OCR bureaucracy: why this is a good thing, and why you should care

In the past few months, two organizations that hope to help govern the sport of OCR have been rebranded and, more important, taken major steps to becoming forces to help advance OCR from its current status as an exciting, competitive pastime to the level of an internationally recognized sport. Their activities have the potential to improve OCR for everyone from elite athletes to people trying out their first mom-and-pop local race. Even if you have no interest in elite athletes, the actions of these organizations will make the sport better for everyone.

Who They Are

At the top of the pile is World OCR, formerly known as the IOSF. As per their website: “World OCR, the Fédération Internationale de Sports d’Obstacles (FISO) is the world governing body and sole competent authority for obstacle sports and related disciplines. We are an independent association composed of national member federations worldwide.”

Let’s break that down: they are the world governing body. What does that mean? They are the OCR equivalent of  FINA  for swimming, the ITU for triathlon, or the IAAF for track and field. These organizations set the rules for competition. They organize world championships. They determine who goes to the Olympics every four years. Some of them are powerful, wealthy organizations,(hello, FIFA !). Others, not so much.  One thing they all have in common is that they exist to advocate for their sport and to support the athletes who take part.

What does this have to do with you?

More than you might think. If you’ve ever done a triathlon, the rules of competition are set, generally speaking, by the people at the ITU. Safety standards that allow race organizers to get insurance also trickle down from the ITU. Even more common sports feel the effect of the international governing bodies; if you ran a marathon lately and noticed that it was a Boston-qualifier, that means that the course was certified according to standards that the BAA, USATF and the IAAF all came up with and approved.

I spoke with Ian Adamson, the President of World OCR, and he explained that World OCR will make OCR “safer, cheaper, and fairer” (maybe not as inspirational as “Citius, Altius, Fortius”, but we’ll take it). The safety part includes working with the ASTM process of establishing standards, including the requirements for obstacle construction and the need for medical personnel at events. Safer events can make for cheaper events: our sport is riskier than most, and insurance is a big expense for race organizers. Safety standards reduce risk, which makes insurers happy, which means they can charge less, which makes races more affordable. Setting up rules that can be applied to all races and that are widely understood mean that races can be fairer. Something that applies to all three would be the implementation of WADA anti-doping standards. Doping is both a safety consideration (it’s banned because it’s not safe) and a fairness concern (doping athletes can get an unfair advantage), and the application of the same standards across all races can make things cheaper when elite athletes are getting tested.

World OCR is “composed of national member federations worldwide.” This takes us to the next level, the recently re-branded USAOCR (not to be confused with AOCRA ). So far, their activities have been fairly quiet, which is not to say that they are not being active. What most OCR fans will remember was their event last year in Miami, which was tacked on to a local Spartan Race. What I learned from Jamie Monroe, USAOCR Co-Chair, was that this event was put together rather quickly in order to determine who would represent the US at an upcoming international OCR competition, an event that ended up being canceled.

USA Obstacle Course Racing

In the meantime, USAOCR is working hard to get launched towards bigger and better things. I am reminded of the early days of OCR, when events were put together based on few resources, a lot of volunteer labor and good will, and with plans to create something bigger. USAOCR is still working on a revenue model, one that might look something like the way USAT operates. If you register for a local triathlon, you are probably asked if you are a USAT member. If you are not a member, you are either invited to join or required to pay for a one-day membership. Either way, the membership covers your insurance for the race. Again, going back to the safety element, USAT sanctions events, which means that the insurance side of things is taken care of through the national governing body’s bureaucracy.

Other goals for USAOCR include the development of a ranking system for OCR athletes across the US. This requires paying software developers, and given USAOCR’s shoestring budget, this isn’t happening yet. Since AOCRA has also stated this as a goal, it seems that some cooperation is in order here. USAOCR also wants to set up a way of determining who gets to represent the US in international competition. For now, it is not in the position to host events on its own where champions could be crowned, and for the future, it appears that this would take place at events that other race organizers host and which are branded by USAOCR as national championships.

Why FISO?

Why the French name for World OCR? It’s not officially called Fédération Internationale de Sports d’Obstacles just to sound classier. And why is it headquartered in Switzerland, a country not especially known for its OCR heritage? This leads to the million-dollar question: what about the Olympics? I hadn’t mentioned getting OCR into the Olympics until now, because that’s the first thing people bring up when the subject of governing bodies comes up, and it shouldn’t be, at least not yet.

The name is French because the IOC is headquartered in Switzerland, which makes it the natural home for the governing body of a sport that aspires, someday, to be part of the Olympic Games. And while that is a goal, it can’t be the stated goal for a number of years. The IOC has hurdles and milestones that have to be passed before a sport can even be considered for a spot at the Games. These include the less glamorous tasks that World OCR is going through right now: getting federations set up in countries around the world, having conferences and other more paperwork-related activities. They don’t make for dramatic Instagram posts, but they are necessary all the same.

A more tangible part of the process is setting up world competitions, and the first such event will be the Shardana World Team Challenge on April 14 USAOCR is sending four athletes to represent the US, and I hope to hear more about their experiences when they get back. If you are asking yourself “But what about the OCRWC?” you would not be alone. For now, World OCR’s position is that this event is part of a racing brand, in the same way that Spartan’s World Championship or World’s Toughest Mudder are branded events. In the future, cooperation between OCRWC and World OCR might help both organizations achieve their goals

No one likes to cheer on bureaucracy, but I would argue that it is sometimes necessary, and not even a necessary evil. An example: OCR had its first doping scandal last year when Ryan Woods tested positive for a banned substance after the OCRWC. The question arose whether he would be banned from other OCR events, and he spent some nervous days waiting for phone calls from Spartan and Tough Mudder HQ’s. He was not alone in saying that if only we had a governing body to consult about questions like this, we all could have had some certainty about his ability to race in the upcoming season. USAOCR and World OCR exist to fill that gap. Elite racers should be pushing for these organizations to thrive, and fans of the sport should be rooting for them, too.

A look back at the first USA OCR National Championships

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…

\

Joe DeSena talks about his childhood, hard numbers, and Olympic ambitions

Joe Desena, Spartan CEO
On Wednesday Joe DeSena gave a talk to retailers at The Running Event (TRE), a conference and trade show for Running Specialty Retailers. This is the 10th TRE, and the first time they created an “experiential zone” that featured Spartan and other OCR centric brands.  Obstacle News  was able to broadcast Joe’s thirty-minute talk via Periscope. It can be seen in its entirety here.

The title of the presentation was “Adversity,” with DeSena giving an overview of the ethos and history of Spartan Race and obstacle course racing. When describing the history of Spartan Race, he went back to his childhood and gave credit to his mother for a major lifestyle change in their family. “I had monks in our living room…it went from literally “sausage and peppers” to “branch sandwiches”. He told the story of how, as a young teenager, he and his sister woke up to find his mother had thrown away everything they owned. His mother wanted to teach them they shouldn’t be attached to material things. “I said – Mom, that’s great, but YOUR material things. You don’t do that with OUR material things”. With that upbringing in mind, DeSena described Spartan Race as a “40-year-old start-up”.

DeSena continued his talk with thoughts on the philosophy behind Spartan Race. One of their goals is to change peoples’ “reference points” for their level of comfort with adversity. After talking about his morning routine of hundreds of burpees and a cold shower, DeSena shifted his talk to the hard numbers of the obstacle race business.

Spartan Race projects four million people will participate in an obstacle course race in 2016. DeSena says that dwarfs the number of people running marathons, half marathons, and triathlons. Of the four million people doing an obstacle course race, one million of them will race with Spartan. The average Spartan racer will do two races per year. Of the one million projected Spartan racers this year, 200,000 will do nine races or more.

DeSena referred to his recent move to Singapore when he talked about the global reach of Spartan Race. He believes Asia will “be much bigger than anything else we have going on anywhere else in the world”. This year Spartan will hold 170 events in more than 20 countries worldwide.

DeSena showed a slide entitled “Who is racing Spartan?” Spartan racers are 63% male and 37% female with a median age of 33. 88% of Spartan racers have college degrees and they earn about $85,000 per year.

When Spartan was first beginning to advertise in 2010, DeSena said he had a “moment of insanity” and was spending about $300,000 a month on digital marketing. In what could have been a warning to potential competitors looking at the Obstacle Course Racing business, DeSena said if he were to attempt to reach that same amount of people today it would cost about eight times that $300,000 monthly expense. “It would be hard for us to recreate that today”.

DeSena briefly talked about race fees. He said pricing in the industry is completely wrong. He said an Ironman triathlon has an entry fee of $725. The average Spartan entry fee is $88. “To put on our event is probably five times as expensive as it is to put on an Ironman.”

Spartan has a considerable reach in social media and traditional media with about five million fans on Facebook, 210,000 followers on Instagram and 140,000 followers on Twitter. In addition, they also have a TV show on the NBCSports network. DeSena gave the surprising statistic that NBC gave them 200 hours of television airtime last year. 200 hours is a remarkable number given that NBC only covered six races in 2015. Another upcoming TV show is the recently announced “Spartan Race” competition show with eight episodes scheduled to air immediately after American Ninja Warrior in 2016.

In a closing question and answer session DeSena said he is focused on getting Obstacle Course Racing into the Olympics. “All day, every day, that’s something we’re working on, (for) 2024”. He described some of the requirements and hurdles to overcome to qualify a sport for the Olympics and explained why this goal is so important. “If we can get this in the Olympics…then it’s not a fad.”