature of Rugged Maniac is to create a pile of excavated dirt after many of the obstacles. For those who want to run this race competitively, throwing these loose mounds in creates a constant rolling assault on the cardiovascular system. As the day wears on, mud begins to make these even more chaotic and interesting for all.  

Rugged Maniac is largely devoid of heavy carries. There was an easy sandbag carry near the end of the course, but it wasn’t punishing or brutal. I should mention that for those who are pyromaniacs, you get to jump over THREE fire jumps at Rugged! This makes you feel like a legend.

Anti-Gravity (a trampoline and rope net jump) simply makes you feel like a kid again.

Slide

The final obstacle in the Rugged Maniac race is Mount Maniac and the Accelerator combo. A warped wall, a rope net climb, a ladder climb resulting in a giant slip and slide into a pool of water in front of a cheering crowd. 

Acellerator

Kody

NOTE:  Rugged Maniac had a few problems with timing last year. This year someone took the names and times of the winners for the race, which was much simpler. I don’t think there were any issues at all with the manual recording system!

Winners

Conclusion

So  was Rugged Maniac 2017 a success?

YES. In summary, what Rugged brings to the table is balance. Fun for spectators and a great race for participants. I’m gonna just come out and say it. Rugged Maniac is one of my favourite events in the western Canadian OCR calendar. It’s about the atmosphere and the execution. There’s a classy, well-designed polish to the event. People are happy at the race. There are no complaints about course design or whether this obstacle or that obstacle was present or not.  It’s a race with a beaming, colorful identity, great quality control, excellent staff and staging, and an ability to not take itself too seriously. Come on back to Canada next year!

Edit: I was sad to hear that later in the day someone disobeyed one very important rule not to wear football or soccer cleats on the course and as a result damaged the accelerator – putting it out of commission. Read the rules people!

All Photos Credit of Gamefacemedia and Rugged Maniac

Rugged Maniac VA – Spring 2016

Rugged Maniac has made a seasonal home at the Virginia Motorsports Park in Petersburg, VA in early May starting at least as early as 2012 and expanded to have a second race at the same location in October in 2014.   In 2016, at least in my humble opinion, Rugged Maniac continues to improve and provide a really fun experience to newbies and experienced runners alike.

This time around, waves started at a nice casual 10 a.m. start time, unless you decided to run as a super fancy elite, providing a little extra sleeping in time.  I opted for the 10 a.m. wave this time around to catch the early experience of a fresh course.  This was a good choice as, at least early in the day, Rugged Maniac had their parking game on point for 2016 (bring your $10 for parking).  Unlike previous years, there was no line down the street to access the parking area so I was quickly parked, grabbed my bag, and met up with my race partners to hop through a fairly speedy check-in.  After everybody was registered, stretched, and ready to go we hopped the starting line wall ready to go for the 10:15 a.m. wave.  Rugged gave a short starting line speech to pump up the group and the wave was off.
Rugged-Maniac-Watery-Course

Rugged followed a fairly similar trail to last year’s May event.  However, the constant rain of the week prior definitely changed the course experience.  In prior years the first obstacle out the gate has been a soupy mud pit known as Shoe Catcher that has the suction power a vacuum would be envious of that breaks the crowd up into smaller groups to continue on.  This year, that changed.  Shoe Catcher now consisted of an ankle deep mud puddle with a slightly slick below-water surface that lacked its typical suctioning power.  This would become somewhat of a theme of the race with several water-logged sections that could slow one down with a cautionary tale of uneven footing.

The early wave breakup occurred instead with the second obstacle, a big mud hill that had people slipping around trying to get over.  My small group got up and over and continued our jog through the 5k.

Rugged-Maniac-Mud-Hill

From here it would get a little boring to go over all the obstacles.  Many are standard OCR fare, e.g., a few different types of walls, barb wire crawls (3 in total), cargo nets, balance beam, and a fire jump.  But with a total of 28 obstacles on course, Rugged Maniac definitely has a few shining stars: 

  • The Blobstacle: A giant inflatable structure that had a cargo net draped over it.  The cargo net was basically a second skin on this day which made for a little tougher purchase to get the shoes to grip in.
  • The Gauntlet 2.0: Rugged’s decision to change the footing from a solid structure to a floating rubber-ish pad was a refreshing change.  A nice run across to keep footing without sinking into the water lets you run through the air-filled hanging bags to see if you can successfully cross without going down in the water.
  • Bang the Gong: I’m all for any and every obstacle I have seen so far that includes trampolines.  This was absolutely no different.  Talking to friends that ran later in the day, it did get a little more difficult as the trampolines got muddier from the wet course.  The one criticism on this obstacle was the landing pool was fairly shallow.  While it may involve more of a swim a little deeper pool would probably be better to prevent potential for injury.
  • Antigravity: More trampolines!  If you do not enjoy an obstacle where you get to jump from one trampoline to another and then perform your best Spiderman impersonation to catch the cargo net wall, I don’t understand you as a person.
  • Warped Wall/Mount Maniac/Accelerator: A quarter pipe is always fun to do and watch (for both the personal and teamwork successes and the amusing slide back down from missing).  Adding in a short cargo climb to a higher purchase afterward and a slide down to the finish line is just a cherry on top.  Remember though, always stop to encourage and help your fellow racers, everybody appreciates it.

Rugged-Maniac-Accelerator

Once you get past that, the course is complete and you get your medal, swag, and free Harpoon brewery beer.  This year the post-race collection included a bottle of water, bananas, orange slices, and some Dude Wipes to cleanse your muddy hands before you dug in.  The 2016 medal is a sharp addition and the t-shirt picked up at registration is super soft and comfy as usual.  After the race there is a decent size festival area that included regular contests throughout the day (stein hoisting, pie eating, and pull-ups), room to sit down and socialize with fellow racers over food and/or beer, inflatable bouncy house structures for the kids, and the generally necessary rinsing and changing areas.

Rugged-Maniac-2016-Shirt-&-Medal

Register early on in the process and it’s a fairly inexpensive race experience that will provide plenty of fun.  Hint:  Right now the Virginia fall race in October is $49 plus tax without the additional processing fees that plague the rest of the OCR world.  Shameless plug—ORM has a discount code posted for a better deal!  Sign up and have some fun.